Whom to thank?

Canadian Thanksgiving is the second Monday in October. It is earlier than American Thanksgiving, because we are farther north. Our growing seasons are shorter, and our farmers need more wit. Comparing available arable land between the two countries (which are approximately equal in total land area), a geographer could explain why the USA has ten times the population. It is because our farmers have approximately the same amount of wit.

Farmers: God love them. There was once a time when four in five of our Canadian workforce were farmers or fishermen; now they are perhaps one in fifty. Those still in the trade grow older; the median age of farmers in Canada is now fifty-six, and so retirements are accelerating. There are far fewer farms than a century ago; but much, much larger. The industrialization of agriculture, and the persistent growth of government regulation, has changed the nature of farming; and methods of distribution have been centralized to the point where I know country people who drive into the big city, specifically to buy fresher food. The transfer of population from rural to urban locations likewise changes consumer attitudes, including those towards politics. City folk tend to have no clew what is involved in food production; contemporary “environmentalism” depends upon this profound ignorance. We think there are “solutions,” that can be legislated.

According to the city dweller, the world has become over-crowded. It certainly uses a lot more electricity, as we may see from satellite photos, overhead. But over most of the world’s habitable surface, the density of population is actually less than it was a century ago.

When the cost of labour goes dramatically down, and the cost of materials proportionally up, the “natural environment” will be restored. All trends in the last couple of centuries have been the other way; yet it is easy to imagine combinations of circumstances which might restore that natural order, and meanwhile solve all the infrastructural problems in the cities: by depopulating them. (Do not allow yourself to wish for that.)

Assuming some memory of technology is retained, the situation would not last long. We don’t need old machines when we can build new ones. For that matter, the evidence of the past speaks for quick recoveries. In looking into, for instance, the Black Plague, I am often impressed by this speed. Within a generation, “normal” seems to have resumed, even in places that lost more than three-quarters of their people. True, many villages are no longer there, and open spaces remain available for market gardening within city walls; but life goes on as if nothing much happened. Glibness rules.

This is why, I think, we would have to choose to live differently: to make genuinely hard choices, collective as well as individual, towards a simpler and more independent way of life. We would have to agree to be, on balance, poorer in conventional material terms, to become richer in the moral, aesthetic, and spiritual. We would have to do something frankly faith-based. This is also why I think we are unlikely to choose, until, like illness or death, the choice is made for us. Human sloth — the habit of following the path of least resistance — is not an especially modern phenomenon.

The farmer had time to read, and make his own music; to enjoy his family, and make real friends; to attend to the requirements of God, and of his neighbour. He could afford to be “idle” in this way. Paradoxically, our sloth now dictates that we participate in a rat race, mostly on terms resembling those of old-fashioned indentured labour. It is not that we work as hard as old farmers; but our exhaustion, at the end of the day, is a spiritual exhaustion, that leaves room only for passive entertainment. It blights the lives of employees and employers, alike.

Notwithstanding, the sense of gratitude, for life and the means of sustaining it, seems innate. Even in the heart of the city, we want to thank someone. We live, necessarily, in a state of confusion. And yet the clock still hasn’t run out on us. If only we knew Whom to thank.