The Parallel Parliament

Glen Pearson

Christmas and Trust

Posted on December 14, 2018

Living in a more jaded world, where things no longer feel as secure and where the news feels predominately negative, has magnified the loss of trust in our generation.  We see institutions as failing us.  Relationships lie in ruins.  People become undependable.  It leads many to agree with researchers who say that trust is a dying commodity.

Except that it’s not. Humanity is still capable of great trust and faith; it’s just that such things become lost in the din of dysfunction. We still count on friends, trust our workmates to get the job done and believe most of those around us will remain with us when tough times descend.  And that goes for our faith in institutions as well.  We count on our banks or credit unions to safely keep and grow our finances, journey to hospitals with what ails us, have faith in peacekeeping and still believe our communities matter.

No time is better suited to reveal our penchant to believe in others than the Christmas season.  We change somehow in ways we never fully understand.  We display more patience despite the manic nature of the holidays.  We get in touch with people we haven’t seen for some time. We tip our servers more.  We give more gifts than we likely should.  We let others in ahead of us in line.  And we say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” not because we plan on it but because we honestly feel like it.

I’m reminded of J. M. Barrie’s observation in his Peter Pan:“All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.”  Of course, we know that magic pixie dust infuses our holiday season sentiments, but so do faith and trust, and they are all meaningful, saying something about the desires we have for a better humanity, despite the daily evidence saying the contrary.

It sounds simple to say that communities depend on social trust in order to spontaneously come together and learn to be more adaptable to change, yet it’s true.  Trust doesn’t reside in a law, a product, a vote, in a computer or in a newspaper.  It’s people who extend their confidence to such things that makes them function effectively.  The less trust there is among a populace, the poorer the community runs, the more malicious is their communication and the more divided it becomes.

Researchers break community trust down to two kinds: social and political.  The latter means that we can trust government or democracy even when we don’t necessarily trust a politician or a political party.  We see this every day and it remains something of an enigma – we trust the system (that we most often can’t see) but not those that purvey in it (who we see everywhere).  

The former – social trust – is another thing altogether.  It largely refers to trust in strangers.  We do this all the time – the chef at a restaurant, someone we strike a conversation up with on the bus, assisting a homeless person or greeting an immigrant or refugee. In this, we trust what we can see, even though we have no idea of the background (what we can’t see).  It seems counter-intuitive, though we do it multiple times each day.

This is the stuff Christmas is made of and excels at.  It expands our opportunities to meet others, while at the same time infusing us with the desire to stretch across the divide of the unknown.

Of the two, social trust is the most vital, since it allows us to live in peace with one another without needing to have everything arbitrated by somebody else – we just do it naturally.  If you broke Canada down to its component parts, it is perhaps this remarkable trait that defines us the most to the rest of the world.  We aren’t told to get along; we have just developed a knack for doing so to a remarkable degree.  

But it where we need to be the most careful.  It is a delicate thing to increase diversity in a nation without experiencing a direct correlation with the decline of social trust.  We excel at it as a nation, but are watching as some in the political order seek to build up our distrust of the “other” so that they can gain political advantage and drive our personal fears.  Should we give in to this as a nation, our great calling card to the world will be lost.

A large depth of social trust, and the ability to express it, also proves marvellously effective at reaching out to those we disagree with, for it means that we don’t have to share the ideology of someone we disagree with in order to trust them. Partisans evidence great trouble with this, since they are out to defeat those of others views.  Yet it can happen.  It is such a temperament that permitted the opposing soldiers of World War One, pictured above, to cease hostilities on Christmas Day and share handshakes and a friendly game of soccer.

Christmas works best when trust is high.  The opposite is also true: where trust exists, the Christmas season becomes something special, even sacred.  It is this we need to seek before others in authority with divisive designs break our collective spirit.  Politics is at its best when those who disagree nevertheless seek the common good out of respect and trust.  The essence of the Christmas spirit is frequently at its best when such occasions occur.  Merry Christmas.

