The Cancer

Some years back, my wife received the news that absolutely no one ever wants to hear.  We were seated beside each other in front of her doctor’s desk as he told us the tests she’d undergone confirmed that she did, indeed, have Cancer.

In that instant, every item on our life’s to-do list faded to insignificance.  The scourge of Cancer immediately leapt to number one on our life-agenda.  We were, in a word, gobsmacked.

Over the next few weeks, we dragged ourselves through the same range of emotions so many other people have experienced, I’m sure—disbelief, anger, denial, terror, uncertainty, guilt, anxiety.  And then gradually, resolve, hope, and action.

A few years later, I received the same grim diagnosis, from a different doctor this time, but with the same gamut of emotions tumbling out in the wake of the news.  And with the same re-ordering of life’s priorities.  I suspect anyone who has received such a shock has experienced a similar phenomenon—every other issue of importance in one’s life comes to a jarring halt, at least for a time.

In both our situations, the Cancer had been growing inside our bodies for some while before we ever became aware of its presence.  And it had continued to grow during the time it took us to obtain medical advice, to undergo tests, and to receive the results back.  Our initial diffidence and slowness to act were based on a purely human trait, a perhaps-understandable reluctance to admit, even to ourselves, that something might be amiss, that something might disrupt the normalcy of our lives.

But Cancer, we discovered, is constrained by no such hesitancy.  It exists insidiously, mindlessly, remorselessly, bound by no laws except its own biological imperative to metastasize, to survive.  As with viruses, Cancer has no regard for our human concerns.  It has no mercy.

As I write this, both my wife and I have outdueled the scourge, at least for now.  But the possibility of recurrence is ever in our minds, even as our own innate optimism buoys us.  It fooled us once, but we are more vigilant now, and readier to act more quickly if the need arises.

Once bitten, as the old saw has it, twice shy.

But our personal experience reminds me, unhappily, of the situation in which we, as a species inhabiting this planet Earth, presently find ourselves.  For some time, a looming catastrophe has been growing, a sort of Cancer very few of us seem ready to acknowledge.  We are perhaps so wrapped-up with the management of other crises and issues of importance—pandemic disease, pollution and environmental degradation, malnourishment and hunger, government corruption and a rise in authoritarianism, regional wars, terrorism, substance abuse, domestic violence, to name a few—that we are unable to pause to re-order our priorities.

But like all other Cancers, this one will prove indifferent to our ignoring of its presence.  It will dwarf our other concerns, smother them, render them insignificant in the big picture, and will leap to the fore as humankind’s number one agenda-item.  It will continue to grow exponentially until such time as we resolve to take immediate, aggressive, and effective action to curtail it.  And by then—perhaps already—it may be too late.

Our planet, the only home we have in the vast reaches of the known universe, is overheating, so far uncontrollably.  It has been doing so for a long time now, since before we became aware of it, and has shown no sign of slowing down, even though some of the more learned and wise among us have finally acknowledged it. 

Glaciers melt, ocean-levels rise, moderate zones become sub-tropical, drought ravages formerly-fertile lands, famine spreads, extreme weather-events increase in frequency worldwide, wildfires rage.  And most ominously, global freshwater reservoirs are shrinking.

Like the oncologists my wife and I depended on to deal with our own Cancers, earth-scientists have conducted their tests, studied the results, and announced their diagnoses.  As they see it, climate change is the existential crisis of our time, the Cancer that has the potential to bring about the demise of human life on Earth as we know it. 

We ignore these warnings at our peril.

The hope, of course, is that advances in science and technology will merge with the ingenuity of humankind to arrest the changes that are upon us.  But even the most optimistic do not profess to believe the changes can be reversed.  Just as there is no guarantee my wife and I will remain Cancer-free forever, there is no assurance our Earth will fully recover from the climate-Cancer assailing it.

But we must deal with it.  And soon.

The Cancer has no mercy.

Until It Isn’t

They were twenty years old, two houses across the road from one another in the Florida golf community where my wife and I live for six months of the year.  Identical models—two bedrooms, two bathrooms, den, double-car garage, large screened-in lanai—the stucco walls of one were painted mist-green, the other taupe.

I was surprised one day to see the green house completely shrouded in plastic sheeting, two large hoses snaking from a truck parked in the driveway to the house.  A neighbour told me the owners had discovered termites and had promptly called in the exterminators to ‘tent’ the house for fumigation.  It was a week or more before the residents could move back in, by which time we had gone back north.

