So much of what we “do” in this space could justifiably be termed “tilting at windmills” given the minimal or non-existent empirical results of our labours.
And like any muscle that is “used” (to avoid atrophy) it becomes a thing we can do, in spite of its seeming innocuous impact. So here goes another “tilt” at a Canadian headline and its import.
The headline is that some 205,000,000,000 (that’s billions) tonnes of raw sewage was poured into our lakes, rivers and oceans in a single year, 2015. Beaches are contaminated, living water creatures are suffering and dying, and our reputation as an “enlightened” nation is being dealt a body blow. While first ministers squabble over a carbon tax, to limit CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, as Canadian poet Earle Birney reminded a high school audience of grade twelve students, back in the 1970’s, “We are going to drown in our own shit!”
And, upon the release of the headline, of course, the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, says it is not ok to have this amount of raw sewage dumped into our waters, and the government has committed some $2 billion for infrastructure projects, to build sewage treatment systems. However, like so many other “significant” files on the national agenda, as the Federation of Mayors and Municipalities says, it will take some $18 billion to fix the problem. That is roughly a gap of some $16 billion or about the cost of 2 F-35 Fighter jets!!
And then there is the deficit in housing, schooling, affordable access to quality health care, clean water supply for First Nations communities, another deficit of some $6-10 billion, the cost of another F-35 fighter jet.
Is there something wrong with this national picture? In a word, “Yes!”
Arthur Lower, the former history professor/writer/thinker from Queen’s University, wrote that Canada “muddles” through, as a cornerstone of its political modus operandi. Muddling gives those in office the opportunity to begin from a premise that most people have short memories, that the press can mount only a short-term wave of protest, that the resources of the private sector to fight regulatory law suits far outweighs the patience of the government and the people for such fights (considered by many a waste of public monies) and that a legacy for a prime minister and his/her government that mediates many of the files is adequate for a renowned “place in Canadian history”. As Canadians, anything “outside the box” is to be avoided at all costs, including governing with a perspective of actually finding a way to close some of the big files, through successful, cost-effective policies, programs, monitoring and enforcement.
Let’s for simplicity call it papier-mache government, a kind of movie-set of statements, events, bills, debates, town-halls, and the occasional “Bill of Rights” first followed a few decades later with a “Charter of Rights” demonstrating that our commitment to human rights is both historic and permanent. And, for that file, we can take some pride. However, when anyone listens to stories about residential schools, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report, or the stories of individual aboriginal Canadians, even those bills paper over a deep reservoir of racism, contempt, second-class citizenship and a history of “muddling” without more than micro-incremental progress.
And the conventional, baked-into-the-cake Canadian position is that there are so many files needing attention that we simply cannot attend to them all at once. In fact, each file has its own “time” or “season” in the public consciousness, as outlined in Ecclesiastes, Shakespeare and in other more formal research into political science.
And yet, leadership on a file like pollution from raw sewage, for example, needs more than a gentle nudge from as many quarters as possible, including the federal government. Millions are spent on the new “public opinion polls” telling the government “where the public is at” on any issue. And, although there are “radical” leaders outside of government, (Maude Barlow, Council of Canadians, for example) few such intense and committed leaders will walk into the stagnant waters of government bureaucracy, public relations, vote-getting, fundraising, and “followership” to the public mood.
Nestle’s money/water grab in southern Ontario, for example, ($2.17 for a million litres of fresh water) seems disconnected from the issue of 205 billion tonnes of raw sewage dumped into our waterways. And, so long as the media covers the issues separately, and the government continues to “manage” the files as if each were a silo, and only impact each other through the allocation of funds, then the impact on water tables of the dumping of raw sewage with remain either hidden or unknown from both the public and the government itself.
Headlines, just like tweets, do not a government mandate make. Neither do they comprise a clarion call to citizen-awakening, the kind of call that generates a public response of lasting import. We can all wring our hands over the water cooler, clench our fists in disgust at this or that government leader for his/her arrogance, stupidity, self-serving narcissism, ambition or even affluence. None of that will, however, bring a government to “heel”. And heeling is no longer only a matter of significance if and when the country “goes to war”.
The conditions under which such a model of government have changed so much that the war, rather than being primarily military, with hard weapons and intelligence, is now one of survival, planetary survival. And that agenda demands not only a different “management approach” to the files of government. It requires an all-out assault on all of the self-sabotaging evidence that pours across our screens and our mind’s eyes, not merely as a “significant priority” but as the primary priority.
We have to start thinking about sacrificing a few fighter jets, missiles, military vehicles and recruitment initiatives in favour of a load of monitored and supervised cash to public projects that clean up the mess we are leaving on the floor of the “kitchen and the living room and the family room” of our planet. If these stories about dumping of raw sewage, for example, were being written about the mess in our homes, we would have the public health department evicting the residents of such a home. And we would all applaud such evictions. Trouble is, so far, we cannot evict a government without a national election. And then, all of the “conventional” approaches, restrictions, inhibitions, repressions and the impress of the avoidance of anything that looks radical come into the play with the next government.
It is a radical cultural shift that is needed, not of the kind envisaged by Trump, which could easily lead to more poverty, desperation, the obliteration of human rights and even military conflict. We need a radical shift in how we perceive our relationship to our own government, from distant and occasional observers, the infrequent rant, the occasional letter to the editor, and even the occasional cheque to a political party. We need to read and to discuss and to join movements like the Council of Canadians, if we are to make a measureable and needed difference in protecting our environment, in the reduction of the power and influence of our corporations, in the advocacy of aboriginal rights (and opportunities!), in the protection of workers, and in our relations to weakening international bodies like the United Nations.
We need to see that although ISIS and AlQaeda with very few recruits, relatively, have inflicted so much death and destruction, they have demonstrated the capacity of individuals to exercise influence, just as the “fake news” terrorists have. Adapting the new social media technology in the service of worthy, shared and also threatened human and cultural values is a step so far needing more energy, imagination and resources.
Dumping 205,000,000,000 tonnes of raw sewage is not only sickening, even killing, it is also a human and national disgrace. And there no single Canadian who has not and will not continue to contribute to that “dump”. And, similarly, each Canadian has a role to play in stopping the “dump” sooner and more effectively that the government’s $2 billion envisages. Let’s see if that dollar figure could not become at least $10 billion, with new and creative monitoring and shepherding measures to ensure full value for money in the public projects.
Let’s at the same time, squeeze all the “pork” out of each and every government contract for all the infrastructure and all the sewage treatment projects, demonstrating that government can re-invent itself in both which programs it funds and in how it accomplishes those program goals.