Mark Hill: The empty furor over 15-minute cities is a dire preview of our political future

James, no last name given, prepares to protest COVID-19 mandates in Edmonton, Tuesday, Feb. 22 2022. His tinfoil hard hat is meant to claim and disarm accusations of conspiracy theorists. Amber Bracken/The Canadian Press.

If you value your time as little as I do, you may spend some of it reading Theo Fleury’s Twitter. The NHL star turned conspiracy-monger recently railed against the supposed wickedness of 15-minute cities, calling them “anti Canadian” and sharing a graphic that claims they’re part of a nefarious UN plot to create “open-air prisons” where citizens have their movements tightly controlled under the guise of fighting climate change. 

Fleury’s digital drooling is part of a broader revolt against 15-minute cities, which has taken the form of both real-world protests and an interminable online slurry. Don’t worry if you’re unfamiliar with the concept, because Fleury and his conspiratorial ilk hadn’t heard of them right up until they decided they were evil incarnate. The concept comes from urban planning and suggests we can combat the exhaustion and pollution of long commutes by designing walkable neighbourhoods capable of accommodating all the personal and professional needs of residents. In short, you should be able to head to the office, get groceries, visit your doctor, and unwind at the bar without ever needing your car. 

“Maybe we should move our flabby bodies a bit instead of spewing pollution while wasting hours driving to bland office parks” is not a new idea, and aside from some feasibility and affordability concerns, it’s not an unusually contentious one. It’s only in the news because Edmonton is toying with the concept to help address its growing population. But in the addled minds of conspiracy theorists, it’s an authoritarian plot to eliminate personal automobiles. Once we’re in our designated community, the story goes, we’ll be fined for driving to another neighbourhood, assuming our overlords deign to let us leave at all. 

This is obviously nonsense, an observation that is pointless because you either already agree or have already dismissed me as a propagandist on António Guterres’ payroll. But this is what post-COVID politics will look like. No idea, no matter how anodyne, will be immune to small but vocal groups sucking up all the oxygen by claiming that Winnipeg’s plan for parking ticket reform is the lynchpin of a plot by the World Economic Forum to enslave us all. 

It’s generous to call these conspiracy theories, because there’s no real theory here, no falsifiable premise that adherents are willing to test. It’s just reflexive contrarianism, a rejection of the belief that politics could serve any purpose beyond your personal oppression. Maybe a retired hockey player whose brain has turned to scrambled eggs doesn’t know any better, but the people putting this in front of him ostensibly should. 

Jordan Peterson warned that 15-minute cities are “part of a well-documented plan” to control where Canadians are allowed to drive. Rebel News is alerting readers to this “looming dystopian future,” and the Western Standard claimed there’s a “growing public backlash against the concept” based on rambling Facebook posts peddling baseless claims that 15-minute cities are a ruse to eliminate cash, harvest reams of data, and ban free movement. Both communism and Hitler are evoked, sometimes simultaneously, so keep an eye out for those dreaded Nazi commies. 

The repeated and relentless amplification of this nonsense has consequences. When conspiracists dominate the conversation, nuance withers. A National Post columnist who took umbrage with the premise of 15-minute cities had to dedicate half their piece to dismissing conspiracy loons. 

It also affects the people absorbing the lies. A Cochrane Today editorial patiently explained that the 15-minute city concept isn’t coming to the Alberta town because their populace of 32,000 isn’t exactly overrun by urban sprawl. This self-evident argument did not stop protestors from spitting on officials as they tried to make their way to an unrelated presentation by Mayor Jeff Genung, justifying their actions with the tautology that Genung is a UN stooge lying about his lack of authoritarian ambition. As Orwell famously wrote, “Who controls Cochrane controls the future.”   

One must have, or at least must try to have, some sympathy for rank-and-file believers. At least one protestor had travelled from Ontario, and you don’t trek across Canada to rage against a small town’s non-existent zoning plan unless something has gone horribly awry in your life. But in the wake of COVID, even the most mundane aspects of civil society are being rejected as grandiose lies meant to unravel existence as we know it. And as long as this crud continues to be spewed, we need to brace ourselves for more protests that aren’t on speaking terms with reality.  

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