Spring and the holiday of Passover are all about renewal and hope. This year, as our elders begin receiving the coronavirus vaccines and our economy appears to be recovering from the most critical disruption in living memory, things seem promising. We anticipate fleeing our bondage of social isolation and being transported to a land, if not of milk and honey, at least to a place of mixing and hugging.
We have (hopefully) learned a great deal. There have been many opportunities to benefit from the disruption in our lives. At the individual level, we may have learned new skills or crafts – like cross stitch or baking sourdough! – or used the time to study new fields or languages. On the collective level, we have learned that the entire world, regardless of governance, religion, language and every other difference, could mobilize (albeit not equally well) to respond to a crisis.
We also learned that, when necessary, many governments and societies could rise to the occasion (again, with different levels of competence) to save lives. Billions of dollars were “found” to save potentially devastated economies and support businesses and households. Scientists and medical professionals cooperated across boundaries to search for vaccines and to care for the ill. Ordinary people – not just first responders and others in the direct line of care but grocery clerks and those who provide services previously taken for granted – became heroes of the moment.
As the months dragged on, divisions emerged. People and their governments sometimes differed on the best responses, or any response at all. A cohort emerged questioning everything, from the best ways to stop the spread of the virus to the very existence of the virus that has infected more than 100 million and killed more than 2.5 million.
As we hopefully approach the beginning of the end of this extraordinary era, let us remember its beginning – not the fear of the unknown that engulfed us, but the unity the world seemed to exhibit in coming together to confront a danger that knows no borders.
Imagine the challenges we might be able to face and resolve if we could mobilize the world the way we did in those earliest moments of the pandemic. Can we come together to finally confront the climate emergency, which could be every bit as fatal as an unchecked virus if not addressed? Can we unite to overcome racial divisions and inequality? Can we even marginally close the chasm between richest and poorest in Canada and across the planet?
The incredible hurdle that was thrown across our civilization’s path a year ago showed our capacity for coming together when the stakes were high enough.
There are a lot of areas where the stakes are high. Can we take the lessons we’ve learned over the past 12 months and apply them there?
Seth Klein brings his book A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency to the Jewish Book Festival on Feb. 22. (photo by Erica Johnson)
At this year’s virtual Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival, which runs Feb. 20-25, Seth Klein is among the many writers featured. He will talk about his new book, A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, which came out last September.
Klein was the founding director of the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), a position he held from 1996 to 2018, and was also a founder of the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition. He is a board member with the nonprofit Dogwood and an advisory board member for the Columbia Institute’s Centre for Civic Governance. He is a founder, advisor and instructor for Next Up, a leadership program for young people committed to social and environmental justice, as well. He spoke with the Independent in advance of his Feb. 22 book festival presentation.
JI: How did you come to write this book?
SK: When you spend 22 years at the CCPA, you’re forever in this place of what you think should happen versus what our governments are prepared to consider, but never more so than in the case of the climate emergency, where we all live in this harrowing space. I wanted to write a book that would tackle that, that would convince particularly our political leaders, specifically those who say they get it, to be more daring than they have been to date in tackling the emergency.
Originally, the book was to have a single chapter on the Second World War, as an example of rapid economic transformation, but the more I delved into that story, the more I saw parallels between the war and the current crisis – not just on the economic front, but well beyond that. I saw parallels in terms of the role of civil society, the mobilization of the populace, the role of Indigenous people and the need to take care of those who make sacrifices; for example, those working in the fossil fuel industry, who need a just transition, modeled after the care for returning soldiers. I also saw cautionary tales around the squashing of civil rights, the things we don’t want to repeat. To speak to a parallel to which the Jewish community has the most connection: the response to refugees.
JI: Can you say a little more about that last point?
SK: Despite Canada rallying to fight the good fight in Europe, we slammed the door on Jewish refugees before, during and after the war. Years ago, I heard Cindy Blackstock, the amazing Indigenous child welfare advocate, give a very simple definition of reconciliation: reconciliation means not having to say “sorry” twice – you learn from what you did. Canada’s behaviour towards the Jewish community during the Second World War was shameful. I believe that the issue of global climate refugees is going to be one of the defining issues of the next 50 to 100 years. We’re going to have to decide who we want to be this time.
JI: You write that the Mackenzie King government resisted entering the Second World War until the last moment and, even after joining, was slow to ramp up efforts to what was needed. You note that the first nine months of the war are called by historians “the phony war,” and write that we seem to be in the “phony war” stage in our fight against the climate crisis. Can you elaborate on that?
