I’m always appreciative when a fellow says what he really means. Tim Flannery, the jet-setting doomsaying global warm-monger from down under, was in Ottawa the other day promoting his latest eco-tract, and offered a few thoughts on “Copenhagen”—which is transnational-speak for December’s UN Convention on Climate Change. “We all too often mistake the nature of those negotiations in Copenhagen,” remarked professor Flannery. “We think of them as being concerned with some sort of environmental treaty. That is far from the case. The negotiations now ongoing toward the Copenhagen agreement are in effect diplomacy at the most profound global level. They deal with every aspect of our life and they will influence every aspect of our life, our economy, our society.”
Hold that thought: “They deal with every aspect of our life.” Did you know every aspect of your life was being negotiated at Copenhagen? But in a good way! So no need to worry. After all, we all care about the environment, don’t we? So we ought to do something about it, right? And, since “the environment” isn’t just in your town or county but spreads across the entire planet, we can only really do something at the planetary level. But what to do? According to paragraph 38 on page 18 of the latest negotiating text, the convention will set up a “government” to manage the “new funds” and the “related facilitative processes.”
Tim Flannery’s disarmingly honest characterization passed almost without notice, reported as far as I can tell only by Brian Lilley of CFRB Toronto and CJAD Montreal. But professor Flannery has it right. Government transport policy is about transport, and government education policy is about education, but environmental policy is about everything, because everything’s part of “the environment”: your town, your county, your planet—and you. “We are the environment. There is no distinction,” declared another renowned expert, David Suzuki, last year. And just as the government now monitors air and water quality so it’s increasingly happy to regulate your quality.
In the name of “the environment,” the state gets to regulate everything you do. The cap-and-trade bill recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, for example, is a bold assault on property rights: in order to sell your home—whether built in 2006 or 1772—you would have to bring it into compliance with whimsical, eternally evolving national “energy efficiency” standards, starting with a 50 per cent reduction in energy use by 2018. Fail to do so and it would be illegal for you to enter into a private contract with a willing buyer.
Hey, but who would ever find out?
Don’t be so sure. In 2006, to comply with the “European Landfill Directive,” various municipal councils in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland introduced “smart” trash cans—“wheelie bins” with a penny-sized electronic chip embedded within that helpfully monitors and records your garbage as it’s tossed into the truck. Once upon a time, you had to be a double-0 agent with Her Majesty’s Secret Service to be able to install that level of high-tech spy gadgetry. But now any old low-level apparatchik from the municipal council can do it, all in the cause of a sustainable planet. So where’s the harm?
And once Big Brother’s in your trash can, why stop there? Our wheelie-bin sensors are detecting an awful lot of junk-food packaging in your garbage. Maybe you should be eating healthier. In Tokyo, Matsushita engineers have created a “smart toilet”: you sit down, and the seat sends a mild electric charge through your bottom that calculates your body/fat ratio, and then transmits the information to your doctors. Japan has a fast-aging population imposing unsustainable costs on its health system, so the state has an interest in tracking your looming health problems, and nipping them in the butt. In England, meanwhile, Twyford’s, whose founder invented the modern ceramic toilet in the 19th century, has developed an advanced model—the VIP (Versatile Interactive Pan)—that examines your urine and stools for medical problems and dietary content: if you’re not getting enough roughage, it automatically sends a signal to the nearest supermarket requesting a delivery of beans. All you have to do is sit there as your VIP toilet orders à la carte and prescribes your medication.
But think of the environmental benefits: readers may recall Sheryl Crow’s brief campaign to get people to use only one sheet of toilet paper (I recommended an all-star consciousness-raising single—“All we are saying is give one piece a chance”). Last month, the Washington Post reported a new front in this war. Two-ply bathroom tissue, according to Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council, “is the Hummer of the paper industry.” Oh, and blame Canada, as that’s where most American two-ply comes from: this decadent Dominion is apparently the House of Saud of toilet paper. In Britain, where closed-circuit cameras monitor you to check you’re not eating a sandwich while driving, is it such a stretch to foresee those toilet sensors that wire your stool analysis to the government health centre also snitching on your two-ply Cottonelle? Or perhaps, if it’s a Matsushita toilet, a few extra volts from the buttock-zapper will be enough of a warning.
“The environment” is the most ingenious cover story for Big Government ever devised. You float a rumour that George W. Bush is checking up on what library books you’re reading, and everyone goes bananas. But announce that a government monitoring device has been placed in every citizen’s trash can in the cause of “saving the planet,” and the world loves you.
In 1785, the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham began working on his famous “Pan-opticon”—a radial prison in which a central “inspector” could see all the prisoners, but they could never see him. In the computer age, we now have not merely panopticon buildings, but panopticon societies, like modern London—and soon perhaps, excepting a few redoubts such as Waziristan and the livelier precincts of the Horn of Africa, a panopticon planet.
Yet high-tech statism still needs an overarching narrative. In the new school of panoptic fiction—such as John Twelve Hawks’s recently completed Fourth Realm trilogy—the justification for round-the-clock surveillance is usually “security.” But the “security state” is a tough sell: if you tell people the government is compiling data on them for national security purposes, the left instinctively recoils. But, if you explain that you’re doing it to “lower emissions,” starry-eyed coeds across the land will coo their approval. And the middle-class masochists of the developed world will whimper in orgasmic ecstasy as you tighten the screws, pausing only to demand that you do it to them harder and faster.
Consider a recent British plan for each citizen to be given an official travel allowance. If you take one flight a year, you’ll pay just the standard amount of tax on the journey. But, if you travel more frequently, if you take a second or third flight, you’ll be subject to additional levies—all in the interest of saving the planet for Al Gore’s polar bear documentaries and that carbon-offset palace he lives in in Tennessee. The Soviets restricted freedom of movement through the bureaucratic apparatus of “exit visas.” The British favoured the bureaucratic apparatus of exit taxes: the movement’s still free; it’s just that there’ll be a government processing fee of £412.95. And, in a revealing glimpse of the universal belief in enviro-statism, this proposal came not from Gordon Brown’s Labour Party but from the allegedly Conservative Party.
At their Monday night poker game in hell, I’ll bet Stalin, Hitler and Mao are kicking themselves: “ ‘It’s about leaving a better planet to our children?’ Why didn’t I think of that?” This is Two-Ply Totalitarianism—no jackboots, no goose steps, just soft and gentle all the way. Nevertheless, occasionally the mask drops and the totalitarian underpinnings become explicit. Take Elizabeth May’s latest promotional poster: “Your parents f*cked up the planet. It’s time to do something about it. Live Green. Vote Green.” As Saskatchewan blogger Kate McMillan pointed out, the tactic of “convincing youth to reject their parents in favour of The Party” is a time-honoured tradition.
The problem, alas, is that, for the moment, there’s still more than one party. But why? Last year, David Suzuki suggested that denialist politicians should be thrown in jail. And only last month the New York Times’s Great Thinker Thomas Friedman channelled his inner Walter Duranty and decided that democracy has f*cked up the planet. Why, in Beijing, where they don’t have that disadvantage, they banned the environmentally destructive plastic bag! In one day! Just like that! “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” wrote Friedman. “But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.”
Forward to where?
Well, fortunately the Copenhagen convention’s embryo “government” appears immune to such outmoded concepts as democratic accountability.
Don’t take my word. Listen to what the activists are saying: it’s about every aspect of your life.
PS: Just to be safe, after reading this column, tear into pieces and flush down your toilet.
Oh, no, wait, don’t…
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.