One of the things people don’t mention at a dinner party is how they vote, although they almost always drop enough clues to give you a fair idea. In my limited social dining experience here, I’d say our region is quite conservative—a trait that I would also apply to a lot of folks here who may vote Liberal, NDP or Green.
But what is conservatism? Why should I care? Conservatism, by definition, is a preference for traditional values, policies and practices. In other words, it’s a preference to maintain the status quo.
Three major movements play into Canada’s conservatism: the original British Loyalist contingent best represented by someone like Nova Scotia’s Bob Stanfield, the neo-liberal, free trade/free market conservatives characterized by Brian Mulroney and finally the Western Canadian Christian fundamentalist faction of which Stephen Harper is the recent successor. All three of these share common traits and display unique differences.
The eastern Loyalist contingent was/is simply a traditionalist group (both fiscally and socially) which supports the Westminster parliamentary system and its attachment to the monarchy. The paradoxically categorized neo-liberal conservatives have more in common with the “libertarian” movement in the U.S. and the neo-liberal policies of former British Labour Party Prime Minister, Tony Blair, with the main emphasis on free trade, lower corporate taxes and reduced government regulation of business.
The current ruling strain of Canadian conservatism is the Western variety. It’s roots are deeply embedded in Preston Manning’s now defunct Reform Party, which itself evolved in a straight line from Preston’s father, Alberta’s former Social Credit Premier, Ernest Manning. Today’s conservative focus is on fiscal restraint, the further deregulation of business, increase in military and crime-control spending, privatizing the economy and ongoing reduction of taxes. Environmental oversight now takes a back seat to the development of natural resources for export.
So much for the history lesson. But why should we care? Because politics in the rest of the ‘developed’ world are headed in the same direction. Given that humanity is at an environmental crossroads one might reasonably question why we're supporting political policies that directly work against solving our growing environmental crises. The answer lies precisely in these environmental challenges.
As resources dwindle, such as fossil fuel, uranium, fresh water, wild fish stocks and arable soil, humanity’s game of musical chairs is becoming increasingly more restricted. Without available new frontiers to exploit humanity has two choices: develop new strategies and technologies to collectively allow us to live with less...or race each other to build the best and safest exits from the game before the entire system collapses.
Of course few of us consciously thinks about these options. We simply react to the general mood of the times. And in a world in which the population is noticeably aging and resources of all kinds—including our personal finances—are shrinking, a safety-first strategy feels like the best bet. And of all the political platforms out there, conservatism is the one that fits the bill and promises to reduce our personal risk.
But there’s a backside to this approach. Conservatism is like driving a car through the rearview mirror. It’s good to check your mirror but the future happens out front. By paying attention to protecting our own interests first in an uncertain world, we introduce fear into the equation, and put our own ‘needs’ above others. The game becomes a competition to accumulate to protect ourselves. And in doing so, we also raise the spectre of mistrust as some of us do better than others, and the culture of inequality sets in.
That is precisely what the data tell us about Canada and the United States. Inequality over the past 20 years has been on the rise and the richer are getting proportionately richer at an ever-increasing rate. Meanwhile, our natural environment continues to degrade as the rest of us preoccupy ourselves with hanging on to what we have. It’s a rogue’s game that fosters growing insecurity and the desire for safety.
But safety can’t be attained by adopting a defensive (conservative) position. Real security takes action. In order to secure a better future for ourselves and our neighbours on the planet, we need to begin acting responsibly for all species, including our own. What does that entail?
We all know, but we refuse to do it. We know we need to transition from fossil fuels to alternatives now, not later. We know we need to relocalize, reskill and retool our regional economies based on environmentally-soft practices. We know we need to move from an exponential growth consumer economy to a more-with-less steady-state society. We know we need to switch to alternative transportation and give up our cars.
All of this, of course, will take a cooperative commitment from government and the private sector. But, oops, there’s the Catch-22. Our current government and corporate leaders, who represent the top of the income scale, are the very people least motivated to change the system.
Real change is now only possible from the bottom up. And that means you and me. If we don’t do it…the game may soon be over.