Canadian Association Club of Rome, Nate’s Restaurant, December 11, 2012
In 1971-72, two unusual things happened, the Club of Rome published its report ‘the Limits to Growth’ when it brought to the world’s attention that unlimited growth was not possible in a finite world. The other things was the Stop Spadina movement in Toronto with which I was intimately connected. Under the leadership of Jane Jacobs, a great urban freeway intended to cut the city in half from north to south was stopped. Stopping urban freeways almost never happens. Look at Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, they are all girdled and in Ottawa’s case bifurcated with limited access highways.
Stopping the Spadina expressway took a spectacular community effort, the best local leadership possible and the intervention of the provincial premier. Left to City Hall, it would have been built. At the same time, the ‘Limits to Growth’ Report was published. It would eventually sell 12 million copies becoming the largest selling environmental book ever. At the same time, scientists like Rachel Carson, Jim Lovelock were beginning to shake the scientific establishment and corporate elites with their science.
I was a young man at the time, just beginning my adult life but these events began to change my life. Environmental and urban sustainability became the defining issues of my life as they have for many others. There are now millions of people who are concerned with the viability of human society. For me, canoeing to Washington to promote clean water was another part of that larger journey about human sustainability and I would like to talk mostly about that larger journey this evening.
One of the things that doesn’t get as much press as it should is that there are two kinds of tipping points. The second one gets most of the press. It is an irrevocable moment such as when one nation declares war on another, or the climate readjusts as it did in the Permian five or six degrees higher than it was before. Scientists have been telling us for several decades now, that this irrevocable tipping point is where the planet is headed. There is no real debate that it is happening, the only question now is given a continued growth in green house gases – when it will occur.
I’ve always found the first tipping point much, more interesting. The Treaty of Versailles, for example, which ended the first war is good example of a first tipping point. When it was signed John Maynard Keynes said, the second war had already been declared although it would be twenty years before it actually happened. He said this because it was so punitive towards the nations which had lost the war that another war was inevitable.
The interesting thing about the first tipping point is it’s not irrevocable. It doesn’t necessarily have to lead to the irrevocable second tipping point. There’s still time to change. It is conceivable that after the Treaty of Versailles was signed, world leaders could have convened another world conference a few years later when tempers had cooled and they could have admitted starving Germany and ripping apart Turkey was not going to lead towards a lasting peace.
The human costs of not correcting that first tipping point was 50 million lives between 1939 and 45 alone, many more if you count the after shocks which endured throughout the rest of the century. Two years ago, Dr. James Lovelock stated in Toronto that when the earths’ climate readjusts to a higher level, the human population will shrink to 19th century levels which means it will decline from 8 billion to about 2 billion or less as under the climatic conditions much of the planet will not be able to support the present population levels, that’s about six out of eight people disappearing. These numbers are unimaginable but I’m sure if you said to the politicians who signed the Treaty of Versailles they were condemning 50 million to death, they would not have believed it.
I am sure you know all of this because it was in 1972 the Club of Rome which first brought the existence of this first environmental tipping point to the world’s attention. This is all very old news now. The Limits to Growth celebrates its 40th anniversary this year since its first publication. It has some distinguished company, the American Clean Water Act which has done so much to clean up American fresh waterways also celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2012. When we arrived in Washington, we attended the Clean Water birthday celebrations on Capitol Hill and were surprised to learn the Clean Water Act is under serious attack by the Republican House of Representatives. They see it as a threat to the coal industry and want it revoked. We were surprised because everywhere we had canoed we were told how important this Act has been in cleaning up the rivers we paddled on, the Hudson, the Delaware and the Potomac.
And our American friends were surprised to learn the Canada is now a world leader in climate change denial and our nation is neck and neck with Saudi Arabia for the honour of being the dirtiest per capita nation on the planet.
Three years ago, I went to Toronto to hear the famous author of the Gaia theory, Dr. James Lovelock speak. At the time, he was 90 years of age and still going strong. His presence filled the Glenn Gould studio with an impressive galaxy of environmental activists. I noticed David Suzuki was among them and many other well known scientists, authors and environmental activists. There were three city politicians there and no one from the federal or provincial levels.
