Pondering responses to existential threats

(April 23, 2021)

THE people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines are worried about COVID-19. Like us, they are worried about getting sick and about how soon they will get a vaccine to protect them from its most serious effects.

But they are more worried about the wave of volcanic ash covering their islands right now and the risk of further eruptions from the Soufrière volcano. As current jargon goes, for them the volcano is an existential threat, a threat to their existence. The volcano could kill anyone within reach of its fires, fumes and ash — today.

In other words, it puts their worries about COVID-19 in a more pragmatic context.

As another Earth Day wobbles by, virtually unnoticed, I find myself almost wishing there was a climate volcano — immediate, undeniable and obviously an existential threat. After all, no one argues with a lava flow.

If there were such a climate volcano, maybe then we would be forced to actually deal with it, too, and therefore manage our anxieties about COVD-19 in a more pragmatic way.

I say “almost,” because wishing for an erupting volcano to get people’s attention seems rather extreme. But the existential threat from a changing climate and a degrading biosphere is just as much a real and present danger.

For all its good intentions, however, Earth Day really doesn’t make much of a difference, except as a focal point for grade-school ecology lessons.

Environmental activists regard every day to be Earth Day. Considering it once annually completely defeats the purpose. Moreover, for those who refuse to see the existential threat of climate change, yet another “international day of recognition” puts saving the Earth as we know it on the same level as Scrabble Day (April 13), Penguin Day (April 25), or Kiss a Ginger Day (Jan. 12).

“Build back better” (and greener) is certainly a good slogan for the post-pandemic world, whenever that appears, but allowing climate inaction to be socially acceptable in the meantime is a recipe for disaster. Dithering about ecological issues today is like telling the people of St. Vincent that volcanic ash is good roughage, or that erupting volcanoes create new real estate opportunities further out to sea as the island expands.

For Canada, this pandemic reset is a chance for real social change, but that would require a level of general co-operation not seen since the Second World War. (If you want to read about how we could repeat that transformation today, check out Seth Klein’s recent book, A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency).

Instead, we have federal politicians jockeying for position amid speculations of a spring general election. There is the usual posturing about “left wing” versus “right wing,” but without both wings, that goose don’t fly.

So, without that general co-operation, not only will there be an unnecessary federal election, but we will be left to pick among poor political alternatives when it comes to dealing with the existential threat of a climate-changing world.

For example, the absurd Conservative un-tax on carbon emissions (“The more you burn, the more you save!”) deserves an op-ed column on its own — or at least a stand-up comedy routine. It does offer some hope, however, that the humour gods didn’t forever abandon the Conservative party when Stephen Harper became leader. (Erin O’Toole and his cronies managed to reveal the un-tax with straight faces, for which they deserve their own Saturday Night Live sketch.)

The NDP remains unelectable as a national government, because it continues to be mired in causes, hamstrung by unrealistic policies and blind to pragmatic alliances. Despite initial expectations, Jagmeet Singh has been the most bland and ineffectual NDP leader since Nicole Turmel. Even his intercultural social media appeal is anemic compared to Gurdeep Pandher of Yukon, whose bhangra dances and messages of hope get thousands of responses on Twitter, compared to hundreds for anything from Singh.

Like the NDP, the Greens are unelectable by themselves, a splinter party with random candidates. Annamie Paul needs to get more Canadians behind her Green party leadership — and give up running for second place in a Toronto riding, so she can get a seat in the House somewhere else.

The Liberals continue to present themselves as the Party of Last Climate Hope, attracting an array of talented MPs who are somehow lobotomized into thinking that pipelines are the answer — permitting ethical gaffes by party leadership they would never have accepted in their own private lives. When he listens to good advice from outside the Liberal echo chamber, Justin Trudeau is managing his role well enough. But being greener than former U.S. president Donald Trump is not much of an achievement for Trudeau any more, considering how much more President Joe Biden has already accomplished.

Hmmm… if even a pandemic can’t make them all work together to solve urgent problems, perhaps we do need an erupting volcano, after all.

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