December 21, 2010

Dear Premier Stelmach,

Merry Christmas, Premier Stelmach, and health and happiness to you and your family. We have never met, but this is the first of many letters you will receive from me, each one accompanied by a great and important book.

I must say, before I introduce the first one, that I am greatly concerned about recent news reports suggesting that the Alberta government has mismanaged the growth and development of the oil sands industry and undermined efforts in other political jurisdictions to enact responsible energy/climate policy. (Though I am happy you finally decided to drop homosexuality as a mental disorder from the diagnostic guide.)

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Given the size and intensity of industrial development in the Athabasca Oil Sands region, and the fact it’s been going on for more than four decades, I can’t for the life of me figure out why Alberta doesn’t already have a “world-class” aquatic monitoring program for the oil sands. Nor can I understand why we wouldn’t want our American neighbours, for instance, to adopt low-carbon fuel standards. This is the Age of Climate Change, after all, and it’s long past time we did something about it. I hope these books will help you see to it that something is done rather quickly.

As a Christmas gift from one concerned Albertan to another, I have committed to send you one great book every fortnight, in the hopes each might contain some bit of knowledge or kernel of wisdom that you might consider as you plot the future of this fine province of ours and the world of which it is simply a part. Since I was a boy, books have been a kind of timeless Global Positioning System (GPS) that have guided me through the unknown and often treacherous waters of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. So I’ve decided to send you some of my favourites, and I’ve asked Albertans to recommend books that have inspired and enlightened them, too.

The first book I’m sending is called Ill Fares the Land, by a British historian who spent much of his time teaching at universities in America. It hardly mentions Canada, never mind Alberta, but I could think of no better book for you to read over the Christmas holidays than this one. I know we Albertans tend to prefer “made in Alberta” solutions to the problems we face, but I have come to believe that it is the quality and efficacy of a solution, not its origin, that is the most salient factor in whether or not we choose it. I think Mr. Judt – with his excellent grasp of twentieth-century political history and his commitment to what he refers to as “the common good,” a Christian notion I think we can both agree is something to strive for – is someone whose work is well worth contemplating.

This is no happy-go lucky book celebrating the progress of the last 30 years. Indeed, Mr. Judt, whom some have called one of the West’s leading thinkers, starts the book off by admitting that “something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today.” He then goes on to explain, in readable and eloquent prose, how we got here and how we might turn things around to create a better future for ensuing generations.

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Alberta suffers, as much or more as the United States and the United Kingdom of which he writes, of the moral malaise that has overcome us here in the early twenty-first century. “For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn, once again, to pose them.”

It’s worth noting that Judt wrote this book, as he was dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease, for “young people” on both sides of the Atlantic, by which he meant the future generations of North America and Europe, that they may better understand where we have come from, where we are headed, and what other options might help solve some of our most pressing problems.

He points out that there are serious problems with the modern state, most of which are rampant in Alberta, and concludes that “we must revisit the ways in which our grandparents’ generation handled comparable challenges and threats,” noting the rise of social democracy in Europe and America’s New Deal as rational responses that helped to manifest the world we enjoy, however tenuously, today.

It is “incumbent upon us to reconceive the role of government,” Mr. Judt admonishes his readers. “If we do not, others will.”

I hope you can find time over the holidays to read and think about Mr. Judt’s book. I look forward to your response, which I will be sure to post on the What Is Ed Stelmach Reading? website.