Category Archives: Our Changing World

A shift in consciousness

by Stan Hirst

I’ve been pondering on three items these past weeks.

The first one was an observation I made some two months ago while travelling through Argentina.  Visiting the Iguazu Falls had been a firm item on my bucket list for more than 30 years, in fact ever since the movie The Mission hit the circuits.  Iguazu did not disappoint – an incredible natural spectacle and, I thought, one of the great natural wonders of the world. I took 160 photographs of the Falls and their environs – thank heavens for digital cameras!

As to be expected, the whole area surrounding the Falls and the many walkways were clogged with tourists of all shapes and sizes.  The overwhelming majority carried smartphones or tablets and all were shooting pictures from every angle. What intrigued me about my fellow Falls gawkers was that more than 9 out of every 10 shots I saw taken were selfies of themselves with the Falls in the background!  This spoke volumes about their underlying motivation for using photographic recording.

The second thing clicking through my rickety brain was related to the December 19 election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the U.S.A.  That event in itself was enough to give me serious cerebral machinations, but one specific thing jumped out at me. Believe it or not, Trump’s success has been attributed in large part to Facebook!  The social media giant has been credited (!) as being massively influential in the election outcome, not because it was tipping the scales with fake news (although it probably helped some there), but because it helped generate the bulk of the campaign’s $250 million in online fundraising.

The third item of reflection related to a recent meeting of the Education & Community Engagement group of the Suzuki Elders where, after some raucous round-table discussion, it became evident to me that my fellow Elders had little clue about blogs, websites, electronic bulletin boards, hyperlinks and electronic media in general.  I was left musing how this meshed with our view of ourselves as personifying the traditional repositories of societal wisdom.

Over the past few decades modern writers such as Ray Kurzweil, Roy Ascott and others have elegantly pointed out to us that people across the planet are changing radically in body and mind. It’s not just a matter of the prosthetics of implants, artificial body-parts or surgical face-fixing, however much such technologies may seem a godsend to us Elders. It’s also matter of consciousness.

People in the 21st century have acquired new faculties and a new understanding of human presence. We have developed the ability to inhabit both the real and virtual worlds at one and the same time.  We can now be both here and potentially everywhere else at the same time. This is giving [some of us] a new sense of self and new ways of thinking and perceiving that extend beyond what we have long believed to be our natural, genetic capabilities. In fact, authors like Ascott and Kurzweil go so far as to state that a debate about artificial and natural is no longer relevant in this context. We are increasingly interested in what can be made of ourselves, not what made us.

The sanctity of the individual may now be a defunct concept. Thanks to social media we are now each of us made up of a set of selves, so we are actually many individuals. Actually, the sense of the individual is giving way to the sense of the interface.  We are now all interface – computer-mediated and computer-enhanced.

These new ways of conceptualising and perceiving reality involve more than simply some sort of quantitative change in how we see, think, and act in the world. They constitute a qualitative change in our being, a whole new faculty. Ascott has coined a term for this post-biological faculty –  cyberception.

Ideas come from the interactions and negotiations of minds. We are looking at the augmentation of our capacity to think and conceptualise, and also to conceptualise more richly and to perceive more fully both inside and beyond our former limitations of seeing, thinking, and constructing.  We now have a new term for the sum of these artificial systems of probing, communicating, remembering and processing the data, satellite links, remote sensing and telerobotics  – the cybernet.

How is cyberception different from perception and conception? It’s a lot more than simply the extension of intelligence provided by silicon chips in our computers, smart-phones and robotics.

We are offered the opportunity of a new understanding of pattern, of seeing the whole instead of just the parts, of flowing with the rhythms of process and system. Until recently we have thought and seen things mainly in a linear manner, i.e. one thing after another, one thing hidden behind another, division of the world into categories and classes of things. Objects have had impermeable boundaries, surfaces have had impenetrable interiors.  Simple vision ignored infinite complexities.

Cyberception means getting a sense of a whole, acquiring a bird’s-eye view of events, an astronaut’s view of the earth, a web-surfer’s view of whole systems. It’s brought about by high-speed feedback, access to massive databases, interaction with a multiplicity of minds, seeing with a thousand eyes, hearing the earth’s most silent whispers, reaching into the enormity of space, even to the edge of time.

If my Elder colleagues have read this far they will doubtless be asking “What does this bafflegab have to do with anything?”  Well, everything!

We’ve seen how hand-held devices such as smart phones can influence political decisions at the highest levels even while the owners think they’re doing nothing more than polishing their own vanity by taking a selfie or clicking an innocent-looking link which sends $5 to somewhere or other.  We’ve all become cybernauts of one kind or another.

Our choice now is to join the cybercommunity and participate at a meaningful level or let others do it for us.  Which choice would best represent the elder perspective for us?

