Hardy to Zone 6

The Tipping Point

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?

Tipping Points Impossible to Predict

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.

Hamilton Ripe for Catalyst

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.

Hamiltonians Not Apathetic

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.

Beat the Drum

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.

To continue to grow our veggies, and buy the ones we don't grow at the farmers' market, and to support local shops, and to get to know our neighbors and strengthen our communities.

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

Jason Allen is a chronic hive whacker in the Kirkendall Neighbourhood.


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By Matthew (registered) - website | Posted March 23, 2011 at 09:14:03


An excellent summary of Hamilton's potential for resilience in the face of hard times and challenges. Our City's culture of determination has been forged by generations of hard working families seeking to leave the next generation in a better position than the last. I can remember participating the OPSEU rally Hamilton hosted to protest the Harris cuts to education back in the 90's as a teenager and seeing the power of massive action.

Thank you for reminding us that this ongoing notion of Hamilton's collective apathy is almost hypnotic in it intent, leaving the individual to feel that "if no one is doing anything than how can I possibly do something by myself '? It is not as though the individual does not care, I believe it to be more about most individuals feeling powerless against the inaction of the whole.


Comment edited by Matthew on 2011-03-23 09:15:28

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By Synxer (registered) | Posted March 23, 2011 at 10:06:39

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell is actually a book I am currently reading. I, too, found that there are many similarities to Hamilton and a few of the topics in the book.

It's true to say, at times, that Hamiltonians love to egg their own city for some strange reason. It's like they don't realise that it's actually effecting them negatively. It's an issue I wish council would acknowledge and instill more local pride. Currently, the media speaks for our city, and it says what most of us want to hear and validate -- "Hamilton is going no where and you might as well accept it". After all, it sells more newspapers.

Hamilton should be spending some money on advocating like it has (in one way or another) for LRT. We should all know about the exciting developments in the city and why they are making our city better. After all, how can you be proud of your city if you're completely oblivious to the positive actions council takes.

Now for a few rants. To the This city is holding be back! guy. Yes, an inanimate object - "the city" - is holding you back. I think placing fault and not taking responsibility for your own actions is what's holding you back. And the I'll be outta this crappy city soon! guy - I say, why haven't you already left?

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted March 23, 2011 at 10:15:49

“What we need is a catalyst. But as Solnit points out, these can usually only be seen in hindsight.”

A good read, but you nail it here. Pundits love to pinpoint these game-changing moments but it’s mostly a fatuous intellectual exercise. If you doubt this at all, I would invite you to trawl the library’s Spectator archives. You’ll find enough “Hamilton is turning the corner” stories to fill a coffee table book. And in some cases, they’ve prefaced coffee table books, as in 1971’s Pardon My Lunch Bucket:


Part of the slipperiness is that “Hamiltonians” do not constitute a static population. There has been a steady and inexorable growth in transplants over the last decade, lured in by our well-publicized can’t-lose real estate bargains but eventually charmed by the city itself. Not coincidentally, that period coincides with the boutiquing of Locke South, James North and Ottawa North, as well as the growth of enlightened and artisanal wares in the Hamilton Farmer’s Market (if not in the explosion of neighbourhood farmers’ markets). Transplants, with their fresh eyes and comparatively fat wallets, have been a key driver in the change engine. (There are inherent challenges to this arrangement, of course:http://www.thespec.com/news/local/article/504913--we-can-t-afford-not-to-have-accessible-housing-conference.)

Even “Hamilton apathy” is not monolithic, but a slow-onset atrophy of will. As unblemished as the boosterism of today’s crop of go-getters is, if they were faced with a long enough change curve, they might begin to tire and grouse. Imagine, for example, being time-warped back 20 or 30 years to an era marked by economic doldrums, monolithic media, calcified political conservatism and the absence of most grassroots electronic tools for networking/advocacy/organizing. That's not to deride optimists or to apologize for the acidic negativism that can well up in foruims like the Spec's online comments. It's merely to reiterate Gladwell's point (in Tipping Point follow-up Outliers) that successes rise on a tide of advantages and experiential momentum, and that timing is everything. That’s as true of cities as it is of individuals.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted March 23, 2011 at 11:54:14

Hamilton's problems are not unique. Stagnating incomes, declining manufacturing jobs and a wide-reaching sense of political disenchantment are becoming the norm for large parts of the globe. And in Hamilton, we see a fair bit more of it than many of our neighbours.

