by Roger Sweeny
From a newsletter to parishioners of St. Francis-in-the-Wood Anglican Church, West Vancouver, B.C., June 2013
During Pentecost and now, as we ponder the Trinity, the message has been about opening our hearts to receive the Spirit of Truth, the unseen one who will walk with us, live in us, inspire us to become all we can be, to act not just for self but for others too, and to be ever respectful of all living things including Mother Earth.
A snatch of monologue from a 60-year old radio show, “Dragnet” comes to mind. That was the programme where they told us “Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” And then “Knock, knock. Yes? My name is Friday. I’m a cop. Just the facts, Ma’am, just the facts.”
My Canadian College Dictionary defines a fact as ‘something that actually exists; a reality; a truth’. The following are my thoughts on a looming reality we wish we hadn’t heard about. It can no longer be put behind us, and the more we try to ignore the facts, the more difficult it becomes to confront them. Call me an alarmist old grump if you like. Yes, guilty. Yet something compels me to speak out – to give a ‘heads up’ to what’s coming at us – because if I don’t I shall never forgive my inaction.
The fact is – I’m deeply concerned that Mum’s not well. I mean our Earth Mum – Gaia. Her lungs are congested, temperature elevated, her breathing laboured, she sweats a lot and is becoming very moody. It’s a case of Elder abuse.
To underscore my concerns, here in point form are a handful of facts that I have gleaned from quite a few well respected sources. Taken together they paint a sobering picture of what Mother Earth almost certainly has in store for our successors. They will not thank us.
Analysis of core samples from 600,000 years down in the Greenland ice cap shows that the concentration of the greenhouse gas CO2 in the atmosphere ranged between 180 and 280 parts per million (ppm)up until the industrial age. Since then, and particularly since 1950, it has risen dramatically. It reached 400 ppm on 9 May 2013 at the Mauna Loa monitoring station in Hawaii which measures global mean CO2 concentrations. A growing number of environmental scientists hold that a CO2 concentration greater than 350 ppm is incompatible with life on Earth, and that we must get it back below that level as soon as possible.
AVERAGE GLOBAL TEMPERATURE CHANGE:
The consensus among climate scientists at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference was that, in order to avoid a chain reaction of climate-related natural disasters, average future global (surface and ocean) temperature increases should be held to less than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. In fact, that is about all they agreed on. The average temperature has already risen by 0.8 degrees over pre-industrial levels, and is projected to rise close to another full degree due to heat- trapping greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. A report issued by the World Bank last year confirmed the world is on track for a 4 degree C temperature increase by 2100. Even a 2 degree rise is viewed by world renowned ex- NASA scientist James Hansen as a recipe for long term disaster.
Some argue there has been a pause in surface warming since 1998. Not so. NASA confirms that the observed temperature data, corrected for periods of volcanic activity (which cools), occurrences of El Nino (which warms) and La Nina (which cools), variations in solar activity and natural weather variations clearly show that human-induced global warming has continued to increase in line with projections over the past 16 years.
The volume of Arctic sea ice in the summer of 1979 was measured at about 17,000 cubic kilometres. Last summer it was about 3,000 cubic kilometres. At this rate of melting, the Arctic could be ice-free by summer 2015. The Greenland ice cap is currently losing volume at the rate of 100 cubic kilometres per year. The West Antarctic ice cap, which contains 2.2 million cubic kilometres of ice, is warming three times faster than the rest of the world.
Scientists calculate a 2 degree increase would melt enough ice to raise global ocean levels by between 7.5 and 9 metres.
DO THE MATH:
U.S. environmentalist and author Bill McKibben lays out in his new film ‘Do the Math” what must be done to prevent a runaway environmental calamity.
- To have an 80% chance of keeping the rise in global temperature below 2 degrees the world economy can release only 565 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere by 2050.
- Known global reserves of coal, oil and natural gas contain 2795 gigatons of CO2.
- At current rates of fuel production and growth, the 565 gigatons allowance could be used up in just 16 years (i.e. by 2028).
Simply put, fossil fuel reserves are five times as great as the world can afford to burn. To avoid calamity we must leave 80% of it in the ground.
So there are just a few facts, but the implications for Canada are huge. So is the incentive to push for a non- fossil fuel economy without delay. As Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund expressed it: “If we don’t act now, future generations will be toasted, roasted, grilled and fried. “ So what are we waiting for? We are all in this together.
May this be the start of a wider discussion at St. Francis.
Sermon delivered to the Beacon Unitarian Church, Coquitlam, B.C., April 2013
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes (Marcel Proust).
The key event in 1993 for me was Clayoquot Sound and the now famous anti-logging protests. It was also the year I read Al Gore’s book Earth in the Balance. Al Gore called our society “dysfunctional” in the face of threats like runaway climate change and wasteful consumption. The message was clear. If we continued with business as usual civilization would collapse by 2050.
My son Ben will be 66 in 2050. I made a vow to him that I would do everything in my power to prevent such a collapse. Everything in my power. Then in 2030, when I’m 85, I can stand before him and say “I did my best.”
Back then I asked myself how I could be effective and not burn out. I took two steps towards answering that question. Firstly, I joined the Environment Committee of the Unitarian Church of Vancouver where I could balance cold science with the warmth of community, art and spirit. Secondly, I sought to learn about gratitude by practicing Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects as a committed environmental activist.
Joanna Macy had honed her teachings and methods to empower people to respond with truth and creativity to the overwhelming social and ecological crises facing our planet in the years before the end of the Cold war when the threat of a nuclear holocause was very real and fear was rampant. Today we face a different kind of challenge but one which is every bit as theatening to our civilizations – climate change driven by the unfettered rush to find, exploit and burn the Earth’s fossil fuel resources.
