Time to take action on the north is now

(July 20, 2017)

As the weeks spin on, there are still no solutions in sight for that growing swarm of problems facing communities in northern Manitoba.

Problems such as closing the port in Churchill, cutting back and then suspending the rail service, a shrinking time frame for winter ice roads and limited local access to healthy food, medical care and quality education — even just having clean drinking water — are like the insects that make life miserable, but not impossible, for northern residents who live far from the Golden Boy.

News of some upgrades to cellphone service or access to the internet seem like public-relations maneuvers, leaving the main swarm untouched.

Foot-dragging on the problems of northern communities is inexcusable. Further, whatever the competing federal responsibilities might be, First Nations communities are equally part of our life together in Manitoba, and the provincial government should also address their basic needs.

First, the north is warmer than it was, and that trend is going to continue — likely even faster than has been predicted, because people are not transitioning to a lower-carbon lifestyle. We can blame that on other people, elsewhere, but in fact we are doing no better ourselves. The Manitoba government is not only shirking its responsibility to provide leadership on greenhouse gas emissions, but through cuts to public transit subsidies it is actually making things worse. Something constructive and substantial must be done, immediately.

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Opinion surveys a moot point in climate discussion

(July 11, 2017)

And the survey says… or does it?

Comments on “what Manitobans want” about a carbon tax sound like an episode of Family Feud. The answers depend on the questions asked and who happened to be in the crowd that was surveyed on the day.

Moreover, expecting Todd MacKay of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation (CTF) to say something good about a carbon tax (“Manitobans should resist carbon tax,” July 5) would be like expecting the Dairy Farmers Association to say nice things about margarine.

The lesson to be learned here is never to use opinion surveys to direct government policy one way or the other. Surveys tend to yield the results desired by the people who commission them. From the questions themselves (where a loaded question gets you a loaded answer) to the selection of contributors, surveys have become tools of propaganda more than social analysis.

To use the poorly designed, badly administered, self-selected survey on carbon tax offered by the Manitoba government as anything more than an illustration of how to do things wrong is, therefore, simply absurd.

Further, it’s not just about what you ask, but what instrument you use for the survey. I have queried classes of university students for several years now and found that most of them only have cellphones. Want to know what Manitobans under 30 think about anything? Don’t expect to find out by calling their grandparents on the family landline at 2 p.m.

Nor will even that survey necessarily yield the wisdom we expect from our elders. As Britons found out to their chagrin in the Brexit vote, older people do not always have the interests of the younger ones in mind. Overwhelmingly, the younger voters (at least those who got out of bed to vote) wanted to stay in the European Union — by the same margins older people voted to leave it. Those who had no future of their own apparently did not care much about anyone else’s, either. That’s a disturbing prospect for any society, including our own.

I would thus rather listen to what the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce has to say about implementing a carbon tax than have supposedly random surveys or public referenda guide the development of government policy on ecological issues. Nor would I easily accept the conclusions of think-tanks like the CTF, which boasts such former leaders as Jason Kenney in its “non-partisan” work.

Frankly, the term “think-tank” tends to be an oxymoron. Too often think-tanks merely parrot the ideology of their founders/funders, cloaking their bias in little more than a dollar-store disguise — something (ironically) that actually tanks critical thinking and undermines the credibility of any conclusions they reach.

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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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