Now more than ever, hope matters

Misspelling the Maasai word for “hope” — osiligi — in a Kenyan primary school (2014)

(March 28, 2020)

ACTIVISTS have always said that we need to find another way to do things. Another way to live together — to live with the Earth, instead of against it.

For too long, the response, from too many people, has been, “No. There isn’t another way.” Or, “I don’t want to look for one.” Or, “We did it once and it didn’t work – we tried.”

Through COVID-19, Mother Nature is delivering a blunt message: “Think again. Try harder.”

We need to listen, but that means major cultural change, for communities everywhere. People think such change is difficult, but culture changes all the time.

Since the Second World War, for example, western industrial consumer culture and its ideals of material prosperity have gone global. But so has the damage to the biosphere caused by the tools, systems and attitudes of that culture. So have the social costs, reflected not in global prosperity but in income inequality, made worse by people losing their homes and livelihoods in rural areas and crowding into unplanned cities.

However much the economic indicators have continually crowed about higher gross domestic product, the happiness/well-being indicators have continued to drop. The gross national happiness index, promoted by such countries as Bhutan, was certainly mocked at Wall Street parties. Can you even count happiness?

Happiness might be hard to measure, but unhappiness is literally embodied. Too many of us are malnourished or overweight (or both), inactive and unfit, afflicted with problems that a healthy body should manage. Unhealthy and unhappy seem to go together.

And now, here we are. Anyone who doubts that we are all in this together, inextricably linked to everyone and everything on Earth, just has to watch the graphs of COVID-19 cases, and the global economic dominoes that continue to fall as a result.

Scientists, activists and fiction writers have been predicting a global pandemic for decades. Their audiences have ignored them, sold their books at garage sales, or left theatres thankful that the heroes saved the day, once again, before the popcorn ran out.

As we watch people adjust to whatever this “new normal” means — and it will likely be months before anything even remotely resembling the “old normal” returns — there are some truths already emerging about what matters most:

Neighbours matter. Other people need our help, just as we will certainly need theirs.

There are no strangers anymore — just people we haven’t yet met. If you feel alone, don’t just sit there — reach out.

Relationships matter. Whether the people are near or far, close companions or people (even family) we have hardly talked to in years, those relationships are how we stay grounded, reassured, comforted, encouraged and motivated to get through whatever today brings.

Community matters. No one is in this crisis alone — how we all behave, together, affects how we will survive it, together. Competition in these circumstances is pointless — co-operation makes the group stronger.

Sharing matters. If we each contribute what we can to the well-being of the community, those relationships are strengthened, for whatever comes our way.

Generosity matters. It takes many forms, and so do the gifts we can give. The gift of time, of care, can be as simple as a phone call, or the offer to pick up food or medicine for the most vulnerable. If you still have a job or an income, think of those neighbours who currently do not.

It’s too glib to say religion matters, because in a time of crisis, when the artillery shells fall, there are no atheists in a foxhole. But this situation makes us think about our life priorities, what we are doing with our time and our abilities, what we mean to the people around us and about what we can do for others. Religious or spiritual beliefs can help us to reflect on those things.

Technology matters — as long as we remember technology is in our heads, not just our hands. We can do things differently, so think hard about how to change our culture so what matters most to us is supported by our technology, not undermined by it. We are all powerful, capable people, and there is always another way if we try harder.

Finally, hope matters. With enthusiasm, I once misspelled the Maasai word for “hope” on an ancient blackboard, with a stub of chalk, in a ramshackle school in rural Kenya.

“Osiligi” was everywhere in conversation and on signs. At a deeper level, it means more than just “hope.” It is the faith that what is done right aligns with how the universe is meant to unfold, for a continual blessing from generation to generation, as part of the rhythm of life.

Amid such abject poverty, I learned a valuable life lesson from them.

Their courageous response to the challenges they faced every day was: “Osiligi.”

May it also be ours.

Peter Denton is an activist, author and sustainability consultant based in rural Manitoba. His seventh book, Imagine a Joyful Economy (a collaboration with Gus Speth), was just published by Wood Lake Books.

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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Premier’s green plan takes province nowhere

(November 2, 2017)

Under the guise of its “made-in-Manitoba” climate plan, the provincial government has referred our future to committee. All of the things we could, should and must do are now open for conversation and discussion by the whole province which, of course, will lead nowhere by the next election.

Committees are structures designed and intended for the dissipation of energy. No new idea, however good, will keep its momentum for change very long once a committee goes to work on it.

Any consensus on action regarding greenhouse gases or climate change that results from this “plan” will, therefore, have to be engineered, perhaps (once more) through those outrageously bad government feedback surveys that are conducted online.

Premier Brian Pallister has become the Leader Who Wouldn’t Lead. By the end of his term in office, much of the remaining global window to effect change to help steer the planet away from otherwise inevitable catastrophe will be gone.

It is an astonishing dereliction of duty, not merely some clever political ploy to play competing groups against each other. Governments of whatever ideological stripe have a responsibility to all the citizens, not just to all the partisans.

(To be clear, I am not trying to make a political statement here. The only party to which I have ever belonged — 40 years ago — was the Progressive Conservative Party.)

Pretending to have a perspective that considers the effects of its decisions out to the seventh generation, and then offering a document like A Made-in-Manitoba Climate and Green Plan, is simply offensive.

Launching it from the wonderful wild bird sanctuary at Oak Hammock Marsh either demonstrates the provincial government has a twisted sense of humour, or none at all. With this as our climate plan to combat global warming, take your pick of conclusions: either our goose is cooked or we are all dead ducks.

The provincial government does not need our ideas. It has been inundated with good ideas since the Tories came to office. They merely want to avoid decisions that might have a political cost, at least as far as that is calculated in the back rooms of the PC party’s headquarters at 23 Kennedy St.

For example, they chose to give the agricultural sector a free pass on greenhouse gas mitigation — as though farmers don’t live on the same planet as the rest of us or are somehow clueless about the effects of climate change and global warming.

“Can we afford to do it?” is the wrong question. “Can we afford not to do it?” is closer to an inconvenient truth.

To be clear, again, I am offering a personal perspective here, not one necessarily associated with any of the groups to which I belong.

After all, the air I breathe, the water I drink, the food I eat — they are all personal. It is the same for you, for our children and grandchildren, and for all the children of Earth, present and future, who are the silent victims in this conversation.

Since Premier Pallister doesn’t like email, send him a letter, or a postcard, that identifies what is important to you:

I want to breathe clean air. Or, I want to eat healthy food. Or, I want to drink clean water.

Or, I don’t want my children or grandchildren to die because you have done nothing to change the future that is almost here.

Single stamps cost one dollar — perhaps the most important loonie you will ever spend.

The address is:

Premier Brian Pallister

204 Legislative Building

450 Broadway

Winnipeg, MB R3C 0V8

Mobilize your church, temple, synagogue or mosque to do the same. Your community club, agricultural association, curling rink, hockey team, book club, office or organization. Put a pile of blank cards out for customers, next to the till.

It’s about good business as well as wise choices. There is no profit in a healthy future that will not exist. Science and common sense must replace partisan politics and denial.

Premier Pallister, if you and your government are not just dodging your ecological responsibilities (as you have dodged them for the past 15 months), take a month to “listen” and then step up to do what you should have done from the start.

Make Manitoba the carbon-negative province it could be. Make us world leaders instead of laughingstock at home and abroad. Invest in a future the rest of us believe could be there if we work at it, even if you have lost hope and don’t believe it is possible.

Or resign, right now, all of you, and let someone else try before it is too late.

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