May 17, 2019

Tough Questions I Wanted To Ask

[Update: Do read Geoff’s comment at the end of this post.  Powerful and provocative.]


SFU Vancouver – the downtown campus – is now 30 years old since SFU came down from the mountain.  It’s what President Andrew Petter says helps make SFU the engaged university.

Engagement is the particular work of the Centre for Dialogue, Public Square, City Conversations and the City Program – all of which had events happening on Thursday, and two of which featured Mary Rowe, the speaker for this year’s Warren Gill Lecture.  They certainly engaged me, with more questions than I had a chance to ask.  Here are some.


When considering the rural-urban divide in Canada, Mary began with two points that are pretty much taken as self-evident in academia: diversity is good, inequality is bad.  Policies for healthy cities should encourage the former and reduce the latter.

But what if inequality is a measure of diversity?

Since a diverse city is one in which there are many different kinds of people and pursuits, do those differences of equality become magnified with greater diversity? In fact, is increasing inequality how we know the city is more diverse?

Let’s say public policies were effective at reducing inequality by redistributing benefits, by building the infrastructure, physical and cultural, to build a stronger middle class.  Isn’t the result a more homogenous city, perhaps less likely to generate the cultural and economic energy we associate with places like New York in the 1970s, London in the 1800s, Florence in the 1500s?  Does equality mean boring and less diverse?



At noon, at City Conversations the topic was the climate emergency, with Councillor Christine Boyle (who introduced the climate emergency motion at council and is interviewed here on PriceTalks); Atiya Jaffar, digital campaigner for;  and New Westminster Councillor Nadine Nakagawa.

I had three ‘tough questions’, with the opportunity to ask only one – itself somewhat facetious:

Given that there are three women speaking on the same topic, and only women, what about gender diversity?

Would the question have been asked if there were only men on the panel?  Probably, but it likely wouldn’t have been needed.  ‘Manels’ are just not done at events like this.  And, as City Conversations director Michael Alexander clarified, there was originally meant to be a male speaker who had to cancel at the last moment.

The question was really meant to probe why there are so many women leading the charge to deal with climate change, from AOC to Greta Thunberg to Christine Boyle.  I doubt it’s a coincidence.



The next two questions were meant to be tougher.  One of Christine Boyle’s slides was a simple sentence, to the effect that response to the climate emergency will not be voluntary.

But how involuntary should it be?  Should democratic norms and legal constraints be suspended to deal with an existential threat, a true emergency and the catastrophes that are already underway?

We already accept that someone in charge – a general in name or effect – may have to suspend rights and give orders when a wildfire requires evacuation.  What other orders may have to be given, what rights suspended, what property seized as the emergency worsens?

For instance, many call for a halt to fossil fuel production, even it devalues the resource and threatens immediate economic growth.  Necessary expropriation?  That’s nothing compared to the responses called for when thousands, perhaps millions, of climate refugees are on the move.

So: Will we give sufficient power and resources to those with the mandate to save us –  even if it means rolling over the rights and interests of ourselves and others?



The third question is the toughest, in part because it’s specific, mostly because it departs from the narrative of our time – the one evoked at the beginning of every SFU event when, rather like a prayer, we acknowledge that we are on the unceded lands of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-waututh.

Each panelist noted the imperative of including indigenous peoples in any process, any plan, any consequences when dealing with the climate emergency.  First Nations, it’s believed, will be better able to respond to this imperative if included and have more legitimacy than the colonialist settlers.

Unfortunately … one of the first examples we have of choices being made by a first nation with full possession and rights to the use its land is one of the worst: Tsawwassen Mills and Commons – a giant auto-dependent single-use shopping complex constructed on paved-over agricultural land, on the Fraser Delta, on the Pacific Flyway, on land below sea level.

A single example of almost everything we shouldn’t and wouldn’t do, and yet for which there is no doubt that the Tsawwassen had the right and the economic justification to do so.

So now, would you object to an extension of the Tsawwassen Mills development on more of the delta lands if it set the bar even lower?

It’s a question most prefer to avoid.  The dissonance is too great between rhetoric and reality.

But these questions and others have to be part of the conversation that we say we need more of.  Especially when they don’t fit the necessary narrative.

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  1. This ought to be obvious but probably isn’t

    ” unceded lands of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-waututh.”

    misses out “among others”. This is not my story to tell but there are many other voices among the Coast Salish which also need to be heard.

  2. I think that these are all excellent questions. None of which have easy answers.

    I fear that cities are are at the heart of converging problems that are dissolving society. I think that social media and Russia are given too much credit. We need to look to material conditions (including economics, physical environment, and natural environment).

