Today’s crises call for leaders like Churchill

(February 20, 2018)

There are few times you can point to a pivotal period in world history and say, unequivocally, that the leadership of one person tipped the balance in a positive direction.

Winston Churchill’s appointment as prime minister of Great Britain in 1940 was such a moment. As Gary Oldman so brilliantly portrays him in Darkest Hour (and he has my vote for a Best Actor Oscar this year, to match his Golden Globe), Churchill’s stubborn refusal to surrender to either the backrooms of the Conservative party or to the Nazi war machine set an example for political leadership that is, unfortunately, all too rare.

Though it was their darkest hour, it was his brightest, taking a job he would never have been offered in less desperate circumstances because he did not fit the mould that the institutions of his time expected of a leader in his party or in British society.

He drank too much, smoked pungent cigars and was saddled with a record of disastrous choices in the previous war (such as the invasion of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli) as First Sea Lord. He had inherited little money, made most of his income from writing and generated (or cultivated) a reputation for blunt conversation that meant perpetual damage control for his long-suffering spouse or for his hosts.

In defence of the British Empire, he had been a thug, wielding imperial authority to suppress colonial independence movements that would require more decades of struggle to succeed.

He was, literally, the political embodiment of the iconic British bulldog, having set his teeth in a problem and refusing to let go, no matter how good or persuasive the opposing argument.

Those very qualities turned the tide of the Second World War and, with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, Churchill shaped the postwar world we inherited, for good or ill.

Tossed out of office almost the moment the war ended, he returned in 1951 for Great Britain’s next war in Korea, and then suffered a serious stroke in 1953 — the same year he received the Nobel Prize for literature.

The bulldog refused to let go, of course, so he recovered and continued his work for another decade. The earliest memory I have of television is not Bugs Bunny, but watching his extraordinary state funeral in 1965, when he was given a send-off normally reserved for a king.

For Churchill, words mattered.

He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle, when there was nothing else left that could be done. For his political foes, in Britain and abroad, his combination of words, delivery and public image were devastating — Churchillian, in fact.

But for the rest of the world, his words could be as inspirational as his analysis was incisive. Seventy-two years ago, his speech at Westminster College in 1946 framed the Cold War in a similar fashion, calling out the Soviet Union for “the iron curtain” that had fallen across Europe.

Today, there are no literary prizes given for politicians’ speeches, written by others and read poorly from a TelePrompTer. Analysts are left with nothing to say afterward, because the politicians have offered so little. Audience response is dutiful or added in studio. Image, not substance, is all that matters in the obligatory 15-second sound bite.

Political leadership has become an oxymoron, a poor joke on democratic institutions that seem to have a death wish instead of a vision for a better future. Competence is feared, honesty avoided and real answers to current problems — such as the questions dodged in parliamentary sessions — are best left to someone else, tomorrow.

The same things happened just before Churchill finally got the job. The other politicians focused on aspiration, what they wanted to happen, instead of focusing on inspiration, bringing the country together in ways that would make something happen.

His most important speeches were never recorded, just reported. Yet the tides of war changed in that moment, because of who he was, what he said and how he said it.

Today, we have lost our way.

Trying (unsuccessfully) to avoid the problems of patriarchy, we look for facilitators instead of leaders, focusing on process instead of outcome, ensuring all voices are heard, whether or not they have something useful to say. Everyone gets a ribbon.

Leadership at any level is a perilous choice for someone to make. To make things worse, the ones who seek it out these days seem the least likely to be the leaders we need.

Yet we are at war, with the planet and with ourselves, for a future in which all the defenceless children of Earth will have to live.

We need more leaders like Winston Churchill. For all his flaws, he identified the real enemy, what needed to be done to stop it, and how. Words, by themselves, were not enough — but that was the right place to start.

We must hold those in leadership accountable for their words as well as for their actions, expecting inspiration instead of aspiration, demanding a vision for what we all can do together that goes beyond winning the next election.

