What does sustainability mean for human beings?

It’s very clear what ‘not sustainable’ means for polar bears.  The polar ice cap is thinning and shrinking, polar bears no longer have a hunting platform.  They are going hungry  and their populations are shrinking.  The lucky ones are moving to a land based habitat to interbreed with brown bears.  Most people understand what is happening to polar bears, the curious thing is they don’t get what’s happening to the human equivalent of the polar ice platform.

In spite of the constant news about climate shift, planet heating, ocean and atmospheric changes, most people can’t tell you what it means for human beings except the weather is less reliable and storms more frequent. This is what it means.  The human hunting platform is its social organization and the greatest expression of the human adaptive accomplishment is the nation state.

It was the nation state in the 20th century that was the primary motor for the massive expansions to the human population and the provisions of extraordinary collective capacities in all the domains essential to human welfare – research, technological development, clean water, education, health, food supply, transportation.   There is nothing that you do each day of your life that isn’t the result of the successful operation of your local and national governments.

The problem is the human platform is melting down – everywhere.  All that varies is the rate and the details  but everywhere nations are becoming less and less effective at providing  the ‘universal’ services upon which we all depend.  The most spectacular failures are the most spectacular successes.  It is something of an international agony to watch that flailing giant the United States of America.  There are, of course, glimmers of hope.

The  Americans electorate decided on a decent, intelligent and well spoken chief executive but the reality is there is absolutely nothing he has done or will do in the next 3.5 years which will arrest the decline of the nation state.  President Obama is not alone. Everywhere we see the same incapacity to restore the forces that made nation states successful.

Progressive taxation has collapsed everywhere.  Yet, it’s clear progressive taxation was one of the key innovations that gave nations the capacity to provide the services needed to create more wealth, not less, more growth not less, more personal success, not less.   It’s also clear nations can’t function by taxing only part of their population.  It’s two sided sword.  It not only reduces government capacity, it twists and reduces civic commitment which is central to all national success, but this is what has been happening – everywhere. It is world wide news when a tiny state like Cyprus even suggests that a progressive bank tax should be applied to foreign capital hiding in their banks or when France suggests it will go it alone on a tiny transaction tax on international speculation.

Look at the actual legislative proposals of any national government and what strikes is how ineffective the are.  Austerity is the principal response to social and economic meltdown.   All austerity accomplishes is speeds up the the processes already in place which are feeding the decline of the national level of social organization.  The supra national state is already fracturing.  It is in Europe.  It’s fracturing in the United States and in Canada it is being tacked together with flag patriotism, Afghanistan and Tim Horton’s images.

Like or dislike Tim Horton’s coffee, all the metrics, not controlled by the federal government, show the nation is in full on decline domestically and internationally.   Even the famous inter-provincial equalization payments which did so much to build the famous sense of Canadian fairness and high quality public services are evaporating as each province is left to struggle by itself.  The once powerful Ontario flounders with no hope in sight and no real interest from the rest of the country in her troubles.

At the end of the day the Berlin Wall fell because enough people on both sides of the wall understood it didn’t work to do anything but protect a corrupt and inefficient supra national state.   In the 21st centuries nations will fracture along old and familiar ethnic lines as they are in Syria but also along resource and organizational lines.  Meanwhile, the war on terror has been exposed for what it always was, an expensive side show which distracts people from focusing on the central problem – their national governments which are no longer successfully functioning.

As the larger organizational units fail, smaller ones will move to replace them – which is good news for some.  Pauline Marois, Quebec’s new premier has stated the province’s transportation future will depend on electricity, not oil.  She calls it a ‘structural’ issue. Her argument is simple.  Electricity is an energy source and a technology that is renewable, oil is neither.  In fact, the oil rich policies of the national government are suppressing and delaying the needed conversion in Quebec.

The decline of the Canadian Federation will happen as it does elsewhere with a push and a pull.  A pull from its constituent parts and a push from the national level as the human beings struggle to re-balance their organizational capacities just as the earth’s climate struggles for a new equilibrium at a higher temperature.  -30-

Clive Doucet is an author and former city politician.  His last book was “Urban Meltdown: Cities, Climate Change”.   His latest is “Shooting The Bruce”.

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