Big change

Five readings to help us understand what’s needed and what it will take

November 1, 2021

3-minute read

Pessimist? Optimist? Fatalist? What might we expect life to bring once we put the pandemic behind us? Will we draw on what we learned to fix what’s broken, take on the larger crises of climate change, environmental degradation, colonialism, racism and inequality and build a more just, inclusive and sustainable Canada? We have seen how COVID-19 preyed on our inequalities and turned the cracks in our system into chasms, often with fatal results. Crises can shake us out of our constraining assumptions, help us see that things don’t have to be the way they are, and open up previously unimaginable possibilities. Will this be such a time? Or, fatigued, lonely and relieved to see the end of COVID-19 will we be content to return to how things were even with what we now know about the gap between what we are and what we could be?

As we saw after the 2008 financial meltdown, crises can, as the saying goes, be wasted. Big change is hard. Those who benefit most from how things are will fight hard to maintain their privilege and power. And, for the many, we mustn’t underestimate the inertia born of fear of an unknown future or the sense of powerlessness that decades of austerity politics have yielded.

How hard to imagine alternative futures when austerity tells us that life is a zero-sum game, when competition is seen as the sole basis for organizing society, when we no longer believe the state is able or willing to help, when we are told that we have no choice, that globalization and technology are immutable forces. The young know better. But some, especially in my generation, just want to stay the course even if that means managing decline. Many of us have done pretty well and are in good shape to withstand what comes and to help our kids. Is it any wonder that we are seen as the problem when we keep telling those demanding something better that things are just fine, that inequality and poverty are not much of a problem, that climate change isn’t really ours to solve, or that there’s not much we can or should do about these things anyways?

Here are five readings to help us understand the stakes and how to close the gap between what we need and what we think is possible.

1. A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit 
Penguin Books, 2010

Solnit is a California-born feminist journalist and blogger. Some critics have complained about what they perceive as her excessive optimism, but this may be just what’s needed right now. In A Paradise Built in Hell, Solnit examines several natural catastrophes and documents how, in the midst of suffering and loss, people find reserves of altruism and ingenuity and even joy in a new-found solidarity. We saw some of this over the past year in spontaneous instances of mutual aid and in the courage of frontline workers, perhaps in a flicker of a bolder, less partisan politics. Solnit explores how we might hang on to the crisis-enabled generosity and solidarity.

2.  Setting a New Normal Through a Bold Recovery, Andrew Jackson
Broadbent Institute, 2021

Jackson is a progressive economist now with the Broadbent Institute. His report lays out a blueprint for Canada’s future after COVID-19, how we might build the care economy, the green economy. Jackson, who well understands the barriers to big change, directly addresses the questions skeptics will inevitably ask about how we will pay for it all and get it done in our diverse and fragile federation.

3. A Good War, Seth Klein
ECW Press, 2020

Klein is the founding director of CCPA-BC, now working with David Suzuki to bring to life the ideas in his important and inspiring book. This is not just another book on the climate emergency. Yes, it begins with straight talk about what’s at stake, but it’s refreshingly optimistic—or at least hopeful. Drawing on the example of the incredible accomplishments of Canadians during the Second World War—and applying lessons from that war to our current challenges—Klein reminds us that we can achieve great things together.

4. Zigmunt Bauman Interview

032C, 2016

Bauman was an influential European sociologist who, before his death in 2017, wrote incessantly about his greatest fear: that at a time when we need to be united as never before, we have rarely been more divided. Unable to choose from among his over 60 books, I recommend this interview in which he discusses how extreme individualism, consumerism and decades of austerity have infected our relationships and blinded us to what’s possible, to our power, and where he sets out the role of the sociologist “to warn people of the dangers but also to do something about it.”

5. The Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci
Columbia U Press, 2011

Gramsci, a major influence on Bauman, wrote these collected sketches in the 1930s in prison as he watched the rise of fascism in his native Italy. I have often thought his two grand concepts—hegemony and interregnum—contained everything we needed to know about what we will have to overcome to achieve radical change. Gramsci shows

us how much what we take to be common sense is shaped by the interests of the powerful; which is to say radical change needs a new common sense. And he sets out how these in between times, when the old world is dying but the new world is not yet born, may bring monsters and “morbid symptoms”—but also possibility.

Pessimism? Optimism? Fatalism? It was Gramsci who described his approach as “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

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