    I was recently at a Google conference in San Francisco. Seeing the crowds, my first thought was: these people (people like me) are going to get Trump re-elected: because of the resentment they engender, because of the world they create. On Muni transit, a black woman sat miserably with her arms pulled into her hoodie. Later, a couple of young men, one missing most of his teeth, engaged in an intense conversation about capitalism and the lack of spirituality. That city has so much wealth, but Muni is a travesty. (We in Vancouver should take pride.)

    Most conference attendees took Uber and Lyft, not Muni. A major theme was Diversity, Equity, Inclusion. The Code of Conduct stated “a zero tolerance policy for . . . language that reinforces social structures of domination.” Well, “structures of domination” is one way of describing about what Google does. But the root problem is not words. It’s economic.

    I’ve argued this before. Part of it is captured below. Tech is eating journalism, replacing print with digital. Now most journalists live in a few major cities. Money quote: “Nearly 90 percent of all internet publishing employees work in a county where Clinton won, and 75 percent of them work in a county that she won by more than 30 percentage points.” Terrifying.
    We talk about how industrial agriculture has killed bacteria, worms, and everything else in the soil, turning it into sterile dirt incapable of supporting crops without an injection of fossil fuels, at a rate of 10:1. our cities are like that. We are citizens of the world, members of a globalized cosmopolitan culture! We call it diverse, but it’s homogeneous. There is always a sushi joint and a Starbucks just around the corner.

    In the knowledge economy, the best idea is infinitely reproducible. The second best idea is worthless. The best actress is a star; thousands of also-rans are waitresses. In a material economy, proximity to resources makes land valuable, dispersing development. In a knowledge economy, density itself makes land valuable, concentrating development. It’s like musical chairs – with fewer chairs. The keys to success are luck, schooling and social connections. The result is a steep gradient of success, certified by educational institutions, and embodied in the city itself – not in land per se, but in proximity to the centre. It’s a casino economy: fate and luck dominate hard work and honesty.

    We try to use education to raise people up. But there is no place for the below-average (half the population); raising the average does not change that. Education doesn’t solve inequality: it defines it, entrenches it.

    We try to use density to make cities more liveable and humane, to foster diversity and inclusion. But this only multiplies the existing value of proximity to the centre; only multiplies the privilege gap (regardless of who is included). Just as new buildings price out diverse uses (as Jane Jacobs explained), nice cities price out diverse people.

    We end up with the worst of both worlds: inequality without diversity. I don’t know the solution. As much as I decry social justice virtue signaling as a diversion from economic inequality and a reactionary legitimation of privilege, I think an underlying cause is precariousness for (nearly) all in an zombie neoliberal economy that offers meaning (“success”) for only a few. But more and more, I fear that making successful cities better may making the problem worse.

    1. Density looks like a fob swiped across a lobby door lock, a lobby with mail boxes on the wall and sale flyers strewn about the floor, a lobby filled with various kinds of allergenic animals, an elevator locked off on moving days, would be passengers milling around, risks to be taken decisions to be made, the gauntlet passage to the tenth floor, then down the hall of sounds and strange odors, dig out the key if you are not already clutching it in your hand ready to slip in the lock and turn with the flick of the wrist, open a window for air, take out the garbage, wait for the dumpster-diver to get out of the way, tell him your’e throwing kitty litter even if it’s a lie.

      A house looks like a front porch, a screen door, a loud ola, a trip to the fridge, a lawn chair in the back yard garden. The most important quality of a house is the earth that it sits on and the four yards that surround it. The house doesn’t actually matter, it could be anything, it’s the yard that counts. It is a place for living set in the natural world. It’s simple and primal. Density isolates us from the natural world, it’s just a box in the air, a room with a view and nothing more.

      1. A house as you describe is the privatization of larger amounts of land for personal gain exacerbating the land gobble that drove First Nations onto small plots of marginal land.

        Density, as you describe it, is only one form. It is the form that we’ve been forced into between the dominance of the house, as you describe it.

        We can achieve significant increased density with something in between if we weren’t hemmed in by the house. We could have a lot more attractive missing middle but for the house.

        1. A house as I describe it is a place on a plot of land. It is the natural world resident on the land that matters not the house. A house is not real estate as you think of it unless you no longer want to live there.

          Density is a box in the air disconnected from the natural world. It does not matter how attractive you make the box; it is still a disconnected box in which nature is absolutely absent. If we do not know that we are living in a natural world, then how can we ever learn to take care of it?

          1. The more houses, the more sprawl, the less natural world. Your back yard is not even remotely associated with the natural world.

