As youth follow Thunberg’s lead, what are the adults doing?

(September 25, 2019)

“The adults have failed us.”

The message Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has delivered clearly and consistently for the past year, from her spot outside the Swedish parliament to the UN, is simple and direct.

We are in a global crisis and the adults in charge of everything have done nothing to solve it.

It’s not about getting more information — we have all we need. It’s also not about figuring out what to do — we already know.

The adults have failed us, she says, because they have done nothing. The future of all the children of Earth is literally going up in smoke.

Every day we don’t act, the situation gets worse and more of that future disappears. Species go extinct, at the rate of 200 per day. The air is fouled, the water is filled with toxins and plastic, the food becomes unhealthy or scarce — this is what her future holds, as the landscape becomes dry, barren and unlivable.

She calmly observes there are no politics to change that reality, just yet.

In Canada, the federal election campaign was launched before the dust of the provincial election settled here in Manitoba. Her observation, unfortunately, continues to be true for us.

You could argue — though I would disagree — that business and industry have no responsibility to care for people or for the planet, that narrow-minded self-interest excuses their lack of social responsibility. But politicians, especially in a democracy, have responsibilities to everyone.

While we could also argue about the details of those responsibilities, clearly one of them should be preventing the end of civilization as we know it. Yet the response of all provincial parties to the climate crisis was pathetic, and I fear the federal parties will do no better.

In Manitoba, we have a renewed majority for a government that made indifference and inaction on environmental issues for the past three years into a perverse point of pride, preferring absence to engagement on those issues during the campaign.

The rest of the parties were no better. The climate crisis was ignored by the NDP in favour of a Throwback Thursday routine on health care, and while it was an earnest (but unconvincing) plank in the Liberal platform, for some inexplicable reason a sustainable future was sidelined even by the Green party, whose climate policies were pale green at best.

So, not surprisingly, many Manitobans ignored their own responsibility and stayed home. But there is no point to calling a society democratic when the people don’t vote.

The single biggest reason I heard for this dereliction of duty was, “Why vote, when nothing ever changes?”

There is truth in that reaction. Against the apathy and environmental inaction of the Progressive Conservative party — which once again garnered about 40 per cent or so of the vote — the other parties postured their 60 per cent share into inevitable defeat.

The politics of a sustainable future requires a coalition for the planet, where the best and brightest members of all parties — or none — find a way to work together for the radical transformation that our world so desperately needs.

Thunberg also reminds us individual choices matter, that what each of us does changes the world, in one direction or another.

On Friday, children will be following her lead and striking for the climate in more than 100 countries.

In Manitoba, they will be at the legislature from noon onward, to try to convince this next group of provincial politicians that — together — they must do what needs to be done, so these children can grow toward a future in which they are able to live.

But on that day, and in the aftermath of that global climate strike, where will the adults be? Will they be standing with the children, or standing against them?

Where will you be? Will you change how you live, the choices you make, every day? Or will you instead look into the eyes of your children and grandchildren and tell them you simply don’t care what happens to them?

We are faced with that kind of black or white choice. If nothing else, at least be honest — follow Thunberg’s example and be clear and direct about what you think and what matters most to you. Have the guts to tell the children, to their faces, that you intend to let their future burn.

If you can go on making those same choices as before, after you watch the children strike on Friday, then my Canada — and my world — really is upside down.

Thunberg and others have wondered whether the climate crisis is too important to be left to the politicians to solve. They must also be wondering if the climate crisis is too important for the adults to be left in charge any longer.

We will see what they decide.

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Politicians should copy school bus drivers

(September 3, 2019)

Every morning and afternoon at this time of year, “back to school” means watching out for the yellow/orange school buses criss-crossing the province.

If you have ever waited for one by the side of the road, you know the first-day excitement (or, in winter, the relief) as it rounds the corner and heads for your stop.

With a mixture of dread and anticipation, the opening door signals the start of a new school year or a new school day. The first person you see is always the driver. As parents, we place a huge trust in these people, every day.

School bus drivers would be near the top of the “Most Trusted” list in our province. And it is a sad comment that politicians of any stripe would likely be close to the bottom of such a list.

School bus drivers don’t need press conferences to make us promises they shouldn’t make or couldn’t keep. They just deliver our children safely, every day, regardless of the weather — as they are supposed to do.

Perhaps we should have similar expectations of those we elect to political office — just to care for us and our kids, every day, regardless of circumstances, like they were driving the local school bus.

No ideologies, no grandstanding, no childish tantrums in the legislature. Just do what you were elected to do.

No leader’s ego should be involved, either. Imperial politics, where the emperor has total control, are always bad for the ordinary citizen. What’s more, our follow-the-leader style of party politics undermines the integrity and credibility of the rest of those who are elected, because obedience (not intelligence or wisdom) is the only thing that matters.

This emphasis on obedience over common sense also determines the kind of people who choose to run for office in the first place. I simply don’t trust people who leave their judgment outside the caucus-room door — people who do and say whatever they are told.

Regardless of party affiliation, regardless of how good you think the leader is, such individuals don’t make good representatives of the people.

In fact, if you wouldn’t trust a candidate to drive your children to school on the bus, don’t vote for them, whatever party they represent.

Thinking back to my school bus days, I remember Charlie, who drove the primary-school bus. He really used to enjoy the first day of school, joking the parents were happier to see him than were the kids.