Joanna Macy describes four stages in the empowerment process. The first is gratitude, the second is honouring our pain for the world. Because gratitude is empathic it generates what Thich Nhat Hanh calls inter-being. Inter-being helps us see our individual joys and sorrows in the context of community joys, sorrows and community resources.
The third stage is seeing with new eyes. Macy writes “In the third stage, we step further into the perceptual shift that recognizes our pain for the world as a healthy expression of our belonging to life”. Seeing with new eyes reveals the wider web of resources available to us through our rootedness within a deeper, ecological self. It draws on insights from holistic science and ancient spiritual wisdom as well as from our creative imaginations. Above all, it opens us to a new view of possibility and a new understanding of our power to make a difference.
The fourth and final stage – going forth – involves clarifying our vision of how we can act for the healing of our world by identifying practical steps that move our vision forward. We eventually find ourselves returning to gratitude and so the cycle repeats, this time at a deeper level. In fact, a daily practice of written gratitude makes us so happy, so healthy, so grateful that we want to heal what can be healed. We want to serve and express our gratitude through well grounded generosity.
What is gratitude? Robert Emmons, psychologist at the University of California, has spent his life researching the subject. He encourages us to see that for which are grateful as a gift. These gifts are all around us, and the practice of gratitude simply helps us to see them and accept them as gifts.
Emmons tells us that gratitude comes in two stages – firstly, the acknowledgement of goodness and, secondly, recognizing that the source of this goodness lies at least partially outside oneself. He goes on to explain that gratitude has to do with happiness. Happiness, in turn, comes from three things – circumstances, genetics and intentional activities. Cultivating gratitude fits into the happiness equation by being an intentional activity that can be practiced and that has been shown to increase happiness levels. Emmons has, in fact, conducted randomized controlled trials to test and prove this hypothesis.
Practicing gratitude, either by writing in a journal or directly to a person or divine presence to whom one is grateful, is neither trivial nor easy. Gratitude is firstly the acknowledgment of goodness in one’s life and secondly the recognition that the source of this goodness lies at least partially outside the self. The object of gratitude is thus other-directed; one can be grateful to other people, to God, to animals, but never to oneself. Gratitude implies humility—a recognition that we could not be who we are or where we are in life without the contribution of others.
Gratitude requires the acknowledgement of our indebtedness to others. Although not a comfortable feeling, we really are indebted to others – for peace, for our comfortable lives, for our longevity, our food, for hot running water, for everything. Without others our lives would be intolerable. When we perceive that our cup runneth over we want to give and we want to serve. When we feel grace flowing into us and gratitude flowing out, we create a pathway for all emotions and we become patient with bad feelings. We trust that feelings will come and go like cycles of dark and light. When connected, when grounded in gratitude, our hearts soften. We stop pushing against suffering, we relax and we become useful.
It may be a blow to our ego to discover that we are not so independent after all. But gratitude strengthens our interdependent selves. We exist more, not less, when we let go and accept that we are only a part of the interdependent web of all existence. True humility allows us to see that planetary survival is not only on our shoulders, not only up to us “geniuses”.
All species have a survival instinct and they can teach us, inspire us and work for our survival. Joanna Macy teaches that we can rest, we can relax in the great hammock of all species’ survival instinct. We have many allies and we can be grateful for that. We have to be humble enough to be deeply aware and deeply grateful that we really are all connected.
Just three years ago in this blog we reflected on our origins. We had originally come together as a small group of seniors in the B.C. Lower Mainland, appalled at the deteriorating state of our planet, and seeking some way to help in the repair and restoration. We lamented the disappearance of the once unfilled spaces of our youth under masses of disposed and industrial wastes, sprawling cities and mega-housed suburbs. We deplored avoidable environmental disasters such as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and impending disasters such as trans-provincial oil pipelines carrying bitumen to our ecologically fragile coast. We were apprehensive of the massive ecological global impacts starting to become evident as greenhouse gas emissions from our vehicles, homes and industries added incessantly to the Earth’s climatic carbon load. We chafed at the lack of environmental awareness on the part of our national and international politicians who seemed unable or unwilling to take on the difficult tasks of grappling with the real issues.
As we wrote then, it was a realization of what we were losing that brought us as elders together in the first place. The David Suzuki Foundation offered us a home and some friendly words of advice, but told us we would have to make our own way and sort it all out for ourselves. So we sit talking, preaching and harrumphing, as elders are wont to do. We write the odd declaration to tell the world that things are in a great mess and that we don’t like it. We debate structure and function and constitutions. What we really need to do, but have so far taken only baby steps to implement, is actually remedying the situation.
Who gave us the right to call ourselves Elders? The short answer is that it was David Suzuki — that’s why his name is in our title. In his words: “When we started the David Suzuki Foundation one of the first things we did was to ask a group of elders to come and be a Council of Elders for the Foundation. My idea was that it would be like the role of elders in indigenous communities.” He had already described that role at some length in a book he co-authored in the same period.
Perhaps the key sentences are those in which he says of this approach: “It tends to honor as its most esteemed elders those individuals who have experienced a profound and compassionate reconciliation of outer- and inner-directed knowledge, rather than virtually anyone who has made material achievement or simply survived to chronological old age. It tends to reveal a profound sense of empathy and kinship with other forms of life, rather than a sense of separateness from them or superiority over them… it tends to view the proper human relationship with nature as a continuous dialogue ( that is, a two-way, horizontal communication between Homo sapiens and other elements of the cosmos) rather than as a monologue (a one-way vertical imperative). Within Native worldviews, the parts and processes of the universe are, to varying degrees, holy; to science, they can only be secular.”
