I try to make it to the cabin every year at this time. It’s cold and dark, but it’s around this time that the lake freezes over.
One year, we went to bed with the wind shrieking through the valley and sharp white-capped waves breaking the water. We woke the next morning to frigid calm. The lake had frozen solid, thousands of miniature snowballs polka-dotting the clear surface. This phenomenon is called graupel — clutters of supercooled water droplets. Later that day, I walked out onto the ice of a shallow cove, risking the cold and wet. Walking on flat, nervous feet and listening for the cracking of ice, I was able to look through the ice at the world on the other side: a quiet place of fallen leaves and human detritus from another century. Ice offers its own cold beauty. For me, it’s full of these wonderful surprises.
Last year as usual, our November trip to the cabin was marked by cold days and frigid nights. During one of those nights, I got up to walk to the outhouse in the small hours of the morning. It was a dark overcast night, not like city nights or even the nights I experienced on my acreage west of the city. Those nights never got dark, not really. Dark nights in the mountains are truly dark. There’s that old expression about not being able to see the hand in front of your face. In the age of electric lights and urban light pollution, we don’t often experience this. It was one of those nights.
I walked outside with my dressing gown thrown over my shoulders and my Uggs shucked onto my feet — half asleep. The porch door clacked behind me, and I realized the outside air was alive with sound. At first, I couldn’t tell where it was coming from, but I knew it must be the lake, so I walked through the soft snow down to the shore. As I got closer, it seemed the air was living and breathing: Roaring and crackling with life. And that night I sat crouched on the rocky shore and listened to the song of the ice forming on the lake. At some point Zane came down and wrapped me in my winter coat. He left after a “wow” and an “it’s too cold for me down here,” but I stayed until the dawn outlined the shapes of the valley mountains, until I was so stiff that I could barely hobble my way back to the cabin.
Seems like it’s time to publish this photo I’ve been holding on to. I didn’t want to, but I’m here to make a point: We have a problem, Alberta.
On Wednesday evening, I watched the Twitter post that called out a graphic depicting the rape of Greta Thunberg blow up in real time across several social media platforms. The graphic clearly displays the logo of an Alberta-based oil field service business. Keep in mind that Thunberg is a minor. The graphic is, in the opinion of many, violent child pornography.
I’ve been following Greta’s rise to celebrity for a while. Long before she arrived in Alberta, right wing pundits were raging. “I can’t wait for Stephen King’s sequel, Children of the Climate,” said Fox News host Laura Ingraham, referencing the horror movie Children of the Corn.
Maxime Bernier, leader of the now dismissed People’s Party of Canada (PPC) drew criticism when he famously tweeted: “@GretaThunberg is clearly mentally unstable. Not only autistic, but obsessive-compulsive, eating disorder, depression and lethargy, and she lives in a constant state of fear.” Later, he walked his statement back. Apparently even rightwing extremists have their limits.
A lot of the early backlash for Greta Thunberg’s message criticized her parents. “She’s a pawn,” the critics said, suggesting her parents are using their daughter to promote their ideology. Like most of the negative rhetoric we’ve heard in the past year, this statement is indisputably false. Thunberg tells the story of her parents begrudging involvement in the climate movement during her TEDTalk.
Greta Mania came to Edmonton when she arrived to lead a Climate Strike March of thousands to the Alberta Legislature on October 18 last year. The Twitterverse hummed: “She’s not a scientist or an economist. She is the perfect picture of hypocrisy [sic].” And the less refined “Who the Fuck cares about Greta anyways!??” and “little spoiled brat!” Ahh! It’s great to be an Albertan.
The March was an undeniable success, ending at the Legislature with some 10,000–12,000 people crowding the square. It was a moment Edmonton has not seen — ever. I recall environmental protests, cold hours spent at the foot of the legislature steps — north-facing steps — the chill creeping from the cement paving stones. Not enough protestors to carry a chant. But that was then.
Thunberg has captured the zeitgeist of the times. It’s hard to ignore climate change when Qatar has taken to air conditioning its outdoor spaces and Australia is burning to the ground — even in Edmonton.
To the criticism that Thunberg is not a scientist, I respond, “People have been unwilling to listen to the scientists for the last 30 years, so if they are willing to listen to a 16-year-old girl, I’m okay with that.”
Within 24 hours of the march, Edmonton artist AJA Louden had painted Greta on our local graffiti wall, a bright and vibrant portrait with the tags, “Thank you, Beaver Hills Warriors” and “Thank you, Greta.” For one precious moment, Greta brought Edmontonians together.
Within days, the mural had been defaced — multiple times. First by James Bagnell who wrote, “Stop the lies. This is oil country” across Greta’s face. Then later by an unknown graffitist who X’ed out Greta’s eyes and wrote a rather nasty French slur over the original smear. I won’t translate the words here. They are ugly and misogynistic.
Which brings me back to the current debacle. Can you even call it a debacle when it was all so predictable?
