Looking ahead with 2020 vision

(January 3, 2020)

THIS year, 2020, will start with a series of “dad” jokes about vision, about how well we can see what lies ahead.

As Manitoba marks its 150th year, it is worth remembering that the only 20/20 vision is hindsight. After all, our province’s founding father, Louis Riel, was hanged for high treason by the Canadian government — a mistake that took generations to be admitted, even though it was obvious at the time.

To reduce the number of mistakes governments (like individuals) inevitably make, we need foresight, today more than ever before. Unfortunately, there has been little evidence of foresight in the choices and priorities of our governments over the past several years, and we are all, literally, much poorer for that.

We need to look ahead, to see what is coming at us down the road and prepare. The sluggish investment market in Manitoba, the muddling economic growth that seems the best we can manage, combined with random cuts to government services and provincial debt, are some of the reasons why Manitoba has much less to celebrate this year than it should.

The question, of course, is whether the politicians — from Premier Brian Pallister down — have the humility and wisdom to realize, with hindsight, they have made mistakes and then try to correct them. Recent experience suggests this is probably a vain hope — witness U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to rewrite history itself rather than admit any mistake whatsoever — but I still want to believe it’s possible for politicians here in Manitoba.

We should be planning to create a bright green future for all Manitobans, but to an outside observer, we are instead making choices that, at best, undermine it. Even small things can say more than we realize to someone who wonders about Manitoba as a place to visit, to invest or to live.

For example, before visitors even collect their luggage, they encounter the new airport terminal with washrooms that have replaced high-capacity paper towel dispensers with a couple of blow dryers — slow, noisy, and entirely unsanitary. No paper in sight for any other purpose, either, apart from toilet paper. Most people either don’t wash their hands or wipe them on their pants as they leave.

To a visitor, it suggests Manitobans don’t understand public health, are unaware of the practicalities of arriving passengers and human nature, and have pessimistically designed their systems only to handle low traffic volumes. Venturing into the city, they will find shopping malls and restaurants understand these things — just not the airport authority. Hmm.

Exploring further, what about the most recent economic development plan for Winnipeg and surrounding regions? Oops. Nothing much of substance there. Provincial? Ditto. Cooperation between different levels of government? (Cue stories about the Battle of the Brians, and duking it out with the feds on a dozen files). Hmm again.

Moving to environmental issues, what pragmatic steps have been taken to adapt to changing conditions, taking advantage of changes like warmer weather, and countering the negative ones in terms of infrastructure and resource management? Are environmental and sustainability initiatives a priority for government, in partnership with local stakeholders? Oops again.

Looking at downtown, there is (finally!) evidence of some serious redevelopment for the 21st century. But it is all about recycling money already here, not attracting outside investment. We have the Canadian Museum for Human Rights as a destination attraction, but talk about converting the land around it to a water park or luxury condos, so we don’t really understand why.

Take in a ball game, and listen to the railcars full of oil and gas lurch across one narrow bridge in the heart of the downtown — and wonder why, on a flat prairie, they don’t go around, instead. The politicians may crow about the two underpasses built on time and under budget, but an outsider would wonder why they had been built at all.

Want to attract new business? Consider where their employees would live: no one with a sensible urban plan these days is doing new greenfield development, placing homes miles away from work spaces, and then connecting them only with traffic jams because there is no commuting alternative, like real rapid transit (a light rail system on that flat prairie).

High urban density, fast, comfortable public transit — add reliable power (finally, one checkmark, thanks to Manitoba Hydro!) and a public perception of personal safety (oops, again), and companies might look to invest in Winnipeg as a 21st century city.

We drive to where our eyes are focused on the road ahead. Until we decide ourselves where we are going, no one else is going to help us get there.

Fix your mistakes. Combine common sense with foresight. Replace bickering with co-operation.

Make 2020 into the year Manitoba looked forward, instead of back.

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Children urge adults to heed science

(December 24, 2019)

Thirty-nine years ago, I wrote the first Christmas editorial for the (independent) Winnipeg Sun. It was about the magic of Christmas, answering again the question first asked by Virginia in 1897, that yes, of course, there is a Santa Claus.

Certainly, the Hallmark people believe it. Their “Countdown to Christmas” floods the airwaves with jolly Santas and various romantic miracles involving over-decorated homes, lavish parties and one-kiss happy endings — some shot right here in Manitoba.

We put up with the predictable plots and the painful dialogue because we know no blood will be spilled and everything will untangle and work out just nicely, in 90 minutes.

If only things untangled as easily and as quickly in the rest of our lives — and in our world!

Instead of a Hallmark holiday wish list, with all the items delivered by that jolly old elf and his helpers, the children this year are — figuratively — getting a lump of coal. However hard it might be for you to believe in Santa Claus, children right now are finding it much harder to believe in the wisdom of the adults in their lives.

Told to study science, to learn about the world as it is; told to think critically about what they should do; lectured to make wise decisions for how they live — they are instead given a textbook lesson in “Do as I say, not as I do.”

The bizarre picture of children unsuccessfully pleading with adults to “Listen to the science” and to make wise choices for their future would have been rejected as a movie plot 40 years ago. And yet, here we are.

The examples of idiocy are easy to find, close to home and on the other side of the world.

As Australia battles the worst wildfires in its history, and prepares somehow for record temperatures of 50 C (which few organisms can survive), its government approves new coal plants, argues against climate mitigation and tells everyone just to put another shrimp on the barbie.

There is something profoundly wrong when the children are forced to be gritty realists, while their parents wallow in the Hallmark fantasy world of party planners and Christmas tree lots.

The imagination of young people can be a powerful lever for change, taking what the adults see as impossible situations and turning them upside down.

