Book Reviews – If this is paradise, why does if feel like hell?

The Next City
September 21, 1997

Sex in the Snow: Canadian Social Values at the End of the Millennium

by Michael Adams
(Viking, 1997. 220 pages) $27.99

IN TIMES OF SOCIAL UPHEAVAL, demographics take on special importance. No longer do traditional guideposts — age, gender, ethnicity, family background — tell us who we are. Adrift, without sure compass in working out our values and beliefs, we look to pollsters to help us find our place on the new social map. In Sex in the Snow, Michael Adams, the high-profile pollster from Environics Research, describes social values in 12 tribes of Canadians spread across three generations — Boomers and the generation of Elders who preceded them, and the Generation Xers who followed them.

Canadians, once shy and deferential, are now throwing off our dependence on traditional values and institutions. Our individual priorities take precedence over a sense of duty to others or any social order. We expect the world to accommodate our desire for choice and control. We are dedicated to the unabashed pursuit of our own pleasure and gratification. Adams describes young people living only for today and with as much intensity as possible. But complementing the trend toward personal autonomy and hedonism is another: a yearning for personal meaning and spiritual fulfilment.

To explain these mixed findings, Adams imports a metaphor from a 1960s theological movement and pronounces that Canadians have “killed God” and taken over paradise. Adams notes the steep decline in religious faith, particularly among Boomers and Gen-Xers. Although 83 per cent of Canadians still believe in God, increasingly, “Canadians are giving up on traditional religious dogma in favor of a less guilt-ridden spirituality,” letting us pursue our own pleasures and gratifications without feeling shame, guilt, or the threat of judgment in an afterlife. Having killed God, answering no longer to a higher authority, we were free to replace him. Thus Boomers have inherited the earth: They saw it was theirs, and they saw that it was good.

In fact, Adams has it exactly backward: It was not the act of killing God that opened the door to earthly delights. Rather the rise of the consumer society numbed religious sensibilities. Our new hedonism and personal autonomy stem from becoming enlisted and trained members of the consumer society. Adams ignores the great uncertainty and emptiness that Canadians experience in that part of our psyche formerly occupied by religious faith. But whatever our quest for “spiritual fulfilment” may mean, it evidently does not mean, for Adams, anything beyond a paradise on earth.

ADAMS HAS A BREATHTAKING OPTIMISM, a remarkably upbeat, cheery, all-is-right-with-the-world outlook. “I believe, beyond doubt, that we can live quite happily in a secular world.” He quotes Douglas Coupland’s Life after God to characterize his worldview: “Life was charmed, but without politics or religion. It was the life of children of the children of the pioneers — life after God — a life of earthly salvation on the edge of heaven.” Canada, the secular paradise. But how ironic and telling that Adams doesn’t get Coupland’s point. Coupland — best known as the author of Generation X — laments the emptiness of his life, and in particular his sense of loss of God and the spiritual. As a teenager all was well with the world. But at 30 he lost the intensity of his youth, and life seemed to hold no new revelations. His predicament is spiritual. “Ours was a life lived in paradise and thus it rendered any discussion of transcendental ideas pointless.” Coupland asserts his “religious impulses,” which he considers natural and necessary in any human being, “and yet,” he reflects, “into what cracks do these impulses flow in a world without religion? It is something I think about every day. Sometimes I think it is the only thing I should be thinking about.”

If we truly live in the ultimate secular paradise, why should Coupland feel so empty and sad about his life? Maybe there is something aberrant about him — he speaks of being treated for depression and anxiety. Maybe, some will say, he is just temperamentally disposed to such states of negative feeling. Or, others may say, less sympathetically, why doesn’t he just grow up?

But growing up, in a way, is precisely Coupland’s point. He is sad about the prospect of a normal life — a life of just fitting in to a consumer society. To him, it looks like taking a pass on living your own life. “I think I am a broken person. I seriously question the road my life has taken and I endlessly rehash the compromises I have made in life. I have an unsecure and vaguely crappy job with an amoral corporation so that I don’t have to worry about money. I put up with halfway relationships so as not to have to worry about loneliness. I have lost the ability to recapture the purer feelings of my younger years in exchange for a streamlined narrow-mindedness that I assumed would propel me to ‘the top.’ What a joke.”

