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.
For more information about Cam Mather or his books visit www.cammather.com or www.aztext.com.