Greta Thunberg gets it wrong

I sympathize with Swedish teen Greta Thunberg for her outrage at the mess that my generation has left the world in. We just wanted to create a culture with every convenience that minimized effort and maximized the burning of fossil fuels.

Greta Thunberg.  image, qz.com.

But my guilt is not going to solve the problem. Neither is her panic. “I don’t want you to be hopeful; I want you to panic,” implores Thunberg.

Panic is not a useful reaction says Calgary based author Chris Turner: “No society can function on panic indefinitely, and no one writes new building codes well in a panic (Walrus magazine, November, 2019).”

What will work? Well, one suggestion is to put ourselves on a war footing as we did during World War II. Back then, when our way of life was threatened by the enemy, we mobilized resources on a scale never seen before: retooling factories for the manufacture of weapons, rationing of vital resources, putting women to work in jobs traditionally held by men.

We could retool factories for green power and clean technology; deploy an army of citizens to install solar panels and erect wind turbines; build energy storage facilities, electric-vehicle charging stations, commuter trains, and bicycle lanes.

But just who is the enemy in this green war? There’s no shortage of villains: Big Oil, pipelines, Conservatives.

We are the enemy. While we want to save the planet, we don’t act like we do. Big Oil is not force-feeding us. Just look in Kamloops’ driveways to see what vehicles are popular: trucks. Canada’s bestselling vehicle is the Ford F-150, not known for its fuel efficiency. Just look where we live: in single-family houses that cost more to heat.

If the wartime model is wrong, what is the solution? Not individualism. We are told that if each of us were to cut back just a little, we could make a difference. It’s an appealing model because in our singular society, the individual is king. And we can be blamed for falling short of CO2 targets.

There is a way. We can act collectively –it’s called government, and you might be surprised to learn that B.C. is a North American model in reducing CO2. I’m not just talking about B.C.’s well-known carbon tax introduced by conservatives (BC Liberals) and supported by progressives (NDP).  No, carbon pricing is just part of the plan.

“In 2008, the BC government required municipalities to begin incorporating climate targets and plans into their growth strategies and community planning,” says Turner. “This triggered a wave of rethinking and new accounting methods—the kind that led to ‘sustainability checklists’ for all the workaday business of building management and construction.”

Then in 2017, the BC government became the first in North America to lay out clear, rigorous requirements and codes that would guide the province’s building industries to the construction of net-zero structures by 2032.

Panic puts people into a fight-or-flight mode. Individualism generates a false sense that something can be done. What works is the steady, almost imperceptible pace of dedicated bureaucrats writing building codes and working to achieve real change, government by government.

This kind of progress is not sensational. Slow but sure is the way but the wheels must be set in motion.

The first Canadians

We arrived in North America, in what is now Canada, 16,000 years ago. Within a few thousand years, three quarters of the continent’s large animals were gone.

   image: sciencemag.org

By “we,” I don’t mean we European colonizers, I mean we Homo sapiens.

There were no indigenous people when we arrived. Not like 70,000 years ago when we came to Europe from Africa. Then, the indigenous people of Europe were the Neanderthals. We probably treated them much in the way that Europeans treated the indigenous people of North America -as savages.

Am I equating indigenous people of North America to the indigenous people of Europe? Yes. We are all humans, says Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens:

“Yet the real meaning of the word human is ‘an animal belonging to the genus Homo,’ and there used to be many other species of this genus besides Homo sapiens.”

We encountered other humans as we spread around the globe, probably with the same disdain. We dismiss other humans who look slightly different as inferior; it’s a convenient way of subjugating “others” and appropriating their land and resources.

The extent to which Neanderthals were human is indicated in our DNA. Shortly after arriving in Europe, the Neanderthals disappeared. There are two possible explanations: either sapiens and Neanderthals interbred to become one species or the Neanderthals died off, or we killed them. If we interbred, we are not “pure sapiens” but carry DNA of those other humans that we encountered –Denisovans from Siberia, Homo Erectus in East Asia.

DNA analysis reveals interbreeding. Europeans and those from the Middle East carry one to four per cent of Neanderthal genes. Melanesians and Australian Aboriginals carry six per cent of Denisovan genes. We humans are probably all one species, just as Spaniels and Chihuahuas are all dogs.

To the chagrin of racists, the only pure members of our species are found in Africa. The rest of us are just bastards.

When we walked into North America 16,000 years ago across the Bering Strait, we had no idea that we were walking into a new world. In just a few thousand years we traveled all the way to the island of Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America. Along the way, we exterminated many species.

“According to current estimates, in that short interval, North America lost thirty-four out of forty-seven genera of large animals,” says Harari, “South America lost fifty out of sixty.”

After flourishing for 30 million years, sabre-toothed cats were gone as well as giant sloths that weighed up to eight tons. Gone were giant beavers, horses, camels and mammoths.

We arrived in Australia with the same disastrous results. Within a few thousand years, out of twenty-four species of large Australian animals, most of them marsupials, twenty-three became extinct.

The unsettling fact is that we were not good stewards of the land, not as first people and certainly not as European colonizers.

We sapiens are remarkable humans in other respects. We inhabit every corner of the earth. But I can’t help but feel that it’s going to end badly.

Maybe a new version of humans will rise, breed with us, and do a better job at living in harmony with the planet.

