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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As youth follow Thunberg’s lead, what are the adults doing?

(September 25, 2019)

“The adults have failed us.”

The message Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has delivered clearly and consistently for the past year, from her spot outside the Swedish parliament to the UN, is simple and direct.

We are in a global crisis and the adults in charge of everything have done nothing to solve it.

It’s not about getting more information — we have all we need. It’s also not about figuring out what to do — we already know.

The adults have failed us, she says, because they have done nothing. The future of all the children of Earth is literally going up in smoke.

Every day we don’t act, the situation gets worse and more of that future disappears. Species go extinct, at the rate of 200 per day. The air is fouled, the water is filled with toxins and plastic, the food becomes unhealthy or scarce — this is what her future holds, as the landscape becomes dry, barren and unlivable.

She calmly observes there are no politics to change that reality, just yet.

In Canada, the federal election campaign was launched before the dust of the provincial election settled here in Manitoba. Her observation, unfortunately, continues to be true for us.

You could argue — though I would disagree — that business and industry have no responsibility to care for people or for the planet, that narrow-minded self-interest excuses their lack of social responsibility. But politicians, especially in a democracy, have responsibilities to everyone.

While we could also argue about the details of those responsibilities, clearly one of them should be preventing the end of civilization as we know it. Yet the response of all provincial parties to the climate crisis was pathetic, and I fear the federal parties will do no better.

In Manitoba, we have a renewed majority for a government that made indifference and inaction on environmental issues for the past three years into a perverse point of pride, preferring absence to engagement on those issues during the campaign.

The rest of the parties were no better. The climate crisis was ignored by the NDP in favour of a Throwback Thursday routine on health care, and while it was an earnest (but unconvincing) plank in the Liberal platform, for some inexplicable reason a sustainable future was sidelined even by the Green party, whose climate policies were pale green at best.

So, not surprisingly, many Manitobans ignored their own responsibility and stayed home. But there is no point to calling a society democratic when the people don’t vote.

The single biggest reason I heard for this dereliction of duty was, “Why vote, when nothing ever changes?”

There is truth in that reaction. Against the apathy and environmental inaction of the Progressive Conservative party — which once again garnered about 40 per cent or so of the vote — the other parties postured their 60 per cent share into inevitable defeat.

The politics of a sustainable future requires a coalition for the planet, where the best and brightest members of all parties — or none — find a way to work together for the radical transformation that our world so desperately needs.

Thunberg also reminds us individual choices matter, that what each of us does changes the world, in one direction or another.

On Friday, children will be following her lead and striking for the climate in more than 100 countries.

In Manitoba, they will be at the legislature from noon onward, to try to convince this next group of provincial politicians that — together — they must do what needs to be done, so these children can grow toward a future in which they are able to live.

But on that day, and in the aftermath of that global climate strike, where will the adults be? Will they be standing with the children, or standing against them?

Where will you be? Will you change how you live, the choices you make, every day? Or will you instead look into the eyes of your children and grandchildren and tell them you simply don’t care what happens to them?

We are faced with that kind of black or white choice. If nothing else, at least be honest — follow Thunberg’s example and be clear and direct about what you think and what matters most to you. Have the guts to tell the children, to their faces, that you intend to let their future burn.

If you can go on making those same choices as before, after you watch the children strike on Friday, then my Canada — and my world — really is upside down.

Thunberg and others have wondered whether the climate crisis is too important to be left to the politicians to solve. They must also be wondering if the climate crisis is too important for the adults to be left in charge any longer.

We will see what they decide.

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Politicians should copy school bus drivers

(September 3, 2019)

Every morning and afternoon at this time of year, “back to school” means watching out for the yellow/orange school buses criss-crossing the province.

If you have ever waited for one by the side of the road, you know the first-day excitement (or, in winter, the relief) as it rounds the corner and heads for your stop.

With a mixture of dread and anticipation, the opening door signals the start of a new school year or a new school day. The first person you see is always the driver. As parents, we place a huge trust in these people, every day.

School bus drivers would be near the top of the “Most Trusted” list in our province. And it is a sad comment that politicians of any stripe would likely be close to the bottom of such a list.

School bus drivers don’t need press conferences to make us promises they shouldn’t make or couldn’t keep. They just deliver our children safely, every day, regardless of the weather — as they are supposed to do.

Perhaps we should have similar expectations of those we elect to political office — just to care for us and our kids, every day, regardless of circumstances, like they were driving the local school bus.

No ideologies, no grandstanding, no childish tantrums in the legislature. Just do what you were elected to do.

No leader’s ego should be involved, either. Imperial politics, where the emperor has total control, are always bad for the ordinary citizen. What’s more, our follow-the-leader style of party politics undermines the integrity and credibility of the rest of those who are elected, because obedience (not intelligence or wisdom) is the only thing that matters.

This emphasis on obedience over common sense also determines the kind of people who choose to run for office in the first place. I simply don’t trust people who leave their judgment outside the caucus-room door — people who do and say whatever they are told.

Regardless of party affiliation, regardless of how good you think the leader is, such individuals don’t make good representatives of the people.

In fact, if you wouldn’t trust a candidate to drive your children to school on the bus, don’t vote for them, whatever party they represent.

Thinking back to my school bus days, I remember Charlie, who drove the primary-school bus. He really used to enjoy the first day of school, joking the parents were happier to see him than were the kids.

I also remember Dave, who drove the high -school bus. Despite a complete lack of formal education, he demonstrated in conversation every day that he was the wisest and smartest adult in my life — and far from living in glamour, the rest of his day he spent working a septic truck and running the local trailer park.

If either of them had run for political office, I would have voted for them in a heartbeat, whatever the position.

For those city folks who will not understand the importance of school bus drivers, you might get a glimmer of what I mean if Winnipeg Transit goes on strike this fall. If it takes a community to raise a child, it requires a bus to get them to school — or at least it should.

Despite all the concerns for global warming and reducing fossil-fuel consumption, however, there are no longer any other buses outside Manitoba cities. The Pallister government has done nothing to fill the hole left by years of declining — and now cancelled — bus service to rural areas.

If you aren’t rich enough or able to drive yourself, you either walk or stay home.

Inside the cities, provincial cuts to transit funding mean no fundng for electric buses, for transit-route expansion or for the entirely practical possibilities of light rail transit in the Winnipeg metropolitan region. Drive yourself (and your kids), walk or stay home.

There were electric streetcars from Winnipeg to Selkirk until the 1930s. What we see today, as the Amazon and Siberia (and northern Manitoba) forests burn, is not progress — but it’s what happens when we don’t use common sense on such issues as carbon consumption and public transportation.

We need more trees and fewer cars. If you want to call that political, go ahead — it is still common sense.

So, as Sept. 10 approaches, remember:

Ditches don’t vote. Any candidate who posts signs on public property does so because they have more signs than supporters.

Don’t vote for the leader, unless you happen to live in one of the four constituencies in Manitoba where there is a party leader running. The leader will not represent you.

If the party you prefer can’t find anyone good to run in your constituency, vote for someone else.

Vote as if your life, and the life of your kids, depends upon who is driving the local school bus.

Because it does.

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