PLASTIC HERE TO STAY: THERE IS NO AWAY!

by Erlene Woollard

Have you noticed lately what is happening in the world’s oceans? If not, please take the time to do so. A good place to start would be the website of the Plastic Oceans Foundation, a global network of independent not-for-profits and charitable organizations, united in their aims to change the world’s attitude towards plastic within a generation. There are currently four Plastic Oceans Foundation entities: United States, Hong Kong, United Kingdom and Canada (in Vancouver), serving both the ocean and the public.

I went to the Canadian Premiere of their film of “A Plastic Ocean” and found it very disturbing and hard to watch but also enlightening. I was encouraged to see so many concerned and qualified people working on the issues of educating us all and trying to protect the world’s sea life from society’s careless use of single-use plastic.

The suffering this plastic is causing is heart wrenching and so unnecessary. If only we, as part of a caring society, would be more thoughtful and even vigilant in our use and disposal of the plastic that surrounds us in our daily lives. In other words, we urgently need to RETHINK our use of the stuff. The hope is that once people know the consequences of our disposable lifestyles as well as understand the importance of the oceans and their bounty in our lives then we will start to care. From caring comes positive change.

Here are some pertinent facts from the Plastic Ocean’s website.

  • Plastic, once made, is always with us in some form. When it is thrown away in one place, it shows up in another, always.
  • More than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped in our oceans every year.
  • We have developed a “disposable” lifestyle; estimates are that around 50% of plastic is used just once and thrown away.
  • Plastic is a valuable resource and plastic pollution is an unnecessary and unsustainable waste of that resource.
  • Packaging is the largest end use market segment, accounting for just over 40% of total plastic usage.
  • Approximately 500 billion plastic bags are used annually worldwide. More than one million bags are used every minute.
  • A plastic bag has an average “working life” of just 15 minutes.
  • Over the last ten years we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century.

Often, when we look at making changes in our lives, the changes seem daunting, unrealistic and very time consuming. Below are some things that can be done almost without thinking. These are things that help make each of us feel like we are part of a positive solution.

RETHINKING PACKAGING:

  • Bananas have their own natural packaging so do you really need to put them into a plastic bag in the store to take home?
  • When going shopping, take your own plastic bags from your collection under the sink!! I know this is easy to forget, but you don’t forget your purse or your jacket or your shoes, so……??!
  • Shop in stores that have bulk food. Do not just automatically buy things like cucumbers/apples that the store puts into plastic bags (you will find the others are usually fresher anyway).

 BECOME A BETTER CONSUMER:

  • Refuse to buy things that have excess packaging, and when you can’t avoid doing so then leave the packing behind for the store to deal with (and you can even write letters about this).
  • Use up things. Don’t squander resources on items that are hardly used or which you don’t need and then carelessly send to landfills.
  • Be willing to buy less and to pay fair prices for the things you do buy.
  • Take an extra few minutes to have that coffee in the café to avoid taking it out.
  • Take containers to restaurants in case you have any leftovers to take home.
  • Try to start remembering to ask for a drink without a straw in a restaurant. They even have stainless steel ones now.

BE BOTHERED AT HOME:

  • Hide the ziplock bags and Seran Wrap from yourself as well as other family members and train yourselves to use other methods to store that small bit of leftover onion which will probably end up in the compost anyway.
  • Wash those ziplock bags when you do use them and put them out to dry.
  • Recycle everything and into the right places.
  • Ask yourself “Do I need to use this?
  • When you do use plastic and are tempted to throw out, remind yourself about all the resources that went into making this amazing product and also about the fact that any plastic ever made is still in the world in some form.
  • Use your imagination to use things in new ways.
  • Make a habit of educating yourself about the needs and also about some of the wonderful innovative inventions happening all over the world to remedy this situation and support these as much as possible.

In order to help consumers become plastic literate and also so that we can make informed decisions about how and when to accept plastic, our intergenerational team in the Suzuki Elders would like to arrange a showing of A Plastic Ocean sometime this coming fall. If this is of interest to you please let us know.

There are many other things we can do and this is only to start you thinking about ways to change your mindset, your habits and home environment and to even begin to change the systems we live in.

One interesting idea is to teach ourselves to let the oceans speak for themselves. Listen to the stories of the sea creatures and the ways they have been made to suffer. Be an open space for learning from them and changing our own stories to save these beautiful creatures and their environment so that our own species can survive.

We need our oceans and the food they produce for so many reasons.

 

The B.C. salmon farming conundrum

An overview

by Stan Hirst

The 21st century has brought the planet an extraordinary share of environmental conundrums. Think ozone layer, climate change, outbreaks of vector-borne diseases and dumping of plastic litter on a global scale.

What makes them “conundrums“? Several reasons, but the stand-out is the underlying conflict between two very different systems. One is our social addiction to widespread exploitation of natural resources to support our burgeoning populations and lifestyles. The other is a desperate attempt to conserve what is left of our natural ecosystems and to protect them against increasing, often overwhelming, levels of exploitation. The critical element in this conflict is that the two processes – exploitation and conservation – are promoted by two different segments of society with widely differing philosophies and views on ecosystem resources.

