Friday, November 13, 2009

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey. Part X: Local Conclusions

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey
Part X: Local Conclusions

If you’ve had the fortitude to follow my thesis now through 9 previous posts (many of which have exceeded the word-count which rational bloggers try to limit themselves to for the sake of readability), than you are already aware that my personal journey has lead me to the conclusion that the outlook for democracy in Canada appears to be grim. Today, I’m going to temper this outlook somewhat, and shift focus for a moment, because there are some things going on today in Canada which I have not touched on.

My focus for these blogposts has been primarily federal; certainly, my involvement with the Green Party of Canada highlights my interest in federal politics, and as a result my observations here have looked mainly at that level of government. But, there are other levels of government, and the municipal level has become increasingly powerful. Perhaps it is at this level where a more positive future outlook for democracy in Canada exists.

Last week, I attended a presentation by Avi Friedman, professor of architecture from McGill University, who was in Sudbury to share some of his ideas regarding sustainable urban development with whoever wanted to listen. He drew a pretty good crowd, and while for me, most of what he said wasn’t new at all, his delightful musings, backed up with photos, proved to be an eye-opener for many in attendance. It was great to hear Mr. Friedman approach urban design from a health-centred point of view, rather than as a way of reducing carbon emissions. It was a good reminder that we can do the right thing for multiple reasons.

Walking home from Avi Friedman, past a local gas station: prices are up over a dollar per litre again. Yet, the papers are reporting today that unemployment stands now at 8.6%, and over 43,000 jobs were lost this past October, with the manufacturing sector being the hardest hit. One would think with this reduced output in our economy, especially within such an energy-intensive sector, that the price of oil would stay down.

Globally, though, the demand is still there, even though many global economies have been hard-hit by this recession. Production is simply not increasing to keep pace with demand, and so prices begin to rise. They will continue to rise, although there may be setbacks to the rise as economies stall because of expensive energy. Expect this era of uncertainty to be the new norm for the next little while. Some would suggest that this is the plateau of Peak Oil, or the point where we’ve just started to slip down the backside of the Hubbert curve.

In the Post Expansion era, with its attendant economic uncertainty, our lives will change. Likely, those changes will be small at first, and perhaps they won’t affect you or me directly, unless we are cast out of our jobs. We can expect to see increasing incidences of poverty and homelessness, and begin to witness more people being forced to adapt to these circumstances. Even if we manage to hold on to our jobs, inflation sparked by rising energy prices is likely going to wipe away any gains we may have made in terms of wages, whether through collective agreements or not. In short, the future is likely going to be a much more expensive place.

Our federal and provincial governments will be burdened by the debt of stimulus spending. They will not be in any shape to help significantly, and instead, we can expect to see spending cuts and assets being sold off. In an era of fiscal uncertainty and rising prices, voters will not endorse increased taxes. This situation could also doom any carbon reduction initiatives in North America, as the debate about "going green" has always been about costs in the minds of North Americans.

Walking past that gas station, I was actually a little surprised to see a few other pedestrians on the dark streets of my community, presumably walking home from school or work, or perhaps from the same seminar I had just attended. I thought about the future, and how these same sidewalks will be impacted. Almost certainly, more pedestrians will be out (they’ll have to do something about that lighting, though). Fewer cars on an emptier arterial (it was only 9pm...where were all the cars which had previously populated this "busy" road at rush hour? Oh ya...we built this four lane road to move cars a few hours of the day).

The relative emptiness of my community got me thinking about something which Avi Friedman had said which really resonated with me. In the future, we will know our neighbours, and work with them.

As our lives become more "local" and less "global", due to increasing energy prices, and as our communities try to find solutions to deal with an inevitable poverty crisis, there will be increasing pressures for communities of interest to form, many of which will be geographically oriented. Already, we are seeing more community gardens, and backyards being transformed to grow produce. Not all of us have the time to become urban farmers, but in a future where our work weeks may be cut to 4 days (out of the need to keep a few more of us employed), and with increasing food prices, more people may find the time to farm. Urban farm co-ops of neighbours who break down fences between yards are likely to start springing up in the next few years, and will become the norm in our suburban communities. There may be little choice.

When neighbours work with one another at this scale, they will have to communicate with one another. When we start talking to each other in person, we significantly improve our ability to understand one another. Right now, too much of our communication with each other is taking place in a vacuum absent of propriety and common sense: we yell and scream over top of one another, and bash each other in the proverbial heads to make our points. We complain and offer little in the way of solutions. And we communicate this way because it’s easy, and there are few consequences for our bad behaviour.

I grew up in Suburbia. I thought it was heaven. And maybe for me it was. Although I didn’t really know my neighbours for the most part (save for a few kids my own age who lived on either side of my parent’s house), and I was encouraged not to talk to strangers. I observed my own family as well. There was little or no interaction with our neighbours. And this is not to knock my family at all, as I think this was a very typical suburban occurrence. We may have shared the same geography, but really that was all that we had in common with one another. People would get into their cars in the morning, drive off to work, return home, park in their garages, and settle in for the night in front of the TV. Maybe there would be some additional driving to take the kids to play sports (I played houseleague baseball). The interactions we had, though, were not with our neighbours for the most part. They were with communities of interest, but even then, they were scripted and compartmentalized.

