Doug Macdonald on Canada’s political character

Yesterday I attended a scholarly memorial conference for Professor Douglas Macdonald, from U of T’s School of the Environment.

I worked for him as a TA in 2015–16, in the environmental decision-making course (ENV1001) at the core of the collaborative specialization in environmental studies. I also knew him from various on-campus climate science / policy / activism events.

Between sessions in which people shared kind personal tributes, I picked up Macdonald’s earlier books (having used his final book Carbon Province, Hydro Province in my PhD research). They provide an intriguing opportunity to compare the environmental movement of the 1990s and before with what is happening now.

In The Politics of Pollution (1991), Professor Macdonald makes some observations about Canadian political culture with respect to the environment:

Canada’s global location has two major implications for environmental politics. First, as a northern nation, no matter how much we may insulate ourselves by living in cities, huddled close to the southern border, we Canadians think of ourselves as living in a northern land — looking instinctively to the north, just as Americans look to the west — which means, by definition, living in what is often a hostile and cold environment. Thus, the simple fact of geography has contributed to the “garrison mentality” described by Northrop Frye and others, in which the human and natural worlds are viewed, at least by the non-aboriginal population, with fear and suspicion from behind the stockade walls. The harsh rigour of a northern environment historically reinforced the Canadian perception, brought over from Europe, of this northern environment being something to be feared and, therefore, to be dominated and exploited.

But a northern environment does not lead only to alienation from the land. It also offers the purity of ice and snow and the stillness and quiet beauty of rock and trees encircling a northern lake. Above all, our North American environment offers a sense of being new, fresh, and unsullied. Like the Americans, although to a lesser degree because we did not sever our ties to Europe by means of revolution, we have traditionally seen ourselves as a people who by crossing the ocean left the decadence of the old world and came to live in a new one. For Americans this fostered a conviction of moral superiority; in Canada it produced something very different — a perception of innocence. Canadians see themselves as venturing forth from their new land to do nothing but good in the world, perhaps naive but certainly well-meaning and unburdened by the guilt and corruption of world power. (p. 47–8)

In the end, nearly everything which I said about Carbon Province, Hydro Province in my dissertation ended up being in sections that were cut for length. After I get through Robarts Library’s only physical copies of his two prior books, perhaps I will move those thoughts into a blog post or two.

Erosion of knowledge and integrity in governments

A recent Economist article on the British civil service features some observations that are true of government bureaucracies more broadly:

In part, churn reflects career incentives. Mid-ranking policy officials talk of being encouraged to move every 18 months to gather experience, pay and promotion. But it also reflects a deeper malaise, argues Jonathan Slater, a former permanent secretary (the most senior department official) at the Department for Education: a culture which prizes the ability to “handle” ministers and “fix” political problems. John Kingman, a former Treasury bigwig, has claimed there is a “disdain” for deep knowledge. A pyramidal structure of older managers at the top and younger generalists at the bottom does not provide a home for well-paid, experienced experts.

What does it matter if some officials are unhappy? Because, say experienced Whitehall-watchers, the delicate compact at the heart of Britain’s system of government is being degraded. Telling a secretary of state what they don’t wish to hear is never easy. Candid advice becomes that much rarer in a civil service that is inexperienced, criticised, poorly led and short on evidence of what works. In the staff survey in 2021, just 54% of civil servants agreed that it is “safe to challenge the way things are done”. For good ministers, that lack of candour can be frustrating. For bad ones, it is a recipe for blunders—which degrades their trust in civil servants even more. Rival sources of advice, such as think-tanks and party gurus, fill the void and the civil service’s authority is eroded yet further.

It is very, very hard — perhaps impossible — to create organizations that serve the broad long-term interests of society, rather than the narrower and shorter-term interests of the people inside those institutions and the people who those institutions serve. That gets even worse for issues like climate change, where the benefits of ignoring it and making the problem worse arrive in hard cash in the here-and-now, while the costs get spread out across time and space and made invisible by the apparent lack of cause and effect.

Morneau linking economic growth to social stability

Asked about de-growth and related concepts as a response to the apparent unsustainability of quality of living improvement based on economic growth:

If we have declining GDP per capita, it is very hard to have social harmony against that challenge.

Former Canadian Minister of Finance Bill Morneau, at a 2023-04-28 Massey dialog

How status quo bias blocks political change

Studies carried out in diverse settings demonstrate that system justification engenders resistance to personal and social change. In the United States, political conservatives—and high economic system justifiers—often down-play environmental problems such as climate change and accept false statements about scientific evidence, as we saw in the last chapter. In Finland, perceptions of climate change as threatening to the national system predicted general system justification and justification of the Finnish food distribution system in particular (Vainio et al., 2014). In Australia, economic system justification was associated with a lack of engagement with environmental issues and decreased support for pro-environmental initiatives (Leviston & Walker, 2014).

