We are not owed any particular future, and are not guaranteed more of what we've already had.
Just thought I would share the comments I placed on Facebook when sharing this one (and, as always, Matt: Brilliant. I am so enamoured with your and Jen's commentaries, that I have to blush at being such a fan. Anyway, here's what I wrote):
"We are living in the best moment of history, in terms of our security, health and prosperity ...This winning streak lasted, I fear, just long enough for a critical mass of us to lose perspective on how rare and precious the last few generations have been in the West."
True words. It is easily confirmed as a fact that many of us who represent the so-called middle class of what are called Western countries - though really it is true for all "1st World" countries and probably some others - live better than kings and emperors of eras past. But the meaning of all this is more than Matt Gurney says. It is not merely the realization that "we are not owed any particular future" -- we were also not owed this particular present. We are, the truest sense of the word, lucky.
We have been handed down a fortune from past generations. Did their gifts, their legacy, come with scars and trials and mistakes and traumas and other burdens that we also have to bear, fix, heal from and resolve? Absolutely, but they were gifts nonetheless. Gifts of technology, gifts of political and moral principles, gifts of education systems, of democracy, of health care, and of an ambitious view of our future possibilities that, but for their offerings, would have been utterly unavailable to us. We have many, many reasons to be grateful.
And I would suggest that while Matt Gurney, fairly, reasonably and rightfully, warns us to look to the future with realistic wisdom rather than through proverbial rose-coloured glasses, we should, as part of that process, also be looking to the past, to understand and appreciate the efforts and the errors that were made, that brought us to this point, and then make sure we preserve and make more of the former and incur fewer of the latter going forward. This is, after all, in large part how they (i.e., the ones who came before, speaking generally and not specifically) did it.
So, Gurney is right that our expectations are a problem, but really that is only if they are not also grounded in that fine admixture of gratitude and goal-making, appreciation and effort, that leads to that fine combination of preservation and improvement that make a better future a realistic possibility.
(Protip - Have you ever considered that the regular uses of the word "appreciate" refer to "thankfulness," "understanding" and "adding value"? Seems like the perfect attitude for living well and making things better.)
re: covid deaths vs Spanish Flu, one thing I remember reading about it was that a lot of the deaths were from secondary infections and not the flu itself. You got the flu, but then pneumonia developed and that was it since no antibiotics.
Its true, we sure do have so many amazing medical advances in our lives. But, human psychology being what it is (we are analog difference engines, not digital gauges when it comes to feelings of wellbeing) we struggle to keep perspective informed by an imagined experience (Spanish Flu, historical hardships) vs our actual experience (man, 2019 sure was better!). I am not sure what the answer is re: expectations formed by our actual experience vs "Shit, at least I am not a slave in a Roman war ship rowing away until I die"), but I cant help but think what my parents used to always say growing up, "Could be better, could be worse"
Once again The Line and Matt Gurney delivers a reality that Canadians need to hear.
Our failure to read and understand history is profound. For a start, may I suggest Laura Spinney's book on the Spanish Flu, release just before the pandemic started.
It's a comfortable complacency fed by ignorance and a failure of the imagination, sometimes willfully. For all Canadians critique Americans of an ignorance of the world outside of their own country, we tend to be susceptible to the same problem and for some of the same reasons (we're immersed in American culture.) There's an ignorance of the character of some of the regimes we deal with, and an arrogant assumption that nobody would ever wish us harm because we're self-evidently such nice people. However, what happens if a belligerent country decides to start exploiting Canada's offshore resources? We've already seen the Atlantic cod fishery collapse because we couldn't prevent overfishing, much of it outside of our exclusive economic zone. What if somebody tried what's happened around the Spratley Islands in the South China Sea and started unsustainably fishing salmon off the West Coast, or started drilling for oil? Canada tries to respond, but is met by a stronger naval force? What if Canada tries to crack down on environmentally destructive practices by a company owned by a foreign country within Canadian borders, and is rebuffed and met with threats of punitive economic measures? Let's take a step further and imagine a fight between North Korea and America, and a North Korean nuclear ICBM falls short and hits a Canadian city? Our economy is tightly integrated with the US - what if the US breaks up and falls into a new civil war, or a US president is elected who's truly hostile to Canada? We hardly spare a thought for truly dangerous threats to our current prosperity, and instead spend incredible amounts of time arguing over domestic policies that amount to making our lives slightly more comfortable.
