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Do We Really Care About Climate Change in Newfoundland and Labrador?

November 19, 2017

Climate change is a global issue whose major actors — and factors — seem impersonal and impenetrable. Corporations, government bodies and industry influencers make our personal attempts to reduce our own individual daily burning of fossil fuels — e.g. taking Metrobus, walking to school or work when possible, etc. — seem insignificant. Our individual efforts (or equally, our personal ignorance) thus look to be inconsequential in the face of the problem of climate change, which in turn drives many into a state of apathy.

But presumably not everyone has met the issue of climate change with complete resignation. Not everyone has covered their eyes and ears to mute the mumble jumble of convoluted, self-interested political-speak, overly technical scientific data and proliferation of semi-truths and FAKE NEWS! in the media. If that was the case, I doubt you would be reading these words.

But how much of the question “Do we care about climate change?” is entangled with the questions, “Are we going to do anything about it?” and “Are we optimistic that we even CAN do anything about it?”

I think most of us would answer this set of challenges with “Yes, but…”: “Yes, but I feel my actions are inconsequential.” “Yes, but not many others seem to care so large-scale collective action isn’t possible.” “Yes, but I don’t have faith in our government or multinational corporations to do anything about it.”

I personally do think that many of us care about our future generations, each other, and our common home, and as an extension of this, we are also concerned about climate change. When it comes down to the wire, in our hearts, tangibly, practically, personally, and emotionally, the our close relations with others and the well-being of our families are what matters to us — particularly in our most trying and existentially threatening moments. And this concern extends to our children, their children, and so on.

But if the common feeling is that individual efforts — the philosophy of “everyone-does-their-part,” — does not produce an effective force against climate change, then to what extent can we — those who concede that we care about the future of the planet and our children as a connected issue, we, who also admit that the poor suffer the most from climate change and weather related disasters, — to what extent can we collectively act and do something about climate change?

The fantasy of a global community seems to have little to no relevance on how we live our lives. The clothes we wear, the products we consume, the technology we use daily, are typically produced in conditions most of us would find deplorable and downright indigestible if we had to witness them. The disparity between the rich and poor on a world scale (for example, the fact that about 800 million people are living on less than $2 per day) should detonate any of our illusions about interpersonal care between the citizens of the world. Consequently, although we know climate change is a global issue, it often seems we depend on large governmental organizations and state representatives (rather than our common sense of care) to do something about it

Yet these actors are failing miserably. The withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement, and Trump’s clarification that the U.S. will not pay the 3 billion dollars Obama promised to the Global Climate Fund, are exemplary of that fact. Instead of committing to strategies of mitigation or even adaptation to climate change, Trump has publicly expressed his skepticism concerning the reality of climate change over one hundred times, and routinely professes his commitment to a coal, oil and gas economy, along with exercising a mythological appeal to blue collar workers to further his agenda. And frankly, Canada is not much better in its vehement commitment to expanding oil production. Furthermore, despite pressure from the UN, we in Canada currently have no plans for how to meet the 2030 target for cutting emissions. This is largely due to a complete lack of will to stop or curb the future development of fossil fuels in Canada.

So who is the “we” who could collectively act here?

For a New Earth has increasingly emphasized over the past two years that we are a Newfoundland and Labrador based initiative. One of our goals is to think globally, but to act locally. The way that people relate to each other in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador has always been tied to the land, and this for better or for worse. The narrative of our political and economic history, as Dr. Jerry Bannister among others has shown, is tied up with a Newfoundland nationalism that has been both productively motivating and stubbornly impeding.

I thus want to propose that, in reference to the question posed here — do we really care about climate change? — that we consider the “we” as Newfoundlanders and Labradorians and people who call Newfoundland and Labrador their home.