Leisure time at work

The promise of technology was that leisure time would increase. That hasn’t happened, at least not in the manner expected.

  image: CNBC

The number of hours at work has decreased over the decades but not at the rate expected. Europe has seen a significant drop but the U.S. and Canada are relatively steady at about 34 hours per week.

Why is the promise of technology realized in Europe and not North America? In a word: unions. When the Great Recession of 2008 hit France, instead of laying people off, workers shared jobs as negotiated by their unions. In Canada and the U.S., the choice was stark: either you had a job or didn’t. Once the recession eased, French workers continued to share jobs.

The French work fewer hours with greater productivity. France has 29 per cent greater productivity than Canada and the French work 16 per cent fewer hours. The French are more productive when they are on the job.

Canadian and American workers have increased leisure time in an unexpected way –they relax on the job. In a survey, Salary.com found that that 89 per cent of workers admitted to wasting time at work. An increase in productivity due to technology is offset by goofing off on the job.

Of those who admitting to time theft, one-third wasted 30 minutes, one-third admitted to one hour, and one-third to up to 5 hours a day. The top time-wasters were talking and texting on the phone, gossiping, internet and social media, breaks, distraction of noisy co-workers, meetings, and email.

Examples of what employees were caught doing are: caring for a pet bird smuggled into work, laying under boxes to scare people, wrestling, sleeping while claiming to be praying, and shaving legs in the women’s washroom.

When these hours are subtracted from the time spent at work, the actual time spent working is only 29 hours per week. Because the work is being done in fewer productive hours, productivity is actually up by 2.3 per cent.

But you can’t say that workers who goof off at work are actually relaxing. If I’m hiding under a box waiting to scare passersby, I’m aware that I could be caught and disciplined, even fired.

Importing European solutions, like shortening the work day, is not easy. North American individualism creates a different work ethic and Corporate America has exploited that ethos. There is a sense that hard work and long hours are the key to success. And where the Puritan Work Ethic fails, corporations instil the fear of job-loss when workers try to organize.

As evidenced in Europe, productivity can improve when hours of work are reduced. Employees are more focused on the job at hand when the hours to do the job are reduced

North Americans resist job-sharing even though they would have more quality leisure-time if they did, not just hours stolen at work. The dilemma that many workers now face is having time or money, but not both. In my first column ever for the Kamloops Daily News in 2000, I wrote: “Now, productive leisure time is a luxury of the idle rich, or, a necessity of the destitute poor, but beyond the grasp of most.”

 

Myths trace human migration

 

Ever since we came out of Africa, humans have carried myths to every corner of the globe. Cultural anthropologist Julien d’Huy traces their journey.

Cosmic Hunt as drawn 6,000 years ago in Spain

One myth, which d’Huy calls the Cosmic Hunt tells of a hunter who pursues an animal, which then turns into a constellation.

“As the Iroquois of the northeastern U.S. tell it, three hunters pursue a bear; the blood of the wounded animal colors the leaves of the autumnal forest. The bear then climbs a mountain and leaps into the sky. The hunters and the animal become the constellation Ursa Major. Among the Chukchi, a Siberian people, the constellation Orion is a hunter who pursues a reindeer, Cassiopeia. Among the Finno-Ugric tribes of Siberia, the pursued animal is an elk and takes the form of Ursa Major (Scientific American, December, 2016).”

Early humans from Asia carried the myth of the Cosmic Hunt across the Bering Strait to North America 28,000 and 13,000 years ago.

In turn, Asians got the myth from Europeans. In the cave paintings of Lascaux, France, a bison appears to be rising into the heavens. Black stains on the ground under the bison suggest the bloodstained autumn leaves of the hunted animal.

From Europe, the Cosmic Hunt traces back to Africa. While the story line is the same, the animal changes. In some parts of Africa it is a camel; in other parts a zebra, pig, or ungulate.

In another, the Polyphemus myth, a man gets trapped in a monster’s cave and escapes by hiding among the monster’s herd of animals.

In Homer’s Odyssey, the monster of the Polyphemus myth is one-eyed. Odysseus and his men are trapped in a cave by the monster and escape by clinging to the underbellies of the monster’s sheep which the monster has let out of the cave to graze.

The Polyphemus myth even traces the transition of humans to an agricultural way of life. Hunter-gatherers of Europe told the Polyphemus myth as a one-eyed dwarf monster, the master of beasts on a mountain.  After the ice age pushed humans into the Mediterranean 21,000 years ago, the one-eyed monster now lives in a shelter rather than in the wild.

In another French cave, the Polyphemus myth looks like humans are escaping the monster by hiding the anus of a bison rather than clinging to its underbelly. This is a similar version of the myth as told by some North American indigenous people.

I can’t help but wonder what myths survived from my indigenous European ancestors. Perhaps it’s this:

In the Greek telling of yet another cultural myth, Pygmalion makes an ivory statue of a woman and dresses her in fancy clothes and jewellery. After praying at the temple of the goddess of love, Aphrodite, he returns home to find that his ideal mate has been brought to life.

On CBC Radio’s Spark, Matt McMullen explained how his company is making hyper-realistic, anatomically-correct, poseable silicone sex dolls. Sexy robots have been turning up in our pop-culture, from Ex-Machina to Blade Runner, The Stepford Wives, and the HBO series Westworld.

The myth of an ideal mate, crafted to specification by men and made possible by technology, persists.