          2. Yet, most immigrants and millennials strive for a house with a yard (rather than a condo) if they can afford it, even if barely. What does it tell us?

      2. Have lived for years as a young adult and a young parent in a quite enjoyable amenity-rich, socially-connected, downtown high rises that offered affordable (for me) housing only blocks from work. Most of the cities people pay to visit are filled with multi-family development in dense urban centres. I don’t agree with your obviously biased perspective. The single detached home is dead. I knew more of my neighbours downtown than I do in Dunbar.

        1. You live in a house in Dunbar, proving once again that given the option, people prefer a house over an apartment.

          1. Proves nothing. Some people prefer a house. I wouldn’t live in a house given the option. There are many reasons but the primary one is that it must, by virtue of the sprawl it requires, be farther from everything. Who wants that? I like that I can do everything on foot or by bike. I don’t even use transit much even though it’s quite excellent where I live since the density is there to support it. It’s nice to know I have the option. I rarely drive – maybe half a dozen times a year.

            I like that I meet friends and neighbours in my travels about the city. I like the strangers I pass every day. Some may not remain strangers. That’s the community, “the small change”, that Jane Jacobs considered vital to a city. The good life. Lot’s of people prefer the good life to the dull, boring, suburban monotony where most every trip is in an isolated cocoon.

    2. Canada is as diverse as the US, yet not as unequal. One major reason is higher taxes and a far better public school system. Others might be less illegal immigration and less guns. There are almost no gated communities in Canada yet a ton in the US, both immigration relatively young countries.

      Is Vancouver a more successful city, than say Edmonton or Vernon? Or less successful as it is more expensive?

  3. Of course the Tswwassen Mills development is a disaster but to lay blame with the TFN is disingenuous. The treaty was negotiated by the colonialists to have the very outcome it is having. The Liberals have always wanted more ALR removed and more opportunity for port infrastructure in that area and it’s only a niggling discomfort for them that it’s the TFN that get some of the economic gain. Recall that they are leasing the land to a private colonialist corporation who expect to make money on the development. This will be the case with future development including port sorting and storage facilities.

    The TFN was left with what surely was a very small part of their traditional territory and all of it was in the ALR leaving their hands tied if retaining it was part of the negotiation. To ensure economic activity greater than the farming profits on a relatively small patch of land they have little choice.

    That is how it was meant to be, The negotiation should have included a large enough swath of nearby non ALR land to allow them to pursue lucrative development patterns that are a better fit within the context of Metro’s growth strategy while maintaining the ALR lands for their use within the limits set out by the ALC . But that wouldn’t have pleased the government of the day.

    The Liberals hate the ALR and dislike restrictions on land owners. They won this round hands down. I think the blame lies with them.

    1. It was packed on May 20, QV day. Loads of families that got there by car. There’s a demand the mall fills.

      I guess the word “nation” comes with special benefits in the term “First Nation”.

  4. We have some complicity in these events, because we are the ones that displaced the original people leaving them stranded on marginal land barely good enough for subsistence living. What choice is left for self determination of a people?

    Tsawwassen Mills is no different then neighbouring Richmond from which inspiration might have been taken: an auto dependent shopping complex on paved over agricultural land, near sea level.

    What is different is that the building of Richmond began in an innocent time prior to the Anthropocene Era where as Tsawwassen Mills was built while ignoring the full knowledge of rising sea levels. Will there be more building there? As long as insurance companies are willing to insure such projects then we are likely to see more of them.

    Paving over agricultural land? Well is it agricultural land or is it future intertidal marsh land?

    What is the idea anyway? Seems pretty simple really: this is a place to make money if we spend some money. It is the same tragic process we see all over the planet, making money without any regard for natural world consequences, the world we need for our very own survival.

    In the long run the only winners here are going to be the ducks and the clams.

  5. I am just back from a very different conference than a ‘Google’ conference – Neighborhoods USA – about 1,000 community activists, politicians and professionals from across the United States (120 were from the City of Birmingham, Alabama) and the majority were African American and clearly from modest backgrounds but committed to their communities.

    A gentleman from Birmingham advised me a huge hospital is proposed that would displace about 1,000 residents and in the new ‘mixed use’ neighbourhood, he thought, there would only be opportunities for maybe 100 former residents to return. So as they densify and create a ‘mixed-use’ community….some are left behind.

    The last session I attended was very heartening…we were hosted by three x-Convicts who described their organization (funded by the State of California) that provide supports for men and women released from prison….one in three African American men are either in prison or have been. They shared with us the supports and the time for those just released from prison. Remarkably, the % of folks returning back to prison has been reduced in their community. A gentleman from Birmingham afterwards shared with me the biggest challenges he thinks that America face and he said they are:
    1) Homelessness
    2) Hunger
    3) “Re-entry” ie entry back into the prison system.

