Tragedy and Evil / Hope and Resurrection

It’s been a week of religious tragedy.

When news got out about Notre Dame burning last Monday, this ubiquitous, media-worthy word – “tragedy” – sprang immediately into the headlines and conversations of the day.  It was unthinkable that such an iconic structure could be filled with flames, at that very moment.

Image credit

I have been to Notre Dame. I visited a lot of churches when I was in France. This was partly because I did much of my travelling with my Catholic flatmate, and partly because churches are lovely places to visit. They are almost always open; they are quiet; the candles smell nice; the sun comes through stained glass in beautiful colours; people from all sorts of countries gather peacefully. And the buildings are so old – there is a sense of wonder that comes just from knowing that humans stepped on these same stones many centuries ago, and that although their lives were very different from ours today, the things they saw while standing in the nave were almost exactly the same as what we see. It feels like a condensation of time.

When I heard that Notre Dame was burning, I was shocked and dismayed to think of the beauty and art and history of that building – one that means so much to so many people (as evidenced by the subsequent fundraising for repairs) was suffering damage. (Typically enough, as a francophile with an MA in French lit, I also thought immediately of Victor Hugo and how shook he would have been.)

It was a good exercise in critical thinking to talk with Sean about it. (This is often the case when I talk to my husband – about anything.) He did not switch to auto-tragedy-mode when he heard about it. He can understand why people are upset, but he sees the building as a symbol of the Catholic church, an organization of which he is none too fond. He sees it as the worst of the patriarchy and extravagance, not to mention a bastion of systemic, systematic, global, multilayered abuse. Also, it’s an organization that has a lot of money. He was frustrated thinking of all the funds pouring in to help rebuild this symbol instead of financing something that will make a real difference in the lives of those actually in need.

To his point about finances, it’s worth noting that Notre Dame has been owned by the French government, not the Catholic Church, since 1905. So, although the building’s use is “dedicated exclusively to the Roman Catholic rite”, the church is not on the hook for repairs. But we humans do have a habit of directing money towards… NOT the most urgent needs (a point illustrated by The Beaverton with the hilarious/awful article “Catholic Church assures billionaires that none of their Notre Dame donations will go to poor“).

I took a screen shot of this last week, because it is so pithy and true:

To Sean’s second point about the problems with the church, I also can’t disagree. I know lots of wonderful individual Catholics, but I am aware that Catholicism is an institution with facets that can be described as warped, monstrous, and immoral. (The Canadian Indian Residential Schools are a particular sore spot with me.) When it comes to Notre Dame, though, I argued that 1) it’s not really a Catholic symbol – France separated church and state ages ago and is pretty vehement about it, and 2) you really think we shouldn’t care about damage to historic buildings? You think you wouldn’t be awestruck, even a little bit, standing beneath those legendary arches? I think he would be. He loves history. But he is also upset with a lot of things humans have wrought, with good reason.

It’s nice to hear that the damage was not as bad as expected at Notre Dame, and that people have come to feel hopeful about it. But the point that Sean and many others keep coming back to is: it’s just a building.

Never was that more obvious than yesterday, on Easter Sunday, when – as groups all over the world pondered rebirth and second chances in their myriad forms – the news came that there had been eight bombings targeting Christians in Sri Lanka. For all the relics and art of the Notre Dame fire, no human lives were deliberately, violently taken – or even accidentally lost. It’s hardly in the same category of catastrophe. I’m sure large amounts of  art and architecture and beauty and history were destroyed in Sri Lanka yesterday, but no one is talking about that, or about what “stuff” can be salvaged from the blasts. People are talking about the almost three hundred people whose lives are over, and the thousands of others whose lives are scarred forever. THAT is tragedy.

Associated Press, via cbc.ca.

Funnily enough, I have not seen a single article about billions of dollars pouring into Sri Lanka to help in the rebuilding there. No one is feeling hopeful about this devastation. Resurrection is not forthcoming.