Even if they aren’t a part of it, Albertans have at least a rough idea of what you’re talking about when you say, “Rig pig culture.” We’ve all seen the truck nuts, the decals and the bumper stickers proclaiming “Dodge the father. Ram the daughter.” and “Fuck Trudeau.” There are the sexy silhouettes and the “There’s nothing I’d rather do than Fuck, Fight, and Trip Pipe” decals too. You may have pulled up behind a Dualy-sporting F-350 only to see “I ❤️ Alberta Oil” on one side of the back window and a grinning, peeing Calvin giving you the finger on the other.
Now that hyper-masculinity has been turned on the “enemies of oil.” Just the other day, the premier of this province pointed the finger of blame at “urban-green-left zealots” for Teck backing away from the proposed Teck Frontier mining project. A project that required oil prices stabilize at $95 US per barrel (only happening in the world of magic and unicorns), but never mind pesky facts like that, it must be the fault of lawless “militants” or Trudeau or Jane Fonda or something. Never the Kenney government. Never mind that Teck itself pointed to the province’s lack of a climate plan: “Global capital markets are changing rapidly and investors and customers are increasingly looking for jurisdictions to have a framework in place that reconciles resource development and climate change, in order to produce the cleanest possible products. This does not yet exist here today.” Never mind that the company just announced the purchase of SunMine Solar Energy Facility in BC. Even private industry sees the writing on the wall.
In Alberta, we don’t talk much about how we should have saved for a future when the oil booms were over. (It’s too late for that.) The province’s woes are the fault of “foreign-funded protestors” or eco-militants or Greta Thunberg or Leonardo DiCaprio or…I don’t know…someone else.
Is this latest crude attack on Greta Thunberg so unexpected?
No. Not really.
UPDATE: Greta Thunberg responds to rape graphic: “This shows we’re winning.”
I write and Tweet a lot about the intersection between environmental issues and current events (Alberta politics in particular). Since it’s my jam, my posts usually have a communications twist. If this sounds cool to you, follow me on Twitter and/or check out the right side bar > to follow my blog.
There’s this meme going around the internet:
The Guardian: Why eating less meat is the best thing you can do for the planet in 2019.
Ken: You spelled “taxing the shit out of oil companies” wrong.
When I saw I, I laughed and reposted it to Facebook and Twitter.
It’s funny, I suppose, because it seems easier to tell people to eat less meat than it is to place the burden of our problem on the people who have both benefitted the most from fossil fuel emissions and tried the hardest to obscure the science of climate change. To put it even simpler, it’s easier to tell average people what to do than it is to hold the rich and powerful to account.
There is an even bigger dilemma embedded in this meme. Climate change and ecological collapse are complex problems brought about by a plethora of poor choices made by generations of humans, so there is no simple solution — not even taxing the shit out of oil companies. Don’t get me wrong. We do need to tax the shit out of oil companies (and Coca Cola and Nestle and Tim Hortons and McDonalds and Amazon and billionaires and any and all individuals and corporations that are profiteering off the resources supplied by our planet), but we also need to eat less meat, stop industrial farming, move to regenerative agriculture, switch to renewable energy, improve public transportation, stop using single-use plastics, plant more trees, and make birth control easily accessible to absolutely everyone.
But that’s the easy part.
It seems ever more likely that we will need to consider giving up a lot of the things that we have come to rather enjoy. You know, things like flights to fun-filled destinations, personal use vehicles, and all that Netflix streaming.
That’s not fun to think about, I know, but as the realization that “we’re no longer in Kansas, Dorothy” becomes apparent, we’re going to have to embrace a multitude of solutions, and we’re going to have to do it quickly. The IPCC 6 report from 2018 said we have 12 years to get our act together. That’s because according to the report, we must reduce our GHG emissions by 45% (according to 2010 levels) by 2030 if we want to have a 66% chance of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celcius. What is not immediately clear in that declaration is the calculation doesn’t include a number of self-reinforcing feedbacks (such as increased water vapour in the atmosphere) — known threats whose impacts are too uncertain to calculate accurately. Nor is it obvious that it requires drawdown of existing GHGs from the atmosphere to meet the target. In other words, this dire prediction is actually a soft pedal. Reality is far worse.
And let’s not forget that rather than decreasing emissions, last year global emissions increased as they have most years since the early part of the 20th century.
So while it may seem impossible for us to decrease emissions by 45% (from 2010) in just a decade, we must.
Why do we have so much difficulty making these changes?
I think of the words of the old Irish folk song “Bonny Portmore,” which laments the destruction of Ireland’s ancient oak forests: “If I had you now as I had once before, all the lords of Old England would not purchase Portmore.” I wonder if one day we will look back on this time and wonder why we chose profit, comfort, and convenience — the status quo — over clean water, clean air and a biodiverse planet. Maybe it all comes down to this: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
This is the third in a three-part series in which I write about why I took part in the Longest Night Extinction Procession. Here is a link to the first installment.
Where does our creativity come from?
We pride ourselves above all other species for our ability to imagine and create, but it is our ability to dream of alternative futures that has allowed us to conquer the world and reshape it to our desires.
