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Climate literacy starts with recognising that we are part of Nature

“I’d make this the lead story in every paper and newscast on the planet. If we don’t understand the depth of the climate crisis, we will not act in time.” —Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org “Half of our climate debt is hidden under the carpet of a forgiving planet. If we don’t protect it, we will cause unstoppable, permanent, and irreversible damage.”  —Johan Rockström, joint director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research  Last week several days focused on our planet’s ecological wellbeing – Endangered Species Day, May 17; World Bee Day, May 20; International Day for Biological Diversity, May 22; World Turtle Day, May 23.World Environment Day follows on June 5. These days celebrate the natural world and educate the public to be more involved with it. They are there to inform all governments too: the basis for all economics is Nature. It is vital to encourage climate and biodiversity literacy. But, as an amazing and engaging website makes clear, knowing about the climate begins with the recognition that we are one with Nature: https://tinyurl.com/Breathing-with-forest But who is listening? People are flying more, taking cruises to formerly off-limits places such as Antarctica, and unabashedly are demanding bigger cars, all of which is astounding in light of recent world climate catastrophes. Humans appear to be living on two parallel planets: one that supports and is interlinked with Nature, and another that is encased in a human construct that knows no self-restraint and indeed flouts the most basic communion with others. (One new condominium complex in Florida has a private lift not only for you but also for your vehicle, so you needn’t ever meet anyone…) As an example of this self-siloed individualism, over the last several months I have pointedly noticed an explosion of pickup trucks on our roads. Not only does their sheer size (and in particular the height of their front fenders) make these super-SUVs more dangerous to other road users in a collision, but they are also adding to an already alarming rise in emissions. Just last week global atmospheric CO2 emissions reached a disastrous 426 parts per million (ppm), the highest level since 4 million years ago. (This is 426 molecules of carbon dioxide in one million molecules of air.) Scientists have shown 350 ppm to be the highest safe level. It is as if people are no longer satisfied with having an SUV, which is destructive enough, and now they need to go for broke. I call this the “Pickup Culture,” whereby you can pick up nods of approval from other people for your status-riddled acquisition. Most people put very little in the cargo space. Of course, farmers and tradespeople need a vehicle that can transport heavy building materials and farm equipment, but the articles I have read on the subject point to conspicuous consumption as the main objective in having an $80,000 Tesla Cybertruck or other off-road pickup vehicle that is constantly being promoted as a crash-through-river-and-mountain anti-Nature statement. Indeed, as most countries now ban smoking advertising, those perverse car

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Giving young people a public voice: a conversation with Ugandan climate/biodiversity activist Nicholas Omonuk

This is a conversation featuring a dedicated young man who has worked tirelessly to bring climate/biodiversity awareness to many schools and communities in Uganda. I first spoke with Nicholas in a global online meeting of people who were discussing climate breakdown.  Nicholas, please tell us a little about your life when you were growing up. I grew up in a rural community of Pallisa in Eastern Uganda in a pastoralist family. My family heavily relied on livestock as a critical source of food, labour and milk. In our tribe the boys are meant to take livestock for grazing, and the girls fetch water for home use. Through this combined effort there is equal delegation of tasks and in such a way we would be able to have water at home and keep our livestock healthy. My father would sell milk, livestock and cash crops like cotton so that he could pay our school fees and handle the basic needs at home. As I grew up we faced severe droughts, which dried up most of the seasonal wells that provided water in the village and to livestock in the community. The droughts not only depleted our water wells and grazing lands but also resulted in food scarcity. Together with my brothers, I embarked on extensive journeys with livestock in search of accessible water and grassy areas located kilometres away from their residence. We would leave at about 9am after  breakfast and come back at around 2 or 3pm. Simultaneously, my sisters also had to walk longer distances to fetch water from the nearest available water wells and boreholes that still had some water. Although the water was not clean enough, they did not have a choice but to fetch that water. Our livestock grew malnourished and it became difficult to sell them at a fair market price. Fruits and crops also dried up. Since my father could not get enough money to fend for us, he resorted to rearing chickens to raise extra income. He would sell a tray of eggs for roughly US$2.5, which was below the market price. In 2017, I graduated from high school and because I performed well I was given a scholarship to Kyambogo University, a glimmer of hope for me because it enabled me to study for a bachelor’s in surveying in the School of Built Environment, graduating in 2023. Did you embrace your connection with Nature as a young child, or was it through your education that you slowly felt such an affinity for Nature and the need to protect it? I think for me the connection with Nature was already there. I loved climbing the trees to pick fresh mangoes, and I would climb tamarind trees in my grandfather’s compound to pick and taste the fruits. We also had jackfruit, passion fruits, banana plantations, cotton, cassava and sweet potatoes. Getting these fruits fresh from the garden was exciting for me and was an exercise in trying to explore each one. We also had many trees around

