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.

Read More

Pass torch to younger hands

(November 10, 2020)

“In Flanders Fields” is woven into the framework of my memories of Remembrance Day ceremonies. For years I have wondered why that poem stands out more than others I have read from the Great War.

It could be somewhat personal: I recall the plaque identifying the McCrae family pew in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Guelph, and John McCrae’s name etched into the Memorial Wall at the University of Toronto, close to the arch I passed through many times.

I was brought to think of that poem again this year, as I listened to a young girl bravely recite it, supported by her mother in dress uniform and medals, as part of a service in Stony Mountain intended to be streamed on this strangest of all Remembrance Days.

There is a simple plaque on the cenotaph in Stony Mountain, noting that it contributed the most volunteers, per capita, of any community in the British Commonwealth, to service in the Second World War. Every year, their intergenerational Remembrance Day service has been packed to capacity by their descendants.

One line from that poem caught my attention, this time: “To you, from failing hands we throw the torch…” Taking a pause from treating (as best he could) the wounded and dying from the unending horrors of trench warfare on the western front, McCrae knew his generation was failing the test it had been given at the start of a new century. In a shattered world in which there were many victims but no victors, those who survived knew the reality of that failure, too.

Mere months after the armistice ending the First World War, even before the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, people started preparing for the next war. Pandemic disease (the Spanish flu) followed world war. Later, the global economy fell into the Great Depression. To desperate people, the promise of strong leadership led them to support totalitarianism and fascism.

But at least, on the Allied side, there was victory in 1945. Seventy-five years ago, we won. There was no failure, this time. In the surge of triumphant emotion, the United Nations was then set up, riding that wave of victory into a better future. We had caught that torch, held it high, and let the dead finally rest in peace, in Flanders fields and elsewhere.

Believing this was to be some final victory, however, turned out to be a serious mistake. The generation that caught McCrae’s torch and fought through everything to win in 1945 did not, in turn, throw the torch to the next generation. They (and their children, the baby boomers) did not lay the necessary foundation for future generations. Instead, deciding on their own reward for sacrifices made and services rendered, they have built a world only they themselves are able to enjoy.

These are harsh words, aimed as much at myself as anyone over the age of 50 who reads this. But they are true.

In some ways, the people of Germany and Japan have done a better job — there was no triumph for them in 1945, just a shattered society that (literally) had to be rebuilt from the ground up. That generation could see its failures all around, every day, and so worked hard to make amends to the next generation.

Certainly, in reunited Germany, that sense of loss, guilt and determination is palpable — inescapably woven into the fabric of its society, because everyone remembers, still, the high cost of failure.

Here in North America, we seem to have forgotten victory costs almost as much as defeat. The gains of a post-war world have steadily eroded since 1945. We now live in a society that seems more polarized and less tolerant every day. The gap between the obscenely rich and the rest of us widens.

More troubling, that sense of voluntary service to others has faded with time. (Think of the community service groups that have withered and died, as the Royal Canadian Legion struggles to survive.) Members of that wartime generation set an example of service, without communicating clearly to the next generation why they felt so compelled to volunteer.

They held on to the torch, and my generation did not demand it. Instead, we baby boomers have amused ourselves and each other into the mess we are all facing today. Twenty years into the next century, our own world war has been against the planet, not each other. Now, our own pandemic is here, too.

In the U.S. between 1933 and 1939, the New Deal responded to the Great Depression with programs, public work projects, financial reforms, and regulations.

The world, not just the U.S., needs a global New Deal — a green one, in which there is ecological justice, racial equality and economic sufficiency for all. We are called, once again, to live in service for others — especially for that next generation, into whose younger hands, very soon, we must throw the torch.

Otherwise, we will be the ones who break faith.

Read More

Pallister’s legacy: not easy being blue

(October 10, 2020)

If Premier Brian Pallister had not chosen (for his own reasons) to dodge Manitoba’s fixed election date law, we would have been headed to the polls in this past month.