Our species may be 200,000 years old, but our history of the imagination is probably much shorter. Dating back 40,000 years, the Lion Man sculpture, found in Stadel Cave, Germany, was — until recently — the earliest known example of imagination and creativity. Then a couple of years ago, an archaeologist exploring a cave in Sulawesi, Indonesia, stumbled across a mural that goes beyond the relatively simplistic hunting scenes from the celebrated Lascaux Caves and predates the Lion Man by at least 4000 years. Its narrative showing mythological therianthropes, human-like creatures wearing snouts and tail and hunting buffalo and wild pigs, places our ability to imagine back to 44,000 years ago. Yet 44,000 years seems abstract and trivial within the context of eras.
Think of it this way: Modern humans often live the better part of a century. We might imagine 44,000 years as 440 modern lifetimes. 440! I could count to 440 in a matter of moments. It is a mere flicker in the eye of time. We are truly the wet-behind-the-ears upstarts of the biosphere.
For much of the history of our species, our population was relatively low. Probably only about a million individuals roamed the Earth when our ancestors painted the walls of that Sulawesi cave. The advent of agriculture pushed our population to 170 million two thousand years ago. By 1804 we’d reached 1 billion, 2 billion by 1927, 3 billion by 1960, 4 billion by 1974, 5 billion by 1987, 6 billion by 1999, and 7 billion by 2012. We are set to reach 10 billion by mid-century. Humans have been extraordinarily successful. I guess the question now is this: Are we about to suffer from our own success?
Our curiousity, creativity, and ingenuity have led to staggering scientific discovery and technological innovation. In the history of the planet, no living entity has fundamentally altered the planet’s systems like we have — and in just a few generations. It is only with the Industrial Age that we began to put more CO2 and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere than the carbon cycle can absorb without consequence. Think about it: we are changing the composition of the atmosphere. We are affecting our planet’s climate. It’s astonishing, “something on the level of the glaciations or the forces that caused the great extinctions of the past” (Berry, p. 101). Our ability to create has also given us the ability destroy.
Until now, the planet has seen five mass extinction events: The Big Five as they are often called. Most often set off by extreme fluctuations in atmospheric CO2 levels. Usually a spike but in the case of the end-Ordovician a sudden drop. The asteroid that killed the dinosaurs was an exceptional case. The impact sent out a massive shockwave. Heat, fire, tsunamis, and debris probably killed millions of creatures in the minutes and hours after the impact, but the impact also sent so much debris into the Earth’s atmosphere that it blocked the sun for long enough to cool the planet. This doomed the dinosaurs. The takeaway: don’t mess around with the atmosphere and don’t mess with the climate. It’s hard on life. Hard enough to cause mass extinctions.
We face a crisis of staggering proportions. We are witnessing a die-off on a scale that we have not seen since the death of the dinosaurs 60 million years ago. To call it the Sixth Great Extinction may be accurate, but not having experienced the other five, that’s hard to internalize. I’ve heard other terminology thrown about — “ecocide” and “anthropocene extinction” — but these don’t hold enough gravitas for me. The photos of bloated black carcasses and smoking landscapes coming from Australia’s worst ever bushfire season require more. I recently heard the term “biological annihilation,” and this seems closer to what this crisis required. “Biological annihilation” is both more descriptive and more accurate, for this extinction is unlike the others. This extinction crisis has not been brought about by some wayward asteroid or mindless geological force. It is the result of hubris and … well … conceit.
Whatever terminology we decide on, we live in a time that requires much from us. Wendell Berry calls this a “moment of grace” (p. 198). A moment that is “different from any other moment. For the first time the planet is being disturbed by humans in its geological structure and its biological functioning.” This we know. The question remains, how will we respond to this challenge? Berry believes our transition to a new age is our “Great Work.” I would call it our Great Responsibility. Will we clutch dearly at the remnants of hubris and acquisition, even as our forests burn and our ice melts? Or will we find a gentler way forward that accepts what we can no longer repair, but places greater responsibility upon future practices and understandings?
And this is another reason that I marched with the Longest Night Procession: I hope that in the coming days, we will gather together and reimagine our place in the world. Now is a time for community and rejuvenation. In spite of past waste and extravagance, I hope we will find a way to make ourselves a benign presence on this Earth.
As I write this, I listen to Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane, Op. 50. Music so beautiful that I can hardly breathe. My soul feels exposed and vulnerable. How is it that this thing we call creativity can simultaneously birth such beauty and such destruction? There is a tale that after Handel composed the Hallelujah Chorus, he told a servant, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself seated on his throne with his company of angels.” Here humans are at their best, but the cost has been great indeed. Are all the greatest works of man combined worth the destruction of a species? Or two? Or three? Or countless? Is man’s ability to imagine worth the cost of our grand hubris?
In the end, I’d like to think that the corvids and the coyotes will survive our reckless habits, even if the koalas don’t. I’d like to think we will survive our reckless habits. I’d like to think we will be given the chance to aspire to something better. This might be a thin hope. We’ve been extraordinarily successful in the past, but in times of enormous planetary upheaval “the rules of the survival game” (as paleontologist Paul Taylor calls them) shift, and species that had previously thrived often find themselves ill equipped for the new world order (Berry, p. 90). The trilobites, the ammonites, and the sauropods could speak to this if they were still with us.
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At least 500 million animals have died so far from this year’s fire season in Australia. Some species my never recover. If you have the capacity, please consider giving to NSW Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Service (WIRES).
