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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Vimy Ridge a reminder of war’s futility

Main-a-Dieu, Cape Breton, looking out to sea. “D” Company (85th Nova Scotia Highlanders, Capt. Percy Anderson) was from Cape Breton. “C” Company (Capt. Harvey Crowell) was from the Halifax area.

(April 7, 2017)

As the sun rises on Vimy Ridge on Sunday, thousands of Canadians will be there to commemorate the centenary of the assault that some say forged a nation. The soaring marble statuary that dominates the skyline, just as the ridge dominated the battlefield, has come to mean more than its creators intended.

Or so the story goes. Debates rage among historians about the actual importance of the battle, or about how the memorial (and its significance) have grown over time to serve less noble purposes in the propaganda wars of another era.

For me, the battle for Vimy Ridge is personal. The unit that — without the promised artillery barrage — climbed out of their trenches and took the summit of the ridge on Hill 145 was the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders). Its second-in-command was my grandmother’s cousin, Major James Layton Ralston, a lawyer and politician from Amherst, Nova Scotia. The officer commanding “C” Company, who made the decision to go forward, according to Pierre Berton’s book Vimy, was Captain Harvey Crowell, a friend of my grandparents whom I met once, when I was 12. A small man, he was an accountant.

For me, the mythology of Vimy Ridge is thus not about its importance as a battle or the magnificent monument to the sacrifice of a nation. It is about a small group of ordinary Canadians — miners, loggers, fishermen — understrength because of illness, inexperienced in battle and used to fetch, carry and dig, led by lawyers and bookkeepers — and sneered at as “the Highlanders without kilts” — who simply got the job done when the professional soldiers could not.

No doubt my Nova Scotian roots are showing, but it is the same attitude that the young nation demonstrated throughout the Great War of 1914-1918, during the Depression and in the darkest days of the Second World War, too. Scattered across the Canadian countryside are small churches with large memorial plaques, showing how many men went to war. The stars next to the names of those who did not come back are silent memorials to the sacrifices made by those who sent them, too.

The futility of such a sacrifice was not something that people realized only afterward. Everyone who was there knew exactly how little it all meant. They fought to end the war, not to win it.

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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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