When it Comes to Climate Change, We Must All be Leaders

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Why My New Year’s Resolution Was to Ride 5,000km on a One Wheel for the Climate

My original inspiration to ride a unicycle was born from a simple determination to find something – anything – that I was naturally good at.  Of course, I quickly discovered that I wasn’t able to automatically balance on one wheel anymore than I was able to time travel or read minds.  But still, I wanted to prove – to myself at the very least – that I wasn’t any less capable of learning than my younger classmates at the local workshop.  I stuck with the junior unicycle lessons long enough to get a hang of the basics, and long enough to become addicted to the joyful challenge.  But at home on a borrowed unicycle, I felt foolish practicing outside amongst inquisitive neighbors.  I was frustrated by my slow progress, eager to find other ‘natural’ talents, and I gave up the quirky hobby before I was even close to mastering it.

It would be years before I realized that I gave up something I enjoyed – that I was passionate about – because I wasn’t good at it.  Perhaps that tendency, which sadly isn’t mine alone, is a bigger detriment to our society than we realize.

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What sparks a movement?  Some people believe it’s tremendous leadership; an inspiring voice that articulates a cause with so much passion and precision that people wake up from a slumber of complacency to join the rallying call.  Others think it’s merely a spark – an excuse, even.  A trigger that simply kindles a ready-built fire.  Just a flint that lights the flame under thousands of feet that are already itching to run from the status quo, to jump over a higher bar, to march for a cause, or dance to the beat of a new drum.

Perhaps both are true in different circumstances, but there must always be an underlying motivation and a shared experience that transcends the impacts of individual leadership.  While one cannot possibly over-estimate the power, ability and impact of historic leaders like Mahatma Ghandi, Rosa Parks, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, it’s also impossible to suggest that they were alone in their respective struggles for justice; it would be wrong to portray them as solo heroes among unwilling masses.

In more recent movements like Occupy Wall Street and Idle No More, the aid of modern technology and social media has allowed us to see, broadcast, and harness our collective strength like never before, with almost equal representation and a truly shared voice.  On the other hand we’ve also seen how this vast capacity has sometimes failed to focus that harnessed energy towards tangible outcomes in a world of increasingly obscured political dynamics.

Broad-based movements such as Occupy and Idle no More ask crucial questions: How can we address social and financial inequality in an economy supported by social exploitation and unsustainable capitalism?  How can we change the outcomes of a failed justice system without uprooting civic structures that our society is reliant on?  How can we work towards decolonization when most of the population remains blind to its reach in modern society?  These are huge questions, and may take massive movements many years to comprehend and digest.  We shouldn’t question the value of such movements, but neither can we expect substantial change overnight.

But the issue of climate change is different.  For a crisis with such far-reaching impacts and equally complicated causes, the solutions are deceivingly simple.  The climate action movement was largely spawned through communities of science and policy-makers, so proposed reactions and predicted outcomes are not so much ideological as scientific.  An unintended consequence of this evolution is a perceived lack of resonance with the broader majority; the climate issue is really only just starting to be more than an ‘academic’ concern, embraced by the real movers and shakers of the grassroots.

Meanwhile, the arguments used by governments to justify continuing inaction on climate change are, at best, psuedo-scientific.  Our governments aren’t openly against climate action but instead arrested in a torturous cycle of angst and inaction.  They set off fire alarms so often without evacuation drills in place that the sounds of emergency come across as a mere annoyances with increasingly muted effect.  Real, fatal, devastating impacts are predicted and yet reactions are bizarrely disconnected and ineffective.

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So it’s no wonder that – just as its concern for the climate swells – the current generation views the political system as little more than a broken, tokenistic, reflection of the social will tainted by special interests.  Politicians aren’t expected to act on the climate issue without broadly vocalized grassroots demand, and far too many politicians are willing to embrace these lowered expectations while perpetuating the status-quo.

And will upcoming elections spur politicians to step-up their leadership on the issue of climate change?  Sadly, while there are more youth in Canada than there has been since the dawn of the baby boom – a demographic that traditionally prioritizes environmental concerns more than older generations – we young people see government less as a resource for change than as a collar around those who stick their necks out for the greater good.  Less than 40% of us vote.  Most of us are just starting to witness, trust, accept and respond to the threat of climate change through protests like Resist XL and Respect and Protect that demonstrate its true integrity, but we’re still a long way from trusting in the potential of politics.  If only we understood the power that is right at our fingertips: in the last federal election, our government was elected with just 5.8 million votes.  In the 2015 election, the number of eligible youth voters will be about 8 million.  And anyone who says that all politicians are the same can’t discount the radical disparity between the climate philosophies of, for example, Maxime Bernier and Elizabeth May.

But there’s good news, too.  The pitfalls of the quest for climate action can also become our strengths.  Now that a real groundswell of awareness surrounding the need for urgent action has been translated into some effective, visible, exciting campaigns, the activist arm of the climate movement will mature with more bravado, empowerment and recognition than we’ve seen since the Al Gore bubble burst close to ten years ago.  Combine that with the undeniable passion of many climate-concerned opposition politicians and the high level of guidance and expertise offered through the same scientists and educators who first raised the issue to the public’s attention – smart, moral, dedicated people like James Hansen, George Monbiot, Andrew Weaver and David Suzuki – and the potential for a grassroots movement in Canada with pinpoint ambition, poise and influence is unparalleled among global causes.