SK: The comparison is really strong. The “phony war” is the period between when they declared war and when things got real. At the beginning of the war, the threat was not clear and present to most Canadians. The fall of France was the moment that the popular zeitgeist shifted. Today, we have the Trudeau government passing a bill acknowledging the climate emergency one day, in the summer of 2019, and then, the next day, re-approving the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. That is what I call “the new climate denialism.” It manifests in all these governments who say they get it but don’t act like they actually do. In our province, it manifests most clearly in having the most robust climate plan in the country, which we do, and, at the same time, doubling down on fracking and LNG – and you can’t make the math work. That’s the phony war.
JI: What are the assumptions that block government progress on climate action?
SK: The measures that have been adopted so far are largely grounded in what are called “neoliberal” assumptions, which state that society should self-organize according to individual economic interests – the “free hand of the market,” as opposed to the idea that government should function to ensure what is in the best interests of all, so change is left to be voluntary. That’s not working now, and it wouldn’t have worked during the war. When something is an emergency, you don’t make it voluntary.
JI: There is an incredible parallel to COVID-19.
SK: Yes! How do you know when a government knows it’s in emergency mode? These are the four markers: 1) You spend what it takes to win; 2) You create new economic institutions to get the job done, like C.D. Howe, the Liberal cabinet minister [in King’s government] who created 28 new crown corporations to get the job done; 3) You move from voluntary, incentive-based measures to mandatory ones as needed; 4) You tell the truth about the nature and the extent of the crisis and what you have to do.
We did all four of those things in the war. In COVID, we can quibble about the extent that our government has done all four of those things, but I would argue that they have. We’re spending – though it still doesn’t hold a candle to what we did in the war, by the way, but we’re spending. We shifted to mandatory – we locked down the whole economy for some time. We’ve created audacious new programs like CERB that, 10 months ago, none of us would have imagined. Is it too slow sometimes? Yes, but they’ve shifted the mindset. And we have briefings every day, which tell us the truth about the severity of what’s happening. Yet, when it comes to the climate emergency, none of our provincial or federal governments hits any of those markers.
JI: You also describe some cautionary lessons from our wartime experience. Can you elaborate on those?
SK: Aside from the response to refugees, there were all kinds of shameful things, such as War Measures Act stuff, like interning political activists and making political parties illegal, and, most shamefully, the wholesale internment of Japanese-Canadians. There was also the poisoning of Indigenous lands by the very crown corporations whose formation I was so impressed by. These are all examples of state over-reach. The point in recalling these things is to go eyes wide open into the next emergency. To some extent, we have, in fact, already learned as a society – [Brian] Mulroney replaced the War Measures Act with the Emergencies Act, which has safeguards against those types of things. We need the leaders of today to be as bold and innovative as the leaders we had then – and we also need them to be different.
JI: What was the scale of the economic transformation during the war, and how did they pull that off? What are a couple of highest priority steps in your “battle plan”?
SK: The same four steps I’ve already outlined: spend what you have to spend to win, create new economic institutions, move from voluntary to mandatory as required, and rally the public by telling the truth. During the war, they increased government spending tenfold. When C.D. Howe was pressed about the amount of money being spent, he simply said, “If we lose the war, nothing matters.” He carefully controlled all of the supply chains to prioritize the war, including recruiting private businessman, big names like H.R. Macmillan, J.W. Woodward, who abandoned their private interests and served for years as “dollar-a-year men” to serve as controllers and head up these crown corporations because, in an emergency, you don’t leave the allocation of scarce resources to the market – you prioritize what has to be done.
Remember, from 1942 to 1945, the sale of private automobiles in the U.S. of A., the heart of car culture, was illegal. That didn’t happen due to the goodwill of the automakers. They were told. They were busy making stuff for the war effort, making money, but they didn’t decide what to make. We need to approach the climate emergency like C.D. Howe approached the war. We need to conduct an inventory. How many electric buses do we need, how many heat pumps, how many solar arrays, how many wind farms? And, if there is a gap – and there is – we need to decide how we’re going to fill it. Through contracts with the private sector? OK. And, if that’s not enough, we create a new generation of crown corporations to expedite what needs to happen.
JI: Do you think we can rise to the climate emergency in time?
