Monthly Archives: January 2014

Environmentalism has failed. Or has it?

A tale of two paradigms

by Stan Hirst

fight copyBack in May 2012 David Suzuki famously declared in his blog that “environmentalism has failed”  He went on to explain that, over the past 50 years, environmentalists had failed to realize that environmental battles reflect fundamentally different ways of seeing our place in the world, and that our deep underlying worldview determines the way we treat our surroundings.

He noted that we, as a species, had not come to grips with the explosive events that have changed our relationship with the planet. In trying to address  the problems we created  dedicated environmental departments in our national, regional and local governments, but this just turned environment into one more special interest, like education, health, and agriculture. This “anthropocentric” view envisions the world revolving around US. So we create departments of forests, fisheries and oceans, and environment whose ministers and top bureaucrats are less concerned with the health and well-being of the actual forests, fish, oceans or the environment than with the resources and the economies that depend on them and are derived from them. We had still failed to make the point, and to act accordingly, that our lives, health and livelihoods absolutely depend on the biosphere — quality air, water, soil, sunlight, and biodiversity.

David’s concerns are not new, in fact they’re related to two prevailing social paradigms, one of which has been around for at least five millennia. The Dominant Social Paradigm (DSP) is comprised of three basic beliefs:

  1. technology will spare the planet, and all things detrimental can be resolved with continued pursuit of industrial advancement;
  2. economic growth and prosperity will resolve any disinterest or dissatisfaction with societal problems; and
  3. political representatives in office are there for the benefit of the people and their country, and that ultimately they, and only they, have the capability to handle policies that effect society as a whole.

We can see this basic philosophy as driving current top-level Canadian philosophy surrounding resources development and management.

Widespread societal concern for environmental deterioration, by comparison, is relatively new. The New Ecological Paradigm (NEP) had its roots in the US environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and was partly inspired by Rachel Carson and her bestseller Silent Spring which drew sharp attention to the ecosystem dangers of chemical pollution. The NEP has been loosely based on three key propositions:

  1. environmental protection is possible through limitations on industrial and population growth;
  2. planetary demise is directly correlated with human-influenced interactions with natural ecosystems and landscapes; and
  3. humans are one, usually the major, cause of global environmental deterioration.

Four decades after the birth of the NEP there continues to be ongoing argument on how to properly address global issues. Significantly, social surveys of DSP and NEP protagonists have not, so far, revealed any great willingness on either side to change behaviours or beliefs.

All of this has very practical implications for the Suzuki Elders and the ways in which we carry out our activities. As we state in our strategic plan our goals are to mentor, motivate and support others in dialogue and action on environmental issues, and we attempt to achieve this through educating, communicating and non-partisan advocacy.  It follows that nothing much will be achieved if we’re trying to communicate with policy-makers, political representatives, business leaders and/or  our fellow Canadians if they’re all imbued with lots of DSP. In fact, that’s the main reason for the oft-heard lament from the Elders “Why won’t they listen to us?”

Are we faced with a permanent stand-off between the DSP’ers and the NEP’ers?  Possibly. The DSP has been around for a long time, indicating that at least some of its concepts are deeply embedded in the human psyche.  But, in thinking more about it, I suggest we NEP’ers, like the rest of humanity, easily fall into the boundary trap.

We love sharp boundaries between categories of things, be they rocks, birds, people or ideas. “Them” and “us”.  “Good” and “bad”. “Black” and “white”. “Red-shafted flickers” and “yellow-shafted flickers”. “Good” ideas and “bad” ideas. The list is endless.  But the categorization is usually for our personal satisfaction, it doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.  Modern genetics has shown that many groups of animals or plants assigned to different genera or species are actually more similar to one another than they are different. Politicians spend inordinate amounts of time haranguing one another over policy differences, but then seem quite capable of reaching a commonly accepted solution when they run out of debating time.

So I’m suggesting two things:-

  1. that the differences between people, communities, interest groups and the like on the subjects of environmental protection, resource exploitation and all similar issues which take up much space and time in our daily media are not sharply divided but are rather blobs on a continuum of personal opinion and involvement from one extreme to the other; and
  2. a significantly big proportion of the general population doesn’t yet know enough about many environmental issues to clearly choose a position, either because they’re still young and haven’t yet learned what the issues are, or they have no great interest in environmental issues anyway.  Public opinion surveys conducted over the past five years across Canada have found, amongst other things, that 20% Canadians are not sure whether global temperatures are rising, 23% are not concerned at all about climate change, 55% have never heard the expression “cap and trade” and 25% of people voting conservative in national elections consider that climate change is not real. There is thus still much scope and opportunity for environmental education and general awareness building across the country.

