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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March shows change is coming

(October 11, 2019)

For the first time in my life, I wanted to move to Montreal — 500,000 people marching for climate action was extraordinary.

That feeling passed, however, as I walked down Broadway with 12,000 other Manitobans, in the largest march this city has seen in nearly 40 years.

(I marched in that one in June 1982, too, as we protested against nuclear weapons and a radioactive end to the world as we knew it.)

Disbelief and euphoria describe my oscillating emotions as I was passed and jostled by many younger marchers. After 30 years of feeling like a three-legged sheepdog, for once the sheep knew exactly what they were doing and were giving me marching orders instead.

We can’t stop with one march, of course. Despite the turnout, there were still fewer people there to protest for a healthy planet than a Winnipeg Jets whiteout party has attracted. For too many, it was business as usual — including for the politicians inside the legislature, who no doubt cranked up the AC to drown out our noise.

Yet I think, finally, the climate worm is turning. Imagine a dragon running away from a knight in fear, injured by being prodded and poked. As it runs, the slow reptilian brain ponders the situation. Eventually, it realizes that it is a multi-ton, armoured, ­fire-breathing dragon, running away in terror from a scrawny guy on a little horse, who is armed with nothing more than a pointy stick and the power of the dragon’s fear.

When that conclusion hits home, suddenly the worm turns — and everything changes.

Or, if you prefer other examples, psychologists talk about a gestalt switch or shift — that picture of a rabbit is a rabbit, is a rabbit, and then suddenly it’s a duck — and it never goes back to only being a rabbit again. The switch happens in an instant, even though you may have been staring at the picture of the rabbit for a long time.

I watched it happen with smoking. When I was a student at the University of Winnipeg, the walls of the (unventilated) rooms were yellowed with nicotine. So were the No Smoking signs. I was one of the few who did not smoke, and was always apologizing for not having a light or wanting the offered cigarette.

Today, cigarette smoking is a sign of moral weakness. People apologize for being smokers, standing outside in the circle of shame, banned from public spaces and even bars. It was not more education, or higher prices, that drove such a dramatic shift in public perspective and behaviour. It just happened, all of a sudden. The smoking rabbit became the non-smoking duck and will never go back.

The same is starting to happen with living respectfully and responsibly on the Earth. It will become embarrassing to drive a large, off-road SUV downtown by yourself in rush hour traffic from the wilderness of Lindenwoods.

Conspicuous consumption will decline, as it becomes socially unacceptable to have the newest and fanciest of things — yet another new pair of shoes will get criticism, not compliments, in the lunchroom.

If the greedy rabbit of waste becomes the frugal duck of sustainability, then watch how fast things will change, everywhere.

So, to those 12,000 other marchers, I say: let’s keep the momentum going. For young people in school, why not focus on some very specific ways to drive that change, locally?

For example, start a “Wear it Twice” campaign — unless you have a very dirty job, you don’t need clean clothes every day. That would mean you only need half the clothes, washed half as often — think of the reduction in greenhouse gases, as well as less phosphorus in the water treatment system.

Children outgrow clothes all the time. In a single-child household, there are no hand-me-downs. Have a clothing swap twice a year, at school or in the community — why give away your clothes to a commercial operation, and then buy more? Trade and swap — for free.

On the food front, so much poverty among children means too many study hungry, if they make it to school at all. Breakfast and lunch programs even the playing field, and ensure not only nutrition, but nutrition education — and buying and cooking food in bulk is far cheaper than feeding one kid at a time, while you work two jobs.

At home, eat one more meal together this week than you did last — and cook the food. If you have to learn, then that’s how everyone starts — just make sure the kids help with shopping, cooking and cleaning. Time spent together is never wasted, and leftovers are great.

And getting to and from school? There are lots of ways to stop one parent driving one child. Carpool, walking, school buses, bikes — just ask around.

Change is coming — soon.

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