SK: I am trying, in the book, to walk a line. I think, too often, for years, climate communication has been polarized between Pollyannas and pessimists. The leaders we most remember from the Second World War walked a careful line between telling the truth about the severity of the crisis and still imparting hope. Can we do this in time? We don’t know. The reminder I offer to readers is that Canada had a population of 11 million people in the Second World War and over one million Canadians enlisted. You know what they didn’t know? Whether they could win. We know how the story ended, but they didn’t [when they volunteered]. They did what they had to do anyway, and that’s what we have to do.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He has been published in Philosophy Now, Tricycle, the Forward and elsewhere. He blogs on Medium and is master teacher at Or Shalom Synagogue in Vancouver.
Ben-Gurion University’s Prof. Amir Sagi, left, and Dr. Amit Savaia have found a way to use shrimp to fight a deadly parasitic disease in Nigeria. (photo from BGU)
This year, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev plans to launch a new school that will specialize in climate change research, mitigation and environmental sustainability. It will also offer a graduate program with a cross-section of specialties.
BGU’s three campuses house an enrolment of 20,000 students and a faculty of 4,000. Its areas of expertise range far and wide, and, among other things, the university has become known as a go-to place for figuring out how to address one of the 21st century’s biggest threats: climate change.
For BGU president Daniel Chamovitz, the university’s growing reputation isn’t that much of a surprise. “Because what have we been doing in the last 60 years?” he asked rhetorically. “We have been learning how to survive – not to survive, how to thrive in the desert.”
Chamovitz’s own expertise is in genetics and plant biology. Originally from Aliquippa, Pa., he is most recently known for his studies in plant development and for his book What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses, which has been published in 18 languages.
The realization that the university already has a strong foothold in environmental and sustainability research, Chamovitz said, is what led to its new mandate to become the world’s authority on climate change and sustainability.
A long history
For Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, the Negev was always Israel’s greatest untapped resource. It was the place, he predicted, that the Jewish homeland would sow their greatest accomplishments. A desert that spans more than 60% of the country’s land mass, the Negev would hold the answers to Israel’s most pressing problems of the day: how to grow enough food to feed a nation, generate sufficient energy to power cities and harness enough water to turn brown deserts green.
But building a sustainable nation, he warned, one that could benefit from a desert that receives less than 200 millimetres of rainfall per year wouldn’t be simple. “It is incumbent upon Israel’s scientists to reveal the secrets of nature that are unique to our land,” he said. The Negev, he insisted, was the perfect environment for an institute of study that could solve the world’s most basic – and challenging – problems of existence.
Ben-Gurion’s visionary thinking was the catalyst for many of Israel’s earliest environmental accomplishments, including desalination and energy generation using seawater, steps that would be critical to Israel’s much-needed water technology. Both projects were developed in the 1960s, at a research facility in the town of Be’er Sheva, a Bedouin settlement at the northern tip of the Negev. The institute that gave rise to these early innovations would eventually become BGU.
BGU’s new school
Two years ago, when he was hired as president of BGU, Chamovitz told the Jewish Independent he had conducted a “bottom-up” assessment of all of the departments and their areas of specialization. He wanted to know what their strengths and weaknesses were.
“[We] identified over 150 researchers dealing with various issues of sustainability and climate change,” Chamovitz said. “And, in every discipline. Not only in our institutes of water, energy and desert agriculture – that’s the low-lying fruit – but also in engineering and in civil engineering, where we develop energy-efficient building material and methods.
“It was clear to everyone that the field of sustainability and climate change was what sets Ben-Gurion University apart from every other university in Israel.”
That brand-name recognition helped secure a new partnership with Royal Bank of Canada, which is sponsoring the new school’s first graduate fellowship program. The investment by RBC will fund two fellowship positions for students specializing in climate change or sustainability-related research and, in doing so, help launch the program.
This isn’t the first time that RBC has partnered with the university. In 2018, RBC and BGU entered into a cybersecurity partnership, in which the bank invested $2 million toward research programs in BGU’s department of software and information systems engineering.
In this case, the partnership aligns with RBC’s own long-term sustainability goals and its Tech for Nature program, which it launched in 2019.
“The research being conducted also aligns with RBC’s interests as we recognize that innovative technologies offer immense potential to help solve environmental challenges,” Martin Thibodeau, B.C. regional president, RBC Royal Bank, told the Independent. “The most pressing environmental concerns of our time are negatively impacting the planet at a rate that often outpaces the solutions designed to address them. RBC is leveraging its capabilities in technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain, as well as its convening power, to build solutions and the type of multi-partner coalitions needed to address and solve our shared environmental challenges.
