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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Moon landing was example of hope

(July 20, 2019)

Space — the final frontier.

I grew up with that idea. I remember watching the original Star Trek on television, reading the books and fuming at how badly the early movies were scripted.

Somewhere in the house, I still have my membership card from Colonel Loonar’s Space Club, from the Calgary television show I always watched before I was old enough for school.

And I remember watching, on July 20, 1969, the poor-quality black-and-white broadcast from the moon with my family, hunched over the screen with the intensity of a 10-year-old obsessed with everything space and riveted on what we all were seeing for the first time.

I also remember my frustration when someone complained about the blurry picture just as Neil Armstrong uttered his immortal — but, for me, inaudible — words.

For me, growing up, failure was not an option when it came to space exploration. U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 public promise to land someone on the moon within a decade was the mere start of a glorious trajectory outward from Earth to the universe that awaited. The heroes of NASA were the ancestors of Starfleet, and because of them, we all would live long and prosper.

Fifty years later, the old images are all being reproduced, looking much better than they did the first time. I now can hear Neil Armstrong’s words, though that burst of static (and his faulty memory) leave debate still about whether it was “one small step for man” or “one small step for a man” as he planted the first human feet on the moon.

Yet there was a dark side to the lunar adventure, just as there is now. That same year, my classroom partner Bruce and I won first prize in the St. James-Assiniboia School Division science fair. Our project (accompanied by my crude, multicoloured drawings) enthusiastically demonstrated the lethal effects of a nuclear bomb hitting Winnipeg at Portage and Main.

I recall waxing eloquent for the judges about how the effects of an atomic weapon would destroy pretty much everything. To justify these gruesome descriptions, I claimed they would help the few unfortunate survivors among us to realize what the radioactive aftermath would be like.

At 10 years of age, I had already concluded that I would not be one who survived an atomic detonation. Winnipeg would be incinerated by Soviet missiles, either intentionally, because it’s a major transportation hub, or incidentally, as the missiles were exploded en route to the silos in North Dakota.

I remember playing in the first new house my parents had built in Calgary, hiding in the bomb shelter they built to get the tax credit the government offered.

Years later, watching a movie about American civil defence propaganda, I was suddenly reminded of how it felt when the air-raid sirens went off on North Hill, and how (in Grade 1) we had to take cover under our school desks as part of the air-raid drill.

For all the excitement of lunar anything back then, there was also a palpable, underlying anxiety of how close we were to the end of planetary everything, because of the imminent threat of nuclear war. The Cuban Missile Crisis was still fresh in collective memory, and war in Vietnam brought back memories for the adults of how close things had come to a nuclear exchange during the Korean War.

So when the first pictures of Earth from space were sent back by Apollo 8, of that little blue dot that was home, they were seared into my imagination as a sign of hope.

Fifty years later, that dot is not so blue any more. The worst threat to our common home is still nuclear, but we have also learned that any major war (or any minor use of nuclear weapons) will accelerate the equally lethal effects of planetary climate change.

Space is not really “the final frontier.” The challenge for our generation is not somewhere “out there.”

It is right here, inside our hearts and within our communities.

The mission to Mars does not excite as many young people today as the moon mission excited my friends and I. Even the International Space Station is becoming a tourist destination for rich people, instead of the inspiration for humanity’s next step.

But we can’t reach for the stars if we continue to foul our own nests and make the Earth, our home, into a place no one human can live.

The moon mission was impossible, yet people found a way to do it, together.

Our current mission is impossible, too, and not easily identified by looking up into the sky on a clear Prairie night.

We need to live together peacefully and sustainably, to build climate resilience into our communities and to realize that — in the midst of our struggle — we are not alone. Not on Earth, anyway.

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