Now more than ever, hope matters

Misspelling the Maasai word for “hope” — osiligi — in a Kenyan primary school (2014)

(March 28, 2020)

ACTIVISTS have always said that we need to find another way to do things. Another way to live together — to live with the Earth, instead of against it.

For too long, the response, from too many people, has been, “No. There isn’t another way.” Or, “I don’t want to look for one.” Or, “We did it once and it didn’t work – we tried.”

Through COVID-19, Mother Nature is delivering a blunt message: “Think again. Try harder.”

We need to listen, but that means major cultural change, for communities everywhere. People think such change is difficult, but culture changes all the time.

Since the Second World War, for example, western industrial consumer culture and its ideals of material prosperity have gone global. But so has the damage to the biosphere caused by the tools, systems and attitudes of that culture. So have the social costs, reflected not in global prosperity but in income inequality, made worse by people losing their homes and livelihoods in rural areas and crowding into unplanned cities.

However much the economic indicators have continually crowed about higher gross domestic product, the happiness/well-being indicators have continued to drop. The gross national happiness index, promoted by such countries as Bhutan, was certainly mocked at Wall Street parties. Can you even count happiness?

Happiness might be hard to measure, but unhappiness is literally embodied. Too many of us are malnourished or overweight (or both), inactive and unfit, afflicted with problems that a healthy body should manage. Unhealthy and unhappy seem to go together.

And now, here we are. Anyone who doubts that we are all in this together, inextricably linked to everyone and everything on Earth, just has to watch the graphs of COVID-19 cases, and the global economic dominoes that continue to fall as a result.

Scientists, activists and fiction writers have been predicting a global pandemic for decades. Their audiences have ignored them, sold their books at garage sales, or left theatres thankful that the heroes saved the day, once again, before the popcorn ran out.

As we watch people adjust to whatever this “new normal” means — and it will likely be months before anything even remotely resembling the “old normal” returns — there are some truths already emerging about what matters most:

Neighbours matter. Other people need our help, just as we will certainly need theirs.

There are no strangers anymore — just people we haven’t yet met. If you feel alone, don’t just sit there — reach out.

Relationships matter. Whether the people are near or far, close companions or people (even family) we have hardly talked to in years, those relationships are how we stay grounded, reassured, comforted, encouraged and motivated to get through whatever today brings.

Community matters. No one is in this crisis alone — how we all behave, together, affects how we will survive it, together. Competition in these circumstances is pointless — co-operation makes the group stronger.

Sharing matters. If we each contribute what we can to the well-being of the community, those relationships are strengthened, for whatever comes our way.

Generosity matters. It takes many forms, and so do the gifts we can give. The gift of time, of care, can be as simple as a phone call, or the offer to pick up food or medicine for the most vulnerable. If you still have a job or an income, think of those neighbours who currently do not.

It’s too glib to say religion matters, because in a time of crisis, when the artillery shells fall, there are no atheists in a foxhole. But this situation makes us think about our life priorities, what we are doing with our time and our abilities, what we mean to the people around us and about what we can do for others. Religious or spiritual beliefs can help us to reflect on those things.

Technology matters — as long as we remember technology is in our heads, not just our hands. We can do things differently, so think hard about how to change our culture so what matters most to us is supported by our technology, not undermined by it. We are all powerful, capable people, and there is always another way if we try harder.

Finally, hope matters. With enthusiasm, I once misspelled the Maasai word for “hope” on an ancient blackboard, with a stub of chalk, in a ramshackle school in rural Kenya.

“Osiligi” was everywhere in conversation and on signs. At a deeper level, it means more than just “hope.” It is the faith that what is done right aligns with how the universe is meant to unfold, for a continual blessing from generation to generation, as part of the rhythm of life.

Amid such abject poverty, I learned a valuable life lesson from them.

Their courageous response to the challenges they faced every day was: “Osiligi.”

May it also be ours.

