Things That Do No Harm

[3-minute read]

It’s a day for making lists. It’s June, after all.

Mind you, I could be writing about another especially brutal bomb in Kabul, or the abdication of ecological (or just plain logical) leadership by influential nations, or the special kind of impotent cowardice coupled with childish indignation that moves a hateful little human to scrawl hateful toilet-stall names on a rich black man’s apparently uppity home. But not today.

It’s a green day in June. I spent some time thinking – she made me do it, one of those gentle coaching shoves – about harmlessness, which apparently isn’t so far from cleanliness, or learning, or trees, or spirit. I’ve made a list of harmless things, which might even be worth less faint praise than that. Like:

+ Looking for new beginnings in all the untimely neighbourhoods. Such as, oh, June.

+ Walking among trees and alongside water.

+ Railway bridges, even where the trains are extinct.

+ Saying “good mornin’” to random bikers, walkers and drunks.

+ Wearing an old synthetic baseball jersey – still brightly white! – with a big ol’ 22 on the back, going way back to the last time I was a reasonable facsimile of an athlete.

+ Being one layer short on a morning-walk-that-shouldn’t-have-been-that-cool-‘cause-it’s-JUNE-fer-cryin’-out-sideways! I guess it’s chill to be chill, though.

+ Writing and saying things like “for crying out sideways” and “keep your eyes peeled for my phone” that confirm my status as a genuine relic of a bygone age. I’m a fossil.

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Past-Blasting: The Climate, 2007

This piece from February of 2007 was called “Citizenship, Climate Change…and Hockey?” It’s an orphan piece that never found a publication to call home, so now I offer it here. My nearly six-foot tall teen was then only seven, and merely bilingual. The NHL was struggling to recapture fan interest outside of Canada after losing an entire season to labour squabbles. Canada was still part of the Kyoto Accord. (We bow our head in shame, and remember when Canada deserved its reputation for internationalism.) I was not long removed from writing for Canada’s Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson, who had been succeeded in that office by Michaelle Jean.

We hadn’t imagined coming to China at all, and now we’re wrapping up five years on the edge of the Middle Kingdom. Look back. Waaayy back…

Last week saw a series of events that, after a whirl in the cerebral blender, yields a thoughtful stew on citizenship. It’s a bit like the musical “mash-up”, but without that unpleasant ringing in your ears. Here are some not-quite-random reflections on the meaning of the modern Canuck.

Two years ago last Friday, the National Hockey League finally suspended the 2004-2005 season. Canadian men (and a few women) grew more gloomy and resentful. No major sporting league had ever ditched an entire schedule, and the North American cultural divide widened. Canadian lovers of other sports hoped for a silver lining to the lockout, but were dismayed to find that hockey still dominated jock talk and writing. Meanwhile, American sports media – and the great majority of fans – barely noticed its absence.

And the citizenship connection? Well, you might have missed this surprising bit of civic mindfulness, but several NHL players declared the February 16 anniversary as “Save Hockey Day” – not so much to recall the lockout as to pay attention to the Kyoto Accord on climate change. ‘Bout time!

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John Oliver (on the “cartoonishly evil” FIFA)

“There are now allegations that some FIFA executives took bribes to put the World Cup in Qatar. And I hope that’s true, because otherwise it makes literally no sense….You are hosting the World Cup somewhere where soccer cannot physically be played [because of the heat]. That’s like if the NFL chose to host the Super Bowl in a lake….FIFA is just appalling, and yet, here’s their power: I am still so excited about the World Cup next week.”

John Oliver (1977-) is a British comedian and satirist. His “Last Week Tonight” show on HBO is not unlike Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show”, where he got his start on the west side of the Atlantic. So: though many Americans are reflexively antagonistic to somebody with an accent (different from theirs) on their airwaves, he has a pretty big fan club. He’s no Republican, though, and many Americans must hate him because he’s “smug” (all Brits and Frenchies are smug) and he laughs at stuff that might otherwise make him scream. He can mock himself, too, but it’s mainly the rich and entitled that he skewers. Mockery of the powers that be is a guilty pleasure. I’m slightly conflicted about it, but I’d rather laugh than rage. Mostly.