Six months later, after arriving back in the community, I drove down the same street, only to discover the taupe house was completely gone.  All that was left was a starkly-white concrete pad between the adjacent houses, the paving-stone driveway leading to where the garage had been.  Weeds were sprouting between the pavers, and the scene was sadly incongruous, like a missing tooth in an otherwise-gorgeous smile.

The same neighbour told me that during the summer, the roof over the spare bedroom had collapsed.  No one was home at the time, fortunately, but an inspection of the house led to its being deemed inhabitable.

“Termites!” the neighbour said.  “All through the place.  Little buggers had likely been gnawin’ away for years, accordin’ to the insurance adjuster.  When the studs couldn’t support the roof any longer, down she came.”

I had long known of the perils of termite infestation, and was conscientious about looking for signs in our own house.  But they are hard to find—windows or doors that jam unexpectedly, mud tubes around the outside foundation, tiny pinholes in the painted drywall indoors, small piles of sawdust.  An awareness of the prospective danger is needed, and diligence.

The neighbour shrugged when I asked him if the owners were planning to rebuild their home. “Eventually, I guess, if’n they get the insurance money to cover it.  Otherwise, somebody else will prob’ly buy ‘em out an’ put up a brand new place.”

It seemed so unfair to me that those two lovely homes, both of which had steadfastly withstood numerous external threats for years—blistering sun, torrential rain, flooding, hurricane-force winds—had been attacked by stealth from within.  And only one had been saved, perhaps providentially, while the other had been destroyed.

I’ve been reflecting on that lately, considering how the scenario might be analogous to the state of our democratic form of governance.  In both Canada and the U.S., most of us appreciate the freedoms we enjoy—although some of us might too often take them for granted. But fewer of us, it seems, recognize the responsibilities that accompany those freedoms.

A partial list of such rights might include the right to elect those who govern us, to assemble peacefully, to speak freely, to enjoy an unencumbered press, to worship according to our conscience, to receive equal treatment under the law, and to be safe in the privacy of our homes.

Alas, in both countries, our history shows that not everyone has benefited from an equal application of those rights, although as Martin Luther King, Jr. declared, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Our two democracies have, so far, successfully repelled all attacks on us launched directly or indirectly by malign forces from abroad.  We are aware of, and perhaps readying to defend ourselves against, future existential threats like climate change and pandemic diseases.  Despite our individual differences, we have always rallied together to defeat external foes.

But what of the stealthy foe from inside the house, the metaphorical termite gnawing away at the foundations of our democracy?  Are we ready for that fight?

Even in hitherto strong democracies such as ours, there seems to be a growing threat of authoritarianism, a drift toward mis- and disinformation, a widening chasm between people of different political persuasions, a greater tendency to hurl insult and vitriol at one another, rather than listening to each other’s respective points of view.

Too many of us appear to be increasingly adopting and promulgating viewpoints that reflect our preconceived notions—confirmation bias—instead of keeping our minds open to alternative opinions that might modify our thinking and help us to learn and grow—and most importantly, to understand one another better.

So many are becoming increasingly tribal in our affiliations, whether based on race, religion, politics, or culture.  We are growing ever more selfish about, and protective of, what we deem our rights, too often without an acceptance of the responsibilities we bear in the exercise of those rights.  Too many of us seem willing to violate the rights of others in pursuit of our own self-centred aims.

For too many of us, the distinction between fact and falsehood, between integrity and mendacity, has become blurred to the point where we begin to declare the only truth is ‘my truth’.

The choice our countries are facing, in my opinion, is threefold:  1) we blithely allow ourselves to be attacked from within by those who would dissuade us from our most precious assumptions about democratic governance; 2) we choose to ignore, despite the signs, that the attack is occurring; or 3) we acknowledge the attack and take appropriate measures to deal with it.  

As Abraham Lincoln said in 1858, drawing from the Bible, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  The enemy from within is always the more dangerous, and the termites certainly proved the truth of that in the destruction of the taupe house in my community.  I cannot imagine that the owners of those two houses blithely allowed such an attack, but it is clear the owners of the green house took effective action as soon as they became aware of the problem.