On Christmas, Capitalism and Compassion

Posted on December 12, 2018

This past week, we found ourselves transported to the era of Charles Dickens as we attending opening night of the Grand Theatre’s A Christmas Carol.  The inspiration largely came from female lead Jan Alexandra Smith in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge.  In a Canadian first, Scrooge was portrayed by a woman, not in the role of a man, but of a seasoned woman fully capable of transformation.  It was a revelation.

The Victorian era found Dickens interpreting a world of great wealth, great poverty and the struggle of these two realities in defining society.  Capitalism was undergoing a rapid rise in production, but was plagued by a kind of emerging poverty Dickens wrote about in his Christmas classic.

In this past 50 years, much has been made of Adam Smith, the godfather of modern capitalism, who died shortly before Dickens arrived on the scene.  Corporate interests talk a lot about Smith’s emphasis on the “Invisible Hand” from his book The Wealth of Nations,in which he described the unintended social benefits of an individual’s self-interested actions.  A Christmas Carolonly makes sense in this light – wealthy individuals and families giving of their riches to those relegated to the poor house because of the disruption that emerged through early capitalism.  Think Tiny Tim, his illness, and the inability to be healed until Ebenezer is transformed through revelations of his miserliness and you’ll get a picture of what was going on.

It is rarely mentioned that Smith wrote another bestseller years earlier called The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  In its pages, Smith attempts to address the ongoing friction between self-interest and sympathy for others, admitting that it wasn’t easy.

“However selfish man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

In other words, the essential good in a man or woman can transcend self-interest and perhaps even greed, if permitted.  There were likely many in those earlier days who would come to question that rationale. Indeed, Smith would go on to say that, because of human nature, we can’t live merely in a society that is altruistic alone.  This only makes sense, since people are both “other” interested and “self” interested. It would be a remarkable thing to live in societies that willingly sacrificed for others before themselves, but that is not on the horizon anytime soon.

What we should expect, however, is a proper balance between moral conduct and an open economy.  It is at this point where our modern world is failing.  Yes, it is possible to be like the reformed Ebenezer Scrooge – making money and sharing it liberally, even transforming oneself in the process.  But most people don’t function that way.  Most are generous but are just as likely to be self-interested and occasionally selfish.  Left to the “Invisible Hand,” there will inevitably be many more Tiny Tims than there will be Ebenezer Scrooges.  

This has been the developing world’s experience since the emergence of both capitalism and democracy.  Goods and services from the poorer regions of the world helped to empower the affluent nations.  That was true in the time of Dickens as well.  However, something is changing – and rapidly.  For the first time in human history over half of the world is now categorized as “middle-class,” but that is because of the wealth generated in places like China, Brazil and India.  But therein lies the rub – wealth has largely come about through the loss of resources in the more affluent world.  Millions of jobs are being created in the southern and eastern parts of the globe, while they are disappearing in the West. Wealth is accumulating in the developing nations while draining from the West as investments move ever eastward.

It is no accident that capitalism flourished in step with democracy.  Knowing that poverty would only grow in the emerging economic systems, it was inevitable that citizens looked to governments to be the arbitrators between wealth and poverty and between the ideal of equality and economic advantage of some over others.  That arrangement is now suspect, and as western citizens increasingly see their interests decline in favour of corporate windfalls, their trust in government to strike the right balance is falling.

The real problem isn’t one of generosity – people and businesses show remarkable resolve to help the vulnerable, especially at Christmas – but one of collective capacity. Do people and organizations donate enough through private giving to properly care for people in poverty?  The answer is in the negative; in fact, it isn’t even close.  It is through the equitable distribution of wealth by responsible and balanced governments that humanity comes the closest to coupling social justice with economic prosperity.  Modern societies today are now farther away from that reality than in recent memory.