Peter Denton is an activist, author and sustainability consultant based in rural Manitoba. His seventh book, Imagine a Joyful Economy (a collaboration with Gus Speth), was just published by Wood Lake Books.

“Recovering” Albertan feels the need to apologize

(March 11, 2020)

SINCE Jason Kenney became premier of Alberta, I have had this urge to apologize for being born there.

Claiming the bully pulpit of “speaking for all Albertans,” especially when ranting about pipelines, Kenney’s first legislation this year, Bill 1, would make any blocking or interference with “essential infrastructure,” into a major crime, subject to thousands of dollars in fines and jail time.

What’s more, anyone (like me) or any corporation (like this newspaper) that “aids, counsels or directs,” another person to take part in such interference — whether or not anyone listens — would also be liable to arrest and prosecution. Fines for corporations go as high as $200,000 — and the directors of corporations are individually liable for prosecution, too. Any environmental organization and the Winnipeg Free Press (actually, any free press) could be prosecuted under this blanket legislation.

Just to be sure everyone gets Kenney’s petulant rage at pipeline protests, every single day any “essential infrastructure,” is blocked constitutes a separate offence.

What is “essential infrastructure,” you ask? Essentially anything that has ever been made or built. If someone blocks or interferes with something not on Kenney’s list (such as a play structure in a park), the Lieutenant Governor in Council has the right to designate it as “essential infrastructure,” too.

Take that, you dastardly defenders!

I suspect that Bill 1 violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as running utterly afoul of common law, but that legal reality won’t make a dent in his fossil-fuelled rhetoric.

Kenney seems bent on recreating Alberta as a fascist petro-state, and so — taking a page from North Korea’s playbook — he is trying to convince Albertans that they need to hunker in the bunker against all the evil forces of the outside world. Whether or not the first charge laid under this law is tossed out on its ear, Kenney’s apparent intention is to threaten, exclude and otherwise punish anyone who does not fit into his vision of Fortress Alberta.

Like the rants of politicians elsewhere, Kenney’s outbursts would be asinine if they were not so dangerous. This is why I feel the urge to apologize for being born in Alberta, because it’s not the province I remember, nor does Kenney represent the Albertans I knew.

I grew up with a good dose of Western energy alienation, the heritage of the “fuddle-duddle” language and finger gestures of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father. If I’d been old enough to drive a car, I would have happily bumper-stickered it with “Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark” the way others did.

But these things were irritants of a long history of being out West, a minor part of the identity that took people — often by economic necessity — from the familiar roil of urban life or the smell of the sea and dropped them into the foothills to create a new life.

No one survived for long as a rancher or a dry-land farmer in Alberta, however, if they were not utterly pragmatic and able to dream, too. Big sky, big dreams, and a lot of hard work every day. That’s the Alberta I remember.

We left there just as the oil boom hit Turner Valley. People from elsewhere poured in, looking for get-rich-quick opportunities in the oil industry and its hangers-on — people, in fact, like Jason Kenney, who arrived in his 20s, after the economic bust of the 1980s.

He might claim to speak for all Albertans now, but he was born in Oakville, Ont., in sight of the large car and truck assembly plants. With the smell of petrochemicals in his nostrils and its toxins in his blood, like everyone else who lived there, it’s no wonder Kenney was drawn to the Alberta oil patch and its co-dependant urban sprawl: it reminded him of his childhood home.

It takes more than a Stetson and a photo op flipping flapjacks at the Calgary Stampede to make you a local, however. Alberta needs to find another, better path — one that respects its roots in the land, under the big sky, honouring the Indigenous peoples there as well as those people from away who helped to create the province with every crop they planted and every herd they tended.

The pragmatist knows that the days of oil must soon be over — and that means in Alberta, too. Their children and grandchildren will inherit the same future as everyone else.

But the dreamer wants to find hope in the midst of that struggle for a just transition from oil to whatever comes next. Kenney’s rants — and Bill 1 — are a cruel denial of creativity and optimism, replacing them with bitterness and rancor instead.

