Facing Our Future

When I was in the Far North working for a couple of months, I welcomed Saturday morning when I had some time off. It was always very quiet on the weekend in the 9-room hotel, usually just myself or one other in residence. I might go out photographing but because of the cold I could do that for only 15 minutes or so. My room was warm and comfortable, had a small kitchenette  counter and a table. I would sit at the table and look through journal notes from the week and think about my experiences from the week and write some observations to send to people back south. As the North itself and the people in their deep wisdom induced in me, I felt my own life deeply, that this Saturday time of isolation was all that mattered, was life itself. Being alone with myself, so isolated, was paradoxically to also feel connected to everything, to earth, to others, and through that to some sense of my own self I could but feel so delicately.

I kind of feel that this Saturday morning as I write now with the overcast clouds, no demands on my time, and with a quiet house is again a time to feel my own self as connected to all things. Only the world I’m reflecting on this morning is different to being in the North, but both are times I feel more open to my world and to my self. Then it was the Tundra and now it is the overcast sky that is my teacher today.

I think of my students in their twenties and people, in particular my neighbours on both sides of me and across from me, in their thirties and forties and I am thinking of nieces and nephews and other children of family and friends. When they get to be my age, and I am grateful for this time at the end of my life, able to enjoy it, do as I wish, yet thinking of them at my age, and I am reading for them at my age, or even before, in the 2040s and 2050s, there is a very high likelihood that the world will be in chaos, an unstable, ravaging, out of control atmosphere, where life will just be a matter of barely surviving. We’re already past the point of stopping that; only the degree of chaos is left for us to determine. So the experts say.

Sounds like a movie; and it is. Sounds like the pandemic movies that we didn’t think could happen. That’s the scary part of all this, the prophesy we refuse to hear from the experts is eventually realized: the odds for all our delay on addressing climate change -the odds for us surviving as a species- are stacked against us now because we just aren’t facing up to what our human activity is doing to the planet. 

My previous post ruminated on why we aren’t as a society listening to those who know, who are telling us we need to change. We just don’t like to think anything is wrong, and won’t until it hits us, until it’s too late. The Canadiant Auditor General put out a scathing report this week on how government (really all of us) ignored for decades the cry of the expert scientists to prepare ourselves for a pandemic, and how it was so easy to cut emergency pandemic research and preparedness from the budget over the years leaving us so vulnerable now. The second or third day of Trump being in office he cancelled joint American and Chinese research in Wuhan, the very research looking into how to protect us from the very virus that has closed down the whole world. But for Mr. Trump, the pandemic we suffer from today likely would have been put under control. And as the Auditor-General said, had Canadian governments over the last decades been more responsible, we wouldn’t have been so inadequately prepared to combat the virus.

But bless the young people; bless the human spirit. Professor Homer-Dixon, leading academic applying systems theory to the climate crisis, tells of his students asking what the probability is of beating the impending collapse of sustainable human life as we know it, and as he told them, “ well, it’s hard to say: 20% or…2%.” And they came back, ‘that’s good enough a chance for us.’ And if they’re not giving up, we can’t give up, we the generation most responsible for this environmental mess.

I know it’s not a possibility we can imagine, even accept psychologically as I pointed to in the previous blog to this one, hard to accept that we are on a brink of collapse of our ecosphere if something isn’t done right now; hard to fathom, for sure. Perhaps the pandemic might waken us to our vulnerability. Or that we just missed by a hair, another four years of Trump of which The Atlantic’s Chief Editor, David Frum, said before the election, ‘while four years of Trump was a disaster, with eight years the whole democratic experiment would be over.’ 

Experts know. In the barns back of the race track, people there, not the ones out front in the stands, but people back in the barns know how any horse on any day is running. I’m only repeating about the environment what 97% of scientists are telling us, and Urma Thurman and all the other children screaming at us to do something about it, are telling us. I’m just repeating to you what they know: that we are on a brink of collapse, not tomorrow, but certainly before our children have a chance to reach middle age. Young people grasp it when us older ones don’t; they don’t have a future, any future if we don’t seriously address the climate crisis. And it would seem by all legitimate accounts, they are right.