It would be nice for Canada to have a health care system that at least ranks with the OECD average though. If we can't have that, at least don't make it illegal for "ambitious" people to buy their own health care.
Great thoughts Matt. I hope you plan to walk us through the most problematic of these expectations in terms of our failure to adequately address the necessity of changing our energy source from fossil fuel.
I'd be interested to hear you expand upon this a bit more. Did middle class Canadians of a generation ago have lower expectations for themselves and their children? Nothing is guaranteed, but I think people basically know that. They are currently responding with a certain amount of optimism given the facts on the ground: COVID is not especially deadly to the young and we have vaccines that are highly effective at preventing serious illness and death.
There are a lot of ways my life could get worse - I could develop a serious, chronic illness or get hit by a bus tomorrow. My family and friends could die in a pandemic or a plane crash. I could lose my job or my marriage. I know, on some level, that all these things are possible, but I don't spend a lot of time thinking about them, and I don't know that my life would be better if I did.
I don't think expectations are the problem, per se. If I expect to be treated well, I won't put up with an abusive partner. If I expect the CPP to be solvent for my eventual retirement, I'll make a lot of noise if some politician were to raid it to pay for something else.
You say "I expect a return to something functionally comparable to our old normal", with the caveat that you also allow for the possibility of something worse coming along. If other people also expect a return to normal, but don't allow for the same possibility, they still share your base expectation - they just don't have the capacity or the desire to mentally prepare for long-tail risks right now.
And in this moment, I can't say I blame them. It's like asking someone who just slipped on their icy driveway and broke their leg to get better prepared for a possible armed home invasion. Like, it's true that such an event is possible and would be worse, but it's not crazy to want to get your bone set and healing before researching which security system to buy.
Exactly right. The post-war period of general world peace and unprecedented prosperity - unprecedented literally in the whole history of the human race - was not normal. In that not-normal, Canada was exceptionally privileged. The underpinnings - ecological and climatological - of that not-normal are now beginning to collapse. When I was born, there were 2.3 billion people, now there are 8 billion people & those 8 billion consume and produce, on average, much more than the average person of, say, 1950. Whatever cannot continue will, at some point, stop. This is more than a tautology. And in addition, the post-war world hegemony of the USA, our great protector, is breaking down, as it seems, is American society itself. The old normal is going to go the way of the dodo. This will be extremely painful and very dangerous.
This was the best column I’ve ever read on The Line. Well done, sir 👊
Warren Buffet has always had the opinion that he won the lottery right from his birthday. He was born a White Male in North America, I think he put the odds of that during the worlds birth rate at the time as 1 in 200. Add to that being born during a time of vast opportunity with minimal Government oversight. We definitely don’t appreciate the security and opportunity that we’ve been born with.
I’m also of the opinion that Covid may in the end prove to save more lives than it’s killed. Governments have had a huge learning curve in dealing with an epidemic, one that hasn’t been very contagious or an particularly lethal. Yet as we continue to be lax in vaccinating the world, the virus continues to mutate and become more contagious and dangerous. With all of this in mind, how do you think the governments of the world are going to tackle the next contagion event?
Great column Matt.
Well, at least I know not to trust that "gut-level, feels right" intuition of Matt Gurney.
I can tell he's too young to remember that post-Vietnam era, with drastic limitations on everything because the price of oil had just quintupled, bringing recession. That's when there was a SERIOUS feeling of "we've hit our peak and this brief historical Good Times era is gone". I was told that, despite the embargo and new high prices and new tiny cars (everybody was going to have to buy tiny cars from then on, SUVs were not a dream) the oil would run out by 2000. Not told that by a sign-waving ecologist, but a UofC Engineering professor. Which made it funny that it was in the actual year 2000, we all had to listen to the "Peak Oil" theory and told the future was, again, a Mad Max apocalypse. (Fracking became cost-positive in 1999 and took off; no more "Peak Oil".)
