The Guilty Pleasures of Conscientious Canadians

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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 Postfor 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.