Politics has changed so much since I grew up that I still have trouble coping with modern conservatives who are usually outraged by the way things are going and are very militant and venomous about the need for abrupt changes. I find today’s radicals equally out of character with my memories. Many old-time Toronto activists seem moderately comfortable about the ways things are going, and are looking for more of the same, maybe a bit sooner than later. REDS – retired and Extremely Dangerous – they are not.

Sometimes, conservative apostles of lurching changes respond to a massive shock that responds to a seeming necessity to impose a sharp and forceful right turn that Naomi Klein dubs the “shock doctrine.” But if a real shock does not exist — as in places such as Toronto which always get top ranking for economic, social and governance success — shock doc rhetoric can still stir the blood of conservative quick change artists.

I’m even more wierded out by this sea-change in political moodiness during an October 6 evening in Metro Hall, where I’m one of two speakers presenting to about 60 prospective volunteers. Split evenly between men and women, they cover a full range of ages, sizes, clothing styles, ethno-cultural backgrounds and incomes. This evening’s presentations fulfill two of 20 hours of required training that entitles volunteers to donate 40 hours of time at some of 175 yearly events that city staff at Live Green Toronto organize to promote environmentally sustainable lifestyles.

It’s not that long ago that people from my side of the political spectrum would have been angry that government organized volunteers (rather than paid staff) to help individuals (rather than pressure corporations) to be more responsible with their food choices, energy use, lawn care and garbage.

Instead, I feel inspired that my city can engage such a wide range of people to help people they don’t yet know or care for, simply because they care about the city and its environment. Outraged conservatives can demand respect for taxpayers – a major theme of this year’s municipal elections in Toronto. But these volunteers, saving the city some $80,000 in wage expenditures, respect the city as a live organism in its own right — the municipal expression of Gaia.

City planner Janet Lowe starts at 6:30 with a powerpoint on the city’s “walking strategy,” designed to “bring Torontonians to their feet.” Walking isn’t the red flag for car drivers that bicycling is, so the physical exercize, clean air and traffic congestion walking makes possible doesn’t provoke angry political demands to banish walking lanes — aka sidewalks – in the way that abolition of bicycle lanes can rally those who fashion themselves big wheels.

Roads take up about a third of city space, one and a half times more than parks, Lowe tells the group, and cars are involved in 55,000 collisions a year. As someone who respects taxpayers, and who still harbors some old-fashioned anger from the olden days, I was tempted to raise my hand and mention that simple repairs to Toronto’s 7200 kilometers of road cost the city over 100 million a year – just one small portion of the taxpayer subsidy for cars, often paid by people who can’t afford cars and downtown parking themselves, but who lack the righteousness of those who feel they carry all the burden and none of the benefits of taxes.

In contrast to my inner thoughts, Lowe’s talk is persistently positive. She talked about city efforts to instigate a “culture of walking,” which includes what she and other planners call the “complete street” – deliberately planned on behalf of all street users, including seniors and children who make their way on foot. To plan such streets, Lowe says, the city needs volunteers who can count pedestrian and car traffic, and interview residents so that complete street planning takes all factors into account.

She finishes after 40 minutes, and the room comes alive with a flurry of questions and comments, often delivered in thick accents that speak to the engaged inter-culturalism that defines the emerging style of the city — such a rarity among cities around the world, and so in need of the same respect as taxpayers, who reap the multiple social and economic rewards of a city energized by volunteering newcomers. These newcomers have yet to sponsor their own candidate who demands respect for newcomers, though they carry more than their share of pension and medicare payouts that go to oldtime residents.

The organizers have to intervene to call a halt to questions so the second speaker (me) can finish before two hour class ends at 8:30. After a brief break, I speak about food and why it’s a crucial environmental issue, giving them talking points on why Torontonians should feel proud of the leadership their city has taken internationally – host to one of the world’s first food policy councils, food charters, food and hunger action plans and food strategies, for example.

I wrap up at 8:20 and the room erupts in questions, challenges and comments that carry on without anyone leaving until the organizers call the night to a close at 9:00. Then, two volunteers who’d held food and agricultural jobs in their country of birth came up to ask privately about possibilities of starting businesses along those lines.

I realize this room serves as an incubator for community leaders and for social capital that can be tapped into to nurture a creative class in the food sector. I wonder if the people who think taxpayers should be respected understand that food is the biggest industrial and service sector in the city, and that its strength is rooted in the inter-culturalism and engagement that flourish when city governments color outside the lines of conventional municipal budget envelopes of parks, potholes and police.

Eric Arthur, one of the first Toronto writers to urge that Torontonians respect their place, called his classic 1963 book Toronto, No Mean City. When the best a booster can do is muster up “no mean city,” he was part of a city in drastic need of self-respect – a problem that remains just as acute some 60 years later.

If that city’s promise is respected, taxpayers will be repaid many times over, as social dialogue, intercultural learning, enriched job opportunities, improved air quality, reduced traffic congestion and public participation come into their own, dwarfing anything that penny-wise pound-foolish budgeting could ever accomplish.

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