British Columbia has its share of these, plus a few more like the proliferation of fossil fuel pipelines, increasing incidences of forest fires, and the pervasive loss of productive agricultural lands. One conundrum, however, has a particular regional west coast theme – the proliferation and impacts of marine-based salmon farms.

Marine salmon farming began in B.C. on a commercial basis in the 1970s. Most farms were initially sited along the Sunshine Coast and on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The 1980s saw expansion of the industry into waters near Campbell River, Sayward and Port McNeill. As the industry became established it adaptively managed its operations and upgraded pens, equipment and technology through the 1990s and on to the present.

Today, about 75 salmon farms are in production along B.C.’s southern coasts. An estimated 76,000 tonnes of Atlantic salmon are grown annually. B.C. salmon farmers grow 60% of all salmon raised in Canada, the production contributing approximately $1.2 billion per year to the province’s economy and accounting for about 5000 jobs, most in rural coastal areas. Farm-raised Atlantic salmon is now B.C.’s highest valued seafood product and the province’s top agricultural export (sales over $400 million in 2015) going to 11 countries (85% to the USA and about 15% to Asian markets).

Shortly after the arrival of open-net pen salmon farms in B.C. (mid-1980s), sockeye salmon populations, in particular the famed Fraser River runs, began to decline and have continued to do so for most of the past 20 years.

A diverse and vocal lobby of aquatic ecologists, conservationists, salmon fishermen and First Nations coastal communities have pinned much of the blame for the declines of wild salmon on the siting of salmon farms. Many open-net pens holding very dense numbers of Atlantic salmon and other species lie in close proximity to the traditional coastal migration routes followed by wild sockeye and chinook runs.

Marine and estuarine water currents flow freely through the pens, allowing wastes, chemicals and pathogens to move freely back and forth. Specific concerns mentioned frequently by fish-farm opponents include:

  • the ease of disease transmission and sea lice infestations from captive to wild fish;
  • conflicts between salmon farms and marine mammals like seals and sea-lions;
  • pollution from large and concentrated volumes of manure released from fish pens into the marine environment;
  • escapes of non-native fish, and the displacement of local fishermen;
  • concern for B.C.’s wild salmon fishing, a $1.4 billion growth industry.

Opponents further point out that research in the United Kingdom and Norway has also identified declines of wild salmonids in the presence of farmed salmon pens.

Additional objections to the marine farming of Atlantic salmon have followed. One concern is the impact on stocks of other marine fish which are harvested as a source of feedstock. For a farmed salmon industry the size of that in B.C. an estimated 6 billion forage fish need to be harvested to bring one crop of farmed salmon to harvest. By one estimate 19 of the top 20 global forage fish stocks have been fished to near depletion levels for the manufacture of feed for farmed salmon.

More recently, health concerns have been raised regarding the composition of farmed salmon as a human food source. Whereas wild salmon eats other organisms found in its natural environment, farmed salmon is given a processed high-fat feed in order to produce larger fish. The result is that farmed Atlantic salmon have double the fat and saturated fat contents of wild Pacific salmon, and can absorb marine and other toxins in the high-fat content flesh.

Naturally the well-organized and well-funded interests which own and manage B.C.’s salmon farming industry have reacted to the allegations with vigour.

On the fish disease transmission issue they point out that viruses present in B.C. farm-raised salmon are all naturally occurring in the Pacific Ocean, are not harmful to fish and are not a risk to human health. They concede that, since farmed fish are kept in very high densities, some viruses pose health risks to farmed salmon. Farmed fish health is consequently monitored regularly by farm company veterinarians and by federal and provincial agencies.

Specifically, they point out that:

  • thousands of screenings of wild, hatchery-raised, and farm-raised salmon have been completed in B.C., Alaska and Washington State, none of which has confirmed the presence of any exotic fish viruses or diseases;
  • salmon producing members of the BC Salmon Framers Association have developed a viral outbreak management plan to provide a quick and decisive industry-wide response if a virus of concern is ever detected in any B.C. salmon farm.
  • farmers participate in viral monitoring programs run by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) .

Since the early 1990s the Fraser sockeye returns had become increasingly unpredictable and by 2009 returns had reached low levels for the third consecutive year. Consequently the fishery was closed that year. It was generally conceded that fishing alone was not the cause of the decline. Levels of concern and political intensity reached a point sufficient to spur the federal government to action. They chose the classic bureaucratic response to a difficult situation – they appointed a commission of enquiry. On November 6, 2009 the Canadian Minister of International Trade announced a federal inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River. This became known as the Cohen Commission after its head, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen.

The Commission sat for 133 days of hearings, considered 573,381 documents (98% from the Government of Canada) containing more than 3 million pages, held 133 days of hearings, heard 892 public submissions and from 95 lawyers, granted standing to 21 participants and groups, generated 14,166 pages of transcripts, produced a 1191 page final report, and ran up a tab of $26 million dollars. It generated 75 recommendations of which 11 related to reducing impact of salmon farms on wild sockeye stocks.

