For the most part it seems, people believe that politics and culture are merely questions of expediency and cost. Two values which we hold very dear. Ironically, spending time focused on expedience and cost is viewed as both technical and boring which immediately makes it mediocre, pointless and unimportant. Something we best leave to technical nerds so we better folk can get on with the more important task of amusing ourselves with our purchases.
This unshakeable reasoning leaves a lot of room for starry-eyed stupidity in the public sphere. We have no interest in questioning or participating in decisions even when they overrule simple but unavoidable facts of life and bring us into a dystopian conflict with the world itself.
Case in point. There are 2 things about Canada that are certain. As much as we pretend otherwise, more than 80% of our population lives in a narrow strip of urban areas within 100 kilometers of the American border, and we get a lot of snow.
In fact here in Ottawa we receive over 2 meters every winter, translated that comes out around 7 feet . Where I grew up and raised my kids, an average winter would have 3.3 meters or nearly 11 feet. In the snowiest town in Canada, Woody Point, Newfoundland they typically get around 6.3 meters or 21 feet. In all these communities, getting around in winter is a big deal.
Dealing with snow in Canada is not about politics, economics or lifestyle but a hard fact of life. However, over the past 20 years or so, number crunching and data modelling has reduced it to a large-scale source of potential savings. This kind of thinking originates in the heads of people living in Toronto where a 40 day winter might drop 4 feet of snow, but thankfully not all at once.
Somehow, like a bad case of impetigo, the idea that snow removal is bound up in balancing budgets has spread. The result is a ridiculous scenario where public jurisdictions across the country have divested their important and well deployed infrastructure and replaced it with that honoured process of awarding the contract to the lowest bidder where only the most minimal standard need be met.
In a real world response, we don’t even meet the minimum technical and bureaucratic standards. Every snowfall becomes a disaster movie, transportation grinds to a halt. The impact on business is enormous. Like some self-inflicted terrorist threat the entire city goes on lock-down. Cars, buses and people are stranded. Trains and airports close. Industry closes. Business stops.
I mean, who in their right mind would invest in a scenario like this? Seriously? Social networks are crammed with messages from dozens of households pleading to pay anyone “$20 to come and shovel my snow so I can get in my driveway”; and when they don’t get a response they abandon their vehicle on the street go inside and tweet while they watch the news.
But we love it because above all, it’s entertaining – the ultimate reality show. And because we value being personally entertained above everything else, we tolerate it. The worst part is that 20 or 30 years ago none of this would have warranted discussion beyond the kind you would have in an elevator or at a bus stop.
Winter brings out character in a nation. The question of where all the snow goes is very pertinent. The Canadian winter has always provided a strong subtext to our narrative if not the plot itself. Speaking to friends in southern France, it was necessary to point out that for 4 months of the year, none of them were likely to face death at the hands of the elements every time they left a social engagement. The danger and battle with the elements is something palpable and real for the majority of Canadians even if they don’t consciously acknowledge it. But our public story has been lost to an industry of post modern criticism, contrivance and globalization. Very hip, but at odds with reality. Only Quebec still sings “Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver”.
Pretending that snow doesn’t exist is an increasingly risky situation that isn’t likely to end well. This situation follows the general breakdown of important infrastructure and civic-mindedness at all levels, not to mention the ‘public common’ which is under threat everywhere. In the race to disassemble our common culture and reassemble it with fantasy ‘world citizens’; things continue to go astray. Our common purpose, common space, common mind and common ground has given way to feudal structures and acts of personal fealty. Our response to our environment and one another matters a great deal. Ignoring the necessity of common purpose or embracing it will spell entirely different and fundamentally important outcomes.