It is nearing report card time in schools across Ontario. When I was charged with the task of creating report card comments, obviously I talked about what skills each of my students had mastered. For example, could little Susie accurately add two numbers together. But, not only did I address skill acquisition, I spent quite a bit of time discussing what kind of learner each child was. Were they well-organized in how they approached a task? Did they work well in groups? Did they work better independently? Was their work neatly and coherently presented?
One of the major learning skills I always talked about was each child’s level of self-confidence. Confidence is, not only one of the major predictors of how successful a student will be, academically speaking but, it is, also, one of the most easily observable traits a child can display. For example, on the positive side, when a child has a high level of self-confidence, they will eagerly tackle new challenges, they will employ a variety of strategies in order to arrive at the correct answer, they won’t give up if the task proves challenging and, as a result, more often than not, they will be successful in completing their task. Because they are successful, their level of self-confidence will strengthen and grow which will allow them to approach the next task positively, too. A cycle of positive growth will ensue and that child will be off to the races in terms of his/her academic development.
On the negative side, a child who suffers from lack of self-confidence will approach new tasks with trepidation. They will feel that they have no strategies that are worthwhile so they will not try as hard and will give up more quickly than their confident peers. Because they will have failed to have competed the task, that child will lose even more self-confidence, they will fear new tasks even more and will question their own self-worth to a greater degree than ever. In this case, a cycle of negativity will occur and, if left unchecked, will cause that child to enter a downward academic and emotional spiral that can be very difficult to correct.
This brings us to the fires in Australia…….which is not as big a leap as one may think.
Climate Change, like the internal workings of a child’s heart and mind, is something that has easily observable positive and negative cycles. Long before the youth of the world began their school strikes to draw attention to the science behind climate change, indigenous cultures around the world had been putting sound climate practices into place as a routine element of their societies. Simple things like crop rotation, controlled burns, planting plants in ways that they complemented each other (like “The Three Sisters“), all helped keep the Earth healthy. The old maxim of “take care of the earth and the earth will take care of you” has been a hallmark of these cultures for a millennia or more.
Those who acted as stewards of our planet did so by doing simple things such as realizing the importance of trees. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air and exchange it for oxygen. Not only that, because trees absorb carbon dioxide, our atmosphere is better able to help regulate the temperature of the planet. Because Earth’s temperature was moderate, green plants were able to grow, soil stayed relatively moist, seeds germinated well and so on. This is a very simplistic example of the positive cycle of climate sustainability. It was what had been the hallmark of, what Carl Sagan described, as our pale blue dot of a planet for centuries.
But, like a child who lacks confidence, poor stewardship of our planet has easily observable consequences, too. This is what we are seeing in Australia. This is, also, what Greta Thunberg and others, have been trying to warn us all about. In the same way that there is an inter-connectedness to the elements that make up an eco-system, there is an inter-connectedness to the consequences of having an eco-system collapse upon itself. Not only is there an inter-connectedness but, as an eco-system collapses, there is a magnification or amplification of the consequences as each domino begins to fall.
For an easy example, we, non-indigenous humans, have not valued trees as much as we should have. We have spent centuries placing value upon trees as measured in what trees can give us in the form of product. We value their capacity to produce wood, medicine, etc., but, we have never truly thought much about their most important role, as absorbers of carbon dioxide. We have been chopping down trees with a manic zeal all over the world. We chop them down to clear land for farming. We chop them down to clear land for homes. We chop trees down to heat our homes in the winter. We chop and we chop and we chop. Dr. Seuss wrote about this in The Lorax waaaaaay back in 1971!!!! Our chopping has continued unabated in the half-century since.
While we, as a species, worked with determination to reduce the Earth’s capacity to absorb CO2 by eliminating so many trees, we have expanded our willingness to produce CO2 a thousand-fold by the nature of our consumeristic society. Our cars! Our manufacturing factories belching smoke! Our endless thirst for packaged products! All of these lifestyle choices have contributed to an imbalance in the amount of carbon dioxide that is making its way into our atmosphere. This imbalance has been growing, unchecked, for decades now. That growth is not without consequences.
When too much carbon dioxide enters our atmosphere, it acts as a blanket or a shield that keeps the heat generated from the sun from escaping. It traps heat closer to the surface of the planet in what has been coined The Greenhouse Effect. When heat is unable to escape into the atmosphere, it raises temperatures. What happens to water when exposed to heat? It dries up. So, one of the consequences of The Greenhouse Effect is a drying out of the land. Because of drought, green plants do not grow as well. Because green plants do not grow as well, our planet’s ability to absorb CO2 is reduced even further. The imbalance in our atmosphere grows deeper and broader. The Green house Effect is amplified. Temperatures rise even further. The earth and plant life dry out to an even greater degree and a cycle of collapse begins to ensue.