If a new paradigm sweeps the globe, it may well hit here first. We have far less to lose and much more to gain from such changes than Toronto, Burlington or K-W. An intact core, a large number of tradespeople and an enormous chunk of idle land, buildings and and machinery in the city. And as far as disenchantment goes, it always holds the potential for enthusiasm about something new.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted April 06, 2011 at 23:07:56 in reply to Comment 61400

Yep, these are global problems, try as we might we cannot change the direction of the train from where we are... we can make our coach a little nicer (and better prepared).

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted March 23, 2011 at 19:38:49

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.

Here's a tip: Our family does this every week when we squeeze our weakening budget. Show us the money that everyone needs and new ideas become attractive as magnets! Cash is the key, IT is our enthusiasm mettle and we cannot do much when reduced to such little.

I'll beat the drum so long as a few folks are listening but my rhythm won't be strong when only slowpokes are dancing.

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted March 23, 2011 at 22:14:39


I love your unbridled optimism, it's fantastic and inspiring. Yet when I've been reading the things in CATCH that I've been reading lately I get bogged down in that grimy Hamilton reality I've felt for 18 years. And really, I thank God for CATCH and the amazing work they do, it's not them, it's the flea circus they have the guts to cover. Please read the following excerpt from CATCH and visit the site, they have been very busy lately:

Regular unadvertised meetings that have been going on for nearly a decade between city staff, councillors and the Hamilton Halton Home Builders Association have been labelled “illegal” by Brad Clark. Several councillors and senior staff expressed enthusiasm about the quarterly gatherings before Clark slammed the practice as a “cosy relationship” that is not permitted by the Municipal Act. “If the agenda was not published to the general public, if the meeting date was not published to the general public, it was an illegal closed door meeting – it’s that clear,” declared the Stoney Creek councillor and former provincial cabinet minister. “You may not like it, but that’s the way it is.” That declaration came after Maria Pearson had told Monday’s planning committee meeting that “the whole board” who participate in the meetings wants more councillors to attend. “It used to be in the past that the chair of planning committee sat on that committee for the year, and I have attended, even not being the chairman, in the last little while,” she explained. “And the comment coming back is that they would really like to have more than one designated representative from council on that committee.” Her call was endorsed by planning chief Tim McCabe who said the meetings began in 2002 “as more of a working committee” to discuss city policy.

I am gaining more and more respect for Brad Clark. Wow, that kinda hurt.

Comment edited by mrjanitor on 2011-03-23 22:19:56

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted March 24, 2011 at 08:15:25

Hamilton Ripe for Catalyst

taking matters into our own hands ... I would argue that what they had was a catalyst. What we need is a catalyst.

Discover a worthy tipping point at the Ottawa Street North solidarity joint immediately following The Big DiF, that wee wannabe innovative big cITy IF.

Comment edited by WRCU2 on 2011-03-24 08:31:15

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By George (registered) | Posted March 24, 2011 at 08:36:28

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted March 24, 2011 at 09:48:52 in reply to Comment 61440

The idea is that talk is cheap and all that matters is results. But maybe that’s a bit wrong-headed. Results matter but so do ideas.

Hamilton Economic Summit managing director Richard Allen says the 100-story report is meant to be a starting point, not a comprehensive list, and he invites anyone to suggest worthy additions. He hopes to see the list become a talking point among Hamiltonians of all walks of life.

“I think IT answers the question: Are we moving the yardsticks forward? This tells us we’re doing that.”

The summit’s goal is to transform Hamilton into Canada’s top mid-sized city in terms of the attraction of talent and capital. Allen says the sense of alignment around community progress and the level of collaboration across the city are creating “serious progress.”

The talent is already here in Hamilton, IT is the capital we can't get our hands-on!


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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted March 24, 2011 at 09:56:26 in reply to Comment 61441

Can you give us a straight answer to why you always spell "it" in capital letters? Is it like a reference to "A Wrinkle In Time" or something?

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted March 24, 2011 at 10:26:15 in reply to Comment 61443

Who is us?

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted March 24, 2011 at 10:33:44 in reply to Comment 61445

It's the Royal Us, me and anyone else who's also wondered (can't be just me).

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted March 24, 2011 at 10:50:39 in reply to Comment 61448

Very well then if I must address royalty: Respectable Lords and Ladies, IT is usually seen as an acronym for Information Technology often pronounced "eye-tee", but for me a different meaning is had, I use IT to AD emphasis in A WORLD GONE MAD - HTH

Comment edited by WRCU2 on 2011-03-24 10:58:35

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