Berry, W. (1999). The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. Three Rivers Press: New York.
Ferriera, B. (2019, December 11). Mythical Beings May be Earliest Imaginative Cave Art by Humans. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/11/science/cave-art-indonesia.html
Kolbert, E. (2014). The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Henry Holt and Company: New York, New York.
University of Texas at Austin. (2019, September 9). Rocks at asteroid impact site record first day of dinosaur extinction. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/09/190909160102.htm
Click here to read the first of this three-part series.
Magpies visit our Edmonton home daily, and I have to say, I usually enjoy their company. I’m not fond of their antics in the spring when their pre-teen offspring demand their parents’ attention loudly and often, but I appreciate them for their resilience and their gregarious ways. I’m in the minority though. Most Edmontonians hate magpies.
Willow, our rescue dog, sees the yard as her domain. When the resident magpies learned she couldn’t guard more than one bone at a time, I was sure she’d declare war. But if there was ever war, there was soon a truce. Dog and bird now coexist and even seem to enjoy each other’s company. I open the back door, and Willow leaps from the top step. Magpies erupt from the backyard feeder, but just as quickly, Willow heads to check the fence line, and the magpies settle back to their business. Love them or hate them, this is as much their home as it is mine or Willow’s.
We seem to place little value on resilient species. They are common, a nuisance, a hazard, an irritation. As a resilient species ourselves, you’d think we’d appreciate their capacity for adaptation more. Yet, along with the magpies of my Edmonton yard and the poplar tree of my Camrose home, the coyote (endlessly resourceful and family-oriented), the crow (another corvid, and like the magpie, sociable and smart), and the ground squirrel (cooperators with complex language skills) are all held in low regard. We are far more likely to value the exotic species, but even then it seems only after they are threatened or extinct.
Grandpa told me that at one time a flock of passenger pigeons would block out the sun for days at a time, how people sometimes killed three or four with a single gun shot. He would not have experienced these events first hand — the last one died in captivity the year he was born — but it’s possible, even likely, that his father did. Throughout much of the 19thcentury, the passenger pigeon was plentiful in Eastern Canada. Over a hundred years after its extinction, as we sit back and calmly watch the annihilation of the biosphere unfold before us, there is whimsical talk of bringing the species back. I’m not quite sure what the purpose of such a quixotic exercise would be. Perhaps it is the hubris of our species to tilt at windmills.
We are currently in the midst of an extinction crisis. We don’t really know how many species go extinct every day, but it’s likely that many species die out before we even know they exist. One estimate puts the extinction rate at one thousand times the rate prior to humans’ arrival on the planet. If this is news to you, you’re not alone. Talk about an extinction crisis and most people will look at you sceptically. The Sixth Extinction seems at once abstract and distant, immense and existentially terrifying.
Media reports of extinctions focus on a few legendary species (aka the passenger pigeon, the dodo, and more recently the northern white rhino) and projections of future extinctions (usually of charismatic species such as the iconic polar bear, the Bengal tiger, the Asian elephant). Our extinction narrative focusses on animals with good stories. Ever hear about the St. Helena Olive? Until I researched this article, I hadn’t either. But even more importantly, our narratives tend to report the follies of the past and the uncertain predictions of the future. They place extinction behind us or as something that might happen in the future if we don’t change our ways. But extinction is a NOW crisis. Every day, habitat is lost. Every day, ranges decrease. Every day, populations are threatened. Every day, the death toll rises.
Extinction events are uncommon in the story of a species. They only happen once. The precursor to species extinction is the collapse and extinction of populations. And wild animal populations around the world are declining and disappearing at an unprecedented rate. Take for example, the lion, an apex predator that once roamed southern Europe, the Middle East, and most of Africa. The lion is now limited to small populations in sub-Saharan Africa and India’s Gir Forest. “Population extinctions today are orders of magnitude more frequent than species extinctions. Population extinctions, however, are a prelude to species extinctions” (Ceballos, Ehrlich, & Dirzo, 2017, Conclusion). The Sixth Extinction is well under way, and as the planet continues to heat and human populations experience their own stressors, it’s almost certain to accelerate exponentially.
We live in unprecedented times. It was only last year that I learned 4% of the mammalian biomass on the planet is now made up of wild animals. The other 96% is us, our companion animals and our food: humans or animals living in the service of humans. If you only look at terrestrial mammals, the picture is even more grim: only 2% is still wild. I was so shocked by this statistic that, at first, I didn’t believe it. I spent several hours tracking down the paper that reported the findings. The study had been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America earlier that year (Bar-On, Phillips, Milo, 2018). It’s a long, dry read, and I admit I skimmed a lot of it, but if you dig into the appendixes, you can recreate the above calculations, like I did.
For the most part, we value human life. But non-human life seems disconnected from our wants, our needs, our day-to-day lives. In this we are woefully misguided. We fail to recognize our impacts on the web of life and our place in the biosphere. We especially fail to recognize our reliance on the health of our biosphere. It is time we begin to appreciate the diversity of life in all its forms: from the ubiquitous magpie to the endangered Asian elephant, from the slandered coyote to the celebrated polar bear. Until we care for and appreciate all non-human species, we will continue to prioritize short-term gain and personal desire over the health of the biosphere and our planet’s long-term capacity to host our species.
