Paradise. Lost.

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make

a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

– John Milton, Paradise Lost

The great writers and minstrels have always known these things about humankind.  Although there are individual exceptions, as a species, we are inherently selfish, alarmingly short-sighted, determinedly destructive, and staggeringly—perhaps wilfully—oblivious to the effects we have on our environs.

Hearken to tales of yore if you want proof—from the painful struggles of Sisyphus, to the incessant wars of Imperial Rome and her successor empires, to the colonial pursuit of material wealth and power, to the latter-day struggles for freedom and autonomy—all undertaken in the belief that we can overcome every obstacle because we are superior beings.  We rule.

But for what?  As Schopenhauer declared, “…the most perfect manifestation of the will to live represented by the human organism, with its incomparably ingenious and complicated machinery, must crumble to dust and its whole essence and all its striving be palpably given over at last to annihilation—this is nature’s unambiguous declaration that all the striving of this will is essentially vain.”

Although not yet eighty years of age, I have been alive in nine decades, the 1940s to the 2020s.  Incredibly privileged to have been born in North America to white middle-class parents, one of five children, I have witnessed wars, epidemics, economic booms, financial crises, social inequities, scientific breakthroughs, racism and misogyny, space exploration, and (for better or worse) rock ‘n’ roll.

Throughout history, the prevailing norm among the successful has been that through it all, we are making progress, that things are getting better.  And I suppose they are, for some.

But at what cost?  There are approximately 7.8 billion people inhabiting our planet Earth today, about ten percent of whom live in extreme poverty.  More alarmingly, almost eighty-five percent of the world’s population lives in regions currently affected detrimentally by climate change, the most serious threat to our future.

Science tells us that the planet has existed in its orbit around the sun for close to 4.54 billion years, and that the first forms of primitive life likely appeared around 4.1 billion years ago.  The earliest examples of hominins (human-like creatures), our homo habilis, homo rudolfensis, and homo erectus ancestors, have been around for an astonishingly small period of only two million years.  The species to which we belong, homo sapiens, arose perhaps 300,000 years ago, descended from those earlier creatures, but took a huge intellectual leap forward approximately 65,000 years ago with the creation of projectile weapons, fishhooks, ceramic vessels, sewing implements, cave-paintings, even musical instruments.

So, in fewer than 70,000 years, a tiny fraction of the 4+ billion years of Earth’s existence, humankind with all its strivings has brought this ancient planet to the point where our own continued existence on it may well be in doubt.

Since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has maintained a Doomsday Clock, whereby they metaphorically measure threats to humanity from unchecked scientific and technical advances.  In the ensuing years, the clock has wavered between seventeen minutes to midnight and its present setting of 100 seconds to midnight.  If it were ever to reach actual midnight, it would mean there has been an extraterrestrial collision, a nuclear exchange, or a catastrophic climate change that has wiped out humanity.

Which would you choose, the extraterrestrial or nuclear option, or the climate alternative?  And which do you think is most likely?

Of the three, I worry most about climate change.  At my age, I’ll not likely see the worst effects, those that will change life irrevocably for Earth’s inhabitants, but I liken their inevitable depredations to the fate of a rabbit warren, whose denizens over time despoil it.  The result is zoonotic disease and plague, which will kill many of the rabbits, severely afflict others, and force survivors to find a new home.

We are already seeing examples of death and forced migration of people from their homelands because of the effects of environmental damage.  We are befouling our oceans, deforesting our woodlands, polluting our freshwater lakes, strip-mining our highlands, and poisoning our rivers with our mountains of garbage and toxic pollutants.

We are pumping untold amounts of carbon-rich contaminants into the atmosphere, resulting in a dramatic warming of Earth’s temperatures, to the point where polar ice-caps are melting and sea-levels are rising.  

The strangest thing of all is that we are perpetrating these transgressions, even while knowing of their deleterious effects.  We know about the Doomsday Clock.  We know about the Paris Agreement on climate change, we know we must restrict global temperature rise to less than 2C by 2050, and that we are perilously close already to missing that target.  We know regional and seasonal temperature extremes are reducing snow cover, melting sea ice, intensifying heavy rainfall, producing once-in-a-lifetime droughts, and changing habitat ranges for animal and plant life. 

But we are a self-engrossed species, intent on our own pursuits with scant regard for the long-term consequences.  A superior species?  I wonder.

Of course, the planet Earth soldiers on, evolving as she has since time immemorial, herself oblivious to the life-forms who call her home—the most advanced of whom think perhaps they, not she, will determine the future.

But we seem unable to stop the clock.

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

-Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

Lock ‘Em Up? Or Open ‘Em Up?

