The Sunday Magazine

After COVID-19, we will have 'the mother of all battles' over the future of the planet, says Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor speaks with Michael Enright about some of the big questions the pandemic has raised about the future and the way we live now — and how he finds reasons for hope in the social solidarity Canadians have shown, and the potential for shaking off our old dogmas and routines.

Canada’s most renowned philosopher has seen it all, yet he still describes himself as 'hopelessly optimistic'

Several hundred students gathered on Parliament Hill in Ottawa to protest climate change on March 15, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Charles Taylor, Canada's best-known philosopher, has lived through the most transformative events this country has experienced in the past 80 years — the Second World War, the creation of the modern welfare state, the Quiet Revolution, the October Crisis, the Quebec sovereignty referendum and the rise of multiculturalism as a defining as a defining characteristic of being Canadian. In 2008, he co-chaired the Bouchard–Taylor Commission on reasonable accommodation in Quebec.

Throughout it all, he has retained a deep-rooted belief in humanity and describes himself as "hopelessly optimistic." He is renowned for his work on the common good and what we owe each other.

Taylor, a professor emeritus at McGill University, spoke to The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright about how COVID-19 is transforming our society and what gives him hope for the future.

Here are excerpts from their conversation, edited for clarity and condensed.

Given the locked-down world that we're living in at the moment, are you still hopelessly optimistic?

There are reasons to be optimistic, believe it or not. Reasons to be pessimistic, too. But because it has shaken us out of all of our bogeymen and all the things that we felt were absolutely dogmas, we could leave this with a revised view of how to live. Now, we could do the opposite. We could be so eager to get back to what it was before that we'll just replicate [it]. 

[But] perhaps the only good thing we've seen from this is incredible solidarity across societies. There's something very powerful about that. I mean, it could turn out very badly. But it's not set in stone.

Perhaps the only good thing we've seen from this is incredible solidarity across societies.- Charles Taylor

In addition to the solidarity you're talking about, I think the pandemic has also thrown a camera light on some of the worst elements of society, particularly our treatment of the elderly. People are talking about change, post-virus. Do you think we really want to change?

Yeah, I think we do. Now, we may be stopped from it by various things, but I think that it is so clear that we were underinvested in certain very important public services. I mean, particularly this issue of how we treat and care for the elderly, but also our health system in general is under-developed. We've let these things run down in a very dangerous way. The proposal will be made that we take all these things much more seriously and invest much more in them.

Of course, it goes in the other direction, as we're going to spend a tremendous amount of money just keeping ourselves alive. I can already hear people say, "We spent so much money. We can't do anything to improve the health service or anything else. We have to wait until we retrench and pay back all the debts." So that pressure will go both ways. 

But I think … particularly the terrible situation of certain homes for the elderly, it's just been seared into us by this.

What do you think the experience of the pandemic is teaching us about the common good?

I think it's teaching us that there are certain public services that are really tremendously important and that affect everybody, just about everybody, and that we can't let them run down again. I hope we still remember this lesson one year after a vaccine has been discovered.

I think everybody agrees today [that] we've had a very warped idea of what wealth is, what production should be and so on, where production of goods for private consumption is thought of as real progress, real production, and the stuff we spend on hospitals and schools and so on is seen as a kind of drag on that expense levied on that. So we want to keep that down to a strict minimum.

But that's a crazy idea, that the wealth of a society should be measured just by the level of private consumption. Really, [it should be] having wonderful schools that teach your children, great universities famous in the world and so on.

But coming out of a period of austerity as we are, and in private voluntary quarantine, aren't we going to want the sumptuous goods? Aren't we going to want the luxuries, the new car and bigger televisions and all that?

I mean, certainly a lot of people are going to want that. But I'm thinking of Quebec. We just had a period under the Couillard government where there was a radical shaving down of the health system, saving money by really stupid, mindless ways. That set us up in a situation, just before COVID-19 arrived, where we were minimally prepared. We would have been much better prepared five years earlier. So, when people say, "shave the health system," it's going to be met with a lot of resistance.

I can't remember a federal election campaign where poverty was talked about, and now poverty seems to have gone to the top of the list in terms of the prime minister and various provincial governments. Is it enough? Are we going to finally do something about the poor in this country and perhaps begin with a basic annual income?

I'm hoping that we will. But there's something else complicating our situation. We're also very far behind in addressing global warming, and that's where there's going to be a huge fight, because some people are going to say, "Listen, we can't afford that. We just spent all this money keeping people alive. And we [have] some several trillions [in] debt. We can't afford to go there." And I think we can't afford not to go there.

We're also very far behind in addressing global warming, and that's where there's going to be a huge fight.- Charles Taylor

The fight against global warming fits well with adjustments in our inequalities. Because if you have new investments to make, you can direct the investments in jobs to people in the form of the Green New Deal, as it's called in the United States. To give an example, I was very pleased to see that that the federal government came around to this — instead of saying to people in Alberta, just stop producing your oil, which could be a great gain for the planet — let's have an investment in rehabilitating that whole moonscape up there in northern Alberta. New investment is put in the place of the old investment, which is being closed now. That combination can really [balance] helping the people who are least well-off with addressing the problem of the planet. 

That's one obvious direction to go. And the other obvious direction is to say, "No, we can't afford this." I think we're going to have the mother of all battles about that as we emerge from this crisis. 

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

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