Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

To Be Or Not To Be The Change

I wonder when Gandhi purportedly said “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” if he didn’t secretly think to himself, “oh I do hope they don’t find that too clichéd.” Our modern world has a terrifyingly remarkable capacity to eschew reality according to its own taste, and to transform even prophets of peace into palatable icons for the insatiable appetite of consumerism. But this divide between reality as it is and how it appears to be both informs today’s talk, and becomes apparent as we dig deeper. How we get to that point is a scene that would remind Dorothy and Toto of being uprooted, blown away, and then brought back to earth. And the question we begin with is that even though we believe in the ecological crisis and agree that that necessitates certain shifts in our daily lives, when it comes down to it however, we falter. It is to address this gap between knowledge and action that Tim Ward and Tzeporah Berman stand on stage with (metaphorical) levers, ready to deconstruct our Kansas of convenience.


Metaphor and narration are elemental for Ward who reaches the issue of language - what I find to be - the heart of the subject quickly. His recent book is about what he assures to be are metaphorical Zombies on Kilimanjaro. His motive for choosing that trope was in the idea of zombieness, how someone can have their mind taken over by an idea and run by someone else. Not unlike an automaton.


As I reiterate his words, a classic scene from Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead comes to mind, wherein a group of survivors encounter a horde of zombie shoppers in a mall- mountains beyond mountains -and the only explanation is that they have become habituated to that to the point that the idea of consumption runs them. That idea has been propagated by the language of economics and belief in exponential and infinite growth in a finite universe . “It is no accident,” says Ward, “that the ‘tar-sands’ have become the ‘oil-sands.’” It is clearly an attempt by better storytellers to tell their own version. Ward believes that the language you choose is critical because there is no shortage of counter narratives that challenge the fact that we are no longer in Kansas.


Tzeporah Berman, former co-director of Greenpeace International’s Climate and Energy program, begins on a similar note when she says that it is little wonder why there is a gap between awareness and action: the climate debate has long been focused on lifestyle and that framing itself is faulty. Berman says that this leads to us being guilt-ridden and overwhelmed and Ward later add that this is the case until we become paralyzed. Is it only about walking to work and switching to better light bulbs, asks Berman. And even though people are beginning to realize how the rhetoric of consumption has run humanity on a conveyor belt headed to the ‘mystic’ portal of happiness, we are still polluting more. This is because 80% of the pollution is caused by big polluters.


Ward wonderfully says that the greatest motivation for humanity has long been fear, but this motivation-not unlike fossil fuels-runs out and we become exhausted if there is nothing but fear. And when that happens, people just switch to a different channel and tune into a nicer story. To facilitate that switch, to turn the long mistreated environment into the Wicked Witch and to hang our hopes on the Good Witch, played by the market and the religion of economics, Berman says that the government has actively pursued a systematic elimination of knowledge. Whether it be the elimination of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, or the decision to shut down the Experimental Lake Station , or spending 80 million dollars in ads to cover the embarrassment that is the tar-sands (and the ‘tar-sands’ is what is, says Ward, and not the ‘oil-sands’ which he refuses to acknowledge).


Its brilliant how a few moments into the evening, the talk has turned into a conversation and both Berman and Ward are together reconstructing the Babel of truth, only this time with renewable energy and an alternative plan. They both note how the bright side of things is constituted by the fact that those alternatives now really do exist, that we really do have the capacity, in terms of both technology and investment, to revision the future. And the primary way to do this is by observing our use of language to disseminate these ideas. Berman says that part of the reason why the people have been disengaged from this conversation is because they have been approached with the language of the lobby. She says that the environmental movement is possibly the most policy-wonkish movement and there is no need to reiterate that policy talk when bringing together people.


And not only have we misused language on Turtle Island , but we have also long used it to label many others as the flying minions of the Wicked Witch, which allows us to see ourselves as innocent. One example of this is the emphasis on the questionable human rights of the Saudi government, which are not under contention here, but that emphasis gives the green flag to the tar-sands. And even though China has long faced a similar bumper sticker, it has seen a 700% increase in ‘green’ investment, setting up wind turbines at the rate of every hour for the last year. Ward says that it is hard for us to surrender the myth of the nice Canadian and to realize that we are now seen internationally with a different set of lenses.


In the end, both Berman and Ward focus on the need for a vision of what the road at the end of this play looks like. Is it a scene where we look back and tell our grandkids, who listen in utter bewilderment, how we once relied completely on fossil fuels, or do we tell them that we saw our house go up in flames but decided to wait it out until the flames reached the second floor before panicking. The change lies in that vision, but that requires a wee bit more than just closing our eyes and tapping our feet.