I think that says it all. We may be writing great books and doing great science but at the level at which society functions, little is changing. Each year our cities and nations grow less sustainable. Each year, the carbon imprint of human activity increases, not lessens. Each year, the world temperature grows hotter. An adolescent today like Isaac who canoed with us will never have experienced a year when the annual temperature was not higher than the previous year.
When I flew down to Toronto to listen to Dr. Lovelock, I went with a specific question in mind. At the time I was a city councillor engaged in a number of very serious environmental battles, the battle to build electric surface light rail now, not a replacement service for the bus-way, the battle to protect the South March Highlands forest, the battle to stop Lansdowne Park from being privatized for a condo and commercial development. The north/south rail line alone would have reduced Ottawa’s carbon imprint by 26,000 tons. My question for Dr. Lovelock was simple -‘what can I do to convince my council to vote as if climate change mattered?’
The great man leaned back in his chair, regarded me for some time. It was a nervous moment for me. I was surrounded by very important people. I don’t think it was for Dr. Lovelock. He had the calm clarity of 90 years and the satisfaction of an engaged and accomplished life. His science had helped Rachel Carson make her case that DDT was softening the shell’s of birds to the point where they couldn’t bring the next generation to maturity. Nonetheless, this was not a man, nor an audience that you wanted to look like a fool in front of, but I really wanted an answer because I had tried everything I could possibly think of to convince my colleagues that more roads, more malls, more tract housing were not the right decisions for my city.
Dr. Lovelock finally leaned forward in his chair so that he was regarding me closely and said “I don’t know.”
I came home and continued to do my best to reverse the decision to cancel the city’s north-south light rail system, the loss of Lansdowne Park and the clear cutting of the South March Highlands but in the end failed; which brings me to the cap2cap canoe expedition and this moment at Nate’s.
For me canoeing from Ottawa to Washington for clean water for me was another act of resistance. Every paddle stroke, every day, every week for me was a small act of resistance. I had failed to convince my colleagues that we needed to grow our city differently, but I did not want to quit. I wanted to find a way to answer James Lovelock. I wanted to make a statement that could never be taken away from me and in that effort find some peace.
One of the many things I learned on the trip is that small acts of resistance matter. They matter to the person and they matter to the people around him or her. Right now, Canada needs small acts of resistance and it needs them in every way in every part of the land. It needs them in all sizes, shapes and imaginations.
I won’t presume to tell you what form your act of resistance should take but I will tell you about two that I am taking. I’m working with my companions from the canoe trip to promote the twinning of the Ottawa and Potomac rivers as a way of celebrating these two great rivers and inspiring people to care about their ecological health. And I am refusing to contribute to any political party that contacts me and asks for a donation. My response to a request for money from any party is: until your party makes electoral reform your number one priority in your speeches, in your parliamentary statements, with the same intensity the same frequency as the Conservative leader makes for his Tar Sand extraction – I’m not giving you money. No electoral reform, no money.
Because until we get electoral reform, I can’t be hopeful. The human sustainability problem we have is no longer about knowledge or science or the capacity to manage our economy differently. The problem is we have an electoral system which cannot deliver us a government which reflects the will of the people. It is no longer democratic. It elects false majorities and encourages violent division between those that are elected. We need an electoral system that can elect true majorities and reflects the will of the majority not the winner of an increasingly vicious divide and conquer politics. We need Parliaments that can entertain collaborative solutions to managing growth so that we don’t hit that irrevocable second tipping point.
It’s rarely remembered that Adolph Hitler never received a majority of German voters support before he became a dictator. He was elected by 37 per cent of the German citizens who voted and only after the nation was starved by inflation and war reparation payments. He then used a crisis his own team fabricated, the Night of the Long Knives to justify taking absolute control. It’s worth remembering this because we have not had a government in Canada representing a majority of Canadians for very long time. Mr. Harper was elected by only 38 per cent of the population that voted, and only after an extremely effective, national voter suppression project that denied those opposing his party the right to vote.
There never has been a more important moment to search out small acts of resistance. Our democracy depends on it. Our planet depends on it. Our children depend on it.
Thank-you for your invitation and your kind attention.