Time To Put The Fiddle Away

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.

Walking the Walk

Last Friday, on September 20, 2019, millions of people from all seven continents of the world, took part in public marches to raise awareness of the precarious nature of the health of our planet and to demand immediate action to start rectifying the situation. In Canada, there were no major marches that day. Instead, Canadians will show their concern this Friday. The biggest march is predicted to be the one taking place in Montreal. Greta Thunberg is scheduled to appear and help lead the march. Leah and I will be travelling to Toronto and participating in the march there. So far, an estimated 20,000 people will be there. I expect that number will be larger.

As the date of the Toronto Climate March drew closer, we began telling our friends of our intentions to attend the event. I was surprised that many of them did not know about the march or, worse still, they were not even that familiar with the issue of Climate Change and the consequences for us as a species. Let me assure you that this issue isn’t political spin. It is very real. As I type these words, the Amazon Rainforest is burning. I read a news article this morning that claimed that Alaska is ice free along its coastlines. You can easily search sites, such as YouTube, for video evidence of glaciers melting and collapsing. The Ozone Layer has been thinning for years. Our pollinating insects, such as bees, are becoming endangered. The list of calamities is unfolding, seemingly, in slow motion but, from an ecological point of view, we are rapidly approaching a “tipping point” from which recovery will be next to impossible. When the young Climate activists speak these days, they all say that, as a species, we are at the early stages of the sixth mass extinction. That sounds bad because, well, it is bad. Mass extinction means an entire species disappears, never to re-appear again. Let me tell you a bit about one of the most famous mass extinctions. This is a story I used to share with my students when I was still teaching. It is the story of the Dinosaurs.

The story of the Dinosaurs is more complex than I will present it today. I am keeping things simple. While there are several theories as to what happened to cause almost all dinosaurs to become extinct, the most widely held theory involves a meteorite crashing into the Earth. It is said that the meteor was large enough and the hit was direct enough to cause a massive dust cloud to fill the air for years, blocking out the Sun. This set off a chain reaction of the Earth’s temperature cooling which, in turn, caused plant life to wither, which caused the plant-eating dinosaurs to lose their food supply and starve which, then, caused the meat-eating dinosaurs to lose their food supply and starve. In short, the climate of the Earth changed, setting off a chain reaction of events that the dominant species at the time were unable to reverse. The living conditions of the dinosaurs became unbearable for them, they lost their food supply and then, vanished into the History books of Time. Just like that. Poof! Gone! The biggest, brawniest, most massive creatures the world has ever seen……extinct.

Mass extinction doesn’t happen with the snap of one’s fingers. It takes time to die off completely. But, once essential elements begin to fall into place, it doesn’t take much to see how fragile our existence is and how we, as Humans, the smartest, most highly-evolved thinkers of all-time, could easily find ourselves relegated to the History books of Time, too.

I make no claim for having all of the answers necessary to reverse the negative consequences of Climate Change. I am not a superhero, nor is anyone in my family. But, as a family, we have made some deliberate changes as to how we live our lives; changes that, we believe, will help the environment and will lessen our impact upon it. None of these decisions, by themselves, simply because of us, will solve the issues that require solving. But, collectively, if we all take steps to do right by Mother Earth then, maybe, just maybe, we can slow our death march down and start to restore the health of Planet Earth.

For example, there used to be a TV show that we liked called CSI or, Crime Scene Investigation. My wife had a fangirl crush on the lead character, the head of the Las Vegas Crime Lab, Gil Grissom. As part of his back story, he studied bees and other pollinators and often spoke to his other actors of the importance to our world of these pollinating creatures and how they were becoming endangered because of pesticide use, habitat loss and so on. Grissom had being a Science-wonk engrained into his on-screen character’s personality. It was over a decade ago that he spoke of the fragility of our food supply because of the potential loss of bees and other pollinators. In that time, the MacInnes Family has changed how we use our own property. We have expanded our gardens and paid more attention to their composition; adding in flowers that are bee and butterfly friendly. We have done this for several years now and, this summer, we noticed more bees and butterflies than ever before. Whether this was just a lucky fluke, I can’t say. But, I can say that more and more families have planted milkweed (for the Monarchs to lay their eggs on) and planted flowers such as zinnia, daises, butterfly bushes and so on. As a family, the girls has raised and released 16 monarch butterflies. We have one more in a chrysalis in the living room and then, that will probably be it for this season. As a town, Cobourg has established pollinator-friendly gardens along our beautiful beaches and, as you can see from the photo above, the butterflies, in particular, have never been more plentiful.

