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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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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