Thus the establishment of the Council of Elders (later renamed to the Suzuki Elders) on this model was intended as a holistic counter-balance to the science- based work of the Foundation. We did spend some time in working to express a spiritual world-view to motivate efforts towards a sustainable future for our planet. We drew up a motion to the Foundation’s Board which said “Ethical concerns and spiritual insights … can sustain practical endeavours when other motivations cannot stand up to the disappointments and frustrations inseparable from work to restore ecological integrity. ‘Burnout’ is a perennial problem that can only be avoided by this deeply rooted spiritual awareness.” This was presented to the Board and approved, but never adequately followed up. It remains unfinished business. In particular, we made only half-hearted attempts at dialogue with aboriginal elders on this theme, on which there could obviously be a basis for concerted action.
In summary, what we need is not to stop calling ourselves Elders but to do more to deserve that title!
Marks McAvity writes -
We are entering a brave new world with a new kind of elder culture. If the community does not call us, then we do indeed call ourselves. We have grown up too much with false humility. We do have wisdom. Are we one hundred percent wise? Of course not. Are we conceited? I don’t think so. We simply have something to say. As one First Nations elder once said – it is elders that SPEAK- and we are pretty good at that. I believe that, some day, people will listen. It will be an elder version of these “square” revolts around the world, but without the violence.
by Diana Ellis
An opening address to a concert in Vancouver, B.C. presented June 1 2013, Gaia: Singing the Sacred Web, by the North Shore Unitarian Church Choir and Guests, Alison Nixon Conductor.
What is it that transforms us? What moves us from one place of believing to another? What makes us even imagine that such a move is necessary, and possible? What constitutes a call to action – and what action? What inspires us to continue once we have begun. For me, these questions underpin the concert we are about to listen to.
Transformation begins inside ourselves, usually in numerous steps. Here is one story. Watch for its steps.
Some years ago, at age 64, with life circumstances changing, and after 35 years of work on social justice and women’s issues, I was wondering what was next – you know – that niggle that comes at various times in our lives “Is there something else?” Then in 2009 my church, the Unitarian Church of Vancouver, brought David Suzuki to speak as part of our 100th anniversary celebrations. It was a beautiful May evening. The setting sun shone into our warm wooded sanctuary, a huge photograph of earth – as seen from space — hung at the front. And David, with his iconic voice and gestures, spoke eloquently of the environmental issues and task at hand – the shift in attitude required to make positive environmental change. I remember thinking – “he is speaking to me” – and, without meaning to sound dramatic, I left that night wondering if I had heard a call. I read all the environmental books I could find. One was Canadian award-winning journalist Alanna Mitchell’s book: Seasick – The Global Ocean in Crisis. She ends her stunning reveal of that crisis (just at the point I was about to close the book in hopelessness) by talking about what any of us can do about it. She spoke of the transformation that needs to happen for personal action to occur. Affirming that transformation is possible, and always begin with ourselves, she says. “We need to strip ourselves down psychologically and figure out what we stand for. What is the story about the world that makes sense to us emotionally? What is it that we believe? What are we here for? Once we know that – we can start to ask the right questions, including “What’s missing in my story?” Answering that question leads to a course of (personal) action.”
Aha – maybe I was hearing a call – to shift issues – to learn anew. I marked that page! After more months of investigating environmental groups, attending conferences and reading, I happened upon news of an Elders and Environment Forum sponsored by the Suzuki Elders’ Council. I knew I was meant to go, I did, was inspired, and everything fell into place. Now, as a Suzuki Elder involved in mentoring, motivating and supporting elders and youngers in dialogue and action about the environment, a sense of right relationship has come to me, along with some great opportunities to work with others for change. I tell you that story as an example of questioning, hearing, and responding to a call. All of you will have such stories in your lives.
Again, that message: “What story about the world makes sense to us emotionally? What do we believe? What are we here for? Know that – in order to ask the right questions, including “What’s missing in my story?” Then move on it.
Here are a few threads of consideration for you:-
The planet will go on without us. The planet is not there for us, it is not our servant. Nature is not our saviour, not our mother, not a partner with whom we can make a pact or covenant. Personalizing nature, making nature human, with a specific gender, can be a dangerous thing. It allows us to think of nature as “other – something “out there?” – something we can change, fix, control, and own.
Sixty five years ago, conservationist Aldo Leopold, in his great and quiet work: A Sand County Almanac, wrote: “Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man…that land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.”
So, instead of anthropomorphizing the planet – earth – nature, as a person, as a woman, think instead of James Lovelock’s premise of the planet as a living system, always adapting and changing. We humans are part of that system, not outside it. As the David Suzuki Foundation’s Declaration of Interdependence says, “we humans are but one of thirty million species weaving the thin layer of life enveloping the world.” David Suzuki says emphatically to anyone who will listen, “We ARE the earth, through the plants and animals that nourish us, we ARE the rains and the oceans that flow through our veins….we are human animals related to all other life as descendants of the firstborn cell.”
Here’s another thread. We also know from reading the records of geology, geography, meteorology ,paleontology, that climate change has been with us always. What we now see is the direct involvement of our human hand, knowingly and unknowingly, in the climate change upon us at this time. As thinking beings, we have the consciousness to take responsibility for our actions – and as moral beings we have the conscience to know we need to be with each other, working together, as we move through these times.