Out of this huge mass of information, accusations, counter-accusations, analysis and reviews Justice Cohen drew the conclusions that “the potential harm posed to Fraser River sockeye from salmon farms is serious or irreversible. Disease transfer occurs between wild and farmed fish, and I am satisfied that salmon farms along the sockeye migration route have the potential to introduce exotic diseases and to exacerbate endemic diseases that could have a negative impact on Fraser sockeye stocks”.

Justice Cohen put forward 75 recommendations on dealing with the declining Fraser River salmon fishery. Eleven of these dealt specifically with the relationships between wild salmon and salmon farming (available in abridged form at this link). As of the end of 2016, i.e. a little over 4 years since acceptance of the Commission report, DFO has reported implementation of 9 of the 11 recommendations, some progress on one (prohibition of salmon farming in the Discovery Islands) and disagreement with one (mandate of DFO to promote salmon farming).

So where do we stand now, after nearly 40 years of penned salmon farming along the B.C. coast? I would say squarely in the middle of the conundrum.

On one side: the salmon farming industry in B.C. is now well entrenched federally and provincially, economically and politically. Failing any major financial, economic, political or ecological change, it will continue to operate as an important agro-industry.

On the other side: none of the major concerns expressed by conservationists, salmon fishermen, First Nations, scientists and anglers on the issues surrounding net-penned salmon (impacts on wild salmon, marine pollution, impacts on marine ecosystems, suitability as safe seafood for humans, etc.) seem to have been satisfactorily resolved.

Maybe we’ve arrived at an “I’m right and you’re an idiot” phase?

I look forward to some enlightening Elder resolution………

 

 

Response to the election

by Rev. Canon Sally G. Bingham

guest-blog-sealIn light of last night’s election results, Interfaith Power & Light (IPL) has a more important role to play than ever before. We can’t afford to backslide on our hard won victories: the Clean Power Plan, the Paris climate agreement, cleaner automobiles. Our work may have just gotten harder, but we are not giving up. There is far too much at stake.

IPL is rooted in theology -answering God’s call to be the stewards of Creation and to love each other. Our focus for 16 years has been protecting the climate while recognizing the injustice and inequality of who and where harm is experienced. We believe that climate change is a critical global challenge and we are committed to meeting that challenge by advocating to limit carbon emissions, energy efficiency and transitioning to a clean energy economy. We believe that fossil fuels belong in the ground. The IPL campaign is not politically motivated, but rather motivated by moral responsibility. Therefore we will continue to work for the things we believe will protect the climate and the future of the planet.

In these times of doubt and confusion, we can draw on the strength of our spiritual traditions and our communities, our ongoing efforts to care for Creation, and on our long history of “bending the arc toward justice.” We encourage you to talk with each other, be with each other, and above all, do not despair. Let any despair quickly turn to positive action. This election was in no way a repudiation of the science and urgency of global warming. It doesn’t change the fact that a majority of Americans, of both major parties and all religions, understand that global warming is happening and that our country should be a leader in building the clean energy economy of the future. Our job is to make sure that the new Congress and new administration understand that people of faith care deeply about being good stewards of Creation. We all breathe the same air. We all want a better world for our children and future generations. We all want to revitalize our communities. The faith community and IPL will have a critical role to play. We will continue to build bridges, and speak to people of all political persuasions from the perspective of shared values. We will act locally, and continue to win local victories. We will find ways to cut pollution and protect the health of our communities, as we always have. The transition to a clean energy economy has begun, and it won’t be stopped by an election. Working together with faith, we will succeed.

 

The Rev. Canon Sally G. Bingham is President of Interfaith Power & Light, San Francisco, U.S.A., a coalition of Episcopal congregations set up to educate people of faith about the moral and ethical mandate to address global warming.  Further information is available at their website http://www.interfaithpowerandlight.org.

This blog reproduced with permission.

 

 

Extinction is forever

The Living Planet Report 2016 – risk and resilience in the new era

by Stan Hirst

4ff8753daf761f70af20b5e0c0ed9b0cExtinction is one of those words in the English language which seem distant and not particularly relevant to anything until you grasp the context. For me the significance of the term came on a hot summer day more than 60 years ago when my high school class shuffled obediently through the musty halls of the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria, South Africa.  We stopped in front of one ancient cupboard from which the museum guide brought forth a yellowing and battered skull, no jawbone attached.  It looked like a horse or a donkey, but Mr Naudé proudly advised it was the skull of a quagga which had once roamed the barren plains of the Karoo. We were sombrely reminded that the quagga had been extinct since 1885.

Gone forever, extinct not just in the Karoo or just in southern Africa, but everywhere in the world. Hunted to extinction because they were considered by farmers to be expendable and a damned nuisance, competitors with their sheep and cattle for scarce grazing, and good for nothing except maybe for the hides which made passable thongs for stock whips.