The Longest Night Extinction Procession was a way to publicly acknowledge the Sixth Extinction. Will an event like this one have a noticeable impact on Edmontonians’ awareness of the rise in the planet’s extinction rate? Almost certainly not. But just five years ago, I attended climate change and similar rallies that drew only a handful of local activists. Then in October of this year, over 10,000 people marched to the legislature with Greta Thunberg. Global awareness of environmental issues is slow to catch on, but with every march, every rally, awareness does grow. That’s the reason events like the procession are important.
This is the second instalment of a three-part series. Read the first instalment here.
Bar-On, Y. M., Phillips, R., and Milo, R. 2018. The biomass distribution on Earth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Retrieved from https://www.pnas.org/content/115/25/6506
Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P. R., and Dirzo, R. 2017. Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Retrieved from https://www.pnas.org/content/114/30/E6089
Kolbert, E. 2014. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Henry Holt and Company: New York, New York.
On December 21, the longest night of the year, I joined a funeral procession of 100 or so Edmontonians. We gathered in Garneau Park and walked Whyte Ave. to honour and mourn the Earth’s lost species. In this series, I write about my reasons for taking part in the Longest Night Extinction Procession.
My first home was “off the grid.” We would never have called it that, of course. It just was what it was: We hauled our water from the lake, used the outhouse whether it was 30 above or 30 below, and for a few hours in the evening you’d hear the generator — what we called the powerplant — growling into the darkness while the house blazed with light. In this, my first home, our neighbours were the bears we’d spot in the meadows chewing dandelions in the spring, they were the loons that haunted the lake with their echoing calls, they were the wolves that tracked the deer through the forest and whose cries I’d fall asleep to at night.
Moving to Camrose was like moving to a foreign land. Our neighbours — all human — were far more dangerous than the wolves and bears of the mountains. Bears don’t push you down and laugh as you made your way to school. Wolves don’t follow you into the washroom and poke their heads over the stall so that even that 3’x5’ rectangle of space is not safe.
Maybe you can tell I didn’t like living in Camrose all that much.
We did, at least, have a flush toilet at the Camrose house, and you didn’t need to go outside to use it. By then, we had a 14’’ B&W TV. It was kept in the basement, and there I would watch Time Tunnel, Space 1999, The Flintstones, and Star Trek, rabbit-ear antennae permitting. The picture varied in quality from snowy to snowy with a chance of scrolling, but it was a way to fall into other worlds, to escape from this one. I had my own bedroom at the Camrose house too. It was a nicer room than any of the small drab bedrooms at my mountain home but without the call of the wolves to whisper me to sleep. A single poplar tree lived outside my window. In the spring, the leaves emerged from their cocoons and painted the walls of my bedroom pastel green. At night the wind spoke through the branches and coaxed me to sleep.
In the summers, we made our annual journey to the west coast, visiting relatives and pausing for burgers and milkshakes at greasy-spoon truck stops along the way. Grandpa received six weeks holiday, and we spent most of it on that yearly roadtrip, always finishing with a few weeks at the mountain house. We’d put off the trip home until the last moment. If we’d gotten away early enough, we’d stop at Goonies on the west end of Edmonton for spaghetti and meatballs, but no matter what, we’d always arrive home to a stale, closed-up house late on a hot August night with school just around the corner.
One summer we arrived back at the Edmonton house late as usual. I would have slept in the car and been groggy as we pulled onto the crunchy gravel driveway. I staggered into my bedroom and crawled under the covers sleep-drunk from the trip and woke the next morning to bright yellow sunlight coating the bedroom walls. I turned to the window. My tree was gone.
I don’t think Grandma understood how I mourned the death that tree. She was used to accepting life (and death) and moving on. She was never one to dwell on loss. She’d had too many of her own. Our landlord had decided the tree might mess up the plumbing, and that was that. I struggled to understand the small value placed on that tree.
Just a tree.
The famed entomologist E. O. Wilson once wrote, “A lifetime can be spent in a Magellanic voyage around the trunk of a single tree.”
A tree is never just a tree.
This is the first in a three-part series.
On the morning of October 7th, nine Edmontonians linked hands on the Walterdale Bridge and stopped traffic for 69 minutes. They did this as part of Extinction Rebellion International’s attempt to bring awareness to the climate crisis. Moral outrage ensued, both by some who were on the bridge that day and some who were not.
When I heard about the action, my first reaction was something like “Ooo. I wonder if that was a good idea.” Edmonton does not have a tradition of activism. We’re in the heart of oil and gas country. We’ve satisfied ourselves with decades of high-paying oil industry jobs and trickle down paychecks. Why fix a system when it’s treated us so well. After attending demonstrations where I could count the number of protestors on both my hands, no one could have been more surprised when nearly 5000 people showed up at the Alberta Legislature on September 27 as part of the Global Climate Strike. But stopping traffic during Monday morning rush hour? — that seemed like too much to ask of Edmontonians.
My initial concern was that such delays might anger people trying to get to work — I wasn’t wrong — or encourage some to double down on their already anti-environmental stand — I wasn’t wrong there either.