American scientist Dr. Susanne Moser, writes a chapter in the Handbook of Environmental Leadership entitled “Getting Real About It: Meeting the psychological and social demands of a world in distress.” I find her analysis useful in thinking about that conscience work. She says “The public and elected leaders do not yet grasp the seriousness and urgency of the situation or, in the absence of not knowing what to do, choose to focus on more pleasant topics.” (Or, as we well know from our recent election campaign, people get stuck in the dichotomy of environment versus the economy.) She says “It is in this world that some have chosen to be environmental leaders. And what is asked of these leaders? To be steward, shepherd, arbiter, crisis manager, grief counselor, future builder?”
“It is all of these,” she goes on, “and to do this complex and spiritual work future leaders need not to just be experts in climate change or a particular environmental field, but be capable of holding that which is happening to and in our world—to mentor, guide and assist people in processing enormous losses, human distress, constant crises, and the seemingly endless need to remain engaged in the task of maintaining, restoring and rebuilding, despite all setbacks, a viable planet – the only place the human species can call home. And, while holding that vision, leaders must resist their own, and help others avoid – the knee-jerk response of ideological hardening, defensiveness and blame.” This is compelling, deep, exciting…and BIG work!
I don’t know about you, but I have to say that in the midst of this, there are moments when I find myself saying “This is as much reality as I can handle today.” I turn off the radio, TV, computer. I close the book and the newspaper.
Any of us, involved in the transformative work of change, needs from time to time to take the space to reflect, to regenerate. Music provides such a space – music can transform, inspire, sustain and call to act. And so – here we are, together, tonight. To bridge us into this evening of musical reflection and regeneration, I share these words from Wendell Berry:
“When despair for the world grows in me and I wake up in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives will be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
Leopold, Aldo, A Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, 1949.
Mitchell, Alanna, Sea Sick – The Global Ocean in Crisis, McClelland & Stewart, 2009.
Moser, Susanne, Let’s Get Real About It: Meeting the Psychological and Social Demands of a World in Distress, from Environmental Leadership: A Reference Handbook, Gallagher, Deborah (Ed.), Sage Publications 2012. A pre-publication version of the chapter can be found and downloaded from Ms. Moser’s website – www.susannemoser.com. Follow the publication link.
The Wendell Berry quote is Meditation #483 found in Unitarian Universalist Association Hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, Beacon Press, 1993.
For information on The Gaia Hypothesis and the many publications of James Lovelock, go to
The Declaration of Interdependence was written for the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Find it, in many languages, at www.davidsuzuki.org.
For information about the Suzuki Elders, check their website at
or just Google “eldersdsf” .
Treat the earth well
It was not given to you by your parents
It was loaned to you by your children.
(Native American Proverb)
This was the message of “One Night for One Drop”, a benefit by given by Cirque du Soleil performers. It was presented as an original show for online viewing during the week following World Water Day (April 22). After a mere five dollar donation, I was glued to my computer monitor to watch a full-length performance benefiting One Drop, a NPO established in 2007 by Guy Laliberté, Founder of Cirque du Soliel. The mandate of One Drop is to ensure that water is available to all, today and forever.
Water featured in each scene performed by acrobats, synchronized swimmers, or African women walking in parched plains searching for water and dancing with joy when they found it. There were icebergs and penguins and Simon and Garfunkle’s haunting song A Bridge over Troubled Water delivered beautifully by a young singer. A spoken word artist summarized our planet’s situation:
“Water started life. Little beads of condensation made our civilization. Yet it’s common for communities to lack the aqueducts for irrigation. Stuck in devastation. When all it would take to make a change is our cooperation”.
Las Vegas performers volunteered their time – thousands of hours we were told. Las Vegas knows all too well the importance of fresh water, but world-wide, a billion people lack easy access to drinking water and a billion more lack proper sanitation. This situation will worsen in coming decades as our planet warms.
One Drop benefit events have generated seven million dollars since 2009, but this online performance could change the way funds are raised and ideas are planted and nourished – not just in one theatre at a time, but around the globe in an evening. At the end, Lilaberté offered his outlook that could help us in moving forward. “It is our responsibility, but we can do it with pleasure and passion.” Cirque is skilled at creating a beautiful package, and this time it delivers an inconvenient truth in a manner that is much more effective than listing the dry facts.
by the Suzuki Elders’ Storytelling Group: Neale Adams, Margo Elfert, Diana Ellis, Patricia Grinsteed, Conrad Guelke, Cynthia Lam, Jeanette Stigger.
Once upon a time there was a group of Elder Environmentalists. They thought they were pretty good at telling stories in their everyday talk with family and friends. One day, another really big time Elder Environmentalist said to them “Hey Elders, you should go out and tell stories about nature. Especially to kids. They need to know how things have changed – and you can tell those stories!”
The Elders looked at one another and thought – “Oh – Ok – sounds good.” But they also thought if they were going to do this, they should learn more about how to be “official storytellers.” So, they read books about the history of storytelling. They went to a workshop on the meaning of storytelling. They studied storytelling techniques. A few months went by. Guess what? They were so busy learning, that they had stopped telling stories! They were even wondering if anyone would listen to their own simple stories
Finally one of them said – “Hey – we just need to get started on this – it can’t be that hard!” So, they formed their own storytelling group. And, in the comfort of one of their homes, with tea, cookies, and time set aside to listen to and coach one another, – they met to practice telling stories. Feeling slightly awkward at first, they wondered out loud – “What’s our topic?” And asked again “WHY we are doing this anyway?” It didn’t take long to remember they wanted to talk about themselves and nature…..and wanted the stories to help people think about the same. “Ok,” they agreed, “let’s keep meeting – and take turns writing and telling our stories to each other.”
