Author Archive

National Parks’ horrific story needs to be scrutinized

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

John Muir

Peter Matthiessen’s powerful 1984 book Indian Country laid bare the genocide and ecocide that had taken place across North America for two centuries. “To judge from the ruthless treatment of ‘the wild men’ and the wasteful and destructive exploitation of the continent,” he wrote, “the view of primordial nature as a wilderness to be tamed and dominated has persisted in North America to the present day.”

The American Civil War was presumably fought to end slavery and prejudice, but its raison d’être was ultimately to permit all peoples to embrace a truly democratic republic. There are so many grim repercussions as a result of its failure to achieve that lofty goal. From the establishment in the northwestern United States in 1872 of Yellowstone National Park (and of Banff National Park, Alberta in 1885), the legacy of the national parks, which were stolen from Aboriginal societies and then called a ‘gift’ to other races, has been tainted by racism, colonialism and marginalization. Good intentions, some would suggest, were lost in whites-only exclusivity, and white people still appear to have an almost exclusive playground in the parks.

In a move called ‘fortress conservation’ by many critics, national parks were billed as protecting pristine lands against all humans. Please see tinyurl.com/parks-theft-indians for a closer look at these histories of exclusion.

Ever since the first national parks were announced in the western US, their Indigenous inhabitants have borne the brunt of their foundation. Throughout Africa, Australia, India, China, Sri Lanka, the USA, Canada – including Québec – to name just a few areas, forced evictions have been the norm. From the forest dwellers of the Amazon to the Pygmies of central Africa, numerous people have suffered enormously. Additionally, the ‘rewilding’ of forests without their consent and inclusion has become a nightmare for them.

The history of conservation racism goes back to the early 1800s. It is disturbing to realize that many famous naturalists and conservationists ‘owned’ slaves. John James Audubon used slaves to gather bird specimens for his paintings, and he was critical of efforts to emancipate black people from slavery. In 1834, he said that the British government had “acted imprudently and too precipitously” in freeing enslaved people in its West Indian possessions.

When John Muir, the son of a Scottish immigrant, arrived in California in 1868 and built a small cabin in Yosemite Valley, he felt that he had entered the Garden of Eden, and throughout his life that garden included few people besides him. Open vistas, spectacular waterfalls and mountainous terrain were what mattered to Muir and other naturalists. A later photo of Muir with US president Theodore Roosevelt shows only a depopulated human landscape in the background. A decade before Muir entered the valley, white people had pushed out the Ahwahneechee people, killing many.

Thus had begun in the west the forced removal of Indian settlements that had been a part of a well-balanced ecology for a thousand years.
In the east, US president Andrew Jackson had signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, culminating in the deaths of thousands of Indigenous people. Muir and others who had no clue about the stewardship role played by the Indians in their territories desired that the new national parks be free of human settlement, and although there were those who thought Aboriginal peoples should stay, they were ultimately not listened to. Though I have read many of Muir’s essays and a major biography, nowhere can I find in them any reference to appreciation for Aboriginal peoples’ culture and deep knowledge of ecological matters. This lack of understanding limited Muir’s breadth of involvement in a larger focus on humanity’s place in Nature. He could have made a definitive difference for the reconciliation of cultures.

The national parks, as beneficial ‘gifts’ to the world by governments after the American Civil War, could have become windows of opportunity opening onto the wisdom of Aboriginal peoples who continued to prosper on their ancestral lands, creating a bridge of goodwill and tolerance for a new peace among nations. Instead, most of the parks forbade native groups to return, with a few places such as Wood Buffalo National Park exceptions.

The great tragedy continues in 2020, with 370 million Aboriginal people whose ancestral homes are in these wilderness places finding themselves under constant threat of becoming refugees (tinyurl.com/survival-conservation-refugees). Greed and abject racism have been the two main motivations for their continuing expulsion.

There have been some attempts in Canada in recent years to include First Nations communities in a Parks Canada policy dialogue, but judging by recent events those First Nations have little trust in the government’s intentions. See unistoten.camp/no-pipelines

It would surprise those ‘conservationists’ who praised the expulsion of Aboriginal people in the name of bringing back a resplendent wilderness of fauna and flora to know that much work has been done that repudiates such claims. In 2005, Nobel prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom and her colleague Tanya Hayes published a study, Conserving the World’s Forests: Are Protected Areas the Only Way?, which found that areas with the direct involvement of local and Indigenous populations had significantly higher vegetation densities than those without, regardless of their protection status.

White people’s domination of Nature accelerated with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. The colonization of the world by western European countries with the rise of capitalism brought enormous suffering and the collapse of ancient cultures. Climate breakdown and unprecedented biodiversity loss, which began 180 years ago, could be halted were it not for the scourge of greed, and will undoubtedly cause the greatest hardship to those who have the least to do with those unethical and ignorant actions. If we are to survive, social justice must actively permeate all that we do.

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not for every man’s greed.”

Mahatma Gandhi

Saving the planet begins with the food we eat

“Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in millions of years. The way we produce and consume food and energy, and the blatant disregard for the environment entrenched in our current economic model, has pushed the natural world to its limits.”