I admit to frustration, talking to people whose parents didn't give them the Depresssion Training I got; and my brother's "Polio Summer of 1956" memories allowed me to mock those (young) journalists who said that this event was "not in living memory": http://brander.ca/c19/#polio
(pardon the large font, I was trying something).
Matt's doofus friend not only didn't read about 1918, he didn't see the movie "Contagion", which I thought everybody did in 2020. Just like our pandemic, only 10% mortality. Edifying.
Sort of a side note, but it's an eye-roll when a conservative who's absorbed too much American militarism describes Canada has having passed from one "umbrella of protection", to another. The only country that's ever thought of attacking us was America, 1812. Our military only serves other's imperial adventures, from my Grandfather helping imperial Britain pacify invaded Boer farmers in 1901-1902, to helping America spend 1 year trying to arrest Osama bin Laden, and 19 trying to dominate Afghanistan for its own sake. Russia developed nukes in defensive terror that they'd be invaded again by the West, right after the Nazis tried; they never had a plan to nuke us into submission. "Protection", indeed.
But the main point is that conservatives have, all my life, been telling me that our civilization is decadent and weak and unable to rise to a challenge. That started in the same early 1970s, with the pampered, rich (by comparison to Depression-raised parents) spoiled Boomers, who had never known war. (That's why they had lost Vietnam, raised on candy and TV and comic books, not enough spanking because of Dr. Spock.)
It is frustrating how deliberately-oblivious people can be. Half of journalism seems to be about sequel stories to messes that were buried so we could *remain* oblivious after having the problem shaken in our face: the RCMP. The military. Indigenous water. Care homes. The pointless impossibility of progress in Afghanistan. Income inequality. And, above all, ecological stress and change.
But we're also totally amazing at what we come up with when we DO get going. Not just fracking, but mRNA! It's global warming, where my optimism is highest. There will be this bad century to come, a lot more bad weather, but we'll get through it. The world added a shocking 290 GW of renewables generation last year, 50% more than 2019, which was itself a record. Despite the demand, EV batteries dropped another 6% in price, with lithium sources popping up all over because now people are looking hard for it. (So much for peak lithium.)
There was, once upon a time, this generation that had not seen a large war in three generations, one of the longest peaces in European history. It was also a century of dramatic technological improvement, vast new wealth pouring into Britain from a colonized world. Then they had to fight WW1. AND that giant pandemic. They responded magnificently.
Have a little faith, Matt.
It's not so much that keeping what we had until two years ago is so difficult, as that there is an upper limit to how stupid we can be and how poorly we choose governments and still keep it. We have passed that limit.
Biologically, Covid has been, as you point out, no big deal. But our society has decided to deal with it by completely abandoning freedom (lockdowns and protest/assembly restrictions), the rule of law (public health officers decide everything arbitrarily), education (two years of remote schooling), equality (discrimination against the unvaccinated), and control over one's own body (mandatory vaccinations). We have even brought back inflation and abolished Canadians' right to leave the country.
Obviously it could still get worse, and probably will. But it is already very bad. And the threat is in no way medical - purely psychological and political.
You have briefly yet accurately described the complexity and depth of my inherited assumptions about the world. The truth you have stated is, we need to analyze and disassemble so many currently held beliefs about how our society has come to be. Only then can we really be ready for a healthy and happy future.
Could we call this process of re-thinking our assumptions as “deconstruction of expectations” ?
And you have stated that it’s not an easy or obvious thing. It’s more than scratching the surface. It is very complex, but we must rise to the urgency of this.
To use a soil and farming analogy, it’s not just like adding some manure or mulch to a crappy field and letting mother nature do its thing. This is about digging deeper and undoing past practices which have done harm, for example dealing with compacted soil, missing nutrients, breaking up hard clay, stones and even bedrock. Every necessary component that is broken or missing needs to be appreciated for its role, and then and only then can the repairs begin.