Some readers of this blog, knowing I was a Director of Education in two Ontario school districts prior to retirement, have asked if I would offer an opinion on whether schools should be locked down during this Covid pandemic, or opened up.  Is the mental health of children being jeopardized by their continued absence from school?  Or is that danger outweighed by the chance they will contract a Covid variant and spread it to others in their families and neighbourhoods?

They ask what I would do if I were still Director of Education.

It’s complicated, I tell them.  On the one hand, there is no doubt that the benefits of in-person learning far outweigh those of online instruction carried out remotely, although online learning does have a place.  And that speaks to opening up schools.

But the risks inherent in bringing children into congregant settings that number more than the limits imposed by the government for other venues—for example, a maximum of five or ten for indoor gatherings—are serious enough to give us pause.

As the once-upon-a-time CEO of those two school districts (unnamed here because I no longer speak for them), reporting to an elected board of Trustees, my overarching duty was to ensure the health and welfare of all students, staff, and members of the public who entered our buildings.  There were countless other responsibilities, of course, prescribed by the Education Act and its concomitant Regulations, and by those local school boards, but none so important as the safety of children.

So what would I do if I were still Director?  I would advocate strongly for the opening of schools and the return of children to in-person learning, but only—and this is the key point—when those schools are safe for their return.

What would make them safe?  To answer that, I would rely upon the advice and recommendations of experts in the field of epidemiology, virology, child psychology, and public health.  But because such people are not always in perfect agreement, I would have to exercise my own professional judgment to synthesize their thoughts and formulate a course of action.

Here’s what I know—or at least what I would rely upon.  In order to be safe for learning, I would ensure classrooms had adequate ventilation, perhaps HEPA filters in each one if necessary.  Alas, most of the schools in the two districts where I worked did not measure up, so that would present a major problem right away.

I would insist that anyone present in our buildings be fully vaccinated, in accordance with the guidelines respecting age and intervals between doses.  No vax, no entry (subject to bona fide medical exemption).  And everyone would wear an approved mask, and keep a recommended distance from each other—made possible by a restructuring of the physical classroom spaces.  Learning cohorts would be half the number they are now.

Testing and screening at prescribed intervals would be required, along with contact-tracing whenever someone came down with Covid.  Exclusion from school would be mandatory for anyone who became ill, subject to the public health guidelines around isolation and quarantine.  That is no different than procedures in place presently for children who come down with mumps or measles, for example—diseases whose frequency is greatly reduced now, of course, by mandatory vaccinations.  In fact, any child who has not received the vaccinations required by provincial law is already excluded from attending school.  My plan would add the Covid vaccination to that list.

Naturally, there would be costs associated with implementing these measures, both societal and financial.  How would local boards enforce such attendance restrictions against people who defy them, who declare (perhaps with some justification) that, as taxpayers, they have the right to have their children in school regardless of vaccination status?  How would those boards pay for the structural improvements needed in classrooms and schools?  How would they pay for the increased number of teachers and education workers required?

During the early years of my employ as Director, local school boards had taxing authority.  Each year, the property tax bills issued to ratepayers by local municipalities included an education component, through which boards could supplement the grant money they received from the provincial Ministry of Education in order to look after local initiatives.  So ideally, my plan would be financed by a local levy aimed at bringing about the necessary improvements to ensure the welfare of all who enter our buildings.

For better or worse, twenty-five years ago, the Harris Conservative government took away that taxing authority, leaving local boards reliant on annual per-pupil grants from the Ministry, the amounts of which were (and are) largely determined by formulas and algorithms overseen by Ministry staff in Toronto. The education priorities and needs that had heretofore been determined by the residents of local communities across the province were thus greatly diminished, not in importance, but in realization.

Because they no longer pay the piper, as it were, local boards can no longer call the tune.

My plan to open schools up, therefore, would be severely constricted today by a lack of money to bring about the required improvements in safety necessary for a secure return to school.  Nevertheless, it is what I would be advocating to any who would listen.  The billions of dollars being allocated to the building of a new 400-series highway (which, I assume, is based on somebody’s economic advice) would surely go some distance to making our schools safe for the return of students if re-allocated for that purpose. 

So I ask myself, what is the priority?  More highways or safe schools?  To a school district Director, the answer is evident.

As you might expect, the authority of a Director of Education is limited—both back when I occupied the position and certainly now—so if I were still on the job, I would be constrained from implementing my plan despite its common-sense foundation, prevented from pushing ahead on my own, even with the blessing of the local board employing me.

Nevertheless, this is what I would do if so empowered—not what I could do under present conditions.