Putting the hot-headed threats aside, there were many people who said things like “That’s not the way to get my support” or “I am totally turned off by this cause.” To these people, I ask: What would get your support? What would turn you on to the cause?
I don’t recall seeing those people at the Churchill Square rallies of years past. I’m even going to go out on a limb here and bet they weren’t at the 5000-strong Climate Strike. Those are not the people the protest was trying to reach.
One of the nine bridge protesters wrote about the action a few days later: “This action was certainly not about winning over the masses. It was about reaching out to those people who are sitting on the fence, who know they should be doing something, but feel immobilized for whatever reason. What you don’t see in the media is the hundreds of people who have reached out to us over the last few days, wondering how they can get involved, asking what can they do. We had a woman approach us in the parking lot as we came off the bridge, asking how she can help address the climate crisis. We have had people write to us and say that they have had more conversations with their family members about climate change in the last two days than they have had in decades.” You don’t see the people who privately messaged me either. Those who didn’t want to comment publicly, but wanted someone to know they were on the bridge that day and supported the protesters. That’s right, people messaged me, and I wasn’t even one of the protestors.
It is pretty much impossible to get wide-spread support for ideas that do not conform to the dominant discourse. For most of my life, I was content to make small personal choices that reflected my values. I found that over and over, those gestures are either ridiculed or received with incomprehension. These were not actions that I imposed on others. These are things I did quietly without fanfare. How many times have I asked for no bag and been given one anyway? How many times have I brought my own coffee mug and had my coffee poured into it from a disposable cup? Before she embraced paper towels, my grandmother used to use cut-up t-shirts to wipe spills from the kitchen floor or the fridge shelving. It seemed like an easy way to avoid waste, so in my early 20s, I stopped buying paper towels. One day, I was at Grandma’s house. My uncle was there too. Grandma spilled the tea she was carrying, so I said, “I’ll go get a rag.” As if to explain, Grandma said, “Bertie doesn’t use paper towels.” Before I reached the other side of the room (and it was a small one), my uncle had grabbed the roll of paper towels off the counter. He looked me in the eye, and pulled ream after ream of paper towels off the roll. Grandma would have called the look he gave me a “shit-eating grin.” It is as though the smallest act of non-conformity is seen as an act of unacceptable rebellion.
Alberta is a province trapped in amber. Captured by the fossil fuel economy, it is immobilized to action. Here in Alberta we have the highest rate of climate change denial in the country. For Albertans understanding the climate crisis comes at great cost. It comes with the realization that we must change, and it’s hard to change. It’s hard to think that our understanding of the world has changed, and we must change along with it. But if we are to adapt to our new reality, we must stand up for change. It will upset the people who don’t want to change, but that’s the way it’s always been.
People pushed back against the civil rights movement and the suffragettes and the abolition of the slave trade, yet change came with or without their help. This action came with risk of many kinds. But it takes brave people to stand up in the face of cultural conformity, and bravery is what we need. Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:
Living in the world, we have strong habits. We walk without any awareness. We walk as if we have to run. We speak but don’t know what we are saying; we create a lot of suffering while speaking. Communities that commit themselves to mindfulness can help members of the community learn how to speak, breathe, and walk mindfully.
The climate crisis requires mindfulness. It becomes the task of the outlier to provide space and support for the community to confront our reality and imagine a new way forward. The outlier shows us we can break from the dominant discourse and become mindful of our situation.
It is not easy to feel you are called to selfless service when you are seen as an inconvenience by your community. This is the fate of the activist, the non-conformist. It’s easy to admire the Nelson Mandelas, the Martin Luther Kings, and the Mahatma Gandhis as historical artifacts when they are not holding up your morning commute. Without mindful consideration of what is at stake globally, that morning commute can feel pretty important. Here I’ll quote Thich Nhat Hanh once more: “When we see things globally, we have more wisdom. We are not caught by small situations. When we see globally, we avoid many mistakes.” An interruption in our morning commute is truly a “small situation,” but climate change and environmental breakdown are not.
The crisis we are facing is unprecedented in the history of the human species, and here we are…living it. That’s what is so difficult to reconcile. We are in the early days of the sixth extinction, experiencing loss of biodiversity at a rate unprecedented in millions of years. Our soils are losing their capacity to produce the food we need. Insect populations are collapsing around the globe. At the same time, climate change is heating our oceans, melting the permafrost, and eating away at our coastlines.
What does this crisis require of us? I mean, we’re just trying to get to work on time so we can feed our families. To answer this question, we must “see globally.” As Pope Benedict XVI once said, “Our earth speaks to us, and we must listen if we want to survive.”
I do not call myself a Christian. Nevertheless, the Bible offers wisdom. Matthew writes of the man sowing seeds. Some of the seeds fell on the path and the birds ate them; some fell on rocky ground, where the sun scorched them; some fell among the thorns, which choked them; but some fell on deep, fertile soil, where they settled and grew.
The actions of the bridge protestors have fallen on the minds of people with differing receptivity. Some of those minds are fertile, others are not. For some, the action is a challenge to their way of life, a rebuke of the things they value; for others the action is childish, meaningless, a trifle unworthy of their attention; for others the action is an inconvenience, an obstacle to business as usual; but for some the action is a manifestation of what they hope for the world. It shows them that another way is possible. It demonstrates that bravery and self-sacrifice exist. It shows them that they are not alone.