Living Planet Report 2020

We all know that the planet’s ecological balance is tottering. Multiple scientific reports on the health of Nature that show precipitous declines in both vertebrates and invertebrates seem to make no difference to how world governments, policymakers or individuals commit to urgent and beneficial actions for stopping the massive slide towards catastrophic extinctions. Please see wwf.ca/living-planet-report-canada-2020

While national government subsidies for fossil fuel companies and for conventional agriculture are far outstripping any grants and loans that support both renewable energies and organic farming, individual cities have made great efforts and are producing viable results in fighting climate change’s insidious ramifications for all life.

As individuals we can all do our bit to bring about a more harmonious planet through steadfast support for organic agriculture. More and more people are buying organically produced food, but conversations about why we should commit ourselves to an organic diet often end with a single individual’s health and don’t consider the vast benefits that can accrue for our planet’s wellbeing. This article looks at what we can each do every day for our farmers, ourselves and the Earth.

When we buy organic foods, we are not paying for synthetic pesticides and other chemicals, so the soil is not contaminated with a deadly cocktail of ingredients. Around the world our destruction of soil and its microorganisms is well documented. By not contributing to yet another assault on the planet’s ecology, we are saying that farmers’ lives are respected as well. When we refuse to buy these harmful concoctions, we are helping farmers to protect themselves and their families against many maladies.

Not long ago an organic farmer told me that an ornithologist had visited their farm and the documentation of birds living there was truly astonishing. Through not introducing synthetic fertilizers and herbicides to the land, this farmer has been contributing to a remarkable abundance of wildlife and plants. Insects that pollinate our food crops or are a prime food for birds and bats are able to find a refuge in ecologically robust soils. Water is cleaner too, so people living downstream are not subjected to an influx of toxic chemicals, which have frequently shown up near non-organic farms.

Local communities are beneficiaries of sound agrarian practices; in a real sense organic farming is an insurance plan for all beings. In his new book A Small Farm Future, farmer and social scientist Chris Smaje argues that organising society around small-scale farming offers the soundest, sanest and most reasonable response to climate change and other crises of civilisation—and will yield humanity’s best chance at survival.

There has been huge coverage of litigation cases of people affected by pesticides. I have seen first-hand the disastrous use of pesticides in the tropics. Pristine lands and people have been tragically impacted by pesticides that are manufactured in North America (even though they are banned here) and sold to poorer countries. This is outrageous. Furthermore, people in those countries who do not know how to read the instructions pertaining to those chemicals are putting themselves and their children at extreme risk. At least one instance is documented where a mother was storing pesticides in her kitchen! The World Health Organization estimates that up to 40,000 people die each year from pesticide poisoning.

Until people fully embrace the reality that Nature is us and we are Nature, organic farms will continue to be just a small percentage of North America’s agriculture. On top of this, the chasm between humans and the rest of Nature will not reduce as long as social injustices continue unabated. If our very lives are contingent on the wellbeing of the rest of Nature, surely inclusivity and respect must be first principles for all our interactions. Social justice must flourish first.

Genetically modified organisms are forbidden in organic farming practices precisely because there are too many unknowns regarding their impacts on Nature. Because some humans believe that genetic manipulation has brought some successes in growing food, however, the capitalist drive towards unleashing a full-scale assault on Nature has been thought to be inevitable. It is not.

Organic farms are generally not monocultures. Diversity is a key ingredient in all ecological settings. Saving heritage seeds is an important and integral contribution to protecting communities’ resilience and independence, and there is cultural significance in growing seeds that have long been part of a community’s heritage. Organic farming celebrates what is local as well as our heritage. What is locally supported also creates strong social justice practices and encourages a love of place. Organically produced seeds are a great way to build community and are something we can seek out for our own gardens.

Please also consider buying food from local farmers. It is easy to do. Baskets of food can be picked up every few weeks at certain farms. Community Supported Agriculture enables family farms to prosper. Family Farmers Network brings together more than 130 organic farms in Québec and New Brunswick and can help you locate a farmer who can supply you with a regular basket of organically produced food. Here are two such farmers in our local area:

La Boîte à Légumes
Racines & Chlorophylle

Another way to have healthy, nutritious organic food is to buy your nuts, flour, beans and many other items online through NousRire, an organic buying group that delivers to pick-up points throughout Québec: nousrire.com

There are several organic food shops in town that can supply your day-to-day needs, as well as regular farmers’ markets such as Marché agricole de Lennoxville and Marché de la gare, Sherbrooke.

This is apple season, and it’s an opportunity to visit La Généreuse, which featured in an earlier article in The Record and is just 15 minutes away from Lennoxville. The farm produces several varieties of organically grown apples as well as delicious home-pressed apple juice. lagenereuse.com

There are many ways to help the planet, and our food choices are a major part of this. Even a small change can make a difference.

A tale of two dinner parties

“Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all societies eventually will.” 
– Anne Applebaum 

“You want it darker.” – Leonard Cohen

Anne Applebaum’s new book Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism tells of her experiences with powerful right-of-centre political figures and makes the case that our democracies are in mortal jeopardy of being utterly eroded. She takes us on a tour to many European countries that are in the throes of becoming one-party states. 

