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A review of Carl Safina’s Becoming Wild

As a human being, one has been endowed with just enough intelligence to be able to see clearly how utterly inadequate that intelligence is when confronted with what exists. Albert Einstein There is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men. Herman Melville, Moby Dick Carl Safina’s Becoming Wild: how animal cultures raise families, create beauty and achieve peace is an intimate tapestry of the lives of three animals that exhibit meaningful cultures.  Sperm whales, macaw parrots and the chimpanzees are visited, and with the help of scientists and naturalists, Carl Safina examines their families in the context of culture. What makes these animals who they are? For example, sperm whales have complex communications that allow extended families to stay together. A certain group or ‘clan’ of these whales will only communicate with the same members of that clan. Water is an incredible conduit for sound and as the whale moves across the oceans a whale can listen to and respond to another member many kilometres away. This also enables them to come to the defence of the young extremely quickly. But how they come to the defence of their young is determined by learning specific to that group of whales. “Genes determine what can be learned, what we might do. Culture determines what is learned, how we do things…Social learning is special. Social learning gives you information stored in the brains of other individuals. You’re born with genes from just two parents; you can learn what whole generations have figured out. “  Culture presupposes that there is innovation in a group. The author gives us many examples of how just one animal can impart to others a new  way of interaction in the world. So there is both the process of learning and conformity. Carl Safina goes on to define culture as “information that flowssocially and can be learned, retained and shared…Innovation is to culture what mutation is to genes; it’s the only way to make any process, the root of all change.” Becoming Wild is all about the amazing cultures found in Nature, not just human culture. Tragically, humans until recently thought they were the only beings on the planet that had culture.  Roger Payne’s 1970 recording of the whales ignited a keen interest in other species. When Payne and Scott McVay published “Songs of Humpback Whales in Science in 1971 everything changed, well almost everything, except the continuation of the industrial killing of the great whales. People began to strongly question the need to destroy these sentient creatures. Was it imperative that margarine contained whale oil, for fertilizer or that machinery needed their oil?   It has always struck me that one of the great perversities perpetrated by fossil fuel corporations and their lobbyists is its active and unremitting ability to help kill off whales, something that men in boats throwing harpoons could never quite manage. You’d be correct in assuming that once whales were not murdering for their oil to light up houses because fossil fuels

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Suffragettes’ “Deeds, not words” motto invigorates climate activists

“Where the voice that is in us makes a true response,Where the voice that is great within us rises up,As we stand gazing at the rounded moon.”(Wallace Stevens) You may be surprised to learn that if you look at the origins of the word “human” you’ll discover that, a long way back, it is related to the word “humus,” meaning earth or soil. Humus is the organic component of soil. To be human is to be from the soil, and right now there are millions of conversations taking place that strive to bring us back to being a “people of the earth” as our ancestors knew deeply within their beings. These conversations are not only between humans. As we discover the “secret lives of…” all sorts of species, hugging a tree might not be considered so bizarre to many. Industrial society wished to stamp out our love for Nature; now it is simply resurfacing. Just ask a cat, horse or dog person if they converse with those animals, for example. But is humanity living up to its own name, people of the soil? Many climate and biodiversity campaigners, including Extinction Rebellion (XR), Greenpeace and 350.org, are strongly critical of governments’ climate inaction. These same groups denounce fossil fuel reduction targets of 2050 – or any other year beyond 2030 – as being truly the “new denial” by corporations and governments who refuse to accept the climate/ecological crisis. Activists point out that politicians looking only towards the next election couldn’t care less about what happens in 2030 or 2060, and that is why campaigners are taking up the suffragettes’ clarion call “Deeds, not words.” When on Earth Day this year, after nine women in the UK smashed 19 windows of the headquarters of a major bank, a journalist asked a member of XR if the public would not call that vandalism, her response was that no life was ever endangered by the broken glass, but that since 2015 that bank has supported the fossil fuel industry with tens of billions of dollars – it should be noted that Canada’s RBC does the same – ignoring the plain truth that this is financing climate breakdown. It is the banks that are the true vandals – of the planet’s integrity. Who, she enquired, is really the criminal? The same stunts corporations use by publishing targets and long-term goals to show off their climate care could be found at the climate summit hosted by Joe Biden on Earth Day. Brazil’s climate-denying president, Jair Bolsonaro, gave us little to believe in concerning his intentions for the wellbeing of the Amazon, by cutting the budget of his environment ministry despite his promise to stop all illegal deforestation by 2030. The UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, utters the same hot air on commitments to real deeds to stop runaway climate change. Biden appears to be one of the few politicians in America who are taking bold steps to move forward on climate issues after four disastrous years of Trump climate

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Saving the planet begins with the food we eat

“Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in millions of years. The way we produce and consume food and energy, and the blatant disregard for the environment entrenched in our current economic model, has pushed the natural world to its limits.” Living Planet Report 2020 We all know that the planet’s ecological balance is tottering. Multiple scientific reports on the health of Nature that show precipitous declines in both vertebrates and invertebrates seem to make no difference to how world governments, policymakers or individuals commit to urgent and beneficial actions for stopping the massive slide towards catastrophic extinctions. Please see wwf.ca/living-planet-report-canada-2020 While national government subsidies for fossil fuel companies and for conventional agriculture are far outstripping any grants and loans that support both renewable energies and organic farming, individual cities have made great efforts and are producing viable results in fighting climate change’s insidious ramifications for all life. As individuals we can all do our bit to bring about a more harmonious planet through steadfast support for organic agriculture. More and more people are buying organically produced food, but conversations about why we should commit ourselves to an organic diet often end with a single individual’s health and don’t consider the vast benefits that can accrue for our planet’s wellbeing. This article looks at what we can each do every day for our farmers, ourselves and the Earth. When we buy organic foods, we are not paying for synthetic pesticides and other chemicals, so the soil is not contaminated with a deadly cocktail of ingredients. Around the world our destruction of soil and its microorganisms is well documented. By not contributing to yet another assault on the planet’s ecology, we are saying that farmers’ lives are respected as well. When we refuse to buy these harmful concoctions, we are helping farmers to protect themselves and their families against many maladies. Not long ago an organic farmer told me that an ornithologist had visited their farm and the documentation of birds living there was truly astonishing. Through not introducing synthetic fertilizers and herbicides to the land, this farmer has been contributing to a remarkable abundance of wildlife and plants. Insects that pollinate our food crops or are a prime food for birds and bats are able to find a refuge in ecologically robust soils. Water is cleaner too, so people living downstream are not subjected to an influx of toxic chemicals, which have frequently shown up near non-organic farms. Local communities are beneficiaries of sound agrarian practices; in a real sense organic farming is an insurance plan for all beings. In his new book A Small Farm Future, farmer and social scientist Chris Smaje argues that organising society around small-scale farming offers the soundest, sanest and most reasonable response to climate change and other crises of civilisation—and will yield humanity’s best chance at survival. There has been huge coverage of litigation cases of people affected by pesticides. I have seen first-hand the disastrous use of pesticides in the tropics. Pristine lands

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A tale of two dinner parties

“Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all societies eventually will.” – Anne Applebaum  “You want it darker.” – Leonard Cohen Anne Applebaum’s new book Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism tells of her experiences with powerful right-of-centre political figures and makes the case that our democracies are in mortal jeopardy of being utterly eroded. She takes us on a tour to many European countries that are in the throes of becoming one-party states.  The book is not meant to be a scholarly treatise on the growing rise of authoritarianism, although undoubtedly Applebaum is capable of writing one, having won a Pulitzer Prize as a historian for her writing on the Russian gulag. Twilight of Democracy focuses on the people she feels are destroying democracy. Most of those she writes about were once her friends and one was even a future head of state, but they are no longer speaking to her. (It’s important to understand that she herself is a conservative.) In some instances they are the intellectuals and power brokers who allow one-party regimes such as those now found in Hungary, Poland, China, the Philippines, Venezuela and Russia to flourish. She calls these disgruntled people “clerics”: the enablers of would-be despots. Most of them, she feels, have not felt appreciated in democratic societies and desire more power. Donald Trump’s and Boris Johnson’s angry right-wing “what’s in it for me?” acolytes are helping to dismantle democratic states. Truth is the last thing these “advisers” wish to discuss, and “alternative facts” are the way to create division. Applebaum speaks of “restorative nostalgia,” which is used to rekindle a nation’s supposed past “greatness.” The narrative goes like this: the nation has become a shadow of its former self; the nation’s identity has been taken away and replaced with something less heroic. She warns, of its proponents, “All of them seek to redefine their nations, to rewrite social contracts, and, sometimes, to alter the rules of democracy so that they never lose power. Alexander Hamilton warned against them, Cicero fought against them. Some of them used to be my friends.” She adds, “Eventually, those who seek power on the back of restorative nostalgia will begin to cultivate these conspiracy theories, or alternative histories, or alternative fibs, whether or not they have any basis in fact.” Sound familiar? For many people in the UK who support Brexit it is the EU that has sapped the true greatness of Britain. For Trump’s restorative nostalgia gimmick “Make America Great Again” to work, it must have a list of ills that have befallen the USA for which Trump points the finger of blame at Democrats, immigrants, protestors/agitators, Black Lives Matter supporters, gun-control advocates, scientists, anti-fascists, climate change activists and even the coronavirus lockdowns that necessitate masks and social distancing.  Understand that “reflective nostalgia” is quite different. We might study the past or mourn the past, but we realize that in fact life was more difficult then. Those old photographs, though they might have

