It's not easy to know what to make of Western environmentalists' and politicians' current mania for plastic, except perhaps to say that it marks a welcome relief from their obsession with CO2.Read More
As a prelude to the full-blown Group of Seven summit this weekend, Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have agreed to "action plans" for international assistance, sustainable development and global gender equality. Meanwhile, in the streets of Québec City, a group of roughly 100 demonstrators is protesting the summit's “imperialist, colonialist and anti-environment” agenda.
Times have changed. Just nineteen years ago, when the anti-globalization juggernaut rolled into Seattle, the politicians and the protesters had different agendas, and you could tell them apart. Alas, while it's true that this latest crop of G7 demonstrators look duly menacing burning flags in their Berkeley-approved Antifawear™, their messaging seems a little unfocused. One of the young demonstrators told a CP reporter, for example, that he was protesting the economic system in Canada, even though "I don’t know what I want to replace it with.” Another said, "I’m just here because something interesting is finally happening in Quebec City." Indeed.
Here's a thought. Why doesn't the prime minister just invite these idealistic young Quebecers back to the G7 compound to hash out the whole global-capitalism thing with President Trump's entourage—preferably over one of those fat Canadian spliffs the Senate has just finished debating? They seem like nice kids. And Trudeau, at least, knows what he's heading to Charlevoix to protest.
“Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?”
President Donald Trump asked this of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a May 25 phone call, the details of which were revealed yesterday by CNN. And judging from the bulging comments sections of Canada's mainstream media outlets, Canadian news junkies have been mining out the Canadian Encyclopedia ever since.
If we're going to pretend that Donald Trump's wry allusion to the War of 1812 actually matters—i.e. in the context of his willingness to threaten a trade war to leverage favourable deals with America's NAFTA and EU partners—then we'd better be clear about why. And we needn't bother appealing to the Canadian commentariat for such clarity, since most of them remain preoccupied with Trump's bullying tactics, historical inaccuracies and falsehoods, as usual. (An exception comes from veteran Maclean's journalist John Geddes, who rightly notes that it has been the fate of almost all Canadian prime ministers to have to navigate the protectionist whims of the U.S. hegemon. "Trump is only amplifying and distorting, in his peculiar way, what is really an old, recurring challenge," writes Geddes, "and a constant in Canadian foreign and economic policy.")
So let's be clear.
President Trump's one-liner about Canadians burning down the White House stands as a near-perfect distillation of his core political convictions—that nations are genuinely sovereign, none more so than the United States; that they can compete as well as cooperate, irrespective of whether they are friends like Canada or rivals like China; that national self-sufficiency in strategic resources is not an outdated ideal; that allies who do not pull their weight can be rebuked; that established trade protocols from Bretton Woods to the WTO count for nothing if they disadvantage the United States; and, above all, that the job of the U.S. president in 2018 is to make America great again. As Ohio State political scientist Randall Schweller has remarked, "Trump no longer sees the necessity of keeping allies happy at the expense of the American people, so he’s trying to solve the free-rider problem. The bumper-sticker line to U.S. allies: No more Uncle Sugar.”
It's hard to know whether Justin Trudeau was as blind-sided by Trump's protectionist threats as he appeared to be. Until last week, for example, he gave every impression that as host of the upcoming Group of Seven summit in Charlevoix, Quebec, he would be able to dominate the agenda—happily inscribing upon yet another international forum his ideas about climate, feminism and other progressive causes, while ostensibly managing the outlier Trump as something of a bête noire. Now, suddenly, it is clear that Trudeau and his like-minded allies in the G7 will spend a good portion of their weekend playing hardball with the U.S. president on trade—even if it means issuing a vapid concluding communiqué or, worse, announcing a failed summit.
In truth, Trudeau should not (and indeed may not) be surprised by any of these developments—any more than Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, and even Stephen Harper were surprised when faced with similar stirrings of economic nationalism in Washington. Our current PM has been as adept as any world leader at rolling with the turbulence of the Trump maelstrom. Until last week when he came out swinging against the imposition of U.S. tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum, he seemed comfortable in the role of Trump Whisperer, to cite Campbell Clark's useful phrase. This was true as well of French president Emmanuel Macron, who has also endured some testy phone calls with President Trump this week and is arriving early in Canada to caucus with Trudeau about the trade crisis.
Perhaps Justin Trudeau has known since November 2016 that a day of reckoning on trade with the U.S. was inevitable, given Trump's unyielding America-first ideology, his take-no-prisoners negotiating style, and his open derision of NAFTA. What is certain is that when Trump scolded PM Trudeau for burning down the White House, he was signalling, with his inimitable economy of style, that the day of reckoning had arrived.
Two recent op-eds in the Toronto press demonstrate, unintentionally it would seem, why the authoritarian claims of radical environmentalism continue to have very little purchase on Canadians—and, by extension, on citizens elsewhere in the world who aspire to emulate our enviable standard of living.