With similar due diligence and swift measures by its owners, the collapse of the taupe house could have been stopped.  But it was not.

And in the same way, the insidious attack on our democratic form of governance from within is preventable. 

Until it isn’t.

That’s A Pity

I have come to believe there is a deep reservoir of anger simmering only slightly below the surface of our so-called civilized society.  But always leery of believing everything I think, I am constantly on the lookout for evidence that will either prove or disprove my assumption.

As one example, can you imagine this hypothetical situation actually happening?  A driver is cut off in traffic, perhaps inadvertently, by another driver.  Angered by this, he tailgates the offending driver and, at the first opportunity, passes him and immediately cuts back in front of him.

When they stop at the next traffic light, the driver in the car behind jumps from his vehicle, runs forward, and kicks a dent in the door of the front car, angrily yelling and waving his arms all the while.  The driver of that car, startled by this assault, opens his door so forcefully that he hits the assailant in the face, breaking his nose.

With blood gushing from his nostrils, the injured man slams the driver’s door closed just as the driver is getting out, pinning him between it and the car, breaking his leg.  Enraged now, and in pain, the driver grabs a gun from his console, aims it at the bleeding man, and shoots him.

Can you imagine such a scenario?  Can you imagine the anger?  And the escalation?  I can, although perhaps the whole thing is a touch melodramatic.  So, consider this less-lethal example and see what you think.

A comedian on stage at an awards show cracks a rather tasteless joke about a woman in the audience, a woman who suffers from a physical affliction over which she has no control.  Her husband, offended by what he sees as a gratuitous attack, immediately rushes to the stage, approaches the comedian, and sucker-punches him with an open-handed slap.  He then returns to his seat in front of a dumbstruck audience of hundreds in the theatre, and millions more watching on live television.  Once there, he exchanges loud, profane threats with the comedian, who shortly thereafter exits the stage.

Several minutes later, that same husband is back on stage to receive an award for his acting accomplishments, an appearance the assembled audience greets with a standing ovation.  Can you imagine such a scenario where anger and violence are so freely condoned?

Of course, we don’t have to imagine this second example because it actually occurred.  But consider what might have taken place if things had unfolded differently.  Imagine instead if the angry husband had marched to the stage, approached the clueless comedian, and seized the microphone from his hand.  Imagine if he had then explained to the man, and to everyone in the audience, why he and his wife were offended by the joke, why it was in poor taste, and how it might have detrimentally affected others hearing it who are also afflicted with a physical disability.

Imagine if he had explained how humour doesn’t have to be hurtful in order to be amusing.  Imagine if he had asked the comedian to apologize, then and there, to anyone who might have been offended.  And finally, imagine if he had then told the man he forgives him for his mistake.  Had he done these things, I believe he would have returned to his seat to an even more enthusiastic and deserved standing ovation, this one in recognition, not of his acting achievement, but of his actions—an acknowledgment and appreciation of his ability to seize the opportunity and render it a teachable moment.

Violence and physical assault are never okay—not between disputatious individuals, not between warring gangs or political parties (the difference becoming less and less discernible all the time), and not between sovereign nations.  Violence and physical assault are never okay.

I regret the loss of civil discourse in our society, where people holding different points of view could meet in the middle to discuss matters rationally, civilly, and with a propensity to listen and learn from one another.  Instead now, we have people retreating in high dudgeon to their respective corners, where they launch slings and arrows at each other, designed to wound and demean their opponents, to deliberately spread calumny and misinformation.

We have become a degenerate society, one diminishing ever more rapidly as a result of our rush to anger, our seemingly-insatiable need to feel aggrieved.  Rather than seeking to lift each other up, to bolster and propagate our shared comity, we are rushing pell-mell toward the lowest common denominator.

And that’s a pity.

Government

Over the past month or so, a number of people in Canada have been demonstrating against the government in various locations, including the nation’s capital.  Some of these demonstrators have been calling for an overthrow of the current government to address their demands.  However, government in Canada is not chosen by coup. 

Canada is a constitutional monarchy within the British Commonwealth of Nations, and our head of state is the Governor General, representing the Crown.  The government is defined under the terms of the Constitution Act, 1867, the Statute of Westminster, 1931, and the Canada Act, 1982.