    A very different world or maybe not…and yes there also were sessions on climate change and sustainability.

    I was on the Board of Neighborhoods USA for 10 years in the 90’s and learned a lot from being on a Board where the majority were African American and Latino.

  6. “Will we give sufficient power and resources to those with the mandate to save us – even if it means rolling over the rights and interests of ourselves and others?”

    I have wondered about this for a long time. I think much of what I’m about to say is uninformed and crazy. I believe that climate change threatens catastrophe. Would sacrificing democracy (that’s where I think this ends up) be worth it to save civilization, or (in unlikely worst-case purple ocean scenarios) the species?

    I think I would have to say Yes. I don’t think there is any other issue that I would put ahead of democracy.

    Unfortunately, the question as I have phrased it is purely theoretical. It is possible to trade away freedom – but only for the *hope* of survival. There is no guarantee that whomever was granted the power would act as we hoped.

    This is why I prioritize democracy over all else. Authoritarian government rapidly goes bad. When technocratic experts and elites act independently, they fail too (e.g. motordom, the financial crisis). Democracy is rife with flaws. I have limited faith in it. I have less in the alternatives.

    But democracy takes time – time we don’t have. In the long run, authority fails, but in the long run, said Keynes, we are all dead. Yet we are so late that now we can only mitgate the damage. It is not a question of a temporary dictatorship in time of crisis, as the Romans had: this is a struggle that will continue indefinitely.

    When the damage really starts to mount, when starving millions are flooding across borders, will we be able to preserve democracy even if we want to? I doubt that too. We could end up with authoritarian government but no mandate to address the real problem. (Unless mass murder counts as a solution.)

    In any case, we have no mechanism to give anyone the mandate. No legitimate institution to empower. Who would it be? The UN? The American president? The Chinese president? Some body with the power to fundamentally rework our economy and way of life that is still somehow limited? Just as America failed in their attempt to air-drop democracy into Iraq and Afghanistan, I don’t think we can discard democracy overnight and expect whatever replaces it to work. Any form of government requires shared culture and practices that develop over time.

    Monarchy is the most historically successful alternative I can think of. We know how to do it. For many countries, not least the Commonwealth, it’s probably closer to being ready to go than anything else. (Or China. Thousands of years of history has got to be worth something. But concentration camps in Xinjiang…) I’m mostly facetious (but not quite entirely) to suggest that we could do worse than the Queen.

    Still crazy. The monarch would have to rely on experts, so we’re right back with fast-failing technocracy. Even if it rationally was the right thing to do, in my gut I don’t think I could surrender democracy. And reconstructing the Empire would not exactly be politically correct (for good reason).

    With so many uncertainties and unknowns, I don’t see how we can muster the will to do it. When there is doubt, the default option is to do nothing and muddle through. Please tell me I’m wrong.

    1. We absolutely need a healthy democracy. The issue isn’t that democracy itself is too weak or too slow and is failing us. The problem is that we don’t really live in a democracy – we increasingly live in the illusion of one. Sure, our elected governments appear to sway policy one way or another but progressive policies that are beneficial to the most people take decades to build but are slashed with the stroke of a pen. The forces that really pull all the strings have all the wealth, power and control of the public discourse to ensure they get the governments they want. When that occasionally fails, they use their resources to sway public opinion to belittle the the government and their policies and ensure they are watered down if not abandoned outright.

      I could go on and on with many examples but since you bring up climate change we see a shining example of the fossil industries getting their way at every turn using every trick possible to confuse the public into inaction. A democracy absolutely depends on an informed public. If the propaganda machine is such that many seemingly intelligent people dispute the most robust scientific consensus then we don’t live in a democracy. Democracy should entail creating policies to deal with problems (in which we can differ) but it should not encompass arguing about whether the problem exists when all reasonable evidence tells us that it does. That serves nothing but to bog democracy down and undermines the institution itself.

      Furthermore, there is a very disturbing dynamic at play in our increasingly broken democracy. While progressives tend to support democracy and do their best to maintain its relevance, conservatives tend to do the opposite. This makes sense when you think about it. For those who represent the less wealthy masses, democracy is their best hope of fairness. For those who represent the 10% democracy is a terrible barrier to their absolute power. As democracy gets weaker the wealthy accumulate even more wealth and power and they use it to further weaken democracy in the vicious cycle we are now experiencing.

