Given the torrent of nonsense that masquerades as rational debate these days, it’s a miracle that anything useful ever gets done.
After all, when some random troll requires only a Twitter account to convince an alarming number of otherwise reasonable people that a certain U.S. president, who habitually equates lying with statecraft, is a breath of fresh air in a “post-truth” world, it’s tempting to flee the public square and hunker down for the coming dark age.
Still, despite evidence to the contrary, all is not lost: Not everyone is either running for cover or gorging on low-hanging fruit from the tree of absurdity. Consider a couple of recent and nearby examples.
Decades ago, Moncton’s burgermeisters decided, in their wisdom, to approve the construction of a causeway to join their city with communities on the other side of the Petitcodiac River. It seemed like a good idea at the time: Commuters would love the faster traffic; businesses would appreciate the more reliable and timely delivery of goods for sale. What could go wrong?
Within scant years, the answer was plain to see. The river – once home to dozens of aquatic species, and a recreational fishery worth, according to estimates, as much as $75 million a year – had become a muddy, silt-choked parody of its former self.
Following a quick stop with her family in the 1980s to observe the Petitcodiac’s world-famous tidal bore – historically, a meter-high wall of surf that ran twice a day – American humorist Erma Bombeck stood on the river’s banks and watched a meagre ripple wend its way toward the head pond. “What the heck?” she quipped. “I retain more water than that.”
Over the years, attitudes about the river cleaved and hardened. For one camp – notably, those who had purchased property along the waterway and who, therefore, had skin in the real estate game – the status quo was just fine. For another more progressively minded cohort, the Petitcodiac’s sorry condition was economically embarrassing and environmentally shameful. Tear down the fixed link, this group insisted, and let the water flow the way nature intended.
By the mid-2000s, you could illuminate the dark side of the moon with the degree of daylight that shone between these two factions – thanks, in part, to the use of social media (what else?) as handy platforms for off-the-cuff fulminations.
Then, something happened – something extraordinary.
People actually started talking to one another. In coffee shops and council rooms, they exchanged ideas – real, considered (gasp!) ideas. Eventually, a consensus began to take shape.
What if members of the community compromised? Environmental and economic assessments were clear. Replace a portion of the causeway with a partial bridge that would allow the river to recover. Bank-side properties wouldn’t be negatively affected. If anything, their values would increase.
That was two years ago. Today, with the provincial and federal governments contributing about half, each, to the cost of the $62 million project, the renewal is underway. As for the fish, they’re back, and so is the tidal bore. Since 2013, surfers have come from as far away as California to ride the wave. Thousands gather along the banks to cheer. As for motor traffic, it, too, still flows.
If there is a lesson in all of this, it is not as rare as many might lament.
Would Halifax’s state-of-the-art Central Library, which opened in 2014, have stood a ghost of chance without the spirit of multi-sectoral cooperation – from community groups and educational institutions to businesses and municipal planning officials?
In fact, according to the library’s website, the effort involved “five large public meetings (while) staff and architects met with a number of special focus groups to ensure that (they) heard the voices of a wide cross-section of customers and citizens: African Nova Scotians, cultural organizations, persons with disabilities, First Nations, new Canadians, the literacy and learning community, parents and young children, and teens.”
Of course, the new library never was, and is not now, everyone’s cup of tea. But as a product of rational debate, collaboration and cooperation, it is pretty convincing proof that, despite the nonsense regularly issuing from the meme merchants among us, useful things actually do get done.
Call that wondrous in this fractious age. On the other hand, the finest miracles are still the ones we work together.