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Pedal to the Metal

And Why We are Our Political System’s Worst Problem

Doug Ford, premier of Ontario, wants to raise the speed limit on our 400-series highways. Normally CBC radio — fairly criticized for having a liberal bias — is quick to condemn any of Ford’s decisions. But as people were invited to call in to the morning show to express their opinions on this latest suggestion, the reviews were quite favourable. Callers talked about their preferences for driving faster, their observations that since people drive faster anyway then surely the law should change to reflect that reality. There were a few opinions to the contrary, too — people who felt that our safety would be negatively impacted by faster highways.

What nobody discussed was the environment. When a selection of truck drivers was polled for their expertise on the subject, one interviewee pointed out that driving faster will mean more fuel consumption and that will, in turn, create a budget problem for the trucking industry. And yet, as flood waters are wreaking destruction across our province this spring, as the planet’s weather is noticeably and dramatically changing year over year, and as scientists are sounding the alarm bells louder than ever on the now-or-never reality of addressing climate change before it is too late, it is astonishing to me that we could have a conversation about driving faster without taking into account even for one breath that to do so might have an impact on anything other than our own foolhardy species. We are apparently hell-bent on putting the pedal to the metal and driving ourselves and our planet over the side of the cliff.

I don’t like Doug Ford. I can jump easily and passionately into sharing in the rants against him and his “cost-saving” cuts which we are going to have to pay for generations into the future. He gives conservatives a bad name. There is nothing about his impulsive and infantile policies that aligns him with the measured, fiscally-responsible, preservationist ways that people like my grandfather — Gordon Smith, Conservative MP from 1967 to 1981—would have named as core to their party values.

But this one little innocuous example of speed limits actually points me to a very bipartisan truth. The problem with our political system right now, no matter which party we’ve elected into leading us, is us. Whether we’re talking about the various by-elections that have been taking place across the country, the upcoming federal election in the fall, the provincial elections on the east coast and Alberta just last month, the problem isn’t our various candidates sloganeering on whatever their party’s platform may be, it’s that none of us are willing to attach our choices to a bigger picture of relationship. We act as if voting, not to mention policy making, could ever really be just about “my own best interest” or a given party’s “accountability to the tax payer.” Like it or not, we the tax-payer and we the voter are also part of a food chain and a living-breathing environment. My own best interest is physically tied to the best interest of the world around me: people, animals, plants, water, air and soil, included. That isn’t a political statement, it is biological truth. And this truth never gets named, is never allowed to even factor as I lock myself in my own little individual sphere of self-concern and wonder about my preferences, and every single politician seeks to win me over by promising to spend my tax dollars more wisely and help make my middle-class life easier.

My work in the past few years has centred around food, our practices of eating and our attitudes toward our bodies. In fact, the basic flaw in how we think about eating can also be found in how we think about driving and politics. I am taught to consider my food choices as being of merely individual concern. I am bombarded with a tsunami of tempting food options encouraging me to indulge and satisfy my cravings and desires. Nothing trumps me and what I want. But then I am also locked into an endless critique of my own body, my own weakness, my own deficiencies and imperfections as my own health and body shape and size are pitted against an unattainable ideal of wellness and beauty. And at the end of the day, my eating is all about me, me, me.

But eating is an act of relationship. It is the basic building block of exactly what I am claiming for our political lives too. I cannot live without taking life from outside of me. And every day, every time I eat, I am ingesting the relationships I have with the world around me. If I have not cared for, honoured, acknowledged or even noticed that those relationships exist, why would it be surprising that we, and our world, might be cruising along in such a perilous and toxic state?

There is a dramatic story told in the Gospel of Luke of Jesus arriving in his home town, attending the synagogue, getting up to read from the Prophet Isaiah, and then declaring to the gobsmacked crowd, “today this reading is fulfilled in your midst.” Jesus was aligning himself with the Scriptural promise of one who has been anointed to “declare Good News to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Jesus immediately got himself into grave danger from his angry neighbours. In fact, faithful people of the Judeo-Christian tradition have never fully embraced the radical nature of what is being claimed here: a world where those on the margin of the margins don’t just receive God’s word of blessing first, but then are also on the receiving end of “the year of the Lord’s favour” — a redistribution of resources so that there is enough for all. What Christians have always embraced though is the notion that what Jesus declares here is, in fact, Good News. It’s not a threat, requirement or even commandment from God. It is an invitation to live in to the truest things about who we are and how we are created. To care for the relationships between us is not to fulfill our duty to God, but rather to receive from God the fullness of our lives. We walk this road together, whether we like it or not, and the Gospel truth is that we ignore that relational truth to our own peril.

“To our own peril” appears to be our collective choice. We natter about whether or not we should be allowed to drive faster and not one public voice speaks up asking us to consider that there might be wider implications to our choices. We hum and hah about climate change and completely ignore that we have any agency in making even the littlest choice to make things better, that our well being is actually tied to claiming that agency, and taking whatever small measures we can to better care for our planet—even if it means slowing down on the highways. Meanwhile, we just keep burning up those fossil fuels… and our planet….

And ourselves.