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Canada’s Remembrance – A View from the City

Posted by Daniel Hoornweg on November 11, 2014

This year on the 100th Anniversary of the start of First World War, it is worth thinking about Canada’s soldiers. Where did they come from and what kind of country did they return to when the war ended November 11, 1918? Where do today’s soldiers mostly come from – and where, if they are called again in future, are they most likely to fight, and for what?

The First World War was like a massive earthquake that shifted complete civilizations. Arguably, the Second World War was a major aftershock of the geopolitical events that started in 1913. Less than a quarter of today’s 195 sovereign states fully existed in 1913. At the start of the Century global per capita wealth (as GDP) was about $680 per person. By the end of the Century that increased to $6500 per person (and amazingly global population increased from about 975 million to more than 6 billion while average life expectancy increased from 48 to 78 years).

Again today at the start of this century we see tensions building. Many of these tensions now come from urbanization and the wealth of cities, and inequality – not everyone is getting rich. And there is a growing backlash from those who are unable to adapt to the dominant economic system. This tension is often expressed through terrorism and factions tearing things down.

Most big wars, at their root, are fights for influence and resources. But a new friction is emerging – there is growing dispute over how much each person, city or country can tax the environment. Conflict is no longer just about access to resources, but increasingly dispute swirls around what is done with these resources, and how these resources are shared.

Of the world’s larger, more affluent countries Canada was one of the earliest and fastest to urbanize. Spurred by many young rural men enlisting (and the heavy casualties of the First World War), Canada surpassed the 50 per cent urban mark around 1921. The country’s fast-paced urbanization manifested in many ways. For example, with a diminished rural workforce, Canada became a world leader in tractors and mechanized farming. Canada’s rapid urbanization is mostly what made us rich.

Last century Canada built considerable infrastructure. The finishing touches to the cross-continental Canadian Pacific Railway, the St. Lawrence Seaway, schools and hospitals, and supply of plentiful, reliable and cheap electricity. This century Canada will need to keep this infrastructure in good repair, but now the bulk of the world’s new infrastructure is being built for the cities of Asia and then Africa as they join the ranks of the wealthy.

As cities like Mumbai, Dar es Salam, Dhaka, Kinshasa, Lagos and Khartoum grow larger than all of Canada combined, the world’s centre of urban gravity shifts southward. Greater Toronto and the rest of Canada will need to work more closely as Canada faces increased geopolitical and climate turbulence. World wars, with empires fighting each other are not likely, but rather a world of localized conflicts and global terrorism emerges.

One big agency, like the United Nations, will not be able to manage global affairs. Many smaller agencies will emerge, along with more city-to-city, agency-to-agency, school-to-school partnerships.

Canada will still field soldiers, numbers will likely decline, although operations may increase. There will be fewer battlefields and more guerrilla battles in cities and streets. Canada and its global neighbours need to circumvent these conflicts through proactive means that reduce the disenfranchised populations. Building a foreign policy on sending doctors, nurses, engineers and educators will reduce the need to send soldiers.

One of the greatest accomplishments of the 20th Century was the Marshall Plan and rebuilding the cities of Europe after the Second World War. We seem to be at a similar point in time. But now we have to help build the cities of Asia and Africa. This is a much bigger task, but as we remember the First World War we may want to think about how we can proactively contribute to highways, railways and power plants, along with schools and hospitals. We must also build the connecting tissue of institutions and trust, both here at home and overseas. This effort will be our ‘sacrifice,’ and in 100 years this is what we will be remembered for.

Filed under: Sustainability 101