Foresight puts Ireland ahead of the curve

(July 28, 2018)

You may have missed the significance of recent headlines from Ireland. The Irish saved civilization once before, and they are trying to do it again.

The lower house in the Irish Parliament voted to remove all of its national fund investments (over $13 billion worth) from the fossil-fuel industry — coal, oil, gas and even that most Irish of fuels, peat — as soon as practicable, likely within five years. (The upper house can delay the passage of the bill, but not block it.)

Ireland becomes the first country to do this, following on the trillions of dollars divested from the fossil fuel industry by universities, cities, pension funds and religious organizations.

To put it one way, the leprechauns have decided that the pot o’ gold at the end of the rainbow is not disguised as a barrel of oil.

Put another, the descendants of the Irish people who sent missionaries to establish monastic communities all across Europe, as far away as Italy, and kept the lights of learning, scholarship and culture alive during the Dark Ages 1,600 years ago, are doing it again.

In Thomas Cahill’s engaging 1995 book How the Irish Saved Civilization, he claimed that much of our heritage of Greek and Roman philosophy and literature would have been lost without the Irish scribes, who copied and preserved the manuscripts in which these books were written for 300 years.

After the Viking invasions started and effectively trashed the Irish homeland, the lights they carried elsewhere continued to burn in the midst of the Dark Ages.

Medieval culture and society would not have been possible, nor would our modern world have been born out of the Renaissance, had it not been for the Irish monks who made such scholarship their life’s work.

These individuals had their own brand of Celtic Christianity and a worldview that had never been crushed by the boots of the Roman legionnaires, a world view that integrated spiritual and physical worlds, weaving everything together like the distinct patterns in their art.

The Roman Empire fell because of spiritual rot at its core, along with shallow and incompetent leaders, who focused on maintaining their own privileges and who believed their own press. The end was only hastened by the hordes of barbarians from Europe pounding on the gates.

Those barbarians rejected the lofty philosophy at the core of Roman laws and government. Instead, they wanted plunder — silver, gold and anything not nailed down that they could sell.

In our day, it is the fossil-fuel empire and the economies dependent upon it whose days are numbered, which lasted 100 years before the cracks started to show — nowhere close to the 1,200 years of Rome.

The irony is everywhere because this empire is run by the descendants of those barbarians who kicked in the gates of Rome. They are still focused on silver and gold and anything they can sell.

Spiritual rot is a reason for its failure, too, while the current imperial leaders are replicas of the last of the Romans. This time, the barbarians at the gate are the 99 per cent who don’t have silver and gold, whose future is at risk in a climate-changing world, and who believe that when a system can’t be fixed, it needs to be overthrown.

The problem with revolution is that once it starts, no one can predict what will happen next. It is always easier to throw out a rotten system than it is to replace it with a new and better one.

This is why, of course, the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE led to chaos for hundreds of years before the culture of the High Middle Ages — led by those who were educated in the monastic schools — civilized the barbarians.

So, where the Canadian government buys a pipeline to nowhere for billions of dollars that we don’t have, and threatens to hurt people who oppose it, the Irish government takes a long look at itself, at the situation, and at the people massing outside the gates, and instead chooses to divest from fossil fuels.

Call it wisdom, if you like, but the Celts never needed to be told that all things weave together and that there is spirit in the land and its creatures, as well as in its people.

They knew it, they lived it and they chose to act. We are all the better for it.

Their descendants have embraced their identity and done the same, in our generation.

Someone has to lead and do the right thing, whether anyone else follows or not. As our prime minister’s own youth council has reminded him, it certainly isn’t Canada.

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Every day should be Environment Day

Looking down into the Great Rift Valley (2016)

(June 5, 2017)

Today is World Environment Day, hosted this year by Canada.

According to its website, World Environment Day has helped for 43 years to drive changes in consumption habits as well as in environmental policy by raising awareness about environmental issues.

At the risk of sounding like an ungracious host, however, I am not convinced.

Canada’s meagre effort this year (no doubt driven by limited budgets) wins no prizes, given that the headline is “Do Something” and the punchline is “Connecting People with Nature.”

Working with an environmental non-governmental organization, we do something every day — not just once a year on June 5. We don’t need to be told to get moving, when our usual role is to plead with various levels of government for them to do something constructive on their environment file.

As for connecting people with “nature,” that slogan conjures up the absurd picture of someone being plugged into a tree. Not only does it make nature something foreign and outside of us (instead of what flows through our veins), it reduces a dynamic relationship as intimate and complex as the air in our lungs into a mechanical, linear system.

This mechanical attitude is exactly what has caused the global problem that World Environment Day is supposed to address. Indigenous peoples worldwide talk about “all my relations,” not “all my connections,” when they describe a better way of living in a more balanced relationship with Mother Earth than western industrial culture has ever managed to achieve.

In other words, the last thing I want to do on World Environment Day is connect with “nature”!

If we want to dedicate another day to the environment, we should use it instead to identify the organizations and individuals who are robbing us and future generations of healthy places to live.

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Green vision in short supply at all levels of government

Piles of plastic bags in dumpsite in the Ngong Hills (Nairobi, Kenya) with Roman Catholic cathedral, wind farm and new development in the background

(March 29, 2017)

March 2017 will go into the record books as the month when the only environmental action that took place was turning the lights out for Earth Hour. The rest of the month felt like Throwback Thursday, as governments at all levels seemed in competition to see who could turn back the clock the most.

Starting closest to home, Winnipeg city council set aside its own resolutions on organic waste collection and opted to remain one of the few large cities in North America where composting is a mystery too hard to solve. The composting outcome was effectively determined when the only option was a surcharge for curbside collection — Winnipeggers for some reason don’t like paying extra for something that should be included in the city’s waste management plan.

At the same time, Mayor Brian Bowman made “Winnipeg is the city of the future” comments that were hard not to dismiss as trash talk, because visionary decision-making is notably absent from city hall these days on any file. If city council salaries depended on an extra levy per homeowner, I suspect councillors and mayor would be working for free.

Widening the circle, the provincial government declared a victory over red tape by reducing water regulations, just as overland flood season is about to start. I could have suggested other places to cut, but that wasn’t one of the options on the government’s online survey about a “made-in-Manitoba” climate plan.

Fortunately, the slogan “Make Manitoba Green Again” was not used to pitch that plan, because those cuts to water quality regulations made me think of the colour of our lakes after spring nutrient runoffs have refuelled the algae for another year.

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