Well – stories popped up like dandelions! Stories about trees, moss, waterfalls, flowers, bears. Stories with a single theme, or many. Stories about being scared in nature, or overwhelmed, or about experiencing nature’s deep comfort. Stories about how nature helped us understand about ourselves. Stories about action we have taken to protect nature. Stories set in South Africa, Britain, northern British Columbia, China, Massachusetts, West Vancouver.
The Elders discovered how to tell a story well. First, it is ok to tell stories in different ways. Tell it from memory. Read it. Bring pictures – - or play music. Stand up and use your body! And of course, they coached each other to speak UP, to make eye contact with others, to be expressive, and not to go on too long! Five to seven minutes is just right.
The Elders discovered some things about story tone and content. First, everyone listens to a real story that includes the storyteller, so make it personal! Second, every story needs a reason to be told – a purpose. Third, avoid the trap of going on about “the good old days.” Describing past experiences is one thing, ranting about how the world would be better off if only we all stopped doing X or Y often leads to a negative and blaming discussion.
The Elders learned about silence – and lively discussion. When the story ended, there was always a short period of silence. “What’s going on at that moment?” they wondered, “Does the storytelling session end then?” The answer was NO! Within a few minutes the babble would start! Listeners asked questions, made comparisons and expressed appreciation. The Elders learned that posing a couple of guiding questions helped the discussion. These are the questions:
1. What are your feelings about this story you just heard?
2. What did you learn from this story? (about the story, about the teller, about yourself?)
3. What similar stories or reflections emerge for you after listening to this story?
OK before this story about storytelling ends, we, the Elders, have THREE THINGS to tell you.
First Thing – to any of you wanting to start a storytelling group – we had fun! It wasn’t just another meeting. We learned that telling our stories revealed ourselves to one another, and sometimes even to ourselves! In doing this, we built trust and community between ourselves – and enjoyed the process. Tea, cookies and sitting around someone’s front room helped.
Second Thing – about taking stories out to others – let’s say, another group of elders, or a classroom of kids, or our own grandchildren. We learned that telling the story was a great beginning – and was just that – the beginning! When the story ends, let those silent moments happen. Questions and discussion always bubble up, and providing the guiding questions helps listeners get to their own place of “Aha” learning.
Third thing – who are the stories for? Our stories began as a way for we Elders to tell about ourselves in nature. In telling them, the door was opened for others to jump into the stories with us. Which they always did.
And now – - would you like to hear a story? We have this one about catching tadpoles……..or would you like that one about demonstrations….?
by Candace Gossen
I grew up in the bayous of Louisiana. As a French-Indian, storytelling is in my blood and often in my hands, eyes and smile. I am also a scientist, an archaeologist and an ecologist. For more than 12 years I have taught for Saturday Academy in Portland, Oregon, an organization that hires people like me to teach 2nd to 12th graders about science. For the past 8 weeks I have been teaching a group of 5th to 8th grade Native American students about the Great Bear Rainforest. I want to share with you how I integrate the art of storytelling back into the world, even through the public school system where talking about spirit and ceremony are not easily understood.
This class focused on the Salmon Forest within the Great Bear Rainforest. David Suzuki, through the television series The Nature of Things, produced a really beautiful film on the Salmon Forest and we began the class with this. Each week we focused on a part of the forest. In the beginning we identified all of the characters, with the keystone being the salmon itself. We sketched flow diagrams of all the connections of the characters to sort out the ecosystems within the forest itself. Then the students chose a living creature as their animal to focus upon for the rest of the class, and explained why they were interested in it. Their homework included researching a native story about their animal and bringing it to class. It was not a personal story, but one about an animal usually read from a piece of paper. This was the beginning.
In the following weeks we conducted water tests to determine if a salmon could live in the water samples that we were testing. Through the use of their senses – touch, taste, smell – the students began to understand how to ask questions and how to use their senses to arrive at answers. They learned about the scientific method. Each student wrote a description of their experiment. We then drew the hydrological cycle and talked about things that were causing the water to change and affecting the fate of the salmon.
In the chemistry class they learned that the planet’s surface was 70% water, about the same proportion as a young human body, and that the air in our atmosphere contains 78% nitrogen. It is this nitrogen that is the key element and which tells the story of the importance of the salmon to the forest. By measuring concentrations of the isotope N15 we know that nitrogen is taken up in the deep oceans by the salmon and carried with them as they return to the streams in the north-west. It is through bears and other animals that feed on salmon, carrying them deeper into the forest and leaving the carcasses on the forest floor where they are eventually incorporated into the soils – a vital link in the life of this magical place. More than 50% of the nitrogen in the trees is derived from salmon. If the salmon disappeared then half the forest would vanish.
The students then had to draw the connections between their chosen animals and the salmon and explain how they all depended on each other. With all of this information in place, they could draw a mask of their animal and tell its story. These masks could be hung on a wall, or worn – whatever they chose. The mask told the story of their animal and its place within the Salmon Forest; the storyteller was encouraged to embellish the tale and so an even better story unfolded.
After drawing, painting, adding branches and whatever art pieces we had in the art box and from their own recycling, we sat in a talking circle. Each student was asked to share the story of the mask. Their story could be real or not, but it had to include facts. It had to include the chosen animal, information on where it lived, how it connected with the salmon, and whatever else they had learned.
In a truth-speaking way, each student was given time and attention by the others. I was amazed at the ability of the students to make up their stories on the spot while looking within their masks for the reasons why they created them. Up to the last minute some were saying that they couldn’t think of a story to tell, but as each began the story seemed to unfold easily and became entertaining. Each story-teller earned a round of applause and a thank you.
