Moving mountains, one stone at a time

(January 18, 2019)

On Sept. 8, 2018, #RiseforClimate encouraged people around the world to demonstrate their concern over inaction on climate change. The demonstrators urged governments and others to do what needs to be done if we are to avoid a catastrophic climate future.

The response was mostly a shrug from anyone who noticed. A 15-year-old girl in Sweden started her own strike on Fridays against the inaction of the Swedish government. Yawn — though she got some media coverage because of the novelty.

Protests against the Trans Mountain pipeline, Line 3 and Keystone XL continued to pop up, with small numbers and little money. It was nothing that a few slick (taxpayer-funded) ad campaigns from Alberta or executive orders from U.S. President Donald Trump could not counter. Double yawn — though there was some brief consternation when Elizabeth May, leader of the federal Green party, was arrested and charged.

When the Wet’suwet’en checkpoint in British Columbia was overrun by RCMP — more considerately, it seems, than how Indigenous land protectors are treated in other countries — Winnipeg was on the list of cities across Canada in which protests were staged afterward in support.

Portage and Main, and during rush hour, no less. That made some people notice. Fewer noticed the kids who joined the global student climate strike the next day and took their protests to the steps of the legislature.

If you are still shrugging or yawning, you might want to rethink your attitude. You can move a mountain by carrying away small stones.

When the fossil-fuel divestment protest movement began, it was ignored, too. Yet the campaign is now global and growing by leaps and bounds. The Irish government just followed through on its promise to sell off its investments in fossil-fuel companies. Churches, municipalities and universities have done the same.

Shamefully, this has not happened here. We should not fund our educational institutions, our communities or our pensions by investing in the very industries that make a livable future impossible.

But as the climate heats up, if our institutions really represent the Canadian public, when will their voices be heard?

As Canadians, we believe in the rule of law, what Abraham Lincoln described as “government of the people, by the people, for the people” in his Gettysburg Address. Setting aside the irony that these words were said by a Republican president who demonstrated eloquence, wisdom and strong moral character, I am afraid that the small things happening today could also add up to big trouble down the road.

Canada has a mostly peaceful history, in comparison to the violence, upheaval and deprivation that led so many people from other places to settle here over the past 400 years.

If we were not so peaceful, and if we did not agree to that “rule of law,” however, there would be no good alternative. In fact, there are not enough armed combat troops in the whole of the Canadian Armed Forces to control or suppress an active insurgency just in the city of Winnipeg.

We agree to the rule of law because we believe it is for our collective good, whether we agree with that law all the time or not. But as protests spread, as the idea of government for the people is undermined or overturned by riot squads, it starts to look as if we are being governed by and for elite groups in our society instead.

There are dangerous currents in our lives together these days, currents that we ignore at our peril. A few years ago, the #Occupy movement waxed and waned. It gave us the language of “the one per cent,” the elites who have most of the wealth, and the 99 per cent, who have hope, democracy and the rule of law on their side, at least in places like Canada, but nothing much else.

Over the next two years, provincial and federal political campaigns will appeal not to our better nature, but to our worst. They will play on our fears and anxieties. They will not deal with the mountains that need to be moved.

So when the government talks peace and reconciliation, but then sends in the police; when we are told to obey the law, but the government refuses; when the government buys and builds pipelines instead of finding another, more sustainable way, there is trouble ahead.

When real steps toward a sustainable future are dismissed as impractical or inconvenient, all we can do is carry away one small stone at a time. Each of us.

One way or other, we will move that mountain. Someday, we will have a just and sustainable society.

Whether it resembles the Canada we know today depends on whether our government really is for the people, or not.

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Foresight puts Ireland ahead of the curve

(July 28, 2018)

You may have missed the significance of recent headlines from Ireland. The Irish saved civilization once before, and they are trying to do it again.

The lower house in the Irish Parliament voted to remove all of its national fund investments (over $13 billion worth) from the fossil-fuel industry — coal, oil, gas and even that most Irish of fuels, peat — as soon as practicable, likely within five years. (The upper house can delay the passage of the bill, but not block it.)

Ireland becomes the first country to do this, following on the trillions of dollars divested from the fossil fuel industry by universities, cities, pension funds and religious organizations.

To put it one way, the leprechauns have decided that the pot o’ gold at the end of the rainbow is not disguised as a barrel of oil.

Put another, the descendants of the Irish people who sent missionaries to establish monastic communities all across Europe, as far away as Italy, and kept the lights of learning, scholarship and culture alive during the Dark Ages 1,600 years ago, are doing it again.

In Thomas Cahill’s engaging 1995 book How the Irish Saved Civilization, he claimed that much of our heritage of Greek and Roman philosophy and literature would have been lost without the Irish scribes, who copied and preserved the manuscripts in which these books were written for 300 years.

After the Viking invasions started and effectively trashed the Irish homeland, the lights they carried elsewhere continued to burn in the midst of the Dark Ages.

Medieval culture and society would not have been possible, nor would our modern world have been born out of the Renaissance, had it not been for the Irish monks who made such scholarship their life’s work.

These individuals had their own brand of Celtic Christianity and a worldview that had never been crushed by the boots of the Roman legionnaires, a world view that integrated spiritual and physical worlds, weaving everything together like the distinct patterns in their art.

The Roman Empire fell because of spiritual rot at its core, along with shallow and incompetent leaders, who focused on maintaining their own privileges and who believed their own press. The end was only hastened by the hordes of barbarians from Europe pounding on the gates.

Those barbarians rejected the lofty philosophy at the core of Roman laws and government. Instead, they wanted plunder — silver, gold and anything not nailed down that they could sell.

In our day, it is the fossil-fuel empire and the economies dependent upon it whose days are numbered, which lasted 100 years before the cracks started to show — nowhere close to the 1,200 years of Rome.

The irony is everywhere because this empire is run by the descendants of those barbarians who kicked in the gates of Rome. They are still focused on silver and gold and anything they can sell.

Spiritual rot is a reason for its failure, too, while the current imperial leaders are replicas of the last of the Romans. This time, the barbarians at the gate are the 99 per cent who don’t have silver and gold, whose future is at risk in a climate-changing world, and who believe that when a system can’t be fixed, it needs to be overthrown.

The problem with revolution is that once it starts, no one can predict what will happen next. It is always easier to throw out a rotten system than it is to replace it with a new and better one.

This is why, of course, the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE led to chaos for hundreds of years before the culture of the High Middle Ages — led by those who were educated in the monastic schools — civilized the barbarians.

So, where the Canadian government buys a pipeline to nowhere for billions of dollars that we don’t have, and threatens to hurt people who oppose it, the Irish government takes a long look at itself, at the situation, and at the people massing outside the gates, and instead chooses to divest from fossil fuels.

Call it wisdom, if you like, but the Celts never needed to be told that all things weave together and that there is spirit in the land and its creatures, as well as in its people.

They knew it, they lived it and they chose to act. We are all the better for it.

Their descendants have embraced their identity and done the same, in our generation.

Someone has to lead and do the right thing, whether anyone else follows or not. As our prime minister’s own youth council has reminded him, it certainly isn’t Canada.

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