Column: Entropy -- a city and a civilization
‘ “To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich. To study hard, to think quietly, talk gently, act frankly, to listen to stars, birds, babes, and sages with open heart, to bear all cheerfully, to do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never; in a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common. This is to – live in Nelson” ’ (Words in italics taken from “My Symphony” by W. H. Channing)
These words appear on a poster I soon brought home when I arrived in Nelson in 1987. Words from a prose poem combined with pretty paintings of fine buildings in our downtown: an idealized sketch of life, appealing to people of whatever social class.
Is this Nelson for everyone? As another poet said, it’s in the eye of the beholder… No matter where you live, your Self lives with you.
Nelson and discontents of class conflict
There are those who feel disenchanted with Nelson’s changed conditions as the city ‘develops’, and those who see growth as positive. My political reputation was staked on being an anti-growth candidate in local government elections; I’ve never won office.
Nelson isn’t a congenial hometown for all classes. People leave here when they cannot find affordable housing, or live homeless on our streets. Homelessness is a national problem; Nelson’s record for building social housing is actually good compared to other towns our size.
Canadians don’t generally use language describing social class, since we’re ‘all middle-class’. ‘Class-warfare’ language disturbs us, but we need this language.
Readers know the meaning of the word “gentrification” and how our city has been “gentrified.” Class conflict exists.
People I’d call “gentry” are affluent-middle-class, frequently professionals with university-degree employment, with incomes equal to high-rental-rates and low-housing-availability. Nelson’s growth suits their ambitions.
What’s not to like in the evolution of Nelson? The question implies its answer: it’s good for some, and to measure change in quality-of-life is likely impossible.
In capitalist society, there are always winners and losers. I personally think Nelson’s quality-of-life is worse by some metrics, better by others. It’s a very individual taste, what makes life more- or less-enjoyable.
I’ve lived here when Nelson wasn’t larger than Castlegar or Trail; now it’s the undisputed West-Kootenay hub for entertainment, arts, government offices, retail, professional services, and tourist recreation.
No one can argue our economy is underdeveloped or lacks diversity.
The West – – and the Rest of the world
Please, read this “history” attentively:
In large parts of the northern hemisphere was a standard of living that had recently belonged only to emperors and their courts. Particularly in the Isolated Northern Continent, the wealth was a scandal, even to many of their own citizens. … (A) dominant feature of the Shikastan scene was that a particularly arrogant and self-satisfied breed, a minority of the minority white race, dominated most of Shikasta [earth], a multitude of different races, cultures, and religions which on the whole were superior to the oppressors’. These white Northwest-fringers were like most conquerors of history in denuding what they had overrun, but they were better able than any other in their ability to persuade themselves that what they did was “for the good” of the conquered…
This dominant culture set the tone and standard for most of Shikasta. For regardless of the ideological label attaching to each Rational area: they all had in common that technology was the key to all good, and that good was always material gain, comfort, pleasure.
Doris Lessing, Shikasta, pp. 88-91
Canada slipping from a plateau
Canada is Western, rich, and democratic. We belong to the G7 and OECD. We have freedoms guaranteed in a Charter of Rights. We enjoy an open society.
I don’t wish to seem to say “Canada is broken” – a stupid slogan of Canada’s Conservative Party that somehow gained credibility. But Canada has passed, as all the West has, from its era of easy affluent superiority to lands outside our civilization’s charmed circle.
The U.N., once the West’s institution for international “benevolent law-and-order”, is now where the West’s foes can enfeeble it. Seemingly banished after 1945, European war is back.
Western liberal democracy unravels; elections are won by illiberal politicians with minority vote-counts gaining majority powers. Canada shares this general malaise apparent in the West’s democracies: witness “Freedom convoys”.
Capitalism makes social inequality obscenely worse. Poverty increases, so the middle class diminishes in size; the rich get richer. We have unsolved issues of uncontrolled capitalist growth imperiling human habitats – for which the West’s critics rightly hold us responsible, and demand compensation. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2023/feb/13/its-inequality-that-kills-naomi-klein-on-the-future-of-climate-justice
Canada has a very serious housing problem when over five million new homes are needed by 2030 according to the CMHA.
If Canadians cannot solve this, Canada is, indeed, diminished.
Decline, not Fall
One never knows when a civilization passes its “best-before date;” I will hazard to say the West passed it. Inequality is the reason.
Canada, after achieving the 1982 Constitution — with some remarkably progressive clauses — tipped into the neo-liberal camp [Reagan, Thatcher]. Globalizing free-trade deterioration ensued.
Canadian consciences have grown stronger; we acknowledge the force of Truth and Reconciliation, of justice for Indigenous and other races, in our hearts.
Capitalism rules us. I see very little likelihood it will weaken; this is the fatal flaw of the West. We became the planet’s rulers through economic hegemony. Now that system is ruining earth.
Watch from the comfort of Nelson as the West slides into relative weakness.
Observe how the slow degradation of Canada’s former easy prosperity manifests in conditions within your community. Gentrification and poverty — side-by-side: a microcosm of how the mighty, wealthy West once contrasted with the outside.
Will Nelson and our Canadian peer-communities negotiate this shadowed present to an enlightened future? We’re all tuned-in for answers.
There’s more to life than bread, and spiritual resources are a real joy. We have those. We can aspire.