The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Media

When Our Global Food System Becomes Broken

As a scientific model it was intriguing, but the results were more troubling than anyone expected. Designed and developed by a team from the Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute, the model assessed how the world’s food system would look if a business-as-usual approach was taken up until the year 2040. The findings, as presented by institute director Dr. Aled Jones, were almost apocalyptic in scope:

“The results show that based on plausible climate trends, and a total failure to change course, the global food supply system would face catastrophic losses, and an unprecedented epidemic of food riots. In this scenario, global society essentially collapses as food production falls permanently short of consumption.”

The chief culprit in all this is climate change, and it should be noted that the model’s findings would apply only if policies don’t change and we bury our collective heads in the sand. Nevertheless the possibility of food collapse in less than three decades is sobering and should serve as a call to action. It should also be added that this is but the latest of a series of scientific warnings about the sustainability of our global food systems should the status quo prevail.

When asked what this might look like, social scientists point to the 2011 Arab Spring uprising – a series of revolts that initially began as riots to complain about the high prices of food across the region. There were local causes for the escalating prices to be sure, but climate research revealed that weather events in Russia, Ukraine, Australia, Argentina, the United States, and even Canada had instigated the rise in food prices that were ultimately finding their way into the Arab world. Those demonstrating in the streets for governments to lower food prices likely didn’t fully understand that their problem was global in scope.

There is a multitude of supporting evidence adding weight to Ruskin University’s discovery, including Lloyds of London, which concluded that the global food system is “under chronic pressure.” Concurring was the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which project that global agricultural production has to more than double by 2050 to have supply meet demand. Others say that the world will have to grow 70% more food within 30 years to meet demand. Is that even possible in a time of increasing climate change challenges? Ideally, yes, but practically, given the human penchant for putting things off, probably not.

As we enter an era of skyrocketing food prices, environmental catastrophes, famines, floods, and ruined harvests, how exactly we begin collectively organizing ourselves, as citizens and governments, to realign our policy priorities, food production, and consumer habit to fit with a more restrained future? Predicting food prices can be a precarious practice, but these are products requiring sun, rain, fertilizing, fallowing fields, hardier seeds, sustainable water collection and efficient harvesting – all of which depend on the cooperation and consistently of our natural environment to succeed. Now that the climate is in a state of flux, it is inevitable that food resources and their pricing will face decades of serious challenges.

In our next post we’ll consider some of the measures that must be taken by all parties if we are to not only create sustainable food supplies but a renewal of our natural world that sustains all that we do and consume.

The Real Strength of Canada’s Global Influence

This post can be found in its original National Newswatch format here.

So, Canada is bulking up, and with Foreign Affairs Minister Christia Freeland’s unfolding of a new global agenda in the House of Commons last week, there appears to be a serious amount of political capital, not to mention funding, going into the effort. It was substantial enough that columnist Susan Delacourt termed it a “manifesto” – a finger in Donald Trump’s eye.

There’s a lot of chatter these days about America losing its place of global leadership in the world. Commenting on Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Change accord, CNN analyst and author, Fareed Zakaria, boldly claimed, “This will be the day that the United States resigned as leader of the free world.”

That’s a hasty judgment. For all of the American president’s actions and rhetoric lately, the United States is too enmeshed in global networking and resourcing to simply step off the leadership escalator and leave the task to other nations. Donald Trump might be making nationalistic noises about making America great again, but too many American citizens and institutions remain engaged in global activity for Trump to simply pull the plug on decades of international responsibility. And there are no signs yet that his brand of isolationism will last more than a few years.

Yet his current nationalism is creating opportunities for other nations to up their game in the arena of global responsibility. Freeland’s speech in the House was a delicate thing, balancing deep respect for America’s historical leadership while, nevertheless, expressing disappointment at our neighbour’s penchant for turning inward.

Around the globe, international leaders are debating how to fill in the gap created by Trump’s retreat. Canada is now to be no different. Freeland’s review was underway prior to Trump’s election but was no doubt hijacked by the American president’s predilection for fraying many of its global alliances and agreements. It gave the review a challenging urgency and sense of focus, and ultimately provided Canada with a new way of looking at its own international influence.

The Trudeau government’s decision to commit $62 billion dollars in defence spending over the next two decades emerged from this new appraisal of Canada’s opportunities in the world, as did the commitment to focus at least 95% of the government’s international assistance allocations towards the empowerment of women and girls, in what is called the government’s “feminist policy.”

And then there is the Prime Minister’s recently announced intention to commit $2.65 billion to assist with international climate change efforts. Trump doesn’t like it, and political opponents are attempting to shred it, but it remains part of a larger cooperative effort to put Canada back on the international stage just at the time the U.S. leader is taking a step back.

All of this goes some distance to expressing the competing outlooks of Trudeau and Trump. Whereas the American president views the world as a moving state of competing nations, each vying for supremacy and advantage, Canada’s PM is betting that the only way to achieve a sense of justice and sustainability is through the kind of global collaboration that sees nations working together for common pursuits. Such approaches are polar opposites of each other, but the days of Pax Americana are slowly giving way as new options take its place.