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Earth Day brings together what matters

“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,There is a rapture on the lonely shore,There is society where none intrudes,By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:I love not Man the less, but Nature more” Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage  “We need the tonic of wildness—to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of Nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features . . . the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”   —Henry David Thoreau, Walden  When, years ago, I visited the surrounding land and swam in Walden Pond, not far from Concord, Massachusetts and made famous by Henry David Thoreau, who went to live there in a small cabin in 1845, I had already read Walden; or, Life in the Woods, which describes his stay there over a period of two years. I had time to reflect on where I was going as I cycled there from Boston, and felt that I was approaching a sacred place. Oddly, there was no one else there, and I was pleased to find the water clean and inviting. I had known since the age of 15, when I had first read Walden and Thoreau’s other writings, including On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, that I could trust his deep connection to Nature. He had built his cabin from repurposed and found materials, all for the grand sum of $28.12½ (equivalent to $938 today). I have tried to emulate his handiness and quest for living a simple life. I have never felt happier than when being with people in the tropics who do not have a door to their dwelling. Walden Pond hasn’t changed since Thoreau was there, though the trees are broader and higher. I’m not alone in my praise or in taking a pilgrimage to Walden Pond, as thousands have come too. His sojourn there was an inspiration for the world to cherish Earth.  The renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote a letter to Thoreau more than a century later. He imagined the two of them a-sauntering through the woods and spoke of his gratitude for Thoreau’s presence in a prologue to his book The Future of Life. He even invited Thoreau to join him and a hundred others at Walden Pond on July 4, 1998 for the first Biodiversity Day (sometimes called a BioBlitz, in which local people and

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Global North off the charts and tone-deaf to Nature’s plea for help

“High-income countries use six times more materials per capita and are responsible for ten times more climate impacts per capita than low-income countries.” Global Resources Outlook 2024 Besides the usual musical definition of “tone-deaf” there is this one: “Having or showing an obtuse insensitivity or lack of perception particularly in matters of public sentiment, opinion, or taste.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)  Jubilation followed the news that a biodiverse and fecund cold-water coral reef off the coast of British Columbia had been discovered by Indigenous people and that another reef had been discovered near the Galápagos Islands. Calls to immediately protect the areas received support. At a time when warming oceans are harbingers of coral bleaching, any good news gets its rightful share of publicity, but is it enough? A concatenation of ongoing Earth crises is upon us, but not because the warnings haven’t been voiced. Governments have been swayed by corporate money instead of being clarion voices for their own peoples’ wellbeing. More than a century after Eunice Newton Foote recognized and articulated the greenhouse effect in 1856 (something that has often wrongly been attributed to John Tyndall), the oil companies’ scientists realized that there is long-term danger from burning fossil fuels, which increases the temperature not only in the atmosphere but also in the ocean. They kept this knowledge from the public because they wanted to maximize profits. In 1985 the astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan laid out before the US government the coming existential crisis that humanity would face if greenhouse gases were not urgently curtailed in the coming decades. https://tinyurl.com/Carl-Sagan-speaks Sagan called for all nations to act together on a plan to combat the rise of emissions so that future generations could flourish. The eminent climate scientist James Hanson, testifying in 1988 in front of Congress, basically said the same thing. In 1989, Bill McKibben published The End of Nature, the first popular book on the perils of increasing climate warming. The 1992 Rio Earth Summit helped to cement the relationship between Earth systems, economics and political engagement, and the resulting Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed by most countries, including the United States, and the landmark accord was the first global treaty to explicitly address climate change. In 1992 some 1,700 leading scientists signed a letter of warning asking for immediate action “if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.” More than 15,000 scientists endorsed a second warning 27 years later, declaring a climate emergency and detailing the need to limit the human population and reduce the per capita consumption of meat and, amongst other resources, fossil fuels. The 2006 climate documentary based on Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth reached millions of people and helped launch the climate movement.  Even though humanity has witnessed the multifaceted catastrophes brought on by rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions, there is no enforceable treaty in sight to reduce these emissions. Take methane, for example. Although it is a

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Are electric vehicles truly a panacea for our fossil fuel ills?

