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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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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Human-rights museum should document climate justice

(April 16, 2019)

Visiting a museum is supposed to make you think. It provides new information, new things to see or hear or touch. Museum displays, done well, provide a context within which those experiences are interpreted.

Visiting the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) obviously makes you think about human rights, who has them, and what happens to individuals and to societies when those rights are not respected.

While there are bits and pieces on this theme throughout, what is missing right now is a significant, ongoing CMHR display on climate justice.

In Canada, environmental defenders are humiliated, abused, arrested or sued by developers to shut them up. Elsewhere, in places where the rule of law is either an inconvenient option or is a sham orchestrated to the benefit of the elite, those same kinds of people are simply shot.

The year 2017 was lethal for environmental defenders — more than three were murdered every week — and 2018 looks to have been just as bad. What is often left out of that story (only briefly and reluctantly reported in mainstream media) is that most of those murdered environmental defenders were Indigenous people, women and local community activists. They were protesting and working against large multinational forces from elsewhere (such as mining companies registered for convenience in Canada) whose actions are ruining the livelihoods of ordinary people and the places that these defenders call home.

In a climate-changing world where we are attempting to fulfil global goals for sustainable development, this is unconscionable. Deliberately ignoring the human consequences of ecological destruction is just as genocidal as the other historical examples CMHR displays. What is worse, it is happening right now.

Humans don’t knowingly or willingly destroy the places where they live. Even U.S. President Donald Trump won’t spray Agent Orange on his Mar-a-Lago golf course or turn it into a toxic waste dump. In the modern world, however, it seems we have no problem destroying the places where other people live.

Ecocide leads to genocide. Human rights abuses are often the result of environmental abuse. Justice for all therefore includes ecological justice, just as human rights include ecological rights.

Looking at the forced migration of millions today, numbers that will only increase as the effects of climate change worsen, ecological justice not only means changing the way we live but also changing our attitudes toward climate refugees.

Our ethical response as Canadians needs to be more than “Sucks to be you!” as we pride ourselves on having won the lottery of birth and geography, especially here in Manitoba.

Why should we expect people to stay where they are and starve, die of thirst or drown?

We wouldn’t. Consider those of many of our ancestors who emigrated to Canada to escape conditions in which they could not live — they certainly didn’t.

Compare the devastating effects of cyclone Idai on Mozambique and Zimbabwe with the threat of a similar storm on the coast of Australia. The developing African countries were slammed, with many people losing their lives during the storm and millions more at risk afterward, whereas the Australians were airlifted to safety ahead of time. Money is available in Australia to rebuild, while the African countries wait, hope and pray for promised aid that (too often) is late or never arrives at all.

We seem afraid to do more.

Fear is one way to shift public opinion, but in this situation, that fear has been misdirected at the victims. Racist and elitist elements have hijacked the narrative, promoting a fear of the Other, a fear of difference, instead of a fear of the people and institutions responsible for climate change and the political instability that fuels forced migration.

What would you do for your children and grandchildren if their survival were threatened? Why should you expect people who live somewhere else to do less for their families? And why should their survival be somehow pitted against our own, making us both into victims of the forces that profit from the misery of others? Those who golf, because they can, while the world around them burns?

These are the kind of questions that a display on environmental defenders and ecological justice would provoke in CMHR visitors.

They are also the kinds of questions we should be asking of those people who want to become — or continue to be — our political leaders. We have two election campaigns almost upon us. Climate activist Greta Thunberg reminds us that no government these days can run on its good record when it comes to combating climate change and creating a sustainable future for the next generation.

Some governments are bigger failures than others, just as their opposition parties may offer worse alternatives.

But without major shifts in policy and actions, they will all be complicit in the ecological genocide to come.

And so will we.

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