Under the GG, there are two branches of government—Parliament (legislative) and the Supreme Court (judicial).  Parliament consists of two bodies, the House of Commons and the Senate.  Members of the Commons (MPs) are elected in 338 single-seat ridings across Canada, electoral districts based on population as determined by official census.  There are currently six political parties represented in Canada, and it is difficult, though possible, for someone other than a party member to be elected.  The party that has the most members elected to the Commons is asked by the GG to form a government, and that party’s leader (chosen by party members in a separate forum) becomes Prime Minister (PM).

The party receiving the second-most votes in an election is considered to be Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

The Senate is comprised of 105 members appointed by the GG on the advice of the PM, who since 2016 is advised by an Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments.  Senators are drawn from four regions, each of which is allotted twenty-four seats (Ontario, Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and the Western provinces), with the remaining nine seats allocated to Newfoundland and Labrador (six) and the three northern territories—Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Yukon (one each).  Senators must resign at the age of seventy-five.

The Commons is the dominant chamber, being composed of elected not appointed members, but approval of both bodies is required for the passage of legislation. 

The Supreme Court consists of nine Justices appointed by the Governor in Council, on the advice of the PM, and Justices must also retire at the age of seventy-five.  The Court—which sits at the apex of a broad-based pyramid of provincial and territorial courts, superior courts, and courts of appeal (whose judges are appointed by those jurisdictions), and a few other federal courts—constitutes Canada’s final court of appeal, and may consider criminal, civil, and constitutional matters of law.

Federal elections must be held in Canada at least every four years, but may be held more often if the GG, on the advice of the PM, chooses to dissolve Parliament and call an election.  Certain votes in Parliament are designated ‘confidence votes’, and any government that loses one of these must resign.  In any case where Parliament is prorogued, the GG may call an election, or (more unlikely) may choose to ask one of the other party leaders to form a government.

After any election, Canada will have either a majority or minority government.  The first occurs when the leading party’s MPs outnumber the combined opposition parties’ members, thus allowing the government to win any vote (so long as party solidarity prevails).  The minority situation requires the leading party to win votes from a number of opposition members sufficient to ensure passage of legislation.

The government at the time of writing is a minority Liberal (CLP) government led by PM Justin Trudeau, and the Loyal Opposition is the Conservative (CPC) party under interim leader Candice Bergen.  Other parties represented in the Commons are the Bloc Quebecois (BQ), New Democratic (NDP) Party, and Green (GPC) Party.  There are no elected members from the People’s (PPC) Party, nor are there any independent members.  

At any time when concerned citizens decide to call for changes to government policy, they are entitled to mount public demonstrations to advance their grievances.  This right to peaceful assembly is guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, 1982, and a number of such demonstrations are what we have been witnessing lately.

However, it is unlawful for any group of citizens to argue for or seek to impose a change in government by arbitrary means.  The only way to choose a government in Canada is through a democratic election conducted under the authority of the Canada Elections Act. Thus, citizens with grievances must seek to influence voters in order to sway their votes in a subsequent election, rather than advocating for an overthrow of the duly-elected government.

Among the demonstrators currently protesting and airing their grievances, the small but vocal faction calling for an overthrow of the government is acting illegally, and must eventually be held accountable.  A recent editorial in the Globe & Mail newspaper summed up my feelings concisely, and this is an excerpt—

…Canada has seen many protests of the legal variety. For example, Toronto last weekend saw one of its regular anti-mandate and anti-vaccine demonstrations. A few hundred people assembled at Queen’s Park and then, carrying signs and banners, they marched down streets that police had temporarily closed for their benefit. Then they went home. You can  disagree with their views and we do but their protest was perfectly legal.

What’s happened at multiple border crossings, and on the streets of Ottawa, is an entirely different story. These aren’t legal protests. They are blockades. As such, they enjoy no protection under our laws. They are, on the contrary, a threat to the rule of law and democratic government itself. The blockades have generally been non-violent, but they are nonetheless an attempt by a tiny minority of Canadians to impose upon the large, silent, law-abiding majority of their fellow citizens.

…[R]easonable people can disagree on all sorts of things. But there can be no disagreement on this: A handful of protesters don’t get to decide which streets will be open and which will be closed, or which bridges and borders will be open to trade and which will not.

Who elected these blockaders? Who gave them this power? Not you. Not anyone.

Government in Canada is not chosen by coup. 

