Local Politics Have Global Impact

(March 1, 2016)

NAIROBI, Kenya — Last year came to a close with two major international agreements — the Paris Climate Accord and the approval of the UN’s 2030 Development Agenda.

Both of these agreements need to be lived out on the ground, however. If we can’t find a way of implementing changes right where we live, these documents get added to a long list of failed attempts to make a difference.

As I write these words, the neighbourhood roosters have just crowed in Nairobi. I lived between two worlds recently, engaged in debate over composting in Winnipeg while participating in environmental meetings here.

It is a long way to travel, with a handful of people, to affect decisions about the future of the Earth we share — and light-years away from Winnipeg city hall.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is now responsible for the environmental mandate of the United Nations. We were meeting at UNEP headquarters to prepare for the second United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-2) in May.

Back in Winnipeg, councillors deferred making a bad decision on composting — a victory of sorts for those who want to see changes made, but nothing to celebrate.

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When Elephants Fight

One of a small herd grazing near Keekorok, Kenya (July 2014)

One of a small herd grazing near Keekorok, Kenya (July 2014)

There is a Kenyan proverb that when the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

Or the acacia trees. You can tell on the Maasai Mara when the elephants have been through an area. The bushes are uprooted, tree branches broken, dirt churned, all the inevitable consequences of elephants just being elephants as they pass through.

They don’t even have to fight to tear up the landscape.

You could say there is nothing personal. The elephants are just doing what they do. But the acacia trees, like the grass, would have another opinion if they could speak.

Around the world, democracy is a frail flower these days. While the theory about government of the people, by the people, for the people was crystal clear when it was declaimed 150 years ago, how it has been translated into practice since has varied widely.

Sometimes I wonder if the term “democracy” is worth using at all – certainly the old definitions seem to apply less every day.

The word itself has become a smokescreen for the politics of power, whether it comes out of the muzzle of a gun or (more deniably) out of the mouth of a bank account. The elephants tear up the landscape with impunity and it is the grass that suffers.

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On Leaders

Young male lion by the side of the road near Keekorok, Kenya

Young male lion by the side of the road near Keekorok, Kenya

On what would have been his 96th birthday, I joined many people in thinking about the legacy of Nelson Mandela.

I’ve thought about this for months now, since his death, and I continue to feel the real story has never been told. It may never be.

The real story is about Mandela the man, not Madiba the icon – the human being, not the elderly statesman who could say more with his presence, his smile and a wave than most politicians could in an hour-long oration, crafted by their handlers.

To be sure, the iconography of Mandela has been carefully constructed, the dialogue scripted, the “memorable words” thoughtfully selected.  He will continue to have a significant influence on African politics, not just South African, one that goes far beyond the towering brass sculpture lifted into place as his memorial.

Yet in the long years in the Robben Island cell and afterward, Mandela surrendered his future as well as his present.  He had no way of knowing when – or if — he would ever walk outside again.

In that kind of circumstance, sanity consists in living entirely in the moment.  Anything else – regrets, hopes, fears – would simply spiral out of control.  Of necessity, a meditative existence, a balance between inner and outer worlds that eastern religions try to set as the height of personal meditation, would need to replace any other thought or sensation.
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