The secret of Christmas is to turn Ebenezer’s Scrooge’s personal transformation into a collective one. There will always be room for private generosity, but until citizens collectively, acting through their governments, share the wealth equitably, personal generosity will never be enough to overcome collective poverty.  Christmas, those on the margins, and a compassionate citizenry deserve better.

The Most Terrible Poverty

Posted on November 30, 2018

We probably all know this, but in an increasingly economic world we make poverty to be something about money, or the lack of it.  Yet it’s more.  It’s one thing to lack capital, but it inevitably leads to a shortage of social capital as well.

In recent decades access to economic well-being has increasingly split our modern societies into two – better known as the haves and the have-nots.  That distinction has always been there, but in recent years it has become a wide chasm that few can cross.  That leads to making difficult choices or not being able to make any choices at all.

Increasingly, those being pushed to society’s margins find themselves not only economically bereft but socially struggling as well.  Regardless of how well they may feel connected digitally, in human terms they have never been more isolated.  They can be hyper-connected but more disconnected from their communities than ever. Worse, research reveals that are far more likely to feel alienated and lonely.  We are living in a time when society is no longer moving along a linear track together economically, but has divided into two groups – one moving ever upward and the other falling into decline.  Fewer and fewer families are remaining stable.

Recent data from the United States reveals that the number of citizens who have no friends at all has mushroomed exponentially.  Most of these fall into the category of low-income.  In 2005, one-quarter of Americans replied that they had no one to talk to about their poverty problems – a number triple what it was just 20 years earlier. They are rapidly running out of social capital – the ability to find support, hope and friendship with others – and are now facing entirely new kinds of poverty.

We have been so conditioned in the west to think of everything through the lens of economics, including poverty.  As a result, our understanding of the nature poverty has grown increasingly limited.  We fail to consider how it divides families, leads to mental illness or addictions, creates a vast array of physical problems, and results in entire populations of individuals and families dropping off the radar screens of policy makers.  And the moment the broader community loses touch with its more vulnerable members, the personal stories of those in need fall out of the popular lexicon.

Eventually things begin to fall apart.  The social capital surplus is rapidly used up and communities become divided.  But certain groups suffer disproportionalyl and frequently become trapped in cycles of poverty, depression, loss of opportunity and alienation.  The children of the well to do have far more opportunities to broaden their lives than those kids living in more confined circumstances.

The inability to afford post-secondary education presses down on people in poverty even further. A recent American study drove this home, as outlined by Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam:

“Of births to women with a high school diploma or less, 20 percent were out-of-wedlock in the 1970s; today, it is just shy of 70 percent.  However, nothing like this is happening for women with college degrees over the same period – their rate remains under 10 percent.”

This is revealing and significant.  It means that children born in such conditions are far more likely to fall into poverty, or remain in it, in a battle that could go on for generations – all because of a lack of opportunity..

Putnam reminds his students, the confidence and trust that existed in both Canada and the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s were part of a widely distributed social capital surplus.  Institutions helped to hold society together and provided venues where individuals from various economic and social strata encountered one another, developing relationships and working together to build the larger society.  “People were doing various things,” he recounted, “but they were doing them together.”

Not anymore.  Most often the middle and upper classes have little contact with those in difficult financial and social circumstances. Putnam makes a direct link between this social isolation and that meteoric increases in depression, malaise, even suicide. In the process, it leads to a mental health epidemic that remains little understood in modern societies but which is, thankfully, gaining more awareness.

There are various kinds of poverty, but as Mother Theresa would note: “The most terrible kind of poverty is loneliness.”  Now the lack of economic capital is now joining with the scarcity of social capital to create a new kind of poverty that is endemic and desperately isolating. Poverty in the midst of social isolation is the worst kind there is.

That’s Two Red Planets, Not One

Posted on November 27, 2018

We watched in fascination yesterday as NASA’s inSight Lander successfully touched down on the surface of Mars – the Red Planet.  Following years of research and efforts, six months of space travel, and one billion dollars of funding.  It was an accomplishment of seismic proportions.