I remember the 1980s, as we marched against nuclear weapons, joined hands with members of trade union Solidarity in the streets of Poland — and then watched U.S. president Ronald Reagan and Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev walk the world back from the nuclear brink. It was a time of glasnost, of perestroika, of major changes that saw the end of the U.S.S.R. and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Apartheid ended in South Africa, elections were held in Zimbabwe. It seemed like another world was more than simply possible: it was just ahead. Young people took their energy, their imagination, their hopes out into the street — and, against all odds, things changed.

But this year, there was no Miracle in Madrid. The COP25 conference concluded with weak outcomes (or none at all) on the key barriers to making the Paris Agreement work. Billed as the last, best chance to put the planet on a path to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius, the climate conference was a failure. No timelines were agreed to, no measures were taken to ensure countries met their targets — nothing of any significance at all.

It was about power, but not solar or wind; just plain power, with the hegemony of the large industrialized nations ensuring that nothing was decided that would undermine their national interests. While the doors were closed on civil-society participants who protested the lack of action, the oil and gas lobby smugly continued to schmooze inside.

In terms of multilateral negotiations for a planetary future, COP25 marks the turning point in the culture of globalization we have been fed since the founding of the United Nations in 1945. A “One planet, one world” solution to the climate crisis no longer seems possible by negotiation.

There will be action, instead, from those children who now know for certain that the political and economic structures of the global system are rigged against change, against science, against the very survival of the next generation — against them, personally.

In 1980, the Winnipeg Sun editors tagged my piece as “The Magic of Innocent Imagination.”

Today, it would read “The Power of a Child.”

That, after all, is the real story of Christmas — that the birth of a child, laid in a manger, was enough to transform the most powerful empire in history and turn its values upside down.

The leaders of COP25 should not be congratulating themselves. They have just guaranteed that when change comes, they will be on the outside, pleading to get in.

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Despite resistance, change is coming

(December 6, 2019)

The last-minute cancellation of the COP25 climate change conference in Chile because of political unrest, forcing these crucial meetings to be moved instead to Madrid, reflects the current trouble that world leaders must manage.

But as I reflected on what to write, my focus kept shifting. Globally, the emissions gap report from the United Nations Environment Programme showed how far we have to go to meet the targets set in Paris — which themselves are not enough to stop the planet from warming to dangerous levels. Falling short of the Paris targets means catastrophe.

Federally, the Eco-fiscal Commission’s final report shows how far Canada is from reaching its own targets, and calls for a fourfold increase in the federal carbon tax if we are to have a prayer of reaching the Paris targets we agreed to meet.

Provincially, the Manitoba government continues to flounder, deciding it is a good time to de-fund environmental NGOs that have been working on a cleaner, greener province for decades, while demanding applause for its deeply flawed Climate and Green Plan.

At a city level, where emissions from transportation are our largest source of greenhouse-gas emissions, cuts and barriers to public transit lead the list of Winnipeg city council’s money-saving alternatives.

On the environmental side, at all levels, therefore, our failure is abject. Despite science, observation, common sense, dire warnings and whatever else, trouble is coming.

If you live in California, Australia or any of a dozen region suffering the effects of extreme weather events right now, you might say it is already here.

Yet the greatest failure right now is actually not environmental; it is political. At all these different levels, there are people who are supposed to be leaders, who are responsible for doing what is needed, what is right, on behalf of those people who have elected, appointed, followed or simply put up with them.

They simply are not doing their jobs. Dealing with the environmental threat to our collective future requires them to change the way they steer the ship — or we will have to change those leaders for others.

While media storms brew over environmental data and emissions caps elsewhere, the people of Hong Kong have been in the streets protesting against their leaders. They are not alone.

Despite their important victory in recent elections, there is no indication the tactics of the Chinese government and its proxies will change, however. Protests in the streets of Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Egypt, Chile, Bolivia and Venezuela are brewing, too — and any peace is tenuous.

Everywhere, there is a basic distrust of Big Brother-style government, particularly when it is more “big bully” than “brother.”

Young people, who make up an increasing majority of the population worldwide, are especially fed up with the way things are, the way things are run and the grim future that awaits them because of the bullies still clinging to power.

I have always been amazed at the inability of people my age and older to listen to younger generations. We are burying the last of the veterans of the Second World War, which was a young person’s war.

From 1939 to ’45, it was the 17- to-25-year-olds who fought and died for all those freedoms that the demonstrators in Hong Kong want today. Then they rebuilt a shattered global society in the 1950s, ironically setting the stage for their baby boomer children to ignore what younger people of that same age want today.

These millennials, generation X, generation Y, or whatever, are considered too young, too spoiled, too naive, too educated, too inexperienced, too impractical, too idealistic, too lazy, too shallow or always on their cellphones. So, the oldsters feel they must retain control of our society — despite their ongoing failure to grapple with the realities of life in the 21st century.

When these people are told by teenagers like Greta Thunberg that “everything has to change,” their collective response is dismissal, rejection and anger — anything to avoid changing their selfish focus on themselves. They don’t take the bus or use the library — and never will.

This is why young people take to the streets. They aren’t allowed the voice they should have inside the political structures of our world, so they are taking their voice outside into the streets, instead — out of frustration, but with hope.

That there are so many of them, agitating for change, is a good sign. They haven’t given up, like the older generations have. They still think they can make a difference.

Their goal is — somehow — to make our current leaders care about the future. But if leaders don’t start showing by their actions that they care, too — and soon — these young people will find new leaders and some other ways to deal with our global political, economic and environmental crisis.

Change is coming. The only questions are how, who and when.

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