Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Earth Day in the Capital

“We should give more than we take.”

These words, spoken by award-winning Nishnaabeg storyteller Leanne Betasamosake Simpson Saturday night, illustrated one of the evening’s themes. In observance of Earth Day, the Ottawa International Writer’s Festival brought Betasamosake Simpson together with Ian Hanington and David Suzuki for an evening of storytelling, reflection, and calls to action.

It can often seem difficult in the bustle of modern living to appreciate the impact of our species on our planet, and many people struggle with connecting to the natural world.  The stories shared by Betasamosake Simpson reflected upon the fundamental relationship between humanity and this sphere we call home, and the responsibility we have to ourselves, our ancestors, and our descendants to become actively engaged in protecting and improving it. Her reading—a mix of modern legend, traditional stories, and insightful commentary—held the audience in thrall.  She used an understated yet direct approach, skilfully using her storytelling to deliver a compelling message about the responsibility of individuals to take action.

For people seeking solutions to the environmental crises facing our planet, it can be overwhelming to consider their complexity and discover ways to make a difference.  Ian Hanington and David Suzuki co-wrote Just Cool It! in an effort to describe not only the current state of climate science, but also the actions that can still make a difference.  When Hanington described the early days of the book, he said the goal was to make it, “at least two-thirds about solutions.”  His discussion of the book, and the importance of becoming scientifically informed and taking part in the movement which is demanding change, provided a backdrop for Suzuki’s insight and passion.

It goes without saying, David Suzuki is a powerful speaker.  His depth of knowledge was readily apparent, and his scientific approach, very convincing. Suzuki, too, understands the power of storytelling to motivate people to action.  His stories, about meeting with business people and politicians from the other side of the divide, shed light into one of the major obstacles to the environmental movement: the force of the economy.  His stance begins with fundamentals.  He says that the cleanliness of the air, water, and soil along with the biodiversity that keeps food chains and natural cycles intact are the highest priorities of humanity.  Yet the economy has no measure for the value of these things, and this is a crucial problem.  He said, “We’re constantly asking nature to fit our constructs - to feed our economies.  It’s the other way around.”  His call to action involves making it clear to elected representatives that the environment is a priority, “we have to inform the leaders what we expect them to do.”

Reciprocity, action, hope: the themes of the night were cohesive and focused.  In a panel that followed, Betasamosake Simpson, Hanington, and Suzuki delved into the importance of deepening our connection to the earth, of sharing that connection with children, and of “being eco-warriors on their behalf,” according to Hanington.  These experts are aware of the overwhelm and even hopelessness that surrounds the environmental issues of the day, but responded instead with a clear message.  “You have to have hope,” said Suzuki, before describing the surprising rebound of the sockeye salmon population in British Columbia’s rivers.   “Nature surprised us, but we have to pull back and give her a chance.  We don’t know enough to say it’s too late.”