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Reaping the Whirlwind and Looking for Hope

I quoted Theodore Roosevelt  back in the dim reaches of my “He Said/She Said” collection, but anybody can do that. Recently on Grantland, I read a piece on Don King, the once-dominant promoter in

Teddy was no saint, but I like his attitude.

professional boxing, in which he pulled the Man in the Arena passage that I love so well out of his well-worn pouch of salesmanship. (Heck, maybe he loves it like I do, but after all his flim-flams and showmanship and indictments, it’s hard to tell.) This isn’t about Don King, though he did get me thinking back to a November 2010 piece I wrote about wanting to be on the front lines of life, wanting to have that “face marred with dust and sweat and blood”, as Roosevelt put it in a 1910 speech, to be an embattled veteran of causes worthy and noble. At moments, sports have given me that taste. So have wild-eyed efforts as an educator. So has Shakespeare, and a growing mid-life consciousness of ecology.

Being in China helps, too, and not only when I’m bombarded by cultural noise that I still can’t get my head around, not to mention fireworks or the adrenaline rush of getting across a busy street. The Baha’i teachings I battle to live by find many responsive ears here, and its community-building processes are of blatantly obvious value. The response to both is routinely gratifying, yet given the frantic movement and

Can a threatened planet become a cliche? (This is OURS, btw.)

incredible size of this population, it’s all pretty darned humbling, too. I am surely not patient enough; for four years, China has done its best to teach me, but I am a slow learner. There’s a lot of that going around, as you may have noticed, particularly if you’re a climate watcher.

Recently, we’ve been thinking of the front lines of the climate wars. EnviroBride has taught me much about the crisis we’ve created in the global ecology, and the search for sustainable ways to live with and within it. We have avoided, it seems, a third World War, though Native American prophecies of the three “great shakings” that the world must undergo before the age of peace are an eerie warning.

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And a Child Shall Berate Them

It’s the first day of fall. (Not necessarily of the Fall of western civilization, but give us time. We’re working on it.) It’s a glorious, bright day where I live. One could be tempted to feel that God’s in His heaven, all’s right with the world, as Browning has the child Pippa say in his poem. That’s not such a bad feeling, so long as we can boost ourselves on whatever beauty we can find, but not make it our policy. So long as we don’t think that all is well, or lose ourselves in despair that there’s no way to improve it.

I enjoyed a small blast from the cyberspace past this morning. Most Canadians know of David Suzuki, the scientific populist and environmental crusader, and many know of his daughter Severn Cullis-Suzuki. A friend sent me a video, circulating now on YouTube although it’s cyber-ancient, in which a 12-year-old Cullis-Suzuki addresses the assembled delegates at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. (This was the first “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro.) She was already an experienced junior activist by then, and her small group of four – all girls, the men-for-equality flagwaver notes – had raised money to travel from Vancouver to Rio. She speaks forcefully, smartly, and effectively calls to account all the adults in the (developed) world.

Global climate change wasn’t yet on the popular radar, though the scientific consensus was gathering steam relentlessly. It almost seems quaint to hear her speak of the holes in the ozone layer. (Ah, the good old days! This is a problem that we now have the technical ability, and apparently even the institutional will, to solve. Even the Axis of Environmental Excuse-Making, the stubbornly foot-dragging governments of Australia, the U.S. and Canada, are gung ho about saving the ozone layer. After all, none of us has to change anything we do, as the replacement chemicals for CFHCs, those ozone depleters, are already available.) But she’s angry. She tells a story of shock on meeting Rio’s street kids, and relates how one of them longs to be rich “so she can help all the children on the street”. The contrast with her own materially blessed country, Canada, stuns her: “So why are we, who have everything, so greedy?!”

