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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#PowerShift strengthens resistance at its roots

(February 1, 2019)

In October 2012, I was a speaker at the second #PowerShift event in Ottawa. It was a gathering of young people, organized by young people, focused on mobilizing and empowering networks to find ways of encouraging change on environmental issues.

Like 350.org, founded by Bill McKibben, the #PowerShift idea was to create an organization with a flat structure, with communal leadership focused on doing things, not just talking about them, letting participants organize and find their own approach to effecting change on local issues.

Apart from one other white-haired guy, I was probably the oldest person there. Given that he had come in off the street for warmth and the food that was kindly offered to him from assorted backpacks, it led to some amusing encounters of mistaken identity involving fresh fruit and University of Ottawa security personnel until people saw my name tag.

It was an inspiration to be there. These were young people not content to let their elders ruin their future; they were determined to find another way. They were working for radical change, but showing respect for each other, for the planet and even for those who blocked the way forward.

In those few days, and in the march on Parliament Hill, lay the roots of much of what has happened since in Canadian movements for climate justice — including the Occupy movement, Idle No More, fossil-fuel divestment, opposition to pipelines and many other smaller, local initiatives that haven’t yet made the headlines.

Those young people got and gave each other an education in social change in just a few days, and it was wonderful to see. I offered to go as a teacher, but spent those days in Ottawa as a student instead.

Since 2012, regional #PowerShifts have been held in Vancouver (2013), Halifax (2014) and Edmonton (2016). From Feb. 14-18, 2019, the third national conference — #PowerShift: Young and Rising — will be held, again in Ottawa.

I won’t be there. Not only am I really too old for the crowd this time, but my generation is caricatured by the old white males whose arrogant, self-serving, cynical dismissals of change, hope or a sustainable future dominate the political and cultural headlines of our day.

You can fill in the blanks with names of your choosing. Some are worse than others, but they share the same dark vision of a future in which things just get worse, because they can’t see any other horizon — or don’t want to.

This is the generation that thinks climate change will not affect them, because they have enough power and money to hold the darkness at bay for themselves, long enough to die in luxury. This is the generation that wants a luxury retirement when the next generation will have nowhere to live and nothing to eat — and their kids will have it even worse.

This is the generation of the one per cent — the rich and super-rich who could change the lives of billions overnight and not miss the money, but who would never consider it.

So whenever I stand up to speak — if ever I am asked, these days — the audience has to see past yet another old white male hogging the microphone, exemplifying power, privilege and patriarchy, if they are actually to hear what I have to say. I don’t blame them for seeking out other voices, and for listening to wisdom offered from other perspectives instead.

#PowerShift seeks to build alliances and to network in ways “The Man” can’t stop or undermine, to develop relationships among people and the planet that grow in silently unstoppable ways. It is the spirit of hope and resilience in action. It is awe-inspiring when you catch a glimpse of how despair is transformed in the lives of individuals and, through their efforts, in communities that otherwise could see no possibility of a better future.

I could fill in the blanks with the names of those young people I know who are living for each other and the planet in ways far wiser and more responsible than I ever could at that age. If you look carefully at the youth in your community, you could do the same, if you have the eyes to see the possibility and the potential that is there.

To be fair, you don’t have to be old, white or male to act like an enemy of the future. It’s a question of attitude, not of age, ethnicity or gender — and especially of what you do, more than what you say. Young, growing plants can be uprooted, trampled, scattered and burned, however. My generation counts on this, to maintain its selfish privilege in the face of common sense, compassion and ecological justice.

But #PowerShift strengthens the roots of the struggle among the youth. Like the prairie grass, their hope is resilient.

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Remembering an unnecessary war

The National War Memorial (Ottawa), May 2015
Photo: Peter Denton

(November 9, 2018)

I grew up surrounded by the memories of two world wars — not my own memories, of course, but those of the adults whose lives unfolded around me.

On this 100th anniversary of that first Armistice Day, such personal memories of the Great War are gone forever. Obituary pages bear grim witness to the rapidly dwindling number of veterans and others who remember what the Second World War was like, as well.

Soon, only those who have been involved in Canada’s longest and smallest wars will be left to remind the rest of us what service “for Queen and Country” can mean.

Geordie Sutherland certainly knew. Every Sunday, he greeted me at the door of my church in Selkirk, wearing his navy blue legion blazer and a red regimental necktie. Only serious illness or a reluctant holiday would make him leave his post.

As the years went by, he yielded to my curiosity and talked a little about the Great War. Born in Scotland, he had emigrated to Canada as a youngster, only to lie his way past the recruiters and enlist when he was 15 years old. Discovering his age just before the boat sailed, the army decided he was too young to die, and left him at home for another year.

Geordie eventually got his wish and shipped over to Europe. After having both mumps and chickenpox, he made it to France in time to fight in the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, where he was wounded, likely by shrapnel. After the war, he returned to Ontario with his first wife, a war bride. Later in life, he moved to Selkirk with his second wife, becoming a fixture at the legion, in the church and around town.

From that time forward, however, he told no one — not even his family or closest friends — about his wartime experiences. They were too painful for words. Even many years afterward, only the tears in his eyes and a thickening of his Scottish brogue (if he could speak at all) revealed just how much pain came to mind on days such as Nov. 11.

When the guns fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the world sighed with relief. What we need to remember, 100 years later, however, is that the Great War should never have been fought at all.

The sacrifices of 1914-18, made by both those who died and those who lived, and the pain of their families at home, accomplished nothing good. It was obviously not “the war to end all wars,” because “the Great War” became known as the First World War after the second one began in 1939. In fact, the ink was not even dry on the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 before people were discussing, fearing — and planning — what they called “the Next War.”

As a historian, over and over again I have come to the conclusion that the Great War was unnecessary, that it was the product of the arrogance and stupidity of leaders whose warped view of the universe was not tempered by contact with reality, evidence or common sense.

Four years of worldwide industrial warfare destroyed four empires, shattered two more and (more ominously) opened to door to conflict between two new empires in the Pacific (America and Japan) and the development and use of atomic weapons.

When you add to that devastation the vindictive and pigheaded terms of the Treaty of Versailles, by 1919, the foundations were laid for the rise of communism and fascism and a next war that would be worse.

Without the Great War, in other words, life in the rest of the 20th century would have been very different.

So, when the church bells ring out across Canada at sundown on Nov. 11 this year, ringing 100 times to mark the centennial of that armistice, with every stroke of every bell, we should remember the sacrifices that were made by people we will never know, in a war that should never have been fought.

But if we really want to honour their sacrifices, we can’t just ring a bell.

They would want us to find a way to settle our differences other than by fighting. They would also want us to reject leaders who demonstrate the same bad judgment that in 1914 launched the planet into a century filled with conflict.

No one who starts a war expects to lose it — but next time around, there will be no winners. Everyone will certainly lose.

One year, in late fall, I got a message that Geordie had finally decided to tell me about his experiences when I came home from university at Christmas. To my deep regret, by then he had taken that secret pain to his grave, unshared.

This year, especially, I will remember him.

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