Common sense abandoned

By Gene Miller, December 2010

Could you have imagined even a decade ago that you were going to get caught up in such biblical, apocalyptic times?

As I walked back from the Four Seasons Hotel (Howe and West Georgia; $265/night; strategically located near the business and shopping districts) to the Quality Inn (Howe and Drake; $79/night; strategically located near Money Mart and Tim Horton’s), snowflakes the size of threenies (use your imagination) fell like water balloons and dissolved on the wet street. The ten-block walk had the quality of a metaphor (if you divide the retail cost of a new mattress by its use-life and throw in a shower) in the aftermath of Robert F. Kennedy Jr’s hour-long fulminations. Kennedy was the keynote speaker at the First Land Awards Gala hosted by the Real Estate Foundation of BC. 

His talk was a barn-burner, and I’ll turn to its themes in a moment. First, I have to talk about the dresses.

Let me see if I can put this delicately. Vancouver is not a large Victoria. Vancouver’s on the make, and it shows. Many of the men were dressed in formal wear; most of the women were draped in—well, not dresses, but gowns. I couldn’t help thinking back to Mayor Dean Fortin’s fundraiser two-weeks-ago at Don Mee’s featuring architect Bing Thom at which all of us fought to sartorially out-proletarianize each other (I wore an off-the-shoulder burlap fair-trade coffee sack number).

Just so I don’t get too far ahead of myself, the Real Estate Foundation—working from a base of funds generated from real estate transactions throughout the province—has for the last two decades been quietly and un-self-announcingly funding a range of extraordinary land use innovations and initiatives around BC. (Full disclosure: the Foundation is a generous and long-standing sponsor of the “Gaining Ground” urban sustainability conferences, with which I’m involved.) 

Awards were presented in three categories—public, private and non-profit—and (be proud, Victoria) in the private sector category the two top contenders were both projects with solid ties to our city: Dockside Green (immediately north of the World’s Most Expensive Bridge Referendum) and the Elkington Forest Project 30 minutes north of the city initiated by Victoria’s Living Forest Communities, helmed by Doug Makaroff.

The Elkington Forest Project was the winner, by the way; and a humble and sincere Makaroff did the spirit of his project proud with his thanks to the Foundation, his project partners and his colleagues. (You can learn more about the Elkington Forest Project at www.livingforestcommunities.com and www.elkingtonforest.com)

After the awards portion of the program, Kennedy was brought to the podium and spoke for an hour without notes or prompts. (I heard him do this for a hundred minutes at the second Calgary Gaining Ground conference, where he took apart the oil industry in general and the oilsands in particular, in front of an audience filled with oil industry people and conspicuous climate change deniers.)

It was a mesmerizing tour of history, environmentalism, politics, economics…and a profound, rare journey through moral purpose as Kennedy made the repeated distinction between true free enterprise capitalism and ethically ambiguous “crony capitalism.”

Said Kennedy: “You show me a polluter and I’ll show you a subsidy.” He railed at corporations—energy giants, especially coal, came in for special anger—that “internalize profits and externalize costs.” 

He made a reference that has etched itself in my thoughts about how our current generations, through our consumption patterns and industrial practices, are behaving with absolute disregard for the future and heaping the costs of that behaviour onto the backs of our kids and grandkids.

I wondered: What is it in the nature of this standard of living that creates such a capacity to abandon common sense? I mean, the standard of living—the 2.5-planet lifestyle or whatever level we’re up to now—itself is insupportable, but what doubles down on the insanity is that every initiative that might support the consumption level while reducing its impacts (the electric car, alternative energy, policy reform, financial reform, etc.) comes in for obstruction, denial, rejection, foot-dragging, and non-investment. It’s as if common sense and sanity were completely negotiable.

Sorry to put it inelegantly, but it’s as if there is a drugging effect embedded within or triggered by this lifestyle that blocks constructive change; which, as I’ve suggested before, is why catastrophe may be said to serve an ecological purpose by forcing change that would not come otherwise. When consumption stands in for national purpose…

In the current documentary movie, Inside Job, financial industry executives, summoned to congressional hearings, sit with the same stolid impassivity as an earlier generation of tobacco industry executives when they were being interrogated about the addictive nature of cigarettes. These emotionally impenetrable executives with Citibank, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and the rest convey not the slightest acknowledgement that there was anything corrupt or even vile in their actions. All of their efforts are bent on making the point that that Great Recession should just be chalked up as an unfortunate occurrence, and that the financial services sector was not itself a generator of consequences.

Honestly, could you have imagined even a decade ago that you were going to get caught up in such biblical, apocalyptic times? US history is rushing toward some kind of climax, conditions globally are in a roil, and it’s an open question whether things will settle down or whether we are in the end-times of an era. I mean, you might want to brush up on your Mandarin, lay in a good supply of 100-yuen notes, stock up on canned tuna fish, and purchase a zombie alarm.

Or you might want to rediscover the treasures laying in plain sight: community, framed by story of place. I sense that a powerful social narrative is building around the capacities and riches of local systems—human, ecological, even financial. It was a revelation to listen to James Schwinn at the recent Gaining Ground conference in Vancouver describe the idea of the EcoBank—merchant banking built around a bioregional model (you can catch Schwinn’s remarks by clicking the “videos” button on the Gaining Ground website).

That is, maybe it’s not, or not only, the narcotizing consumption, but also the increasing abstraction of human systems that has brought us to this strange place of confusion and extreme risk. Maybe it’s old-fashioned of us to want to hold financial industry leaders accountable when it’s the systems themselves that have slipped their ethical moorings.

Sorry to deliver such a sober message just before our annual Christmas spending orgy. I do want to direct your holiday spending toward two books for thoughtful downtime reading: David Korten’s Agenda for a New Economy, and Peter Block’s and John McKnight’s The Abundant Community. 

And I close by wishing you the best of time with friends and family. I hope you come through the holidays with a sense of renewal and optimism. See you in the New Year.

Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.