We must think before we eat

(June 13, 2017)

The next time you sit down to a meal, you might consider eating for a change.

That thought was at the core of Vandana Shiva’s recent Axworthy Lecture at the University of Winnipeg. A forceful and articulate Indian activist, Shiva aimed her pointed comments at a worldwide food industry more focused on its own profits than the health of its customers or the well-being of the Earth.

She illustrated her lecture with examples drawn from India, where she and the organization she founded, Navdanya, struggle against multinational agrochemical companies for the rights of farmers to control their own seeds and to farm without chemicals. The challenge, she said, both there and in Canada, is to embrace and nurture diversity in agriculture the same way we promote it in other areas of society.

For Shiva, uniformity threatens our health and our future. Monoculture agriculture — growing large amounts of the same crop, over and over — is not only destructive of farm land, requiring increasing amounts of artificial, petroleum-based fertilizers, but produces food that lacks the nutritional content of organically produced food. In short, we are eating empty calories, using fossil fuels and reducing the productivity of the soil under the guise of “feeding the world.”

It was a pungent critique, not only of chemical monoculture, but of the justice issues that go along with the devastation of the land — the soil — and the water on which we depend for life itself. Every time we choose what to eat, we are voting for the kind of agriculture we want to flourish and its effects on the places and people that grow the food, as well as on our own health.

Read More

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.

Read More

Universities should focus on people

(May 18, 2017)

We are entering the season of graduations and commencements, where speakers will applaud the graduates and exhort them to work hard to overcome the challenges that lie ahead.

No one will mention that these students are graduating into a future made difficult, if not impossible, by the lifestyle choices of their parents and grandparents. Nor will they be told they are unlikely to enjoy either the environmental or economic benefits of their elders, whose enterprises have cut down or polluted what they didn’t use up or destroy.

Those would be facts, not the usual flannel that characterizes the commencement address people expect to hear.

Avoiding the subject does not change the situation, however.

Ninety years ago, Raymond Fosdick compiled a book of commencement addresses he had been asked to give: The Old Savage in the New Civilization. His point was simple: humanity’s technological abilities had developed far faster than its moral capacity. We are using dangerous new tools the same way our ancestors used clubs, thousands of years ago, and risk self-destruction.

The key to moral development, he said, was education. New moral and ethical abilities are needed throughout society to manage the amazing possibilities reflected in the new civilization we have created. We must deliberately educate citizens to think in new ways, with a kind of wisdom and maturity that was lacking in the society that self-destructed during the Great War of 1914-1918 and which was threatening to do so again.

In the midst of the Roaring Twenties, Fosdick must have sounded like an old, unwelcome crow. Two years later, however, as the stock market crash of 1929 led into the Great Depression and the rise of fascism that preceded the Second World War, his audience likely changed their minds about him and his speech.

At the risk of sounding like an old crow myself, our post-secondary institutions here in Manitoba have failed their graduates and the society in which we live. They have not focused on educating citizens to make better choices than their parents and grandparents did. Instead, they have focused on churning out replacement parts for the machine civilization, whose further development threatens the existence of global society and much of life on Earth.

Read More