Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Culture: Don't Look to Canada for Action

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Sometimes I think the average person in the United States doesn't want to admit there are any problems in the world involving externalities. Climate change isn't real, the supply of oil will never actually run out, the oceans won't become too acidic, and economic failures in other counties will not have a significant impact on the US economy.

That isn't the case in Canada. While there is a growing minority of climate change skeptics, particularly in the west, the average Canadian still believes that the world is warming, that petroleum supplies are decreasing (thus making the oil sands in Alberta more important), the oceans are something to worry about, and pretending that other countries can't affect one's economy would be insane when enormous United States economy next door dwarfs one's own.

Ask Canadians to do anything about any of these things, though, and there's not likely to be much of a response. Canadians admit that they use more energy per capita than other developed nations, but nobody seems to be serious about doing anything about it. There's a recognition that the electoral system unfairly disadvantages smaller parties and favors regional parties, but there's not much clamor to actually do anything about it. Pretty much any politician will admit that the health care system needs reform, but it's been almost eight years since the Romanow commission now, and nothing of consequence has passed.

For all their denial about issues, when people in the United States finally agree that there is a problem, they generally take action. They might argue significantly about the appropriate action to take (think health care reform), but doing nothing in the long-term is almost never on the table.

This contrast actually fits with the personality of each country. Canada, coming from the thinking world, focuses on ideas. It likes debating ideas, even bad ideas, and in the end likes to choose the best ones. However, the process can be long, as first there's a debate about whether a problem exists, and then at least one debate about what (if anything) to do about it. There's no premium here for action; the most respect seems to go to those who come up with the best analytical process for making the decision.

In the United States, the emotional world reigns supreme. When people's emotions are strong, they demand action, or at least sympathy. The action doesn't even have to be effective necessarily. Look at how President Obama was pilloried for not showing emotion and taking enough action in the ongoing oil spill crisis. Arguably, he might actually have been taking the most effective course by pressuring BP, including the creation of a contingency fund, but that wasn't what people wanted--they wanted Bill Clinton feeling their pain.

While Canadians could use a little more impetus for action, deriving it from the emotional neediness as occurs in the United States is probably not the best way to get it. Instead, Canada would do well to tap the physical world, which lives to take action in present, regardless of ideas, energy, or even emotion. Of course, what I would expect to happen is that we might actually debate that, take a few years to decide we have a problem, and then spend a few more debating how to access the physical world. Such is the joy of thinking-world culture.

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