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

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.

Read more