“Our commitments align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and, through our partnerships, we aim to develop multi-sector, multi-partner solutions to achieve progress on these challenging issues. We’re both proud and excited to partner with BGU through CABGU to address these important issues,” Thibodeau said.
“We are in awe of the grassroots contributions that RBC makes to our Jewish community and the positive role that RBC plays and has played in strengthening so many local community organizations in British Columbia and across Canada,” said David Berson, executive director of the B.C. & Alberta chapter of the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University, which worked as a liaison with RBC and BGU to secure the partnership.
“[We] are incredibly excited that corporations such as RBC see the importance of partnering with Ben-Gurion University, [and] that their investment [will] pay back to society tenfold,” Chamovitz said. He likened RBC’s partnership to an educator who invests in students’ goals, which, in time, benefit generations to come.
A new learning model
Climate change is a multidisciplinary problem, said Chamovitz, one that takes the expertise of not only hydrologists, biologists and engineers, but geneticists, geologists, legal experts and others. Education, therefore, must be tailored to meet the broad range of knowledge required to understand climate change. That doesn’t mean graduate students won’t specialize in their research and their studies, Chamovitz said, but they will be expected to have a multidisciplinary background that connects with the challenges of creating a sustainable world and addressing climate change.
“The one requirement would be their willingness to work interdisciplinarily and to take courses in other fields. Otherwise, they don’t need the school,” said Chamovitz. “They could just go into the school of engineering [for example] or school of ecology. And, you know, for some people, that’s the better track.”
Chamovitz said it’s companies like RBC that are making this new branch of education possible, adding that the university has seen an increase in inquiries from companies and communities across the world that are attempting to address climate change challenges. Last year, for example, a company located in Chennai, India, reached out to see if BGU could assist in building a local agricultural research institute. Chamovitz said the institute’s future researchers will be trained first at BGU before returning home to Chennai to begin their new jobs. The university has also struck up a three-way partnership with the city of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and Arizona State University, in Tempe, Ariz., to address issues relating to global warming in Dubai.
“We have similar collaborations in western China, which are also in arid places. And we are really excited about developing relationships in Canada,” said Chamovitz, who recently visited Vancouver to meet the presidents of Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia, which both offer studies in climate change and sustainability.
The two Israeli RBC fellowship students have already been selected. Shir Eisenstein will be doing a master’s in material engineering, looking for new materials that help harness sustainable, renewable energy. Nadina Levitt, who is also pursuing a master’s, will be enrolled in the department of geography and environmental studies and studying sustainability models for smart cities. Both students demonstrated a key requirement for upper-level studies when it comes to BGU’s approach to this new specialization: innovation.
“One of the problems in higher education is this need for prerequisites,” Chamovitz noted. “What we are looking for is not prerequisites, but ingenuity.”
The university is expected to complete the formalization process and approval for the new school of sustainability and climate change in February and be open for enrolment this October.
Jan Lee’s articles, op-eds and blog posts have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism, Times of Israel and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
As the winter blues threaten to sink in, and COVID continues to be a part of life, Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (CABGU) has been looking for ways to keep people engaged through a series of virtual events. Each event seeks to offer insights, share research and encourage discussion about varied topics.
For the art lover, A Virtual Art Tour, scheduled for Feb. 7, 8:30 a.m., offers participants a guided stroll through one of the few public art collections in Israel’s Negev Desert. “Ben-Gurion University is home to one of southern Israel’s most dynamic and innovative fine arts collections,” said Maayan Amir, the collection’s curator and senior lecturer in the department of art. “Many of the pieces featured in the collection can be found scattered throughout the Be’er Sheva campus, enlivening the landscape while complementing it as well.”
On the medical front, questions have been raised during the pandemic about ethical decision-making. How do medical personnel make life and death decisions? What type of protocol is followed and how should the vaccine be distributed? Three top doctors from Israel and Canada will participate in a moderated discussion on Feb. 10, 4:30 p.m., sponsored by the Dr. Edward Feldman Memorial Fund. The event is a collaborative initiative between CABGU and the Israel Medical Association. Among the speakers are Dr. Yoram Singer, director of the Negev Home Palliative Care Unit at Ben-Gurion University; Dr. Sandy Buchman, medical director of the Freeman Centre for Advancement of Palliative Care at North York General Hospital; and Dr. Elliott Malamet, lecturer on Jewish ethics and philosophy at Hebrew University.
