Few signs of progress

At the dawn of a new decade, with the 21st century and third millennium well under way, I scan the horizon for signs of progress toward the bright future we were promised of plenty, leisure, compassion, perpetual peace, keen appliances and the siblinghood of all mankind. Unfortunately, what I see before me is a label on a water jug telling me it contains no fat or dietary fibre.

In the spirit of my late grandfather's maxim that "It was better under Clovis" I reflect sourly that, during the Dark Ages, people didn't need any label on their water other than "water" because they knew what the stuff was. Now you may retort that, in Clovis's day the water was pretty dangerous. Which I concede, while noting that people back then knew that sort of thing too and didn't need a label. It's also why they drank beer for breakfast so they might not have been able to read the label by lunchtime even if they made it that far. And could read, you may be tempted to add.

Even there you are unfair. Yes, literacy was lower in the Middle and Dark Ages. But it does not follow that ignorance was widespread. Indeed, the common modern belief that people in the Middle Ages thought the Earth was flat just goes to show how fatuous our own times are. John Holywood's bestselling astronomy primer Tractatus de Sphaera not only asserted that the Earth was round, it also contained several simple proofs I defy the typical product of a modern public school to produce spontaneously. (If you want to look it up, he went by the Latin version of his name, Sacrobosco, which only goes to show how parochial and ignorant people were in those unenlightened times of universal intellectual culture and open borders.)

Do I seem to make too much of a label on a water jug? I realize it is only there because government has banned common sense so we cannot just put labels on things that need them and convey information we might want. Which isn't everyone's idea of an improvement either and was not a problem 800 years ago.

So let me look up from my non-fibrous water and consider the kind of roundup of the year's news that is now habitual, in which we identify important trends containing the word "Ignatieff " for the benefit of bored readers. Or, should I say self-important trends -- because the fact we somehow lived through a year does not automatically make it interesting to posterity.

The simple fact is that not much of significance happened in Canada in the past year. I mean not much of political or historical significance; in your own life things marvellous, tragic or merely notable may well have happened. But this lack of public significance is, in itself, of some importance. Just not in a good way. Mankind has toiled and sweated and died for the blessings we enjoy, from parliamentary self-government to material prosperity to comparative security, and we seem to be making very peculiar use of them.

To take one pointed example, what has been accomplished in the vexed area of Canada's unsustainable health-care system as the demographics turn ugly? Right. Nothing but the spouting of increasingly stale rhetoric. And on the global warming everyone who's anyone insists is real, the science is settled (pay no attention to those leaked e-mails behind the curtain) and we must do something. Which they then decisively have not done except gather periodically at immense expensive carbon-intensive elite gabfests to promise to meet again later because we're so darn compassionate. Whether man-made climate change is real or not, this is a feeble performance.

As to the looming threat of foreign aggression by insane persons in positions of power abroad, or at least able to do us significant harm, 2010 was again a year of immobile fatuity that would have embarrassed the kings of Wessex.

In fairness I must note that the fact water is now safe to drink is one thing we did get right. But, instead of celebrating it as a glorious environmental triumph driven by sensible engineering, we all insist on buying the stuff in bottles with the word "spring" on the label along with that business about the fat while fretting about trace elements of BPA in other plastic bottles and cellphones cooking our heads and stuff.

Cellphones with GPS do remind me that technology has become cooler as promised in early 20th-century panegyrics about a bright future. Tablets are on the rise and blogging is on the wane. That's good. But it's not much to show for 250 years of rapid technological progress, five centuries of "enlightenment," 1,000 years of parliamentary self-government and at least 3,000 of knowing that if you want peace you must prepare for war. Oh, yeah. We also put a label on water saying it's not a significant source of sugar, fat or dietary fibre. So we didn't waste our time entirely. Happy New Year (may contain sodium).

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson