Climate-change arena leaves no real winners

(November 20, 2018)

As the snow starts to fly, the “boys of summer” are done, the Jets are flying and the last frozen footballs are about to be thrown in the CFL.

Looking at a rapidly warming world (remember that 12-year time limit?) we should be debating what parts of our lifestyle — and our society — should be changed, surrendered or eliminated altogether if we want to survive.

However long your list might be, chances are “getting rid of professional sports” will not be found there, even though it should be.

Certain sectors seem to be exempt from reality these days. The top two would be professional sports and tourism.

I like watching a good game, even if seeing it in person is way out of my price range. But in a world of choices, where we have to start counting our carbon like average Canadians should be counting their calories, it is hard to justify the costs.

In the NHL, there are 31 teams, playing 82 regular-season games… before the playoffs add on even more. I wonder what the NHL’s carbon footprint might be? And yet, is any minimal effort made to mitigate that, like having teams play a double-header before flying off to their next game somewhere else? Shortening the regular season?

Nope. We won’t even talk about the carbon costs of playing hockey in semi-tropical climates — the wildfires in California routinely overlap with the hockey seasons of the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks.

We won’t even mention the Arizona Coyotes, the Vegas Golden Knights or the Florida Panthers. Hockey has little to do with winter sports anymore. It’s about the money, honey.

Add in the NBA, the NFL — and baseball in season — and you get my point. It’s not just team travel, either, but all the thousands of fans burning up carbon to attend the games.

In the United States, consider how much more greenhouse gas gets added on for college and university sports, even if we allowed kids in the regular school system a free pass on that carbon counter.

It’s also not about getting exercise. People are watching the game, not playing it. Other sports are the same. Imagine a golf course where everyone walked instead of using a power cart.

Speaking of golf courses, perhaps we should call the problem “the Mar-a-Lago Effect.” In other words, “I don’t need to change how I am living or what I am doing, because money and power will insulate me from whatever bad things might happen in a politically destabilized, climate-changing and warming world.”

It’s a free pass for business as usual, for the arrogant one per cent. As for the rest of us? If we have bread and circuses, as the Romans used to say, they figure we won’t notice what else is going on.

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford has changed that slogan to beer and circuses in the Ontario legislature. In Manitoba, Premier Brian Pallister has focused on pot and playoffs, no doubt hoping we will be too stoned or distracted to notice the only green in his Made-in-Manitoba Climate and Green Plan is lake algae.

Similarly, in a world full of oxymorons, one of the worst has to be “green tourism.” The only thing green about tourism is the money other people make from those tourists, while the locals are left to clean up the mess.

Tourists are people who pay to live somewhere else in ways they could never afford to live at home. Visiting an area with a water shortage? Flush and shower away. Power supply unreliable? Not in the resort area — leave the lights on and crank the AC. Hungry people, living in the squalor of abject poverty? “Waiter, call the manager. There’s not enough selection on the dinner buffet.”

For tourists, it’s a chance (even for a week) to experience the Mar-a-Lago Effect, until the credit card is maxed or the visa expires and they return to grey reality back home.

Perhaps that’s the problem. Professional sports and tourism sell us a dream, whether it is about heroism, winning or luxury. We seeming willing to pay a lot for that dream, even if we know it will be over Monday morning.

In a climate-changing world, that dream is no longer just a harmless fantasy. It is a delusion we can no longer afford.

Whatever the frothing of the trolls in response to statements like this, common sense tells us that time marches on. A minute wasted never comes back to be better spent tomorrow.

While we cheer and jeer, constructing beer snakes instead of composters, it doesn’t matter which team wins the game. If nothing changes, we will all lose, together, and soon.

Our leaders (in all sectors) need to lead. Or quit, and let someone else try.

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Remembering an unnecessary war

The National War Memorial (Ottawa), May 2015
Photo: Peter Denton

(November 9, 2018)

I grew up surrounded by the memories of two world wars — not my own memories, of course, but those of the adults whose lives unfolded around me.

On this 100th anniversary of that first Armistice Day, such personal memories of the Great War are gone forever. Obituary pages bear grim witness to the rapidly dwindling number of veterans and others who remember what the Second World War was like, as well.

Soon, only those who have been involved in Canada’s longest and smallest wars will be left to remind the rest of us what service “for Queen and Country” can mean.

Geordie Sutherland certainly knew. Every Sunday, he greeted me at the door of my church in Selkirk, wearing his navy blue legion blazer and a red regimental necktie. Only serious illness or a reluctant holiday would make him leave his post.

As the years went by, he yielded to my curiosity and talked a little about the Great War. Born in Scotland, he had emigrated to Canada as a youngster, only to lie his way past the recruiters and enlist when he was 15 years old. Discovering his age just before the boat sailed, the army decided he was too young to die, and left him at home for another year.

Geordie eventually got his wish and shipped over to Europe. After having both mumps and chickenpox, he made it to France in time to fight in the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, where he was wounded, likely by shrapnel. After the war, he returned to Ontario with his first wife, a war bride. Later in life, he moved to Selkirk with his second wife, becoming a fixture at the legion, in the church and around town.

From that time forward, however, he told no one — not even his family or closest friends — about his wartime experiences. They were too painful for words. Even many years afterward, only the tears in his eyes and a thickening of his Scottish brogue (if he could speak at all) revealed just how much pain came to mind on days such as Nov. 11.

When the guns fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the world sighed with relief. What we need to remember, 100 years later, however, is that the Great War should never have been fought at all.