“Our greatest export isn’t military prowess or even our wealth. It is our people.”

Yet for all the military, environmental and gender expansion that Trudeau’s government wants to project, its greatest calling card to the world is the one thing other partners have difficulty achieving: a peaceful domestic environment. Those of us who travel extensively continue to encounter foreign leaders who express sincere interest in our form of federalism. For all our foibles, regional disparities, languages, and political partisanship, the fact that we have held ourselves together while other advanced nations have sailed into troubled waters that threaten the historic world order says something about our own practicality and survivability. If Canada were currently roiling in animosity, the government’s recent global announcements would prove ineffectual.

Our greatest export isn’t military prowess or even our wealth. It is our people. Recent efforts to expand our influence in the world aside, comedian Jon Stewart’s observation remains relevant: ““I’ve been to Canada, and I’ve always gotten the impression that I could take the country over in about two days.” We will fight if we have to – against injustice, for gender equality, or for a more sustainable planet – but the reality that we remain a peaceful people is still the key attribute that empowers our global influence.

Hope In An Age of Shadows

So often it feels as though we are losing the battle to better humanity across most fronts. The unpredictable nature of modern life has meant that we far more quickly hear negative stories of our future than positive ones. At times we don’t hear of any hopeful news on the global scale for weeks at a time.

A number of months ago we talked about how significant strides have been made globally to assist those in the direst of poverty. Now from the World Health Organization (WHO) we learn of some significant advances being made in the realm of health. In its annual World Health Statistics report (available here) we learn the following:

  1. The global under-5 mortality rate declined by 44% since 2000.
  2. Since 2000, new HIV cases have decreased by 35%.
  3. In 2015, about 60% of the population that is at risk for malaria had access to insecticide-treated nets, compared to just 34% in 2010
  4. 86% of children receive their DTP3 vaccine, and administration of all three doses of hepatitis B vaccine reached 84% in 2015.
  5. The risk of dying from one of the four major non-communicable diseases – diabetes, cancer, chronic lung disease, and cardiovascular disease – declined by 17% among people ages 30-70 since 2000.

This is in every way a significant finding. The global effort on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has helped to coordinate international response on a number of issues that threaten the planet, including climate change, poverty, and the lack of gender equality. That collaboration is now having effect and the tangible results are now becoming apparent.

Nevertheless, WHO’s report also contains many sobering reminders of how far we have yet to journey to create a chance a wellness for everyone. Yet nations, civil society, health workers, NGOs, companies, the UN, and many other partners are coming together in a significant enough fashion that there is now a concrete chance that the SDGs can prove truly effective.

WHO’s annual reports contain world health statistics for the use of its 194 member states, and includes helpful data on life expectancy in nations around the world. The 2017 edition also includes, for the first time, success stories from several countries that are making progress towards the health-related SDG targets. The graphic below reveals how some of the member countries are faring.

Martin Luther King Jr. called it right decades ago when he proclaimed: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” The WHO’s 2017 report reminds us critical differences can be made when nations and their people understand the essence of King’s meaning.

Democracy in a Box

Those of us in the affluent West hold to the belief that certain political realities remain sacrosanct. Rule of law, political representation, will of the people, elections, civic duty – these have become so entrenched in our thoughts that we believe them immutable. And situated at the peak is that one great word that encompasses them all – democracy. For all its many flaws, it remains our preferred method of government.

The problem is that none of that is certain anymore, as the decades have introduced complexities that confound even the most stable governments. When Alan Moore, in his V is for Vendetta, wrote that, “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people,” it was assumed that only one of these could exist in a single moment. But we are now learning that our modern democracy is furthering both at the same time. Rampant populism is only the most recent example of how the great democratic experiment of the last two centuries has slipped its moorings and sailed into troubled waters.

The term democracy can now mean many things, not all of them true to its original intent of citizens being granted certain rights regardless of who is in power. Indeed, the protection of these liberties by way of constitutions, civil rights, and separate branches of government was democracy’s greatest responsibility.

Yet while most countries call themselves democratic today, a good number of them use force and coercion to keep their people in submission to their autocratic rule. By delinking government from its responsibility to the individuality of its citizens, these rulers – most of them ironically elected – have taken democracy off in new directions for which it wasn’t intended. For a century, Western governments attempted, often crudely, to persuade less-developed nations to extend more liberties to their people. Leaders of those receiving nations most often justified their need for Western resources in order to free their nations from the more brutal practices of history. They then used those tools designed to enhance democracy and drove their people back into the shadows of a despotic past.

Efforts to export democracy to struggling nations were frequently mixed with ulterior motives and an almost complete lack of understanding of a region’s history. Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, El Salvador, Guatemala, South Sudan, Rwanda, are but some of the more recent examples of naïve foreign policy run amok.

Troubling as these developments were, Western governments necessarily drew a certain comfort by comparing their advanced democratic institutions with the perceived crude efforts of those they were attempting to assist in other corners of the world.

