Sustainability question more than just food for thought

(February 27, 2019)

We are what we eat.

Every day, a new headline reminds us of this fact in some way.

Recently, Canadians got a new version of Canada’s Food Guide, requiring grade-school teachers to redo their health curriculum, but likely having little effect on how we eat compared to before. General guidelines like these either repeat what people already know, or mystify those whose dietary choices are driven by other things than directives from Ottawa — things such as prices, availability, marketing and what the kids’ friends are eating at school this week.

What we eat — and therefore who we are — is also intertwined with social-justice issues. For those with little money (for food or for transportation), if they are living in an urban “food desert” where the convenience store is a one-stop shop, healthy food choices are a fantasy.

In northern communities, where pop, chips and hotdogs are readily available and preserved forever, fresh vegetables are exotic, expensive and unfamiliar. Governments prefer to medevac people south for medical treatments that are the consequence, at least in part, of poor diets, instead of supporting efforts to make good food locally.

Then there are the too-frequent stories about produce, in particular, contaminated with harmful bacteria. It might seem like carelessness is the culprit, but such contamination is a fact of life in the factory farm system, where food is grown in mass quantities, often in distant places that have lower hygiene standards or where a lack of clean water undermines what the system requires.

When there is a problem, it is harder to pinpoint the source, and it can affect entire industries across the whole North American continent (romaine lettuce, anyone?).

We could use computer tracking to absolutely identify the origin of every piece of fruit and who sprayed or picked it, where and when, but we don’t. Allowing individual consumers access to that kind of information makes large food manufacturing and distribution companies — especially their marketing departments — uneasy.

Marketing is intended to persuade us to buy what we should not eat, in greater quantities than we can use, at prices we can’t afford. And by starting with the kids, marketing has been doing a marvellously effective job of undermining that school health curriculum for at least a couple of generations.

These issues all compound larger and more troubling ones, spreading across the planet, only periodically breaking out into headlines that flag what lies ahead.

The global population continues to rise. That means we will need more food, often in places where there is already not enough to eat. Political instability, combined with water shortages because of climate change or pollution, makes it hard for the small farmer to harvest a good crop of what he (or, most often, she) has planted. If you can’t make a living on the land, then people everywhere move into cities — in the developing world of the global South, these mega-cities make Winnipeg look tiny and well-planned.

Around the world, in places a lot like Winnipeg, we waste enough food every year to feed a billion people. Given the huge amount of fresh water that goes into food production, and the equally massive greenhouse-gas emissions involved in moving it onto our dinner table, this has equally huge implications for managing climate change.

From the standpoint of sustainable ecology, we simply can’t afford to produce this food, in the quantities a growing population requires, if it will be wasted. Combining malnutrition with obesity (as they often are, in the West), those misdirected calories could also mean the difference between life and death for the hundreds of millions of people around the world who don’t have food to eat every day.

Yet behind that story, there is another, as well. We are what we eat, but what we eat first has to be grown and harvested or produced. The Earth’s biosphere is at risk right now, because of our continued assault on ecological systems that have maintained a balance for millions of years — until now.

Some belated response (likely too late) was made to ban the use of neonicotinoids that have helped wipe out populations of bees and other flying pollinators. But there is a bigger story, in recent studies of the catastrophic die-off of all kinds of insects, with industrial agriculture and its use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides identified as a primary culprit.

As a result, the soil on which we depend, in too many places, is literally dying. If we are what we eat, then the resulting loss of soil micronutrients will affect both our own health and that of our children, regardless of whether or not we follow Canada’s Food Guide.

We need action, from government, industry and ourselves, to change all these things. It’s not good enough to consider these concerns just food for thought.

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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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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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