We have one more class meeting next week. I have asked the students to think of someone that was a storyteller for them – a grandparent or a friend, someone that told them stories that made them laugh. I also made them promise that they would take home what we did each week to share with their storytellers. My final request was that these elder storytellers come to the last class to attend the story circle.
Unfortunately it hasn’t worked out that way. A few won’t make the last class, others have multiple families and arrangements wouldn’t allow. Many elder grandparents have been left without ways to get around, and can only be part of a group when someone takes the time to bring them. Sadly, they feel forgotten.
The art of storytelling came from my ability to tie stories in with science, a way to understand complex science that I teach to college students as well as 2nd graders. The only thing that changes from one class to the next is the level of complexity. But science does not have to be hard, in fact, it’s the story of life. Ecology is the connection between all living things, invisible threads that I get to explain.
This class taught my students about a place in the world that is unique, close to their homes and within tribal areas of the students. They shared what they learned with their elders every week, and some mothers and grandmothers stayed in our classes to participate themselves. The science experiments and lessons further detailed the connections so that in the end the stories were broad with details. The students learned how to conduct experiments, write stories, research, draw, and built their confidence with support from their friends.
In eight weeks, two hours once a week, a group of students became very good storytellers and learned that their voices are important and that stories bring all the connections together.
by David Laing
We were shivering; bracing against a blustery, bone-chilling north-west wind, yet virtually hypnotized by the majestic beauty of the guardian towers and the gentle swish, swish, swish of the rotating blades. We wanted to linger far longer, but the cold won out as a freshening gust drove us back to the comfort of our car. It was a damp chilly day in early December 2012 and my wife Dayle and I were on Wolfe Island near Kingston Ontario, just finishing a visit to Canada’s second largest wind farm project. Our purpose was to get a firsthand perspective on the benefits and detractions of wind turbines as an economical power source for the Province of Ontario and also to understand the impact of those turbines, both positive and negative, on the local Wolfe Island community.
The Wind Farm on Wolfe Island boasts 86 turbines, each capable of generating 2.3 Megawatts, when running at peak capacity. The 197.8 megawatt farm is just under the 200 megawatt limit allowed in Ontario. Of course theoretical capacity is not the same as actual output. The wind is fickle and the turbines aren’t always spinning at their maximum velocity. Maintenance activity, both scheduled and unscheduled also reduces wind farm capacity. But, even considering these inefficiencies, Wolfe Island produces sufficient electricity to meet over 68% of the power requirements for the Kingston Metropolitan Area. 
TransAlta completed construction of the facility in 2009 and is committed to a 20 year contract to produce wind-based power for Ontario’s Power Authority. At something less than 9.2 cents a kilowatt hour, (exact contract terms are confidential), the price compares favourably to nuclear and hydro when all the cost for construction, maintenance, operations and environmental impact are taken into consideration.
Proposing to build an industrial facility in a natural setting is a certain recipe for controversy and Wolfe Island was no exception. According to our long-term friends, who moved to the island well before the wind farm project was conceived, the prospect of dozens of 80 metre towers rising above relatively flat agricultural land that also is part of a major bird migration route, elicited a particularly strong negative response from many local residents. The controversy initially divided the community, pitting family members against each other, prompting at least one to pack up and move away.
Yet 3 ½ years after TransAlta Corporation completed construction and began operations, our friends have indicated that the majority of the residents think that the wind farm is more of a benefit than a detraction to the island and that TransAlta is a pretty good neighbour, as corporations go. To discover more, we asked our friends to contact their neighbour Mike Jablonicky who also happens to be Wolfe Island’s Wind Farm Supervisor of Operations. And so a visit was arranged for that frigid December morning.
Friendly and approachable, Mike is clearly enthusiastic about his job and very proud of the farm and its operating team. We learned that he was assigned to the project from the beginning. He was, and still is the communications point person, handling all manner of objections and complaints from the local residents.
When asked about the acceptance rates for the project prior to construction, Mike smiles and hands us the “fact sheet” published by a group who were, at the time, anxious to stop the project. “Reading that, he said, I would be scared to the point that I wouldn’t want a wind-farm in my area as well”. The early objections he said mostly came down to myths, misunderstanding and a lack of information. For instance, residents were told that, during storms, ice could collect on the turbines and be thrown hundreds of metres by the spinning blades in chunks the size of a bus. Or that the vibration of the towers would crush turtle eggs, kill the crops because the dew worms would leave the area and cause cows to lose their minds and stop calving.
Mike hosted monthly communications sessions, talked to people in small groups and even one-on-one. Each issue was addressed in turn. He demonstrated the mechanics of how any ice build-up on the turbine blades would cause the turbine to slow down and stop, not throw ice off. He explained how vibration, significant enough to damage turtle eggs, would, in fact, destroy a turbine tower in about 3 hours of operation. As a result, he said the three turbine blades, each weighing about 11 tons, is balanced to within 20 pounds of the other two such that tower vibration is virtually eliminated. He also showed concerned residents pictures of other wind farms where crops grow and cattle graze right up to the tower base. Once the farm was in operation, these fears were proven to be unfounded which added to Mike’s credibility and helped build trust between TransAlta and the community. Support for the wind farm development crept above 50% for the first time since the project was announced.
But some issues aren’t myths. Wind farm detractors point to thousands of bird and bat deaths each year from interactions with the turbine blades. Complaints arise from turbine noise, both audible noise and low frequency “infrasound”, which is thought to be a cause of negative health effects such as: sleep disorders, headaches, depression and changes to blood pressure. Then there is the undisputable fact that wind farms forever alter the skyline. Handling these real objections required more than talk and education. Mike, and the company, had to have a process and an action plan for mitigation.
