Winter’s alright, but capitalism makes it unbearable

Up until a few weeks ago, if you’d asked me what I thought of winter I’d have bluntly told you I hated it. I really did.

The biting cold. The slippery roads. The cars constantly needing to be wiped and warmed. The driveways needing to be shovelled, then shovelled again after the snow plow passes. And the employer that doesn’t care if the weather makes it tough to get to work.

This was my view of the most inconvenient season. I saw winter as an obstacle to be overcome, one that simply made every day more annoying and uncomfortable. In recent years I even started trying to avoid the worst of Canadian winter by taking off to warmer regions of the world: Egypt, California, Australia.

I’ve returned to the Northern hemisphere from six months of self-imposed exile in Australia only to find that winter wasn’t exactly how I remembered it. I’ve spent the past few weeks in temperatures hovering around 0 degrees celsius in East Asia and Northern Europe, and not only have I found a renewed love of winter (at least in this temperature range), but I’ve realized my problems with the season was more a result of the economic system we’ve placed on top of it that cares more about capital accumulation than the quality of human life.

This line of thinking was introduced to me while reading a piece by Owen Hill in Jacobin Magazine about what snow days could be like under socialism, where he identified how capitalism makes winter unbearable by relaying the experience of several large US cities and how their tough winters took heavy tolls on their populations when the system was unable to adjust to ease the burden of the difficult conditions. While I enjoyed reading it at the time of publication, his arguments didn’t fully register with me until I returned to winter and, to my great surprise, rather enjoyed it (after picking up a scarf and gloves, of course).

Like all natural forces, fierce winters interact with humanity in contradictory ways. There is, at one and the same time, the chilling cold and the warming fire. The deadly threat of being exposed to the elements sits opposite and adjacent to the sense of hearth, home, and hygge that comes when close company gathers in the cold and dark.

The work that snow brings — the shoveling, the plowing, the trudging — is counterposed to the joy: the forts and fights, the sculptures and skis. These elements of the human experience exist side by side, in contradiction, but together form a piece of the totality of our experience of the winter.

Yet while all these elements are present under capitalism, they are both atrophied or ignored. The pleasure atrophies in the face of an unceasing workload, while the suffering is shuffled aside, pushed out of sight and fictionalized away. This isn’t accidental — it’s woven into the fabric of capitalism.

Winter isn’t the problem. How we’ve failed to build a society that tries to make it more manageable is the problem.

Helsinki showed me the beauty of winter I’d forgotten. The chill wind on my face became a joy instead of an annoyance. The light snows became a thing of beauty, not a sign of impending burden. The eternal gloom became a welcome escape from the sun. I realized that the way we experience winter matters. It’s why children love it, while many adults dread it. Children don’t have to worry about the obstacles winter places in the way of the efficiency of the capitalist system, but adults do. It’s for this reason that children are able to enjoy the pleasures of the season, while adults complain their way through it, taking a small break to try to enjoy it for a week or two of holidays, but that’s not always a guarantee.

I’ve come to realize that there are two key developments that have made winter so unbearable: suburban development and the rigid work structures we’ve established.

Many of the most common gripes people have with winter are directly related to suburban living: shovelling, driving, etc. Most people work in urban areas, but have to commute to and from suburbs to get to their jobs, and it’s at this juncture where winter starts causing problems. Personal vehicles are essential to suburban life, as suburbs are just clusters of houses, and people have to drive not only to get to their jobs, but also to get groceries and access essential services.

This is less the case in urban centres, where alternative transit options are more common and reliable, and shops and services are easy to access. Those in urban areas have to shovel less, or not at all, and if they take advantage of public transit, they also don’t need to worry about the inconvenience of the vehicle. Does that mean winter causes no problems in urban areas? Of course not. Buses can be delayed, sidewalks can be slippery (though are more likely to be cleared than in suburbs), and employers still expect the obstacles of winter not to get in the way of work. But usually there are fewer issues caused by winter for urbanites to worry about than their suburban counterparts.

Common to everyone are the capitalist structures that have developed that expect the weather to have no impact on working life. Employers want everything to be the same on a winter day as a summer day, and see the citing of snow and ice as an excuse rather than a legitimate reason for delay. Instead of building a society that tries to make winter more liveable and enjoyable, we’ve allowed one to develop that only exacerbates the obstacles winter creates.

We often find it hard to imagine what an alternative might look like, as the capitalist system seems so absolute, but changes are possible. Hill presents several in his piece, including ensuring the homeless have a place to stay in the winter, and shifting from car-centred transit to a system primarily based on rail. He also presents a new approach to how we respond to snowstorms.

What if the time you spent shoveling or checking in on your neighbors after a snowstorm was counted as part of your workweek instead of being added on top of it? What if people didn’t get one paid snow day during big storms — much better than what most workers have currently — but got three? One day to help clear the snow, one day to check on your neighbors, and one day to play — to actually enjoy one of the earth’s greatest gifts.

It is also easy to imagine how northern cities could organize themselves around the principle of long, yearly vacations during the winter. Imagine if every person in Boston had paid time off not only for the holidays, but also got to choose between taking the whole month of January or February off.

Winter is only a burden because of the society we’ve built around it. The seasons are going to come whether we like it or not, but we can always change our societies to make them more compassionate and responsive to our needs.

The reason I’ve finally been able to see the joy of winter for the first time in many years is that I’ve escaped the two factors that have made winter unbearable for so many. I’ve been spending my time in urban centres with great transit, and I’m currently unemployed, meaning I don’t have to worry about reaching a workplace at a particular time or ensuring the season doesn’t get in the way of my ability to perform my work tasks. It will be interesting to see if my renewed admiration of winter remains once I return to wage labour.

The problem isn’t winter, it’s capitalism. And that’s something we have the power to change.