      Exacerbating this is the transfer of societal wealth from the lower and middle classes to the uber wealthy as we all know is happening. (Yet so many believe the transfer of wealth is the other way around.)This is a direct result of decades of government policy after decades of increasingly conservative governments. The result is that most everybody is struggling to survive leaving no time to inform themselves on complex issues from a robust variety of sources. The sound bite is king. And who controls the sound bite? And who can afford to overwhelm the social media silos with their message? Who owns the media?

      The rich and powerful are happy to see democracy wither and die. Therefore they have absolutely nothing to lose by putting a clown in the White House and generally ensuring buffoons hold positions of power. They need puppets who will easily bend to their wishes. The more absurd and corrupt government becomes the more the masses stay home on voting day. They take the entire institution of democracy down with them. It’s the masses they fear the most and they want them to be disillusioned and feeling helpless. If the masses stay at home we do not have a democracy. They will never allow proportional representation for this reason.

      Until they’ve put the final nails in the coffin of democracy they still need at least 40% of the vote under their FPtP system. So they still need to sway 30% to vote against democracy and against their own best interests. For that the propaganda machine is alive and well.

      I will admit to some generalizations and over-simplifications in this short post. But I stand by the overwhelmingly one-sidedness of the public discourse that is clearly gravitating toward increased harm for many of the very people who are holding those opinions.

      But I will end with a little more hope. In the end, the progressives always win. In the end, conservatives come to accept societal norms that their conservative grandparents would have fought against with the same self-sure tenacity as the battles being waged today. So many people suffer and die needlessly at the hands of conservative ideology in this pursuit of a better world. But there is a long string of progressive wins that would have seemed to be hopeless causes under the massive weight of the conservative stranglehold of society. I’ve yet to reconcile how that happens. Perhaps the biggest influence is that conservatives that hold all the cards eventually die and their kids are never as invested in their ideology – their grandkids even less so. It usually takes a couple of generations for “radical” progressive ideas to become the societal norm. We’ve already turned over one full generation on the climate change problem. We got one more to go before most everyone is on board. But we don’t need everyone. Those societal changes really begin to take root and form policy long before the final laggards die off.

      1. “Democracy” – good luck with that. “Informed public” – not happening.
        George Carlin RIP nailed it with Voting is Meaningless; and Dumbed Down and the Illusion of Political Choice.
        Nick Hanauer’s TED talk: Beware, fellow plutocrats, the pitchforks are coming – is candid, but don’t hold your breath for action.
        Where’s a good guillotine when you need it?
        What’s happening in Venezuela? An educated population – formerly well-to-do – being taken down in the battle for the very oil that gave them wealth – an economic coup d’etat.
        If Venezuela’s main resource was broccoli, they’d be better off.
        Confessions of an Economic Hitman is a must read.
        1984 was one of the most prescient books ever.
        I’m not sanguine about the future – I see Venezuela and am reminded of the Nat Geo doc: Last feast of the crocodiles.
        The fecal pond where the crocs have their last meals … kind of like the post-apocalypse bunkers the plutocrats are building themselves in New Zealand.
        While the SHTF flyers promoting consumer rubbish will still be coming through the mail slot – money psychopaths still fighting for every penny of “market share” – money they clearly don’t need.

      2. I agree with many of your concerns about democracy and inequality. High inequality undermines democracy, allowing the wealthy to isolate themselves from the less fortunate while buying power over them.

        However, I take a very different view about progressivism. For a start, I don’t think it always succeeds in the end. The relationship is the other way around: the victors write the history books, and they label their victories “progress.” Victorian feminine modesty was progress at the time (pursued by modern youth and slavery abolitionists). Prohibition was progress (a top feminist issue of its day).

        In my view, progressivism has become the ideology of the top 10%, whom you rightly criticize. Thomas Frank has identified it as the class of credentialed professionals, handmaidens of the wealthy elite, who in the U.S. and elsewhere have taken over left of centre parties and abandoned the working class. I’ve linked to my favourite line of the following talk by him:

        The professional class are technocrats. (I think that includes most of us here.) The public are irrational, so professionals insulate areas of expert judgment from democratic control (and often from market control). This is what neoliberalism does with the economy, e.g. by making trade agreements that tie the hands of government. This trend is accelerating: society has become more technically complex, more of life is dominated by a few large organizations, power has shifted from capital to management, and schooling is ever more important.

        Expertise matters. Climate change and vaccination are matters of science, not opinion. Science is the extreme example; a lot of technocrats are not making scientific decisions: motordom was largely built by engineers, but not on the basis of science. Many professionals are in fields (e.g. management or diversity consultants) that aren’t technical at all.