CABGU also offers monthly lunchtime webinars on STEM-related topics called Webinar Wednesdays. Coming up on Feb. 3, 9 a.m., BGU professor and president Daniel Chamovitz will be joined by Sigal Abramovich from the university’s department of earth and environmental sciences for a discussion about the impact that climate change is having on the environment. Research from BGU that looks at the role cannabis can play in supporting people with autism will be the focal point of a webinar on March 3, 9 a.m.
Montreal-based musician Elizabeth Leslie has a new EP out, Brave Animal, which, among other topics, tackles climate change. (photo from Eric Alper PR)
It had always been musician Elizabeth Leslie’s dream to visit Scotland, which her Sephardi ancestors had made their home. For years, she had envisaged hiking the Highlands, reveling in its beauty and experiencing the misty, “dreary” British weather that she had heard so much about.
Learning about the Leslie clan and their lives as Jews intrigued the young Canadian musician, who had been raised in Eastern Canada and is now based in Montreal. But so did the idea of experiencing a truly Scottish spring. So it came as a rude shock, she said, when she finally arrived to the British Isles to be greeted by a drought of parched hillsides and 25˚C weather. Her image of Scotland’s Highlands, she admitted, appeared to be sorely out of date.
“It wasn’t green rolling hills anymore. It was just glaring sun,” said Leslie. “I was peeling off layers and [there was] yellow grass and rampant tourism.”
That experience became a seminal moment for the musician, who attributes the erosion of the Highlands to humanity’s greed and the unrealistic goals of 21st-century capitalism. “Capitalism affects everything,” she told the Independent. “It’s a selfish beast and it’s unsustainable.… Capitalism mixed with climate change and the fact that climate change is a product of capitalism, [makes it] glaringly obvious that we need to completely reimagine the way we live.”
Her recently released EP recording, Brave Animal, speaks to that urgency. Its lead song, “To the Next,” is the summation of what she sees for future generations left to navigate the impacts of a warming planet. Its dark-wave melody is as hypnotic as its lyrics:
“There is only one place left to go / And I’m afraid that it is far / If you listen close / You will soon hear / All their words / Are full of fear.
“Men might be masters of this world / But little girl / We’re going to the next / Men might be fighting against this world / But little girl / We’re fighting for the next.”
According to Leslie, the song was written before Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg rose to notoriety. Still, its refrain hits to the heart of a question that is commonly voiced these days.
“When I wrote this song,” Leslie said, “Greta wasn’t around … but [she is] exactly the kind of girl I am speaking to in the song and she is metaphorically what that little girl is.”
Leslie added, “I mean, who is there to comfort Greta Thunberg? Why is there a teenager fighting [against] climate change and why aren’t the older guys in suits doing it with their millions of dollars?”
In Leslie’s eyes, change is motivated by leadership, and she believes there is a dearth of examples for young people to follow these days.
“There’s really no adult role models out there who are really standing up – at least in music,” or none willing to tackle a topic that is already defining a generation’s social and environmental expectations, she said. “I am just trying to give them some glimmer of hope, I guess.”
For this artist, probing difficult questions seems to come naturally, even when the questions are unpopular with those around her. When she learned some years ago that her Scottish ancestors were Jewish, she searched for more information and unearthed stories of the Leslie clan – started by a Jew who had served in a distinguished position for Mary, Queen of Scots, and was a Knights Templar – despite warning from her mother about antisemitism.
Although her mother wasn’t Jewish, she was concerned about her daughter taking on an identity that had been subjected to persecution throughout millennia. The warnings, though, didn’t deter Leslie, who later converted to Judaism.
“My mom had like 10 cups of tea per day and my dad drinks scotch every other night and my uncle plays the bagpipes and all that stuff, so it was a huge surprise in a lot of ways,” said Leslie about discovering her Jewish heritage. “But, for some reason … I always had a feeling about it.”
Although Leslie said her visits to shul are more infrequent these days, she sees a parallel between the values she was raised with and the ethics that Judaism espouses. Fairness and protecting the environment are at the heart of both her identity as a Jew and as a musician, she said. As is social justice. She said she was incensed when she found a book about the Leslie clan and learned that her ancestors were forced to convert to Christianity.
“That connection with the culture and values and also a really deep need to right the wrongs of the past” were key to her decision to convert, she said. “I just found it so unrighteous that my family was forced into this religion [of Christianity]. We already had a religion. I just felt it was so unfair and I wanted to turn back the clock.”