The environmental glass is half full

by Neale Adams    

David Suzuki is a visionary and a great Canadian.wine-glass He is seriously discouraged by what he perceives to be a lack of response to his alarms. He is impatient, as visionaries tend to be. That response is slow does not mean it is not happening.

  1. Environmentalism has made great strides during the past 50 years. Once billowing smokes stacks were a sign of progress; today they are symbols of pollution and global warming. There are people stuck in an earlier world view who refuse to deal with the reality of our environmental system. However they are mostly old and dying out. The young are environmentally conscious. Generational change takes generations.
  2. We have increasingly become aware of the serious nature of our environmental situation. Awareness continues to grow. Scientific consensus about the nature of our most serious problem, global warming due to the use of fossil fuels that put carbon into the atmosphere, is hardly 30 years old. The first UN conference on the environment was in 1992, only 22 years ago. Society is a great ocean liner. Turning it around takes time. (Hopefully, meanwhile, there are no icebergs.)
  3. While the environment is crucial—air, land, and water—so too are food supply, public health, the provision of energy and housing. To consider all but environmentalism as “special interests” except concern about the environment is wrong. Democratic values are important. The structure of our economy and the distribution of wealth matter also. Governments must and do pay attention to all these issues. Is enough attention paid to the environment? No, but attention is rapidly growing.
  4. Human beings are a four million-year-old species primarily interested in the state of human beings. Of course they have an “anthropocentric” view—what other view could they have? The environment is a serious issue, not because trees and plants and animals are of value in themselves, but because a degraded environment affects human beings. We need healthy forests, fish, oceans, etc., because we are connected to them. If humankind disappears, one need not worry about most other species—most would survive and probably do quite well without us.

The Dominant Social Paradigm was that humankind can experience continued progress. That view is in disarray for many reasons, chiefly because the post-World War II boom is long behind us. Generally, people have become too pessimistic. A grounded environmentalism can be the basis for restoring social optimism.

  1. Technology in many areas has denigrated the environment, but it in other areas it has cause improvement. What matters is how technology is used. Environmentalists can neither embrace all technology, not reject it. They must help people figure out how to best use it.
  2. In addition to growing environmental awareness, more people are coming to realize that economic growth does not, and cannot, solve all of society’s problems. Our economic and social institutions however have failed to come to grips with this realization.
  3. Political representatives hold office to benefit the people they represent as they best can according to their knowledge and understanding. However, Canadians believe that ultimately the will of the people is and can be expressed through elections and other means.

The New Ecological Paradigm is a useful way of understanding what action is needed to solve our environmental problems, but has its limitations and must be constantly examined and renewed.

  1. Population growth slows and can reverse when people have a decent standard of living. The economic challenge is to provide that standard while using less of earth’s resources. Simply limiting industry or population growth by fiat (e.g., the one child policy in China) does not work well.
  2. A proper interaction of a population with the natural landscape (however defined) is healthy for both.
  3. We will never return to a “State of Nature.” The idea of Eden is a useful myth, but still a myth.

There will always be argument on how to live and properly address global issues. However, it is likely that human society will adopt strategies to reverse environmental degradation. Either that will happen, or it won’t. We are likely near the tipping point at which growing environmental consciousness will result in startling economic and environmental change. However, environmental apocalypticism has limited use in promoting this change.

The Blessing of Living the Questions?

Ramblings from Solstice 2013 to January 2, 2014

by Michael Lewis

Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for Community Renewal

Mike Lewis

As one contemplates 2014, the wondrous, unique, tiny blue dot we dwell upon is in deep trouble. It is no news to anyone who knows me that I live between despair and hope. There are plenty of reasons for both. Alas, uncertainty is the only constant.

The personal question that continuously emerges from accepting this tension is where to put one’s tiny repository of time and talent. If one is committed to making hope more concrete rather than despair more convincing, how do I concentrate my little bit? At the age of 61, this is the question I cannot seem to shake.

The fact that I am a Canadian exacerbates the restlessness this question provokes. I like to think I am a reasonable Canadian that has been shaped by the reasonableness of the country I grew up in. My problem is I am feeling more and more unreasonable. Is this because I am becoming a grumpy old man? Or, might it be my country is becoming more and more unreasonable?

As the gloomy evidence related to the catastrophic impact of human-generated carbon becomes more and more unassailable, our Federal government is doing all it can to accelerate the expansion of the tar sands in Alberta, a province which, if it were a nation, would be the highest per capita carbon emitter in the world.

As much of the world is cutting back on burning carbon-rich coal (good news), American industry and various governmental agencies in Canada are doing all they can to facilitate more and more thermal coal (the dirtier grades) to be transported from south of the border by longer and longer trains in order to find a temporary home at a new port installation smack dab in the middle of the Fraser River delta. Why? So that it can be loaded onto bigger and bigger ships destined for Asian markets, where it can be burned to produce more and more carbon spewing electricity to further clog our overloaded atmosphere, that is why!