        The public are irrational – but so are the experts. Collectively they form a class who interact primarily among themselves and develop common culture and values. Being human, they confuse their expertise with their interests (and being often woefully ignorant of the rest of the population) they pursue policies that serve themselves (and the 0.1% on whom they depend).

        One might think the majority would out-vote them. But the majority are divided. The Right perfected the use of religion and the culture war to prevent voters from coalescing around economic issues. The Left does the same. The primary effect of identity and diversity politics is not to build consensus support for bread-and-butter policies that would raise everyone up (marginalized groups, over-represented at the bottom, most of all): instead it fosters divisions around “conversations” and “acknowledgments” often with zero material effect:

        The Centre, meanwhile, is mostly neoliberal – an ideology that has lost it legitimacy, but with no heir apparent it hangs on. The contest for the crown seems to get every more crazy and brutal.

        When I say that I put democracy first, I mean that I believe that democracy is an end in itself, regardless of whether we make the “right” choices. Democracy creates citizens (not the other way around). To do that, we need to play a role in our own governance; we must be free to make our own mistakes. In general, I would rather have poor policies arrived at democratically than the “right” policies arrived at technocratically. But there’s an obvious exception: climate change, the terribly logic of which seems aimed at the heart of capitalism – and (not the same thing) democracy.

        1. I’ll watch the video when I get a chance. The first few minutes seemed like it would be worth a listen.

          Meanwhile I’ve avoided using the terms “left” and “right” as they are often confusing or meaningless. For example, as the “right” is forced, kicking and screaming, to explain their climate policies they propose regulation while the “left” is using market mechanisms. These are opposite of their typical responses to issues.
          (Unfortunately the conservatives real motivation is just to delay any action.)

          Furthermore, while the left and right are equally susceptible to violence and corruption, progressives and conservatives are not. Progressives are assassinated. Conservatives are not.

          The terms “progressive” and especially “progressive elite” are victims of the propaganda machine of rich conservatives. Since when would society consider progress bad? And what’s wrong with highly educated people formulating ideas and policies if they are, in fact, for the better good? Have they really been hijacked? Or is that a deflection put forth by conservative administrations who are now trying to be the voice of the common people? Give me a break. Do you really think Trump gives a damn about coal miners? He just needs their votes. Is it a surprise he rounds up the least educated by belittling the well educated?

          Notwithstanding that mistakes are made along the way, our entire civilization is based on progress and nobody could argue we’re an unsuccessful species. Conservative forces would have held us in the trees, in the caves… without flush toilets. It’s no surprise it was a progressive government that got humans to the moon. It’s no surprise that conservative governments slash funding for exploration and advancement without a specific monetary return.

          Progressives embrace science, the underpinning of modern civilization. Conservatives hate science. They strangle and muzzle it.

          And here we are. Not still in the trees. The progress made possible by the progressives within the species. I’d love to hear an attempt at a coherent argument that a lack of rights for slaves, blacks, women, LGBTQ etc. would have been viewed as a progressive win if these results had turned out otherwise.

          We have a long way to go and always will. That’s the nature of progress. Undoubtedly peaceful solutions to conflict, a fairer distribution of wealth and wellbeing and solutions and progress on climate change are not yet fully embedded and embraced within our cultures. But we know it’s possible.

          Progressives are trying to get us there. Conservatives are holding us back.

          1. I agree with your criticism of the labels “left” and “right”; I regretted using them – they are very slippery terms. Which label means which ideas is constantly shifting. People do not normally live in a world of ideas. We swim in a social sea. Rather than to ideas, the labels refer to groups, and are most consistent when seen that way. When I refer to progressivism above, it is to the (often logically inconsistent) pursuits of a particular contemporary movement of identity politics by a particular group (privileged credentialed professionals).

            I don’t agree with progressive-vs-conservative rhetoric. I dislike ideological loyalty. Genuine consensus about judgments and values is very rare. It is usually a product of group-think or coercion. Even when a consensus is “correct,” criticism provides productive tension. I think there is plenty to criticize about progress, and plenty to praise about conservatism. (And vice versa.)

            “A better world is possible” is the phrase I often see used for the promise of progress. We are not animals who can but suffer at nature’s hands: we have the power to choose, to direct history. And we must, for if we do not, we become victims of the “second nature” of our technological society. Climate change (though itself a product of progress) is an excellent example of why we need to choose, not just surrender to the market’s invisible hand.