Another thing we did as a family was to plant trees. As many of you know, trees are the “lungs” that help us all breathe. By converting carbon dioxide into oxygen, trees are among the most important weapons we have to fight against the effects of Climate Change. So, as you can see from the photo, Earth Ranger Sophie has planted a new tree in our front yard. But, both girls have helped to plant dozens of trees throughout our town as part of their Brownie and Girl Guide Troops. In one case, they planted trees along a creek, in a riparian zone, to help restore the integrity of the banks of the creek. In other cases, the girls planted trees in abandoned fields and have, as a result, helped create a new wrinkle to the eco-system that had previously existed there.

One of the easiest things we have done as a family to help the earth is cutting back on our use of plastic. (a) Up until this past year, I never gave straws a second thought. Now, in restaurants, we make a point of requesting that they not give us straws with our water or milk shakes. At home, we have purchased straws made of silicone and simply wash and re-use them. (b) When we shop at the grocery store, we always take in reusable shopping bags. Gone are the days when our food was placed in plastic bags. We have, also, purchased reusable mesh vegetable bags so that when we are buying grapes or onions, etc., we no longer need the plastic bags that the grocery store makes available and that we would end up throwing away and/or recycling.

Finally, we do a lot of other Earth-friendly things, too, in ways that make them easy to become good habits. For example, we compost our table scraps and use the enriched soil that is created in our gardens. We, also, use a rain barrel to collect Nature’s water for use in our gardens, too. We have replaced all of our lightbulbs with energy-efficient models. We keep our thermostat a few degrees lower in the Winter and a few degrees higher in the summer. We have upgraded the insulation in our attic so as to prevent unnecessary heat loss. The girls donate unused toys that they have outgrown so that they don’t contribute to landfill sites. We are eating less meat. It goes on and on. Dozens of small life changes to how we live and how we interact with our environment. We are not Champions of the Planet or anything but, we have taken simple steps to lessen our impact on the environment or, our carbon footprint, as all of the cool kids say.

But, we are not perfect, either. If we want strawberries for school lunches and the only strawberries available at the grocery store come from California or Mexico, we will still buy them. Our vehicles still run on gasoline. Our home is heated by oil. We usually remember to turn off lights when we leave a room…..but, not always.

We are not perfect but, we are improving and, if the truth be told, having healthier, more Earth-friendly habits has not been all that hard. I don’t begrudge having to make these lifestyle changes because, the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Every time I see a dead whale with a stomach filled with garbage, my desire for change is renewed. Every time I see hurricanes and floods and earthquakes ravaging communities for whom these events never used to be issues, my courage to change my ways is plucked up. Every time I hear of an Indigenous community without clean drinking water, my shame motivates me to be a better global citizen.

And so, tomorrow, Leah and I will join tens of thousands of other like-minded people in Toronto and we will march and will raise up our voices in a choir of concern. In my town of Cobourg and our neighbouring town of Port Hope, smaller marches will take place. Hopefully, these marches will become a habit for many and change will arise as a result. So, thank you to everyone reading this post who recycles and composts and makes their yards welcoming spaces for pollinators. Thanks to all of you who have cut down your energy usage. Thanks for making single-use plastics a dying industry. I applaud each and every one of you who thinks about our environment, where once, we simply took it for granted. You are difference makers. You are the heroes whose efforts Leah and I will carry with us tomorrow in Toronto as we walk the walk for Climate Change and for a healthier world for us all.

Voices Carry

All of my life I have been a quiet person. Some of us are just that way. But even though I may not be the best at starting conversations in social settings, I do have stories to tell and ideas to share. The trick for me in this life has been discovering the best way to make my voice heard.

I have been thinking a lot about this lately because I have discovered a new book. I know I am biased in this regard but, I think Children’s Picture Books are an art form and contain some of the best storytelling you are likely to find anywhere. I Go Quiet by David Ouimet is a book that I wish I had written. It is about me and those of you out there like me. It is about the quiet ones, the introverts and our place in this loud, noisy, busy world of ours. It is about those of us who paint pictures with silence and raise choirs of concerns within our minds. It is for everyone who has a song to sing but prefers doing so in the shower rather than on stage in front of an audience. This book is a wonderful affirmation that it is ok to look for comfort and inspiration from within and that learning to trust the voice you discover there is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself.

When I was still a teacher, I always had a soft spot for students whose social presence was whisper light. I made it my mission to find out what made these kids tick and then, guide them to the place where their inner voice resided. Some of the best moments I ever experienced as teacher came from children who wrapped themselves in the safety of our classroom environment and found the courage to be their true selves. This manifested itself in many ways. Some children found their voice in Art. Some found their voice in Athletics. Some found their identity via books and stories. It never mattered to me what form this awakening took, as long as it happened for that child; especially, that child who may have felt that they didn’t matter because they never had an avenue to make themselves heard. Self-expression is very important, as is believing that what you have to say has merit. Helping children to learn to trust in the value of their thoughts, feelings and ideas is of immeasurable importance because when children learn to believe in the power of their own voice, they can change the world.

