Crikey It’s Hard Trying to Be Good!

This just in: I struggle with the qualities of goodness and compassion in myself. In theory, I love them. Weaving flowers in my hair in fits of gratitude for flowers and hair, volunteering at a charity run against terrible diseases, fighting to save the habitat of some cute animal or another…Of course I believe in and want these things! Right?!

Reality can be slightly more complex than the abstract, though. For me, reality puts a chokehold on the beauty of the roses and voluntarism that float in my mind, shaping them into the petty First World curses I shout inside my tiny car when drivers won’t let me into their lane, or into the seething rage I nurse thinking about the heinousness of Orange 45 and his stupid agenda. Reality tackles theory so that instead of taking a tin of freshly-baked vegan shortbread to my neighbours, I duck my head and pretend I don’t see them as I trudge from car to house with rolls of sale toilet paper in my arms. Theoretical me sighs that nobody has ever improved anything by being an impatient dick even as real me feels waves of infuriated fatigue squash me as someone defends the status quo. In the world of theoretical self and the self that is tired of writing its thesis and has low blood iron, the former possesses considerably more compassion.

In this new year, I attempt to channel theoretical me with intensity. I will focus on the goodness and compassion and gratitude that percolate through my brain during happy times and make them the pillars of real me so that I will ooze them – yes, I said “ooze” –  in less triumphant times. I will try hard to cultivate these qualities when the bags under my eyes darken my cheeks and when my cartilage-free joints prevent me from playing volleyball and when for any reason I need to see Kevin O’Leary’s beady eyes in the news. These are the times I must remember to be glad for everything I have, to be kind to people, and to try and understand the perpectives of those with whom I disagree. Po-tay-to/po-tah-to, I don’t care so much about – dude, get a life if those were the biggest concerns in your relationship – but I mean real disagreements.

This journey to be better will continue. Two notable things help me focus on this:

  1. I’ve blown the dust off my old gratitude journal, in which I record 5 things for which I’m grateful, every day. It can be the fact that I have a warm house when it’s -20 outside, the fact that I have access to tomatoes and oatmeal and other nutritious food, or having had a games night with my family. Honing in on the good of a day makes me dwell in the positive. Also, Oprah does it and don’t even argue with Oprah.
  2. I visit this website. I love it, and it roots me in the best qualities that people can cultivate. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu

There. Now you know what I’m doing. What are you up to? 🙂

 

Protectors, not Protesters: We’re All Peeing into the Same Pool

I have been watching for some time the ongoing struggles of the people of the Unist’ot’en camp in BC, the Sacred Stone camp in South Dakota, and Muskrat Falls in Newfoundland and Labrador. For the people of these regions, decisions about pipelines or reservoir flooding are neither remote nor abstract. NIMBY is a luxury they do not have; controversy has come knocking on their doors. Their homes, their water, and their way of life are being threatened.

Within a colonial structure in which every kind of trespass is punishable by law except, apparently, those enshrined in treaties, corporations such as Nalcor and Energy Transfer Crude Oil Company operate with impunity, protected by government and laws that are blind to planetary reality. Those in power, whether corporate or citizen, are insulated by money, distance, and usually race; they frame the conversation so that anyone who opposes their interests is a threat to the status quo, a terrorist, a protester.

In the purest sense of the word, the people of Muskrat Falls and the Unist’ot’en and Sacred Rock camps are protesting something, namely corporate projects (or, in the case of Muskrat Falls, not the project itself but specific negligence), but there is a reason for their rejection of this persistent mainstream label. In everyday parlance, the word protester is a concept, tainted, denigrated, the domain of the criminal and the uneducated. Protesters are radical and fringe-y and why can they not just get a job? Mainstream Canadians and Americans see those who block pipeline development as the enemy, and the media happily follow along for the scandalous ride.

What is less recognized and given less space in the national newspaper is that the original insult, the initial illegal move, was proceeding with the project itself when safety could not be reasonably guaranteed. Against treaty, against human rights documents given lip service by politicians, against planetary limits, the trespass continues. This is the bigger picture, but we seem to be missing it, so zoomed in on the minutia are we. Clause x and by-law y versus the reality of thousands of litres of oil and chemicals dumped into a source of drinking water.