I’m hopeful that all it needs now is that spark.  For too many years, I’ve been guilty of waiting with increasing frustration for others to take that leap and find a path through the vague terrain towards a national movement.  I’ve told myself many times that I’d be ready when it happened.  I’d poll, picket, petition, and protest for the cause.  I’d quit my job, I’d dig into my savings to donate.  I’d march to Ottawa.  I’d do anything – except take the lead.  For too many years I told myself that I’d be ineffective doing all of that without an established campaign ahead of me, or a recognized organization behind me.  I told myself countless times that I wasn’t leadership material, and the truth is, I’m not.

I’m not extraordinary or articulate.  I’m not David Suzuki or Martin Luther King.  I’m not a scientist, a politician or a celebrity.  I have friends who are infinitely more knowledgeable about climate change than I am.  I’m not comfortable in front of a camera.  I’m not a debater, or a public speaker.  I’m not invincible to emotional wear and tear.  I’m not without roots: I’m not single or homeless, nor without a career and selfish aspirations.  I have much to lose, but so do we all.  And having much to lose, having no special talents to offer, doesn’t mean that I – like anyone – cannot play an important role in addressing climate change.

I would love to say that I was struck by some bolt of inspiration, or that I witnessed some dramatic vision that finally convinced me to bite the bullet.  I can’t.  It took a long series of conversations, headlines, articles and experiences to gradually wear away at my conscience.  Every day that I waited for some other leader that I could follow, guilt and bitterness grew inside me.  As my own justifications for inaction crumbled, mirages of solutions that didn’t involve my participation faded away, and everything that I did became tainted self-loathing.  On paper, my life was better than ever, but depression crept in and beckoned me to question my life.

At the same time, I saw movements like Idle No More flourish with the brilliant – but simple – contributions of a few key stakeholders.  Local meetings and workshops spawned trending hashtags which sparked crucial dialogue that quickly blossomed into collaborative campaigns that spanned the globe.  Other young people like Shannen Koostachin and Bridgette Depape and David Kawapit Jr. tore down the curtains on which illusions of consent, complacency and powerlessness were precariously projected.  At the local level, I bumped into old friends who had taken key positions in communities of change, or followed their dreams to become proactive voices for social change.  I was inspired by all these leaders because, while I didn’t share their strength or confidence, I saw that they were also driven by the same intangible moral urges.  They were people just like me, convinced to take a stand – not out of civic duty or because of special privilege or ability – but because, quite simply, they trusted their own hearts.

I realized that what the climate movement needs isn’t more extraordinary people.  It needs more ordinary people with extraordinary passion.  Like the first time I learned how to ride a unicycle, I had to let go of my own expectations and reservations to gain the impetus for action.  I had to see that I wasn’t especially capable, creative or resilient to discover that none of that mattered.  To realize that my heart wouldn’t be silenced by any logical excuse not to learn how to balance on one wheel.  And that my heart couldn’t possibly beat stronger than it does when I imagine the slim chance for a dramatic shift in our approach to climate justice.

What’s more, if such a shift does occur, if such a movement could be sparked by any number of ordinary folks like me, it wouldn’t just save the human race from famine, hurricanes, typhoons, floods, ocean acidification, desertification, heat waves, war and conflict, societal – and possibly species – collapse.  It could also restore our faith in the potential of our political system.  It could demonstrate the value of our parliamentary democracy.  Better yet, it could transform government through a process of peaceful, consensual, fundamental shifts in influence, aim, and connectedness with citizens to reflect the needs and desires of the rising generation.

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In January, 2014, I quit my cushy desk job of three years and made a New Year’s resolution.  That resolution, which I kept secret for weeks while I mustered up the confidence to share it, was to get back on a unicycle for the first time in seven years, and to ride it 5,000km to the nation’s capital to try and spark unity for the climate.  Unity between activists and educators, scientists and politicians, unity between parties and between people and their elected leaders.

The unicycle is a gimmick – an icebreaker, a chance to build a rapport with curious strangers and an excuse for a few bad puns in some local headlines.  But it will also be the perfect, humbling reminder of why I was ever crazy enough to make that resolution in the first place.

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Every time I get a laugh, it will remind me not to take myself too seriously.  Every time I lose my balance, it will remind me to have confidence in my ambition.  Every time I get passed by a cyclist or jogger, it will serve as a reminder not to struggle to keep up, and to value the time it takes for real movements to grow.

The only thing that’s different about this New Year’s resolution is that I will never have to struggle for the inspiration to complete it.  I learned the hard way that, like unicycling, the ability to do what you desire isn’t a gift, it’s a skill.  Knowing what’s right – and acting on it – is a privilege, but a privilege that everyone, eventually, can embrace.

We can’t sit around and wait for natural-born heroes of climate change.  But if we settle for a peaceful army of ordinary advocates, we’ll establish a new level of cooperation for the future, and rebuild faith in democracy at the same time.  That’s why Unity for the Climate is my resolution.

I don’t see this journey as a jumping off point for a life of radical activism or advocacy for climate change.  That’s not me.  But I do expect to follow my own heart from now on without hesitation.  I do expect to continue to ride a unicycle, however badly, for as long as it makes me happy.  I do expect to try everything within my power to follow my moral compass, even when it points me in a whole new direction.

More information on the Unity for the Climate unicycle ride for climate action can be found at www.unityfortheclimate.ca.

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Other columns by Joseph Boutilier

Seen and not heard – how ageism and discrimination are perpetuating a youth exodus from democracy
Why People aren’t in the streets protesting the Fair Elections Act… and why they should be
New Critic title is fitting for MP Hyer’s fee and dividend ambitions
Canada Post: A Contrived Controversy

Follow Joseph Boutilier on twitter: @josephboutilier

 

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