I also remember Dave, who drove the high -school bus. Despite a complete lack of formal education, he demonstrated in conversation every day that he was the wisest and smartest adult in my life — and far from living in glamour, the rest of his day he spent working a septic truck and running the local trailer park.

If either of them had run for political office, I would have voted for them in a heartbeat, whatever the position.

For those city folks who will not understand the importance of school bus drivers, you might get a glimmer of what I mean if Winnipeg Transit goes on strike this fall. If it takes a community to raise a child, it requires a bus to get them to school — or at least it should.

Despite all the concerns for global warming and reducing fossil-fuel consumption, however, there are no longer any other buses outside Manitoba cities. The Pallister government has done nothing to fill the hole left by years of declining — and now cancelled — bus service to rural areas.

If you aren’t rich enough or able to drive yourself, you either walk or stay home.

Inside the cities, provincial cuts to transit funding mean no fundng for electric buses, for transit-route expansion or for the entirely practical possibilities of light rail transit in the Winnipeg metropolitan region. Drive yourself (and your kids), walk or stay home.

There were electric streetcars from Winnipeg to Selkirk until the 1930s. What we see today, as the Amazon and Siberia (and northern Manitoba) forests burn, is not progress — but it’s what happens when we don’t use common sense on such issues as carbon consumption and public transportation.

We need more trees and fewer cars. If you want to call that political, go ahead — it is still common sense.

So, as Sept. 10 approaches, remember:

Ditches don’t vote. Any candidate who posts signs on public property does so because they have more signs than supporters.

Don’t vote for the leader, unless you happen to live in one of the four constituencies in Manitoba where there is a party leader running. The leader will not represent you.

If the party you prefer can’t find anyone good to run in your constituency, vote for someone else.

Vote as if your life, and the life of your kids, depends upon who is driving the local school bus.

Because it does.

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Add hope to back-to-school list

(August 22, 2019)

It’s back-to-school-shopping time again. Stores are full of harried parents, trying to balance school supply lists against offspring demands and the budget shambles of summer’s end.

The climate crisis is not on their list, or their radar, but it should be.

Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg is not going back to school this fall. She marked the 52nd week of her School Strike for the Climate on a sailboat in the North Atlantic, refusing to fly and instead going carbon-neutral to New York for the UN climate summit.

Her blunt message is the same now as when she first sat down with her crude sign in front of the Swedish Parliament a year ago: “The adults have failed us.”

And so we have. For 30 years, I have been teaching writing and agitating for cultural change. We need to live with the Earth’s ecological systems, not against them, and with dignity and justice for all. Science, history and common sense tell us the truth of these ideas.

Yet the adult leadership in charge of business, industry and especially government has done little or nothing to change the catastrophic course of our society. Whatever our role, we have all failed the children.

As an activist (and despite circumstances, an optimist), I keep hoping that, one day, the parents will wake up.

They will wake up and realize what kind of world their children will inherit, if nothing changes, and they will see everything that is said or done through that lens. They will measure what is needed for a sustainable future against the pathetic efforts of current politicians to change course, and against the pointless greed of consumer culture that makes us as disposable as plastic forks.

When the parents wake up, everything will change — have you seen what a mother bear will do to protect her cub? Imagine a province — or a planet — full of mother bears, and the anger that will be directed at the people who have made things worse instead of better.

Imagine their reaction, in a world on fire because of our overuse of fossil fuels, to Premier Brian Pallister’s election pledge to reduce vehicle registration costs by $35 a year, to make it more affordable to drive a car. On top of removing the PST on dead people and pedicures, this latest splurge is either ridiculous or contemptuous.

I am not surprised, though. He has squandered the past three years on ideological posturing instead of working collaboratively toward a sustainable future for Manitobans. Of all the adults in the room, his failure is the greatest.

To be clear, the NDP did little better, and for a longer time. The green flurry at the end of premier Greg Selinger’s government was a desperation move, finally listening to what backbenchers such as MLA Rob Altemeyer (Wolseley) had been advocating for years. But it was too little, too late.

I perked up listening to Dougald Lamont talking about the Liberal green plan, but that enthusiasm quickly faded when he said it was just one of the things on their list of priorities. As for the Green party, while I think a guaranteed income is a good idea, I had hoped their party would champion a sustainable future this time around, instead of being a sinkhole for votes from the left.

The climate crisis is a crisis, not an option. It is a fact, not an interpretation. We will either manage it, or it will manage us — especially if the adults continue to fail those children we are about to send back to school.

In a crisis, every moment counts. Every decision is crucial. Every person is needed to do what they can, together.

Yet instead of a response to this crisis, the barrage of political attack ads has begun. Each one digs the grave of our children’s future a little deeper, distracting us from the real issues on which we should be focused.

Instead of collaboration, we are divided against each other, pitting generation against generation, as the (elderly) elite few continue to profit from the misery of those whose future they are burning.

So on Sept. 10, every vote counts. No seat, and no MLA, should be safe.

Measure what they say they will do, or claim they have done, against what is needed.

Whatever government is elected, on Sept. 27 — the global day to strike for the climate, following the movement Thunberg started — we must demand action that matters from them. Your kids will not be in school that day and you need to join them.

Will any of this be enough to make a difference? I don’t know. But when my kids turn to me, in the midst of whatever disasters the future holds because the adults have failed them, at least I want to say that I tried.

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