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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Trucking industry green-driven

(May 30, 2018)

Co-authored with Terry Shaw, Executive Director of the Manitoba Trucking Association

The Pallister government might not expect to see environmental groups like the Green Action Centre working together with the Manitoba Trucking Association to advance a similar agenda, but it is not surprising.

We are concerned about creating a sustainable future and frustrated with the lack of government action toward that goal.

We have not seen the leadership we were promised, on Premier Brian Pallister’s vision to make Manitoba into “Canada’s cleanest, greenest, and most climate resilient province,” a vision that lay behind the Made-in-Manitoba Climate and Green Plan.

Given the Green Projects, Business Competitiveness, and Clean Technologies initiative and the rhetoric that accompanied the various surveys and public (and private) consultations, we expected more, better and sooner from this government.

Specifically, we expected more from the long-promised carbon tax plan, especially in terms of how the money is going to be allocated. At the first province-sponsored consultation in October 2016, both our organizations — like others present — asked for the revenue to be spent on mitigating the impacts of the carbon tax on Manitoba’s most vulnerable citizens, and for the rest to be spent on programs to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

This would involve initiatives such as increasing and improving public transportation, enabling the use of electric vehicles by subsidizing their purchase and providing the necessary charging infrastructure, and subsidizing other efficiencies to encourage reduction in GHG emissions in the transportation sector.

We also impressed upon the members of government we have met over the past two years that this is an urgent problem, something that needs to be addressed in part by reducing the amount of “green tape” that gets between us and the solutions we could offer.

Truck drivers, like farmers and the rest of Manitobans, want to do their part to contribute to solutions, rather than just continuing to be seen as part of the problem.

Obviously, truck drivers provide a service that feeds, clothes and employs Manitobans, and delivers the goods and services that allow us to enjoy the standard of living we have.

We all want to find ways to make transportation more efficient, which is why the MTA jointly established the GrEEEn Trucking fuel efficiency initiative to provide incentives for truck drivers to do just this.

Failing to use the carbon tax revenues collected to support much-needed initiatives such as this one risks having the Manitoba headquarters of our trucking industry move to other provinces where such subsidies are already government policy.

After all, why should the Manitoba trucking industry pay a carbon tax, and at the same time (as good corporate citizens) spend more of their money to improve the efficiency of their operations for the benefit of all Manitobans, if this is not valued or appreciated by the government?

Some things are therefore clear to both our groups:

Without taking serious steps to do things differently, our greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise, fuelling global warming. As Canadians, we have made commitments under the Paris accord to reduce emissions. Whether or not this will be enough to stop global warming remains to be seen, but doing nothing is not an option.

The carbon tax by itself will simply not be high enough to change consumer behaviour by punishing us into a greener lifestyle. Instead of $25 a tonne, we would need closer to $300 a tonne to do that.

The money raised, however — every nickel — should go to protecting the most vulnerable Manitobans first, and then to creating options for Manitobans to make lifestyle and work choices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

While we are pleased to see the one-time gift to the Winnipeg Foundation for a conservation trust fund, the revenues from such a fund are woefully inadequate for new climate-change initiatives, especially since existing programs (such as the subsidies to public transit) have already been cancelled as cost-saving measures by the provincial government.

Some parts of the solution are obvious. We have an abundance of electricity, which is more valuable to us kept at home than exported abroad. What we lack is the infrastructure to develop and support electric vehicles, as one part of a sustainable transportation strategy, something that carbon tax revenues could be used to promote.

We need the best answers all of us together can provide, because a sustainable future is important for all Manitobans — especially the next generation.

We are prepared to work as allies, and across sectors, to ensure the province advances its carbon reduction strategies by reducing emissions with funds from carbon taxes.

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Time to take action on the north is now

(July 20, 2017)

As the weeks spin on, there are still no solutions in sight for that growing swarm of problems facing communities in northern Manitoba.

Problems such as closing the port in Churchill, cutting back and then suspending the rail service, a shrinking time frame for winter ice roads and limited local access to healthy food, medical care and quality education — even just having clean drinking water — are like the insects that make life miserable, but not impossible, for northern residents who live far from the Golden Boy.

News of some upgrades to cellphone service or access to the internet seem like public-relations maneuvers, leaving the main swarm untouched.

Foot-dragging on the problems of northern communities is inexcusable. Further, whatever the competing federal responsibilities might be, First Nations communities are equally part of our life together in Manitoba, and the provincial government should also address their basic needs.

First, the north is warmer than it was, and that trend is going to continue — likely even faster than has been predicted, because people are not transitioning to a lower-carbon lifestyle. We can blame that on other people, elsewhere, but in fact we are doing no better ourselves. The Manitoba government is not only shirking its responsibility to provide leadership on greenhouse gas emissions, but through cuts to public transit subsidies it is actually making things worse. Something constructive and substantial must be done, immediately.

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