Today, I don’t know the name of my next door neighbour, even though he has lived there now for about 6 months. I know my other neighbour enough to say Hi and talk about a few small things, but that’s about it. The people across my street could be living on another planet for all that I know them. I continue to believe that this is a fairly typical experience for a city-dweller such as myself.

One might think that this is a bit of a sad existence. Certainly for me, keeping to myself as I have largely done throughout my life, I believe it has impaired my own ability to communicate with others. I am a product of the suburban mindset: keep to yourself and don’t get involved.

Well, in the future, people like me are going to be in for a bit of a surprise. And it won’t be pleasant. Our world is becoming a bigger place, despite the internet. Personal contact means so very much to us, yet we continue to shut ourselves off from one another, sometimes in the name of safety and security, but I think largely because we just don’t know how to mingle, we’ve never been taught what it means to be a part of a community.

We’re going to have to learn those skills, and we’re going to have to take a much more active part in our neighbourhoods and our communities. Neighbourhoods will become more than just geographical entities; they will become places of interaction, as we increasingly abandon the car and take to the (sometimes dimly lit) sidewalks. We will get to know our neighbours as never before because we will be forced to.

This bodes well for the future of democracy at the local level. However, there will be many obstacles to overcome: right now, our municipalities do not have the tools they need to succeed and thrive. Senior levels of government must come to terms with this. Further, local elected officials must not shirk from taking up the challenges of making good decisions for their own communities. Too often I hear that since the senior levels of government can’t get their acts together (or chip in for the costs), inaction is the preferred course for local decision makers.

Right now, many of our municipalities are too large for to implement local solutions, and they too will have to downsize. In my own City, which went through an amalgamation exercise in the last decade, many smaller communities were brought together under a single governance structure. Right now, geographically, Greater Sudbury is the largest municipality in Ontario, and the second largest in Canada. It’s not clear to me that in the future a City of this size will be a sustainable entity, and it may need to return to its former constituent components.

Citizens like you and me are going to have to take a greater interest in what goes on in our own communities, because those decisions will impact us far more significantly in the future. When gas for our cars, food for our families, and rent money become increasingly scarce, we will be faced with unforeseen situations which will require local solutions. Our senior levels of government will not be able to help out in sustainable ways.

I think that we will become more involved politically at local levels, because of the increased opportunities for interaction. And this spells good news for democracy. So although I believe we will become increasingly divorced from decision-making at senior levels of our government, we will become more involved locally.

This will not be a surprise for Greens at all. Indeed, many Greens have already started focussing their own efforts on local initiatives, believing that our Federal government isn’t going to have the power or ability or desire to implement the changes we need to make as a society. Perhaps it is better to start from the bottom up (although personally I believe that our Federal government should be taking much more leadership, and I will continue with my efforts to bring about change at that level...for now).

What might this say for Canada, though? If we increasingly turn our attentions to local solutions, as our Federal and even provincial governments become increasingly unable to deal with multiple crises of climate change, peak oil and poverty, what kind of Canada will we inhabit?

Localism in the Post Expansion Age may well end the age of the nation-state as a viable political entity. It may be replaced by larger semi-autonomous units, such as a North American confederation, comprised of state and provincial level governments (and some city-states). Alternatively, we may see a general breakdown in larger governmental entities altogether. I’ll include provincial governments here too, as many of the geographical areas over which they currently have jurisdiction are comprised of regions which do not have a lot in common with one another.

Can Canada hold itself together? I don’t think it can. And increasingly, it may not matter. If the world can’t get its act together on facing the multiple crises which we will find ourselves in the midst of, there will be no national or international level solutions to implement anyway, leaving us to find our way through the chaos at the community level.

I don’t want to live in this kind of future. I would much rather continue to be a global citizen of a nation-state. I would much rather that the nations of the world figure out some way of working with one another to address circumstances brought about by these crises. Discussion, agreement and sacrifice will be the order of the day, however, should that situation come about.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe that our Canadian government, and indeed most Canadians and North Americans, are willing to make those sacrifices. Instead, I believe that we will continue to try to fight to "save" our quality of life, even as fewer and fewer of us enjoy it. I believe this because we are not talking about our collective future in any meaningful way, and it appears to me that we don’t want to have that discussion. We’ve grown accustomed to a certain way of life, to which we feel entitled. I can not see us giving it up voluntarily.

Locally, though, we will have to adapt to our unique circumstances brought about by these crises. And we will find solutions...hopefully some of them will even work for us. What we can not do is give up; simply, that’s not an option.

My personal journey looking ahead to the future of democracy in Canada appears to have wound up. This might appear to be a bit of a grim location, this ground which I have landed on. Personally, I’m rather scared about this future I’m likely to inhabit. But I must try to be optimistic in the face of the future, because I believe in the adaptability of humanity. Democracy will be a part of that future, although it will not be like the democracy we have today. Democracy will continue to evolve to suit the times and needs of us all, just as it has always done. In whatever form it may take, it will remain a part of our lives. Rest assured that democracy will not be a part of that lost legacy we seem intent on leaving behind us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've read a bit here and there and the only conclusion I come to is your truly the most naieve person on PB's. You really need to get with reality. Capitalism has filed, democracy is next. You don't have 'to must try to be optomistic', just be real. We're all scared, and if anyone doesn't admit that, they are lying. Stop typing and get active!