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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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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