I think that the same sense of connectedness to one another and our shared identity can both, on the one hand, prompt us to come together in the face of disaster (for example, our responses to the Fort MacMurray and the Froude Avenue fires), and on the other, be misused to reinforce a bias in our choice of democratic representatives, to scathingly distinguish authentic Newfoundlanders and Labradorians from CFA’s, and arguably, can to induce us to go ahead with large scale energy products that are doomed to be economic failures. But could this collective identity and love, along our unique ecological disposition in this province, propel us into action concerning climate change?

If the answer would entail renouncing oil profits in the name of ideology, I would answer no.

In Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador alike, if it is profitable to drill and extract oil, we are going to do it. Oil companies may adopt varying strategies in the direction of either greenwashing or slowing down their production rates, but must remain skeptical as to why these companies would do this. Green washing by corporations is typically not an indicator of sort of paradigm shift. Rather, in cases like Norway, slowing down oil production seems to have been in view of increasing profit over time, and furthering the goal to be the so called “last man standing” or sole player in a given oil market or area.

Furthermore, it is noteworthy that small lifestyle changes by Newfoundlanders and Labradorians towards reducing personal carbon emissions will not stop huge corporations and factories in our own backyard from producing fossil fuels. Worse again is the reality that Canada “exports most of the fossil fuels we produce,” and thus a decrease in our local carbon footprints will not have a significant impact on Canada’s decision to expand and pursue oil production.

In our province, after the devastating decrease of oil prices in recent years and the effect on the our local economy, it is obvious that, whether we care about climate change or not, we should be diversifying our sources of income. But if we are to choose solutions in the future that specifically make a step away from the oil and gas industry, there are two major factors to consider: (1) the current political situation, (2) the relation between our lifestyles and the relation to our geography and infrastructure.

Muskrat Falls has shown itself to be an economic failure which has significantly negatively impacted the future of large scale green energy in the province. When initiatives in small countries like Denmark and Norway towards a green diversification of their economy are presented as an analogy for the possibilities of Newfoundland and Labrador, most of us locals laugh. What politician would touch that issue with a ten foot pole? The fact that Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador is emphasizing the bleak reality that almost no one wants to be a politician in this province is not irrelevant here.

I think, realistically, alternative large scale green energy projects will not to be the answer to our future. Rather, the impending question for our provincial politicians in the coming years seems much more related to whether we are going to see the failure of Muskrat Falls reflected directly on our energy bills. Interestingly, as discussed by local economist Dr. Jim Feehan, if we force Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to pay for Muskrat Falls through a direct increase in our energy bills, the result could be that individuals search for alternative heating options for their homes, which would bring us right back to the same carbon emissions problem have now.

The second point to consider in whether we will decide in the near future in Newfoundland and Labrador to take a step away from the development of fossil fuels is the particularity of this physical place itself, and the relation of geographical considerations to our lifestyle. To live on the island of Newfoundland in particular is to be committed to Newfoundland, whether you’re a Newfoundlander born and bred or a Come-From-Away (CFA). This is another factor that contributes to our shared sense of identity: that is, the fact that we are stuck here. Our geography poses a challenge when conceiving of alternatives to air travel for getting off of the island. It also makes envisioning mass-scale cycling and the implementation of effective street cars difficult.

But we have to think about what things we can change about our lifestyles in reference to living on this rock, or in regions of Labrador which also suffer from harsh winters, are marked by rugged landscapes and have poor connection possibilities for travel to the rest of Canada (such as the still largely unpaved Trans-Labrador Highway). The St. John’s sprawl has increased dramatically over the past twenty years, yet alternatives to vehicle-travel in the city (and in the rest of the province) have not seemed to increase. Further to this, we have since offered no deterrents to people who live a carbon-heavy lifestyle day to day, and there are no incentives in place for people who work, on the other hand, to live more sustainably.

In general, we must deal with a philosophico-sociological question which I think remains largely unanswered in this province: what type of province do Newfoundlanders and Labradorians want to live in? A province that provides effective healthcare, a thriving university and that invests in grassroots initiatives to care for our common home? Or an individualist province with the lowest possible taxes subsidized by the exploitation of natural resources?