Craig McGarty and colleagues (2014) have put their finger on a key problem facing opposition movements, namely “the taint of illegitimacy that comes from attacking a national government that is wrapped in national symbols, controls national institutions, and … represents critics as being disloyal to the nation” (p. 729). This formulation of the problem is highly conducive to a system justification analysis because backlash against protestors often reflects system-defensive motivation (e.g., Langet et al., 2019; Rudman et al., 2012; Yeung et al., 2014). Members of mainstream society are typically suspicious of those who challenge the status quo, and their backlash intensifies in response to system criticism. Nevertheless, system justification motivation can be harnessed to promote social change, as we saw in the preceding chapter, and justice critiques may help delegitimize the status quo over longer time periods. Furthermore, the promotion of utopian thinking about alternatives to the status quo appears to undermine system justification motivation while strengthening commitment to social change (Badaan et al., in press; Fernando et al., 2018).

Jost, John T. A Theory of System Justification. Harvard University Press, 2020. p. 267-8

Reasons I will never have a child

1) I don’t see it as an obligation or a virtue

There are already so many humans that our biomass far outweighs all the wild animals on the planet. I don’t see any reason why a world where the population falls by 90% through free choice would be a bad thing. The idea that individuals have an obligation to reproduce the species when the species is already so numerous and dominant that it threatens its own survival does not make sense to me.

2) I don’t expect to be financially secure, especially in old age

The lesson again and again from our politics is that the people who are influential right now skew the system for their immediate benefit. The people they usually harm to do so are those in the future. Our politics seems to be growing more and more dysfunctional as climate change stresses the system. If we do zoom right over the cliff edge into 4 ˚C+ of warming by 2100, I don’t expect any government pension or health care systems to still exist in Canada by the late 2040s or so, when I may really start needing them.

I have been working hard since elementary school, but I do not have stable housing or a sense of security. Nor do I expect to find either. In a life where I can barely take care of myself, it doesn’t make any sense to add someone else on.

3) They would be born into peril which we are still choosing to worsen

The kind of Earth our generation inherits does a lot to establish our life prospects. The people in power right now are behaving as though they are determined to leave a maximally impoverished planet for our descendents. We are devastating biodiversity, recklessly unbalancing the planet’s vital systems, and permanently closing off avenues toward a good life for people who can come after us because we act primarily to satisfy our desires in the here-and-now. We also have a million self-serving justifications for why our behaviour is OK, and the people who we are harming in the future can do nothing to censure or stop us.

The coming generations will be living inside the most colossal act of vandalism one group of people have imposed on another. So far, that is the chief legacy of the people alive and making policy decisions now.

4) I don’t want to devote that much of my life to any project

Whenever a friend sees me enjoying playing with a stranger’s dog, there is a good chance they will tell me that I ought to get a dog. To me, this seems like the difference between enjoying sandwiches and choosing to own a bodega. I like dogs when their owners are at hand, when I am not responsible for their care and welfare, and where someone else will take over immediately if there is a problem. Having a dog of my own which requires constant and expensive care is way beyond what I am willing to take on, and a human baby would be infinitely worse.

I already have no idea of how to plan for the future. Analytically, I have to accept that wildly different possibilities exist for the rest of my lifetime. It is very plausible that we end up in a future of climate chaos, where international cooperation breaks down and conflicts flare, and where individuals retreat from empiricism and reason into self-justifying delusions and self-serving religions. If we add several metres to sea levels and make vast areas uninhabitable, the disruption will be far greater than the world wars — and it may persist for hundreds or thousands of years. At the same time, nobody can say what the promises of advancing human knowledge and technology may be. Perhaps new energy sources and technologies like artificial intelligence and synthetic biology will not just solve our climate problem, but throw us all into a techno-utopian post-human future. It is also possible that we will muddle through into a world largely similar to what we have now (perhaps if we use solar radiation management geoengineering to push off the climate problem for another few decades). That’s the only scenario where conventional old-age planning (max out your RRSP contributions!) makes sense, and it feels to me like the least likely scenario given how all the disruption which we are experiencing today is the time-lagged effect of GHG pollution in the 1980s, and we have polluted much more since so we have much worse to expect even if we change course in the future.

To sum up, I can’t even afford a bus pass. I don’t know where I will be living in six weeks or what I will need to give up in order to get there. The future to me broadly looks terrifying and like more than I will be able to handle. Under those conditions, a determination not to procreate seems sensible and hard to dispute.

Humanity’s marbles

In humanity’s efforts to fight climate change, we’re not just playing for all the marbles — we are playing for every marble factory and shop that ever was or will be, every piece of art and writing which has ever concerned or alluded to marbles, every historical record about marbles which has ever been generated or read, and every mind with an understanding of what marbles are and mean.

Political parties with a planet-wrecking policy on the issue (allowing any new fossil fuel development) are unelectable regardless of the rest of their platforms, economic conditions, or the limitations of their opponents. Being OK with destroying the future for today’s young people makes them morally unworthy to govern. It would be the greatest betrayal that has taken place from one group of generations to their successors, to destroy the uncomprehended and irreplaceable richness of the living Earth humanity inherited all because some dirty industries and the governments and banks they control want to hold us back from abolishing and abandoning fossil fuel energy.

Ongoing occupation demanding fossil fuel divestment at U of T’s Victoria University

Friday was day 12 of Climate Justice U of T’s occupation at Victoria University, pressuring them to divest from fossil fuels.

They have a guide online for people wishing to visit the occupation.

They also have a petition.