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Interview with Nick Gottlieb: giving young people a public voice

Nick Gottlieb is the author of Sacred Headwaters, a bi-weekly newsletter that gives critically important insights into how we can protect our planet. Nick, you write that Sacred Headwaters “aims to guide a co-learning process about the existential issues and planetary limitations facing humanity and about how we can reorient civilization in a way that will enable us to thrive for centuries to come.” What have been the catalysts driving you towards a co-learning and inclusive approach in these newsletters? Climate change is a symptom of much deeper problems in the social, political and cultural structures that we collectively call human civilization. Overcoming those problems requires reimagining what we value as humans and what we expect from life. But the systems we’re trying to replace are so embedded that they constrain the way we think and the scope of what we perceive as possible. I chose this format for my newsletter because I – perhaps naively – believe that if people learn enough about how the system is failing and why, they’ll come to recognize the patterns of that system in their own cognitive frameworks, their own minds, and through that recognition free themselves to begin the process of change. You move from climate change and planetary boundaries to current politics and ideas. “Defunding the Police,” “Indigenous Ways of Knowing,” “Environmental Racism” and “Degrowth” are a few of the titles of the newsletters. What are your overarching goals in sharing these newsletters? The climate movement tends to focus on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but this narrative fails because it identifies them as the “root cause.” We’ve known that GHG emissions cause global warming that threatens our way of life since at least 1959. In 1992, 88% of Americans believed global warming was a serious problem. But we live in a world where companies are incentivized to externalize costs and maximize “profit,” leading them to actually fight against solving climate change despite knowing full well its implications. We’ve seen parallel stories play out over and over again; climate change is just one manifestation. I’ve been writing about issues like environmental racism to try to draw those connections for readers, to make clear that if we want to survive the climate crisis, we need to recognize that it is a symptom of a much more invasive disease than GHG emissions. In your newsletter “Introduction to Systems Thinking,” a memorable sentence, “The earth is a system,” stands out. You describe Sacred Headwaters as being “about the systemic nature of everything.” Can you explain this, please? We have a tendency towards reductionism rooted in what our culture thinks of as “science”: we isolate every problem so we can solve it, but the real world is governed by deep complexity and interconnectedness. This is true in ecological systems, as we can see in the speed with which we’re exceeding most of the modelling of global warming’s impacts, and also in the systems of organization that govern human society. Climate change, environmental racism and widespread inequality are interrelated problems with systemic

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Bewildered! Where do we go from here?

“Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and…when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. The best of all possible worlds can only come about if the most compassionate elements of humanity prevail. The world, encircled with a supercharged capitalism and would-be tyrants, must choose a path towards either love or destruction. Sadly, it has taken the coronavirus to shake up the world’s iniquitous economies, and the racist death of a man to push us to the brink. To where, though? This whole article was supposed to be about trying to make sense of Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans, which was released on YouTube on Earth Day (April 22), but more pressing concerns needed airing. It is because it represents a pattern of injustices that I discuss it at all. I recommend that you watch this contentious documentary and its many unfounded assertions regarding renewable energy and green activists, if only because it mentions, though all too briefly, pertinent and important issues (population and overconsumption) that have relevance for our precarious lives. Though I’d agree with the makers that green technological fixes won’t solve the world’s problems, the film is a shoddy mixture of ill-founded allegations, and, for many, Michael Moore’s ‘green’ reputation is in tatters. Most egregiously, we are told that the green movement is built on fossil-fuel money and that Bill McKibben, one of its best-known activists, is a fraud. The film is a compendium of half-truths that pits us against each other, while climate deniers buy more oil stock. What a way to celebrate Earth Day! Moore does us a great disservice, as we need truth more than ever now, not a disingenuous film. On Sunday, June 7, Sherbrooke protested the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota two weeks ago. An estimated 2,000 people, mostly under the age of 40, met in front of the police station to listen to speeches addressing this grotesque murder and institutionalized racism. For nearly nine minutes they (but not the police who were watching) knelt in silence with fists outstretched to bear witness to the many black and indigenous people discriminated against. Police violence and racism are a cancerous growth. At the same time, billionaires’ greed and influence in government are accelerating the alienation and suffering of those in poverty, while there is an unprecedented push by those in power to dismantle any semblance of democracy. The “rule of law,” enforced by readily compliant police for many centuries, has propped up the aristocracy and now the corporate agenda. Remember that Germany’s laws allowed Hitler to ravage Europe. Authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia are police states. Under Trump, the US is, as Noam Chomsky terms it, a failed state. Israel appears to be no better. People around the world have condemned the racism found in their countries. Western racism has a long history. In Bristol,

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