Extinction seemed profound to me at the time but it has always been passé for Earth. Over the past 500 million years there have been five major periods of mass earth wide extinctions, each one linked to profound changes in climate.  The Cretaceous mass extinction 65 million years ago is famously associated with the demise of the dinosaurs. Virtually no large land animals survived, while plants were greatly affected and tropical marine life decimated.

Now we’re well into the sixth extinction which has garnered the name Anthropocene extinction because of the strong causal links to human activity.  At least 875 extinctions of whole families of plants and animals  – mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and arthropods – have been documented to date by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.  The rate of extinction has been roughly estimated at something like 140,000 species per year, making it the greatest loss of biodiversity since the Cretaceous extinctions.

lpr-coverScientists have been warning for decades that human actions are pushing life toward a sixth mass extinction, and more evidence comes from the recent 2016 Living Planet Report. This report documents how wildlife populations have declined, on average, by 67 per cent over the past decade, mainly the result of rampant poaching and wildlife trafficking.

The Anthropocene climate is changing rapidly, oceans are acidifying and entire biomes are disappearing – all at rates measurable during a single human lifetime. The future of many living organisms is now in question. Not only are wild plants and animals at risk, we ourselves are now the victims of the deteriorating state of nature. Climate and other predictive models indicate that, without decisive action, the Earth is on its way to becoming considerably less hospitable to modern globalized society.

global-living-planet-indexThe Living Planet Index (LPI) is a measure of biodiversity.  It draws on population data from 14,000 monitored populations of 3,700 vertebrate species (mammals, birds, fishes, amphibians, reptiles) around the world and then calculates an average change in abundance over time.  From 1970 to 2012 the LPI showed a 58 per cent overall decline in vertebrate population abundance. That means that global vertebrate populations have, on average, dropped by more than 50% in little more than 40 years.

Five threats show up consistently as the causes of wildlife population declines:

comp-fig

The most common threat to declining terrestrial populations is the loss and degradation of habitat, followed by overexploitation by humans. For marine species overexploitation is the main impacting factor, followed by loss and degradation of marine habitats.

wordl-populationWe have strained the limits of natural resilience all the way to the planetary level. The world’s population has grown from about 1.6 billion people in 1900 to today’s 7.3 billion.

In the early 1900s an industrial method was developed for fixing nitrogen into ammonia; the resulting synthetic fertilizers now sustain more than half of the world’s population, but at the same time causing massive pollution of air, water and soils. Fossil fuels incur tremendous costs in terms of rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations and resultant global climate change. (Figure C)

Since the early 1970s we have been demanding much more than the planet can sustainably provide. By 2012, the biocapacity equivalent of 1.6 Earths was needed to provide the natural resources and services we humans consumed in that year. Exceeding the Earth’s biocapacity to such a degree is simply not possible in the long term. We cannot cut trees faster than they mature, harvest more fish than the oceans can replenish, or emit more carbon into the atmosphere than the forests and oceans can absorb. The consequences of this “overshoot” are already abundantly clear everywhere.

How can we change the course of socio-economic development onto a pathway that does not conflict with the welfare of the biosphere? How can we begin to affect development in a way that will make essential changes at a relevant magnitude?

We’d better decide fast.  In the time it took to read this post one more species somewhere on Earth – maybe a plant, an  insect, a fungus, a bird, a fish, a marine invertebrate  or maybe a mammal, went extinct.

 

 

Kindling the wonder of nature in children

by Lillian Ireland

Presentation to the Surrey Teachers’ Association Convention 2016: “Changing Our Ways: Weaving Threads of Truth and Reconciliation Throughout Our Practice”

As children, Rob and I spent a lot of time outside. It was normal to spend most of our leisure time outdoors. We didn’t watch much TV back then. Television shows were black and white. We had 2 stations and the programs weren’t always available. Times were different. Playing outside was the norm for most North American children.

Nowadays children spend the bulk of their time indoors. A recent survey showed that prison inmates in the UK spend more time outdoors per day than the average child. By law prisoners must have 60 minutes per day outdoors in their prison complex for their mental health. Even here in Canada, many children spend less time outdoors than that. Where are we as a society that so many children would rather be indoors with their screens than outdoors?

Sure, society has changed. Some parents fear for their children being outside. Most schools promote screen usage. Many parents schedule activity programmes for their children in the afternoons while other parents “programme” their children to spend their afterschool time indoors frequently with a screen as a companion/babysitter, thinking this is healthy and safe. Let’s see where this goes…

Rob recently handed in his old flip phone and settled on a smart phone. Notice it’s labeled SMART phone. SMART implies intelligence. Scripted on the front of his new phone were the words LIFETIME COMPANION.  LIFETIME COMPANION implies permanent friend. Put them together – SMART LIFETIME COMPANION. Rob tried to get the words off the front of his phone but couldn’t. He needed to go to a telephone technician who spent considerable time removing those words from his new telephone screen!

Where are we and what are we allowing as a society? How do we want our children to be raised?