We can think technology will save us. Or somebody else will. Wait around for that; hope and hope. Good luck. The reason Trump isn’t president right now is that thousands of people walked door to door, spent thousands of hours of slogging on the streets and talking, and got out the vote. For that reason Mike Pense and William Barr stepped back from the plan to keep power by what they’d done for the past four years, that is, twist the system to suit them. But to our good fortune, some of the Trump team lost heart after January 6, and the attempted coup fell apart. Trump was screaming at Pense over the phone. A group of Trump supporters on January 6, the congressional testimony and video revealed, were set on finding Pense and making him pay. Just missed four more years of Trump but for the pandemic and a lot of concerned Americans who did something about the election.

I’m getting intense again! I’m just saying, we’ve got to start talking, having a conversation. That’s what my observations and readings wake me up to. I take a cue from Canadian scholar Katherine Hayhoe at Texas Tech University, this year honoured by the United Nations highest award as Champion of the Earth for her academic expertise and the clarity of her communication about the reality of climate change and the crisis we are in.

Dr. Hayhoe says the most important thing we can all do is talk about the climate situation with each other, with everyone, all of the time. Here is her TED talk making that case.

If you don’t mind me passing on some links, and you’re OK with facing up to a challenging and sobering warning for our future, if you really want to know, then I’d like to point you to a lecture and panel series hosted by UVic’s Centre for Studies in Religion and Culture and my own Diocese of Islands and Inlets’ John Albert Hall Trust. This series, Values for a New World, is thoughtful, challenging presentations looking at our world today by some of our best minds: Distinguished Professors Linda Woodhead, Noam Chomsky, Miroslav Volf, Thomas Homer-Dixon, and writer Esi Edugyan. These lectures are for us, the general public. Then you can see what you think. Maybe we can talk about it.

At the end of the panel discussion, I found myself in a place similar to when I was in the Far North, face to face with my own humanity, unmasked, face to face with my existence, the very breaths I breathe.  The human species is at risk of extinction. How can this be?

At the end of the panel discussion I needed to find some equilibrium, find a centre, be in a quiet place with my own self. I went to my dormer desk. Lifted the book I was reading. I opened it to words that framed completely an existential question pressing on me. As often for me, it is Mr. Shakespeare who cuts straight to my raw psyche. 

Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man’s act,
Threatens his bloody stage. By the clock 'tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp.
 
Is it night’s predominance or the day’s shame
That darkness does the face of Earth entomb
 
When living light should kiss it?
(Macbeth 2:4)

Much more than philosophical reflection, the lectures inspire me to press on, to not sit back, to do my part. I am grateful for the lecturers doing their part for the world, for committing to this series and communicating their scholarship and clarity as an inspiration for me to find my way, for me to work with some urgency, and to embrace the ‘light of day’ that ‘darkness does the face of Earth entomb.’ 

So I sit and write this, appeal to you for your help in moving on, how to move on with our lives in light, help to peer into our nature without defences and distractions, recover just us, be with our own self, having ourselves, this gift of life, a life we live.

I might suggest beginning with the panel discussion that ended the series. Then you can listen to each one’s presentation. If you want to hear from one of the top experts on the environment, be sure to listen to Thomas Homer-Dixon’s presentation; but I warn you, it’s sobering, very sobering. I wrote in with a question which he addressed right at the end on how social media is affecting moving forward on the climate crisis. I was hoping for a different answer, but he said, if more bleakly, what the social media whistleblowers are also telling us. It’s not good.

John Albert Hall Lectures https://vimeo.com/csrs

I know we don’t want to hear all this. We want to go on with everything as it was, go back to how it was before the pandemic. But everything as it was, 2019, was a year of our putting more carbon into the atmosphere than we ever have before, despite all we know.

I feel we are up against it as a society. I am losing faith in us. We in Ontario rejected a government that was taking some action for addressing the climate crisis and our future. Even a year before the election, the premier’s senior colleagues were jumping ship, knew already they were going down to defeat in the next election. In their place, we elected a government without even a policy book that promised not to add to the electricity bill and promised to fight in the courts the federal government tax on carbon program addressing climate change, costing us about $30 million of tax dollars i legal fees paid for it would seem by quickly after coming to office reducing Long term Care funding by $34 million. Of course last year the premier was on camera with a tear in his eye for how neglected was long term care and he was the one who was going to fix it. Oh and to win the election, he promised us’ a buck a beer.’