Canadians need hardly be told that every day brings ever-more-creative and unbridled eco-hysteria from the usual media suspects. Nathan Gardels at the Washington Post, for example, reminds us yet again this week that "the collective activities of our species have provoked wholesale calamity for the planet." Following Justin Trudeau's alleged betrayal of the B.C. activists protesting the Trans Mountain pipeline extension, Canadian academics Thomas Homer-Dixon and Yonatan Strauch have warned that "we're increasingly living in a delusional fantasy land in which our oil sands policies make environmental and economic sense." We read endlessly that bees, whales, polar bears, pikas, puffins, and other adorable species face extinction, that our species might too, and that we are to blame. It never ends.
Yet Canadians continue to drive gas-guzzling SUVs in record numbers, to cherish their annual carbon-footprint-obliterating family vacations in the sunny Caribbean and, above all, to appreciate that our country's macro-economic fortunes hinge on our ability to get our energy resources to lucrative foreign markets. Canadians are conscientious. We love nature. We hardly wish to "provoke wholesale calamity for the planet." Indeed, we believe ourselves to be climate leaders. So what's going on?
What's going on is something too little acknowledged, studied or reported. Canadians are making choices—hard choices, choices that routinely privilege the perks of our affluent technological inheritance over the grim austerity we are told we must embrace for the sake of the planet. And here's the key insight: these choices are often made guiltily, not mindlessly.
Consider Elizabeth Renzetti's recent Globe and Mail piece, entitled "Cars drive us crazy, so let's park them for good." To judge by its title, you'd be forgiven for expecting a garden-variety anti-car screed from a charter member of Toronto's liberal elite—of the sort lampooned brilliantly in Joe Heath's and Andrew Potter's book The Rebel Sell. " One starts to wonder if what passes for environmental consumer consciousness is just another form of rebel consumerism," Heath and Potter aver. "How did we get to a position where our society’s most well-meaning and environmentally conscious citizens have such a smug and self-indulgent conception of what constitutes meaningful political action?"
But in Renzetti's case you'd be mistaken. For she poses the question "Isn’t private car ownership unconscionable at this point?" and then proceeds to answer in the affirmative while simultaneously rationalizing why she intends to replace her recently scrapped 2007 Ford Fusion. Renzetti explains:
A quick thought experiment: Are private cars absolutely necessary? No, they are not. (We know this because people who do not own cars manage to live perfectly normal lives.) Does having a car make you happier? This is a trickier question, one that is tied to inherited ideas about autonomy, status and productivity. For some people, cars are extensions of identity: I drive therefore I am.
Sooner or later, she believes, "we [will] succumb to the inevitable and park the car for good." But until that day comes, she will continue to hide her own car away in her garage, hauling it out "rarely and guiltily, for road trips and grocery-store runs."
A second and more poignant example of the guilty-pleasures syndrome comes to us from Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick, who has reacted to a stern anti-meat sermon in Britain's Guardian newspaper with a tongue-in-cheek mea culpa about her own eco-unfriendly lifestyle choices. The title of the piece evokes its central thesis: "Why you should give up meat and eat peas for breakfast, lunch and dinner." Mallick reiterates the now-familiar case for why "farming meat and dairy products is destroying our planet"—i.e. because it produces too few calories "to justify the damage it does via greenhouse gas emissions, freshwater use, water and air pollution, and damage to wildlife." Yet she confesses that she will continue to eat meat and dairy, admitting wryly that "I am in the wrong, morally speaking. People like me are doing their bit to destroy our beloved ball of blue spinning in space."
The most telling bit in Mallick's article is her breezy conclusion that the only way to wean people like herself off ecologically unsound lifestyle choices is to prohibit them:
Make farmed meat more expensive. Double the price of milk. One whisper in President Trump’s ear and he’ll set up unfair tariffs that are met with retaliatory tariffs and, magic, the dairy industry will be reduced to dribbles. Even the misery of modern flight doesn’t stop people from taking cheap trips to nowhere in particular. Why not charge travelers $500 per checked bag and remove the overhead bins? Why not charge extra per kilogram of passenger? There are any number of nudges but they will accrete and fewer people will fly. We worship the god of cheap. Why not use that religion to save the Earth we ravaged? Pay Brazil not to raze rainforests for cattle farms. Price casual travelers out of reluctant flights home at Christmas.
Renzetti and Mallick have not only put their fingers squarely on the impracticability of radically greening consumer culture in affluent Western democracies, but they have also announced their own guilt-ridden complicity in that culture. In this, they are far from unique. Like many Canadians—possibly a majority, to judge from the polls—they have internalized the eco-alarmist messaging that has dominated our public discourse for decades, while knowingly participating in our inherited techno-capitalist culture of convenience, status-acquisition, and pleasure.
The dilemma is laid bare. Renzetti and Mallick will not be talked out of their cars, meat and dairy, so they await the day when austerity is imposed upon them. If ever there was evidence of the risk to liberal democracy from what Rupert Darwall has labelled green tyranny, this is it.