To mitigate bird and bat kills, TransAlta worked with the University of Calgary’s Professor of Biology Robert Barclay, to carry out a number of independent studies. The research indicated bat deaths were the far greater problem and the highest concentration of bat deaths occurred at low wind velocities. This lead TransAlta to adjust its procedures around wind farm operations in low wind conditions with the effect that bat fatalities have been reduced by 60%.
The latest available data from the Wolfe Island studies estimates about 900 birds and 1,900 bats were killed at the facility in 2011. This number is considerably below the Adaptive Management Threshold as set by Environment Canada.
While the hundreds of thousands of wildlife deaths caused by wind turbines in North America are of concern, it is important to put this in perspective when compared to the billions of bird and bat deaths caused each year in collisions with high-rise buildings and attacks by domestic housecats. ,,
In terms of ambient noise, Ontario regulates turbine set-backs from any private residence such that the noise at the residence must not exceed 40 decibels. Mike brought in a decibel meter and showed residents that 40 decibels is about the level of a quiet library conversation. He told them anything above that meant something very likely was wrong. He posted his cell phone number and told residents to call him with noise issues “twenty-four seven” and that “he would be there in 15 minutes”. When tested, even at 2:30 in the morning, Mike was responsive, coming out to check on the problem and shutting down the offending turbines until repairs were made. More trust and credibility accrued to Mike and approval levels continued to rise.
The health effects of low-frequency noise present a more difficult challenge. According to Mike, studies by local and provincial authorities along with the World Health Organization have so far, not been able to correlate either low or high frequency noise with any deleterious health impacts. The collective conclusion is that, for some people, living near a wind farm is such an emotional irritant that the annoyance factor alone may be the cause of negative health effects. So this issue remains unresolved although Health Canada is now sponsoring a very comprehensive study. The results are expected in late 2014 and it is hoped this will allow more definitive conclusions to be drawn.
Then there is the issue of wind farm aesthetics. Mike and TransAlta recognized that wind turbines do alter the landscape and this may be disturbing to some people. They addressed this issue non-defensively, in effect offering financial compensation in return for loss of view. During construction, over 400 on-site construction jobs and purchasing through local companies injected $22M over 11 ½ months into the local economy. After construction was completed TranAlta continues to frequent local stores for hardware, gas and automotive repairs. Several permanent well-paying jobs were created and filled with local labour. In addition, each year TransAlta provides the community with “amenities money”: $634,000 to be used for the betterment of the community such as road construction, beach-bike paths and a new water system. As a result, everyone on the island benefits from the presence of the wind farm whether or not they have a turbine on their property.
So after 3 ½ years of operation, Mike says, “I think we are about a healthy 80-85% acceptance rate, [by the residents], right now and, that’s probably as far as we’re going to get, and that’s Ok. We can’t have 100% consensus on anything we do in any community…80-85%, I’ll take that.”
I’ll admit to bringing a certain bias to this investigation. Dayle and I have stood beneath modern wind farms in several locales around the world: Costa Rica, Hawaii, Europe, Britain, South Africa and North America. In each case we have been impressed by the elegance of their functional design.
We all must recognize that there is no method of producing electricity that is 100% benign. While there is no mistaking their industrial application, wind farms are less disruptive and integrate far better into the natural surroundings than other power producing alternatives. Aesthetics aside, for us there is an unmistakeable appeal in their ability to generate much needed electrical power, using wind as a “free fuel” that is non-toxic, produces no carbon emissions and that will be available for as long as the sun continues to shine on our planet.
 “Facts and Myths debunked – Facts and Figures Ontario’s Electricity System”, Ontario Citizens Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy,
 “Health Canada lays out a plan for study of wind farms, Globe and Mail, February 11, 2013, pg. A3
Its time for elders to step forward and play a stronger role in addressing serious global environmental changes
More than 40 years ago the late Maggie Kuhn, an American social activist and devout Presbyterian, was forced into retirement on her 65th birthday. That was the accepted code of practice at the time. Maggie responded, not by taking up her knitting needles and seeking the porch rocker, but by founding the Gray Panthers movement to work for social and economic justice and peace.
Maggie Kuhn reasoned that her aims could be achieved through honouring maturity, unifying generations, being actively engaged and encouraging participatory democracy. She famously explained her view of the elder role in society in characteristically down-to-earth terminology – “The old, having the benefit of life experience, the time to get things done, and the least to lose by sticking their necks out, are in a perfect position to serve as the advocates for the larger public good.“
This type of declaration had an unquestionably strong emotional underpinning when it was first uttered, but the underlying motivation has recently been backed up by hard statistics. For example, in December 2012 the Huffington Post reported an interview with Dr Dilip V. Jeste, Director of the Stein Institute for Research on Aging at the University of California. The Institute conducted in-depth interviews with a thousand older adults and concluded that, even in the midst of physical or cognitive decline, most respondents reported a feeling that their well-being had improved with age. Factors which were found to counteract actual health deterioration and which appeared to significantly contribute to subjective success in aging were education, better cognitive functioning, better perceived physical and mental health, less depression, and greater optimism and resilience. In other words, many elders feel they have become better able to tackle difficult issues and, in so doing, may actually improve their own health.
As we move into 2013, Canada’s population has just edged past the 35 million mark for the first time in history. One in every seven of these millions is over the age of 65, and the fastest-growing population segment is the over-80s. In the years following World War II Canada had a large baby boom which swelled the ranks of the work force in the last decades of the 20th century and played a significant part in the country’s historic growth and development. The boomers are now starting to retire, and the ratio of the employed to the retired has started a decline which is projected to last for a very long time.