            However, progress is widely attacked on the academic left as an ideological construct that conceals hegemonic domination. I think this is true. Self-driving cars, the “miracle” of the smart phone, the dismissal of the wisdom of traditional cultures are all manifestations of the ideology of progress. Progress is eschatological – it envisions movement towards the goal of a future society. It is often traced to Christianity (the Second Coming, the Kingdom of Heaven, etc.) Science, as you say, is progressive. So is scientific Marxism’s notion of the inevitability of the revolution of the proletariat. Nazism was also progressive. Progress has murdered tens of millions. It can be good, bad, both: it does not belong to the angels.

            What is usually called “conservative” in Canada is really market liberalism. Older conservative traditions especially valued the human relations of community (and existing hierarchy), particularly in contrast to the impersonal relations of the market. Where progressives promote humanity’s capacity to change itself (which in the worst forms entails forcing change on others – or eliminating them), conservatives respond that the fundamentals of human nature never change, and that we need to learn to accept our limitations. Traditions exist for a reason, evolving over centuries; it is hubris to assume that we understand the consequences of ignoring them. Where progressives want to change society, conservatives believe in change within the heart of the individual, whether that be acceptance of a God or of personal responsibility.

            Older still is the pre-modern view of life in terms of eternal cycles: of birth and death, day and night, crops, seasons, rituals. Dynasties rise, dynasties fall. Meaning is cyclical: we think in narratives; at the core of every narrative is repetition. (Typically the protagonist fails at a thing at the beginning, and succeeds at it at the end. Meaning comes from change within a cycle, like a rhyme or metaphor.) According to modern critics (e.g. Heidegger), science, reason and progress have disenchanted the world, cutting us off from the meaning that sustains us.

            I think that there is merit to all of these. Science is the best tool we have for understanding the world and for improving our lot in it. The tyranny of nature (and technology’s second nature) calls out for a conscious response. The market is a powerful engine that, like science, has wrought both good and evil. It is desirable to progress collectively by improving our institutions, but personal responsibility (and peace with or even celebration our imperfect natures) is a more fruitful path for the individual. And despite all our claims to being modern, the ancient cycle of narrative is what makes life meaningful (including science and progress, which are ultimately narratives too). For most, it is to be born, to grow up, and to raise a generation that begins anew. (Not that everyone should have kids: the story encompasses other kinds of creation.) The greatest horror of climate change, I think, is the threat to terminate that cycle. Without it, the world remains, but there is no *human* world, for it means nothing.

            Progress and conservation (the original environmentalism was conservative, with a conservative name) are not opposites. They are complementary, dialectical: yin and yang, change and repetition, progress and meaning. Eliminate either, and the other is worthless.

            P.S.: If you want a progressive argument for slavery, I believe John C. Calhoun is your man. If I recall correctly, he argued that slavery made civilization possible – as, I think, did the ancient Greeks. It’s a horrible thought, but they were probably right. (I think that the idea that fossil fuels are like slaves, and that they substitute for slaves, has a lot of merit.) Or pick and easier target with Ben Wilson’s _The Making of Victorian Values_ (though it’s rather dry).

          2. You confuse social and and technological change with progress. I do not. Your arguments fall flat without the distinction.

            The label “conservative” may well be derived from conservation but it does not apply to how they treat the environment. Plunderers would be an accurate label. Nor do I see them promoting community except as a definition of “us” in order to exclude “them”. Their mantras revolve around the individual and the family unit to the exclusion of society or any benefit that would be broadly spread.

            They conserve tradition; a hindrance to progress. Not that it doesn’t often have value, but the conservatives will clutch onto it long after it doesn’t.

            I have no problem with conservative views being a part of democracy. But they are not a part of our democracy – they are using their wealth and power to overthrow democracy. We are solidly on course for ecological catastrophe and they are willfully disrupting the public discourse to ensure they alone remain rich and powerful and to hell with the future.

            I watched the video and my takeaway is that the Democrats didn’t fail the people, the people failed the Democrats. (Their choice of presidential candidate didn’t help.) So why did they fail? I’ll argue that the conservative propaganda machine is extremely effective. Obama tried to make social progress while the conservatives tied his hands. Then they used the lack of progress to show there was a “better way”. The conservative message is simple and simplistic. Progressive ideas are more complex and nuanced.

            The one criticism of Obama that has merit was his failure to bring down the elite in the financial industries when he had the chance. But to be fair, that was a unprecedented global financial crisis that was hardly the time to play hardball politics. In hindsight he should have done more. But at the time the entire globe was freaking out and looking for anything that would keep the economy from spiraling into an ever deeper abyss. Replacing the masters of the crisis with outsiders and failing would ensure the Democrats were done forever.