The book is not meant to be a scholarly treatise on the growing rise of authoritarianism, although undoubtedly Applebaum is capable of writing one, having won a Pulitzer Prize as a historian for her writing on the Russian gulag. Twilight of Democracy focuses on the people she feels are destroying democracy. Most of those she writes about were once her friends and one was even a future head of state, but they are no longer speaking to her. (It’s important to understand that she herself is a conservative.) In some instances they are the intellectuals and power brokers who allow one-party regimes such as those now found in Hungary, Poland, China, the Philippines, Venezuela and Russia to flourish. She calls these disgruntled people “clerics”: the enablers of would-be despots. Most of them, she feels, have not felt appreciated in democratic societies and desire more power. Donald Trump’s and Boris Johnson’s angry right-wing “what’s in it for me?” acolytes are helping to dismantle democratic states. Truth is the last thing these “advisers” wish to discuss, and “alternative facts” are the way to create division.

Applebaum speaks of “restorative nostalgia,” which is used to rekindle a nation’s supposed past “greatness.” The narrative goes like this: the nation has become a shadow of its former self; the nation’s identity has been taken away and replaced with something less heroic. She warns, of its proponents, “All of them seek to redefine their nations, to rewrite social contracts, and, sometimes, to alter the rules of democracy so that they never lose power. Alexander Hamilton warned against them, Cicero fought against them. Some of them used to be my friends.” She adds, “Eventually, those who seek power on the back of restorative nostalgia will begin to cultivate these conspiracy theories, or alternative histories, or alternative fibs, whether or not they have any basis in fact.” Sound familiar?

For many people in the UK who support Brexit it is the EU that has sapped the true greatness of Britain. For Trump’s restorative nostalgia gimmick “Make America Great Again” to work, it must have a list of ills that have befallen the USA for which Trump points the finger of blame at Democrats, immigrants, protestors/agitators, Black Lives Matter supporters, gun-control advocates, scientists, anti-fascists, climate change activists and even the coronavirus lockdowns that necessitate masks and social distancing. 

Understand that “reflective nostalgia” is quite different. We might study the past or mourn the past, but we realize that in fact life was more difficult then. Those old photographs, though they might have us romancing bygone days, are not going to help us revive those times again.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book The Gulag Archipelago, which was published in 1973, gives us a nightmarish glimpse into the vast Russian prison holding areas. It tells us as much about the insane Kafka-like bureaucracy and Russian dictatorships as about the prisoners caught up in horrific, surreal incarceration. Only raw violent power is recognized as being worth pursuing. Solzhenitsyn’s book should be a reminder of how low all societies could descend.

It’s as if we need to find enemies so that we can justify our own insecurities and create a tribal response based on the fear of the “other.” This is not 1930s politics, but political camps have now metamorphosed into a redrafted belligerency. Words such as “freedom” have become the calling cards of white supremacists, though with that word they would take away the freedom of others.

America has hundreds of militias. The US constitution always has allowed for that, but since Trump came to Washington those militias have come off the firing range and into cities such as Portland, Oregon.

“The public embrace of militias and paramilitaries is clearly recognizable authoritarian behaviour,” says Steven Levitsky, co-author with Daniel Ziblatt of How Democracies Die. Veteran journalist Dahr Jamail concurs. In an interview with Truthout’s Patrick Farnsworth, he ponders, “Are we going to see clearly that we live in an autocratic state? … It also means that we are entering in an extremely darkening age, where whatever stress and chaos and loss that we see today, this is really just a prelude of what’s coming.”

Hannah Arendt wrote persuasively in the second half of the 20th century about fascism: “Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.” [Origins of Totalitarianism]

A levelling of capabilities and talents goes with the kinds of regime that embrace a blind loyalty to their leader. Authoritarianism rewards loyalty and creates corruption and mediocrity in government, as opposed to meritocracy, whereby talented people are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievements. 

Last Saturday’s Guardian carried an article by Nick Cohn titled “The meritocracy has had its day”: “Public service jobs once went to people who knew what they were doing. Boris Johnson would rather promote a courtier.” Take for example Australia’s ex-prime minister Tony Abbott, who has recently been appointed as an adviser to the UK government’s board of trade and is a climate denier.

Although many government administrations reward their donors and party faithful, present-day right-wing regimes, including the Trump administration, have severely harmed democracy by promoting utterly unsuitable and undeserving individuals to positions within the highest levels of government. In fact, the march towards totalitarian regimes requires that arm’s-length government-oversight commissioners, who can monitor compliance to high ethical standards in governance, be kicked out. After all, Benjamin Disraeli said, “What is a crime among the multitude is only a vice among the few.”

Twilight of Democracy starts with a dinner party in 1999 and ends with one in 2019, both at Applebaum’s home. Although there were some return guests, some people she knew in 1999 were no longer friends and had become clerics of one-party states. This microcosm of the polarization of society now taking over the world and shredding democracy is one that she feels strongly must be confronted. The risks for our world are far too great. “Participation, argument, effort, struggle” are needed, as well as “some willingness to push back at the people who create cacophony and chaos.”

It is up to us to be vigilant, to speak out against the undermining of our hard-won democracy, and to use the power of our votes.

“Ring the bells that can still ring.” – Leonard Cohen 

Interview with Nick Gottlieb: giving young people a public voice

Nick Gottlieb is the author of Sacred Headwaters, a bi-weekly newsletter that gives critically important insights into how we can protect our planet.