Young Severn was already a fine speechwriter – maybe Mum and Dad helped, sure – and a polished speaker. The rhythms of her repeated “I’m only a child, but I know…” (about sharing, that people everywhere are one human family) are compelling. Her challenging refrain to the adults begins with “You don’t know how to fix…(ozone layers, extinct species, dead rivers) and closes with a heartbreaking, passionate yet simple condemnation. Only recently has her father spoken with the desperate emotional urgency with which Severn Cullis-Suzuki called out the grown-ups in the room and around her world: “If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it!

The video is grainy, and Severn isn’t 12 anymore, but the message comes through clearly. It’s worth a watch and a listen, even now.

Icing on Kyoto

Two years ago today, the set of greenhouse gas-limiting Protocols agreed upon at Kyoto, Japan in 1997 officially came into force. Russia had just ratified the agreement, which brought the level of world participation to the necessary level for it to become internationally binding. Hmm. “Binding.” In a world political environment like ours, it’s an interesting adjective. Consider that the country which hosts the United Nations, ostensibly one of its biggest supporters, is hundreds of millions of dollars delinquent on its membership fees (which sounds like a lot of money, until you consider that the annual U.S. military budget is over 600 billion dollars). Consider that our current Prime Minister argues that because a previous government signed on to Kyoto, his need not follow through on it. Nationalism, and even partisan struggles within nations, continues to trump shared global necessities.

Meanwhile, it’s also two years today that the National Hockey League formally suspended its entire 2004-2005 season. Coincidental? Well, yes, but I’m going to draw a connection anyway, ‘cause I couldn’t flood our backyard for a rink until the end of January. Climate weirdness threatens northern sport, especially the sweetest kind, where children can romp on ice and snow for hours. (A YouTube video amusingly highlights the threats to pond hockey in Canada. Two minutes long: please click here to see it.) And Friends of the Earth says that several NHL players have joined to declare February 16 as “Save Hockey Day” across North America. (Presumably the gorgeous and endangered outdoor variety).

So the Kyoto Accord is two years old today. It’s a cute little toddler, shambling about in that charmingly unpredictable way and saying just the darnedest things. (We should pay attention to children.) May it grow stronger. May it survive its infancy.

Climate Change and Pigskins?

[This piece first appeared on the main “At First Glance” pane of the site, so that those allergic to sport might not miss it.]

It is surprising and encouraging when unlikely dance partners like these get together: global consciousness meets pro football?!  (For another similar example – which I also refused to place in’s jock ghetto — read about Canadian Olympic medallist Sara Renner’s outlook here.)

Leigh Steinberg is one of the top sports agents in the United States. (He is alleged to be the model for the film Jerry Maguire, if that helps you any.) He’s well known to sports fans because he has represented many of the top athletes, including many of the National Football League’s number one draft choices. I heard Steinberg on jock radio during the build-up to the Super Bowl. I hadn’t known until, oh, three minutes ago that he insists that all his clients include some form of community service or charitable giving in each contract they sign. So I was startled – perhaps as much as interviewer Jim Rome – when Steinberg veered from talking about the athletes he represents to a blunt and bright discussion of climate change.

“Global warming is here,” he said, and began talking about the numerous ways in which the monstrous stadiums of the National Football League could become more sustainable, even to the point of being net producers rather than consumers of energy. He is working at “putting athletes aggressively into environmental causes and efforts”. Sheesh. What’s the world coming to when football people jump on the ecological bandwagon?

