The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

It’s Called Civil Society For a Reason

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

Numerous insights have been written in recent years regarding the eroding effect of partisanship on the political estate, most recently in America. That’s too bad because it’s a red herring and frequently masks what is the real underlying cause of political dysfunction. The fact that individuals hold opinions often at odds with others and support parties of various convictions has been essential to both the spirited and fluid nature of democracy itself.

Others feel differently. Writing recently in Fusion, American commentator Hamilton Nolan went so far as to say that those who profess to be non-partisan are surely part of our present problem. The title of his article speaks for itself: “Bipartisanship Means I Don’t Understand What Politics Is.” Bipartisanship is all too often an excuse from preserving the status quo, he believes, and the refusal to address America’s deepest problems – violence, poverty, racism, elitism. He believes not everything can be solved by compromise, and he has a point. Yet he maintains that many of those who seek such compromise are “moral monsters” and that those who call for more civility in politics are, in reality, “obscene.”

It’s easy to understand where Nolan is coming from, even as we consider the Canadian context. Why is it, for example, that no matter who holds the reins of power in Ottawa child poverty remains stubbornly high, that efforts to battle climate change are hardly sufficient, that gender equality is slow to achieve, or that Canadians remain disillusioned between political promise and effective performance? These are valid queries and deserve deeper consideration.

But to say that they endure because of bipartisanship or civility is something of a stretch. Civility lies at the very essence of effective politics, and as long as it is practiced with a willingness to listen respectfully to other points of view democracy has a chance of moving forward. We call it “civil” society for a reason. Far from being tepid, civility lies at the heart of effective politics. It permits those of whatever persuasion to remain in the room long enough to seek solutions together. For hyper-partisans such a pursuit is useless; with minds rigidly made up long in advance, the very thought of finding common ground is anathema. Political wars are their bread and butter.

One of the problems in Nolan’s perspective is that in poll after poll, on both sides of the border, the large majority of citizens want their politicians to “dial down” the endless bickering and get on with running their country in a collaborative fashion. There’s a reason why there are increasing calls for more respect in politics, and since it comes from citizens themselves there is clearly relevance to it. They don’t mind the partisanship but reject its rabid extremes and, for all its talk, the lack of effectiveness.

In less than a week Canadians will be celebrating the country’s 150th birthday, but it’s about more than just partying. It’s about collectively acknowledging a century and a half of living together, despite every division imaginable – geography, regional distinctions, language, distance, ethnicity, race, and, yes, partisan persuasion. While other nations struggle to hold themselves together at these weak points, Canada somehow finds strength in them, despite the friction.

In a real way, we have proved that it is our civility, our respect for our differences, that has allowed us to not only endure but to prevail. Our problems are numerous, yet we aren’t frozen in place by them. In effect, it has been our respectful civility that has been the precondition for our survival as a nation. It hasn’t been about our divisions, but the process of how we deal with them has been the secret to whatever success we have achieved.

Canada has proved to be an enduring triumph among global nations and deep down we all know it. Around the world, Canada is known for the congeniality of its people. Our problems are massive in scale, but it is how we have gone about handling them together that attests to the genius of our collective co-habitation. We have placed the ability to be civil at the centre of our innovation and curiosity as a people. By standing up and demanding that our politicians and other leaders put aside meanness for fairness, we attest to our ability to endure instead of self-destructing.

The majority of us comprehend that we cannot solve our abiding problems with hateful rhetoric, opinionated destruction, or namby-pamby citizenship. Partisanship is essential to our future; blind partisanship will kill it. Civility is what allows us to talk about our differences. Political will is what helps us to overcome them. For all our problems, it is time to celebrate that we are still together.

Three Decades Away

My last blog post referred to a model undertaken by a research organization concluding that if nothing is done to alter the present situation that the world will be in a full-blown food crisis within 30 years. Considering that by mid-century global population will be close to 10 billion, it’s not too difficult to envision what a food crisis will do to the poorest around the world.

Almost two years ago a powerful gathering of politicians, NGOs, business leaders, university professors, and scientists got together and developed some long-term plans for dealing with the issue. Most notable were the efforts of Cargill, a multinational agriculture business, and the World Wildlife Fund partnered together to move the issue forward. Key to it all, they concluded, will be the closing if three significant gaps:

  • The Knowledge Gap: The public- and private-sector should develop a real-time global food security dashboard that allows decision-makers to detect and address disruptions to the global food system before they occur.
  • The Productivity Gap: Public, private and multilateral actors must invest to increase agricultural productivity in low-income countries, while minimizing its impact on the environment.
  • The Collaboration Gap: Global leaders must create specialized forums to improve decision-making in times of crisis, introduce coordinated long-term measures, and engage decision-makers from all sectors on global food security issues.

These are important concepts and ideas, but the problem, as ever, swirls around two key problems: who will pay for it all and will all these solutions actually be implemented after two decades of talking about them. Make no mistake: progress has been made. But we can’t inch our way forward on this – 2050 is roughly three decades away. Climate change will alter everything we know but its effect on food production could well be the most catastrophic. Everything from the spread of global disease through bad food to massive deaths through starvation, to nutritional adequacy will have to be faced.

The real issue for us now is not really how we can find solutions but will we? Not all of it is up to the big players. Greg McClinchey, and old friend from Ottawa days, responded to the previous post by noting:

“While population growth is something we all need to prepare for, we also need to remember that we already waste at least 27% of all the food we produce. Put another way, for every 100-acre field we grow, we waste 27 acres of production. My point is that we can help solve many of these problems with some action around our own table.”

That’s a good place for average citizens to start. Another friend, Leeanna Dawne Newton, put change easily within our reach: “If we all tried to take some initiative of sustaining our own selves in some capacity this could provide a solution in part to the impeding food shortage issue.”

These aren’t mere theories postulated by world leaders after meeting for a few days (important as that is), but practical ways of living and returning to the land as our own contribution to this massive global problem. As Phil Harding put it: “Everybody talks about population growth and its disastrous effect on climate change, food security and resource depletion, but nobody does anything about it.”

The time to move on this at all levels of humanity is now – 2050 is just around the corner.

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.

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