Her identity as a Jew has also been shaped by her relationships. Leslie, who self-describes as a non-binary queer person, was first introduced to Judaism when she dated a woman who had been raised Charedi and maintained a Jewish household. Leslie said the exposure to Jewish traditions was both fascinating and “extremely familiar.”
“I think one thing I love about Judaism is … we have never forgotten who we are,” said Leslie. “And I think that sort of cultural preservation is really important, especially in the face of recent antisemitism, in face of capitalism and climate change and everything, that sort of centreness is a power. And I think it is really important.”
Leslie’s music can be purchased through a number of online venues, including Spotify or by connecting through her Facebook page.
Jan Lee’s articles and blog posts have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism, Times of Israel, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
Tzeporah Berman is international program director for Stand.Earth. (photo from Tzeporah Berman)
There is no silver bullet when it comes to responding to the climate crisis, according to Tzeporah Berman. The 25-year veteran of environmental activism and international program director for Stand.Earth said it needs a multi-pronged approach.
“A lot of people like to say it’s negotiations or policy work or protests, but, in my experience, the most effective campaigns that have made change have been the ones where there has been a diversity of tactics and approaches,” Berman told the Independent. “The most effective initiatives are the ones that are not just about educating, but are about motivating people to take action on an issue…. What we need to try and do is motivate people to make change.”
Berman was among those who started Stand.Earth (formerly ForestEthics) about 20 years ago. According to the website, the group “designs and implements strategies that make protecting our planet everyone’s business. Our current campaigns focus on shifting corporate behaviour, breaking the human addiction to fossil fuels and developing the leadership required to catalyze long-term change.”
In the 1990s, Berman was an organizer of the Clayoquot Sound logging protests that contributed to agreements to prevent clearcutting. More than two decades later, as construction of the then-Kinder Morgan-owned Trans Mountain pipeline expansion ramped up, Berman participated in the sit-ins on Burnaby Mountain.
“The War in the Woods … it was this tipping point moment on the issues and Canadian history, where people were engaged from all walks of life,” she said. “Whether or not the rainforest should be clearcut was a conversation around everyone’s kitchen table. I think that’s true today of climate change and pipelines, that it’s one of these rare moments in history where it is a populist issue, where everyone is engaged in the conversation, and I think that’s why you see, in both circumstances, such a diversity of people showing up.”
Last year, the concern reached a fever pitch in Canada and elsewhere, with unprecedented numbers of people marching in the streets calling for climate action. Asked what Berman thought of elected officials such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or NDP leader Jagmeet Singh participating in marches like last September’s global climate strike – that, at their heart, target leaders such as them to address climate change through policy decisions – she said she believes they show up with good intentions.
“We’re living in this strange moment where our elected officials are starting to understand the urgency and importance of climate change, but that is not yet translating into their policy proposals,” she said. “It’s like there’s a time lag and they’re saying the right words about urgency and joining marches, but their policies represent the best thinking on what climate policy should be from 10 years ago. I don’t think they’re being disingenuous when they join a protest … but one of the big problems that we have is that so many people believe that they’re doing enough and other people need to do more. We like to celebrate how progressive we are, but we have a very mixed record. Canada is among the worst in terms of G7 countries with our climate plan.”
Despite estimates of more than one million people in Canada marching in climate strikes last year, Berman said the environmental movement is sorely outnumbered resource-wise in comparison to the oil and gas industry lobby. In a tweet sent at the beginning of this year, Berman spelled out 10 tips for successful activism.
“Do stuff that makes the world respond. Don’t just respond to the world,” she wrote. She expanded, telling the Independent that advocates need to be sure they are the ones setting the agenda, not governments and corporations. “Campaigners and campaigns are not proactive enough, we just respond to what decision-makers are doing. Instead of doing that, what if, months before, you looked at what you think needs to happen in order to protect the climate, our water, the air, produced a report with recommendations for policy, and then held a press conference and a public information night. Then you’re putting a proposal out there of what you think needs to happen in the world.”
Last November, Berman presented to 400 people at Temple Sholom, giving an overview of the scientific evidence of climate change and the role of nations and individuals moving forward. She spoke of the loss of the “culture of engagement.”
“Today, we have a weak civil society engagement muscle and an overextended hyper-consumer muscle,” she said during the presentation.
“We got lazy,” she explained to the Independent. “We live in a democracy, we assume it’s functioning, and leave it up to the politicians…. I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but I think it’s a culture that was eroding over the last generation. Growing up, it was expected in our community that you volunteer – for your synagogue, for your church. We don’t really have that culture now and the result is we’re not engaging in our communities as much as I think we used to. I notice now that we’re starting to see it more as a result of the more active student movements, but I think that’s because they’re scared.”
The role of community groups such as religious institutions should not be underestimated, she added. “People are going to be more willing to engage in the issues if they feel safe, if they feel a sense of common purpose, if they trust the people they’re organizing with. It’s one thing to hear scientists, or read an article. It’s a very different thing to sit down with people in your community … and organize. A lot of people right now are searching for what they can do. [Institutions] should be providing leadership and structure.”
Berman continues to be a leader in her own right. Late last year, she was awarded $2 million US from the Climate Breakthrough Project to fund her efforts to limit new oil and gas development globally to align with the United Nations Paris Agreement goals of a safe climate. The project will be housed within Stand.Earth.
Shelley Stein-Wottenis a freelance journalist and comedy writer. She has won awards for her creative non-fiction and screenwriting and enjoys writing about the arts and environmental issues. She is based on Vancouver Island.
Dr. Larry Barzelai and Maayan Kreitzman will talk about environmental activism at Limmud on March 1. (photos from the interviewees)
Environmental activism is among Canada’s top news stories in recent days and the issue will be confronted from both a Jewish and a broader perspective by two leading voices at Limmud Vancouver next month.
Dr. Larry Barzelai, a Vancouver family doctor, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s faculty of medicine and B.C. chair of Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), will present alongside Maayan Kreitzman, a PhD candidate at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at UBC. The pair acknowledges that they come at the topic using different tactics, but aim for the same objective.
Kreitzman has been among those blockading the port and traffic.
“The actions happening in the streets right now are in response to this Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline construction on Wet’suwet’an land,” she said. But this is only one element of the much larger picture, which is that oil and gas development is “occurring unabated and greenhouse gas emissions and ecological destruction is continuing unabated throughout the world, when we know that these activities are threatening our life-support system and are putting billions of people at risk over the next decade. People are already being impacted today.”
The issue brings together a host of concerns, she said, including “indigenous rights and sovereignty, the Canadian government’s complicity in a climate-unsafe future … as well as the business side of that from the private sector.”
Kreitzman has heard the complaints that disruptive protests may turn off potential allies and anger the general public.
“I think people’s emotions are valid and there is a valid concern about disrupting ordinary people that need to make a living and need to take care of their families,” she told the Independent. “On the other hand, I think many of the people that sometimes make these kind of complaints aren’t really the people that are struggling to feed their families. People that come from a place of privilege need to recognize that these protests inconveniencing them is a small price to pay for the types of progressive changes that will benefit all of us, including their children.”
Kreitzman said she and Barzelai will “bring a concise summary of the latest science to people so that they really understand the magnitude of the situation that we’re in.”
She said, “We’ll be speaking to a spectrum of different actions, from the personal to the more conventional campaigning type of approaches, like report-writing, research, lobbying, letter-writing, to direct-action approaches, which is what I’m most interested in, where people that have privilege start putting their bodies on the line and breaking the law on purpose, using the message of nonviolent civil resistance, which has been successful in many movements throughout history.”
Barzelai takes a more conventional approach to advocacy, but shares Kreitzman’s sense of urgency.
“Climate change, which we’re calling a climate emergency, is upon us,” he told the Independent. “It’s dramatic and we have to take big steps to do something about it. Maayan is taking a bit more radical approach to this. Myself and my group are a bit more middle-of-the-road, shall we say, but I think we both have the same endpoint in mind – that things have to change dramatically.”
CAPE, which has been around for about 25 years, focuses on the health impacts of environmental decisions and climate change.
“We see diseases that are spreading, we see cancers that are becoming more rampant, we are seeing the floods and the wildfires and the temperature changes that are dramatically affecting people’s health and we figure it’s our responsibility as doctors to look at climate change from a health perspective and to inform people of what’s going to happen unless we make dramatic changes,” he said.
Fracking is one area where he thinks British Columbia is “really going down the wrong path.”
“They’ve bought this myth that natural gas is clean energy, which it is absolutely not, and they are doing their best to increase rather than decrease global warming, and we think that’s the crucial issue that needs to be discussed in Canada and especially in B.C.,” he said.