On the subject of service, Wangari Maathai gives these words of advice: “When I learn that something isn’t right, I have a tendency to search for a solution, as I did all those years ago with the women who inspired me to initiate the Green Belt Movement. Look at the problem in front of you and try to solve it.”
This is what we are called to do. This is what is required.
Wishing for the return of another boom will not solve this crisis. Another boom may give us a temporary respite, but nothing more. Our problem is not unsolvable. It requires vision and determination. It requires wisdom and selflessness, and it requires bravery of the kind we saw on the bridge that day, but most of all, it requires love. As one of the protestors later wrote, “We blocked the bridge out of love, not defiance. We blocked the Walterdale for our families and for your families — because, ultimately, we love you.”
Thich Nhat Hanh; The Art of Communicating
Thich Nhat Hanh; Touching Peace
Wangari Maathai; Replenishing the Earth
The recent push for geoengineering in the face of growing concerns about climate change reminded me of a news story from a few years back. This headline tells it all: “Why did LA Drop 96 Million ‘Shade Balls’ into Its Water?”
In an attempt to slow evaporation and halt algae growth, LA dropped millions of black polyethylene balls into its water reservoir. The news was received on social media with exclamations of “Cool,” “Wow,” and “Awesome.”
It seems we continue to be in denial that our actions — all of our actions — have enormous consequences. The list of proposed climate change geoengineering quick fixes is lengthy, but let’s drill down into LA’s small — and really rather clever — initiative to see why we need to think long and hard before we create a patchwork of geoengineering bandaids. Here’s my take:
- This is a reactionary measure. Dumping a bunch of black plastic balls into a body of water addresses NONE of the underlying causes for California’s drought woes. It does NOT mitigate climate change. It puts a bandaid on a growing suppurating wound.
- This measure actually contributes to drought. That’s right. These plastic balls are made of petrochemicals, a major cause of global warming. And as we know, climate change caused or at least exacerbated the drought that California only this year emerged from. Worse still, the petroleum used to manufacture these balls will have been refined, transported, processed, and transported again, a chain of CO2 emitting steps enabled by the burning of petroleum products. Within the broad perspective, these balls are contributing to climate change and making droughts like this one worse.
- These balls directly increase global warming. These balls are black, so they absorb heat. They are significantly darker than the water that they cover and therefore they will reflect less heat.
As global warming manifests itself in a million unpleasant ways, these kinds of reactionary measures will propagate. As the crisis worsens, they will almost certainly become more bold and more desperate. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think so. We are all beginning to panic, but through our fog of fear and anxiety, we must be critical of these projects. For too long we’ve looked at problems (and solutions) in isolation, but if we are to stop the worst of climate change, we’re going to have to be smarter than that.
Photo: California is facing the worst drought on record. (Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)
I’ve been writing about “ethical oil” for some time, trying to understand the language that justifies the expansion of the Alberta oil sands. For a wordie like me, tracing the origins of this linguistic frame from Ezra Levant’s 2010 bestseller through its evolution — politically, culturally, and corporately motivated — to its current use by media, politicians, industry, and the public is fascinating. And a moral responsibility. This summer, I’m writing a book about the phenomenon.
After I finished entering the final marks for my last spring course, I packed up Willow, and we rendezvoused with Zane at Niskonlith Reserve in Secwepemc territory outside of Kamloops. Zane had been helping the Tiny House Warriors with their tiny house build. The Warriors and Water Protectors will be using the houses to protest and block the Transmountain Pipeline Expansion. We stayed at the build a couple of nights. Willow made a new dog friend, and we hammered in a few more nails. It was a welcome respite from the city.
Once we left the reserve, we were on our way to visit my sister in Squamish. Along the way, we heard that 12 Greenpeace activists were hanging from the Ironworkers’ Memorial Bridge and blocking a tanker that was trying to leave Burrard Inlet. It was the bridge we’d be driving over to get to Squamish.
We knew some of the activists: Mike Hudema, Mary Lovell, and Emma Jackson. I admire them all. It is impossible, even in BC, not to feel the animosity of the people who feel invested in the oil sands industry. I especially admire Emma. She is from Edmonton. As an Edmontonian myself, I know it can be challenging living in an environment where many who see you are a traitor to your people for believing that we need to curtail oil sands expansion. As someone who strongly believes we must “leave it in the ground,” I cautiously tiptoe around the subject of the oil sands. I’ll talk about climate change, but I’ll avoid discussing its connection to the bituminous sands. It’s a ridiculous disconnect that I must embrace if I’m going to engage people about climate change effectively. Despite my frustration, working at a university holds many advantages. I spend my days surrounded by young people in a degree program that prizes itself with teaching critical thinking, so the students I teach are responsive to critical discussion. We may not agree on the particulars of an issue, but we can talk calmly and rationally. I often find myself thinking, “Huh. I never thought about it that way,” after we’ve discussed some current issue in class. It’s the sort of discussion that helps me grow as a person and an instructor.