Continuous claims that all this activity is being managed by a ‘reasonable’ approach to balancing interests is buttressed by advertising campaigns designed to soothe us with a promise of renewal and prosperity and protection of our natural environment. Those with a contrary perspective are seen as unreasonable, unwilling dreamers with their heads up their back ends who do not seem to comprehend the reality that the world needs our oil, and quickly. Those with a contrary perspective that dare to publically challenge government and industry elites pushing the fossil fuel agenda are labeled somewhat more harshly; they are the foreign financed radicals deemed to be bordering on terrorist activity.

So much for democracy. Deception, lying, threats, self-dealing, denial and deflection of evidence – is this our lot, the new Canada, a managed citizenry controlled by a combination of threats and a constricting but economically grandiose vision of being the prosperous new energy super-power?

So, back to the question. Here I am. I live on the only earth we will ever know. I am a Canadian. I live in the westernmost province; the proverbial gateway to Asia. I am 61. I have six grandchildren. I am of a generation that is the biggest though mainly unwitting beneficiary of fossil fuel-induced economic growth. I want us to radically but systematically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, a goal that is premised on the best evidence available. Unfortunately, I am living in a country where a small but powerful, ideologically bound, self-interested cabal is eschewing their responsibility to help Canadians make a positive transition to a low carbon economy.

Given such a miserable set of circumstance, what then are the options then for an aging lotus-land WASP to responsibly share his time, talents and spirit?

Is my consideration of heading for the front lines of civil disobedience ‘responsible’, or not? Would it be a relevant witness to all I care for and love or would I merely be a sop to my momentary lapses into despair and a yearning for more timely relevance? It is a good question; after all, I have been a primary beneficiary of the age of fossil fuels and economic growth, so now that I know better, do I not have a primary responsibility to add my weight to the growing numbers of young and old actively taking the risks necessary to change the course being set to accelerate the rush for the spoils we seem bent on in this country? Is this not reasonable thing to ask of myself?

Or, should I stay on my path of writing, researching, consulting, speaking and spreading ideas and innovations that represent resilient pathways to meeting our basic needs into the future? Is this a ‘reasonable’ approach? After all, I have been doing this for 40 years and have a good idea of how long it takes to advance innovations that have proven themselves. Might confining my attention to this domain be akin to hiding my head in the sand? After all, alternatives, no matter how successful, are not invulnerable to the gathering onslaughts of ever more volatile climate ‘events’. Would not focusing on reducing the risks of carbon be a wiser choice for the use of limited time, talent and resources?

Or, perhaps, I should just stop all of it and just live day to day. Many good and wonderful people I know are on this path; love those you are with and have faith that hardened hearts will be softened through acceptance and active caring. After all, without a ‘change of heart’ we will not prevail in the bigger issues. But is this attractive variation on the Zen thematic not merely a somewhat convenient way of just hiding out from the rather inconvenient truth that our challenges are systemic, not merely matters of the heart or even individual behaviour? Change in both are necessary.

My problem, or perhaps better put, my challenge is that I want it all. I want to help stop the madness, be an active participant putting in place the practical and hopeful alternatives rather than pressing the ‘pedal to the metal’ on the path to the precipice, and I want to be imbued with a spirit satisfied with loving and nourishing what is right in front of me day by day.

Hmmm….. I did confess at the beginning of this missive that reflection seems a chore at times,  “a sure indication it is time to stop long enough to see what bubbles up.” Well, at this point my search for the ‘new found land’ is yielding a strange aroma. My “want it all” conclusion feels like a lot of work and would take some serious attitude adjustments on my part, God forbid.

But might this just be what constitutes a generative pathway forward? Resisting what is wrong-headed and damaging, spreading alternatives that make ‘common sense’, and daily loving the people and the processes one is connected to – are these not gracefully militant and practical ways to live?

Thus ends my serious but light-hearted rambling reflection on the state of…….well, whatever. As you might surmise, my next communication of this sort could just as likely emanate from a prison, a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a successful innovation transplanted, or from my pen while on a silent retreat where I will no doubt be personally bent on getting focused and experiencing stillness, an outcome which could be an inordinately long process.

I believe it is time for a rum and the dregs of the egg nog. Sometimes such arduous bouts of contemplation and the clarity of action that falls out of such deep thinking can be helped along by such intoxicating aids. Anything is possible.

May each of you have a wonderful and meaningful 2014 and may you and yours be showered with blessings as we all live the questions and challenges of our time on this earth. Keep posted. Maybe I will yet make some progress bringing resistance, building alternatives and living gracefully together into a nice neat and tidy whole.

Meanwhile, I wish the best to each of you this coming year.

