Canada’s Anxious Elites, or Justin Trudeau as Climate March Participant
September 2019 has seen a flurry of climate change activism. Major youth-led marches have taken place around the world demanding climate action, with media attention culminating with Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s address to the UN General Assembly in New York.
Thunberg was on hand several days later at the Montreal climate march, where she had the unprecedented opportunity to speak with Justin Trudeau face to face.
There is much that’s been said about Thunberg’s role as climate activist, but here I want to discuss the other activist involved: Justin Trudeau. His status as Prime Minister of Canada and leading figure for progressives has made him well known around the world, and thus a pivotal figure in climate politics. With a federal election only weeks away and climate change now a leading issue, his response to the climate protests popping up all over his country was important.
And Trudeau responded in a way that’s unsurprising to anyone who knows his political identity: after speaking with Thunberg, he joined the protest as a regular participant. That response, and the way it was framed later, speaks volumes about how his ostentatiously virtuous style of governing indicates a dangerous level of impotency when dealing with climate change. I consider it to be a cowardly act, and indicative of wider failure of Western elites to deal with the crises of our time.
To explain, I’d like to discuss a recent essay by Natalia Dashan in Palladium Magazine: “The Real Problem At Yale Is Not Free Speech”
The essay explores the phenomenon of rich young people at Yale hiding the extent of their wealth, which serves as a proxy for the wider activity of Western elites playing down their status and responsibilities.
The act of class signaling, Dashan says, has changed significantly, to the extent that the wealthy and influential among us actively try to play down their financial and structural power. In a world in which “the elites” are hated, and where an intersectional worldview that valorizes the oppressed reigns supreme, nobody wants to be seen as privileged.
Many elites try to be, in essence, simply members of “the people”. Clamouring along, burdened by the ephemeral institutional forces high above us all that oppress us. Playing off the hand they were dealt, so to speak.
In so doing, many of these people begin to genuinely believe that they don’t possess the structural power they hold, and that there isn’t much of a difference between themselves and the middle and lower classes. The girl you know whose father is a steel magnate? She really wants you to know about how hard her eating disorder was. That foreign student friend whose parents are literally billionaires? She expects you to be a good ally and speak up about how much that dude’s ‘racist’ Halloween costume affected her.
And they still have their parties. Their Ivy-League dinners and private fundraisers. The public-facing versions of these events are things like The Oscars and the Emmys. That’s also where the element of signaling becomes most apparent. In many circles, status is very much based upon one’s adherence to the reigning ideology. It’s easy to hide one’s status when you adopt the language of social justice.
It’s here that Dashan argues that at all of these parties of the elites, where the most aggressive rounds of virtue signaling about changing the system of power are made, “you notice that these are the exact same people with the power — they are the Man supposedly causing all those problems that they are giving feel-good speeches about. They are the kids from Harvard-Westlake who never realized they were themselves the elite. They are the people with power who fail to comprehend the meaning of that power.”
There is no real spirit of revolution in the way these elites talk about social problems. Everything is couched in endless back-patting platitudes or the academic language of intersectionality — none of it is really real. The guilt of these elites are a “performative spectacle”. Our world is coming apart. Who is to blame for this? Oh god, it’s us, isn’t it? We must make sure it isn’t us. To be rich and powerful is to be responsible for what’s happened, and to guide what comes next.
And this is the central problem. The West’s political elites are shying away from the responsibilities they hold. If there’s any lesson to be learned from the last few years, it’s that we are facing a severe lack of elite leadership. Nobody has any idea how to fix our growing political and environmental crises, and so the responsibility for solving those problems are somehow pushed above even them.
Which brings me to Justin Trudeau. In attending the Montreal climate march as a participant instead of the most powerful politician in the country, he denied his role and responsibility as Canada’s most visible elite.
Rich people only play down their financial power. Trudeau played down his political power. While the rich play down their general responsibilities, Trudeau played down his explicit responsibilities. Both for his role in how situated we are to fight climate change now, and what he’s supposed to do to steer us away from disaster.
After attending the Montreal Climate March, Trudeau sent out this tweet:
The goals of the Montreal march are still a bit vague, but it’s safe to say that in light of the immensity what needs to be done to fight climate change, the object of their protest was the Canadian Government. That we require institutional change from our political elites.
In a very real way, the people Trudeau was marching with were protesting him. As in him personally. As Prime Minister of Canada since 2015, he alone has had the power and opportunity to make the changes needed in Canadian society, and is far and away the most public face of the Canadian Government.
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the whole point of the Canadian marches has been to remind our leader, once again, that he should be doing more.
Trudeau has centred the climate crisis as a key issue of his tenure since his 2015 campaign. Yet after being given four years and a majority government, he hasn’t done even close to what’s needed to steer the inertia of our country into a greener future. He’s failed our Paris Climate pledges and isn’t even close to hitting our 2030 emissions goal. He approved and then bought the Trans Mountain Pipeline, adding another enormous institutional barrier to decarbonizing the Canadian economy in the decades to come. After four years he’s put forth no piece of legislation that’s even close to powerful enough to actually help us get off our carbon-intensive trajectory.
And yet he marches, plain-clothed, surrounding himself with regular people. As if he’s just another person. Another individual voicing their righteous indignation against the institutional forces out there that aren’t doing enough to stop climate change. You’d almost think it’s still October 2015, and he’s doing all of this to indicate to us his sincerity on the issue. Showing us he’s ready to take the reins. He seems to have never seriously moved beyond that stage.
A part of me really does wonder if he realizes how this looks. If he genuinely believes that all he needs to do, even now, is merely be vocal about the issue, and be seen “protesting” the cause. That that’s all that really matters to him. Or that maybe he has no idea what to do. That the task of somehow radically changing the trajectory of Canada’s economy, and spearheading massive societal change whilst somehow still maintaining a level of comfort and status quo is too difficult a challenge.
It was a shameful abdication of his responsibility as the leader of our country. A cowardly attempt to absolve and distance himself from the role he’s personally played in perpetuating our crisis.
You’re not supposed to be the one marching with us, Justin. We are not like you. You don’t get to be one of us.
You almost want to shake him by the shoulders and say “these people want to usurp conventional power structures, Justin! And you’re the conventional power structure! These protests are about you! There isn’t anyone else out there who can fix this!”
What have we seen since then? More pledges. More virtue signaling. A climate action pledge that doesn’t excite people. And like the elites of Yale that Dashan speaks of, there is no spirit of revolution in Trudeau’s words. Like so many Canadian elites, and indeed a large strain of Canadian political discourse, there is a cognitive dissonance between what is said (or performed) and what is actually done.