I’ve watched Mike’s, Emma’s and Mary’s social media feeds during this action as I have with past actions. Sometimes they will ask for help combing through the hundreds of posts that people write on their feeds. Help deleting or reporting the hate-filled calls: “Why don’t you wrap that rope around your neck and hang yourself,” “Get a real job!” “What a c*nt” and “We need snipers picking you off. You r*tards know nothing about oil sands.” I will go through the posts reporting the ugliest and deleting what I can. My stomach will begin to crawl, my head swim, and my skin prickle. That’s when say, “Enough. I can’t do this anymore.” I’m thankful that there are also posts of gratitude and well-wishing. Posts that say, “Love you,” and “Thank you for what you do.” Yep. Edmonton can be a challenging place to live. Mike moved to the coast a couple months ago. I know many others who have done the same.
Zane and I were not in a rush to get to Squamish, so we had time to stop in on the protest. I googled Bates Park. We pulled off the main highway and parked near tall cedars. After a ten-minute walk through coastal rainforest, we found the news cameras, the Greenpeace crew, the protest supporters, and a long line of parked police cars. There was a festive sense to the scene. Small girls ran to Willow. They cooed and stroked her fur. An Indigenous woman pounded a drum and sang. Burning sage scented the air. We were immediately made to feel welcome.
Our timing was perfect. We watched as the police boat cruised around the inlet and an RCMP officer rappelled down to speak to Mike in his harness. Another hour and the protesters would have been gone from the bridge. I was able to interview a fellow with a protest sign: HONK if you oppose bailing out Texas billionaires with your hard-earned tax dollars! It turned out that he was one of the first group arrested at the Kinder Morgan gates back in March. I also spoke with a woman from Greenpeace International. Zane knew her from the time he helped with a couple of Greenpeace actions. I had more material for my book. We would drive to Klahanie Campground that evening, and I would sit beside an idyllic creek, and type out my book. Soon we’ll return to Alberta where I’ll finish my book. If it’s published next year, as I hope it will be, I wonder what the repercussions will be. Will I be told I should be shot or hanged? Will I be called a c*nt or a r*tard and told to get a real job? I don’t know, but if so, I’ll be in good company.
I haven’t blogged for a long time, but it’s summer and I’m back at it.
This is the talk I gave for the People’s Climate March in Edmonton this spring.
And here is the transcript:
We NEED to talk about climate change! You all get that. By coming here today you’re showing that you know climate change is important. But what about the people who aren’t here? How can we engage them in this conversation? Because we MUST engage them in this conversation.
I teach Communications and we’re always going on about Audience and Purpose. It turns out, knowing your audience and your purpose matter. They matter just as much if you’re crafting a Press Release as if you’re talking to Uncle Jo at the Family Reunion.
If my purpose is to convince someone that climate change is important, if I want someone to reduce their carbon footprint, I need to know a bit about that person. What are their world views and values? If I’m talking to Uncle Jo, and I know that Jo thinks Donald Trump has great business acumen, I’m not going to start talking about polar bears. Because if I do, he’s going to think I’m a “left-wing wacko,” and that will be the end of that. But maybe I can mention how I’m thinking about installing solar panels because they’re going to add resale value to my house or because I don’t want to depend on a volatile energy market, and that might be my way of introducing the topic of climate change, and — hey — did you hear that we’re losing our outdoor rinks in Alberta?
And I still believe that leading by example is a powerful form of communication.
Not too long ago I moved to the North East End of the city. It’s the perfect house — well… the perfect price. I immediately felt buyer’s remorse. It was so far away from everything, especially MacEwan. Takes me almost half an hour to drive to work, and I hate the drive. But it seemed way too far to ride my bike. Yet every day my colleague, Marlene, would ride into the office. In the winter she’d come in a cloud of ice fog. Her cheeks glowing bright red. She’d take off her goggles, smile, and say, “A bit brisk out there today!” I’m watching this for months. So I’d say, “How’s traffic? What’s your route like?” She’d answer. She never tried to shame me. And one day, I thought, “Roberta, you’re being ridiculous. If Marlene can do this, so can you.” I figured out the best possible route. I got my gear together, and I did it. I found that I love riding my bike to work. Instead of spending 25 minutes frustrated with everyone around me. I spend 35 feeling on top of the world. Once again, I’m that 10-year-old girl on her bright yellow 5-speed racing bike, riding the mean streets of Camrose.
Let’s create a vision.
What if everyone in Edmonton rode a bike or took public transit — say — 3 times a week. How would that change our city? Let’s look at this from Uncle Jo’s perspective: It would reduce congestion. It would cut back on the wear and tear of our roads, so we’d save money. We’d save money on parking and gas too. We’d all be healthier. We’d end up with more walkable communities. And… we’d reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
This brings me to my last point: We MUST create a positive vision for the future.
Because climate change can seem frightening, but just CHANGE can seem frightening too.
We need to show that mitigating climate change is good for all of us. We all benefit from reliable energy. We all benefit from healthier lifestyles. We all benefit from clean air and clean water.
So when you leave here today, please take the climate change message with you. Talk to Uncle Jo. Set an example for your colleagues. Let’s show everyone that positive change is possible.