It is with a deep understanding of this discourse, wherein the reaction of people less powerful (and, not accidentally, in all of these examples, Indigenous) is characterized as reckless, violent, and against ethical codes, that the local people ask to be named in the media as “protectors” rather than protesters. After all, they are demanding that governments respect the concept of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), uphold treaties, and respect human rights over those of corporations. They are advocating for themselves, the animals, their children. They are protecting something.

Let me pose a question. If someone urinates in the swimming pool of a rich home-owner, is the resident considered a protester when chasing the offender away or pressing charges?

The answer, of course, is no. You would suggest that the person is protecting their pool.

That is the law. That is the European-based law which most North Americans recognize. Unfortunately, many of us become murkier when it comes to treaties, the concept of unceded land, and universal human rights. Are these not abstract concepts? Obsolete contracts? Dusty and meaningless remnants of a long ago past?

No, no, and no.

What the people of the Unist’ot’en and Sacred Stone camps and Muskrat Falls are doing is letting us know that we are peeing in their pool, and they are being called protesters for protecting it. They are causing the ruckus.

But what is really ironic (sad, infuriating, pick an adjective) is that their pool is also our pool, it is just that we are farther away from the pee and think it will not reach us. They are warning us, but our area is less contaminated and we are okay with that. For now.

I will leave you with the words of the Wet’suwet’en people’s page about their Unist’ot’en camp:

“The Unist’ot’en homestead is not a protest or demonstration. Our clan is occupying and using our traditional territory as it has for centuries. Our free prior and informed consent protocol is in place at the entrance of or territory as an expression of our jurisdiction and our inherent right to both give and refuse consent. Our homestead is a peaceful expression of our connection to our territory. It is also an example of the continuous use and occupation of our territory of our territory by our clan. Our traditional structures of governance continue to dictate the proper use of and access to our lands and water.

Today all of our Wet´suwet´en territory, including Unist’ot’en territory, is unceded Aboriginal territory. Our traditional indigenous legal systems remain intact and continue to govern our people and our lands. We recognize the authority of these systems” (http://unistoten.camp, retrieved October 26, 2016).

Blossoms and Tomatoes

I hope you don’t think this is lame, but I honestly don’t feel like writing about anything right now. The Orlando shooting, the Yulin dog-eating “festival,” the news that 185 environmental activists were killed last year, the ongoing oil gushers in which corporations don’t even get a slap on the wrist, casual and not-so-casual racism and misogyny, people denying climate change, people killing a shark to take a selfie, the shooting of the Olympic jaguar in Rio, fracking…Is there no limit to how horrible people can be?

At another time, I will (hopefully) be more eloquent. I will be more charitable of heart and mind. I will be able to speak of good things. But given my current mindset, I will stop talking and show you some beautiful things from my garden.  Voila!

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Time for a Nap

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An Open Letter to Saskatchewan

Dear Fellow Saskatchewan Citizens:

I am an environmental activist. If you’ve read the province’s throne speech, you will know me as part of the uneducated, province-hating collective of “they.”  I am one who believes in “misguided dogma that has no basis in reality” and does not “Stand…Up for Saskatchewan.”  This is how Brad Wall sees me and anyone else who voices concern about climate change and suggests the province needs to shift away from a fossil fuel economy. In a recent speech to the Petroleum Club in Calgary, he disclosed his fears that “we” (meaning he and the oil industry) “haven’t been winning many battles lately,” and that “we’re in danger of losing more battles if we’re not vigilant.” Battles? Winning? Vigilant?  Is Brad Wall talking about a foreign enemy hell-bent on killing us all? When did this become a war in which the premier vocally and ideologically pits himself against citizens of the province? This language and what lies behind it, “we”, “they,” “winning,” “battles”…this helps no one. Why is he a “we” with the Explorers and Producers Association of Canada and not also with people who care about the environment? This is not how a leader addresses constituents’ legitimate interests, and it is an infantile approach to solving a real problem.

I want you to know, I understand that nothing is black and white. I know people who work (or have worked) in the oil industry. I care about these people. Despite how Brad Wall would characterize me, I am not a heartless monster who sits at home counting the money I’ve raked in over the years as an environmental activist, chortling over how everyone in the oil industry will soon be out of business. This is not me, and it’s not the vast majority of people I know who are advocating for a shift to renewable energy.