At the top of this post, I said that it’s been a week of “religious tragedy.” We could mention that in these specific incidents, the suffering has been mostly Christian, but really – it’s a tragedy for everyone when violence is perpetrated between religious groups. Every time someone chooses hatred as a way to express faith and make a mark on the world – and there are countless examples – it is a blight on our species. With these advanced brains, we’re supposed to do better than that.

Yesterday, as I often do on Easter, I thought about thawing and baby leaves and birth and greenness, and how grateful I am every spring for the shift into lively life. We got to take a walk by the marsh and listen to choruses of frogs and red-winged blackbirds (and we even saw a muskrat!).

At this moment, on Easter Monday, Earth Day 2019 is drawing to a close in the Eastern DS time zone. Where we live, it was a beautiful mild day when we could open windows and almost see grass growing. CBC’s top stories today include declining numbers of bumblebees in Canada, flooding in Québec, and Ontario’s “most anti-environmental” government in generations.

Here’s a photo that struck me the day after the Paris fire, posted on Twitter by Torrance Coste from B.C. (and used with permission): “This tree was 100 years old when Notre Dame was built. Others like it, part of an ecosystem thousands of years older than Paris, are cut down every day. The cathedral fire is absolutely tragic, but we wilfully destroy similar wonders for profit, and that’s worth reflecting on.”

Every time we think about a tragedy, there’s always one bigger. People are sad about Notre Dame, and I am not one to judge what makes people sad. People are sad about Sri Lanka, of course, and the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, and Mozambique, and the list goes on and on. And these wretched spots on the globe seem relatively scattered compared to We are poisoning/ flooding/ burning/ desertifying/ desecrating/ killing our planet from every source and direction. I am sad about that.

On Earth Day, I think we’re supposed to feel hopeful. We’re supposed to smile gamely and say, “Let’s clean up the world for ourselves and our kids! C’mon, everybody!” I do put on a game face for my kids and students, because we can’t just throw in the towel. There has to be hope to fuel effort… but I find it harder every year that we continue to be a stupider species than we think we are. We are terrifying close to a brink we can’t see, and I am confident that I will live to see things get a whole lot brinkier. Will we ever get serious? Will we ever shape up and quit bombing each other to focus on preserving our own habitat? As such irresponsible, squabbling, selfish denizens, do we even deserve to come back from that edge?

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Let’s put some deeper education into Earth Day

Happy Litter-Picking Day!

I say this with one part sincerity and one part facetiousness.

Litter is the thing we all – especially those of us who work with kids – can easily dive into on Earth Day. It’s a nice, manageable, do-something-able topic. And don’t get me wrong, litter is a super-stupid phenomenon that drives me bonkers, so it makes me happy to see kids becoming invested in clean public spaces. I was a pretty avid litter-picker myself, as a kid.

The only trouble I have with litter-picking is when it becomes the token gesture we make on Earth Day.

My personal tradition is to talk genuinely with my students about the environment on Earth Day. (As a French teacher, I don’t get lots of chances to discuss sustainability with my kids.) I usually find that, as a group, many of them know quite a bit about the environmental challenges facing us today: over-use of electricity and gasoline, deforestation, climate change, endangered species, etc.

And yet, so often when we have a presentation or a project or a skit about the HELPING THE EARTH, it’s “Hey everyone! Don’t litter! Let’s pick up trash!”

Frankly, picking up trash is not going to save our butts if we poison our air and water.

I know we want to present something kid-friendly, uplifting, something that will make us feel motivated to act, instead of depressing us into defeat. The sad thing is, environmental problems are not really kid-friendly. Taken in large doses, they can be dispiriting – or downright dire.