In a few days, the Lander will begin digging 16 feet below the surface to test the temperature of the soil.  Some believe it’s hotter than many think.

It now appears that millions are beginning to wonder the same thing about earth.

It’s taken time to approach it seriously – likely too long – but the arrival of the Trump administration’s climate change report is just the latest in a series of urgent warnings that our environment is about to place us in a series of crunch situations that will leave us with little choice but to make major adjustments in our spending/lifestyle/policy decisions or else perish.  Just in time for the holiday season, we have a parallel message coming from Washington talking about “hell on earth.”

So much has been made of the fact that Donald Trump released the major report on Black Friday in order to obscure the troubling warnings, but that’s politics and that’s always what’s done when a government has to release information that reveals the ineffectiveness of its policies. – bury it   That’s the easy stuff to talk and get upset about, but the report itself is the main story.  It’s best to remember that this is about 13 federal agencies all agreeing on just how impacted the United States itself is going to be for its refusal to act.

On a Black Friday, when the President wondered whatever happened to global warming in the midst of a blizzard across the northeast, his own administration’s National Climate Assessment reminded Americans that those heat-wave seasons that occasionally move across the country have expanded by more than 40 days in five decades.  It singles out Phoenix, Arizona as an example of what’s coming.  By the end of the century, the city might have as many as 150 days per year above 100 degrees (F).  The frequency of cold waves has decreased steadily since the early-1900s, while heat waves have dramatically increased just since the mid-1960s.

Over the next few decades, temperatures will continue to increase by 2-3 degrees, with temperatures climbing much higher than that by the end of the century – only 80 years away. Cold waves are projected to become less intense and heat waves more intense.

Especially timely was the report’s projections on the kind of wildfires that just devastated California. All the data could be listed here, but we already know that such phenomena are drastically increasing, and the report lays the cause on climate change and its propensity to heat up the forest and the earth’s surface.  Loss of life, property destruction, and environmental ruin are all on their way up and the costs to recover will be in the billions and billions of dollars

Temperatures rising and forests being destroyed are serious problems, but could likely become overshadowed by the report’s conclusion that coastal cities will soon be under threat and that it would result in millions migrating away from such vulnerable areas as sea levels continue to rise.

The report’s chapter on the coastal effects of climate change warns that sea-level rise alone could force tens of millions of people to move from their homes within the next century.  According to the Atlantic:

 

“Shoreline counties hold 49.4 million housing units, while homes and businesses worth at least $1.4 trillion sit within about 1/8th mile of the coast. Flooding from rising sea levels and storms is likely to destroy, or make unsuitable for use, billions of dollars of property by the middle of this century, with the Atlantic and Gulf coasts facing greater-than-average risk compared to other regions of the country.”

 

While all this is happening, the Trump administration is seeking to remove standards to limit car emissions, attempting to breathe new life in the coal industry for political reasons, and refusing to cooperate with other nations of the world to deal with the global carbon emissions problem.

The time for debating whether environmental change is caused by humanity or not is long, long past. What matters now is that only human intervention and global solidarity can mitigate the disasters that are about ready to descend on us.  Regardless of who is to blame for climate change, the fault for the poor response to these environmental challenges now falls on all of us.  It is similar to the U.S. gun debate: a few powerful interests are defying all the data and collective desire for a less violent country and citizens refuse to use the vote to change it.

Kudos to all those who propelled the NASA Lander to its successful landing.  It is a matter of historic irony, however, that we can accomplish such a feat almost 60 million kilometers off in space through collaboration, funding and intelligence, but we remain uncommitted in  an effort to avert climate disaster.  There is no longer one Red Planet in our solar system but two, and if we’re not careful, there will ultimately be two barren planets.

Photo credit: pwhawker.com

Capitalism vs the Environment – Guess Who Wins?

