Critical Mass

by Glen

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize three times for being cute. His insights on issues such as world trade, the environment, Middle East developments, and foreign affairs have made him a force with which to be reckoned. Yesterday, in an article titled “The World is Full,” Friedman lists some of the main challenges facing this generation and concludes: “What were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once?”

Friedman has been masterful over the years in laying out the pitfalls of the corporate mindset. I don’t mean “corporate” as in business, but the way in which people who have gathered themselves into bunches end up losing their individual consciousness, buying fully into “group think.” How do we get to the point where we actually rule over our own decline? By foregoing our individual responsibility as citizens in favour of the easier life of letting others do it for us, that’s how. In so doing, we fail to see the futility brought about by our own hands.

The loss of individualism in Canada has resulted in a kind of national “numbing,” whereby we lack the wherewithal as a people to confront our greatest dangers. Yesterday I wrote of how business corporations often shy away from anything that would threaten their investments and of those “remarkable exceptions” offering credible alternatives. Groups like the Ivey Business School in London, Ontario have taken corporate social responsibility to exceptional levels and provide a new path to a more sustainable future. But such groups are yet the exception and not the rule. Acquisitions and monopolies have all too often taken the place of innovation, risk, and societal responsibility.

Friedman worries that organization can impersonalize everything it touches. And with that loss of individualism comes the inability of people to challenge the prevailing system: it just seems too great. This is true everywhere, and not just among the capitalists. The media, citizens, the political class – each is experiencing difficulty in righting the ship. Media conglomerates have relegated much of the fair-minded and well-researched coverage to history. Citizens are all over the map, often opting for the simplistic easy answers for democratic renewal instead of undertaking the nitty-gritty work required to bring about political change. And politics? Well, we know all about that. In each of these four fields – business, media, citizens, politics – remarkable exceptions to the rule operate and have dynamic impact. Yet it’s hardly enough – the critical mass hasn’t been reached. For all the good work accomplished by these remarkable Canadians, most individuals within these fields continue with the flow of the organizational mindset, leaving the dangers yet before us yet insufficiently challenged.

I’ve been wondering in these posts if all this “rush to the centre” in the political order is all it’s cracked up to be. Everyone is doing it, even the Conservatives, in hopes that they can discover the fountain of eternal power. And what has been the result? Inaction on some of the most important challenges in generations. When we chase the centre without empowering citizens or their institutions then it’s just deja vu all over again, and the challenges remain unanswered.

Friedman quotes Paul Gilding, author of The Great Disruption: “When you are surrounded by something so big that requires you to change everything about the way you think and see the world, then denial is the natural response. But the longer we wait, the bigger the response required.”

When we are living in such times and when the political centre lacks the required vigor and vision to challenge the prevailing system, then the centre is just a location, not an empowering democratic option. Our largest problems grow bigger as we delay. Critical mass has yet to be achieved, and unless it is, only a crisis will turn us from our destructive path. For Conservatives attending their convention today, the progressives among them will have to wonder whether they have enough moral suasion with the party to halt its destructive tendencies. For Liberals, as stated here previously, as we seek a new direction, we would be better identified with the immense challenges facing our sleepy country than by crowding into bed with the other so-called centrists. Let’s not be defined by our position in the political spectrum but rather by our courage to face our greatest national tasks on behalf of all Canadians, utilizing the best of what the other sectors have to offer to find solutions.