Still, there are many manageable conversations we can have with kids about living more sustainably. My almost-five-year-old understands that bananas come from very far away to reach us (and that therefore we need to calm down about the occasional brown spot – no wasting!). He knows about sorting garbage, using the recycling bin and the compost bin. Kids can get the fact that cars pollute and walking doesn’t. They can relate to turning off the water while brushing teeth, and turning off the lights we’re not using. They can see how much trash is created when you buy overpackaged goods.

Opportunities to talk about environmental responsibility are everywhere, if you’re watching out for them.

Earth Day is important to me, as a reminder that I can always do better. It’s like New Year’s for my daily environmental habits: a new start.

Now that the weather is finally improving, I’m going to get my bike tuned up (for the first time since having kids – yikes) and start using it. I resolve to get to the Farmer’s Market for local food more often, and use my clothesline whenever the weather permits. And my kids will be involved in all those things, so we can learn better habits together.

And hey, I’m sure we’ll go litter-picking too, once in a while.

Happy Earth Day! What are your resolutions?

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How Eating Smarties Can Light Your Tap Water on Fire

Do you ever have those times when you read or see something alarming and think,

Shit, this is it. We are GOING DOWN FOR SURE THIS TIME. Humans are SCREWED.

I have thought this many times. When I was a kid in the ’80s, raised (and homeschooled) by liberal activist parents, I was pretty well-versed in environmental problems even before my age reached double digits. (We watched David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things regularly.) It seemed likely to Mini-Di that we would pollute ourselves to death pretty soon.

Then I took World Issues in high school (back when Ontario still had Grade 13), and was convinced that our little planet would not be able to handle the projected human population; we’d run out of food – and livable space – by 6.5 billion.

Amazingly, here we are. We’re still truckin’, well past 7 billion. I’m not quite sure how, but who am I to question?

This week, with another Earth Day behind us and May Day upon us, I’m mad at Nestlé. Again.

Yes, it’s Nestlé. “Good Food, Good Life.” Wholesome purveyor of Smarties, Perrier, and infant emaciation.

nestle-boycott-twins
This mother was told she would only have enough milk for one of her twins. She ended up with only one twin.

There has been a boycott of Nestlé since the 1970s, because of their aggressive promotion of infant formula in developing countries, where mothers have been persuaded to formula-feed, but are unable to make formula that is safe for babies to drink, due to water contamination, language barriers, etc.

no-nestle
Boycott Nestle

Last week, there was news that this oh-so-virtuous company, the largest food company in the world, has chalked up another point for greed:

Nigella sativa — more commonly known as fennel flower — has been used as a cure-all remedy for over a thousand years. It treats everything from vomiting to fevers to skin diseases, and has been widely available in impoverished communities across the Middle East and Asia.

But now Nestlé is claiming to own it, and filing patent claims around the world to try and take control over the natural cure of the fennel flower and turn it into a costly private drug. (From GlobalResearch.)

Classy move. Clearly they’re hurtin’ for cash. Nestlé has put a “clarification” (denial) on their website, because once the internet got ahold of this, it didn’t look very good on them. Gee, if it doesn’t look good… DON’T WEAR IT IN THE FIRST PLACE.

Then there’s the incredible mercenary attitude that is jeopardizing the water that Wellington County relies on.

Nestle photo

Nestlé Waters is the world’s largest bottled water company, and Wellington County in southwestern Ontario is home to its largest bottling facility in Canada. Under its current permit, Nestlé pays $3.71 for every million litres of water it pumps from the local watershed, which it then packages in single-use plastic bottles and sells back to the public for as much as $2 million!

Despite reaping enormous profits from bottling a shared public resource, Nestlé is now arguing for an even better deal. One of the mandatory conditions built into its water-taking permit requires Nestlé to reduce pumping by 10-20 per cent during times of drought. In a recent appeal to the Environmental Review Tribunal (ERT), Nestlé has requested these restrictions be removed.

In a stunning move the Ministry of Environment (MOE) has agreed to a settlement which would weaken the conditions and potentially allow for Nestlé to pump at its maximum rate during droughts. We believe this puts Nestlé’s profit-making interests before the water rights of the people of Wellington County. (From The Council of Canadians.)