Nick, you write that Sacred Headwaters “aims to guide a co-learning process about the existential issues and planetary limitations facing humanity and about how we can reorient civilization in a way that will enable us to thrive for centuries to come.” What have been the catalysts driving you towards a co-learning and inclusive approach in these newsletters?

Climate change is a symptom of much deeper problems in the social, political and cultural structures that we collectively call human civilization. Overcoming those problems requires reimagining what we value as humans and what we expect from life. But the systems we’re trying to replace are so embedded that they constrain the way we think and the scope of what we perceive as possible. I chose this format for my newsletter because I – perhaps naively – believe that if people learn enough about how the system is failing and why, they’ll come to recognize the patterns of that system in their own cognitive frameworks, their own minds, and through that recognition free themselves to begin the process of change.

You move from climate change and planetary boundaries to current politics and ideas. “Defunding the Police,” “Indigenous Ways of Knowing,” “Environmental Racism” and “Degrowth” are a few of the titles of the newsletters. What are your overarching goals in sharing these newsletters?

The climate movement tends to focus on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but this narrative fails because it identifies them as the “root cause.” We’ve known that GHG emissions cause global warming that threatens our way of life since at least 1959. In 1992, 88% of Americans believed global warming was a serious problem. But we live in a world where companies are incentivized to externalize costs and maximize “profit,” leading them to actually fight against solving climate change despite knowing full well its implications. We’ve seen parallel stories play out over and over again; climate change is just one manifestation. I’ve been writing about issues like environmental racism to try to draw those connections for readers, to make clear that if we want to survive the climate crisis, we need to recognize that it is a symptom of a much more invasive disease than GHG emissions.

In your newsletter “Introduction to Systems Thinking,” a memorable sentence, “The earth is a system,” stands out. You describe Sacred Headwaters as being “about the systemic nature of everything.” Can you explain this, please?

We have a tendency towards reductionism rooted in what our culture thinks of as “science”: we isolate every problem so we can solve it, but the real world is governed by deep complexity and interconnectedness. This is true in ecological systems, as we can see in the speed with which we’re exceeding most of the modelling of global warming’s impacts, and also in the systems of organization that govern human society. Climate change, environmental racism and widespread inequality are interrelated problems with systemic causes. My goal is to elucidate the deeper causes of these crises to enable more people to envision a world without them.

How do you feel about your generation’s response to the Earth’s crises? What, if anything, do think it needs to do better?

Personally, I don’t like the generational narrative. This isn’t any one generation’s problem. We need to rebuild our lost cultural capacity for multi-generational thinking and planning. That said, I think the millennial generation is facing some unique challenges that position us well to be a generation of change. We are the first generation in the modern era that’s worse off than our parents’. We can’t afford houses, wages are stagnant, jobs are rare. The life our parents had is not an option for most of us, but as challenging as that is it’s also a gift, because it’s forcing us to reimagine what life looks like, allowing us leeway to experiment, to divine what a life that’s compatible with a liveable future might look like. The more of us who give up the false hope that we can have the lives our parents enjoyed, the better.

What direct actions do you feel we must commit ourselves to in order to save our planet’s ecological integrity?

The oil industry is dying. Even before the pandemic, big players in finance were getting out of the fossil fuel industry. It’s only a matter of time, but those in power are trying to hang on. Here in Canada the government is doubling down on new oil and gas infrastructure that will likely never be profitable. This transition period – the next few years, probably – is important because once infrastructure is built it’s hard to stop using it. In a few years no one will be trying to build LNG export facilities or drilling for new oil and gas, but in the interim we need to do what we can to ensure that new infrastructure doesn’t get built. Part of that is what movements like Extinction Rebellion are doing, and it’s humbling to see people like Dr. Takaro hanging from trees in Burnaby to stop the Trans Mountain expansion.

What do you wish to flourish as a result of your efforts?

The big picture answer is that I’m working to radicalize as many people as I can. We will see untold human suffering in the coming decades and likely the end of what we call civilization if we don’t make radical changes in every aspect of our society. The more people who realize this, the better our chance to effect change. On a small scale, one friend credited me with motivating her to install solar on her house and buy an electric vehicle; another told me she moved to a small town to try to minimize the impact of her lifestyle, in part because of my work. These don’t sound like much, but they add up, and they mean a lot to me personally.

http://sacredheadwaters.substack.com/

Bewildered! Where do we go from here?

“Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and…when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

The best of all possible worlds can only come about if the most compassionate elements of humanity prevail. The world, encircled with a supercharged capitalism and would-be tyrants, must choose a path towards either love or destruction. Sadly, it has taken the coronavirus to shake up the world’s iniquitous economies, and the racist death of a man to push us to the brink. To where, though?

