Embracing The Past’s Cold Dead Body

Apologies ahead of time for harping on this but the truth is since discovering Chris Turner’s The Leap, I’ve kind of been infected with its thinking. It didn’t help matters any by my going to see him last night at a talk on the German Leap toward a green, sustainable economy. The guy’s on to something big. Right now only some people get it and are acting on it. Those who don’t, well, they’re just standing in the way, slack-jawed and taking up space. I’m trying to become one of the former.

During last night’s session, I was struck by the political implications of all this. Let’s take one of the book’s premises as fact for the moment and look at how we have responded. Early on in The Leap, Turner suggests that in 2008 while the whole world watched in helpless horror as the global financial system sailed uncomfortably close to the abyss, two other equally grave spectres raised up their heads, Hydra-like (or rode in on their apocalypse horses – take your myth pick), largely unnoticed by a wider swath of the population. Say hello to energy scarcity and climate change.

Unfortunate, coincidental timing? Yeah, probably not. All three inextricably linked and three years on, none changed for the better. Our economy remains punch drunk, occasionally lapsing in and out of a comatose state. Conventional, fossil fuel derived energy hasn’t gotten any less scarce. The minute hand’s crept ever closer to high noon on climate change at which point of time there will be no stopping, let alone reversing the negative feedback coming our way.

And our collective response to it all?

To run screaming from the challenges facing us and into the arms of those happy to lie to us. Everything’s fine, they purr. Just a temporary blip. A little belt tightening here, some fat trimming there and it’ll all be as good as new. Steady as she goes. Stay the course. Comforting us with false hope while demonizing any who question their wisdom or motives.

These are our modern day conservatives, folks, heirs of the Edmund Burke tradition, rejecters of all that is new and different including ways of thinking and seeing the world. The old ways are always the best ways. Full stop. All that is novel, innovative or smacks of science is nothing more than the devil’s handiwork. Unless of course it can drain oil from hitherto unreachable places or increases the capability of the modern police state.

The mark of a crank that would be laughable if we didn’t continue to fall into their arms at the first sign of trouble. It’s an abusive relationship. They do something stupid, drain our bank account, smash up our car. We kick them out only to come crawling back when they promise they’ve change, they’ll be better. Trust us. You’ll see.

What the fuck is wrong with us?

A heavy adherence to the ‘status quo bias’, according to The Leap’s Chris Turner. We fear the loss of what we already have more than we’re enticed by possibly bigger rewards through changing behaviour or wireless plans. More or less. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Or how about this little chestnut? Ya gotta dance with the one that brung ya.

We are change averse and seem determined to hang on to a way of life to the bitterest end. In times of societal stress, our tendency is believe those who insist there is no need to change. Everything’s fine. This… this is just a temporary blip. It’ll get better, back to normal. Trust us. You’ll see.

So in 2010, the United States went full on Tea Party. We here in Toronto gave the mayoral nod to Rob Ford who simply blamed all the problems the city was facing on out of control tax and spending for things we didn’t need. This spring we handed a majority government to the federal Conservatives on a promise of steady helmsmanship and more of the same same.

Not surprisingly, little has changed. The economy continues to take hits, one more shot from another standing eight count. Oil continues to leak from the ocean where we continue to drill further down. Ice fields melt. Oceans acidify. Ozone hole reappear in the sky.

‘The Age of Fail’ as Turner puts. Or, as Joe Orton phrased it a little more poetically pointedly, “The old whore society really lifted up her skirts and the stench was pretty foul.”  We’re scared and put our faith in those assuring us that there’s absolutely nothing to be afraid of except for all those telling them otherwise. Guess what? There’s plenty to be scared about, very real, tangible monsters under the bed and no amount of pretending they’re not there or leaving the nightlight on is going to chase them away.

Existing at this time in history and in this place of privilege in the developed western world, it’s hard to get our head around the concept of collapse or catastrophic failure. That’s the kind of thing that happened in the past or to other societies in impoverished parts of the world. I’m going to call it an ‘it can’t possibly happen here bias’. We’re too smart. We’re too evolved to let that happen. If we just continue to do what we’ve been doing the way we’ve been doing it, we can dig ourselves out from under this.

Just stop listening to those telling us there’s another way, a better way, a fairer and sensible way. There’s too much at stake here. We have too much to lose to gamble on the great unknown. We just need to do this a little bit harder…longer…

Blinker yourselves like we are. Close your mind off to the possibility of anything else. And behold, the attenuated mind and hearts of our modern conservatives. Embracing the past so tightly, they’re squeezing the life out of the future.

beseechingly submitted by Cityslikr

The Wrong Way Down A One Way Street

There’s enforced reading here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke or as Cityslikr likes to call it, Book Club. He gives out titles to be read and demands reports be written. No national bestsellers are these, no Oprah Picks. Usually the readings consist of dry takes on policy issues of the day like urban studies, our banking system, the nature of democratic dissent.