I live in Wellington County. It blows my mind when I see people in my very own city, drinking the same water that pours from their taps – out of bottles marked “Nestlé Waters”. It is an impressive feat, this brainwashing that has convinced us that water is automatically better from a disposable bottle.

THEN I read this article in the Guelph Mercury, written by a Community Editorial Board member, Cynthia Bragg, who happens to be a friend of mine. I highly recommend you read the whole thing, especially if you live in Wellington County, but here are some highlights:

Syncrude's toxic tailings pond in alberta
The Syncrude tailings pond and oilsands facility seen from a helicopter near Fort McMurray, Alta., in 2012. Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Let’s zoom in on one area of Canada: the Alberta oilsands. To produce one million barrels of oil a day, industry requires withdrawals of enough water from the Athabasca River to sustain a city of one million people, every year. But by 2020, the oilsands are expected to produce five million barrels of oil a day. In spite of constant recycling, most of the water never returns to the river. It ends up in toxic tailings ponds. […]

Las Vegas and the entire State of California are under real threat of running out of water this century, and the Hoover Dam will stop producing electricity if the water level falls by about 12 metres.

In all the Great Lakes, water levels are at an all times low as hot dry summers cause more water to evaporate than our reduced rainfall and snowmelt can replace. Cargo ships have had to reduce their loads to avoid being grounded. At one popular Michigan fishing spot, salmon were seen flopping in the mud.

In Ontario, 65 major creeks and rivers that flow out of the Oak Ridges Moraine already have lost as much as two thirds of their water. Yet golf courses are still permitted to draw three million litres a day for 180 days.

In case you don’t know, extraction of oil from the oilsands is what necessitates fracking, a process that imbues water with so many chemicals that it actually becomes flammable.

gasland_clip tap water on fire
Just add a spark.

Fracking, or horizontal hydraulic fracturing, is cleverly and understandably illustrated here.  It is being committed all over Canada.

This article rounds up a whole buffet of threats to our water. It’s a reminder that if you add them all up, it’s one lethal situation. It makes me want to use melodramatic terms like evil and doomed. YOU CANNOT JUST FUCK WITH THE WATER SUPPLY. (Yes. I used the actual word for once.) Forget car crashes and drug addictions and bullying and anorexia and sexual assault. If we don’t have a system of drinkable water, that’s it. We – and countless other species, both animal and vegetable – are DONE.

I know it’s a bummer that I’m bringing this up. I know this is really depressing reading. I know we’d all rather think about the spring flowers and sunshine and our plans for next weekend. And that’s very easy to do, when you live far away from any tailings ponds or flopping salmon.

But we need to make sure that we, as a species, are not so dumb and arrogant as to forget our dependence on existing natural systems, forget that we can indeed poison ourselves, if we’re not careful.

Here’s the good news, though: we are not that dumb. We are still growing, still polluting, but also innovating all the time. That’s the thing about humans: we manifest all the idiocy and brilliance in the world. We can do almost anything we can imagine, healing or toxic.

I admit, I’m not the kind of exemplary environmentalist that Mini-Di could be unequivocally proud of. I drive a car on a regular basis. There are bananas in my kitchen that travelled way too far to get here. I sometimes buy beverages in disposable cups even though I totally know better. But that doesn’t mean I can’t take small steps to help. All of our small steps add up, just as surely as those taken by the fracking oil execs.

Dear Wellingtonians, please click to visit Wellington Water Watchers and learn, donate, volunteer, or even just read Nestlé’s Twitter-based attempts to pretend they don’t suck. (A bit of comic relief.)

To learn more about fracking and/or sign a petition against it, please visit the Council of Canadians.

Thank you so much for reading.

P.S. I’m aware that eating Smarties does not actually light your tap water on fire. But all the water in the world is connected. And so are all the Smarties.

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