            He did bring in tighter financial regulation. And he used industry bailouts to force the automotive industry to improve fuel efficiency standards. And then the “conservatives” came crashing in to smash all progress to pieces by rolling back those standards and opting out of Paris.

            The current conservative ideology and domination is entirely unhealthy for society and the planet.

        2. “Progressives are trying to get us there. Conservatives are holding us back.”

          Correct me if I’m wrong, but this sounds to me a lot like a wish that conservatives would just go away. I don’t want to make assumptions or accuse you, so please understand “you” to be a generic person, not you personally. I use the word because I want to state this forcefully:

          If your stance is “you’re with us or against us,” I don’t care how good your policy is: I’m not with you. I may not be with them, but I am definitely against you.

          I don’t see myself as being on a political “team.” That doesn’t mean I’m in the middle. I often find my views outside the limits of existing debate (I think Obama was dangerously right wing), or I rank my priorities differently (as perhaps here, putting democracy first), or hold a mix of positions that you find mutually contradictory (this is actually normal).

          If you can’t respect your political opponents (their persons, not their policies), if your goal is to deny the political legitimacy of half the population, the target you aim for may be them, but the target you’re going to hit is democracy. Even if I agree on the issues, I will stand against you. You may be surrounded by people who think as you do. If so, I suggest you take it as a sign that you are in a bubble. Because you are. The enemies you make will not be alone, and we won’t care if you call us deplorable.

          1. Geof: “I think Obama was dangerously right wing”.

            In my youth, just beginning to have an interest in politics, I was told this truth: in the US they have a party on the right and a party father to the right. Nothing has changed. People vote against their own best interest because the propaganda from the right is so pervasive.

            Socialism = communism = corruption = poverty for all. This is embedded deep in their culture and the conservatives ensure it seeps into every aspect of what it means to be “American”. True progressive Democrats don’t stand a chance.

            You criticize me for openly disparaging the values of conservatives. Their covert influence is far far more dangerous.

  7. “The question was really meant to probe why there are so many women leading the charge to deal with climate change”.

    Let’s see. Old white privileged me (like me ) have only controlled… everything… for only several – forevers. We know how well that worked out.

    So, now a few women are gaining some levers of power. (Nevada has the fourth largest percentage of female legislators IN THE WORLD – just over 50%.

    Civilization is crumbling!

  8. A new report today from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences predicts that in 80 years’ time under a business as usual scenario (meaning we continue to do very little about carbon emissions) then there will be a global temperature rise of 5C (9F) meaning that there is a 5% chance that the oceans will rise 2m (6.6ft) flooding an area of 1.79 million sq. kilometers (691,120 sq. miles) of fertile agriculture lands and cities containing 187 million people (2.5% of world population).

    The 5% chance is a low number owing to uncertainties of melt rates for the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. This uncertainty will undoubtedly improve in the next few years as observations continue.

    ‘Adaptation measures accounting for the changing hazard, including building or raising permanent or movable structures such as surge barriers and sea walls, enhancing nature-based defenses such as wetlands, and selective retreat of populations and facilities from areas threatened by episodic flooding or permanent inundation, are being planned or implemented in several countries.’

    The implications for Vancouver are quite threatening. Consider this to be an emergency for which no amount of philosophical and political debate is helpful. We are not likely to prevent this evolving threat from unfolding since we are all locked in a technological way of living from which we cannot easily extract ourselves. Our only course of action is defense or retreat as necessary. Time to start planning surge barriers and sea walls. Talking time is over.

    1. And then?

      Presumably GHGs will rise further beyond 2100 and the heat will continue to rise as will sea levels. Much of the world lives on river deltas and coastal lowlands for which there often aren’t adequate replacements to retreat to. Maybe not a problem if half the population dies under the crushing weight of over 5 degrees increase.

      The time for talk is indeed over. But it must not default to adaptation only. Adaptation is an important and necessary band-aid. The focus of action must still be on eliminating the human influences that are causing the problem. Most of them are already solvable with current knowledge and technology. Massive scaling is required and, more importantly, we must actually undo the the offending systems. The areas of concern that don’t have ready answers can be solved over time as we make serious progress in the areas we do.

        1. If your dying child can benefit from an expensive medical procedure you can barely afford you wouldn’t hesitate. The climate doesn’t care how much it costs.

          Fossil propaganda tells us how much it will cost but not how much inaction will cost nor how much one can save. EV owners in BC aren’t wailing and crying about gas prices like the laggards who’ve stuck with last century’s technology.

          Sea levels have already risen 20cm. You can cherry pick your resources all you want. Melting glaciers don’t care.

  9. I find in these exchanges a certain kind of spinning madness as is found in the work of Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot.

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