Of course there are many negative implications for children, parents, employers, and the broader community to keeping schools closed—interrupted learning, social isolation, gaps in child-care, diminished cadre of workers, need for and costs of paid sick-leave, unintended strains on the public health system—which many of us are aware of.  And that’s why the whole question is complicated.

But I also know this.  It is impossible to alleviate the mental health problems of children and adults if they have died.  And it’s going to prove immensely stressful and costly to deal with the effects of long-Covid, the extent of which is only just beginning to be understood—fatigue, shortness of breath, brain fog, chronic sleep disorders, fevers, anxiety and depression, earlier-onset dementia, to name some.  We need to err on the side of caution with respect to the health of our populace.

When faced with difficult decisions as Director of Education (such as whether or not to permanently close a school, or to dismiss an unsatisfactory employee), I always tried to err, where possible, on the side of the children in our care.  What was the solution that would have the optimal impact on their long-term welfare?

And that’s how I would decide the schools issue now, insofar as I would have the authority to do so.  Would I lock ‘em up, or open ‘em up?

I strongly advocate for the opening of schools and the return of children to in-person learning, but only—and this is the key point—when those schools are safe for their return.

Another One

Another year recently opened up before us, the two-thousand-and-twenty-second in the Common Era (CE).  It may be annotated in two ways—2022 CE or, as has been more common, AD 2022 (from the Latin Anno Domini, ‘in the year of the Lord’).  Strangely enough, the AD nomenclature was introduced retroactively in year 525 of the Common Era, more than half a millennium after it began at the end of the BC (Before Christ) period.  That period is also referred to now as BCE (Before Common Era).

The CE and BCE designations are more inclusive additions to accommodate the religious diversity in our society, although it is still the Christian calendar that is almost universally used globally.  The current version of that is the Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1582 CE by Pope Gregory XIII, modifying the Julian calendar which had come into effect around 45 BCE.

There are approximately forty other calendars in use around the world today, mostly used to designate holidays associated with the culture or religion from which they emanated.  A few of the more notable ones include the Buddhist, the Chinese, the Hebrew, and the Islamic.  

In this Gregorian calendar year of AD 2022, those calendars show their dates in accordance with the time of their origin:  Buddhist, 2564; Chinese, 4720; Hebrew, 5784; and Islamic, 1444.

The dawn of AD 2022 is the seventy-eighth such occasion I’ve been around for, and marked the umpty-umptieth year in a row that I did not make any new year’s resolutions.  Ironically, that’s because at some previous and now fortunately-forgotten new year’s celebration, I made a resolution never again to make new year’s resolutions.

More ironically, that’s the only resolution I have never ended up breaking.  Not yet, anyway.

Still and all, I do ponder what this new year might have in store, not just for me, but for all of us.  Most urgently, I suppose, I wonder if the Covid pandemic with its seemingly-endless variants will finally ease its relentless onslaught.  And will the good fortune we in the wealthier nations of the world enjoy in our fight against it be shared effectively with the less-fortunate nations, so this pandemic disease won’t continue to find a viral breeding-ground among their inhabitants.

Will the political unrest in many of the so-called democracies of the world lead any of them into anarchy, and from there into authoritarian rule?  Is democracy on the chopping-block?  Is the burgeoning civil divide among the citizens of individual nations reconcilable, or will those people find themselves doomed to living with ever-increasing strife and turmoil?

Is the rapid growth of the stark economic inequalities we see among the citizenry of even more prosperous nations bound to continue?  Will the rich continue to get richer, while the poorer among us languish?  Will we prove able to move from proclaiming, I’m alright, Jack!  I got mine! to Let’s share the bounty.  There’s lots to go round.?  Will we help each other in a true, collective fashion, or will we turn away from each other, crying and decrying Socialism!

I wonder if, in AD 2022, empathy and inclusivity will begin to spread among the peoples of the world with respect to the acceptance of others of different race, gender, religious beliefs, and sexual orientation.  Or will narrow, ideological dogma continue to triumph over egalitarianism?

Will ongoing and increasing major climate changes impel even greater numbers of people living in threatened environs into forced migration to avoid environmental disaster?  And where will they go?  And will they be welcomed or turned away?  To what extent will nationalistic, political borders trump human compassion?

Not being a crystal-ball-gazer, I have no answers to these questions, nor sure-fire solutions to the problems.  I suspect no one else does, either, although many will profess to.  The answers will manifest themselves over time, as we apprehensively watch the unfolding of 2022 CE.

I do have opinions and hoped-for outcomes, however, and I expect to continue to write about these in this blog for as long as I’m able.  That’s not to be considered a new year’s resolution, though—I don’t make those anymore, remember?

But it’s a promise.