Doug Saunders scored again with his weekly Globe and Mail column today — or perhaps it meant more to me because of my preoccupation with a parallel distinction. Referring to the “local trap,” he notes that many people have come to believe (mistakenly) that local governance is more participatory, more democratic than politics at the capital of a state. There’s a readiness to devolve power to municipal or other local or regional levels rather than make decisions through centralized structures. In fact, he says, Ottawa is more responsive to citizens than politicians functioning at the level of cities (maybe also at the provincial level, though he didn’t spell that out). Besides, lots of federal-level officials are actually based in scattered posts throughout the country, where they are nevertheless highly responsive to citizens.
I can’t speak to that question from experience – but only because I have so little contact with municipal government. I did vote in the mayoralty race a few weeks ago, but not with conviction. I am rarely interested in local issues, but was fascinated by the Liberal party convention. I was in Ottawa yesterday, talking with two people about, among other things, the Global Partnership Program, which is not just national in scope but actually works to dismantle nuclear weapons in Russia with money from Ottawa.
Upon reaching home I dashed off immediately to a retirement party with my former departmental colleagues at the University of Toronto in Mississauga. (When I finished teaching there nine years ago it was still called Erindale College.) Everyone else was standing around eating cake by the time I arrived and assembled a plate of salmon and salad. The women were talking about their families – especially their babies, since there was one newborn present. I sighed and headed toward the host to talk about trees instead. He’s a forestry professor, dealing with the effects of climate change. We talked about the economics of pine beetle infestations (see photo) and about the likely effects of peak oil. He scoffed when I uttered those two words, “peak oil,” but I couldn’t figure out whether it was an informed scoffing or evidence of prejudice, such as my own. I’m suspending disbelief to look as seriously at peak oil as possible, but I was glad to talk about it with him for a while.
Later I talked to my friend Harriet, a dedicated anti-globalizer who knows enough to be taken seriously. After Christmas she will go back to the classroom after a lengthy leave, teaching a course on globalization. She’s going to analyze the assembly of a particular garment in her lectures – what countries the raw materials came from, where the weaving is done, where the components are assembled, and where they are shipped around the world. Intriguing topic.
I remarked that, in my opinion, the whole question of economic globalization will be a dead issue in ten years. There won’t be enough fuel to trade commodities globally. She agreed, though she didn’t say it would be within ten years. She’s been telling all her friends for years that we must start eating local produce, but I paid no attention until lately. Nowadays the buzz word is “re-localization” in a lot of different senses. It’s not that I believe in it (what Canadian wants to subsist on rutabagas?) but that it may become necessary. Perhaps, like Harriet, I should already be doing my part for the planet by eschewing imported avocados.
Soon, however, she was in conversation with a young woman professor whose name I don’t recall. The topic was the young woman’s reproductive plans. When would she plan to have a baby? There was talk about how that’s what really counts. “Why should I write another article” when what really counts is family?
I strolled away. The local, the familial, no longer holds my attention. To tell the truth, I am losing respect for that orientation. Of course, for a young woman, procreation naturally takes priority; I acknowledge that. It’s supposed to be that way. We’re built to have such feelings. I remember craving more intimacy myself thirty years ago and worrying that I had missed the boat.
But even the older women I know are more involved with their families than with the future of the world. Arlie Hochschild’s first book was about the interests of aging women, and she tried to disprove a theory that was common at the time: that the range of a person’s interests shrinks as she ages. I don’t know how widespread that belief is now; maybe Arlie’s debunking won the debate. I haven’t checked the recent research out.
Still I have to believe it myself. There are just too many friends of mine — mostly female but a few males too — whose interests shrink after they retire. They talk mostly about their families, especially grandchildren, and about personal relationships to the exclusion of anything abstract, structural, or global. I keep thinking that old people ought to pay more attention to the world's problems and leave a decent planet for their grandchildren.
Perhaps there’s no logical connection between preferring national or international politics over the local and preferring to talk about issues rather than personal relationships. Perhaps the parallelism exists only in my imagination. And perhaps it’s salient to me only because I have no grandchildren. Still, the result is pretty reliable: At parties I gravitate away from women and toward men, where I might provoke an exciting discussion of pine beetles and trees.