Who’s the imbecile: Government or the average Joe?

Perhaps I seem cranky when I glare resentfully at a Hydro Ottawa pamphlet telling me I can use less energy by turning up the thermostat on my air-conditioning unit. If you think I’m so dumb I don’t know that, what makes you think I’ll understand it when you tell me? But my problem isn’t too much black coffee. It’s a government that truly thinks its citizens need constant guidance to function at all. It doesn’t help that, thanks to computer technology and public arrogance, the pamphlet starts out “John, Become more energy-efficient with these special offers and tips.” I bet they do that in the old folks’ homes too. Look, it’s Mr. Robson and I’m not an imbecile. But they just pat me on the head.

Inside, the chief energy conservation officer of the Conservation Bureau, Peter Love (or “Pete,” as I like to think of him) says: “Using the enclosed coupons will help reduce your electricity consumption — and helps us adopt a culture of conservation!”

If you think it’s just gaseous government verbiage, you’re half right. On the website of the Conservation Bureau (“Con,” I call it in mailings), www. conservationbureau.on.ca, Pete says: “Building a culture of conservation is essential and I strongly believe that it is achievable. But not without the support and active participation of all Ontarians.” All?

Bosh. If we had the active participation of everyone but a few hermits hoarding newspaper against lean years, their non-support wouldn’t matter a hoot. But this perky camp-counsellor rhetorical style is not random. It reveals a conception of the state’s relationship to citizens that is consistent, mistaken, dangerous and offensive. Not bad for a day’s work.

The sentiment about how it “helps us” (who’s we, by the way?) adopt a culture of conservation isn’t even honest. The Ontario government wants us to reduce electricity use primarily because it has so egregiously botched the supply that even if it doesn’t randomly shut down all the coal-fired generators, the ongoing decay of its badly designed, built and maintained nuclear reactors will soon plunge us all into the very cold soup. (The pamphlet also says: “While new options are being explored, it can take years to build new power sources.” Gotta love the passive voice when responsibility is being dodged.) Sure, they care about pollution, but the environment is one of those high-minded later things. Brownouts are very here and now.

So somehow it’s all part of this fun effort where we get to do the work of fixing its mess and it gets to take the credit. But wait. There’s more. A culture of conservation? My great-grandfather had a drawer labelled “bits of string too short to be saved.” I put leftovers in plastic containers because I consider food wrap extravagant. When I met my wife, my bookcases were the only furniture I’d ever paid for. Now government, with millennia of waste under its belt (hey, let’s build pyramids with slave labour or, as we like to say, a culture of construction) is telling me to stop being wasteful and get religion like them? I’m not the one running multibillion-dollar deficits.

Pete’s website message adds: “I am issuing a challenge — The Conservation Challenge — to individuals in all sectors of the province — to reduce their energy consumption 10 per cent by 2007.” Ooooh. I love a challenge. I challenge you to see if the government reduces its energy consumption 10 per cent by 2007: light and heating in office buildings, vehicle fuel use, etc. Do you think Pharaoh staggered up the ramp with a bigger load when things fell behind?

Finally, the government thinks I’m too dumb to know that drawing the blinds on a hot day helps keep the house cool. OK, it’s worse in Dundee, Scotland, where a National Health Service trust just issued a pamphlet complete with diagrams telling citizens how to poop. Back straight, feet up, mouth open. (I am sorry to say that I am not making any of this up.) But the underlying mentality, that ordinary people can’t perform even simple tasks without little arrows and tips, is precisely the apotheosis of technique against which philosopher Michael Oakeshott and others warned. “Plant trees to provide shade,” the pamphlet says. Really? Is that darkness on the other side from the sun cooler? I never knew. Though I always did get this sort of heat-abatement sensation when I stood in it.

The pamphlet includes coupons to save money on efficient light bulbs, which I like because every time an incandescent gives up the filament we replace it with a compact fluorescent anyway. The state giving me your money to save my own is not something I approve of in principle. But at least a patronizing bribe beats a gratuitous insult.

Actually I wish it wasn’t the only choice government, or “Gov,” offered me. But then, I’m a bit cranky.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson