One thing about growing to an advanced age is that one becomes clued in on how repetitive is human experience.
I have been reminded of this --- again! --- by an announcement this week of a finding by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that has been doggedly pursuing a work of documenting the threats to human survival in a planned series of reports, of which this is the second, I believe.
This one deals with the degradation of land, and what can be done about it. It certainly took me back about four or five decades to a time when I was an eager-eyed young reporter — not that young any more, already into my mid-forties --- uncovering uncomfortable facts about the way we were managing our land, our resources and our economy, among other things.
It was a more or less accepted fact that our intensive, chemically-aided method of agriculture was having the effect of drastically reducing the productive possibilities of our land. But when I looked into what was being done to stop that by our elected government, I discovered that not only was nothing being done to stop it, but we had a huge government department --- the agriculture department --- dedicated entirely, and without question, to a system of land management that everyone conceded was worsening the situation.
Huge areas of Canadian agricultural land were covered in mono-cultured crops --- wheat, oats, barley across the prairies, maize (corn), soy beans, and various other crops in more moderate climate areas such as Ontario.
When I asked the department what care was being taken to stop soil erosion, which seemed to be an inevitable consequence of our present system, I discovered the federal government employed just one man tasked with that job. Just one.
That a prestigious international panel of scientific experts should now, decades later, have announced their findings that sustainable land use has to be one bow in the armoury of the fighters to reduce global warming (caused by human actions), might be described as a welcome acknowledgement of what has been known for decades but could also be described as shutting the stable door after the horses have escaped. In face of research such as this describing already well-known facts, my wife used to say, “My grandmother could have told them that.”
Anyway, I don’t want to pretend that I know, or ever knew, the answers to these major questions facing human kind if we are to survive. Only that I remember meeting many visionaries who did have answers to them, who were resolutely ignored.
For example, on the question of saving productive agricultural land , of which Canada has a strictly limited supply, most of it in the southern reaches surrounding our major cities, I remember one professor by name of Norman Pearson, at one of the southern Ontario universities, who made this his virtual hobby horse. As anyone can see who looks at the land around our cities, productive agricultural land is sill being gobbled up for urban development as we speak.
I worked on an NFB film, whose title, Niagara for Sale? Posed the dilemma in stark terms. I recall a Minister of Agriculture at the time, Eugene Whelan was his name, telling our camera that if he had money to invest he would be better to put it into Canada savings bonds than into trying to grow food for Canada’s city-dwellers. One man who produced locally-grown tomatoes complained to us that he could not match the prices for which competing tomatoes imported from the United States were being offered. The shrug of indifference with which the Minister addressed that dilemma told us all we needed to know about our government’s attitude towards land management as related to food production. Leave it to California seemed to be the idea.
Similarly around the same time I came across a well-heeled maverick businessman stationed in one of the small towns north-east of Toronto, who had produced a scheme for handling the problem of urban growth by setting out to direct growing urban populations into smaller towns across Ontario’s middle north region, the towns to be linked as in a chain, and with easy access to markets in Toronto, already a burgeoning monster bulging at the seams. This man’s sensible idea --- the sort of thing that had been successfully tried out by the British Labour government after the war with its satellite New Towns around London ---- was never even given the time of day by any authorities in Canada. The only time I heard anything more about this visionary was during the Oka crisis when a news report said he had used his own helicopter to fly food supplies in behind the lines to the indigenous protesters who were at gun-point with the troops of the Canadian state for many weeks.
It is possible, of course, that the vary facts of Canada’s existence, cheek by jowl as we are against the world’s most successful capitalist state, simply have not left us the room in which to experiment in any meaningful way with social engineering. If true, that is a devastating indictment of our political class, for Canada is a nation built on a vast territory, with a growing and constantly better-educated work force, with the infrastructure to put in place whatever solutions we might decide upon in face of our major problems.
Though our agriculture department, devoted with almost fanatical zeal to our system of chemical food production, may be beyond being shaken free of its shibboleths, surely the same could not be said of our urban populations, for whom all global knowledge sits right at our doorsteps. Yet here again, the results have not be particularly spectacular. I remember the enthusiasm with which the first Trudeau government of the late 1960s and early 1970s approached these intractable problems. An urban affairs department was established, major investigations into the state of Canada’s cities were undertaken, but unfortunately this new department, standing somewhere between the already-established federal departments, and the different responsibilities of provinces, turned out not to have the muscle needed if it were to elbow itself into a position of strength. So, all the studies done were simply shelved, and the department cancelled as a brave, but ultimately failed experiment.
In addition to that, however, a series of innovative initiatives were put in place to improve the means by which citizens might play their part in social and economic change. The Company of Young Canadians, for example, enabled federally-supported activists to be established among vulnerable populations throughout the country, with the aim of helping them evolve meaningful responses to problems that otherwise might have seemed beyond their powers. The Local Initiative Programme invited people who thought they had a good idea for some improving local initiative to put their ideas into practice. And there were several other similar initiatives whose names escape me for the moment, which, considered together, argued that our government was aware of what might be needed if we were to improve our response to major difficulties that lay ahead of us.
I remember several years later asking the man who had been minister responsible for most of these initiatives, Gerard Pelletier, by the time I met him Ambassador in Paris, what had happened to all these good ideas. He said the explanation was simple: it was perfectly okay for the Company of Young Canadians to organize to help impoverished tribesmen in Indian reserves in remote locations, in other words, people without any political influence, but when the same effort was directed to the poor crowding in the east end of most of our major cities, the civic authorities immediately heard of it, and went immediately to Ottawa with the following request: ‘What the hell do you think you are doing financing opposition to us among the poor?” It took only one such response for the initiative to be cancelled.
Ah, well, just some meaningless musing about opportunities tried out and abandoned. To which I am afraid I have to reintroduce my mantra,
“Wot the hell, wot the hell, toujours gai, toujours gai?”
The report’s full name is