The most famous recent example of a child having a message to share with the world and having the courage of her convictions to deliver it is Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg. A little over a year ago, Greta begun a public protest regarding the dangers posed by Climate Change. She started a movement for young people that came to be known as #FridaysForFuture. What she did was to go out on Strike from school each Friday. While being on Strike, she sat quietly in front the legislative building in Sweden and demanded politicians take action. Initially, she was ignored by passersby. But, eventually, over time, people began to question why this girl in the yellow jacket, with the pony tails was sitting there, holding her signs. Greta found her voice and helped raise the alarm regarding the precarious nature of the state of our world. She promoted the scientific fact that our planet is approaching a very real “tipping point” of climate-inspired catastrophes that soon we will be unable to reverse. Our very existence is at stake and time is running out. So, Greta left school on Fridays and spoke for all of us.

In time, word of Greta’s School Strike for Climate got out, via news reports and on social media. Other like-minded students, such as 13-year old Alexandria Villasenor, shared Greta’s view that, while going to school is important, it is not important if there is no future for young people. Alexandria began her School Strike 4 Climate in front of the UN building in New York. Like Greta Thunberg, Ms. Villasenor looked within herself and followed the courage of her own convictions. She sat alone on the bench you see in this photo for weeks and weeks. Eventually, the positive power of social media helped propel the School Strike for Climate message so that it reached a wider, more mainstream audience. Climate scientists from around the world loaned their knowledge and credibility to this cause. Soon, local politicians in cities and countries around the world began declaring “Climate Emergencies” in their jurisdictions. Policies have started to be enacted in some countries such as the phasing out of gas-powered automobiles by the mid-2020s. Because quiet children have found their voices, a choir of concern regarding Climate Change is beginning to spread around the world.

It isn’t easy being brave when you feel as though your words are mere dandelion puffs scattered by the slightest of breezes. But, if there is anything that I have learned over the course of my thirty years hanging out with children it is this…….they have ideas that have value and they are worthy of respect from the adults in their world. I am not just referring to the Greta Thunbergs and Alexandria Villasenors of the world, either. Children, everywhere, have beliefs that are valid. They wish for safety and friendship and love and clean water and good food to eat and share together. Children espouse many of the core values that we, as adults, sometimes forget about, as we busy ourselves with things that often don’t matter. We exist on a planet where many adults strive for material gain and personal power. None of that will matter when our world burns beneath our feet. We will all be equally powerless when extreme climate disasters strike. Our money will not help us when the end is about to come and, as the old song says, “All we are is dust in the wind.” If only the adults would listen to the voices of our children.

Getting adults in positions of power to listen to the voices of children is why the School Strike for Climate movement is holding Global Strikes tomorrow (September 20) and next Friday (September 27) in cities all around the world. My daughter, Leah, and I will be attending the march being held in Toronto on the 27th. Greta Thunberg will be leading the march in Montreal that same day. She is marching with Alexandria Villasenor in NYC tomorrow. Tens of thousands of children and adults are expected to march for a better future for our planet and for us. Please feel free to find out more about these marches and about our Climate emergency by clicking on the link www.fridaysforfuture.org

We ignore the quiet ones at our peril. Those of us who are comfortable living, for the most part, within the confines of our own minds, still have a role to play on society’s stage. We don’t all have to lead the march, as the Greta Thunberg’s of the world do but, by lending our presence to the unfolding drama, we give strength to our message and allow our voices to carry. It is easy for some of us to exist, unnoticed. But, there are times when it is too important to remain quiet. The world needs us to all to speak up. Being quiet is no longer an option……even for folks like me.

***Author’s note: I am super-excited to publish this particular post today because it was created in partnership with a former student of mine, Erin Cutler. Waaaaay back in the day, Erin was a sweet, young girl in our Grade 2 class in Bowmanville, Ontario. Erin was always a hard worker and a good friend to others. But, what I always remember about her is the relationship we struck up because of an in-class activity called Journal writing. In her journal book, I would ask Erin to write a letter to me about anything she wanted to talk about and then, I would write back. On the surface, this was an exercise in writing and reading for the child. But, the deeper benefit is that it allowed a private conversation to take place, parallel to what everyone else saw in public. Whenever I wrote back to a student, I always tried to incorporate an illustration to accompany my words. Erin really liked that aspect of our journal conversations and, over time, began responding back with her own Art to go along with her questions and stories. Well, I am happy to report that Erin has grown up to be a lovely young lady who makes her living through Art. Erin specifically created two pieces of original Art for this post; the first is what I call Portrait of Greta and the second is A Choir of Concern. I am humbled beyond measure to have Erin’s great work adorning my words on this post. She is terrific in all regards. Thank you, Erin, for your hard work for this post. Hopefully, we can do this again sometime.

If you wish to see more of her work, please click on the following two links: www.illustrationsbyerin.com and www.instagram.com/illustrationsbyerin .