Coupland’s inner voice says that happiness should include a growing sense of wonder, curiosity, discovery and play, and a deepening sense of meaning as life progresses. But unlike earlier generations, who found what they longed for within religious tradition, Coupland has nowhere to go. For him, traditional religion seems dead, a non-option. He finds himself in a spiritual cul de sac, in the time “after God.”

The real demographic question is, “How many other people, young and old, feel a similar emptiness and longing?” But Adams doesn’t ask this question in his 220 pages devoted to our social values. His blind spot reflects the bias of demographics toward the consumer society and economic life.

While Adams does point out the increasing search for meaning and spiritual fulfilment among the Boomers and Gen-Xers — their search is one of the three defining megatrends of changing generational values — Adams stops short of asking what this quest means. Are these groups simply looking for satisfying lifestyles? He tells us that many Gen-Xers will decline better paying jobs in large corporations for more interesting work where they can have an impact. Are they simply trying to fill the void once inhabited by traditions? Or does their spiritual hunger point to a deeper anxiety over the very relevance of life in their new paradise?

TO ADAMS, “CANADIAN MORALITY transcends traditional religious definitions; it can be characterized as a secular, pluralistic and ecological morality, a greater responsibility for the other.” Younger Canadians are bound not by common, universal, institutionally based values but by a kind of “values tribalism.” He sees Canada as “the harbinger of a more utopian future [evolving into] . . . a post-modern tribalism based on social values.”

Adams’ confidence in this set of values to carry Canadians through the next century is awesome. He sees our commitment to the Canadian identity in terms of an indifferent commitment to our institutions: Canadians “feel strongly about their weak attachments to Canada, its political institutions and their fellow citizens.” Their moral commitment to others, their egalitarianism and multiculturalism, seems to come down to, “I’m going to do my own thing, but I recognize your right to do your own thing too.” You do not have to look to the writings of sensitive “artist” types to see how his upbeat utopianism systematically ignores or understates the inarticulate emptiness that many people feel. Ordinary, middle-class wage earners and many middle managers worry about their place in the economy, feeling their participation in it has become altogether precarious, at the mercy of the chilling forces of downsizing and global competition. Despite all the recent talk about corporations building happy, loyal, unstressed workers through empowerment, training, career development, and benefits, there is little defence against these raging forces.

The crisis in jobs and the economy represents for countless individuals a crisis of soul. They are forced, often against their wills, to acknowledge that the values of consumerism and the media do not serve their deepest interests as human beings. They look for something permanent and transcendent. They know that one day they will be leaving all this, absolutely alone, with complete finality. They long for a means of connecting directly to this mysterious process of life which leads to that great unknown.

While Sex in the Snow helps Canadians see ourselves, often brilliantly so, demographics do not show us much. The human being is too complex, too full of contradictions, unresolved conflicts, and unconscious dynamics to be explained by off-the-top-of-your-head replies to a yes/no questionnaire — particularly if it is driving at clarifying a set of preconceived options. The metaphor of the “death of God” assumes that religious faith is likewise dying out. And here Adams’s interpretation is totally devoid of conviction. Simultaneous trends toward hedonism and greater spiritual meaning just don’t quite fit.


Debtor’s Bank

by Andrea Davis

Masters of Illusion: The World Bank and the Poverty of Nations

by Catherine Caufield
(Henry Holt, 1996. 432 pages) $38.50

MASTERS OF ILLUSION TRACES THE HISTORY of the World Bank, from its beginnings as a financier for war-torn Europe, to its missionary role today as eradicator of Third World poverty. Using compelling examples of specific projects the bank has funded over its 51-year history, Caufield demonstrates how miserably the bank has failed in its various missions and, in so doing, paints an alarming picture of a massive institution gone wrong.