The Progressive Conservative government would have spent the last year spinning explanations for its unfulfilled promises. Its response to the COVID-19 pandemic would have unfolded in the harsh light of pre-election scrutiny. Voters would have had the chance to decide how well that plan worked — or didn’t — as schools opened and the second wave hit.

So Pallister didn’t just dodge a law — he dodged a bullet. Several bullets, in fact. No doubt party faithful have raised a few glasses in his direction over the past six months.

Yet, apart from grimaces at his various gaffes since the last campaign, people on all sides now seem to be waiting for his forecasted retirement. Pallister himself is not behaving like someone who expects to account for his actions — or his inactions — for much longer.

Most charitably, the current throne speech was aspirational. Less charitably, it was delusional. Confident projections of Manitoba’s economic health, despite the ongoing effects of a global pandemic, sound like something normally found on a Twitter feed from the White House. While implying (tongue in cheek?) this outcome would require two more generations of Progressive Conservative government, Pallister did not anoint himself “Premier for Life.”

Instead, he appears to be in “legacy mode,” acting like someone heading into retirement after two decades of public service. For that dedication and longevity alone, he deserves our appreciation — but his legacy as premier is not something he can decide.

For example, the recent self-congratulatory skewing of Manitoba’s last fiscal year toward the black (ignoring all casualties) was stunningly tone-deaf — especially as next year’s outlook, thanks (in part) to COVID-19, is catastrophic.

If Pallister thinks he will be remembered for that accomplishment, along with reducing the provincial sales tax, then someone should at least clean his rose-coloured glasses for him.

Whether he has time to make amends before leaving office remains to be seen, but here is what his legacy looks like to me, regarding a sustainable future for Manitoba:

First, despite a growing global climate crisis driven by continued use of fossil fuels, in the past four years, Manitoba has done nothing substantive to reduce its own emissions. Pallister has fought, undermined and sidelined Manitoba Hydro, instead of finding ways to enhance our production, sale and domestic use of electricity.

Other places buy the electric buses we make, while provincial support for public transportation in Winnipeg has been reduced, and bus service in the rest of the province has disappeared. There are no provincial incentives for EV purchase, nor for installing public charging stations — but there is $2.5 million for a friend’s report.

Second, there is no functional climate action plan in Manitoba, in part because Pallister has politicized environmental protection for the first time in our provincial history. He has consistently undermined previous environmental initiatives, and seemingly regards environmental NGOs (and now protesters, too) as suitable political targets for retaliation when they object.

In four years, there have been three ministers made responsible for environmental affairs (none of whom had prior experience in the field) and two complete reorganizations of their departments – the most in any cabinet portfolio – making real progress impossible in this critical area.

As an example, David McLaughlin’s first post-campaign job for the provincial government (long before becoming head of the public service) was to do the legwork for a climate plan, especially a carbon tax. I participated in an excellent consultation at the Legislature attended by representatives from across all provincial sectors. We found a lot of common ground, but our advice was essentially ignored — replaced by the interpreted results of that bizarre online public consultation, no doubt at Pallister’s direction.

The freestanding pillars that bedeck Manitoba’s Climate and Green Plan make no architectural sense (outside of mimicking some ecological Stonehenge) and have changed nothing.

On Pallister’s watch, we have already lost four years we will never get back, largely because he has chosen to inject his personality (and ideology) into what should be a pragmatic discussion of what we can do together toward a sustainable future for all Manitobans. He has consistently resisted, objected to and refused to collaborate with the federal government on climate initiatives, leaving who knows how much money on the table that Manitobans could have used.

This week, there was nothing substantive about sustainability in the throne speech — just more of the premier’s trademarked flannel.

Brian Pallister’s personal political swan song might involve rewriting the lyrics of Kermit the Frog’s signature song to It’s Not Easy Bein’ Blue, focusing on his legacy of reducing deficits and cutting taxes. But since he was elected premier in 2016, it has been much harder for Manitobans of all colours to be green — and that’s what will be remembered.

Read More