This whole article was supposed to be about trying to make sense of Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans, which was released on YouTube on Earth Day (April 22), but more pressing concerns needed airing. It is because it represents a pattern of injustices that I discuss it at all. I recommend that you watch this contentious documentary and its many unfounded assertions regarding renewable energy and green activists, if only because it mentions, though all too briefly, pertinent and important issues (population and overconsumption) that have relevance for our precarious lives. Though I’d agree with the makers that green technological fixes won’t solve the world’s problems, the film is a shoddy mixture of ill-founded allegations, and, for many, Michael Moore’s ‘green’ reputation is in tatters. Most egregiously, we are told that the green movement is built on fossil-fuel money and that Bill McKibben, one of its best-known activists, is a fraud. The film is a compendium of half-truths that pits us against each other, while climate deniers buy more oil stock. What a way to celebrate Earth Day! Moore does us a great disservice, as we need truth more than ever now, not a disingenuous film.

On Sunday, June 7, Sherbrooke protested the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota two weeks ago. An estimated 2,000 people, mostly under the age of 40, met in front of the police station to listen to speeches addressing this grotesque murder and institutionalized racism. For nearly nine minutes they (but not the police who were watching) knelt in silence with fists outstretched to bear witness to the many black and indigenous people discriminated against. Police violence and racism are a cancerous growth. At the same time, billionaires’ greed and influence in government are accelerating the alienation and suffering of those in poverty, while there is an unprecedented push by those in power to dismantle any semblance of democracy. The “rule of law,” enforced by readily compliant police for many centuries, has propped up the aristocracy and now the corporate agenda. Remember that Germany’s laws allowed Hitler to ravage Europe. Authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia are police states. Under Trump, the US is, as Noam Chomsky terms it, a failed state. Israel appears to be no better.

People around the world have condemned the racism found in their countries. Western racism has a long history. In Bristol, UK, also on June 7, the statue of an extremely wealthy 17th-century slave trader, Edward Colston, was toppled and thrown into the harbour. Colston made a fortune enslaving 80,000 Africans and transporting them to America and was heralded as “one of the most virtuous and wise sons” of Bristol as a result of his philanthropic zeal for that city. How could it be that for 300 years people chose to disregard the indisputable fact that this philanthropy was founded on dirty money?

In a message for World Environment Day on June 5, Vandana Shiva urged, “We need to shift from the assumption that violating planetary boundaries, ecosystem boundaries, species boundaries, and human rights is a measure of progress and superiority—to creating economies based on respecting ecological laws and ecological limits, and respecting the rights of the last person, the last child.”

There is no doubt that this decade will bring all sentient beings to a crossroads created by humans. Have the months of reflection and quietude imposed upon the human world by Covid-19 given us the courage to reach out towards inclusivity and give up a collective madness that until now has created more and more suffering for the planet, or will “business as usual” return with a vengeance and smash our beautiful world?

Addressing our interwoven injustices.

“A 2019 United Nations report by the world’s leading scientists warned that one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction worldwide due to human activity. At this scale, biodiversity loss will impact health, wellbeing and the future of the Earth in ways that are incomprehensible.”

– Ecojustice

On June 20 this year Amnesty International held a virtual World Refugee Day event with Nazik Kabalo, founder of the Sudanese Women Human Rights Project. Kabalo spoke about her harrowing experiences in Egypt and Sudan before coming to live in Canada. As many of us know, Canada closed its border with the USA to refugees last March in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Groups such as Amnesty International are highly critical of the decision, declaring it illegal and stating that Canada could have easily tested and quarantined refugees instead of compounding the risks refugees face each day.

The interplay between social injustice, biodiversity loss, climate breakdown and the world’s poorest people, including refugees and Indigenous tribes, has always been a huge source of consternation for me. How does this intricate matrix of loss cast a defining hue on all of us? Even the pandemic’s tragic clarion call, which linked all of humanity, gave vast advantages to the wealthy to withstand its blight, helped along the way by a nefarious plutocracy. The Poor People’s Campaign strives to address with transformative actions “interwoven injustices.” Its policy platform starts with this principle: “Everybody in, nobody out. Everybody is deserving of our nation’s abundance.”

The UN, through the Millennium Development Goals launched in 2000 with the aim of meeting them by the end of 2015, followed by the present 17 Sustainable Development Goals has sought to strengthen societal justice and give a renewed voice for those in poverty – but with varying success. These are laudable projects, and if robustly acted upon they will certainly be a catalyst for change, but they are only a green shoot for humanity’s urgent healing.

Governments deliberately took advantage of (but by and large haven’t rescinded) the additional powers granted to them during the pandemic to suspend environmental regulations, and allowed industrial projects to proceed that otherwise would have been scrutinized. After all, protest was forbidden. When pollution levels rise, it’s always the poorest neighbourhoods that suffer the most.

It has long been expressed that until all of humanity is respected and governments aim for inclusivity in all societal actions, thus acknowledging their responsibility to enhance the wellbeing of all their citizens, no country expresses a universal principle of justice. Yes, with great flourish countries such as the US have constitutions that express those aspirations, but they fail miserably to enact any semblance of equal justice. Even if they did, the lack of any obligation to apply fairness to the whole of Nature would tear apart any country’s wellbeing. Humans are not separate from Nature. At its best, a Nature’s Trust would defend our fellow inhabitants.

CO2 emissions diminished by 17% compared to 2019 by the beginning of our April confinement, and were comparable to April 2006 levels, but they are now rising quickly. By mid-June, CO2 was only 5% lower than in 2019. Carbon-intensive industries received huge grants, or loans at 0%.

Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), has expressed great concern about a “carbon rebound.” Speaking to The Guardian, he said: “The next three years will determine the course of the next 30 years and beyond. If we do not [take action] we will surely see a rebound in emissions. If emissions rebound, it is very difficult to see how they will be brought down in future. This is why we are urging governments to have sustainable recovery packages.”

It is clear from the IEA’s analysis that retrofitting buildings to make them more energy-efficient, installing solar panels, and building wind farms will be far more effective than continuing to sustain a high-carbon economy.

But the trillions of dollars yet to be pumped into the economy are targeting everything from airlines to the oil industry. An obscenely low level of support is being given to creating millions of green jobs for people who will then be able to feed their families and remain in their own countries instead of becoming refugees. By stopping biodiversity loss and halting climate breakdown, society can come to a renewed balance of life for the planet’s inhabitants.

The Black Lives Matter movement is not only about police racism. It points to deeply rooted bias against people living in poverty. “Transformative” is a key word if our world is to become a just one. Let us not forget about the plight of the rest of Nature. Please see www.iucnredlist.org

Living, reading and gardening in the time of coronavirus

Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage:
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage.
If I have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.

Richard Lovelace, 1642

Amidst the suffering and uncertainty that have been abundantly revealed throughout the world, the coronavirus has forcefully encouraged many of us to be more reflective and to pursue simple pleasures. There is a multitude of paths to choose from. This article speaks of some of my pursuits.

Daily reading, walking, gardening, music and chess, as well as video calls with overseas friends, have sustained me these last months. Here is a chronicle of these contemplative activities.

Enjoy Nature. The amaryllis is blooming quite miraculously, with five astonishingly stunning flowers. The bulbs have been with me for years. Just let them keep their green leaves after they bloom to give vital energy for the following spring. In this year of crisis they allow us to celebrate an engaging Nature that many of us were too busy to notice before.

By January I had received my vegetable seeds in the post after joyfully perusing the informative seed catalogues. Is hope another name for a seed catalogue? For over 45 years my delight in finding a box filled with life has brought much anticipation, but particularly this winter. (Brian Creelman’s website seedsforfood.net is a great source of seeds from the Eastern Townships, and Clarke & Sons in Lennoxville is also excellent for your gardening needs.) I set up the ultraviolet lights and began preparing to sow the seeds in containers of various sizes. Ah, the joy of having soil on my hands again! Rejuvenation! A real ritual. Aubergines, peppers, parsley, parsnips, onions, leeks, basil for pesto, brussels sprouts, kale and many varieties of lettuce were in pots by the end of February. Each year I make a point of discovering a new vegetable, and okra is the ‘vegetable of the year’ for my garden this season. Last year it was the European broad bean. Swiss chard is to be sown in a few weeks. Spinach I will sow directly into the garden later this month. Each April I grow sweet peas so that the garden will be bathed in unsurpassed colour and fragrance. From my observations, I suspect that this spring will be warmer than last year’s, so the tomatoes and several squash varieties are next to be put into mini-greenhouses inside my house. They do not tolerate any hint of cold weather, so they are welcome guests indoors till June. I like growing a small pot of basil or thyme on the windowsill. These herbs are easy to grow and fun to watch. Sunflower seeds collected last October are now ready for sowing. Peas and especially watercress will be happy in the wetter part of the plot. Pole and bush beans love warm soil, so June 10 might be a good day for them to meet the earth, but I’ll consult the biodynamic calendar first. The garlic and tulips are already up, and I delight in seeing them grow a little more every day. I’d like to think that I won’t need to buy any more garlic, as I save some for planting each year. Many people, apprehensive about food availability, are discovering gardening. Indeed, this vast surge of enthusiasm means that seeds are selling out in many places. In this time of need, are our WWII ‘victory gardens’ returning?

Online chess with friends is a boon in these times and creates solidarity. We play each day and write short notes to each other. See chess.com to set up some free games, even if you haven’t played before. You can take lessons there.

I’m reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and each day one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I speak daily with my friend in Cornwall, UK, and we read out loud Richard Powers’ The Overstory.

It’s impossible to play music together over the internet, so a violinist and I record our respective parts and then play duets. Practising music every day is a wonderful meditation. This solitary music-making encourages the discovery of new compositions. I am a classically trained musician, but improvisation is a delight and a challenge for me.

Physical distancing while taking a brisk walk or cycling on park paths enables the house-weary to feel a breeze and observe that spring is emerging ever more rapidly. The sky is clearer and the air less polluted than it has been for two decades. Now is the time to ask ourselves what is really important. Our rush to procure ever more things has brought the human world to its knees, and now that we are there we can contemplate what truly makes us.

Coronavirus and ecological/climate breakdown are interconnected.

“For years, normality has been stretched nearly to its breaking point, a rope pulled tighter and tighter… Now that the rope has snapped, do we tie its ends back together, or shall we undo its dangling braids still further, to see what we might weave from them?” – Charles Eisenstein charleseisenstein.org/essays/the-coronation/

What can our future look like, now that the business-as-usual mode of living is currently broken? Have we now seen a glimpse of a more egalitarian future these last few weeks through a broken window? True, all economic groups can catch the virus, but people living from paycheque to paycheque will disagree that future universal health care is there for them. Will Medicare for All finally become a reality in the USA?