Now such comparisons are often moot. It remains a very difficult thing to assert you have the political and economic solutions the developing world needs when you tolerate growing poverty levels, increases in violence, gender inequality, and the blind disregard of your own indigenous people. This becomes a democratic nightmare when it is your own citizens that express their disenchantment in huge number. Political instability becomes the present companion in every election and politicians adopt the torturous process of trying to be all things to all people, while ending up as bland versions of their former principled selves.

Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia this past week revealed just how confounding this whole democracy definition has become. The sight of a constitution-avoiding Western leader leveraging military and economic deals with a Saudi leadership that has turned civic oppression into something of an art only further blurs the lines between true democracy and it’s many modern pretenders. The result is confusion and hypocrisy. Or as the Washington Post reported: “Trump has preemptively made many more concessions to the preferences of Arab regimes in the hopes that they will respond with financial and political support.” So much for democracy’s moral high ground.

You can’t just unpack democracy as if it’s a “one-size-fits-all” bromide. It remains the most arduous political task in the world today, involving dedicated effort by citizens and those they elect. Professing democracy while denying people their democratic rights shouldn’t be fooling anybody. Voting has little effect when your only emotion towards the political order is one of fear. Mark Twain wasn’t just joking when he said, “If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.” The essence of democracy is turning that vote into the most powerful political act by a liberated and protected people.

 

Good Politics

This post can be found in its original on National Newswatch here.

John Buchan was a Scottish novelist, historian and politician who embarked on these three careers at roughly the same time. His novel The Thirty-Nine Steps remains a classic. He also just happened to be Canada’s 15th Governor-General (1935-1940). A key to his long and diverse career is found in his autobiography:

“Public life is regarded as the crown of a career, and to young men it is the worthiest of ambition. Politics is still the greatest and most honourable adventure.”

I quoted this passage during a speech recently, only to be met with a baffled response. It wasn’t hard to see why: few look at politics in such lofty terms. In reality, much of populism’s response in recent times can be attributed to the resentments voters and citizens feel towards politics and those who dabble in it. Polls document it. Elections reveal it. And coffee shop banter is enlivened with it.

And yet much of this assessment is hardly fair or even warranted. True, many who run for elected office are more interested in power than public service. Yet there are many good politicians out there whose goal is to better their community, their country, their world, and their efforts should be honoured. The problem, really, is one of results. Dedicated people can do little when the political climate is one of battling, animosity, undermining, and the refusal to cooperate to achieve the public good. Because of the prevalence of these darker political practices, our deepest challenges frequently remain unaddressed, despite the party professions otherwise.

And since politics is a two-way street between citizens and their elected representatives, voters must be willing to accept some of the blame for the current state of political decline in our world. Some of our voting choices haven’t reflected well on us. We can blame politicians all we want, but many of those voted into office were just as scurrilous prior to their election as they were following. It was the voter that put them there, however, and if democracy is to be refined and enhanced it will require better choices from average people just as much as from our elected representatives.

From humanity’s very beginning, politics has been essential to our welfare, security and progress. Our modern problem is really about what kind of politics we are talking about. Julian Barnes was correct when he wrote in his Flaubert’s Parrot: “The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonourably, foolishly, viciously.” The problem is not only that we elect individuals who behave this way but that we tolerate it year after year, even in ourselves as voters. Politicians and citizens will never achieve the outcomes they are looking for as long as the democratic state grows increasingly dysfunctional.

We require a better a way of governing ourselves because politics is the only constituted way in which we can forge our disagreements into enough of a consensus to move us forward into our many challenges. For all the recent debate about designing better political systems, the greatest step we could take towards the renewal of democracy is that of reforming ourselves. “We assume we are better people than we seem to be,” says University of Oklahoma historian Wilfred McClay. The presumption affects our politics, he continues. “We assume that our politics should therefore be an endlessly uplifting pursuit full of joy and inspiration rather than endless wrangling, head-butting, and petty self-interest.

The problem, of course, is that there are many politicians and citizens who love this stuff – the blood letting, the sabre rattling, and the love and pursuit of power over others. Yet this isn’t where the average British, French, American, Chinese, Russian, or Canadian citizen lives. They merely seek a better and more secure world for themselves and their families. Politics to them should facilitate such noble and practical outcomes; when it doesn’t, anger and constant turnover results. For political viability to return, it must re-engage with the ambitious agenda of bettering the average citizen, including the marginalized, and honouring the politician who pursues that goal above all else.

Our politics is distracted because we, as a people, are distracted. We should be getting on with the business of enhancing productivity, ending poverty, achieving true gender equality, aligning ourselves with the sustainability of the planet, building meaningful communities, and creating a patriotic fervor that is as true in fact as it is in hopes. “The point of modernity is to live a life without illusions while not becoming disillusioned,” wrote Antonio Gramsci. We have become too accomplished at both and only a rebirth of a meaningful politics can begin to rebuild the “honourable adventure” that John Buchan believed was possible and is now proving essential.

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