The World Bank was the brainchild of the eminent English economist John Maynard Keynes. In July 1944, Keynes and more than 400 delegates from 44 Allied countries descended on rural New England, in a resort town called Bretton Woods, to devise a plan that would shape the postwar economy. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development — later to be known as the World Bank — was born, along with the International Monetary Fund, which was intended to create a stable climate for international trade.

Since 1946, according to Caufield, the bank lent more than a third of a trillion dollars — an impressive amount, considering the bank’s early difficulties enticing investors to purchase its bonds. When Europe needed much more money than the bank could provide, the bank left Europe for the Third World, becoming, in Caufield’s words, its “banker of last resort.”

But by the late 1950s, the World Bank ran out of new creditworthy clients and into trouble with once creditworthy clients that threatened to default. It created the International Development Association in 1960 to take over its most uncreditworthy clients and to provide money to other poor countries on very easy terms.

Although the IBRD and IDA are two legally and financially distinct entities, they publish one joint annual report, and the staff who prepare loans and the executive directors who approve them are identical. But they differ in the nature of their lending and the source of their funds. The IBRD issues bonds with 100 per cent backing by its member governments to finance its lending operations. It then lends developing countries money at just below commercial interest rates. IDA, in contrast, finances its lending operations through foreign aid — triennial grants from Canada and its other rich-country members — and then provides interest-free “soft loans” (but with a .75 per cent annual “service charge”) to the bank’s poorest members.

By the late ’60s, the bank’s annual lending neared US$1 billion. Its president, Robert McNamara, former U.S. secretary of defense, then drove its annual lending to more than US$12 billion by increasing social lending for health and education projects, by boosting spending for agricultural projects, and by tripling the bank’s staff, all in the name of poverty reduction. But by the time he left the bank in 1981, the gap between the rich and the poor was greater than ever, and many of the bank’s clients were on the verge of defaulting.

MASTERS OF ILLUSION IS AT ITS BEST when describing the devastating social and environmental consequences of particular bank-funded projects. Whether funding Thailand’s Bhumipol dam, which forcibly displaced 20,000 people from their farming villages, or Ghana’s Akosombo dam, whose reservoir created such a breeding ground for disease-bearing flies that 100,000 people in the region were afflicted with river blindness, or India’s Sardar Sarovar dam, which is expected to bring “malaria to the doorsteps of the villagers,” the World Bank has shown a blatant disregard for the rights of the people and communities most affected by its projects. Masters of Illusion will outrage even the most ardent supporters of foreign aid with its moving accounts of families and communities that have had their livelihoods and environments destroyed by World Bank-funded projects.

One of the bank’s most notorious calamities was Polonoroeste. Beginning in 1981, the bank lent this massive highway-building and colonization project in the Brazilian Amazon more than half a billion dollars. Hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic settlers poured into the area, only to find it bereft of the schools, health clinics, water wells, and other promised services. After clearing thousands of square kilometres of rain forest with axes and fire, and finding the soils unsuitable for farming, the colonists moved on, clearing more forest and then abandoning it. Displaced indigenous communities, meanwhile, were killed by newly introduced diseases. In 1987, after Polonoroeste’s loans had been paid out, the World Bank admitted its problems. But with characteristic enthusiasm, it boasted, in its first annual report on the environment in 1990, that “Polonoroeste . . . has fostered a growing political and public commitment to preserve the Amazon’s remaining natural resources.” As Caufield comments dryly, “a smaller and less spectacular debacle might not have achieved that.”

MASTERS OF ILLUSION IS NOT MERELY a blow-by-blow account of disastrous projects. It tells the intriguing story of the people behind the bank’s imposing edifice. Bank technocrats — the economists, engineers, anthropologists, ecologists, and a plethora of consultants who work for the bank — impose their brand of “development,” irrespective of need or benefit. And it is these technocrats, these masters of illusion, who have made the bank what it is: a billion-dollar lender, accountable to no one, least of all to the people who are most affected by its loans.

