Sunshine Recorder

Link: Oh Canada: The Government’s Broad Assault on Environment

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has been weakening Canada’s environmental regulations and slashing funds for oversight and research — all while promoting aggressive resource development. Critics warn these unprecedented actions pose a major threat to the nation’s vast natural heritage.

Outsiders have long viewed Canada as a pristine wilderness destination replete with moose, mountains, and Mounties who always got their man. Recognizing the tourism value of that somewhat dull but wholesome image, successive Canadian governments — both Liberal and Conservative — were content to promote the stereotype in brochures, magazine advertisements, and TV commercials.

The lie of that was evident in the rampant clear-cutting of forests in British Columbia, the gargantuan oil sands developments in Alberta, the toxic mining practices in the Arctic, and the factory fishing that literally wiped out the Canadian cod industry by the 1990s. But this wholesome image endured because progress was made on several environmental fronts, such as creation of many new national parks, and because Canada remains sparsely populated with large swaths of unspoiled boreal forest and tundra.

But Canada’s pristine image — and more importantly its environment — is not likely to recover from what critics across the political spectrum say is an unprecedented assault by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper on environmental regulation, oversight, and scientific research. Harper, who came to power in 2006 unapologetic for once describing the Kyoto climate accords as “essentially a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations,” has steadily been weakening environmental enforcement, monitoring, and research, while at the same time boosting controversial tar sands development, backing major pipeline construction, and increasing energy industry subsidies.

Link: The Taint of ‘Social Darwinism’

Given the well-known Republican antipathy to evolution, President Obama’s recent description of the Republican budget as an example of “social Darwinism” may be a canny piece of political labeling. In the interests of historical accuracy, however, it should be clearly recognized that “social Darwinism” has very little to do with the ideas developed by Charles Darwin in “On the Origin of Species.” Social Darwinism emerged as a movement in the late 19th-century, and has had waves of popularity ever since, but its central ideas owe more to the thought of a luminary of that time, Herbert Spencer, whose writings are (to understate) no longer widely read.

Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” thought about natural selection on a grand scale. Conceiving selection in pre-Darwinian terms — as a ruthless process, “red in tooth and claw” — he viewed human culture and human societies as progressing through fierce competition. Provided that policymakers do not take foolish steps to protect the weak, those people and those human achievements that are fittest — most beautiful, noble, wise, creative, virtuous, and so forth — will succeed in a fierce competition, so that, over time, humanity and its accomplishments will continually improve. Late 19th-century dynastic capitalists, especially the American “robber barons,” found this vision profoundly congenial. Their contemporary successors like it for much the same reasons, just as some adolescents discover an inspiring reinforcement of their self-image in the writings of Ayn Rand.

Although social Darwinism has often been closely connected with ideas in eugenics (pampering the weak will lead to the “decline of the race”) and with theories of racial superiority (the economic and political dominance of people of North European extraction is a sign that some racial groups are intrinsically better than others), these are not central to the position.

The heart of social Darwinism is a pair of theses: first, people have intrinsic abilities and talents (and, correspondingly, intrinsic weaknesses), which will be expressed in their actions and achievements, independently of the social, economic and cultural environments in which they develop; second, intensifying competition enables the most talented to develop their potential to the full, and thereby to provide resources for a society that make life better for all. It is not entirely implausible to think that doctrines like these stand behind a vast swath of Republican proposals, including the recent budget, with its emphasis on providing greater economic benefits to the rich, transferring the burden to the middle-classes and poor, and especially in its proposals for reducing public services. Fuzzier versions of the theses have pervaded Republican rhetoric for the past decade (and even longer).

There are very good reasons to think both theses are false. Especially in the case of the Republican dynasties of our day, the Bushes and the Romneys, success has been facilitated by all kinds of social structures, by educational opportunities and legal restrictions, that were in place prior to and independently of their personal efforts or achievements. For those born into environments in which silver spoons rarely appear — Barack Obama, for instance — the contributions of the social environment are even more apparent. Without enormous support, access to inspiring teachers and skillful doctors, the backing of self-sacrificing relatives and a broader community, and without a fair bit of luck, the vast majority of people, not only in the United States but throughout the world, would never achieve the things of which they are, in principle, capable. In short, Horatio Alger needs lots of help, and a large thrust of contemporary Republican policy is dedicated to making sure he doesn’t get it.

Second, even if rigorous competition enables the talented — or, better, the lucky — to realize their goals, it is completely unwarranted to suppose that their accomplishments will translate into any increased benefit for the overwhelming majority of those who are less fortunate. The strenuous struggle social Darwinism envisages might select for something, but the most likely traits are a tendency to take whatever steps are necessary to achieve a foreseeable end, a sharp focus on narrowly individual goals and a corresponding disregard for others. We might reasonably expect that a world run on social Darwinist lines would generate a cadre of plutocrats, each resolutely concerned to establish a dynasty and to secure his favored branch of industry against future competition. In practical terms it would almost certainly yield a world in which the gap between rich and poor was even larger than it is now.

Link: Adam Curtis on Think Tanks

The guiding idea at the heart of today’s political system is freedom of choice. The belief that if you apply the ideals of the free market to all sorts of areas in society, people will be liberated from the dead hand of government. The wants and desires of individuals then become the primary motor of society.

But this has led to a very peculiar paradox. In politics today we have no choice at all. Quite simply There Is No Alternative.

That was fine when the system was working well. But since 2008 there has been a rolling economic crisis, and the system increasingly seems unable to rescue itself. You would expect that in response to such a crisis new, alternative ideas would emerge. But this hasn’t happened.

Nobody - not just from the left, but from anywhere - has come forward and tried to grab the public imagination with a vision of a different way to organise and manage society.

It’s a bit odd - and I thought I would tell a number of stories about why we find it impossible to imagine any alternative. Why we have become so possessed by the ideology of our age that we cannot think outside it.

The first story is called: CARRY ON THINKING

It is about the rise of the modern Think Tank and how in a very strange way they have made thinking impossible.

Think Tanks surround politics today and are the very things that are supposed to generate new ideas. But if you go back and look at how they rose up - at who invented them and why  - you discover they are not quite what they seem. That in reality they may have nothing to do with genuinely developing new ideas, but have  become a branch of the PR industry whose aim is to do the very opposite - to endlessly prop up and reinforce today’s accepted political wisdom.

So successful have they been in this task that many Think Tanks have actually become serious obstacles to really thinking about new and inspiring visions of how to change society for the better.

Jonathan Haidt on the moral roots of liberals and conservatives

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt studies the five moral values that form the basis of our political choices, whether we’re left, right or center. In this eye-opening talk, he pinpoints the moral values that liberals and conservatives tend to honor most. Jonathan Haidt studies how—and why—we evolved to be moral. By understanding more about our moral roots, his hope is that we can learn to be civil and open-minded toward those whose morals don’t match ours, but who are equally good and moral people on their own terms.