Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The difficult journey upstream

One of the signature messages of Ryan Meili's work in activism and politics has been the concept of upstream thinking - described in extremely brief form here:

To imagine a different approach, it’s helpful to start with a classic public health parable:

Imagine you’re standing on the edge of a river. Suddenly a flailing, drowning child comes floating by. Without thinking, you dive in, grab the child, and swim to shore. Before you can recover another child comes floating by. You dive in and rescue her as well.

Then another child drifts into sight. . . and another. . .  and another.  You call for help, and people take turns fishing out child after child. Hopefully before too long some wise person will ask: Who keeps chucking these kids in the river? And they’ll head upstream to find out.

Every time we have to clean up an environmental disaster, every time a young person winds up in jail, every time people have to take medicines to make up for the fact that they couldn’t afford good food, we’re suffering from the results of downstream thinking.

For many people inclined to look for smarter and more effective ways of carrying out the work of helping people, this has been an extremely powerful analogy. But it may be time to examine its limitations in the broader political context - and to highlight what those say about the work to be done in bringing about change in Saskatchewan and elsewhere. 

It's well and good to start from the perspective of people whose first inclination is to try to save people who are floundering - particularly when Meili is able to speak personally about his work trying to improve people's health as a doctor, and reach out to audiences of engaged activists looking to do good through their actions. 

But once we probe a bit more into the question of what happens when you "head upstream to find out" why people are being thrown in the river, we can't escape the reality that there are some ugly answers.

Contrary to what we might hope, it isn't the case that merely identifying how people are being thrown into the river will necessarily lead to action to stop it - either in the sense that the people currently in charge will welcome the opportunity to do so, or that the general public will care enough to take power away from anybody so callous as to keep up the carnage. 

To the contrary, what the journey upriver reveals is a well-fortified complex designed to ensure that the child-chucking process can continue, along with a general population which at best needs to be convinced that there's a problem. 

That phenomenon has been readily observable on all kinds of issues in Saskatchewan politics - from the systematic deprivation inflicted on First Nations and Indigenous peoples, to the refusal to work toward harm reduction as a matter of health policy, to the obstinate refusal to be anything but a barrier to action to avoid global climate breakdown. 

But it may resonate all the more in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic - based on both its widespread impact, and our ability to compare public information to government and business actions. 

The relative success of strong public health measures at the beginning of the pandemic proves that we know exactly how to limit the human toll of COVID-19. And the available knowledge has only improved since then, meaning that our government could end the flow of kids into the river based on well-proven techniques if it had any interest in doing so. 

But the constant focus of the Saskatchewan Party government (along with its corporate donors and political base) has been to try to get back to the usual business of child-chucking as soon as possible. And now, we've reached the stage where the people willing to dive in to save those who are struggling are not only being devalued by those with power, also but being conscripted to explain and justify Scott Moe's decision to chuck people in the river and then let them drown. 

To be clear, none of the above is to suggest that we can afford anything but a determined focus on what's happening upstream. Even if we assume that changing the party in power is on its own a meaningful outcome, it's doubtful that we'll do any better convincing people to vote for an alternative if all we try to offer is a slightly more efficient and consultative rescue service. And more importantly, temporary political success won't actually resolve the underlying problems absent the needed focus on root causes. 

But it also isn't enough to innocently and naively wander toward the source of the underlying problems and expect that exposing them will lead to change. 

There's far more to Meili's political project than a walk along the riverside to a quick diagnosis and course of treatment. And it seems like we're starting from scratch even in some of the most basic assumptions about how a society needs to function - even as those had been highlighted by the pandemic which still serves as an everyday stressor.

That means we need to work on building our capacity to demand systemic change through all available mechanisms, and brace for relentless attacks from the entrenched politicians and business interests - along with compliant media and citizens who have been pushed to defend child-chucking as essential to their incomes and identity. And in seeking to persuade the public, we need to be prepared to do a great deal of work explaining why people should care that children are being chucked in the river in the first place. 

1 comment:

  1. I don't have anything profound to add. Just want to say that this was a novel way of describing the situation that provides food for further thought. Thanks.