One of their first acts in office was to cancel $260 million worth of hundreds of green initiatives, sending Ontario from a leader in the world to no longer a player. We have chosen a government that fired the Environmental Commissioner week one, and since then neutered all environmental oversight which had been established for 94 years to protect us against flooding. The chair and 6 members of the Greenbelt Commission, including a developer, resigned in protest but only a few citizens really cared, protested in the streets. Oh well we said collectively. Now without any environmental assessment mechanism to stop him, the Minister of Municipalities makes the final decision on building permits. Since that legislation, hidden in an omnibus bill, the elected Minister of Municipalities with no knowledge of environmental risk has issued over 50 permits to develop wetlands and land previously designated as environmentally sensitive. It’s reported that at least half of the MZOs are to insiders in the conservative party, developer friends of the premier. And the current government sneaked in new rules for regulating individual contributions to political parties, an American law condemned for leading to unworkable bi-partisan politics. Three days before a developer for a project on wetlands in Ajax/Pickering received a permit to build, he made a substantial contribution to the Conservative Party of Ontario.

People are fighting these actions in courts, resigning from committees, but the government can carry on because we like its message: you can keep doing whatever you want if you vote for us. We won’t bother you about addressing the climate crisis. Carry on. And we do; we elect them. I don’t know who we are anymore.

We just can’t be afraid of looking at this problem face to face; in truth we have no choice except as Noam Chomsky stated: so clear a choice he said, we do something now or humankind has no future. There we are: we have to talk about it, and all the time, and with everyone we know. We do need to talk about it. I’m saying this because Katherine Hayhoe has convinced me; I have to initiate conversation. And I’m not alone. You, my family, friends and colleagues, are also concerned. We’re all asking ourselves what we can do. As is said, we’re all in this together. Well, we just need to talk about it with everyone. Talking brings us together, and together we can find our way. Talking takes this out of the inside of our heads, out of our despair that we can do anything about it, and talking makes activity possible. Let me know.

Katherine Hayhoe UN honour. https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/press-release/canadian-professor-katharine-hayhoe-named-un-champion-earth

Ford killing environmental oversight

https://www.ontariondp.ca/news/ndp-calls-investigation-pc-insiders-benefitting-majority-fast-track-development-approvals

https://www.niagaranow.com/opinion.phtml/5186-oped-wayne-gates-another-attempt-to-pave-over-our-greenspace

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-ford-government-spent-231-million-to-tear-up-green-energy-deals/

https://www.thespec.com/opinion/contributors/2020/11/11/god-help-the-environment-doug-ford-wont.html

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/doug-ford-climate-change-environment-plan-1.5104740

https://www.nationalobserver.com/2020/12/06/news/seven-members-doug-fords-greenbelt-council-resign-conservation-authority-changes

https://digitalcommons.osgoode.yorku.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.ca/&httpsredir=1&article=1798&context=ohlj

https://www.thepost.on.ca/news/local-news/paving-over-ontarios-wetlands-paradise

https://www.nationalobserver.com/2021/02/17/investigations/developers-donated-ontario-proud-pc-party-projects-got-green-light

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ontario-pc-party-election-campaign-donations-corporations-1.4184631

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ontario-greenbelt-latest-1.5830891

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/pickering-wetland-building-proposal-1.5784390

https://www.nationalobserver.com/2020/04/08/news/ontario-suspends-environmental-oversight-rules-citing-covid-19

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/london/ontario-thames-conservation-authority-1.5807081

http://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2020/12/08/2141217/0/en/Doug-Ford-s-controversial-Bill-229-endangers-our-environment-and-our-communities.html

https://www.nrdc.org/experts/jennifer-skene/ontario-takes-axe-environmental-protections

https://conservationontario.ca/policy-priorities/conservation-authorities-act/support-for-conservation-authorities

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/doug-ford-duffins-creek-wetland-pickering-ajax-warehouse-amazon-1.5942938

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/pickering-wetland-triple-group-amazon-1.5945991

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ontario-doug-ford-mzo-pickering-duffins-creek-1.5937584