In Australia, this cycle has been magnified because of that country’s connection to coal. Coal has long been associated with helping to create greenhouse gas and, as such, many countries around the world have diversified their economies and have moved away from coal production as a means of employment and wealth creation. But, not Australia. It is the world’s leading exporter of coal. Because coal is so integral to the economy of Australia, there has been little will, on a political level, to move on to greener forms of energy. As a consequence, a perfect storm of environmental forces have gathered in the Land Down Under and we are seeing the results in the form of fire.
I have never been to Australia and I have no friends nor family there but, what is happening there at the moment concerns me immensely. Scientists have been saying that we have little time left to correct how we interact with our planet before it is too late. They speak of a tipping point being right around the corner for us all. They speak of the conditions being right for the setting off of a chain reaction of climate-related events that, once set into motion, will be almost impossible for us to stop. Australia is an example of what they are talking about and it is all happening before our eyes, in real time.
That Australia is burning is not a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. The ingredients to a climate collapse have been evident there for some time. Carbon Dioxide levels have been allowed to climb beyond Earth’s ability to deal with it effectively. Temperatures have been soaring for years, resulting in Australia being the hottest place on Earth right now. Because it has been so hot for so many years, the land has dried out and the trees have become tinder dry. As the fires began, temperatures have increased even more, things have become even drier and the fire finds fuel everywhere.
I do not smell the smoke of their fires. I do not feel the heat from their flames. But, as Australia burns, I see my own future and yours, as well. I sit in a province (Ontario) that is led by people willing to spend millions of dollars to fight a sin tax on fossil fuel consumption. I live in a province where green energy projects have been cancelled. I live in a province that continues to sell off farmlands and wetlands to housing developers. At a time when environmental tipping points are beginning to be reached in some parts of our world, here in Ontario and in Alberta and Saskatchewan, those in charge are still arguing that their isn’t really a problem at all. They are seeking even more development of the fossil fuel industry.
It is a discouraging time to be on the side of being a steward of our planet. We recycle and compost and use energy efficient light bulbs. We have virtually eliminated single-use plastics from our daily lives in our house. We are trying our best to make a difference, to pay our debt to the planet and, no doubt, you are, too. But, as Australia burns, it does not seem like enough. As a society, we need more systemic changes. We need our leaders to change how they prioritize their spending. For example, some municipalities have started making public transit free of charge. The thinking is that if, as a society, we are to reduce our dependence on cars then, an affordable and effective alternative must be in place. In those municipalities that have made transit free of charge, decisions were made at a leadership level to invest tax dollars to help subsidize the cost of running buses and trains. Those types of paradigm decisions aren’t for the faint of heart but, in light of what is happening in Australia, people are beginning to find courage a necessity and are slowly beginning to act.
A future without fossil fuels is possible and would be helpful. Sales of electric cars are soaring in Europe and are starting to grow in North America. The big benefit of electric cars is that they produce no exhaust and thus, no CO2 emissions. But, the infrastructure necessary to sustain electric vehicles on a mass scale remains in its infancy. In Ontario, our premier has made things more difficult by removing electric car charging stations from all government properties. Do we have the time and the will to invest in having electric charging stations in every home? How about our tax dollars going toward solar panels on every roof? How about every new home being built having a zero carbon footprint?
The way forward, environmentally-speaking, is known. We have to stop using fossil fuels. We need more trees and wetlands. We need to invest, on a societal level, in making green energy part of the fabric of our societies, much like the early indigenous peoples did way back when our planet was healthy and green. The alternative is to wait for our country to have its own Australia-esque tipping point. For me, there is no debate about the science of climate change. It is very observable and easy to see. What is not easy is changing the way in which we live. We like our things. We like the self-determination that comes from getting in our own cars and driving where we want, when we want. I am sure that the Aussies liked their lifestyle, too. But now, maybe not so much.
I truly hope that the lessons Australia is teaching the world cause the necessary action to be taken by our leaders. I would like to say that I am optimistic that this will be so. But, the simple fact that we, as citizens, are being rebuffed, again and again, by leaders who are aligned with the fossil fuel oligarchs of the world, leads me to think that this will not be the case. For love of money, our planet will be sold out and we will all have our Australia reckoning, sooner or later. Whether it be fires (as in Australia, California, Fort McMurray) or floods from rising seas (as in Indonesia, Venice or, as I read about just yesterday, Liverpool, NS) or from the winds from increasingly strong hurricanes and tornadoes, Climate Change is coming to a town or a city near us all. When it does, all that money and all those possessions that we strive so earnestly for, won’t mean much.
I love fiddle music but, even I know when it is time to put the fiddle away. That time is now.