The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

The Seven Billion Kilogram Dilemma

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WHEN THE LONDON FOOD BANK HAD ITS FIRST city-wide food drive back in 1986, we were told to expect between 40-50,000 pounds. We weren’t fully prepared for the over 200,000 pounds that came in. Those fire stations charged with receiving the donations were swamped and an extra warehouse had to be located to store all those supplies collected over 10 days.

As a city, we were new to this kind of initiative and much of the food was past its due date. We heard from many folks that they just wanted to help and that they just cleaned out their cupboards and refrigerators of items that had been in their stocks for months. It was a lesson for all of us. For those of us leading the effort, we needed to do a better job of communicating what kind of supplies were required. And for citizens themselves, there was the need to be more selective in what they would donate. We learned those lessons and the generosity of the London community has never waned.

Yet I never forgot that experience and how abundant food is in Canada. Maybe that’s part of the problem. In those early years of food banking we learned that Canadians threw out one-sixth of their food without it ever leaving the package. Landfills were full of otherwise edible foodstuffs. Sadly, it’s a practice that has changed little in three decades.

A report released last summer, with support from London’s Ivey Business School, determined that Canadians toss out 7 billion kilograms worth of edible food each year – roughly 15 billion pounds of food in 12 months. In dollar terms, that $27 billion.

The waste happens everywhere – farms, stores, markets, and processors. Yet, over half of the waste occurs in Canadian households. There’s no point in trying to lay blame – we all share it – but the real culprit lies in our eating and shopping habits. We have grown used to have numerous choices of various products and we often overstock just because it’s so attractively placed and sometimes on sale. We desire it to look good and most often select only that perfect-looking item – anything with a blemish can get tossed. We’re just so used to it and there always seems to be enough unblemished stuff. Farmers and others along the food chain often adopt similar patterns because it’s what consumers demand and that’s what drives the economy.

Except it shouldn’t, and we all know it. It’s one thing to grow and process good and healthy products and to eat well, but it’s another to accept a system that is predicated on waste. Habits die hard, and when it comes to food, Canadians have become habitual creatures.

We are also pretty good with numbers, so here’s a telling one. That 7 billion kilogram figure means that we toss out one kilogram of food for every person on this planet. For a nation and a people founded on the principles of social justice, it means it is time once again to live up to those ideals.

Next post: What Can Be Done About It?

Democracy’s Urban Face

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SOME SERIOUS MOVEMENT AT LAST. During President Obama’s visit to China, it was announced that the two superpowers – the world’s largest economies, as well as the largest polluters on the globe – had reached an accord that would see the United States cut its 2005 level of carbon emissions by 26-2% before the year 2025. China signed on to peak its carbon emissions by 2030. In a world where climate change have fallen off the front page headlines, this is a significant move forward and is likely to resurrect global climate talks.

Canada responded in that familiar fashion that has earned the scorn of many nations by saying it would attempt to link its plan to that of the U.S.. Sadly, there is no concrete plan to do so, and if past history is any indication, lack of any clear federal action will lead to forgetfulness. That’s the plan, confirmed again when Canada’s poor environmental performance was centre stage again last week as it was announced that we are at the top of the list when it comes to global deforestation. More than one-fifth – 21.4% – of global deforestation occurs in Canada, a recent study has discovered. Russia is in second place. Brazil, often derided for its deforestation of its massive rainforest, stands at 14% – well below Canada.

There are reasons why the Americans have taken on a form of environmental leadership and Canada has lagged behind that involve more than just federal governments responding to a global challenge. Put simply, it’s a matter of cities.

Sometime in 2009, for the first time in history, more people lived inside cities than outside of them. But the indications of the rapid rise of urban importance were already in the wind for anyone willing to take notice.

Tired of waiting for national governments to take action, cities around the world have taken on ambitious plans to fill in the vacuum. Prior to the US/China agreement, nation states around the world were noted more for their bickering than bargaining. Housing half the world’s population, cities simply couldn’t afford to wait any further and have been reaching out to one another, despite distance, cultural and linguistic complications, and their lack of formalized networking.

Put simply: the future of democracy has a decidedly urban face. Solutions are often best found where problems exist, and in the world of economics and social cohesion, cities form the vast network of laboratories where effects can be researched and bettered. It’s clear that cities are becoming more ambitious when it comes to solving difficulties because it’s not only effective, but within their own best interests.

Another aspect that’s becoming obvious is that municipalities are filling in the void created when senior government levels lost the imagination for solving societal ills. Obama’s agreement with China is a welcome development, but it does little to alter the global stasis that has resulted from nation states constantly debating one another in their own self-obsession.

Cities, and many prominent present and past mayors, aren’t waiting around any longer. For all their importance, international climate change conferences have yielded little, and the effects of such failures will be felt most catastrophically in cities – especially those close to oceans and seas. Something has to happen, and fast.  And while nations fiddle, cities are acting.