Well, people are waking up, most importantly those of us living in the Privilege Zones of the planet. It’s a hopeful development, even if it’s not much more than a glimmer in an agent’s eyes. As for me, I sleep with EcoWoman every night – my wife Diana is an environmental avenger and a federal policy analyst – so climate change and other matters of planetary hygiene are standard fare. Suddenly, though, green freaks like us aren’t on the fringes anymore. Canadian newspapers and media outlets, including those leaning to the right, are filled with news and analysis on the threats posed by our consumption of energy and goods, and our bizarre levels of waste. Walmart, of all things, is dedicating itself to environmental leadership. (I know, I know, I was sceptical too, at first, but it’s real.) And think about it: if big business doesn’t get on board, the rapid social changes we need to make just aren’t going to be quick or thorough enough. We need everybody.

Even the NFL: it and other facets of the sports industry are enormous money machines, and have a large ecological footprint. They’re not renowned for walking lightly on the land, but maybe they’ll at least consider changing their shoes. Who knows? Maybe guys will take the bus to the game. Maybe they’ll recycle their beer cans. Maybe they’ll insist on stadium-mounted windmills. A man can dream.

[Other NFL reflections can be found here. Never fear. There’s more to life than sports, but then there’s more to SPORTS than sports…]

Through a Skier’s Eyes: Global Warming

There’s a good story in The Toronto Star today about the point where the ski wax hits the snow. Or doesn’t, as it happens…

Two of Canada’s best winter athletes, the alpine skier Thomas Grandi and his Olympic silver-medallist wife, cross-country star Sara Renner, have outed themselves. They are environmentalists. They have a broad social consciousness that may have been pricked by their chosen sports, but which extends far beyond the winter playground to a greater concern for the way we live, especially in the wealthy Western hemisphere.

Grandi’s World Cup season is in jeopardy because of a lack of snow. Snow-making (and preserving) equipment is now critical to international meets, though it was rarely needed two decades ago. Many of the world’s top cross-country ski teams train together now because there are so few places with reliable snow cover. Renner skied through a driving rain at a meet well above the Arctic circle in Finland this year. The United Nations even proclaimed it a few years ago: skiers may be an endangered species.

What’s encouraging about Renner and Grandi is that they see beyond their sport. Athletes are young and they are focused. Elite competitors often live narrow and self-interested lives, and may be required to do so by coaches and associations that insist on Olympian levels of concentration as a prerequisite to success. But here’s the thing: especially for athletes in the well-paid professional ranks, how do they fill the other 18-20 hours a day beyond their training and competition? How much X-Box can they reasonably be expected to play?

No problem for these Canadian stars. They’ve seen An Inconvenient Truth. Not only do they know who David Suzuki is, they’re working with him on a public- awareness campaign on greenhouse gases and climate change. Their sport, and the industry and municipalities that support it are threatened. But for Thomas Grandi and Sara Renner, it’s not just about sport, either. They work hard – biking, cutting household energy use, buying sustainably – to reduce their own environmental footprints, and they even purchase carbon credits to offset the greenhouse gases produced when they must fly or drive. It’s everybody’s air; it’s everybody’s water, they say.

Bully for them for saying it, and for walking their talk. Now, when Sidney Crosby starts to express public concern for the increasing difficulty in building an outdoor rink, or when LeBron James begins to buy back the carbon offsets for his basketball road trips, we’ll know that the jock world is waking up to smell the global warning. (It’s about Climate Change, smarty!)

February Empowers, Brings May Flowers: A Greenhouse Valentine

And to show what a WILDLY romantic pair my bride and I are, we spent Valentine’s evening at a meeting of the World Federalists. Now there’s a dedicated, thoughtful bunch. (“In schoolyards, cities and democratically governed nations, agreed rules help ensure a peaceful social order. Why not for our global community?” The WF movement has been quietly working at this for decades, and their program and aspirations are worthy of more attention than they get. As their evening’s speaker, they’d brought in Elizabeth May, Order of Canada member and head of the Sierra Club nationally, and my lady has long been an admirer. I’ve joined her now. May is passionate, funny and vividly intelligent. I’ll join the Club, too. My favourite quote from last night: “Climate change can be narrowly categorized as ‘an environmental issue’ in the same way that drowning is ‘a water issue’.”

