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If truth is stranger than fiction, it is scarier, too. For proof of that, look no further than the books shortlisted for this year’s Donner Prize, to be awarded Wednesday in recognition of excellence in public policy writing by Canadian authors.

Empty Planet by Darrell Bricker and Globe and Mail writer at large John Ibbitson outlines the world peril caused by declining populations. With Living With China, Wendy Dobson urges that Canada play nice with an intimidating world power – or else. Dennis McConaghy’s Breakdown zeroes in on resource development and the threat to this country’s future economy. And The Tangled Garden by Richard Stursberg bemoans the failure to protect Canadian culture in the digital age. Only Tom Flanagan’s The Wealth of First Nations (a taut analysis of the economic and social well-being of this country’s First Nations) comes without jump-scares.

To add an extra layer of white-knuckled concern, all the books up for the $50,000 prize were written before the COVID-19 outbreak. We asked each of the nominated authors one question: In these unsteady and unsafe times, what keeps them up at night? Their answers might rattle even Stephen King.

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Dennis McConaghy, Breakdown: The Pipeline Debate and the Threat to Canada’s Future (Dundurn Press)

Mathieson & Hewitt Photographers

Truly, prior to 2020, I seldom, if ever, would wake up in the night gripped with great anxiety about the future and what it portends for my children and grandchildren. Now, I fear the developed world is losing its capacity for growth and economic rationality, as it is seemingly ever more obsessed with redistribution and historical redress.

No issue illustrates this better than climate change. It is a real risk to be dealt with collectively, led by the developed world, but only based on a rational assessment of the net, risk-adjusted costs and benefits of continued use of fossil fuels. Underscore “net” and “risk adjusted.” But it should not be considered as some absolute moral imperative.

The United Nations process to deal with the risk has been problematic since its inception. No country has been more vulnerable to that process than Canada. Historically, climate policy for Canada has been driven by virtue signaling and robotic conformity, regardless of our economic self interest, especially in respect of the costs Canada is expected to bear relative to those countries it trades with.

John Ibbitson, co-author of Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline (Signal/McClelland & Stewart)

Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

What keeps me up is the fear that we will get used to closed borders, that the global era will be eclipsed, that people and ideas and goods and service will no longer circulate around the world, that we will close in on ourselves, becoming so much less than we might have been.

COVID-19 is accelerating a trend that has been underway for years. Throwing up borders stifles innovation, it stifles the creation of wealth, it stifles alleviating poverty and it makes it harder for any country, including Canada, to bring in the people that it needs to grow its population and expand its economy.

Darrell Bricker, co-author of Empty Planet

Jenna Muirhead

What keeps me up is the degree to which science and facts play a decreasing role in public debate. It’s easy to accuse politicians and activists on the right of ignoring facts, especially when they contradict their more traditional or religious views. But we are now seeing the same from the progressive elite, who are happy to torque facts to align with what they believe are noble ends.

One of my favourite quotes comes from English botanist T.H. Huxley who was referred to as “Darwin’s Bulldog.” Huxley wrote: “The great tragedy of science – the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” Without objective science and facts as Huxley understood them to guide public debate and solve problems we are left with only emotion, ignorance, fantasy and ideology as our guides. What comes from that is the stuff of nightmares.

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Wendy Dobson, Living with China: A Middle Power Finds Its Way (Rotman-UTP Publishing/University of Toronto Press)

The inability of countries to live together, to work co-operatively on common interests, such as climate change, and resolve their differences through competition rather than adversarial relationships. This is about co-existence. Zero-sum relationships are not going to get us anywhere down the road but difficulties.

What worries me is China and the United States. The two need to define institutions and rules that make it possible to live together and manage conflicts and differences when they arise. It’s just not an option to maintain the status quo right now.

Richard Stursberg, author (with Stephen Armstrong) of The Tangled Garden: A Canadian Cultural Manifesto for the Digital Age (James Lorimer & Co.)

What keeps me up at night is a fear that we are about to lose our democracy and our sense of ourselves as Canadians. My fear is existential. The thing that is fundamental to democracy, more than anything else, is a free press. When the free press collapses and there is no news and no investigative journalism and no commentary, what happens is that the level of corruption in government increases. There’s nobody to hold them to account.

Where we are at right now is that most of the big news organizations are in crisis. We’ve lost more than 200 newspapers in the past six or seven years. All the big TV news producers, the private ones, they’ve all been losing money for years. So, the question is, how long can this go on before it all collapses? We’re not going to have any Canadian news. And I think that would be calamitous to our democracy.

Tom Flanagan, The Wealth of First Nations (Fraser Institute)

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Debt worries me. I think both provincial and federal governments are on an unsustainable path. We can do this thing for a couple of years, but I think we do run into a limit fairly soon at this rate where the dollar will start to fall drastically.

We could find ourselves in the debt trap we were in during the Mulroney years, when the government had balanced its operating budget, but the debt was still increasing every year because the government had to borrow money to pay the interest on the existing debt.

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This is not an insoluble problem. But it does take an effort and a political will to deal with it.

The winner of the 2019/2020 Donner Prize for Public Policy will be revealed during an online program on Sept. 16, 11 a.m., on the Donner Prize YouTube channel and Facebook page.

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