Please, I ask you, hear what I am saying: I am not against you. I know that people’s jobs mean something to them, that they represent not just livelihood but identity. I did not think it was karma that Fort Mac burned. I recognize that there is a difference between those who are making a living in the oil industry and those who are becoming so rich in it that they need to see us silenced.

We are working toward a common future. I just don’t know what that future looks like when our own premier treats concerned citizens as enemies. When he spends time and energy trying to figure out how to spin the benefits of fossil fuel to us so he can start “winning.” When he cares more about saving a dying industry than supporting people who want environmental justice and employment that is sustainable.

Anthropogenic climate change is not a hoax. If you believe it is, I don’t know what I can say to you on this issue. If you have reached this point in history and believe that climate change is someone’s idea of a big joke, I sincerely will not be able to come up with anything convincing beyond the existing immeasurable body of data supporting it. This is not the discussion we can have today.

If you do believe that climate change is real but don’t know where that leaves you, well…welcome to the club. The future will be uncertain. The future will probably be difficult and confusing. For all of us. There will be unemployment and shifting identities.  There will be tears and anger and a whole mess of trying things in a new way. There will be the temptation to lash out against those who are in it alongside us.

But environmental activists aren’t going anywhere. We will continue to be concerned about climate change, fracking chemicals, and water contamination. We will continue to care about Indigenous land claims and social justice. Brad Wall can characterize us as the enemy, but if you listen, we are talking about clean air, safe water, justice, and a livable planet, which are hardly objectionable goals.

If you believe that alternative energy sources are not feasible, please know that I understand we have things to learn. Technology can be buggy, but that does not mean we give up on it, especially when the stakes are high. We stick with it, knowing that we need to improve it. Not knowing all the answers does not mean we can stop asking questions, or that the technology leads us on any more of an unrealistic path than the one we’re on.

I can hear it now. Some of you are thinking wait, don’t you use a computer? Don’t you drive a car and eat imported food? The answers to all these questions is yes. I am complicit in the oil culture. I will face incredible changes in the future when (not if) energy is rationed or becomes less available. I will know when I see images of the tar sands that I am a part of what allowed that to happen. But pointing out that I am not perfect does nothing to solve the problem. It does not make oil extraction any less toxic, the air any cleaner, nor scientific facts about climate change any less valid.

Whether right now you are cheering me on or damning me, we have reached the end of it. What IT is, I don’t know. The possibility for a clean environment in the future? The fossil fuel industry? Is it the end of us? I don’t know. What I do know is that the current situation is unsustainable, and rather than having a premier who has the guts to lead us through the upcoming uncertainty, we have one who takes every opportunity to undermine anyone trying to meet the real challenge. He is, as are all the people who benefit politically or financially from the fossil fuel industry, trying to pit us against one another, to make us believe that we do not have that common future. Please, let us figure this out somehow together, with or in spite of Brad Wall.

More S*@t Anti-Environmentalists Say

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I Cannot Let It Go…

harambe

Last night, I was tweeting about Harambe when a squawking bird dumped a healthy load of quasi-digested something in my hair. The bird’s message was not lost on me; my avian friend reminded me that not unlike its offering, Harambe’s death has been messy and  uncomfortable. The latter event is also incredibly sad, while nothing lingers today of the former other than a funny memory.

For those of you who have not yet heard of Harambe…where have you been?!  Pick up a newspaper!  Seriously, though, on Saturday, a 4-year-old boy was hanging out near the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo and fell in. According to video footage, Harambe dragged the boy through the water, touched him, people yelled, the gorilla seemed confused…There seem to be as many versions of what happened as there are people reporting the story. Everyone agrees on how the story ended, though; after determining they had no choice, the zoo authorized Harambe’s (fatal) shooting.

The gorilla’s death has lit up social media, and things have not been pretty. Much as with last year’s outcry following the shooting of Cecil the lion, people are out for human blood. And while I, usually the freak outsider with my animal rights views, bask temporarily in having my outrage at the mistreatment of animals mirrored by those around me, such basking is indeed only temporary. Very quickly, my feelings of solidarity with many people dissipate as quickly as they type misogynist/hateful comments.  Not only is the child’s mother a negligent dumb bitch (I cringe as I write), her right “to breed,” her character, her life, are all open to vile and scary criticism. Petitions are even circulating about calling for a child protection investigation. Let’s dial it back a bit, people, okay? I think we need more compassion in this world, not less.