It is my hope that by engaging in local events and active, trans-disciplinary discussions surrounding ecology and the future of our province, we can change the framework of considerations which inform our disposition in key decision making processes. Hopefully in the crucial, futural moment of caesura in which we will have to decide “what next?” for Newfoundland and Labrador, this disposition will be enough to carry us away from the gospel of fossil fuel development as we quite literally try to keep this rock afloat.

Kyla Bruff

This post is also featured on Kyla Bruff’s personal blog, www.gotmedrove.com.

FANE Public Lecture: Do We Really Care About Climate Change?

November 5, 2017

On Tuesday, November 7th at 8pm, three members of the For A New Earth team will publicly discuss the question “Do We Really Care About Climate Change?” at the Ship Pub. Is the answer hopeful, pessimistic, pragmatist, or otherwise?

More specifically in recent months, in view of Trump’s defection from Paris, the rise of one populist government after another in Europe, the worst summer on record for heat and dangerous storms, and the resignation of climatologists that we will not meet the Paris targets, we are prompted to ask: Why don’t we care? Why do we proceed on a path of self-destruction when we know better? Why don’t we do what we know we ought to do?

Please join us on Tuesday at 8pm, as Dr. Sean McGrath, Dr. Barry Stephenson, and PhD Candidate Kyla Bruff discuss the most pressing issue of our time–and why some don’t seem to mind.

**Listen to the talk on the Podcast page

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The Ongoing Muskrat Falls Debacle: How not to Develop the North

June 27, 2017

The massive hydro-electric project on the lower Churchill River in Labrador is expected to go online in 2019. Described as a “boondoggle” by policy makers and at 12.7 billion dollars–over double the anticipated budget–the Muskrat Falls project emerged into international attention in the fall of 2016 when protesters occupied the Labrador premises of the Newfoundland and Labrador energy corporation, Nalcor. The protesters demanded that the company and the government of Newfoundland heed a joint MUN/Harvard study that proved that if the flood basin was not cleaned of vegetation prior to flooding, the surrounding lands would be poisoned with methylmercury for years to come, endangering the lives of Innu and Inuit who depended upon the fish and game to survive. At the zero hour, and with an unprecedented hunger strike threatening the lives of protesters, the government relented and agreed to clear the basin. But problems continue to this day, with Nalcor refusing to produce documentation to satisfy local concerns that the builders of the dam have reckoned with the seasonal instability of the river bank (particularly the north spur), and also denying, against local knowledge, that spawning salmon populations are at risk due to low water levels. The protest has never in fact stopped, as this writer learned recently on a visit to the site.

Economically, no one denies that Muskrat is a fiscal disaster. Nalcor CEO, Stan Marshall, sees little prospects for the province to recoup its losses. “I think this project is a hell of a lot worse … deal than the Upper Churchill,” Marshall said in  recent interview (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/stan-marshall-muskrat-falls-nupdate-1.4174569). MUN economist Dr. James Feehan has proven that it is virtually impossible for the project to break even. Moreover, by flooding the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador with hydro-electric energy for generations, Muskrat Falls has doomed the development of other sustainable energy in the province, such as wind and solar. The project is called “green” but when one considers the transformation of the Churchill river, the flooding of indigenous ancestral lands, and the adverse effect on human and non-human communities, the descriptor is dubious at best.

Historian Dr. Jerry Bannister at Dalhousie University has argued that the 20th century political history of Newfoundland is key to understanding why the project goes ahead, despite its unprofitability. In the early 2000, former NL premier Danny Williams’ promised to make right the infamous bad deal signed by Premier Joey Smallwood in the late 60s to export hydro-electric power through Quebec from the dam on the upper Churchill river in Labrador. The Churchill Falls dam is an infamous economic failure for the province. According to the original deal, Newfoundland and Labrador must sell the power to Quebec at 1969 rates, while Quebec resells the energy at current rates. According to conservative estimates, Newfoundland and Labrador has lost billions of dollars on Churchill Falls. Muskrat Falls, according to Bannister, is driven not so much by neo-Liberal economic as by Newfoundland nationalism.