  • Medical data states that today’s children are the first generation in global history not to live as long as their parents.
  • 2016 data states that 424 million people have diabetes. Diabetes and obesity out of control globally.
  • There is now the concern of myopia, known as near-sightedness. This eye disorder has hit a new ceiling. About 93% of all 20 year old males living in South Korea currently have myopia! This current disability is more serious than previous forms of myopia impairment. The reason for this is because the children’s eyes didn’t develop properly. Much of their time was spent indoors in front of a screen. Their eyes didn’t have the long distance viewing opportunities nor enough natural light to develop properly. In young children, when the window of time for optimum eye development is gone, it’s gone. This new endemic tragedy is slowly being recognized in other countries.
  • New legislation in Taiwan states that parents can be charged with child abuse if they allow their children to spend excessive time in front of a screen.
  • The prestigious Sydney Grammar School in Australia, which had schooled 3 of its earlier prime ministers, recently banned screens from their regular teaching in classrooms.

The world is slowly recognizing the serious cost of too much time with screens indoors. In Canada, we too place strong emphasis on academics, and we are also realising the serious price of too little time outdoors. But, many of us in Canada are addicted to our screens. Most of us feel completely lost without our phones!

Remember SMART (phone) LIFETIME COMPANION (phone)? Well, phones aren’t friends and they are not SMART!

How can we encourage children to disengage from the tech world and reengage with outdoors? If we can’t, how do we expect our children to do that?

Eight years ago I used a computer, like most of us, for facts and information, as a diversion when I had a small block of free time, and connecting with others. I’m sure you can add to the list of “why” you enjoy the internet: games, connections, news, etc. I decided to try to walk in the footsteps of an uncle. I tried to have a life without a computer or screen. I actually went into withdrawal and couldn’t believe it. Still, I stuck with my decision to get “unhooked”, even though I was very frustrated thinking some of my social life would evaporate. But I stuck it out for a year. After a few weeks of yearning to get back on my computer, the feeling went away and I lived without the internet for a year. Looking back, it certainly taught me a few things. I could take control of it, rather than technology controlling me.

The relative I was trying to emulate was an uncle, a 75 year old Albertan farmer who not only manages 70 head of cattle singlehandedly plus grain crops on several quarters of land. He’s also the local president of an organization which helps farmers whose land has been contaminated by the oil industry. There are many multi-million dollar lawsuits pending against the industry in Alberta, and he helps bring support and awareness to the farmers and their families. He does all this without a computer. How he does it is amazing! His focus hasn’t been lost or dribbled away by hours of time spent in front of a screen. And he actually lives in relative peace since he spends much of his time outdoors.

I saw that I had been addicted to my screen. And I also see it in children and their parents today.

Today’s screen activities are built to entice and hook. Game designers look for ways to make their games more interesting so as to increase the amount of time people will spend playing them. Games are designed to be just difficult enough to be truly challenging, while allowing players to achieve small accomplishments that compel them to keep playing. In that respect, the design of screen games is similar to the design of gambling casinos which allow players to have small “wins” that entice them to keep playing. Some of the hooks which coerce us into playing are:

  • A high score (wow! look at my score!).
  • Beating the game (beating the computer, yeah! I’m smart, I beat the computer. Now, can I do it again?).
  • Role playing – forms an emotional attachment to the character and the story, which makes it that much harder to stop playing.
  • Discovery – where a good part of the game is spent exploring imaginary worlds. The thrill of discovery, even of places that don’t really exist, can be extremely compelling. Game designers know that discovery is a necessary element in human development.
  • Relationships – these built during some games give children and adults virtual relationships or communities where, for some, these communities become the place where they’re most accepted, which naturally draws them back again and again.
  • Power and control – the sophistication built into many games is intended to give the player ultimate power and control. Yet many players struggle to differentiate between the virtual and the real world, especially when much of their day is steeped and spent in the virtual world of games.
  • Some very popular games purposely do not end. An example of a highly successfully addictive game is Minecraft. The game never ends. In nearly everything we do in life, we have a need for closure, but this game purposely doesn’t have closure, so children (and adults) are continually striving, building, etc. until hours have passed without a sense of completion.

Some people are more prone to addictions through games or otherwise. Children with short attention spans, those who spend little time with family or friends, and those who feel like outcasts or tend toward sensation-seeking are more easily drawn into game addictions because the games fill a hole and satisfy needs that aren’t met elsewhere.

Another factor that’s concerning is that violence in games is rewarded. In some army and sniper games, the players go up a level or gain power depending on how many players they kill. They are rewarded for eliminating other players. This gives a profound false sense of power and control.

Passively watching violence on TV is already bad enough, whereas in many computer games the child is committing the violence themselves. This type of active participation affects a child’s thought patterns. If played often enough, games like this distort a child’s perception of reality and violence, causing serious changes in their thinking, their behavior and their need to control. It’s not surprising to see that children’s behavior often becomes more hostile after playing.

