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.

Pointed questions for visiting PM

(January 18, 2020)

If I could ask Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet one question before their Winnipeg retreat this weekend, it would be: “Would you shoot the children?”

I admit this is a brutal way to start a column. But it does cut away the fluff and go straight to the heart of the problem.

As this is being written, RCMP officers in full tactical gear have barricaded the traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en in British Columbia, and blocked journalists from entering the area. We don’t know what orders have been issued around the potential use of lethal force against anyone who breaches their lines.

Forget the unresolved issues of Indigenous land claims, the court cases still unfolding, the opinion of human rights tribunals, and any other number of issues. The pipeline goes through. Period.

Forget the climate crisis, the need to keep the oil in the ground, and especially forget we signed the Paris Agreement to limit global warming. Ignore the fires in Australia — and ignore that, except for a miracle, the same fires could have burned in dry northern Manitoba this past summer. Spin the issue of carbon tax some more, offer smoke and mirrors, distract the crowds with bread and circuses, and make sure the pipeline goes through. Period.

Around the world, children are staying out of school, by the millions, to strike for the climate. Greta Thunberg became the face of that global movement, but there are many other young people, including right here in Canada, who will fight just as hard for their future.

But what does that mean? Will it mean the kind of civil action that #ExtinctionRebellion has led elsewhere? Does it mean there will be demonstrations, blockades, protests — attempts to block pipeline construction, among other things?

Of course, it will. The global system is not working. We are literally burning up our children’s future and yet somehow still avoid dealing with what is so obvious to them. There are very few predictions of what lies ahead past 2050, when today’s teenagers will only be middle-aged. We don’t even talk about that nightmare, anymore.

Young people can see we are not making decisions that respect the land and all of the children of Earth, as we should. Forget considering the seventh generation — we can’t even manage to care for the next one.

Because of our lazy luxuries, our sluggish and indolent response to the climate crisis, their future — and that of their own children and grandchildren — is going up in flames, as surely as that Australian bush.

Why should we expect them to say nothing, in response? Why should we expect them to do nothing, either?

Thankfully, the protests so far are non-violent — the next generation has learned what happens when popular opposition resorts to violence. The young people march instead.

But when young people take to the streets in increasing numbers, as they will — supported by the adults who care for them and understand their concerns for the future — what will our leaders do?

Will they order out the riot police, in mirrored helmets, to beat them down with clubs? Gas them? Use water cannons? Fire rubber bullets to maim them? Perhaps shoot to kill?

Before you say such things could never happen here, remember how the Harper government dealt with the G20 protests in Toronto a decade ago.

When unjust social or environmental policies are enforced by the machinery of the state, confrontation is inevitable. People may get hurt or die as a result. Situations such as the one on Wet’suwet’en land are the result of our failure to find another, better way forward, one that not only respects everyone involved, but offers ecological justice, too.

Political leaders who raise their own children to respect other people and the Earth they share can expect tough days ahead, because the next demonstration may see their own kids in the front row, walking toward those same riot police.

One way or the other, children are preparing for the future we have created for them. They would be in school, studying, if we had solved the climate crisis. But the fact they are on the streets instead is a sign of our failure, our cowardice, our hypocrisy — and what’s worse, makes me wonder about our apparent willingness even to use force against them rather than change the course of our society toward a sustainable future.

So, Trudeau, as the movement for climate justice grows, do you plan to deploy RCMP tactical squads or the Canadian Armed Forces to suppress Canadians, including children who object to government policies or protest government inaction?

Or will you publicly commit, here in the Heart of the Continent, to finding another way, one without such dangerous potential for us all?

Dance on a cliff, and someone certainly will fall.

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Looking ahead with 2020 vision

(January 3, 2020)

THIS year, 2020, will start with a series of “dad” jokes about vision, about how well we can see what lies ahead.

As Manitoba marks its 150th year, it is worth remembering that the only 20/20 vision is hindsight. After all, our province’s founding father, Louis Riel, was hanged for high treason by the Canadian government — a mistake that took generations to be admitted, even though it was obvious at the time.

To reduce the number of mistakes governments (like individuals) inevitably make, we need foresight, today more than ever before. Unfortunately, there has been little evidence of foresight in the choices and priorities of our governments over the past several years, and we are all, literally, much poorer for that.

We need to look ahead, to see what is coming at us down the road and prepare. The sluggish investment market in Manitoba, the muddling economic growth that seems the best we can manage, combined with random cuts to government services and provincial debt, are some of the reasons why Manitoba has much less to celebrate this year than it should.

The question, of course, is whether the politicians — from Premier Brian Pallister down — have the humility and wisdom to realize, with hindsight, they have made mistakes and then try to correct them. Recent experience suggests this is probably a vain hope — witness U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to rewrite history itself rather than admit any mistake whatsoever — but I still want to believe it’s possible for politicians here in Manitoba.

We should be planning to create a bright green future for all Manitobans, but to an outside observer, we are instead making choices that, at best, undermine it. Even small things can say more than we realize to someone who wonders about Manitoba as a place to visit, to invest or to live.

For example, before visitors even collect their luggage, they encounter the new airport terminal with washrooms that have replaced high-capacity paper towel dispensers with a couple of blow dryers — slow, noisy, and entirely unsanitary. No paper in sight for any other purpose, either, apart from toilet paper. Most people either don’t wash their hands or wipe them on their pants as they leave.

To a visitor, it suggests Manitobans don’t understand public health, are unaware of the practicalities of arriving passengers and human nature, and have pessimistically designed their systems only to handle low traffic volumes. Venturing into the city, they will find shopping malls and restaurants understand these things — just not the airport authority. Hmm.

Exploring further, what about the most recent economic development plan for Winnipeg and surrounding regions? Oops. Nothing much of substance there. Provincial? Ditto. Cooperation between different levels of government? (Cue stories about the Battle of the Brians, and duking it out with the feds on a dozen files). Hmm again.

Moving to environmental issues, what pragmatic steps have been taken to adapt to changing conditions, taking advantage of changes like warmer weather, and countering the negative ones in terms of infrastructure and resource management? Are environmental and sustainability initiatives a priority for government, in partnership with local stakeholders? Oops again.

Looking at downtown, there is (finally!) evidence of some serious redevelopment for the 21st century. But it is all about recycling money already here, not attracting outside investment. We have the Canadian Museum for Human Rights as a destination attraction, but talk about converting the land around it to a water park or luxury condos, so we don’t really understand why.

Take in a ball game, and listen to the railcars full of oil and gas lurch across one narrow bridge in the heart of the downtown — and wonder why, on a flat prairie, they don’t go around, instead. The politicians may crow about the two underpasses built on time and under budget, but an outsider would wonder why they had been built at all.

Want to attract new business? Consider where their employees would live: no one with a sensible urban plan these days is doing new greenfield development, placing homes miles away from work spaces, and then connecting them only with traffic jams because there is no commuting alternative, like real rapid transit (a light rail system on that flat prairie).

High urban density, fast, comfortable public transit — add reliable power (finally, one checkmark, thanks to Manitoba Hydro!) and a public perception of personal safety (oops, again), and companies might look to invest in Winnipeg as a 21st century city.

We drive to where our eyes are focused on the road ahead. Until we decide ourselves where we are going, no one else is going to help us get there.

Fix your mistakes. Combine common sense with foresight. Replace bickering with co-operation.

Make 2020 into the year Manitoba looked forward, instead of back.

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