Yet in Canada, movement in this direction has been slower than we would hope. While groups like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) are working on vast collaboration networks among cities, the results haven’t been up to the speed at which the federal government has abandoned its leadership role.

Perhaps that’s about to change, as a large number of Canada’s major cities meet regularly under the rubric of the Big City Mayors’ Caucus and have increasingly placed the environment as front and central to their future deliberations. In the absence of federal leadership (with some provincial laggards), these mayors should formalize themselves into a working body of municipal elected officials who will work together across the country to bring about the kind of coordination that could run counter to our troubling international decline on the climate change file. Cities could co-jointly set targets, help and challenge one another, and begin demanding that the feds wake up before it is too late.

Leadership as we know it has to change. For too long we have permitted politicians to list the various crises in our society without forcing them to admit that they are largely the cause. Less than 20% of Canadians trust their political leaders specifically because they are perceived to be asleep at the switch while our problems mount. Those who have the power to lead also have the power to stall – a reality rapidly becoming our federal narrative. Cities can no longer afford to tarry. Our effective future leaders will be mayors, not prime ministers.

Is Reducing Financial Inequality Really Possible?

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WE’VE TALKED ABOUT IT, ADVOCATED AGAINST IT, lived with it, and continually felt defeated by it. Despite the best efforts of millions of individuals and groups to tackle the glaring presence of financial inequality in our community, country, and the world, we can be forgiven for feeling no closer to solving it.

We understand about the advances in technology, the challenges to employment, corporations that can shift their operations where they please, and the sheer magnitude of the capitalistic behemoth that stands astride the world appearing unshakable and unremorseful. We have emerged from the last economic recession (the worst since the Depression) and seemed to have learned little from its negative causes. Wealth continues to be moved upwards, to a few people who now control the major share of the world’s finances.

Alexis de Tocqueville is a name hardly mentioned anymore but his observations are as keen today as they were during the 18th century in America. In a piece he later published, titled How an Aristocracy May Be Created by Industry, he made a startling observation:

I think that, generally speaking, the manufacturing aristocracy which we see rising before our eyes is one of the hardest that have appeared on earth … The friends of democracy should keep their eyes anxiously fixed in that direction. For if ever again permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy make their way into the world, it will have been by that door that they entered.

Keep in mind, he wrote these observations in 1835, but we can’t help acknowledging that the “door” he referred to has been wide open for some time. He premised that, in a free society, based upon the tenuous balance between free markets, social cohesion, and democratic participation, any monopoly, especially over money, would spell ruin to the democratic experiment and the hopes of millions, not just a few.

There’s lot of places where blame can be put – corporations, global financial bodies, a distracted citizenry – but ultimately it all comes to rest on just plain bad politics. When they were lobbied by financial groups to forego urging businesses to invest in new sectors by training future workers and paying them accordingly, political leaders readily replied, leaving millions out of work around the world. Politics oversaw a restructuring that deregulated many of those financial protocols that once used to protect communities. At the same time as they permitted significant corporate tax breaks, governments also failed to invest in the kind of physical infrastructure that connected communities and assisted with the flow of goods and people.

The list of such actions is far more extensive than any of us realized. But we have felt it, and that sense of foreboding has not left us. But here’s the point: each one was a political choice, and the damage from each could have been better minimized if our politics hadn’t been sick and ailing. Different political choices would have resulted in less inequality today. One gets the sense that, following every economic downturn in recent decades, that more of the legislative restraints were taken off the free market in hopes of recapturing past glory. It worked, in that fabulous wealth was generated. Unfortunately, that wealth placed such a huge wedge in society, rewarding those above and pressing down on those beneath the cut, that inequality now characterizes our age more than any in recent decades. All this wealth. All this money. All this inequality. These realities are all linked by the prevalence of poorly aimed political choices.

But there is a glimmer of hope: if the fault lies in our politics, then the solution lies in our democratic instincts. For these to function more effectively, it will take citizens and not a detached elite to correct them, for democracy is based on our ability to correct a system by applying ourselves to the problem. Governments grew lax because we grew distracted, and when numerous capitalist leaders spotted that, they rushed through that door de Tocqueville talked about and occupied the positions of dominance.

Those in control of power and wealth, in most cases, won’t relinquish such amenities freely. It will take citizens, responsible businesses, and democratic organizations coming together and actually selecting people for politics who know where their grounding is – family, community, meaningful work, a more peaceful world, a sense of inner accountability and humility.

Can we reduce financial inequality in our time? Absolutely, but only when we increase our sense of citizen responsibility. There’s the rub.

For Millennials: Talk Meaning, Not Just Money

 

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AUTHOR ROBERT PUTNAM NOTICED SOMETHING INTERESTING back in 1993. He discovered that between 1980 and 1993, the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10%, while those participating in league bowling declined by 40%. Putnam used that illustration as something of a symbol for the transformation that was taking place in the United States and turned it into a book titled, Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.