Posted on November 22, 2018

It’s been no secret that one of the great outliers when it comes to climate change has been corporatism specifically and capitalism generally.  Every time something like this is stated – a frequent event – apologists list various examples of where business has made positive and productive progress in sustainability.  Fair enough, but these are exceptions and not the rule.

When we speak of capitalism, there is an important distinction because it includes corporations and consumers – a huge difference.  The capitalist culture is one that speaks to the penchant for business to overproduce and consumers to overconsume.  Together, both of these have made the hopes of putting a serious curb in climate change a rather remote one.

Recently a group of scientists, put together by the UN Secretary General, delivered their report on capitalism’s role in destroying the natural order.  They could have made a practice of pointing a collective finger at corporate responsibility, but instead they made a rather astounding claim: rather than ruin the environment, capitalism itself will be finished by the climate change phenomenon. This is a great reversal – one that clearly puts producers and consumers on the same joint vulnerable species list.

The scientists concluded that climate change, though the most important, is nevertheless only one of the great global problems created by the capitalist mindset.  To it were added growing inequality, burgeoning debt levels, unemployment and underemployment, and slow economic growth.

We don’t know if the report was what the Secretary General expected but it definitely got people’s attention – not by outlining the problem but by naming the culprit and its possible demise.  Almost immediately, corporate leaders and right-wing economists labelled it alarmist, unfounded, fake news, or even a lie.  But the point had been made and the report’s conclusion that we are witnessing the end of capitalism vs. climate change debate takes things a step further.

Because of the built-in inefficiencies of our present fossil fuel-based economic models, and the unwillingness to change our present economic practices to reflect the environmental crisis, capitalism has run out of room to survive.  Worse still, the global problems listed above – debt, inequality, etc. – are directly linked to capitalism’s poor performance regarding climate change.  One of the statements in the report forms a stark warning:

“Economies have used up the capacity of planetary ecosystems to handle the waste generated by energy and material use.”

If a corporation permitted such a system in its own personal operations it would quickly be out of business – which is exactly what the scientists predicted for larger scale capitalism.  And, so, the report reminds readers that the vast majority of global business practices “almost completely disregard” the threat, continuing on with their practice of business as usual.

In a troubling trend, the report concluded that more energy is being used than ever to acquire smaller and smaller supplies of fossil fuels – a dead-end game.  Moreover, the strain on the environment grows ever greater with the use of the increased energy.  Many would wish that reports of the climate change battle radically changing business practices were true, but, according to the report, we are still heading the wrong, way, except even faster.

This is what happens when a capitalist system actually increases it attention on short-term profit maximization that appears removed from social or economic good.  The report is clear that no serious and viable alternatives are being considered by global corporate leaders today, therefore leaving the writers of the report with no alternative other than to say that there isn’t time enough left for capitalism to reverse its indulgent behaviour before the environment strikes back.

We have arrived at a period in time where commentators have been using terms such as “post-capitalist” or “post-democratic” with increased frequency.  We’ve been warned about it, debated, denied, or mildly addressed it for decades, but it wasn’t enough – companies just kept making or refining stuff and we just kept on draining or purchasing it for decades.  We have waited for corporate leaders to take the lead but they mostly kept with standard business practices.  They are now about to hit a wall.  We waited for governments to make the collective change necessary, but they never quite developed the courage to tackle citizens who wanted to lower taxes and increased consumption.  That is a large part of the reason for wild election swings and for the new post-democratic language.

So, if the report has serious validity to it, we are about ready to watch capitalism itself go bankrupt – both of money and creativity.  If you want to read the UN report, you can find it here.    It’s doubtful that global economic leaders will take it seriously, or that governments or their citizens will radically alter their lifestyles to reflect the new realities.  But we have been warned by a report that carries both alarm and great clarity.  It would have done us well to hearken to Edward Abbey’s counsel when it was first uttered: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”

 

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