Sean J. McGrath

FANE Retreat 2017

April 28, 2017

On Saturday the 4th of March 2017, the FANE planning team (Jens Soentgen, Tracy O’Brien, Michelle Mahoney, Kyla Bruff, Barry Stephenson, and Sean McGrath) spent a day at Clarke’s Beach re-visioning For a New Earth. After an intense day of trans-disciplinary discussion, it was agreed that (1) FANE would concentrate on ecological conversion, in all of its philosophical, theological, and socio-political depths; and (2) it would root itself in Newfoundland and Labrador. We hope to move to non-profit status soon, and to launch a series of initiatives in the province aimed at deploying science, art, and philosophy for the sake of awakening and mobilizing care for our common home in our province. Thanks to Michelle Mahoney and Peter Wilkins for hosting.

Dr. Barry Stephenson in the Memorial University Gazette: Climate Change Demands Radical Transformation

December 1, 2016

Read Dr. Barry Stephenson’s recent op-ed for Memorial University’s Gazette:

“The crux of the matter is that climate change demands radical transformation on a collective scale at a moment in social-cultural history characterized by hyper-individualism, cynicism about social institutions and politics, and, outside of sporting events, the absence of occasions to experience broad-based group identity and solidarity.”

Read the full article on the MUN website.

Town Hall Meeting on Climate Change and The Green Economy in NL

November 15, 2016

Memorial University, For A New Earth and St. Bonaventure’s College to host town hall meeting on climate change and the green economy in Newfoundland and Labrador

What is a Green EconomyMemorial University of Newfoundland, with the support of St. Bonaventure’s College, and facilitated by the SSHRC-funded research group, For A New Earth, will host a town hall meeting on the theme “What is a Green Economy?” on Tues., November 29 from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. The two-hour event will feature presentations by experts in ecology, economics, and rural development, as well as an open forum for members of the general public to speak to the challenges facing the province as it transitions from fossil fuels to green, renewable energy in an era of global climate change.

Dr. Sean McGrath (Department of Philosophy and director of For A New Earth) will moderate with Dr. Barbara Neis (Department of Sociology), Dr. James Feehan (Department of Economics) and Dr. Bill Montevecchi (Ocean Sciences) presenting. An open discussion will follow the presentations.

The event is designed to foster a greater dialogue among all interested parties and stakeholders concerned with the greening of the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador and is intended to create greater public awareness of the social, political and ecological complexity of renewable energy and resource development in the province.

Among the questions addressed will be: What exactly is a green economy? Who is best served by it? Who are the stakeholders in the inevitable transition from fossil fuels to renewables? What role will there be in the green economy for rural communities? How much energy do we need, and why?

What is a Green Economy? will be held in the historic Aula Maxima of St. Bonaventure’s College, 2 Bonaventure Avenue, St. John’s. Parking is available.

For more information, please contact Dr. Sean McGrath at 709-746-3897 or email sjoseph.mcgrath@gmail.com.

Sean McGrath on Muskrat Falls: Score one for democracy

November 10, 2016

Read Sean McGrath’s recent letter to The Telegram regarding a Globe and Mail article about the Muskrat Falls protests:

“In both the editorial and the press conference that preceded it from St. John’s, we were told that this is a victory for science, or even that science will henceforth decide how to proceed. It is not a victory for science at all. It is a victory for democracy. … Democracy, this time, in the form of political protest such as has never before been seen in the province.”

Read the full article on The Telegram website.

Sean McGrath in The Telegram: N.L. should be leading the way to a green economy

October 22, 2016

Read Sean McGrath’s recent letter to The Telegram:

“A Harvard study has reminded us that while hydroelectric plants do not emit significant greenhouse gasses, the construction of the dam on the Lower Churchill could poison and destroy Innu and Inuit hunting and fishing grounds. The protests this week in Labrador and St. John’s demonstrate that not everyone sees this as a reasonable price to pay for renewable energy.”