If they have a dream, we need to hear it and be inspired to share it. Otherwise, like Neville Chamberlain, they need to step aside before it is too late.

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Cities, Sustainability and Civil Society

Speaking to the National Forum on Clean Energy and Industry in the Parliamentary Reading Room,  "C" Block

Speaking to the National Forum on Clean Energy and Industry in the Parliamentary Reading Room, “C” Block, Parliament Hill, Ottawa

Presented to the National Forum on Clean Energy and Industry, 

Session 3:  Sustainable Industries & Urban Centres

(Parliament Hill, Ottawa — Friday, October 3, 2014)

I was invited to speak here as a civil society representative, so will take the opportunity to offer some alternative perspectives to encourage our discussion together.  Before addressing the subject of our session, however, I want to set out a series of statements as a foundation for my comments.  I would be happy to discuss these further afterward, if something catches your attention:

First, climate change is a global issue with specific local causes and implications.  Anyone who still thinks human activity has not seriously damaged planetary ecology simply has not been paying attention.  Travelling off-road in a remote part of Kenya this summer, I noticed Maasai huts along the way were not topped with the traditional conical thatched roof.  When I asked why, my Maasai friend raised one eyebrow and said: “Climate change, of course.  We have not had enough rain for several years to make the long grasses grow.”

Second, sustainability is not primarily a scientific or technological problem.  It is a social and cultural problem.  We already have all the science and technology we need to solve the ecological problems we face.  We know what needs to be done; we simply don’t choose to do it.  Sustainability requires better choices, not merely better tools.

Third, making better choices toward a sustainable future requires a dynamic understanding of all the interrelated systems involved. This means the static, three-legged stool model of sustainability – environment, society and economy – is not only fundamentally wrong but inherently dangerous as a guide to the choices we need to make.  We risk being in the absurd position of deciding we can’t afford to create a future in which people will be able to survive.

Fourth and finally, without the active participation and engagement of civil society in the planning, delivery and operation of initiatives aimed at sustainable development, these initiatives will all certainly fail.  This makes the citizens of any country not merely appendages to the decision-making of governments and industry, but essential stakeholders and partners without whose involvement any efforts to improve sustainability outcomes will be ultimately unsuccessful.

Setting these statements out as a foundation, I want to turn to the subject of “sustainable industries and urban centres” and offer some observations, beginning with the obvious statement that cities are places where people live.  Particularly, they are places that people call home. This distinction is important.

If the residents of any community regard it as transitional housing, as a step along the way to somewhere else, they are not as emotionally invested in making changes that could prove costly or personally inconvenient.  If you regard some place as “home,” wherever and whatever it may be, there is an inherent emotional investment toward its care, development and preservation in the longer term.

A sense of home is attached to personal and social identity, to community, to a place — however grim — where everybody knows your name.  Efforts toward clean energy and sustainable industry will only work if they are rooted within local communities, in which citizens have a stake not just for the moment, but also for the future.  Initiatives situated somewhere else that require local changes in behaviour will therefore not have much community support.

Efforts to enhance local identity, to develop local communities, to foster a sense of civic pride, therefore may create precisely the kind of circumstance in which sustainability initiatives can take root and grow.  We need to see efforts to improve sustainability in sectors like energy and industry within the context of first enhancing the identification of citizens with the place they call home.  A company with a wise corporate social responsibility profile would deliberately link sustainability initiatives with long term social engagement in the community, instead of merely cashing in their chips for a few annual charity pictures in the local newspaper.

Second, with the possible exception of Vancouver, urban planning in Canadian cities with respect to sustainability is largely a disaster if it happens at all.  We need to put absolute boundaries on urban development, both to protect arable land and to encourage the urban density that a sustainable urban infrastructure requires.  There is too great a temptation to plant that one last crop of concrete instead of addressing the issues of urban redevelopment that are much messier and more complicated than turning soybeans into subdivisions.