According to Caufield, the bank created the Third World debt crisis. For years, the bank had ignored all evidence that Third World debt was getting out of control, consistently increasing its lending and encouraging commercial banks and other private investors to do the same. It had encouraged its clients to boost their borrowings and measured its own success by the extent of their indebtedness. As the 1980s dawned, many of its clients teetered toward bankruptcy, threatening the bank’s reputation as a sound financial institution, and alarming Western shareholders in commercial banks that — at the World Bank’s behest — had helped finance World Bank projects.

But the bank, seeing opportunity where catastrophe loomed, capitalized on the debt crisis by making ever larger loans to help countries on the verge of default. The borrowing countries would then use these loans to pay off their debts to private creditors, thus converting private debt held by commercial banks to public debt held by the World Bank. Private sector lenders in the West loved it.

These bigger bail-outs — called structural adjustments — failed dismally. Of the 88 countries that bought into adjustment programs by 1995, not one had kept to the adjustment plan. The bank itself admitted in 1991 that “instead of disappearing, adjustment lending intensified.” Nor can the bank quantify, with any degree of certainty, whether borrowers have actually undertaken the reforms it advocated.

Masters of Illusion shows that the World Bank has learned nothing from its past mistakes and will continue to merrily dole out cash to corrupt regimes for bad projects. This should be a sobering thought to Canadian taxpayers, who contribute more than one-third of a billion dollars annually to the World Bank.


Against the Gods:
The Remarkable Story of Risk

by Peter L. Bernstein
(John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1996. 383 pages) $38.95

MOVE OVER RELIGION, POLITICAL IDEOLOGIES, gender wars, and racism theories of development. Peter Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk tells us as much about where we are and where we’ve been as any tome. This delightful history shows how our attitudes to risk drive decisions that shape the very essence of society.

Before the Renaissance, people encountered little change in their day-to-day lives apart from the vagaries of the weather and the occasional upheavals when one despot replaced another. To get rich required exploitation or plundering another’s wealth. The Renaissance began to replace superstition and tradition — forces that made us captive to the mysterious will of the gods — with the notion that we could shape our own future by forecasting events. In this period of unprecedented innovation, exploration, and trade, the accumulation of wealth was opened up to the many rather than to the few. “The newly rich were now the smart, the adventuresome, the innovators — most of them businessmen — instead of just the hereditary princes and their minions.”

With trade, both parties perceive themselves wealthier for the transaction. But trade is risky business — before shipping goods across the ocean or purchasing merchandise for sale, a businessman must decide what the future holds in store. The forecasting revolution unleashed by trade, as Bernstein shows, has given us progressively more control over our lives and, in the very profoundest sense, has helped define what makes us human.

To show us how, Bernstein assembles an all-star cast of characters: Socrates and Hammurabi, Mohammed and Omar Khayyám, Frederick II and Pope Gregory IX, Copernicus and Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Pascal, Descartes, Fermat, Halley, Lloyd (of London), Bernoulli, Newton, Leibniz, Gauss, Laplace, Darwin. This history of civilization reads like People magazine and unfolds like a familiar text.

Lawrence Solomon


One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism

by William Greider
(Simon & Schuster, 1997. 528 pages) $37

WITH A TONE AND A MESSAGE somewhat similar to those of the anchorman-turned-prophet in Chayefsky’s film Network, William Greider takes the reader on an exhilarating, insightful, and sometimes disturbing trip across several levels of the new global economic realities, with ever present intimations of apocalypse. The ideas, from this national editor of Rolling Stone, delivered against the broad canvas of his globe-trotting explorations, will challenge many boosters of international capitalism.

Greider argues that economic globalization creates a downward spiral of wage reductions from which escape is almost impossible since multinationals can always relocate in poorer countries. To counter the ensuing massive economic and environmental disaster, Greider seeks a new “worker-owner” and ecological understanding.

Mark Wegierski

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