Read the full article on The Telegram website.

Dr. Barry Stephenson: “Ecology and the Ritual Body”

May 22, 2016

Dr. Barry Stephenson

Dr. Barry Stephenson

Dr. Barry Stephenson
Department of Religious Studies, Memorial University

We’ve forgotten that we are bodies, and this forgetfulness is a significant part of what ails us.

Last summer I heard rumors of a new group –‘For a New Earth,’ — and their plans for a rather quixotic event on Newfoundland’s West Coast. It was immediately clear that something more than a standard academic conference was in the works, and that is what attracted me to it. Yes, there would be numerous papers and presentations and panels, but art, music, performance, feasting, conversation, walking—these would also take centre stage, supplementing, amplifying, perhaps even negating the ethos of a conference.

People were unsure about the performative genre that was being created—‘conference’ did not capture the range of the action; ‘event’ sounded too generic and managerial. At some point, I suggested it was a ‘festival,’ and the idea stuck in the minds of some. I had my own reasons for dropping the ‘festival’ label—much of my research and teaching is in the area of ritual studies, so it was a way of making myself relevant.

‘For a New Earth.’ What does this mean? In papers and discussions last fall some raised critical questions, reading into the phrase an effort to pull the earth up by her own bootstraps—we will make the earth new, we will change things on her behalf, since she is unable—and saw in this a misguided, problematic, hubristic sensibility resting at the very heart of life in the anthropocene. I sensed something different in that little word, ‘for’: I imagined the phrase and the festival in terms of an offering, a gift given to the earth—and gifts, freely given, are a means expressing thanks and sustaining relationships: perhaps the festival was as much a gratuitous, celebratory gesture as a ‘staged intervention.’ It may also have been a cry of despair (which is the tack I took in producing a short film of images and voices, ‘Remembering the Future of Nature’).

An early book in the theorizing of festivity, written a generation ago, was titled In Tune with the World. Festivals, ideally, attune people to their local surroundings, to each other, to their histories and traditions. One way of imagining our ecological crisis is that we are out of tune, our beliefs, attitudes, practices are discordant, they lack harmony—from this musical perspective, ritual action is one way of getting in tune, of becoming attuned. Ritual is not merely or even chiefly confirmatory or expressive but rather noetic, a way of knowing, and also pragmatic, a way of responding. Another thing rituals such as festivals accomplish is the making of kin outside the biological line – weddings are the obvious example, or traditions of making godparents and godchildren. But festival cultures also build and sustain close relationships with others across space and time. At the follow-up event to The Future of Nature, The Future, the Arts and Ecology, held this past March, after Dr. Eaton’s talk, during the opening reception, I heard several people comment, “it is like a family reunion.”

I am pointing here to the ritual dimensions of ecological crisis and response, and suggesting that For a New Earth is informed, though rather tacitly, unconsciously, half-knowingly, with a ritual intuition, a recognition that form is as important as content; if our choreographies simply ape our worldview, not much changes, regardless of the content the apes speak. Dystonic bodily forms cannot simply be thought or desired away, at will. A ‘disposition,’ lets remember, is a thoroughly embodied phenomenon—attitude, position, posture, stance, pose, inclination, stand—we think in and through our body. There exists an interplay of bodily habits, patterns of practical ways of being in the world, and forms of thought and valuing. In western culture, the body has been long been subjugated to semantic content, and the tentative, awkward ritualizing that took place during The Future of Nature bears this fact out.

So, the big question: Is the nature of our ritualizing part of the ecological crisis facing us, and is ritual in any way part of the answer? Ritual barely makes it on to the map of ecological and environmental concerns and responses, even though Native traditions, which are often lauded for being ecologically sensitive, are generally ritual-centric, and there does exists a growing tradition of ritualized responses to ecological crisis—the Buddhist practice in Thailand, for example, of ordaining trees in the face of deforestation.