So without further apology, after 50 years of provincial oil addiction, call me a recovering Albertan. Put away the petulance, Premier Kenney, and do your job properly — for all real Albertans.

Activist and author Peter Denton is Albertan by birth and Manitoban by choice.

Farmers need a sustainable future, too

(February 12, 2020)

FEBRUARY is “I Love to Read” month, which is good for the farmers who are finally able to take a breather before the spring thaw arrives — probably in early March, this year.

To offer them (and you) some food for thought, I want to look at sustainability issues for agricultural producers, in the midst of a climate crisis fueled by a warming atmosphere and rising levels of greenhouse gases.

To begin, you can’t expect the provincial government to help. By action (and inaction), Premier Brian Pallister has repeatedly indicated the agricultural sector is exempt from initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Most recently, it was news that grain-drying operations will not be subject to his Manitoba version of a carbon tax. This was coupled with a promise (without specifics) to increase the amount of ethanol in gasoline and biofuel in diesel.

If I were an agricultural producer concerned about the direction in which the planet was headed, with its implications for my farm as well as my family, these kinds of political armwaves would be trivial to the point of being insulting.

Unless farmers live in an alternate universe, they share the planet with the rest of us, and therefore share the same responsibility for changing how we live together. In fact, any farmer who has inherited the family farm or who intends to pass it along to the next generation is likely more invested in sustainability than the city person who has never seen a live chicken.

Right now, it seems the Manitoba government is ignoring sustainability issues in the agricultural sector, in the apparent belief that Progressive Conservative votes in rural areas can bought like (dry) beans, for a bit of purple gas and a boot shine.

The PC party may have a firm base in rural areas it will never have in the city of Winnipeg, but if that’s true, then those rural areas should use their clout to at least get the current government to do something constructive for everyone.

For example, when Greyhound went out of service in western Canada, Manitoba (alone, I think, compared to all the other provinces where it operated) did nothing. So all those rural voters now have to drive, if they can, everywhere – and given how much secondary and tertiary health care is delivered only in Winnipeg or Brandon – they need to do it when they are sick, too.

To be fair, the provincial government does not seem to care much about public transportation in Winnipeg, either, despite the fact the largest source of Manitoba’s greenhouse gases, by sector, is transportation — in other words, those vehicles that burn the ethanol and biodiesel additives Pallister was intending to increase.

Cuts to subsidies for transit in Winnipeg mean New Flyer is now making electric buses for other places, when they could be making them to be used here, running on Manitoba’s hydroelectric power and providing more jobs to Manitobans.

Anyway, back to the farm. Expect no help from the provincial government, and likely little more from the feds, who prefer to play big-picture games. Look to your rural municipality for the kind of co-operative assistance you need to figure out what climate change is going to mean for your own area — not the lines drawn on the map, but according to the watershed in which you operate. Floods affect everyone — and so does drought. Plan together for both.

Sustainability literally begins at home. A sustainable future for your farm depends on you doing what is greenest for your own situation. There are various carbon-counting tools available on the internet – figure out what parts of your operation produce the most greenhouse gases, and see what can be done to reduce your outputs. It could be as simple as not burning stubble, for example. Every gallon of purple gas, even cheaper, produces GHGs. Find ways of burning less – better for the planet, and for the bottom line.

New equipment? Share it with a neighbour – or figure out how to borrow or loan it instead of purchasing.

On the other side of the ledger, figure out how much carbon is sequestered or put down in the soil by different kinds of crops or farming operations. Perhaps plant trees, to balance off carbon-intensive farming. Create your own carbon budget, aiming for a negative number at the end of the year.

If the provincial government wanted to help, it could both provide incentives for doing this, and assess penalties for ignoring GHG emissions (anyone listening?).

One other suggestion: sell local. Relying on markets elsewhere for your main income is unsustainable in the long run, and makes you vulnerable to geopolitics, pandemics and other things entirely beyond your control.

Successful farmers today have to be smart. It makes sense to use that aptitude for green, because sustainable farming is a large part of a sustainable future for everyone.

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