The Biggest Barrier

Published Tuesday, March 19, 2013 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

When I pause every now and then to ponder the biggest barriers to fixing the many environmental challenges we face, there’s one troubling word that keeps coming to mind.  It’s not ‘technology’, ‘money’ or even ‘Exxon’. 

The word is ‘entitlement’.  Could this be the unflattering descriptor that will define the age in which we live?

A troubling mindset
When former federal cabinet minister David Dingwall was questioned about a generous buyout package he received in 2006, his oft-quoted reply was, “I am entitled to my entitlements.”  It caused much outrage.  But as the biblical expression goes, let whoever is without sin cast the first stone, because perhaps we’re all a bit guilty of entitlement.

For example, we seem happy to accept the gifts provided for free by our planet – food, water, air – but less willing to invest much time, energy or money into ensuring that future generations can receive the same.

We’re adamant that electricity rates stay at artificially low levels, even when we know that the power company’s big debt will need to be paid by someone sometime.

We seem to feel entitled to cheaper gas and toll-free highways – we’ve been known to elect governments promising as much – but appear to be conveniently indifferent to their longer term environmental or fiscal consequences.

We’re entitled to low taxes (in fact, some of us may even take part in that ultra-low tax world of the underground economy), even as we refuse cutbacks and demand more of government services like health care and education.

In one ear, we hear that people are stretched to the limit and that a carbon tax, a much-needed price penalty on pollution, simply isn’t affordable.  In the other ear, we hear that more Atlantic Canadians took southern vacations this winter.

Perhaps the biggest symptom of societal entitlement is the fact that Alberta, one of the richest jurisdictions in the world, couldn’t balance its budget this year.  God help us all.

Soothing spam
Today’s pop culture isn’t really helping either.  “You deserve a break today,” we’re told.  We’re enticed to buy now and pay later.  And if we find ourselves bankrupt, we’re told it isn’t our fault.  In fact, it’s become unfashionable to suggest that any failure is. 

Bless the brave leader who might logically point out that living beyond our means fiscally or ecologically is not sustainable; out the door they go.  We may sometimes forget our responsibilities, but we never forget our rights.

Bottom lines
So where is this going?  Rants may be therapeutic but they are not very productive.  Perhaps a few key messages spring out. 

First, if we are so self-absorbed in our worlds that we won’t spare the time, effort or energy necessary to ensure the well being of our own offspring, we have some grim moral issues.  It’s time for a long stare in the mirror and a reassessment of what really matters in the end.

Secondly, repaying debts, whether fiscal or eco, is usually less a matter of resources and more a matter of priorities.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.  Complaints about tough economic times are a bit less believable when emailed from iPads in SUVs at the local drive-thru.  Would any of us really want to trade places with our grandparents? 

Finally, perhaps an age of ‘it’s all about me’ needs to yield to a concern for the greater good of all, and a collective recognition that with every party comes a responsibility to clean up the mess afterwards.  No one’s entitled to leaving a mess for someone else to cope with, clean up or try to fix.

An Age of Responsibility, an Age of Enlightenment, an Age of Togetherness: they all sound much better than an Age of Entitlement.