Virus Redux

In 1993, the film Groundhog Day made its debut, a comedy about a cynical weatherman who is forced to relive his day over and over in an endless loop while covering the Punxsutawney Phil event on 2 February.

Punxsutawney Phil. of course, is the legendary groundhog who emerges from his den on that date every year, and if he can see his shadow, it means we’ll be having six more weeks of winter.  If the groundhog casts no shadow, it’s a harbinger of early spring.

Over the years there have been several generations of Punxsutawney Phil, just as there have been for some of his less-famous but esteemed brethren—Wiarton Willie, Jimmy the Groundhog, Dunkirk Dave, and Staten Island Chuck, to name a few.

There are two things I find surprising about this whole groundhog mania.  The first is that so many people appear to give credence to the animals’ weather forecasts year after year, despite an absolute lack of evidence to back them up.

If Phil or his brethren see their shadows, meaning six more weeks of winter, we are told spring will arrive on or about mid-March.  But in all my life in Canada, during nine decades from the 1940s to the 2020s, I have never seen an end to winter that early.

Conversely, if the groundhogs do not see their shadows, that portends an early spring, presumably sooner than mid-March, which I have also never seen.  I give more credence to the old adage proclaiming that if March comes in like a lamb, she’ll go out like a lion, and vice-versa.

In my experience, the groundhogs’ either/or dichotomy is a neither/nor.

The second thing that surprises me about Groundhog Day is that so many of the same people who rely on the animals’ weather advice pay no attention to medical advice from virologists, epidemiologists, and research scientists with respect to the Covid pandemic that has swept the world.

These people refuse to be vaccinated against the disease, despite knowing the success of vaccines against many other diseases—diphtheria, influenza, hepatitis B, measles, meningitis, mumps, pertussis, poliomyelitis, rubella, tetanus, tuberculosis, smallpox, and yellow fever.  They cite a host of reasons for their opposition, such as—

  • the vaccines are experimental,
  • they alter a person’s DNA,
  • they use a live version of the coronavirus,
  • they contain a chip, or cause recipients to become magnetic, and
  • they cause fertility problems.

In fact, the virus that causes Covid-19 is related to other coronaviruses that have been studied for years, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).  They were not developed quickly.  

According to the US Center for Disease Control, none of the vaccines interact with anyone’s DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid); rather, they help the cells build protection against infection, but never enter the nucleus of the cell where the DNA lives.

None of the authorized vaccines use the live virus that causes Covid-19, and cannot give you the disease or cause you to test positive for an infection. Instead, they train the human body to recognize and fight the coronavirus by delivering a set of instructions to your cells to encourage your body to produce antibodies, or by using a harmless adenovirus that can no longer replicate to send a genetic message to your cells.

Contrary to rumours on social media, the vaccines do not contain metals or materials that produce an electromagnetic field.  They are also free from manufactured microelectronics, electrodes, carbon nanotubes, or nanowire semiconductors, as well as from eggs, gelatin, latex, and preservatives.

According to the CDC, there is no evidence that any inoculations, including the Covid-19 vaccines, cause fertility problems in women or men; in fact, vaccination is recommended for people who are breastfeeding, pregnant, or plan to get pregnant in the future.

Contrary to the trolls who perpetuate these myths—falsehoods so many people are duped into believing—virologists and epidemiologists do know how to bring this pandemic under control.  Covid-19 is an airborne disease that spreads mainly from person to person when an infected person—even one with no symptoms—emits aerosols when (s)he talks or breathes.  These infectious, viral particles float or drift in the air for up to three hours or more, allowing another person to breathe them in and become infected.

According to Harvard Medical School authorities and other experts, necessary steps to control the spread include—

  • getting vaccinated and boosted,
  • avoiding close contact with people who are infected,
  • wearing a properly-fitted face mask when in public indoor spaces,
  • avoiding large gatherings, even outdoors, especially if poorly-ventilated,
  • isolating if sick,
  • testing frequently if unavoidably in congregant settings, in order to prevent spread to others, and
  • engaging in contact-tracing efforts.

It is mind-boggling to me that so many of us wilfully ignore this informed advice from medical experts in favour of opinions from quacks and trolls.  Since 2019, we have been through four successive waves of Covid-19, each version morphing from its predecessor, yet many of us continue to resist the best medical advice in favour of others’ quackery.

