#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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Teen’s words signal change coming

(December 20, 2018)

When 15-year-old Greta Thunberg from Sweden stepped up to the podium at COP24 in Katowice, Poland, the room was virtually empty of delegates, at the end of a long day of negotiations.

This is what usually happens when civil society representatives try to speak at UN conferences. Time slots for them are only available when member states have nothing more to say, long after delegates have stopped paying attention or have gone home.

Social media, however, gives public attention to these speakers that governments choose to ignore. Those few minutes of global airtime are worth waiting in line for, arguing for a place at the microphone.

So more and more people are hearing Greta’s words, just as they learned later about her boycott of school on Fridays to protest her own government’s inaction on climate change.

“You are not mature enough to tell it like it is,” she informed adults everywhere. “You say you love your children above all else. And yet you’re stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”

Certainly it is future generations that will suffer most for the cowardice, greed and indecision of this one. For Greta, it is about equity: “It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.”

As she said, “You have run out of excuses and we are running out of time.”

These are tough words to hear, if you choose to listen. Truth-telling is rarely popular, but we cannot begin to respond to the crisis hanging over our heads without preferring truth to popularity.

This is why, of course, governments would rather avoid such a conversation. The COP24 negotiations were (literally) undermined by coal miners beneath the ground around them in Katowice, whose work is promoted by governments that rely on fossil fuels to fund their delusions.

Back home, we have been treated recently to a series of television ads from the Alberta government and the Trans Mountain Pipeline — more taxpayer dollars at work. The ads are trying to persuade us of the economic importance of pipelines like the ones our Liberal federal government has bought with more of our money.

Promoting pipelines as the way to create a prosperous, green future is like promoting drunk driving because it will generate much-needed jobs in the funeral and automobile repair industries.

Encouraging fossil fuel consumption instead of reducing greenhouse gas emissions literally means that people paying into the pension plans used to fund these pipelines won’t live long enough to collect on their investment — that is, if climate change doesn’t cause a global economic collapse first.

I wonder what will happen to the economy, for example, when younger generations realize it makes no sense to work and save for a retirement life that a warming world will make impossible?

So the thousands of small victories applauded in the COP24 negotiations need to be set against the large victories that were required. Hope is in short supply, because (as Greta said), we are relying for answers on the same system that got us into this mess in the first place. If the system won’t work, then we need to change it — and soon.

Climate change is the defining problem of our generation. It is a crisis, one that can be faced and met, but only if we act like it is a crisis and not just some political football to punt around the field. As we enjoy a warm and dry December, for example, I worry what this will mean for Manitoba forests and rural communities next summer.

A year ago, I said that the Pallister government’s failure to do anything substantive about the environment would be the defining issue in the 2020 provincial election. I stand by that.

A vote for a party that does nothing for the planet (as Greta would say bluntly) is a vote against your own children’s future.

Staying in bed (like the 40 per cent of Manitobans who did not vote last time) is even worse, because it clearly shows that you don’t care about those children. Or anyone else, either.

My opinion will not be popular, but that doesn’t matter to me. We need a coalition for the planet, and political parties mature enough to find a way to work together because that is the only way for a democracy to manage this crisis in time. It’s still possible, but only if wisdom and humility replace ignorance and arrogance.

Or else.

As Greta concluded her short speech, “We did not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again… We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.”

(Mic drop.)

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We need to know more about our food

(December 6, 2018)

The recent romaine lettuce scare makes me wonder if food safety these days is the result of good public health regulations or effective prayers.

The decision by Health Canada to issue a vague, countrywide E. coli O157 contamination “advisory” on romaine lettuce — eat at your own risk — left producers, distributors, restaurants and consumers adrift.

Nobody wants greenery bad enough to die for it. Unlike previous recalls of specific products from specific batches, from specific suppliers in specific areas, this advisory carefully avoided anything more specific than an ominous worldwide warning.

It is a cautionary tale, however, about what lies ahead for food safety and (more generally) for food security as well, in a climate-changing world where food supplies will be under increasing stress for a variety of reasons.

Any cursory inspection of a grocery store makes us realize we are woven together into a global food system. There are products (fresh, frozen and canned) from everywhere, many of which have become staples of our diet, both at home and in restaurants out to the end of the universe.

Much of that food is grown for export in regions where living standards are lower than our own, where the availability of clean, fresh water — or water of any kind — is a serious local problem.

When travelling outside of North America, visitors find vegetables are things best cooked — but fried lettuce is an acquired taste. If you simply must have a salad on your exotic vacation, Montezuma will be a regular companion, guaranteed to get his revenge on you for consuming food the locals can’t get or afford.

Back home, we complain about poor-quality green beans in February, or cluck over the latest shipment of starfruit in March. We don’t think at all about the produce from California, where constant drought means the wildfire season is now year-round.

Globally, all the different facets of agriculture (from producing to processing) account for anywhere from 65 to 80 per cent of all freshwater usage. When water is in short supply, people are competing with lettuce and cows for their very survival. Irrigation with contaminated water, or a shortage of good water for cleaning the crop afterward, is increasingly likely.

So it is therefore not surprising to find our fresh food contaminated by E. coli these days. What is surprising is that these outbreaks are not reported more frequently.

This brings me back to whether we should be substituting chocolate for caesar salad, as a less deadly alternative.

The Food and Drug Administration is now saying it thinks the lethal lettuce is from central California, so crops from elsewhere are not affected and therefore (cough, cough) “safe.”

They are promising to do what should have been done all along, for all of our food — provide some source labelling, so people know where that crate of romaine was grown.

As a consumer, I should have the right to know what I am eating and where it comes from. With that knowledge, I then have a choice whether I want to take the inevitable risk of eating what I have not grown myself.

Yet food labelling is a hotly contested topic. Producers and distributors don’t want consumers to know the point of origin, especially when it comes to fresh stuff. Often the displays in supermarkets won’t tell you. Nor is there always a label on the produce.

We have the right to know what we are buying and eating. Don’t get brushed off by objections that it is too complicated or too expensive to implement. For decades, the aviation industry has had a system to track every single part in every airplane back to the plant, the shift, the worker who made the screw and what they had for lunch that day.

With computers and bar codes, we could literally track every coffee bean back to whichever Juan Valdez workers picked it, where and when, in Colombia or anywhere else. We could learn everything about our food — there would be an app for that, if producers and especially the multinational food companies wanted us to know.

Instead, eating has become a risky business. We have to trust a lot of other people that what we eat is safe. E. coli outbreaks remind us that regulations and occasional inspections are not enough anymore.

In part, it is our own fault, wanting to eat the same foods year-round. A diet of fast-food monotony means you need lettuce on your Saturday burger whether it is July or December. Fast food, like junk food, is always in season. The menu never changes.

Eating anything fresh is a matter of faith. When someone serves me salad, my silent response is not applause for Health Canada.

Rather, it is: “Lettuce? Pray!”

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