Close to home is where we need to live

(February 9, 2021)

Nine years ago, I began to write a trilogy of books on the sustainability problem – what was wrong, how we got here, and what we could do to avert the disaster that lies ahead.

The title of the third book, published in in 2016, was somewhat prophetic, given our current pandemic situation. I called it Live Close to Home.

One of the things I had realized about our unsustainable western culture was that many of us are more interested in things at a distance than in things close at hand.

Instead of eating staple foods that are produced locally, we import them from away — often, far away. Instead of spending time at home, we escape from there as often as we can — again, sometimes going far away. Instead of spending cash we already have in our pockets, we buy more and more on credit, which is money we hope to have, sometime in the future. We fume about politics and global affairs in other places, but ignore what is happening in our own city or neighbourhood.

When it comes to the environment, we worry about global warming, pollution and environmental degradation and how these affect people and planet somewhere else, but don’t think much about what we eat, drink and breathe ourselves, right here.

If you think about our relationships with other people, there has been a similar shift there, too. We don’t really reach out and touch someone – too often, we use our communications technology to do it instead, from a distance.

Not surprisingly, the pandemic has only made this situation worse. So, with physical distancing morphing into social isolation, it’s not surprising that we worry about our mental as well as physical health during this pandemic.

I remember watching people, supposedly out together to talk over coffee, yet both on their cellphones messaging someone else instead. After all, when you text and message instead of talking face to face, your partner literally can be anyone, anywhere in the world. Often, these partners are far away — because distant avatars may be more exciting than an actual person picking the food out of their teeth, seated across the table.

Surveying students, especially international students, I found many are spending six to eight hours a day on their phones and computers, and others confess they are online from the moment they wake up, all day long. So if the internet goes down or the cell service stops, it seems we are utterly cut off from everything and everyone that matters.

Of course, this is not true. But that’s how it feels.

Obviously, isolation and loneliness are not new problems. You could argue the pandemic has merely removed the distractions that used to keep us from noticing how alone we really are. A night at the club, the pub, the concert, the game — all these activities allow us to avoid the awkward fact that the crowd would not have missed us if we had stayed away.

In the end, we can’t escape who and where we are. For the sake of our own good health, we need to live close to home, focusing first on ourselves and where (and how) we live, and to make that the foundation of everything else.

Living close to home provides other benefits for a green recovery and a sustainable future, too. We can buy local food to cook for ourselves; shop local, in community stores; help neighbours struggling with chores they can’t manage on their own; drop food on the doorstep of someone who feels just as isolated as we do. We can be kind, rather than cranky, when someone makes a mistake because of the stress they are under, too.

We are trying to spend less and stretch each dollar further, because our future income seems not as certain as it used to be. We now know more about our kids’ education than perhaps we ever did before, because we help them with it every day — or perhaps we have become their teacher.

Favourite restaurants provide us with takeout food that families are now eating together, instead of everyone alone and apart. We can no longer easily escape the people we live with, a fact that can be both painful and hopeful at the same time, as we are made to focus on what is happening close to home.

And yet while we have learned, the hard way, that nothing on a screen can replace a hug from someone we love, no one is ever really alone when there is someone, somewhere, who appreciates us for who we are. Especially when our communications technology is used to develop or enrich our personal situation, not just to escape it, living close to home can be a healthy and positive approach to coping with pandemic stress.

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COVID-19 response will cement Pallister’s legacy

(April 8, 2020)

As the water levels rise again this spring, Winnipeggers are less anxious than others who live along riverbanks. Sheltered behind the recently expanded floodway, we have safely managed several “floods of the century” since the city was swamped in 1950.

Duff Roblin did not regard that 1950 flood as an isolated event, something unlikely to reoccur in his time as premier. Instead, he took the lesson of that flood to heart, and did something generations of Manitobans since have appreciated. It is his legacy.

“Duff’s Ditch” was an object of derision at the time, however. He paid a political price for digging it. His government put principle ahead of politics, doing what was right instead of what kept people happy.

Premier Brian Pallister has watched Manitoba deal with a flood of another kind, as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads. Mostly because of our geography, we are behind the lethal numbers seen elsewhere. Outside of the Festival du Voyageur, Manitoba in February is simply not a travel destination for tourists who have a choice.

In this brief breath before the first big wave of the pandemic hits here, there are already some lessons to be learned. We will be watching to see what kind of leadership Premier Pallister and his Progressive Conservative government provide, and whether he personally has the wisdom in crisis that a good leader must demonstrate to keep the confidence of the people.

Right now, I have some serious doubts, but in the hopes that first impressions are misleading, and that, in a crisis, good advice from all sides is needed and heeded, I offer the following:

1. This is not “the Pandemic of the Century.” It is the pandemic of 2019-21. There will be more pandemics, and likely subsequent waves of COVID-19. We need to plan ahead to minimize the impact of future pandemics on health care, communities, education and the economy.

2. Local communities and neighbourhoods matter. Resources geared to strengthening them are essential. Budgets should not be trimmed at the expense of libraries, recreation centres, pools and other local community infrastructure. In a pandemic, we need neighbours.

3. Basic essential services must be supported in local communities, not centralized elsewhere under the guise of “efficiency.” This would include basic medical, dental, prescription drugs and food services. There should be no “food deserts” or any other kind of local hole in essential services.

4. Reducing dependence on essential supplies from elsewhere is critical. Borders can be closed, and will be. What happens to local communities if the trucks and trains stop? We need to develop and support all stages of food production in Manitoba, for example, from farm to plate.