In addition to psychological addiction, it’s now believed that there may be a physiological element to addictive game playing. Researchers at Hammersmith Hospital in London conducted a study in 2005 which found that dopamine levels in player’s brains doubled while they were playing. Dopamine is a mood-regulating hormone associated with feelings of pleasure. The findings of this study indicated that gaming could actually be chemically addictive. Though the debate continues as to whether gaming addiction is a diagnosable disorder, the behavior undeniably exists. The combination of intentional programming by designers and the predisposition some people have to addictive behavior means this is a real issue that educators and parents need to be aware of, need to address and take action to prevent.

Lastly, how many of you have heard of Nutella? Everybody, right? One jar is sold globally every 2.5 seconds. What’s the connection? Sugar! Sugar is addictive, cocoa is addictive, Nutella is addictive! Believe it or not, one of the most popular games on the market today includes Nutella in the game.

Within the past month two young children we know got the book Swampy’s Lovely Book which is all about Minecraft. Innocent enough, but on the inside front and back covers are pictures of over 300 small cakes! There’s also a 4 page recipe for children to make a cake. The recipe calls for a total of 5½ cups of sugar plus a jar of jam. Yes, 5½ cups of sugar for 1 cake! The Minecraft book strongly promotes sugar. There’s even a math graph in the book which says “The more cake you eat, the greater your level of happiness!” This book is geared towards young elementary aged children and sold through the Scholastic Book sales in many BC schools for fundraising.img03

Two years ago we visited a young boy in Vancouver Children’s Hospital. He was admitted because of serious behavioural challenges. When we arrived at the hospital , he was sitting on the floor crying and pleading with the nurses for Nutella. He was begging for “his Nutella.” We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. He was seriously addicted to Nutella and going through withdrawal. He was also addicted to screen games, especially Minecraft.

When he was at home getting him off the computer was extremely difficult. At home he ruled the family, and he was just 10. The pediatric psychiatrist told his parents that he was to stay away from all screens and off all sugar. The doctor was very concerned about his future, predicting that if he didn’t have a complete and immediate change in his life, he would spend much of his older life in jail. His addictions to games, their violence and sugar had completely changed his personality and his brain chemistry. His addictions were destroying any potential of a healthy future, so a major change had to happen for his sake and the sake of his family. This young 10 year-old boy is a close relative.

Safety is near the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This boy would do anything to control his environment, which is what he “had to learn to do” in many of the games he played. He couldn’t differentiate between virtual and real life. Many of the games do not have scripted, assigned rules, so you learn “how” to play “as” you play, which reinforces the inherent addictive structures of the games. It reinforces the “need” to keep playing. There was little distinction between his real and virtual worlds.

This sadly is common for many children who are exposed to screen games from a young age. When they are young, their brains can’t differentiate between the need to be safe and the need to control. Because his brain was so changed from what he “played” in the games and his addiction to Nutella, he was suffering many severe behavioural challenges and could not continue regular school. He’s now in a special boarding school with children who have similar severe problems. Rules are clear and strict, and there is no sugar nor screens of any kind. It’s back to the basics. The students are weaned away from their debilitating need to control everything and everybody around them. Authority lies unquestionably with the staff. The first 3 days of each term are spent living outdoors, hiking long distances and learning to connect and rely on others. They form real relationships in the real world, not virtual relationships where control is paramount.

Even though we shared our concerns with his parents for several years, they never thought it would come to this. Many parents don’t have or make the time to sit with their children to see what they are playing, assuming it’s all safe, since other children are playing the same games. Many parents are also burned out from arguing with their children and give in, not realizing the connection nor how the addiction was brought about in the first place.

Since our presentation in May 2016 several other parents have told us similar stories of their own young children or children they know who have also needed specialized intervention, including hospitalization due to their addictions to screen games and sugar.

Over the years, I have provided childcare for various aged children in different communities. There isn’t a home I go into where there’s not a bottle of Nutella sitting in or on the cupboard. One bright young child whom I’ve supported refuses anything but Nutella sandwiches for breakfast. The addiction is already evident. And – the favourite game is (you guessed it) Minecraft!

I remember one Friday talking about the family’s upcoming weekend and all the excitement leading up to it. I was expecting to hear about a special event, maybe seeing someone special, a trip, etc. but found out it was an all-day Minecraft marathon. Was I surprised? Yes, but maybe I shouldn’t have been!

In the home, do you think I was going to buckle and allow screen activities when we were together? No way! We locked horns, but I realized if there was any hope for helping, I had to stick to my resolve which I did. We read books, did homework and played child-appropriate games together. It took several months to encourage outside play at a nearby park. When there was final agreement to going there, was I grateful! The parents saw what pleasure it brought their child, so they began having family outings there. That breakthrough made my year! All it took was outside eyes to see what was going on and dogged grit to help move the child beyond the compulsiveness of screen games.