It is of my humble opinion that he doesn’t read any of the books himself but farms them out to his colleagues for 800-1000 word abstracts. Why would you comply, you may ask. At least, without proper recompense or accreditation. Well, the fun comes when you completely misrepresent the book you’ve just read and watch him pontificate wildly off the mark on it. Remember that the next time he starts on about credit default swaps or the high cost of free parking. That’s some of my finest work.

Sometimes, however, you will get steered in the right direction and so it was with Chris Turner’s The Leap. So good, in fact, I think Cityslikr actually read it. High praise indeed.

The Leap is both exhilarating and depressing, often times simultaneously which is no small feat. Exhilarating because positive change is so tantalizingly close. You can see it happening, in different places throughout the world, at various levels whether it’s making the move to alternative renewable energy sources in Germany or reviving once moribund cities like Melbourne, Australia. The depressing aspect comes from the fact that so many of us simply don’t get it, opting instead for an unsustainable, unpleasant status quo. Stay the course as they now say in Toronto 2011.

Given the events here with the death of another cyclist on Monday, one passage from The Leap sprang immediately to mind. It’s as follows and I beg the indulgence of those who have read the book already. It and/or Tom Vanberbilt’s Traffic.

“When journalist Tom Vanderbilt embarked on a comprehensive tour of the world of traffic, he peeled back the coherent veneer to uncover a place that was not just arbitrary in its logic but literally insane. His findings, compiled in his 2008 book Traffic, reveal the operation of a motor vehicle as ‘the most complex everyday thing we do.’ The act itself requires the use of a vast subset of 1,500 distinct skills, many of them so far away from our basic instincts and inborn, time-tested survival skills that, as Vanderbilt puts it, ‘In traffic, we struggle to stay human.’ Because we’re mostly moving too fast and at too great a distance from each other to permit eye contact, all of our adaptive social cues are stripped away. It’s easily the most dangerous thing any of us does with any regularity. And on average, Americans spend more time in this state – overwhelmed, dehumanized, engaged in a bewildering and potentially deadly ritual – than they do having sex or eating meals with their families.”

Not to indulge in enflamed, over-the-top hyperbole but I think if we’re looking around for a culprit for the serious democratic deficit currently facing us, the toxic public discourse that now passes for political debate, the unbridgeable left-right schism, we can stop searching right now. It’s all about car ownership.

How can it not be? According to Vanderbilt, drivers spend an inordinate amount of their time ‘overwhelmed, dehumanized, engaged in a bewildering and potentially deadly ritual’, struggling ‘to stay human’. What does that sound like to you? Being at war. For an hour or so every day, over 70% of Torontonians are in their cars, getting back and forth to work, struggling to stay human. And we expect them to simply slough it off, change into their civilian duds and demilitarize into rational, reasonable, engaged members of society?

We’re not talking post traumatic stress disorder here. This is ongoing, day-to-day traumatic stress disorder. Angry, wounded souls driving killing machines through city streets at 60 km/h.

How else to explain the barrage of defensive comments in the newspapers’ comments section to the story of the death of cyclist Jenna Morrison?

I feel very sorry for this woman and her family. But we have to admit that cycling is not a way of transportation in a big city like Toronto. We are not in Saigon for Christ sake. Want to cycle? Go to park. Cars and bicycles on busy streets are deadly mixture and cyclists are victims. Road for cars! Pavement for pedestrians! Bicycles for suburbs and parks! And the sooner we understand this the less tragedies we’ll have.
P.S. Especially when most of cyclists don’t give a damn about road rules, traffic lights, stop signs, etc.

That’s sociopathic in its lack of compassion or empathy. What kind of person would fire that sentiment off into the public realm? One devoid of much humanity, I’m afraid. A soldier in the misnamed War on the Car.

It also reveals an unwavering belief in the primacy of cars on our streets. ‘Road for cars’! Sound familiar? So obvious and set in stone that it absolves them of any blame for the carnage they inflect while going about their business.

If my nautical knowledge is sound, out on the high seas it is the responsibility of the vessel operating under the most power that must cede the right of way to one that is less able to change course or speed. Thus, motor boats give way to sail boats, sail boats to kayaks. On our roads, the opposite is true. Vehicles most able to inflict damage bear none of that burden. If a cyclist or pedestrian gets mowed down, the reaction tends toward, well, they shouldn’tve been out there, they should’ve been more aware.

To our detriment, we continue to design and build cities around this anti-social mode of transport and somehow expect a public spirited, collective outcome. Cars and community are antithetical modes of thinking. They can only exist in opposition to one another. We’ve tried the car way for a couple generations now. It doesn’t work. It isn’t healthy. We are all the worse for the attempt. It’s time to head in a new direction.

backseat drivingly submitted by Urban Sophisticat