My parents taught me early about the futility of doing the same things over and over again in any endeavour, and hoping for a different result.  They also taught me to listen to those who are knowledgeable, as opposed to those who are merely loud, to weigh what they are saying, and to make an informed decision based, not on emotion, but on logic and empirical evidence.

Alas, so many seem doomed to spend one endless Covid-19 Groundhog Day after another, wallowing in their own ignorance.  And that hurts all of us.

Virus redux.

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.

Our Own Worst Enemies

In the early seventeenth century, the poet John Donne wrote: No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…

Almost two hundred years after he wrote that, I have just finished reading a book loaned to me by a friend, which warns of and laments the decline of democratic society in the USA, which has long proclaimed itself as the world’s greatest democracy.  Written by Tom Nichols, the book is titled, Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within On Modern Democracy.

On the one hand, the book agrees with Donne’s assertion—in effect ascribing the success of US democratic institutions thus far to the truism that each of us must be part of the greater whole.  Sadly, however, the book asserts that the nation is currently experiencing a rise of individualism that is tearing at the fabric of democracy.

Nichols is a professor at the US Naval War College, a columnist for USA Today, and a contributing writer at The Atlantic.  He is also the author of several other books, a former aide in the US Senate, and has been a Fellow of the International Security Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.  In short, he knows whereof he speaks.

As I read the book, I fond myself wondering how closely my own country, Canada—and, indeed, other democracies around the world—might be following in the direction of our neighbour to the south.

Three of the chapter headings give a hint as to what lies inside the book’s covers: a) When Good Neighbors Are Bad Citizens; b) Democracy in an Age of Rage and Resentment; and c) How Hyper-Connection Is Destroying Democracy.

That last one is a central thesis in the book.  It seems, even as we become more and more connected virtually through our electronic devices, we are becoming less and less bonded in person.  Our communications, therefore, are untempered by any intimate knowledge we have of each other’s personalities and proclivities, or by any affection or consideration of each other’s feelings and opinions.  We have almost unfettered freedom to say anything online, to make whatever outlandish claims we want, with very little fear of repercussion or consequence.

The noted American writer, Isaac Asimov, wrote, There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.

Of course, he wrote that long before the proliferation of the internet and the hyper-connectivity it has brought us, which has only exacerbated the trend—and not only in that country.  Everywhere, it seems, ignorant people are now free to spew their venom and disinformation on a worldwide platform unavailable to previous generations.

An unfortunate by-product of this trend is the propensity for each of us to believe everything we think—surely a dangerous practice—and to assume that what we think is always right.  It thus follows that, if I disagree with you on any issue of significance, you believe I must be wrong.

On a grand scale, where no one believes anything espoused by others holding different opinions or political affiliations, the very notion of democracy is threatened.  Democracy flourishes, after all, on a free exchange of contradictory and opposing ideas, and an earnest consideration of the merits of all, eventually leading to a consensus as to how best to proceed.

The Economist Intelligence Unit publishes an annual democracy index, ranking the nations of the world on their adherence to democratic principles.  The scores are based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation, and political culture. Based on their scores on sixty indicators within these categories, each country is then itself classified as one of four types of regime: full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime or authoritarian regime.

The USA of which Nichols writes in his book was ranked as a ‘flawed democracy’ in 2020, riven by acrimonious, partisan proselytizing, with no attempt to listen to or understand others’ points of view.  As Nichol’s title attests, Americans have become their own worst enemies.

By contrast, Canada—with all its own warts and blemishes—was ranked at # 5 in the ‘full democracy’ category, behind Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and New Zealand.

Those five nations are small by superpower standards, however, and thus able to exert only minimal influence on world affairs.  The USA, perhaps the most powerful nation the world has known, continues to influence global affairs on a massive scale.  If it were to drift from democracy to autocracy or dictatorship, it would surely draw along many others, some of whom—Brazil, China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey—are already embarked on that path.

Plato wrote, Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.

After my reading of Nichol’s book, I wonder if I am seeing the beginning of that before my very eyes, where the islands of democracy are slowly shredding.  And if so, I hope we may yet resist, that we, with all our individual freedoms, will choose to remain a piece of the continent, a part of the main…

When the worst of us triumph, they get the government they want; when the best of us sit back, we get the government we deserve.