Our country isn’t the only one that has this dilemma. Remember, 1 jar of Nutella is sold every 2.5 seconds globally and Minecraft uses Nutella as a reward in the game. And, as of 2014, Minecraft was the third most popular game of all time.

Where are we going as a society and how can we responsibly raise children in this techno-addicted, sugar-addicted world? The answer lies in looking outside – literally!

Rob and I spend much of our lives enjoying time outdoors. All seasons! One favorite memory was camping above the Arctic Circle 10 years ago. The power of nature was nearly overwhelming as the storm bellowed around our tent. The wind was like a freight train pounding in a way we had never experienced before, it was awesome! We couldn’t hear each other’s voices even though we were inches from each other’s face! It was an amazing experience!

Memories like that linger and elicit awe. Yes, we were awestruck! Awe has a special place in human experience! Awe is a special emotion which reinforces intelligence which, unfortunately, game designers capitalize on.

We need to work extra hard to share with children the awe-inspiring attractions of real life. The natural world is full of them.

Today, how can we get children to become passionate about nature? If we are passionate, our students will see that and it will rub off on them. We, as educators and parents have both the privilege and the responsibility to make this connection for them. What we care about rubs off on our students. If this new generation feels connected to nature, they’ll respect it. Rob and I witness the tide turning, and so can you with your students. We don’t take it lightly. We consider it a privilege to walk alongside children as we point out small yet significant things to them.

Recently, at an elementary school, I was waiting for a young student after school. She was playing with a few classmates in the field but said she was bored. I seized the opportunity and showed her and her friends the new growth on one of the trees: the color, the texture and the incredible scent. They were amazed! They spent the next 1/2 hour with new eyes, looking at and playing under the trees. The next day, they ran to the trees and looked again, pulling some of the new growth off wanting to plant it. By pointing small things out to them about the trees, they felt a connection. All we need to do is show some type of a link to nature either with our senses or with facts. As educators and/or parents, we can go beyond example and actually design activities which help children connect with nature.

Indigenous people historically know our intrinsic connection with nature and its sacredness. What we have learned from them, we are honoured to share with you. The Dene, who we met in the north, hug completely opposite than we do here in the south. Most of us, when we hug, hug from our right side to the right side of the other person. The Dene hug on the left. After a few bumped noses, I asked why they hugged on the left side. They said when one hugs, it’s done heart to heart. They also understand the importance of seasons and respect how life is affected by our eternal connection to nature.

Sadly, many of today’s children and adults think differently and don’t feel their inherent connection to the outdoors. But, by sharing true yet unusual facts about animals and nature with children, they become intrigued and fascinated. Many adults are fascinated as well. We engage children with unusual facts which we ourselves find truly awesome.

When Rob and I began studying animals and their behaviours, we were spellbound and continue to be and hope you are too. For example, some hares run much faster than a moose can. Hares can run up to 70 km per hour, whereas moose run about 50 km per hour. Both rabbit and coyote mothers pull hairs from their chests to pad the area where their young will be born. One ladybug can lay up to 1000 eggs in a lifetime and they also turn over and play dead when they’re scared. Female sea otters carry their young on their chest for many months as they travel around the ocean. They hold paws when they’re sleeping. They also have small pouches of skin in both armpits and usually keep a small rock in their left armpit to use as a tool for breaking clams open. A bald eagle can dive between 200 km and 300 km per hour. It can spot a rabbit 2 miles away. When it’s flying, if a feather drops from its left wing, a feather will automatically drop from its right wing to keep it balanced in flight.

The natural world around us is rich with wonder. We have showed children how to make bird calls out of grass. Students ran up to us afterwards wanting to know exactly how it was done. Many children yearn to have some connection with nature and we, as parents and educators, can help them build that connection. Even principals remembered making bird calls out of grass as children, but hadn’t seen anyone doing it for years.

We ask you, as educators to spend time outdoors and encourage children to do the same. We’ve been impressed with a few teachers who plan some of their class time outside in the playground, simply going outside and paying attention to what’s there with their students.

Nature teaches us that some things can be controlled whereas other things can’t. Children don’t have to be in charge. Kids don’t need to shoot or build or exterminate in order to have control. In nature, cooperation and communication are essential for survival. Basic life skills and time for reflection are important.

By spending time outside, people realize they are capable of thriving in multiple environments, without the trappings of TV, screen games and other distractions. They learn to appreciate what is simple, what is complex, and what is real.

The David Suzuki Foundation has a challenge program for all Canadians. It’s called the 30×30 Challenge. It encourages us to spend just 30 minutes outside each day for 30 days. Remember, this is only ½ of what prisoners in the United Kingdom are mandated to do for their best mental health.

Rob and I encourage each of you to reconnect with nature by spending half an hour outdoors each day where you see, smell, feel, hear, touch and sense what’s actually there. As we ourselves reengage with the outdoors, this will rub off on our students and they too can appreciate the beauty, the awe and the healing power of nature. We hope they will grow to be healthy, caring citizens who love nature and are committed to protect it.

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