A few months ago, Hugh Hefner celebrated his eightieth birthday and a spate of interviews and magazine profiles appeared on the founder of Playboy magazine. I glanced at several but can remember only the closing lines of one. The interviewer asked ‘Hef’ what were the greatest changes that he had seen over his life time and he responded with ‘women have less pubic hair’.
This is on my mind because a few days ago I was holding forth on life in my father’s little Cape Breton fishing village (which I often do for it in my mind is symbolic of the many changes we’ve seen, no fish, no farms and no people left) and a young friend of my daughter’s listening asked me the same question the journalist asked Hefner. “What were the greatest changes I had seen in my life?”
No one has ever asked me this question before, presumably because I’m too young to consider such a burdensome question, nonetheless I gave it serious attention. As important as women’s anatomy is to the human race, its’ appearance was not first on my list, but it was easy to understand why it was for Mr. Hefner. He has found prosperity buying and selling photographs of naked women and we tend to see and judge what is important through the lens with which we observe the world.
No doubt, the high tech folks would say the invention of the internet has been greatest change. The internet has made the global transfer of capital instantly possible. It has spawned whole industries and moved us from the world of paper to the world of online. Newspapers are now staggering into the sunset as people move to being ‘on line’ – all the time via their cordless phones. It isn’t hyperbole to say the internet has changed the way we live.
Canadian political commentators which populate the media like dandelions would probably say the greatest change has been the rise of pluralistic politics. A majority of Canadians are no longer required to elect a parliamentary majority. All that matters is how the vote splits and how much of the plurality or ‘base’ your party controls. Pluralistic politics have become permanent politics.
American Presidents would probably be inclined to say terrorism. Terrorism has changed the local and international legal fabric of the American nation from the Geneva Convention to freedom from incarceration without due legal process. Drones war is in but chemical war is still out. What appears to be incontrovertible is what people regard as important depends more on the lens through which they’re looking than what they’re actually seeing.
For me, it was and easy question to answer. After 1950, North America invented a new kind of city. If you stand on the Bridge over the Rideau on Bank Street in Ottawa and look north, there you can see the pre-1950 city. Bank Street north is narrow. It’s lined with small shops and back in 1950 a street car ran down the centre of it and through the adjacent communities. Now, spin a hundred and eighty degrees and face south and look across the river, you will see Ottawa’s first shopping centre ‘Billings Bridge’ built in 1952. It has about 2,000 parking slots. It’s single story and behind it are townships of tract housing, car based suburbs, six lane divided arterials, no street cars and few buses.
This changed North America and created the world we live in today. Stephen Harper grew up in Etobicoke north as did the present Mayor of Toronto. It created an endless demand for cheap oil because the suburbs can’t work without cheap oil. It created the landscape of warehouses that we call malls where ‘cheapest’ price possible is the principal religion. It created a world where people and the planet’s resources are at the service of ‘cheapest possible’ but the rich pay ‘fair wages and buy ‘organic goods’ for quality because they can afford it. Everyone else does what they must. The new landscape killed the idea that quality of life was a more complex equation than a high grade owner/operator franchise and low taxes. The new landscape changed us culturally, creating communities of purpose perfectly matched to the internet world. Dial it up. Plug yourself in and connect to the lowest prices possible.
The pre-1950 urban landscape were communities of place before they were communities of purpose. They still exist and are endlessly celebrated in product ads and political ads but the reality is every year there are less of them, fewer small towns, fewer remnants of the pre-1950 streetcar villages. Fewer places which people feel to be a place first rather than a collection of advantages and purposes.
The differences between the two communities pre and post 1950 are so encompassing materially, physically, socially, psychologically and spiritually that their significance escapes most people. Like a goldfish accepts his bowl of water as the only reality possible, so do people accept the post-1950 landscape as the only life possible. Not surprisingly a new kind of politician has emerged to serve this new landscape. Mr. Harper grew up in Etobicoke north, resolutely part of the post 1950 North America. His principal interests are oil, low product prices at the mall (and it’s concomitant low wages for local and foreign workers) and of course growth at all costs. I call it the one, two, three policy for a happy Canada. Nor does Mr. Harper have any choice but to follow this course because post-1950 residents are his chief support.
The same applies to Mr Ford, Toronto’s new mayor who was elected on a series of simplistic slogans. One of the them being ‘getting the streetcars off the streets’ and ‘stopping the war on the car’. No doubt, Mr. Ford would be a perfectly acceptable Mayor for Toronto if it consisted entirely of post-1950 communities. Unfortunately for Mr. Ford, he also represents the largest, collection of old streetcar communities – with their streetcars still operating – left in Canada. Hence he constantly clashes with these residents who live differently and see the world differently than post 1950 residents.
This is the greatest change I have seen in my life time. It’s the greatest because whether you live in a pre- or post 1950 landscape it affects everyone. It affects how we are govern ourselves as a nation and as civic collectivities. It affects what we define is important and it has created an unsustainable form of human life which is slowly but surely bankrupting human society financially and suffocating us biologically. Everything else is trivial in comparison.