Is Anybody Home?

When Sandy came to Capitol Hill

When Hurricane Sandy came to Capitol Hill, there was nobody home. After the hurricane subsided, however, the metaphor of the moment I took the picture persisted. When it comes to North American leadership on climate change, I still wonder whether anyone is home.

In the waves of ink (literal and electronic) that spilled over the pages of various publications in the aftermath of the storm, Sandy was a momentous event with unforeseen consequences. I felt a little like I did after 9/11, marveling how the “official” response could be one of surprise when so many had predicted such events would occur.

Sandy was a Category 1 hurricane, the smallest still able to be called one. Granted, tides and timing affected its severity, but it could easily have been a Category 3, and perhaps the third of the season to hit the same place.

This, after all, is what extreme weather due to climate change looks like. Our collective incapacity to recognize this fact is what makes me wonder whether anyone is home.

For my part, I was in Washington at the end of October for consultations about climate change, a response that tested the stern demeanor of the border agent who screened me as I boarded (literally) the last flight into the city before the airport was closed for two days and everything was cancelled.

The previous few days I had been in Ottawa, participating as workshop leader and panelist in PowerShift 2012 in the midst of more than 1000 participants younger and more energetic than the denizens of either Parliament Hill or Capitol Hill.

It was the Tale of Two Cities, capitals of the wealthiest countries in the forefront of global consumption of everything, especially energy, and I still wondered if anyone was home.

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The Conquest of Happiness

The small, land-locked country of Bhutan has become an unlikely champion for a sustainable new world order. Reminiscent of “The Mouse that Roared,” it prompted and sponsored the high-level meetings at the United Nations from April 2-4, 2012 in New York on a shift toward measuring happiness as an indicator of global sustainability.

These meetings were called for by the UN resolution of July 2011 that was supported positively by Canada, one of the few at the UN to have formal diplomatic relations with Bhutan, and negatively (through its lack of opposition) by the United States. Aimed both at preparing the ground for Rio+20 and for a framework of action to follow on that event, the high-level meetings included more movers and shakers than the moved and shaken.

As I listened to the webcast (live and taped) of the formal proceedings and the procession of luminaries each given their opportunity to offer six minutes of wisdom, I was left with an uncomfortable memory from the movie Casablanca, of the moment when Louis the police inspector instructs his men to “round up the usual suspects.”

Briefly heartened by the fire of Vandana Shiva, I was dismayed by the ice of Jeffrey Sachs (who had been a candidate for President of the World Bank), among the long line of contributors who were overwhelmingly both old and male. Most, like Sachs, were offering a reprise of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in the form of new happy objectives also requiring a thousand-year time-line to accomplish.

If there were moments of optimism, they came from those who – whether religious leaders or not – spoke to the necessity of finding other values besides economic ones to promote sustainability, instead of just agreeing on a new method of financial accounting relating to happiness. These moments were too rare. Unfortunately, there was much more circumlocution and absurdity. One speaker excoriated developing countries for undermining the MDGs by not having enough statistics to support the necessary policies, and said that any future success relating to sustainability requires such countries, first and foremost, to invest “heavily” in statisticians!

Fast-forward to Rio+20 and we moved from the sublime to the ridiculous. It was like going to a circus where, despite the posters and promises of excitement, the audience was given a demonstration of the clown-cannon without anyone actually firing it and the elephants merely lumbered, nose to tail, around the ring. It was prelude without performance, issuing in a document that could not fall short, as other efforts have done, because it tried to achieve nothing more than rhetorical targets, easily met.

It was like seeing an aged Carnival performer, not cavorting in the mystery of a torch-lit parade down the street, but in broad daylight the morning after, trying unsuccessfully to summon enthusiasm and energy long dissipated, heavy make-up failing to hide the ravages of time and dissolution.

It was smog, not fog, and no amount of Brazilian sunshine could burn it away and offer the vista of a brighter future.

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Party for the Planet at Rio+20

Rio +20 needs to be more like Woodstock than a G20+ summit.

The pre-show posturing has long since started. Scripts are written, actors are primed, and observers are making book on which fruitless performance will get the most applause.

What should be consensus building seems likely to devolve into the usual harangue on all sides. The gloomy excuses have no doubt been readied for what, in the wake of Kyoto, Copenhagen and Cancun, will be labelled another failed attempt at planetary salvage.

Unless, of course, Rio+20 turns into Woodstock+43. Instead of being the dinosaur at the dance, Canada could use its time on stage to start a party for the planet.

Our federal Minister of the Environment, Peter Kent, missed out on the first one because he was a reporter in Vietnam in 1969 when it happened. He might be an unlikely candidate to spark the Woodstock Effect in Rio de Janeiro next week, but every spontaneous movement begins with unanticipated leaders.

At Woodstock, American culture shifted. The height of the Vietnam War saw a mass event in a farmer’s field literally transform a culture. “Make Love, Not War” turned the V for Victory into a symbol of peace and reshaped the imagination – and lifestyle – of millions. It was the birth of a counterculture, with its tunes, heroes, mantras and chemical enhancements – and everyone inhaled the aroma of a different future.

Rio+20 could shift global culture in a similar way, recreating the Brazilian atmosphere of Carnival to promote sustainability for the whole Earth.

After all, we are not going to finagle a sustainable future. It won’t be crafted through a declaration or managed into existence through negotiations. It needs to come from the heart, a passion for the planet and for other people that changes how we see ourselves and what lies ahead. It needs to see possibilities, however improbable — turning barriers into obstacles that can be removed. It needs both the energy of youth and the sagacity of old age, combined with the pragmatism of the breadwinner who must put food on the table and the determination of a mother who holds a crying child.

Across all boundaries of age, race, economics and geography, that’s what needs to happen at Rio+20. Some of it might even trickle into the formal sessions and official pronouncements. Rio+20 is about relations, not exchanges; about finding common ground, not claiming territory. It is about finding value in people, wherever they live and whoever they are. It is about valuing the whole earth, not just the parts we want to use at the moment.

It must focus on happiness, not wealth, but happiness is not a cerebral event. It involves the whole person, beginning with food, water, security and work. Jeffrey Sachs and others to the contrary, a World Bank of Happiness would be no improvement on the current incarnation. The economics of excess, negotiating exchanges between those who have everything and those who have nothing, needs to be replaced with the spontaneity of gifts between people who care.

We invented the game of economic globalization, made the rules, and now find ourselves trapped by circumstances of our own creation at risk of losing everything. We need to change the game itself, not just become better players. We must make it one that we all want to play, one that brings life and passion to what we choose to do, together.

So, rock on at Rio+20. Its slogan for a sustainable future should be “Make Love, Not More.”

If we can’t party for the planet, then we don’t appreciate what life means to us and to all of the children of Earth, out to the seventh generation.

Have a great time in Rio, Mr. Kent. You missed out on Woodstock, but show them what Canada can bring to the party!