Ms. May took us through the history of climate change in a lively and superbly informed way. It is interesting, in the light of the present mania for security, that the first international conference on climate change (in June 1988) issued a report called “Our Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security”. It’s also interesting that this conference was hosted in Canada and co-sponsored by the Conservative government of Mr. Mulroney. The subsequent 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro was the one where President Bush the First threatened to boycott the session if there were to be ANY figures, targets or timelines for action discussed there. After all, he insisted, “the American lifestyle is not on trial”. Ahem. And so Rio spoke only in vague terms about “dangerous levels of anthropogenic [human-produced] carbon” in the atmosphere. (Meanwhile, the scientists in Toronto four years earlier had said this: “Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences are second only to global nuclear war.” Gulp.)

Only the third subsequent “Conference of the Parties” to the climate change convention adopted in Rio – now I finally know what the “COP 11” acronym for the recent Montreal conference actually meant – was finally able to arrive at some targets for reduction of carbon pollution. (These are the infamous “greenhouse gases”, like carbon dioxide (CO2) or methane (CH4)). These targets were, in the light of the scientific consensus, shockingly modest.  They were clearly acknowledged — at least among non-governmental organizations — to be feeble ones that, at best, could buy us a little time (the UN scientific agency had recommended, in 1990, reductions of greenhouse gas emissions in the order of 60%; by 1997, COP 3 adopted only single-digit targets). You might even remember the name of the city where COP 3 was held. Yes. Kyoto, Japan.

And we’re still struggling to get nations, most notably our own, to commit to the low Kyoto Protocol targets. (By the way, tomorrow is Happy Birthday, Kyoto: on February 16, 2005, with Russia’s ratification of the treaty, two things occurred. One, the United States and Australia were left as the only two nations that signed the Kyoto protocols but refused to ratify them. Second, Kyoto became legally binding. The protocols, that is, not the city.)

So COP 11, last fall, was held in Montreal, with 8000 people in attendance, including Bill Clinton (though not officially – the Americans apparently would have walked had he spoken to the Conference itself). It was very significant. First – and the American government was not happy about this, according to May – the Conference was being held in North America for the first time, and thus was much more difficult for the western media to ignore. The unwillingness of the American delegation was a matter of public interest and debate. As key environmental “tipping points” approach – the Gulf Stream is slowing down, the stupendous Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are eroding, and each of these evolving situations is potentially cataclysmic – the Montreal conference was a major sign of hope. The allied non-governmental organizations (yes, acronym-lovers, the NGOs), such as the Sierra Club, had set out an ambitious set of goals, of which even the most optimistic felt that few could actually be adopted. Through a fascinating process of infighting, influence and genuine international intrigue – all-night sessions, mysterious Russian dealings, perhaps even the American delegation blinking in the face of a geopolitical stare-down – every single NGO goal was eventually adopted. This is good news for polar bears, Bangladeshis, Rideau Canal skaters and coastal cities. This is good news for the world, though it’s not much more than a start.

As the Montreal Conference of the Parties was about to begin, the Liberal government had just fallen. Its finest moment may have come on its deathbed. Ms. May praised former Prime Minister Martin’s administration for bringing COP 11 to Montreal, and especially lauded the immense preparation and committed Chairmanship of former Environment Minister Stéphane Dion. I found it quite wonderful, in the face of all the easy cynicism about government, to hear of useful contributions and real engagement by our political leaders.

It’s not all sunshine, of course. Elizabeth May has no shortage of dire warnings about the consequences of the world’s addiction to fossil fuels and the attendant effect on our global climate. People like her, though, are seen less and less as mad voices wailing in the wilderness. Valentine’s Day or not, the world still needs a wake-up call, and it was good to hear that there are real signs of attention and action. And as serious-minded as they are, the World Federalists did not forget to bring  May flowers. That was sweet. (See how romantic I am?)