In the previous century people in their later years received a level of acknowledgement quite different to that on offer to today’s seniors. The older members of communities were regarded as elders and respected for their counsel and for their historical knowledge of events, resources and natural phenomena. This situation still prevails for elders in many First Nations communities, but in non-native communities embedded in a shopping mall culture and submerged in electronic information clouds, seniors have, to a large extent, become invisible.
Today’s seniors face pressures of marginalization from their younger compatriots, but many remain aware of the creative role they once played in society, and of the moral and intellectual resources which they still have. They can point with some pride to the fact that actions and protests against environmental and societal ills and grievances are not a unique feature of today’s Generations X and Y. The environmental movement was launched 50 years ago by some who are now elders in response to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring indictment of the pesticide assault on the environment. Images of the current protests in B.C. against oil pipelines and oil tankers reveal a noticeable proportion of grey heads and wrinkled faces amongst the throngs.
Concerns and actions over pensions and health care have long been the main concerns of seniors, and will certainly continue to be foci of attention in coming years. But for a growing number of elders, sometimes defined as “seniors with attitude”, the rapidly deteriorating global climate outlook and the intransigence of governments in coming to grips with dying oceans, melting ice caps, and extinctions of species and ecosystems have become the sparks for growing concern and rising indignation. Modern medicine and technology have tipped the scales for elders, giving them a decade and more of additional time in which to be active and involved, either within elder ranks or by joining with their much younger but similarly motivated compatriots,
Some of today’s elders will recall that they have been here before. As young disaffected people in the late 1960s they rejected the post- World War II system of their parents. From their ranks came the anti-Vietnam War demonstrators and the dedicated activists who established environmental organizations such as Greenpeace. Aging boomers now have an opportunity to return to their youthful idealism and to work to improve the environment and address pressing problems such as climate change. They have an opportunity to volunteer and to actively embrace newly rediscovered values.
Elders might have to reluctantly admit that they were themselves part of the system that created the present global environmental situation. In fact, a nagging sense of guilt might underlie some elders’ growing concerns over the increasing vulnerability of the ecosystems which underpin our 21st century life-styles.
There are many role models for elders to follow if they elect to address the enormous challenges of the rapidly changing world. Vancouver’s own David Suzuki, himself now an elder after more than 40 years service as a scientist, broadcaster and author, gives a definition of humanity which serves well as an elder objective. “Our great evolutionary advantage has been the ability to lift our sights and look ahead, to imagine the world as it could be and then make the best choices to move toward that vision”.
by David Laing
“We need to act like our future depends on it”; that was the opening line for the Capitalism 2.0 seminar, December 5th 2012, organized by the Toronto Sustainability Speakers Series (TSSS).
The quote was from a recent TED talk by Paul Gilding, an Australian environmentalist, consultant and author. In his TED presentation Paul stated that our economy is a system operating past its limits and outgrowing the earth’s ability to support it. He argued that, rather than increasing happiness and well-being for the majority, the economy increasingly concentrates wealth in the hands of a few, demands ever increasing levels of workforce productivity, insatiably consumes increasingly scarce resources while spewing toxins into an increasingly less hospitable ecosystem. Following the laws of physics, he said, it will break down and the breakdown is already starting.
Paul is not alone in his terrifying prognostications. Corporate leaders and economists are joining environmentalists in saying that Capitalism 1.0, the capitalistic society based primarily on growth and greed that we have come to know and love is unsustainable and needs a major overhaul. The Capitalism 2.0 seminar was designed to get us thinking about what is possible and what is needed to drive change.
First up at the seminar was Joyce Sou from the MARS Centre for Impact Investing who told us about B Corps. Unlike standard corporations whose primary objective is maximising profit, B Corps are legally bound to pursue a triple bottom-line that objectively measures their positive contribution to people and the planet in addition to generating profits. Today there are more than 600 B Corps in 60 industries and 15 countries who hold themselves to a higher standard for purpose, accountability and transparency and who believe that it is possible to simultaneously create social and shareholder value.
Next, Terry Kellog spoke about his organization, 1% For The Planet. Started 10 years ago by the founder of Patagonia, (manufacturers of outdoor gear), 1% For The Planet sees itself as a movement that exists to build and support an alliance of businesses financially committed to creating a healthy planet. As of December 2012, it boasts 1,248 corporate members in 45 countries, growing at a rate of 300 new members a year. Each corporate member commits to donating 1% of their annual sales revenues to support a network of 3,177 non-profit environmental partner organizations. In 2011, donations topped $100M!
The last presenter was Esther Speck who is the Director of Sustainability at Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC). MEC sells $300M of outdoor gear annually to its 3.6M members and is committed to doing that in a socially responsible way. Among many initiatives, MEC has placed an internal cost on carbon of $15/ton and is on track to reduce its carbon emissions to 20% below 2007 levels by the end of this year. It also belongs to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an industry-wide group of over 60 leading apparel and footwear brands, retailers, suppliers, non-profits, and NGOs working to reduce the environmental and social impacts of apparel and footwear products around the world. Over 50% of the products that MEC carries are BlueSign™ certified which guarantees those products, along their entire production chain, only contain components and pass through processes that are harmless to people and the environment!
After the presentations, the large audience broke into discussion groups where we contributed to a paper that TSSS plans to publish early in 2013 on the vision and implementation of a more sustainable business model, Capitalism 2.0. There will be more to follow as this story continues to unfold!