Moving mountains, one stone at a time

(January 18, 2019)

On Sept. 8, 2018, #RiseforClimate encouraged people around the world to demonstrate their concern over inaction on climate change. The demonstrators urged governments and others to do what needs to be done if we are to avoid a catastrophic climate future.

The response was mostly a shrug from anyone who noticed. A 15-year-old girl in Sweden started her own strike on Fridays against the inaction of the Swedish government. Yawn — though she got some media coverage because of the novelty.

Protests against the Trans Mountain pipeline, Line 3 and Keystone XL continued to pop up, with small numbers and little money. It was nothing that a few slick (taxpayer-funded) ad campaigns from Alberta or executive orders from U.S. President Donald Trump could not counter. Double yawn — though there was some brief consternation when Elizabeth May, leader of the federal Green party, was arrested and charged.

When the Wet’suwet’en checkpoint in British Columbia was overrun by RCMP — more considerately, it seems, than how Indigenous land protectors are treated in other countries — Winnipeg was on the list of cities across Canada in which protests were staged afterward in support.

Portage and Main, and during rush hour, no less. That made some people notice. Fewer noticed the kids who joined the global student climate strike the next day and took their protests to the steps of the legislature.

If you are still shrugging or yawning, you might want to rethink your attitude. You can move a mountain by carrying away small stones.

When the fossil-fuel divestment protest movement began, it was ignored, too. Yet the campaign is now global and growing by leaps and bounds. The Irish government just followed through on its promise to sell off its investments in fossil-fuel companies. Churches, municipalities and universities have done the same.

Shamefully, this has not happened here. We should not fund our educational institutions, our communities or our pensions by investing in the very industries that make a livable future impossible.

But as the climate heats up, if our institutions really represent the Canadian public, when will their voices be heard?

As Canadians, we believe in the rule of law, what Abraham Lincoln described as “government of the people, by the people, for the people” in his Gettysburg Address. Setting aside the irony that these words were said by a Republican president who demonstrated eloquence, wisdom and strong moral character, I am afraid that the small things happening today could also add up to big trouble down the road.

Canada has a mostly peaceful history, in comparison to the violence, upheaval and deprivation that led so many people from other places to settle here over the past 400 years.

If we were not so peaceful, and if we did not agree to that “rule of law,” however, there would be no good alternative. In fact, there are not enough armed combat troops in the whole of the Canadian Armed Forces to control or suppress an active insurgency just in the city of Winnipeg.

We agree to the rule of law because we believe it is for our collective good, whether we agree with that law all the time or not. But as protests spread, as the idea of government for the people is undermined or overturned by riot squads, it starts to look as if we are being governed by and for elite groups in our society instead.

There are dangerous currents in our lives together these days, currents that we ignore at our peril. A few years ago, the #Occupy movement waxed and waned. It gave us the language of “the one per cent,” the elites who have most of the wealth, and the 99 per cent, who have hope, democracy and the rule of law on their side, at least in places like Canada, but nothing much else.

Over the next two years, provincial and federal political campaigns will appeal not to our better nature, but to our worst. They will play on our fears and anxieties. They will not deal with the mountains that need to be moved.

So when the government talks peace and reconciliation, but then sends in the police; when we are told to obey the law, but the government refuses; when the government buys and builds pipelines instead of finding another, more sustainable way, there is trouble ahead.

When real steps toward a sustainable future are dismissed as impractical or inconvenient, all we can do is carry away one small stone at a time. Each of us.

One way or other, we will move that mountain. Someday, we will have a just and sustainable society.

Whether it resembles the Canada we know today depends on whether our government really is for the people, or not.

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Planet doesn’t make New Year’s resolutions

(January 7, 2019)

Blame it on the calendar.

We mark the end of one year and the start of a new year, not just by (old school) hanging a new calendar on the wall, but also by our New Year’s resolutions to start all over, one more time.

Either way, we are living by calendar time. Everyone likes another chance for a fresh start in January, when the slate is wiped clean and last year’s mistakes are left behind.

It’s part of who we are, as people. Humans have followed the motions of the planets and stars, along with the cycles of the moon, since the first time someone looked up into the night sky. Neolithic stone monuments and carvings (such as Stonehenge) are astronomical in size and intention, marking the patterns we see in the passage of time from one year to the next.

Our bodies are affected by the monthly calendar set by the moon, as the seasons, they go round and round … again. Some people also believe their horoscopes. And so on.

Yet all this is actually only in our heads.

What we think is a new beginning is merely the continuation of physical systems, going back to the beginning of everything. In fact, human measurements (of such concepts as time) are created and imposed on the universe, just like the stories about what it all means that have been told around cultural fires for thousands of years.

There is no “redo” in nature, no fresh start when we turn over the page or hang a new calendar on the wall. There are no do-overs. No mulligans.

In other words, the same pollution that was there on Dec. 31 was also there Jan. 1 — just increased by whatever additional trash had been added to the Earth we share. I would love the banks to reset the debt clock at the end of the year, too, but somehow the interest on what I owe just makes the debt bigger once Auld Lang Syne has been sung another time.

So while we celebrated the start of a new year with party hats and streamers, while we pretended to make a commitment to resolutions to live differently in 2019, all around us, nature continues to weave together what we did last year into what will happen in the next, whether we like it — or realize it — or not.

In the hope for a sustainable future, we need to change our clocks and our calendars to mark planetary time, not political or human time. Sustainable development is actually planetary economics — requiring a just transition to a low-carbon society for humans, ensuring biodiversity and preserving ecological systems.

It would be nice if our political, business and community leaders could make New Year’s resolutions that reflect this necessity, but that would require more wisdom than most of them seem to possess at the moment.

Politicians instead try to reset the political clock, hoping that by the time the next election comes around, people will have forgotten the things the current government did wrong, the promises that were not kept and the situations made worse by inaction, squabbling or bad judgment.

We have a federal election in 2019 and a provincial election in 2020. Soon, the end of those political calendars will generate a spew of political advertisements, growing nastier and more personal as election days draw closer or as certain parties realize they are falling behind in the polls.

Politicians need to align their calendars with the ecology of the planet if they want to get my vote next time.

Why should I trust my future — or, more particularly, the future of my children and grandchildren — to you and your party? In a world in crisis, are you going to mark time and play political games — again — for another term? Or are you committed to doing the heavy lifting on behalf of all Canadians (or all Manitobans), regardless of whether they voted for you?

Leaders in business and industry seem to have similarly selfish myopia. Where is your planning for the future, when your decisions are driven by how much money can be made this quarter, regardless of how it is done? I get that you want to make money or a living, but why does that have to mean you make them at the expense of my health or the health of future generations?

Want my business? Think ahead. Go way past looking green, to thinking and working toward a just and sustainable future for all of us.

Mind you, I am only one person. Maybe they don’t care about my vote or my business. But I have friends, and so do you, and real power belongs to the people, and the planet.

Whatever the calendar says, it’s time.

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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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