Without population density, especially in the core, mass transportation systems are too costly for the volume of potential traffic, given the size of the system required to service a diffuse population. Huge single-family dwellings, with three or four car garages and four baths, occupied by 2.3 people, located forty minutes away by car in rush hour from work or school, will never be a sustainable urban design from any standpoint, especially in terms of energy efficiency.

Of course, the main thing you need for population density is more people.  This is my third observation:  Our refugee and immigration policies have been utterly inadequate since the Laurier administration.  The gap between the numbers of newcomers we land and the ones we need to land is growing almost exponentially as the baby boomers retire and there are not enough younger people to take their places.  Nor is this problem solved by raising the retirement age.

In a climate-threatened world, millions more people will be displaced in the near future than we see at the moment.  As Canadians, we live in the most sparsely populated area of the world after Antarctica, so we have space to take in a few more people.  Eliminating the tangle of quotas and bureaucracy that stretch wait times for family reunification would bring in thousands every year with ties to family and thus to community that would strengthen the fabric of our society and make it more sustainable.

Fourth, cities are levers of change precisely because they are the places that increasing numbers of people call home.   Change how people live together in cities, so the story goes, and you will change things toward a more sustainable future.

In Canada, it would be a serious mistake to think urban centres only means cities, however, even if that is where the bulk of the Canadian population lives.  In the context of the country as a whole, urban centres are small islands in the midst of a vast landscape.

It is more accurate to see urban centres – of whatever size – as part of larger social, cultural and economic watersheds. Our understanding of the importance of such urban centres should be driven by location and role, rather than by size or population.

The parallel may be made between the watersheds of such urban centres and the physical watersheds within which we need to consider the ecological contexts of human activities.  Both require us to understand whole systems, first and foremost.

In a climate-changed world, it is not our cities that will mark Canada’s most significant contribution to a sustainable future, but our landscape – the rivers and lakes, the agricultural lands, the boreal and other forests. Our urban centres should be aimed at enabling and supporting the land around them, reversing the flow of energy and resources from the land into the city.

This is a crucially important point for Canada as we head toward 2050.  Other countries will point toward their cities as the places where the battle for a sustainable future will be won.  In Canada, it will be the reverse.  The more we focus on our urban centres to the detriment of the countryside around them, the less of a contribution we will make to the sustainable future of our planet.

We need to reverse our focus, to find ways to support and redevelop the small communities that are disappearing from the prairies, for example, returning them to their historic roles as agricultural centres.

This means dealing with the social and cultural realities of rural and small town life across the Canadian landscape.  Enhance the life of these small communities and you make it possible for people to once again survive on the farm.

Make them places where newcomers to Canada are given the opportunities to find a new home, just as western Canada was settled by wave upon wave of immigrants for the first half of the last century.

Make intentional the possibilities of where people can live and how they can make a living, and find ways to do this without further endangering the local ecosystems.

This would change the game in Canada, wouldn’t it?  And that’s what we need to do, if we want a different future than the one that is otherwise going to confront us.

Authors and Characters (6)

Our lives unfold in a trajectory in time and space, but their meaning is found in story. We are all both authors and characters. Even minor characters can change any story. And do.

As an historian, I enjoy speculating on lives past, how people lived, what they did, what it must have been like “to live back then.”  As an academic, of course, that enjoyment is tempered in my day job by the need to substantiate such speculations with evidence and argument.

But I am also both a philosopher and social scientist.  I temper my speculations further by considering the words and the ideas that I am using and what they mean, followed by the way in which these ideas may be constructed and how they function both in the culture I am examining and in my own.

So when I read confident statements about “mass culture” today or the Zeitgeist of an earlier time, alarms go off all over the place.  When those comments are extended to explain to the difference between “then and now,” how people used to live and how they live today, I not only get irritated but incensed at the sloppy thinking and cavalier conclusions that can lead to undermining the value of personal decisions.

If we want a better future, people have to make the choices that lead to it.  The biggest barrier to sustainability, therefore, is the disempowerment of individuals, who then don’t feel they can make choices of any significance at all.

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