Kreitzman and Barzelai will speak at Limmud Vancouver on March 1.
Teen activists talk with Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart at a climate-strike action on Dec. 7. (photo from Rebecca Hamilton)
“It’s going to be our future, so it’s up to us to take it into our own hands and show that, even if we can’t vote, we can still make a difference in our communities and the world,” Malka Martz-Oberlander told the Jewish Independent when she and fellow activist and friend Rebecca Hamilton met with the paper to discuss recent – and future – efforts to draw awareness to the climate crisis.
The two high school students are part of the group Sustainabiliteens, which was inspired by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Last year, Thunberg started monthly school strikes, stating that preparing for a future that won’t have a livable climate was pointless. The strikes, called “Fridays for Future,” have spread to at least 270 countries, including Canada.
Inspired by Thunberg, strike action took place at Vancouver City Hall on Jan. 16, the day that Vancouver city council unanimously passed a motion put forward by Councilor Christine Boyle (OneCity) to declare a climate emergency. Similar motions have been adopted in other cities, including London, Los Angeles and Oakland, but Vancouver is the first in Canada to do so.
“Climate change is already impacting the people of Vancouver and will continue to. We need to respond to this crisis urgently and compassionately with a path towards a more equitable society,” said Boyle in a release. “Adequately addressing the climate emergency won’t be easy, but we are a smart city, capable of doing difficult things.”
Hamilton was an organizer of the strike at City Hall, and the groups Force of Nature and Extinction Rebellion Vancouver also supported the action. There was a previous school walkout and strike for the climate on Dec. 7, said Martz-Oberlander. She and Hamilton are among a growing number of Metro Vancouver teens coming together in what Martz-Oberlander describes as a “shared passion for climate justice.”
“With some of my friends, it’s just doom and gloom,” said Martz-Oberlander. “There’s this sense of this is all going to happen and no one can do anything, so why do anything? It’s out of our hands, we’re just kids…. But there’s also a lot of people that I know who are hopeful and see the bigger picture.”
“When I ask kids about the climate crisis,” said Hamilton, “they say that they think it’s a real problem and they’re scared. But the world around us doesn’t recognize what’s happening with the same sense of urgency that we feel. We are living in a confusing and weird time. On the one hand, we understand the science, we’re being told the scientific facts that we’re in a crisis. We’re being told these very conflicting messages, and there’s this dissonance. So what am I supposed to believe? The world is just going as normal, but why are you telling me then that we’re in this crisis and everything needs to change? I think that’s really frustrating. Me, personally, every day I’m frustrated by that.”
Both Martz-Oberlander and Hamilton grew up in the Vancouver Jewish community and say their Jewish values inform their activism. Martz-Oberlander’s family has been involved with Congregation Or Shalom since before she was born, and Hamilton grew up going to Temple Sholom.
“In the Torah, it talks about needing to pass down this world better than we got it,” said Martz-Oberlander. “That’s the concept of l’dor v’dor, ‘from generation to generation.’ The Jewish teaching that really influenced me is the sense of responsibility towards future generations.”
“Camp Miriam was most important to me in cultivating my Jewish identity,” said Hamilton. “I think it played a huge role in what I’m doing and why I care about it. The focus on youth agency, being told we could create change. It’s tikkun olam – environmentalism and climate justice is the most important way to try and help other people and create a more just world.”
Both teens avoid the word “climate change,” preferring instead to talk of the “climate crisis” or “climate emergency” and the need for “climate justice.”
“Climate change doesn’t sound urgent enough,” said Martz-Oberlander. “It’s an emergency.”
“I prefer climate emergency or climate crisis,” said Hamilton, who cites Jewish writer and activist Naomi Klein as an important influence on her thinking. “It’s not about preventing this catastrophe but about healing the foundation of our world. The climate crisis is a manifestation of these unjust worldly systems which exploit nature, animals and people, so fixing that manifestation will also mean fixing those systems.”
Hamilton and Martz-Oberlander were inspired to join the climate-strike movement after it came to Canada with a strike in Sudbury, Ont., led by 11-year-old Sofia Mather.
“I feel like I have been concerned about climate change my whole life,” said Hamilton, “but I began to want to do something when I realized that nothing else really matters if we live on a dead planet.”
Hamilton and Martz-Oberlander are currently preparing for a Canada-wide school strike on May 3, and have a local action planned for Feb. 15.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.