For two decades now research has shown that on both sides of the 49th Parallel we are becoming more individualistic and less institutional. There are pros and cons to such a development, leaving some social commentators to conclude younger generations remain more focused on their own concerns than those of society at large. The Millennials (born between 1980 and early-2000s) are largely singled out as leading this trend.

Recent global research is now telling us something quite different, however. Of the top ten concerns for Millennials across the globe, only 3 of the top 10 are economic, and only 1 of the top 5. They are concerned about unemployment (37%) and financial inequality among nations (28%). Yet they are just as concerned about how we are using up our natural resources (33%), climate change (32%), and personal safety (23%). The rise of poverty also registered in their concerns.

The report was commissioned by the global firm Deloitte, and polled more than 7,000 Millennials in 28 countries. Researchers were somewhat surprised to discover that the emphasis placed on social over economic challenges was the same from developed and developing nations. Across the board, Millennials rated the role of government as providing education, access to hospitals, meaningful work, and the safety of citizens above that of improving the financial status of citizens. And they went further, answering that the ultimate purpose of government is to advance social progress rather than just trusting everything to the financial sector. In fact, they no longer believe that economic growth alone is sufficient for providing meaningful lives and communities.

It gets even more interesting. Those Millennials taking part in the research stated clearly that social progress is not merely the responsibility of governments, but also of businesses and the corporate sector. Concern was expressed that not enough resources were placed in essentials like infrastructure and investments in communities that would allow them to live with better quality of life standards.

What is all this saying? To begin with, we can dispel the myth that Millennials are far more narcissistic than their older counterparts. It’s simply not true. They might be less institutional in personal activities, but they comprehend the importance of institutional resources for solving our greatest problems and protecting our quality of life.

I don’t know many Millennials who bowl, but I have encountered thousands who engage in citizenship, struggle for women’s equity and human rights, and who think of people as more than what’s in their bank account. Above all, they know of the need for community and social inclusion. Community equity isn’t a generational possession, but a shared human trait that transcends age and cohorts. That’s enough upon which to build a successful future.

To Our New Council, With Love

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LONDON, ONTARIO, CAN BE FORGIVEN FOR FEELING some wind in its sails, despite having passed through some difficult years. We have a new mayor, a mostly new city council, and a new spring in our step. Feels good.

Those who were elected have a passion for their city and it’s not hard to spot. We need sound leadership if we are to proceed. And, in their desire to lead, they’ll need to follow the leadership of the community if they are to make the difference they obviously seek.

So, here is my prayer for all of you, the new team, based on the clear respect for your stepping forward and the awareness of the challenges you face.

First, please keep yourself. I’ve had a bit of experience in politics and it was troubling how easily political representatives permit themselves to become exclusively the extension of other people’s wants and desires. It’s vital to know your community, but your authenticity and usefulness will be centered on who you are and why you ran for office in the first place. To know oneself is important for political life; to keep yourself, however, is vital. Londoners didn’t elect robots, but living people in whom we wish to learn trust. That won’t be possible if you can’t stay real.

Be honest … please. Someone in Ottawa once explained to me that the secret of remaining in politics in putting on a difference face for everyone, as needed. It was some of the dumbest advice I’ve ever received. Politics isn’t only the art of the possible; it involves the transfer of trust, back and forth between citizen and representative. Start faking it with us, and trust is gone. And once it’s lost everything is just power plays or ambivalence.

I pray you make clear time for your family and friends. It is inherent in the very nature of politics that it soaks you for everything you can give it. Don’t give it that advantage. It is these very people who got you to where you are, and if you permit the demands of thousands of citizens to displace the honour you owe to those closest to you, it won’t be long until you lose your way, removed from those things that once gave you grounding and understanding.

Don’t forget to be humble. You didn’t get to where you are at this moment just because you’re so smart or innovative; you got there because citizens voted for you. When your community decides to trust you with leadership, it means that they not only deserve your best but also your devotedness to the honour of serving those who marked the ballot for you in the first place. Politics is not about pandering or policy, but ultimately about people. You have been elected to serve, not to seek advantage. The voters will never forget that; neither should you.

Please be kind. I have known so many good people who entered politics and who then permitted it to turn their spirits repeatedly to stone – so much so that they came to resent the very citizens that were supposed to be serving. You are to administer both the resources and understanding of the city to those that live and function within it. Resent those you are to be serving and it will be inevitable that you’ll care only about the power and perks of your position. Take time for your people, quality time, and they will keep you grounded and honoured – not because you’re a politician, but because you are a good person.

Please don’t lose yourself in these next four years; if you lose your way, so do we, and we’ve already had enough of that. Just like your citizens, love your community as though it is worthy of our very best efforts. Court it. Pursue it. Build a life with it. Love is at its best when it prompts us to serve others. Serve us with respect and understanding and we will honour you with our loyalty and talents. We love our city, but we will have to manage it through you, and that is a responsibility beyond measure. We’re turning a page together.  Let’s give it our best shot.

 

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