Sometimes a hard brush stroke is needed to give a picture some definition. Is it easier to think oneself into a new way of acting, or act oneself into a new way of thinking? By ‘act’ here I don’t mean merely activism—throwing our selves at the barriers, chaining our bodies to trees, laying down in front of bulldozers—though certainly more of that is direly needed. Nor do I mean only the action of digging into the soil with one’s hands, planting and harvesting, though more dirt under our fingernails is also a pressing need. I mean ritual action—stylized, repetitive, elevated, condensed, formalized, embodied enactment—and this kind of action may well complement both activism and activities such as gardening.

In the opening scene of the acclaimed film The Sacrifice, written and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, Alexander, an aging professor and theatre critic, a man of words and ideas, wanders with his young son along a bleak shoreline, plants a scraggly tree, and ponders the mysteries of life. Alexander tells his son a short tale of a monk who each day carries a dipper of water up a mountain to water a tree. He does this for three years, and one morning, he arrives to find the tree in full blossom. Alexander continues: “You know, sometimes I say to myself, if every single day, at exactly the same stroke of the clock one were to perform the same act, like a ritual, unchanging, systematic, every day at the same time, the world would be changed. Yes, something would change, it would have to.”

Gary Snyder has penned many sinewy lines; this is one of them: “Performance is currency in the world’s deep gift economy.” So, I ask, as we continue to live in and toward the future that is now: upon what kind of performative currency are we building our exchanges, the intercourse among persons and the intercourse of person with the environment? How do we offer deep gifts to the earth and its inhabitants? What acts, what gestures, what postures, what words, dedicatedly rehearsed, rightly performed, and collectively enacted can save the planet? That question seems as urgent to me as questions about the ideas, attitudes or ethics that might save us.

When religious liberals or secular humanists or philosophers wrestle with ecology, it is ideas, beliefs, and ethics that are first and foremost laid on the table. The guiding assumption is: get the idea right, the value right, the facts right, and the rest will follow. Within my field of religious studies, Sallie McFague’s The Body of God: Toward an Ecological Theology is an exemplary case. Catherine Keller, in her review of the book, writes: “McFague has created something important and necessary—a model of God specifically for the sake of the earth. If traditional concepts of god have alienated us from the bodies of the material world, then what alternative do we have?” The solution, argues McFague and echoes Keller, is a better concept—in this case, feminist inspired images of the sacred. Elsewhere, we read or hear of a call for a better ethic, or for improved scientific knowledge—all this necessary, to be sure, but also terribly insufficient. No number of Earth Charters, no matter how laudable the principles informing them, will amount to a hill of beans without ways of driving those attitudes deeply into our bones and sinews and organs and brains.  We can imagine our relationship to the earth as an I-Thou relationship—but if there is no exchange of gifts, no embodied gestures, such a relationship does not exist because we are, after all, bodies not minds.

Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth-century mystic, healer and visionary, wrote of the “green life force of flesh,” so she can help in the greening of religion, and we should use her words; they are good words. Religious leaders are now scouring scriptures and textual traditions in search of images, translatable into concepts and precepts that might inspire ecologically responsible behavior. Keepers of the world’s religions are also variously putting tradition in the dock as well as defending tradition against attacks that blame our religious inheritance for the sorry state of the environment. In self-defense, they launch criticisms of economic greed and human failure to exercise stewardship of the land. The monotheistic traditions bear a large share of the blame, because of their entanglement in Western ideologies of natural domination and dualistic separation. The truth is that none of the large-scale religions has resources adequate to the crisis. None of the “world” religions is an earth religion.

If one asks, What are all those bodies in McFague’s book doing? The answer is that they are thinking, imagining, or acting ethically. What they are not doing is ritualizing. The connection between ethics and ritual is not at all obvious in the popular mind, in religiously motivated environmental activism, in philosophical treatises, or in ritual theory, for that matter. It seems we’ve forgotten that we are bodies, and this forgetfulness is, I think, a significant part of what ails us. As For a New Earth grows and moves and shifts, its members would do well to reflect on the role and place of formative ritualized gestures.