Others direct their ire at the zoo. Why are there not better barriers surrounding the enclosures? Why not tranquilize Harambe instead of kill him? Still others blame Harambe himself, pointing out that we would all choose to kill someone harming our child. This kind of rhetoric is as unpalatable as it is lame. Experts, both real and armchair, interpret the video in various ways: Harambe was acting erratically, or protectively, or in confusion, or helpfully. Jack Hanna this, Frans de Waal that.

But here’s the thing. I do not want to debate these things. I do not know whether the child’s mother is incredibly attentive or not. I do not know whether Harambe was two seconds away from smashing this child’s cranium. I do not know whether the zookeepers loved him or not. I do not  know whether the Cincinnati Zoo is now motivated to create the best enclosures and the best barriers in the world (I’ve been listening to Donald Trump speak too much lately).  But really? I believe all these things miss the bigger point, which is that Harambe’s death was so desperately, gut-wrenchingly preventable.

Who could have predicted that accidents involving people and animals would occur when humans trap massive animals in cities? Animals with claws, micro-second reflexes, individual desires, and a thwarted instinct to be free? Animals who might in nature walk dozens of miles a day? Animals whose reality is being stared at, yelled to, teased, knuckles knocking glass, tiny human prey bouncing just on the other side of bars…What do we expect? Can accidents really be called accidents when they are so inevitable?

More important to me than the ability of humans to stay alive during their visit to the zoo, however, is the facilities’ inherent anthropocentrism. Can we please, please just stop pretending that zoos are anything but a one-way street in which humans gain fleeting entertainment and animals lose everything?  We have the option of choosing to go to the zoo (or, often as whimsically, a movie, or a restaurant) on the weekend; the animals have the choice of how many times to follow the zoochotic trail they have beaten into their enclosure after a lifetime of captivity. Yes, some might say, but zoos keep animals alive – what would happen if we closed all the zoos?! I prefer to take the long view of exactly the lifespan of each animal currently in a zoo. Let these ones live out their lives (which will be short if they are earmarked for culling or killed for harming a human), and that is it. It is over. What life is it for future generations of a species if it is to live in a glass cage? Could there possibly be a deeper follow-up insult to Harambe than that the Cincinnati Zoo has announced its possession of his sperm, so that his genetic line may continue?

Zoos cannot help but ingrain in humans further understanding that we are the dominant species, that everything is to be enjoyed and used by us with no concern for consequence. We delight in seeing animals who would easily elude us or sink their teeth into our collective jugular if we came face-to-face in the wild. We get to choose how much time we spend observing a particular cage; they are there all day. We get to decide how to frame this animal in text and in discourse: is it a master predator? A gentle, social creature? We even decide whether the animal is intelligent, based on our own parameters. Children learn that it does not matter how far from its natural home an animal is, how wrong the climate may be for it, how much it would eschew human contact if given the choice, it is okay to keep it on display for our pleasure, because we are people and they are not.

I can hear the counter-points being composed; I have heard them already.  But…conservation…education…seeing is caring…zoos love the animals…  I promise you that I have thought of all of these things. I know that many give a piece to conservation efforts.  I understand that maybe some people are transformed by a zoo visit. Things are not black and white to me; I dwell in the grey. But I do not care about what the experience is like for humans.  Despite what the existence of zoos suggests, I do not think that I have some inborn, human right to see any animal regardless of what it must endure for me to see it. I do not have the right to see an animal if to do so is to have it endure a lifetime of discomfort. I care about the animals, and I care about what zoos tell us about our supremacy in an ongoing way. Nothing about a zoo’s mission, even the best of them, justifies its foundational, ongoing captivity of animals. If zoos took in only animals that had no chance of living in the wild and any breeding would be with the full and unequivocal goal of controlled release to the wild, this conversation might be different.  Unfortunately, the word “conservation,” for a zoo, can mean the preservation of a particular animal’s life and the continuation of a species in captivity with no plan for release.

We need to learn from Harambe’s death and undergo a societal shift on zoos. We must ask ourselves how this situation, where our western ideology dictates that animals exist for whatever we desire, is okay. We must ask ourselves who is served by a zoo, and at what price. We need for Harambe’s death to have meant something, or else we will be sending the bird plop message that his life meant nothing.

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