Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Last week was a busy one for speaking engagements. On Tuesday night I gave my “All You Eat Gardening Workshop” to about 60 people at the Tweed Horticultural Society meeting. It’s always a challenge to cover a full book’s worth of information in a one-hour long talk, and Michelle always points out that I talk much too fast, but I didn’t notice anyone in the audience nodding off, which is a good thing.
Then on Saturday I gave the keynote address to the Queen’s University “Commerce & Engineering Environmental Conference” in Kingston. This is a conference for students put on by students. It wasn’t like any other student-run conference where I have spoken. This was the real deal. In fact it was one of the best conferences that I’ve been to regardless of who organized it. The scope and breadth of the speakers and workshops was excellent, everything seemed to go off without a hitch, and the participants seemed truly engaged in the topic.
It was a bit of a homecoming for me in that I was a Queen’s Commerce student back in 1982/83. I had been out in the working world for a few years and then decided to go back to university as a “Mature Student”. I was a mature 21-year-old amongst all of the 18 and 19-year-old first year students. Michelle would suggest that like most men, even at the age of 51, it would be difficult to ever classify me as “mature.”
The age difference was particularly problematic during Frosh Week. The second year students took on the task of initiating (in other words humiliating) the first year students, and I would have none it. It didn’t matter how many water bombs they threw at me or how much whipped cream they sprayed on me; I was NOT going to do “leaping fairies” down Division Street. Consequently during “Kangaroo Court” at the end of the week I was crowned “Worst Frosh,” a distinction that I still take pride in. My disdain for authority continues to this day.
University students today are a much different bunch than when I was a student. First off, at this conference, they were much better dressed, with everyone in “business attire”. I was terrified when I realized that this was going to be the dress code for this conference since none of my suits fit me anymore. I had to iron some of my best Value Village and Giant Tiger clothing, and I managed to find a hipsterish narrow paisley tie that my Dad probably wore back in the 1950s. I’m pretty sure that my outfit didn’t really go together but luckily I’m past the point of caring about fashion. I began my talk by saying “I haven’t seen this many black suits since the last funeral I was at.” There was a nervous chuckle.
As we were getting set up the organizers decided that they wanted to project my PowerPoint presentation on two screens due to the layout of the atrium where I was speaking. This meant having to network my Macintosh laptop with their Windows laptop, using internet conferencing software. Once our computers had shaken hands and become acquainted they then needed to get the projectors synched, and then remove the user description boxes that were laying on top of my PowerPoint screen, etc. etc. etc. None of these students were trained in this technology, but they were all completely lackadaisical about linking it all up. Nic who was helping Yiran set up said, “Yup, this will be no problem”. So I said “Nic, are you really that confident that this is all going to work”, and I think he really was. I bought my computer in 1984 and still always assume the worst when it comes time to set it up for presentations. This new generation’s grasp of and confidence in technology continues to astound me. And apparently they have the aptitude to pull it off.
The other thing I noted from talking to some of the 100 or so attendees was just how much this generation “gets it.” They seem be to an intelligent, open-minded, fair, non-gender and race biased, big picture viewing group. They seem to be able to look at any topic from a variety of perspectives.
The speaker the previous evening had been a consultant who works extensively with the mining industry. In a casual conversation with some of the students, I asked them to describe this speaker’s talk. It sounded like he used “the best defense is a good offense” approach to deal with the negative impacts of mining by suggesting that anyone in the audience who uses a cell phone or a computer (in other words, everyone) was complicit in any damage that mines were doing to the planet. The students saw through his bullshit pretty quickly. Their attitude seemed to be ‘Yes, I use a computer and there are metals and elements that were mined to make it, but I don’t accept that mines have to trash their local ecosystems. The current model of mining businesses that exploit local resources and then go bankrupt when it’s time to clean up the mess, is not an acceptable business model.”
As I spoke to this group of students before my keynote I began to get nervous. It was readily apparent that I would be called on any hypocrisy because their bullshit detectors were set to “11.” Thankfully my concerns were not realized and they went pretty easy on me. I even asked one of the engineering students that I’d met beforehand (who has a wonderfully dry sense of humour and a jaded view of the world) to provide me with some feedback to my talk and he didn’t savage me. The best he could do was to suggest that living off-grid isn’t realistic since solar panels are only 20% efficient and better technologies should drive down the cost and increase the efficiency. When I argued back and used the logic that I don’t care how efficient my panels are since I’ve been able to purchase enough of them to run my household for more than a decade, he admitted that he is pursuing an engineering degree and his focus is on improving solar efficiency. In other words, it’s in his best interest to have his point of view. He wants to have something to work on once he has graduated.
The theme of the conference was “Sustainable Development.” I told my audience that I’d been a member of the City of Burlington’s “Sustainable Development Committee” 25 years ago (before these students were even born!) and in the time since then nothing has changed and our species continues on its march towards climate annihilation. I introduced the concept of a “stable state” economy, one that doesn’t grow and perhaps even contracts in size. This is a taboo concept to economists and business and governments because constant growth covers up so many deficiencies of the system. But most of us are pretty familiar with another example of endless, limitless, uncontrolled growth and it’s called cancer. If the economy grows by two and half percent a year it doubles roughly every 25 years. And that’s a good target for most economists and every 25 years the amount of stuff we take from the planet doubles. We simply have to admit the planet cannot provide this bounty forever.
One of the students challenged me and suggested that if the economy contracts social programs will be cut. My response was that if we continue on the current track and climate change isn’t controlled events like Russia’s brutal drought, Australia’s 100-year drought (and subsequent flooding) and Western Canada’s record spring rains last year (which kept farmers out of the fields and seriously delayed planting) will continue. This year’s climate events, which decimated grain yields, have the potential to cause starvation to some people on the planet. Rising sea levels are already creating environmental refugees from the Maldives in the Pacific Ocean and threaten millions of other people in low-lying countries like Bangladesh. So my response was that if given the choice between having to look at other models for social programs in Canada versus drowning people in Bangladesh, I’d take the former.
Finally when the questions began to get too technical and it was getting close to lunchtime for the conference attendees, I used the great line from over the door in the Montreal Canadian’s dressing room. I said “To you from failing hands I pass the torch” and suggested that with the brain power in that room, and the number of students who are committed to pursuing careers in environmental fields, I have no doubt that the technological solutions that I don’t have today, would be theirs to discover. Sure it was a cop out, but surprisingly enough, even I can only pretend to have all the answers for only so long.