Consider the National Energy Board hearings on the Energy East pipeline. Not only were the recent public hearings in Montreal overwhelmed and eventually cancelled due to violent activism, but motions were filed demanding the resignation of the committee for having conversations with former Quebec premier Jean Charest.
Where I come from, you can’t hear if you don’t listen to all sides of the argument.
Canadians can’t afford to be complacent about this development – despite a warming globe, Canada has long, cold winters that aren’t going away anytime soon.
But our cultural malaise goes much deeper than care for the environment or a desire to alleviate the suffering of minorities. The problems we face are deep-seated. It has everything to do with our theory of history.
Curtis R. McManus, in his new book Clio’s Bastards, contends that although we once viewed our cultural history positively, we now view it through a negative lens. He believes the modern historical premise is based upon the idea that western society is structurally oppressive and deeply flawed. There are systemic ills buried within our culture that are responsible for environmental destruction and the oppression of minorities.
History has become less a catalogue of achievements and more a means of explaining what’s wrong with society and assigning blame.
McManus contends that this alteration in the underlying historical premise is dangerous. He points to the destruction of the world’s first democracy, ancient Greece. A negative view of society emerged with the Sophists and Cynics in Athens 2,500 years ago. It resulted in the corruption of classical democracy and, eventually, the loss of their freedom as a people.
Jean Jacques Rousseau, the father of philosophical romanticism, first articulated a negative view of society in the mid-18th century. He maintained, “Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains.”
Karl Marx, a century later, built upon this romantic position by directing all moral blame for economic and social inequality toward industrialists – the unholy bourgeoisie. “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”
Now, powerful forces of neo-romanticism have re-emerged. They have almost completely captured our centres of higher learning. Much of this romantic worldview is rooted in the Marxist critique, which is based on the idea that oppressive class structure influences all literature and infects all social institutions.
For example, by this logic western society is not the liberator of women; it is the ongoing agent of their oppression. This way of thinking is particularly acute in sociology departments. An extreme version of this disease has infected the environmental movement.
Of course, there are many who are seriously concerned about our environment and worry about the carbon we spew into the atmosphere. However, on the fringes are powerful forces that could care less about the environment. They’re frontline warriors of the revolution, romantics determined to break free of social oppression.
By this misplaced logic, the very presence of imperfection in our environment or social inequality pre-supposes the existence of an oppressive elite, whom the vanguard are morally bound to destroy by any means.
And who are the modern oppressors? In general, they’re the political and economic establishment; in particular, they’re the carbon-emitting energy industry.
The truth is more complex. Western society has flaws and structural inequalities that must be addressed. But for all its flaws, the west is one of the few civilizations in history that has progressed by facilitating the rise of the individual and championing human rights. Western societies have evolved over many centuries from despotic monarchies to relatively representative democracies.
As Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are only now beginning to realize, there is no appeasing the hard-core neo-romantics in our midst.
However, viewed through a positive historical lens, the societal glass is half-full, not half empty. Understanding just how entrenched the radicalism has become would strengthen our resolve and, perhaps, responsible developments could then finally be approved to the benefit of a grateful society.
Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.