There is an old fig tree in the garden of the house we are renting. It is an old, powerful tree with a gnarled, thick girth and a densely branched canopy. On the hottest summer night, it is cool sitting beneath its many layers of broad green leaves. I would like to say I am reading Saint-Exupéry’s magical book, Le Petit Prince but that would be an exaggeration of my effort on this summer afternoon.
Rather, I am contemplating Le Petit Prince and thinking to myself, did Saint-Exupéry know he was creating a children’s story that would be read and celebrated the world over? Did Michelangelo know when he carved the ‘David’ out of a monster block of white marble that it would be admired for a long as people could get themselves to Florence to gaze up at it? My guess is that was their intention for every artist in the boot box of his heart hopes that one day he might paint or write or carve something that will endure.
I’ll leave the debate over the qualities of the ‘David’ and Michelangelo to the sculptors, but not ‘Le Petit Prince’, for Saint-Exupéry is of my tribe and trade. Le Petit Prince is a master work that will endure as long as people read. It is not the limpidity of the prose that makes it great, although this helps. Nor is it the brilliant surreal quality of a boy prince living alone on a planet so small it can only support a single rose and a single sheep. It’s the humanity of the story that it makes it great for it goes to the heart of what makes every human being, human. How do we share?
For we cannot live as human beings if we do not share. It is through sharing our talents, our food, our roses, our friendship that human life becomes possible. This is what makes the murders in Norway so anti-human. They are the anti-thesis of the Le Petit Prince. They are about building walls and protecting yourself, but without sharing we are just like any other omnivore on the planet. It is through the complex ‘business’ of sharing the fruits of our lives that art and commerce are created and civilization is born.
It’s a fragile concept easily fractured. Just what is the right balance between sharing and protecting what you have? What is the right balance between the Prince wanting to save his rose from the sheep’s teeth and the sheep wanting and needing to eat it? The story of Le Petit Prince is more important than ever because it is increasingly clear that if humans don’t start getting that balance right we’re going to lose both our roses and our sheep.
Twenty-six years ago, I worked on the Ethiopian Famine Relief project with David Macdonald. Canadians made a superlative effort donating more than 50 million dollars in food and medical relief. We sent so much wheat with Canada stamped on the bags that ‘Canada’ became the name for wheat in parts of Ethiopia. Twenty-six years ago the population of Ethiopia was about 45 million, it’s now over 90 million and there’s another famine underway in the same region. Is there not something out of balance here?
Canada started out as an agricultural country of small towns and small farms and we Canadians have always had a lively understanding of the importance of sharing, but we are no longer rural. We’re the most urbanized nation on the planet and I’m beginning to wonder if we’re also losing the sense of what that right balance between sharing and protecting wealth should be.
One percent of Americans now have more wealth than 90 per cent and we’re quickly following the American model, having accepted the thought that the rich deserve to be taxed less than the poor because they create jobs. The reality is a favoured tax position for the American rich hasn’t created more jobs, it’s just made the rich, richer, but that shouldn’t be the point. The point should be the same as the one the Little Prince was trying to find an answer for – ‘what is fair?’
It wasn’t an easy question for the Prince to answer and it isn’t for us today. As I write this, I’m staying in a little French village of about 3,000 people. It has a large community centre, a library, two schools where children start at three years old, (yes, that’s right, three), a seniors home, a market, stores, cafes, national medical and dental care, cheap buses to a nearby town and the beach – all that civilized life requires. It has these because France never abandoned its village and country life. A village with one classroom can receive a national teacher.
Canada has gone down a different route. We have closed down dozens of schools with hundreds of students just in my hometown because they are considered too small. Sixty per cent of Canadians live in just seven city metropolises. This is regarded as efficient and we’re growing those seven metropolises faster than any other part of the country. Our national medical system is under so much pressure, people wonder if it can survive. There’s zero talk of dental care or fast inter-city rail service. This is also regarded as unaffordable.
I’ve frequently heard British, American and Australian politicians make disparaging remarks about France’s economic policies. The complaint is the French spend too much money on public services. The unions are too strong etc. Better to invest your money in nations that put profits first and so on. But what is the point of these profits and efficiencies if your country is running out of pleasant places to live?
France is full of wealthy expatriate Brits, Americans and Canadians who don’t chose to live in their country of origin any longer. When I ask why they respond, ‘we like the life here’, as if ‘life here’ occurred by some magic mixture of wine and the village square. Life in France is better because the French haven’t forgotten the story of Le Petit Prince. They’re willing to share more and invest more in their community and national life. It’s a choice, not an accident.
Saint Quentin-La-Poterie, France