We have certainly witnessed some inspiring actions. In Britain, arms companies are making ventilators. Across the world, pollution levels are drastically lower. The UN secretary-general called for a global ceasefire. Italians are singing on their balconies, and people around the world are dancing online (tinyurl.com/stayed-home). A visit to the supermarket revealed that bakers-to-be had bought up all the yeast for that first loaf of bread they’d dreamed about creating.

The responses of governments towards the novel coronavirus in the first month certainly tell us what their priorities are. Protecting oil, coal and gas interests and the industries that rely upon them reflects the same mentality that led to the 2008 bank bailouts: big business safety nets are always chosen over people’s health and wellbeing. The right-wing ‘leaders’ of the US and Brazil continue to use delay and brazen lies to help large corporations instead of their own people.

There are many parallels and links between the coronavirus and the biodiversity/climate emergency. In the name of capitalism, humans have obliterated many of the world’s wild places, built roads through them, plundered irreplaceable forests for exotic woods, destroyed rivers through mining and pesticide use, set fire to pristine places to raise cattle and produce palm oil, captured wild animals for foreign markets and thereby brought new diseases within easy proximity. If governments had not allowed oil, coal and gas multinationals to contaminate huge undisturbed areas, the world’s inhabitants would not be suffering now. Industrial governments’ denial of the impact of the biodiversity/climate crisis on future generations has left their moral leadership in tatters.

With the coronavirus, however, these politicians have an immediate problem: it’s the older generations that keep them in place. The over-55s are the most likely demographic group to die from the virus; alienate them, and you’ve lost power. Certainly the UK and the US governments are risking this.

Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, said recently: “We are intimately interconnected with nature, whether we like it or not. If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves. And as we hurtle towards a population of 10 billion people on this planet, we need to go into this future armed with nature as our strongest ally.”

For many ‘leaders’, however, the destruction of nature is one big lucrative scheme that benefits themselves and their cronies. Courtney Howard, board president of the Canadian Association of Physicians, upon hearing that the Canadian government was planning a bailout of oil and gas multinationals, responded: “Oil and gas companies, lobbyists and the decision makers they have formed relationships with are counting on Canadians being too occupied coping with an ongoing health crisis to register that our country is considering a massive transfer of public funds to support the very industry most likely to cause the next health crisis.”

Capitalism’s deregulated markets have helped destroy nature and spread the virus, which is exactly what happened in Wuhan’s animal market. By putting capital first, China, the UK and the USA accelerated the spread of coronavirus, just as they have continued to speed up climate breakdown. Trudeau’s misguided financial package to oil companies will be a missed opportunity to put people first and create a just future for all Canadians.

Many climate and social activists are working to have people realize that the foolhardy gift of trillions of dollars given in the last month to big business should be invested in a safe climate, planetary health and a flourishing future for children. Please read thelancet.com/infographics/child-health

Thomas Homer-Dixon of the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo, wrote recently:
“Today’s emerging pandemic could help catalyze an urgently needed tipping event in humanity’s collective moral values, priorities and sense of self and community. It could remind us of our common fate on a small, crowded planet with dwindling resources and fraying natural systems.” tinyurl.com/homerdixon-coronavirus-future

UN climate summit failure worries young people

The placard of a protester attending the Madrid climate conference currently taking place says, “The climate is changing. Why aren’t we?” So far the UN summit has been bogged down in technicalities, as each of the wealthy countries tries to manoeuvre into a position that reflects its own aspirational ‘commitments’ sung so eloquently at the 2015 Paris summit. You may recall Justin Trudeau’s enthusiasm prior to that conference when he declared, “Canada is back!” This was meant in part to be a pledge to work diligently with the rest of the world to vigorously lower greenhouse-gas pollution after Stephen Harper’s anti-science agenda. Canada has failed miserably to reach its climate goals, both for individuals and as a government. Will the government exacerbate this situation by approving the proposed open-pit tar sands development that would cover an area as large as the city of Vancouver? 

December 13 is the final day of the Madrid summit, and ministers from the world’s governments arrived in Madrid only a few days previously to negotiate where this 25th UN meeting will lead us. These global conversations have been going on for a long time, yet we are still no closer to stopping a rise in global temperature of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius—or more probably a catastrophic increase of 3 degrees. The aspirational concoctions laid out in the Paris summit have led us nowhere. The pledge of US$100 billion yearly for a decade in 2009 to help the poorer nations to adapt and manage in the face of climate change still hasn’t materialized, apart from a mere trickle of valid commitments. Meanwhile, to the utter shame of the Spanish government, the Madrid conference is being sponsored by the very corporations that have contributed most to our ecological crisis: the oil and electric companies and the banks that finance them. Foxes welcomed into the hen house? As sponsors, they go on to influence the negotiations taking place. The ultimate greenwash?

Although half a million people came out in Madrid to protest about the slowness of negotiations, individual countries are loath to pledge to push forward an authentic agenda that will tackle the emergency and stabilize the Earth’s climate. At the same time, scientific reports and disasters are documenting daily the unfolding catastrophe. Major Australian fires, ecological tipping points and expanding oxygen-depleted dead zones in the oceans head the list this week.

Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! has been following the situation in Madrid and speaking with young climate activists attending an alternative conference called the Social Summit for Climate. She pointed out that the International Monetary Fund estimates that globally governments subsidize the fossil fuel industry to the tune of $5.2 trillion annually. During her conversation with activists from Chile (where the conference was to be held until that government cancelled) and Uganda, it became apparent from their testimonies that unprecedented droughts and floods are causing huge suffering. Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg addressed the people in Madrid’s streets, saying, “The change we need is not going to come from the people in power as it is now. The change is going to come from the masses, from the people demanding action. And that is us. We are the ones who are going to bring change. The current world leaders are betraying us, and we will not let that happen any more.” She went on to express her frustration by commenting on the unparalleled rise in carbon emissions since 2015. The school strikes have done nothing, she lamented, to bring down emissions, and she vowed to do more. Young people want real solutions, and tragically governments have capitulated to corporate interests.

The celebrated British Nature writer Robert Macfarlane wrote in his recent book Underland (which can be borrowed from the Lennoxville Library), “We find speaking of the Anthropocene…difficult. It is, perhaps, best imagined as an epoch of loss—of species, places and people—for which we are seeking a language of grief and, even harder to find, a language of hope.”

In these articles I have mentioned non-violent civil disobedience and groups like Extinction Rebellion as the avenues for hope that more and more young people are looking to in their frantic search for biodiversity/climate stability and resilience. The connection between young people and those who in previous times were valued as elders because of their wisdom and leadership has been shattered. Young people realize they must now fend for themselves, and Greta Thunberg is expressing their anger. Whether that trust can be restored is now in question. Can we change course?

Alliance of World Scientists Issue Bleak Warning

In 1972 the first United Nations Conference dedicated to the state of Nature took place in Stockholm. It spoke of the fragility of the planet’s ecosystems and helped spur the expanding interest in conservation. The UN Environment Programme was created in the same year to promote sustainability and stewardship for the Earth.
Seven years later, amidst growing concern about greenhouse-gas emissions, the First World Climate Conference was held in Geneva. This event was important because it laid out the internationally recognized concerns about climate change. Its Declaration stated: “Having regard to the all-pervading influence of climate on human society and on many fields of human activities and endeavour, the Conference finds that it is now urgently necessary for the nations of the world: (a) To take full advantage of man’s [sic] present knowledge of climate; (b) To take steps to improve significantly that knowledge; (c) To foresee and prevent potential man-made [sic] changes in climate that might be adverse to the well-being of humanity.”
Over the next nine years there were further gatherings of scientists and governments, culminating in the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
tinyurl.com/history-climate-activities
Forty years after the Stockholm Conference, the Alliance of World Scientists (AWS) came together to issue a warning to the people of the world to take action. They expressed their concern in a preliminary paragraph: “Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to ‘tell it like it is.’ On the basis of this obligation and the graphical indicators presented below, we declare, with more than 11,000 scientist signatories from around the world, clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.”
tinyurl.com/aws-warning
It is some of those graphical indicators that I wish to share with you. They are important because they speak about more, much more, than just atmospheric change, which until now has received most of the attention. The graphs are divided into two groups: the first sets out the human activities that have changed our climate, and the second focuses on the impacts of those activities.
A human population graph begins the first list. In 1979 there were 4.4 billion people on Earth, and now there are almost 7.8 billion, spelling out massive hurdles for our planet’s ability to sustain life as we know it if we continue on this trajectory. Total fertility rate has dropped considerably since 1979 but is beginning to rise again. More than 220,000 babies are born each day – over 80 million each year. There are close to 4 billion ruminant animals (cows, sheep and others), belching huge quantities of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Per capita meat production has risen sharply since 1979 (causing huge biodiversity loss). World Gross Domestic Product has risen 80.5% every 10 years – but remember that this reflects every kind of ‘product’, including cleaning up the devastation and pollution following disasters such as hurricanes and fires. And the graphs go on, covering tree loss globally and, specifically, in the Brazilian Amazon; fossil fuel consumption, which overshadows the advances made in renewable energy; and air transportation, which increased from half a billion flights in 1979 to almost 4 billion in 2019. (A small percentage of humanity take those flights.) Individuals’ carbon emissions are continuing to rise, fossil fuel subsidies are going up obscenely, and carbon pricing has crashed. The only good news has been more divestment from fossil fuel stock.
What have been the impacts of these changes? Atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased from 336ppm in 1979 to 413ppm in 2019. Methane and nitrous oxide – another greenhouse gas – have risen steadily, bringing surface temperatures to new heights. This alone defines our emerging climate crisis. In the last 20 years in particular there has been massive loss of ice in Greenland, the Arctic and the Antarctic, leading to higher and warmer oceans. Global glaciers, a major source of fresh water, have melted significantly, giving a billion people less security for their water needs. At the same time, ocean acidification continues, with disastrous consequences for coral reefs and other marine life. Finally, the graphs spell out the repercussions of extreme heat and fires. Sound bad? It is.
Do you think going out to buy discounted things on Black Friday is a good deal? It’s not. Make Black Friday a Buy Nothing Day! Over-consumption is both a symptom of the poverty of our inner lives and a direct threat to having a vibrant, balanced planet on which to live – and thrive. tinyurl.com/buy-nothing-day-2019