Imagination and a Green Future

By Tooker Gomberg, Montreal, Canada.

Ten years after the Montreal Protocol the planet still burns.

A few days ago I hit a funk. Maybe it had to do with the recent Ozone Hole Gala Reception atop the mountain. The chalet was abuzz with hundreds of dignitaries from around the world, and the red wine flowed freely into many a glass (mine too).

The piles of sliced animal corpses put me off a bit. But what really bugged me was the opulent scene, and everyone was being so nice – even the environmentalists. Then the speeches began: some guy droned on about how great Montreal was, including how it had been recognized for it’s lack of noise. It was all giving me a headache.

Christine Stewart, our new federal Minister of the Environment, got up to the mike and bragged about the weather. Then the band played, fiddlers fiddled, delegates danced and the planet burned.

I managed to corner Mayor Bourque and grab his hand. “Did you see the media coverage of the bike lane that my friends painted on Milton Street?” I asked. He said he had. “Why don’t you just build it – it would be easy, inexpensive and very popular” I suggested. He smiled inanely and gave me his business card: Pierre Bourque, Maire.

The event last week marked ten years since the signing of the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer. The countries of the world regrouped to determine if things have been improving, and what to do next. I tried to catch the final days, but security at the United Nation’s ICAO building on University went ballistic after I locked my bicycle to a handrail. Incredibly, the brand spanking new building (that must have cost tens of millions of dollars) had no bike rack out front. They barred me from the building.

Back to the funk. The ozone hole over the North Pole is thinner than ever. A depleted ozone layer means increased ultraviolet radiation reaching the earth, and increasing skin cancer and cataracts for humans and animals alike. The U.K. estimates 40,000 new cases of skin cancer annually as a result. And Environment Canada does next to nothing to research what’s going on (in fact this budget item has shrunk by 75%), or to warn us of the peril.

Environmental issues seem to have lost the urgency they had just a few years ago. The delegates dither, the public is perplexed, and I start to wonder whether we’re getting anywhere. Having been engaged in the ecological struggle for two decades I’m thinking: What has been accomplished? What works? What doesn’t?

People still care about environmental concerns, with polls showing the greatest level of support of any social issue – 80-90% support for cleaning up the environment, even if it increases costs.

Even with that level of support, however, things are getting much worse. Last year over 1600 senior scientists, including over half of all the Nobel Prize winners alive, sounded the alarm in the World Warning to Humanity. It concluded that human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Yet, as David Suzuki recently lamented at a talk at Concordia University, most of the major media completely ignored the story.

The rate of species extinction is unprecedented. Vast areas of wilderness are being wiped off the face of the planet forever. We’re adding a billion more mouths to feed every eleven years.

On the other hand there have been some ecological successes over the past two decades. Nuclear power has been stopped in its tracks in North America, thanks to the tragic accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Renewable energy sources like solar and wind are becoming much more common. Energy efficiency has proven itself to create more jobs, and to be cheaper than costly new power plants. Recycling boxes dot the sidewalks and composting is becoming commonplace.

Organic food, twenty years ago an obscure concept, is now almost fashionable.

But where are we going? Perhaps the best place to change is where we’re at. Richard Register, Berkeley ecocity activist, suggests that our task is no less than to rebuild civilization, starting in the built communities where we live. We can rebuild ecological cities with neighbourhoods that radically reduce human pressure on nature, support biodiversity and build soils, he maintains.

Montreal is taking some turns away from the car. There seems to be a growing awareness that parking lots aren’t the most brilliant use of space. Right across from City Hall, and in numerous other places, parking lots have been torn up and turned into space for people.

Can we imagine Montreal’s core car-free? “Imagination is more important than knowledge” said Einstein.

Reclaim the Streets in the U.K. stages car crashes and stops traffic. Then they turn on massive sound systems and start raves. Thousands of partiers join in. Why not rip up the asphalt downtown and have some fun with it? Playgrounds, trees, outdoor movies, skating rinks. Why despair when change could be fun and joyful?

John Todd, in his brilliant book “From EcoCities to Living Machines”, shows how street space now wastefully used for storing cars could be transformed into curbside greenhouses that purify our sewage. Once we can imagine it, it becomes possible.

The culture changes. Society evolves. Slavery was abolished. The right to vote was fought for and won. Unions battled hard for the forty hour work week. And often change happens unexpectedly. Who could have predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall or Mandela’s freedom let alone his presidency?

But imagination is not enough. People also need to get organized. And politics is key. At a recent talk in Montreal Ralph Nader quoted Einstein: “Physics is simple compared to politics.” He went on to say that citizens need to learn civic skills: how to practice democracy effectively, how to form coalitions, how to organize a press conference, how to do profiles of our Members of Parliament.

The politics that affect people most are the local ones. What goes on at City Hall affects us all every day. Understanding how the City Council makes decisions is basic. So is plotting for the upcoming city elections in November of 1998.

But do we have the luxury to sit around and strategize our culture’s evolution towards sustainability and justice? For example: there are but a few short weeks remaining until NASA proceeds with something that could wipe out all human life on this planet. Their Cassini rocket to Saturn will contain 72 pounds of plutonium – the most deadly material ever discovered. One pound, evenly distributed, would give every human lung cancer if inhaled.

It’s hard to imagine how a bunch of scientists would have the hubris to put the whole planet at risk. And it’s staggering that the corporate media have virtually ignored the story. Even Environment Minister Stewart seems oblivious to the threat. She said she’d heard about it, but didn’t really seem interested.

There is an ancient Oriental saying: “To know and not to act is not to know”. Now you know.

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