The Elder image

by Stan Hirst

I’ve come to expect very little from the film industry in their portrayal of elders on the silver screen.  They usually fall back on us only when they need a little comic relief or a brief moment of tear-jerking. But, just once in a while, an elder might be depicted in a more meaningful role.  The past year has left us with a mixed bag of elder imagery which deserves mention.

NEBRASKAIn Nebraska, the best film of the year (in my humble elder opinion), the main character is Woody Grant, an ornery old soak from Billings, Montana. As the film starts, Woody is seen walking along the freeway on his way to Lincoln, Nebraska (800 miles) to collect a million dollars from Publishers Clearing House. That immediately tells us where Woody is at.

The reason why I find this movie so moving and, at the same time, so disconcerting, is that it is absolutely true to life in its character depiction. I lived in the American heartland for a few years and those folks are exactly as depicted. Case in point – a group of senior men in Hawthorne, Nebraska, sit in the living room after Sunday lunch. All wear plaid shirts and all stare fixedly at a football game on TV. Occasionally two of them, without looking at one another, will converse in monosyllables about the cars they owned back in ’79. Another typical event – Woody hobbles into an auto shop he once owned for 25 years and asks the Hispanic mechanics if they know where Ed Pegram is. Ed was Woody’s former partner in the business. The mechanics have no idea who or where Ed Pegram is. Woody then heads for the battered tavern one block down the street, and the first person he meets at the bar is ….. Ed Pegram.

I found myself searching the Woody character, without much success, for something Elderly (capital “E”), something to offset his crankiness and his detachment from society, something to make it seem all worthwhile in the end, but to no avail. He had served his country in Korea in the 50’s, and maybe that was where he lost his connections.

The underlying thing about the movie that weighs on me is that I don’t really have to go to the flicks to see a character like Woody. There are clones of him on all the streets and in the malls buying lottery tickets right here in Vancouver.

Quartet-Tom-Courtenay-and-Maggie-SmithThe award-winning movie Quartet gave me a little more glimmer of hope for Elder values.

Reg, Wilf, Jean and Cissy are retired former opera singers living in Beecham House, a retirement home for gifted musicians. Whatever they were in previous lives, they’re very human at Beecham House. Jean is catty, vain and difficult to deal with, Cissy is starting to lose it and often goes walkabout, Reg is a curmudgeon who yells obscenities at the French maid for giving him apricot jam instead of marmalade at breakfast. Wilf is a classic senior – hides a bottle of scotch in the greenhouse and wees behind the shrubbery when he thinks nobody is watching.

The four were once part of a popular quartet famous for the best post-war recording of bella figlia dell’amore from Rigoletto. In the final scene they get their act together and sing the aria magnificently at a fund-raiser at Beecham House. That’s the Elder thing to do of course – retain one’s skills honed over the years for effective use later in life when the situation requires it.

HBT-025881r.jpgThere is indeed a first-class Elder currently on display at the movies – Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. He can’t go wrong with that beard, that hat and that mellifluous voice just oozing wisdom. He is the quintessential mentor and more. When the going gets tough and the situation is waist-high in orcs, Gandalf has the moxie to hack his way out with his trusty sword or else he just summons up Gwahir the eagle for aerial evacuation. Clearly this is the mode we Elders all need to be in.

The only problem here is that Gandalf exists only in Middle Earth and in the fertile imagination of J.R. Tolkien. I’ve never met anyone even remotely close to his character. I will admit that a British lady, a member of the International Group in Lesotho, used to call me Gandalf. She was usually on her third gin and tonic at that stage.

Just when I was about to give up the search, I remembered one of the best and most believable Elder portrayals on film in the past year – Evelyn Greenslade in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Evelyn is a newly widowed housewife whose house in the U.K. had to be sold off to pay off her husband’s debts. Her twit of a son wants to “care” for her, without her input, but she elects instead to take the plunge and heads for Jaipur, India to live in a shambolic hotel for elderly expatriates. She finds a new, wholly unexpected and very challenging life, but she blossoms in the face of the adversities. Evelyn lands a job teaching English communication skills to an Indian call centre. She shares her activities through her blog, and happens to coin the best phrase of the movie “We get up in the morning, we do our best“. She also comes up with classically Elder snippets of basic wisdom which linger long after the movie has ended.IMG_8314.CR2

“Initially you’re overwhelmed, but gradually you realize it’s like a wave. Resist, and you’ll be knocked over. Dive into it and you’ll swim out the other side.”

“The only real failure is the failure to try, and the measure of success is how we cope with disappointment.”

“But it’s also true that the person who risks nothing, does nothing and has nothing. All we know about the future is that it will be different. But perhaps what we fear is that it will be the same. So we must celebrate the changes.”