5. Education systems need a plan, with resources and supplies, for moving back and forth between in-class and distance delivery. This requires both the right technology, so no Manitoban child is left behind because they can’t afford the equipment, and the right pedagogy. The answer to every distance education question is not Zoom.

6. High-speed internet everywhere in the province is essential. The technology is available to do this. Even communities right around Winnipeg have poor service — or none at all. To allow for education and work to be done at home, everyone needs the same level of access, not just those in prime locations or who have the money to pay.

7. Guaranteed basic income is necessary, with housing to suit that budget. Raise the floor, and there will be less need for social services and emergency supports, less child poverty, and less dependence on the charity of others that can disappear when times get tough.

8. We must identify core medical supplies in the event of a mass event such as COVID-19 and stockpile enough for six months. Identify local suppliers or industries than can be quickly retooled to provide additional supplies.

9. Encourage essential services to abandon “just in time” delivery practices and return to maintaining local inventory of crucial items — for those times when the trucks will be forced to stop.

10. Electrify the province. We could be virtually self-sustaining in terms of electricity for vehicles and heating, but instead we rely on energy from away that also generates greenhouse gas emissions and fuels global warming. We already make electric buses for people elsewhere!

Resilience and sustainability depend upon us living close to home. This is not only true in pandemics, but also — and especially — in a world facing climate crisis. The problems will grow, not go away.

Mr. Pallister, I met your mother once. I’m sure she would have told you to put on a necktie, sit up straight at those briefings, fix your hair and take charge. Rely on the wisdom around you, from wherever, and make a practical, sustainable plan for Manitoba’s future.

“Pallister’s Plan” — in Manitoba’s 150th year, that would be a legacy to remember.

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Farmers need a sustainable future, too

(February 12, 2020)

FEBRUARY is “I Love to Read” month, which is good for the farmers who are finally able to take a breather before the spring thaw arrives — probably in early March, this year.

To offer them (and you) some food for thought, I want to look at sustainability issues for agricultural producers, in the midst of a climate crisis fueled by a warming atmosphere and rising levels of greenhouse gases.

To begin, you can’t expect the provincial government to help. By action (and inaction), Premier Brian Pallister has repeatedly indicated the agricultural sector is exempt from initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Most recently, it was news that grain-drying operations will not be subject to his Manitoba version of a carbon tax. This was coupled with a promise (without specifics) to increase the amount of ethanol in gasoline and biofuel in diesel.

If I were an agricultural producer concerned about the direction in which the planet was headed, with its implications for my farm as well as my family, these kinds of political armwaves would be trivial to the point of being insulting.

Unless farmers live in an alternate universe, they share the planet with the rest of us, and therefore share the same responsibility for changing how we live together. In fact, any farmer who has inherited the family farm or who intends to pass it along to the next generation is likely more invested in sustainability than the city person who has never seen a live chicken.

Right now, it seems the Manitoba government is ignoring sustainability issues in the agricultural sector, in the apparent belief that Progressive Conservative votes in rural areas can bought like (dry) beans, for a bit of purple gas and a boot shine.

The PC party may have a firm base in rural areas it will never have in the city of Winnipeg, but if that’s true, then those rural areas should use their clout to at least get the current government to do something constructive for everyone.

For example, when Greyhound went out of service in western Canada, Manitoba (alone, I think, compared to all the other provinces where it operated) did nothing. So all those rural voters now have to drive, if they can, everywhere – and given how much secondary and tertiary health care is delivered only in Winnipeg or Brandon – they need to do it when they are sick, too.

To be fair, the provincial government does not seem to care much about public transportation in Winnipeg, either, despite the fact the largest source of Manitoba’s greenhouse gases, by sector, is transportation — in other words, those vehicles that burn the ethanol and biodiesel additives Pallister was intending to increase.

Cuts to subsidies for transit in Winnipeg mean New Flyer is now making electric buses for other places, when they could be making them to be used here, running on Manitoba’s hydroelectric power and providing more jobs to Manitobans.

Anyway, back to the farm. Expect no help from the provincial government, and likely little more from the feds, who prefer to play big-picture games. Look to your rural municipality for the kind of co-operative assistance you need to figure out what climate change is going to mean for your own area — not the lines drawn on the map, but according to the watershed in which you operate. Floods affect everyone — and so does drought. Plan together for both.

Sustainability literally begins at home. A sustainable future for your farm depends on you doing what is greenest for your own situation. There are various carbon-counting tools available on the internet – figure out what parts of your operation produce the most greenhouse gases, and see what can be done to reduce your outputs. It could be as simple as not burning stubble, for example. Every gallon of purple gas, even cheaper, produces GHGs. Find ways of burning less – better for the planet, and for the bottom line.

New equipment? Share it with a neighbour – or figure out how to borrow or loan it instead of purchasing.

On the other side of the ledger, figure out how much carbon is sequestered or put down in the soil by different kinds of crops or farming operations. Perhaps plant trees, to balance off carbon-intensive farming. Create your own carbon budget, aiming for a negative number at the end of the year.

If the provincial government wanted to help, it could both provide incentives for doing this, and assess penalties for ignoring GHG emissions (anyone listening?).

One other suggestion: sell local. Relying on markets elsewhere for your main income is unsustainable in the long run, and makes you vulnerable to geopolitics, pandemics and other things entirely beyond your control.

Successful farmers today have to be smart. It makes sense to use that aptitude for green, because sustainable farming is a large part of a sustainable future for everyone.

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