Triggers for social change may be impossible to predict before the fact, but Hamilton may be ripe for such a catalyst.
By Jason Allen
Published March 23, 2011
You can tell a lot about a person by the filters through which they see the world. It's a variation on, when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail.
I was talking to a friend about some of the challenges he was facing in getting his message listened to, and my thoughts turned, as they do, to sales and marketing.
This friend (Michael) and I first met when he was a student in my sales training class, so it's a hat I tend to put on when I'm around him, usually subconsciously.
The conclusion I drew from our conversation was that the reason his message - and indeed the whole message of the peak oil/conservation set - was failing to resonate was because it had failed to articulate a benefit to the individual that was as compelling and comfortable as that of the consumption machine.
Then I started to get really depressed. Because really, how would any kind of message about reducing, living within our means, and consuming less gain any kind of traction without appealing to one's sense of the greater good - a sense fewer and fewer people seem to have?
Then the conversation at home turned to a blog post by Rebecca Solnit over at Tom Dispatch, where she writes about the 'tipping point' of things like the Arab revolutions, or even the storming of the Bastille.
Her hypothesis is that tipping points for sweeping societal change, are: a) the result of a long period of things steadily getting worse for most people, and b) stubbornly impossible to predict.
In Hamilton, it has been argued well, by a number of people for a long time, that for the average Hamiltonian family, things have been on the decline for a long, long time.
Real wages have been steadily dropping, income security has all but vanished, and the middle class has been carved up, with a tiny group joining the top 1% and the much larger majority sinking closer to the margins.
Things are not looking good.
Indeed, one could argue that with the flight of good jobs overseas, the squeezing of workers by foreign ownership, and a ridiculous balancing upside-down pyramid of a civic tax base, that Hamilton was ripe for a catalyst.
Do I mean to suggest that a wholesale shift to a more sustainable lifestyle - to shopping locally, to growing your own veggies, and to supporting one another in community - could happen here, more completely and suddenly than it has elsewhere to date?
Why not? All of the triggers are there: a community with grave structural problems, that prides itself on a long tradition of collective action and support. An increasingly economically disenfranchised group, living in strongly connected neighborhoods. A palpable sense that things are going to get worse before they get better, and a long tradition of (at least from a union point of view) 'taking matters into our own hands.'
There has been quite a bit of commentary since I started writing for Raise the Hammer just over a year ago about how things will never improve in Hamilton because people are apathetic and self absorbed. I challenge that notion.
Were the people of Hamilton apathetic when they blockaded Stelco in 1946?
Were they self absorbed, when reeling from the horrors of a cholera outbreak, the dreamed of one of the greatest civil engineering projects in Canada of the day?
Were they lacking in vision when they created the electric city and transformed the nature of manufacturing in Canada?
I would argue that what they had was a catalyst. What we need is a catalyst. But as Solnit points out, these can usually only be seen in hindsight.
The key, then, for those of us working towards change is to continue beating the drum. To continue to put forward ideas, and to see those ideas challenged, and to rise to those challenges.
And to wait patiently for the catalyst - the one that stubbornly refuses to be predicted with any kind of accuracy.
First published on Jason's blog
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