The cruel optimism of reform

Newfoundland and Labrador is on the low road to a difficult future

Columnists and commentators often explore pertinent issues of the day by offering criticisms and making some sort of call for change. Criticism is generally directed toward government bodies or specific policies and an appeal is made to rethink the issue or to fix something that is presumed broken. In a broad sense, these kinds of criticisms are an appeal that presupposes reform is possible; i.e. if only government would fix this then things would be better. But is the system really broken?

Reading Doug Ballam’s (May 27) column the other day, I was struck by the frustration he expressed with regard to environmental policy in the province. Those who regularly read Doug’s column know he is not usually so cynical and most often his criticisms are an appeal for reform along the lines stated above. What struck me most about his recent column is the closing sentence, which I interpret to mean that governments are not capable of reform because “they are simply acting as their own nature dictates.” To me this is saying that the system is not broken but is doing exactly what is natural for it to do.

The belief in reform is arguably a pipe dream that many, including myself, hold on to so as not to be mired in pessimism. It seems important when offering commentary in the public discourse to give some glimmer of hope and to not end with a message of doom and gloom. Hope is most often contained in the proffering of alternatives or solutions that carry the promise of a better day. In short, underlying any criticism there is often some sense of optimism.

In her book Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant links this drive for hope and optimism to the myth of the “good life,” which basically says things are going to be OK and that the world is getting better and better through progress and reform. However, the thrust of the book is that the belief in the myth of the good life is misplaced and is a kind of “cruel optimism,” since believing in the myth prevents people from taking action to actually address their frustrations. Some of these optimistic fantasies that are fraying, Berlant says, include “upward mobility, job security, political and social equality, and lively, durable intimacy. The set of dissolving assurances also includes meritocracy, the sense that liberal-capitalist society will reliably provide opportunities for individuals to carve out relations of reciprocity that seem fair and foster life as a project of adding up to something.”

Perhaps the belief in various kinds of reform – political, social, economic, environmental, etc. – is another example of cruel optimism. As time goes by and we witness the decision-making and actions of our provincial government, it becomes ever more difficult to believe in the efficacy of reform. The sections below examine a few examples that highlight what on the one hand might optimistically be considered structural failings of a system in need of an overhaul, but on the other hand might pessimistically be considered a system doing exactly what it is designed to do. I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide.

Energy policy

For decades proponents of alternative energy, such as Fred Winsor, have been submitting comments and reports to the provincial government, NL Hydro, and the Public Utilities Board, focusing on the potential of wind energy. At worst, all of this has been ignored. At best, such reports have probably been “heard” but nonetheless the province’s policy decisions with respect to energy do not reflect progressive ideas related to energy sustainability that have been put forth. For example, while many countries are decommissioning hydro plants and oil-burning generation stations, our government is doing the opposite.

Reasonable alternatives to the $8 or $10 or $12 billion Muskrat Falls project have been put forward by concerned individuals like Memorial University economist James Feehan and by groups such as Vision 2041. After catastrophic failures of the energy grid last winter produced the phenomenon commonly referred to as #DarkNL, the government has hastily pushed through a proposal to install a 100 MW oil-burning turbine at the Holyrood generating station with a price tag of $120 million, even while Holyrood is supposed to be replaced with energy from Muskrat Falls. All of this was avoidable.

Under the current NL Hydro monopoly, even if homes were built to produce more energy than they use (which is possible) no one is allowed to put this energy back on the grid. Because of the monopoly, there is also no incentive for proponents of alternative energy projects like wind, tidal, or geo-thermal to consider setting up in the province or trying to work with NL Hydro.

Environmental policy

Doug Ballam’s ‘The Green Space’ column is really the go-to for talking about environmental policy, and if you browse through the list you will see many important issues and criticisms. Other specific cases and flashpoints to bring up include fracking on the west coast, and the government’s recent decision to ignore the request made by a coalition of some 20 groups for an independent, external review.

The government has also decided to continue the use of the herbicide Tordon 101 in its roadside spray program and on the 1,100 km transmission line for the Labrador-Island link for the Muskrat Falls project. This is essentially a decision to dump untold tons of dangerous chemicals all over the province, which will inevitably make their way into water and into the food chain, even while simple alternatives exist.


The man who is set to become our premier has never been elected to any public office. Some people say that this is OK because that is just how our system works, yet is there any good reason our system of governance should be so? Added to this are looming questions of a $20-odd million paving contract of the soon-to-be premier’s former company.

At a public forum hosted by the Harris Centre last year, CBC journalist David Cochrane made what can only be called a scathing indictment of status-quo politics in the province (skip to ~63 mins). “Nothing diminishes the public’s perception of politics quite like the behavior of politicians,” he said. Cochrane offered suggestions for reform, specifically pointing to the dangerously undemocratic Bill 29 on access to information while also calling for the introduction of all-party standing committees.

The province does not have a very strong democratic tradition, yet there is no reason that one of the various administrations might not have instituted democratic reform to involve everyday people in the decisions affecting their lives. It seems that democratic reform is inconvenient to any party in power, including the current administration which opts instead for window-dressing.

To conclude

In a typical column, this is where I would place the optimistic turn and make some sort of conciliatory gesture, though I will not do so this time around. Instead, I put forward two questions. 1) When thinking of some of the issues put forward here, as well as the many other important issues facing the province today, is there any evidence to suggest that optimism in the possibility of reform is warranted? 2) If not, then what is to be done?

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