The sacrifices of 1914-18, made by both those who died and those who lived, and the pain of their families at home, accomplished nothing good. It was obviously not “the war to end all wars,” because “the Great War” became known as the First World War after the second one began in 1939. In fact, the ink was not even dry on the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 before people were discussing, fearing — and planning — what they called “the Next War.”

As a historian, over and over again I have come to the conclusion that the Great War was unnecessary, that it was the product of the arrogance and stupidity of leaders whose warped view of the universe was not tempered by contact with reality, evidence or common sense.

Four years of worldwide industrial warfare destroyed four empires, shattered two more and (more ominously) opened to door to conflict between two new empires in the Pacific (America and Japan) and the development and use of atomic weapons.

When you add to that devastation the vindictive and pigheaded terms of the Treaty of Versailles, by 1919, the foundations were laid for the rise of communism and fascism and a next war that would be worse.

Without the Great War, in other words, life in the rest of the 20th century would have been very different.

So, when the church bells ring out across Canada at sundown on Nov. 11 this year, ringing 100 times to mark the centennial of that armistice, with every stroke of every bell, we should remember the sacrifices that were made by people we will never know, in a war that should never have been fought.

But if we really want to honour their sacrifices, we can’t just ring a bell.

They would want us to find a way to settle our differences other than by fighting. They would also want us to reject leaders who demonstrate the same bad judgment that in 1914 launched the planet into a century filled with conflict.

No one who starts a war expects to lose it — but next time around, there will be no winners. Everyone will certainly lose.

One year, in late fall, I got a message that Geordie had finally decided to tell me about his experiences when I came home from university at Christmas. To my deep regret, by then he had taken that secret pain to his grave, unshared.

This year, especially, I will remember him.

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Today’s crises call for leaders like Churchill

(February 20, 2018)

There are few times you can point to a pivotal period in world history and say, unequivocally, that the leadership of one person tipped the balance in a positive direction.

Winston Churchill’s appointment as prime minister of Great Britain in 1940 was such a moment. As Gary Oldman so brilliantly portrays him in Darkest Hour (and he has my vote for a Best Actor Oscar this year, to match his Golden Globe), Churchill’s stubborn refusal to surrender to either the backrooms of the Conservative party or to the Nazi war machine set an example for political leadership that is, unfortunately, all too rare.

Though it was their darkest hour, it was his brightest, taking a job he would never have been offered in less desperate circumstances because he did not fit the mould that the institutions of his time expected of a leader in his party or in British society.

He drank too much, smoked pungent cigars and was saddled with a record of disastrous choices in the previous war (such as the invasion of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli) as First Sea Lord. He had inherited little money, made most of his income from writing and generated (or cultivated) a reputation for blunt conversation that meant perpetual damage control for his long-suffering spouse or for his hosts.

In defence of the British Empire, he had been a thug, wielding imperial authority to suppress colonial independence movements that would require more decades of struggle to succeed.

He was, literally, the political embodiment of the iconic British bulldog, having set his teeth in a problem and refusing to let go, no matter how good or persuasive the opposing argument.

Those very qualities turned the tide of the Second World War and, with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, Churchill shaped the postwar world we inherited, for good or ill.

Tossed out of office almost the moment the war ended, he returned in 1951 for Great Britain’s next war in Korea, and then suffered a serious stroke in 1953 — the same year he received the Nobel Prize for literature.

The bulldog refused to let go, of course, so he recovered and continued his work for another decade. The earliest memory I have of television is not Bugs Bunny, but watching his extraordinary state funeral in 1965, when he was given a send-off normally reserved for a king.

For Churchill, words mattered.

He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle, when there was nothing else left that could be done. For his political foes, in Britain and abroad, his combination of words, delivery and public image were devastating — Churchillian, in fact.

But for the rest of the world, his words could be as inspirational as his analysis was incisive. Seventy-two years ago, his speech at Westminster College in 1946 framed the Cold War in a similar fashion, calling out the Soviet Union for “the iron curtain” that had fallen across Europe.

Today, there are no literary prizes given for politicians’ speeches, written by others and read poorly from a TelePrompTer. Analysts are left with nothing to say afterward, because the politicians have offered so little. Audience response is dutiful or added in studio. Image, not substance, is all that matters in the obligatory 15-second sound bite.

Political leadership has become an oxymoron, a poor joke on democratic institutions that seem to have a death wish instead of a vision for a better future. Competence is feared, honesty avoided and real answers to current problems — such as the questions dodged in parliamentary sessions — are best left to someone else, tomorrow.

The same things happened just before Churchill finally got the job. The other politicians focused on aspiration, what they wanted to happen, instead of focusing on inspiration, bringing the country together in ways that would make something happen.

His most important speeches were never recorded, just reported. Yet the tides of war changed in that moment, because of who he was, what he said and how he said it.

Today, we have lost our way.

Trying (unsuccessfully) to avoid the problems of patriarchy, we look for facilitators instead of leaders, focusing on process instead of outcome, ensuring all voices are heard, whether or not they have something useful to say. Everyone gets a ribbon.

Leadership at any level is a perilous choice for someone to make. To make things worse, the ones who seek it out these days seem the least likely to be the leaders we need.

Yet we are at war, with the planet and with ourselves, for a future in which all the defenceless children of Earth will have to live.

We need more leaders like Winston Churchill. For all his flaws, he identified the real enemy, what needed to be done to stop it, and how. Words, by themselves, were not enough — but that was the right place to start.

We must hold those in leadership accountable for their words as well as for their actions, expecting inspiration instead of aspiration, demanding a vision for what we all can do together that goes beyond winning the next election.

If they have a dream, we need to hear it and be inspired to share it. Otherwise, like Neville Chamberlain, they need to step aside before it is too late.

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