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.

Children urge adults to heed science

(December 24, 2019)

Thirty-nine years ago, I wrote the first Christmas editorial for the (independent) Winnipeg Sun. It was about the magic of Christmas, answering again the question first asked by Virginia in 1897, that yes, of course, there is a Santa Claus.

Certainly, the Hallmark people believe it. Their “Countdown to Christmas” floods the airwaves with jolly Santas and various romantic miracles involving over-decorated homes, lavish parties and one-kiss happy endings — some shot right here in Manitoba.

We put up with the predictable plots and the painful dialogue because we know no blood will be spilled and everything will untangle and work out just nicely, in 90 minutes.

If only things untangled as easily and as quickly in the rest of our lives — and in our world!

Instead of a Hallmark holiday wish list, with all the items delivered by that jolly old elf and his helpers, the children this year are — figuratively — getting a lump of coal. However hard it might be for you to believe in Santa Claus, children right now are finding it much harder to believe in the wisdom of the adults in their lives.

Told to study science, to learn about the world as it is; told to think critically about what they should do; lectured to make wise decisions for how they live — they are instead given a textbook lesson in “Do as I say, not as I do.”

The bizarre picture of children unsuccessfully pleading with adults to “Listen to the science” and to make wise choices for their future would have been rejected as a movie plot 40 years ago. And yet, here we are.

The examples of idiocy are easy to find, close to home and on the other side of the world.

As Australia battles the worst wildfires in its history, and prepares somehow for record temperatures of 50 C (which few organisms can survive), its government approves new coal plants, argues against climate mitigation and tells everyone just to put another shrimp on the barbie.

There is something profoundly wrong when the children are forced to be gritty realists, while their parents wallow in the Hallmark fantasy world of party planners and Christmas tree lots.

The imagination of young people can be a powerful lever for change, taking what the adults see as impossible situations and turning them upside down.

I remember the 1980s, as we marched against nuclear weapons, joined hands with members of trade union Solidarity in the streets of Poland — and then watched U.S. president Ronald Reagan and Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev walk the world back from the nuclear brink. It was a time of glasnost, of perestroika, of major changes that saw the end of the U.S.S.R. and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Apartheid ended in South Africa, elections were held in Zimbabwe. It seemed like another world was more than simply possible: it was just ahead. Young people took their energy, their imagination, their hopes out into the street — and, against all odds, things changed.

But this year, there was no Miracle in Madrid. The COP25 conference concluded with weak outcomes (or none at all) on the key barriers to making the Paris Agreement work. Billed as the last, best chance to put the planet on a path to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius, the climate conference was a failure. No timelines were agreed to, no measures were taken to ensure countries met their targets — nothing of any significance at all.

It was about power, but not solar or wind; just plain power, with the hegemony of the large industrialized nations ensuring that nothing was decided that would undermine their national interests. While the doors were closed on civil-society participants who protested the lack of action, the oil and gas lobby smugly continued to schmooze inside.

In terms of multilateral negotiations for a planetary future, COP25 marks the turning point in the culture of globalization we have been fed since the founding of the United Nations in 1945. A “One planet, one world” solution to the climate crisis no longer seems possible by negotiation.

There will be action, instead, from those children who now know for certain that the political and economic structures of the global system are rigged against change, against science, against the very survival of the next generation — against them, personally.

In 1980, the Winnipeg Sun editors tagged my piece as “The Magic of Innocent Imagination.”

Today, it would read “The Power of a Child.”

That, after all, is the real story of Christmas — that the birth of a child, laid in a manger, was enough to transform the most powerful empire in history and turn its values upside down.

The leaders of COP25 should not be congratulating themselves. They have just guaranteed that when change comes, they will be on the outside, pleading to get in.

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