“The long lifetime of fossil fuel CO, creates a sense of fleeting folly about the use of fossil fuels as an energy source. Our fossil fuel deposits, 100 million years old, could be gone in a few centuries, leaving climate impacts that will last for hundreds of millennia. The lifetime of fossil fuel CO2 in the atmosphere is a few centuries, plus 25% that lasts essentially forever. The next time you fill your tank, reflect upon this. ”The Long Thaw: How Humans are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate by David Archer, geophysicist  Monday’s eclipse experience viscerally includes all of us as beings of the universe who do not control the heavenly orbs. Most of the time we forget this at our ultimate peril. A few dozen private jets came to Sherbrooke for the occasion, spewing pollution and causing more haze. The history of our use of fossil fuels is one of utter devastation. Wars, expropriation of lands, biodiversity loss, climate breakdown, glacial melting, vast areas of contamination affecting land, oceans, rivers and aquifers, massive human rights violations, huge health impacts and even constant small spillages of gas or oil in our streets and neighbourhoods, are leading to untold suffering that is already beginning to unfold. As oil companies in 2024 increase their obscene profits so does their legacy of pillaging Nature expand. Four years ago I bought a small electric car, and these days I have many conversations about electric vehicles (EVs). Most people’s negative reactions to them range from passionate opposition to being worried about whether there are sufficient rapid charging stations along the roads.  Frankly, I’m perplexed why those same educated people seem to forget that their lives have been spent travelling by plane, buying carbon-intensive products (including cars, electric or not) and generally being in the top 10% of the world’s population that is ripping apart the natural world through biodiversity loss, fossil fuel pollution and climate heating. Canada is one of the top five elite and notorious countries for overconsumption. As people accelerate their use of flights—Montreal’s Trudeau airport is getting a C$4 billion facelift to tempt them to do so—the simplest research shows that there is a lot going for electric vehicles, if only to massively lower pollution levels, as well as getting rid of the chemical stench from fossil cars’ exhaust which is not often spoken of.  But the details make the arguments in favour of EVs appear less clear-cut and merit examination. The majority of new cars will probably be electric by 2040. Some of the very valid questions that come up all the time concern the vast amounts on energy and water needed to produce them, as well as the difficult recycling process, on which only now is any progress being made.  Like all road vehicles, EVs use tires, which through particle abrasion are a major contributor to air and water pollution, with humans and wildlife equally affected. (Fishers are suing tire companies for polluting rivers.) In fact, because of the weight

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Global north’s agenda continues to impoverish all life

So you should view this fleeting world —A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream. Diamond Sutra “Costing the Earth” is a phrase that will be familiar to most of us, in the sense of something being excessively expensive; but with biodiversity loss and climate change both accelerating, the expression should be used literally—to denote that a lack of action to reverse industrial societies’ voracious and extractivist demands will cost life on Earth its home. At last it has factual teeth, and we must take seriously that the cost is not merely financial or metaphorical, but indeed existential. “Costing the Earth,” then, carries an imperative to carefor Earth. BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth and other similarly named podcasts and lectures are dedicated to exposing and reorienting the direction humanity needs to take to protect Earth’s complex and marvellous ecosystem. Grotesquely, however, the phrase “costing the Earth” has been used as a slogan by corporations and governments that put forth the fraudulent case that taking action outside their fossilized agendas is not economically viable. Their organized and reckless irresponsibility has created an omnishambles of vast proportions.  There are encouraging signs, however. Students want—and need—big changes. A diet dependent on the exploitation of animals places an enormous burden on humanity’s ability to mitigate climate heating and wildlife/biodiversity loss, and scores of university student unions are now demanding that food supplied on campus be vegetarian or vegan. https://www.plantbaseduniversities.org/blog Banners with slogans like “Plant-based university: end the climate crisis” are being unfurled across European campuses, achieving startling success that not only translates into much lower carbon emissions at those universities, but also acts as a catalyst for more dialogue amongst students, their families and communities to demand action on biodiversity, climate and pollution. As these interlinked crises expand and are felt viscerally by a growing population of younger generations, the clear decision to be vegan is overwhelmingly being embraced. Canadian universities are slowly catching on, and Concordia University now offers free vegan lunches. https://tinyurl.com/CBC-vegan-alternative When people are able to express their demands for climate/biodiversity action and are successful in initiating those changes, they feel better about themselves and their prospects. Eco-anxiety has been radically expanding amongst students, who gut-wrenchingly are beginning to despair. So, for example, when the group Éco-Motion came to Bishop’s University to mentor a group of a dozen or so students for two hours during the university’s mental health week this winter, the students were given the opportunity to explore their feelings through conversation and written material. It is clear that further sessions are needed. https://www.collectif-ecomotion.org/ In my article “No student should be denied climate education” in this newspaper on September 15 last year, I advocated for an intense redirection of curricula, as seen in some European universities, to reflect the urgent need to mainstream the interlocking crises into courses offered at these institutions. Bringing in speakers to meet with students sets the stage for more interaction. A recent public talk at Bishop’s

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