Logical Consequences

Throughout my professional life, beginning as a classroom teacher, finishing as a school district CEO, I always believed in the wisdom of allowing people the freedom to make their own decisions, their own choices.  It was difficult at times to put that belief into practise, and it did not always lead to happy outcomes, but I never lost faith.

The corollary to this belief was that those making the choices had to accept the consequences of their actions.  Students who chose not to study generally received lower grades than those who did; employees who chose not to pursue professional development opportunities generally languished in comparison to their peers.

With both students and employees, I had to make hard decisions as to how I would grade their effort or evaluate their performance, and I, too, had to accept the consequences of my choices.  Reluctant students received a failing mark—although always with the opportunity to try again, to learn from their poor choices.  Teachers disinclined to improve of their own volition were instructed, provided assistance, and given time to do so; in cases where they proved unable or unwilling, their employment was terminated.

As a parent, I endeavoured to allow my own children to make choices along the way, but always stressing their responsibility to accept the consequences, and holding them to whatever those might be.

I was influenced in my thinking by the writings of Alfred Adler and John Stuart Mills, and Rudolf Dreikurs.  This brief essay cannot give even a rudimentary outline of these men’s theories, but the effect of their thinking on my own actions was significant.  Let me give an example from Dreikurs—

Dreikurs espoused that children behave inappropriately and make poor choices for four main reasons: a desire for attention; a need to obtain and hold power; a desire for revenge; to compensate for perceived inadequacy, the feeling that they are unworthy of anyone’s affection.  All four are legitimate human emotions, but the behaviours by which they are manifested through the choices children make are often problematic.

Misbehaving children are discouraged children.

It was my job as a teacher to provide opportunities for every child to pursue socially-appropriate activities that would gain them positive attention and praise, that would allow them to feel some semblance of control of their environment, that would re-direct them from activities designed to ‘get even’ for real or imagined wrongs, and to ensure they would come to believe they were loving and capable individuals in their own right.  And those opportunities had to encompass the academic, physical, social, and emotional needs of the children.

Today, many years into retirement, I have witnessed adults behaving in ways I consider socially-inappropriate during these long months of pandemic restrictions.  It seems to me that many of them are seeking attention for themselves and their views—perhaps in the only way they know how—by pushing themselves loudly and forcefully to the front at every opportunity.  We know our rights!

Others, I think, are looking to seize power from those they believe are currently wielding it, a power they view as compelling them to certain actions they believe it is their right to refuse.  Power to the people!

Others, probably fewer in number, might be seeking payback from authorities they feel have done them wrong—big government, unfair employers, the radical lefties, the lunatic right-wing, the fake media, or any other perceived enemy.  We’re not gonna take it anymore! 

And some, I’m sure, are there simply because they have nowhere else to go but to a crowd that, if not understanding of them, is at least tolerant of their presence.  Look!  I’m one of you!

Mill wrote: The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.  There are three key points here, I think.  First, he was referring to a ‘civilized community’, which might be defined as one which has a well-developed system of government, culture, and way of life, and which treats all people living in it fairly, with due regard for the laws and customs of the community.

Second, Mill’s stance is that power resides by default with the individual in a community, but may be overridden when that individual behaves in a manner deemed harmful to others.

And third, there is an implicit understanding that the decision to act against an individual’s will is to be made by the community itself—i.e. the majority.

As I witness the current unrest in our land regarding various pandemic restrictions, it seems to me there is a need to exert the primacy of the common good over the various claims of disaffected members of the community, not as a primitive display of the power of the state, but to ensure the continued well-being of the community itself.

For example, perhaps the government should not mandate vaccines for all, even in the current climate.  Not doing so would allow people to exercise their right, as they see it, to avail themselves of a vaccine or not.  Free choice for every individual.

But the government should ensure there are consequences for the choices people make—logical consequences.  I don’t believe a person who has the right to refuse to be vaccinated (a right which I support) should also have the right to attend in-person, congregant venues and events, or to partake of non-essential services, where their choice might place others in danger.  That impinges on everyone else’s right to a safe, healthy living environment. 

It is entirely logical, I submit, that such venues and services should require proof of vaccination from those wishing to take part.  For everyone, then—those folks who choose not to be vaccinated, and those who do—the consequences will be clear in advance.  Choice A leads to Consequence B; Choice C leads to Consequence D.  Informed decisions are almost always better decisions.

[I note, as an aside, that in jurisdictions where such proof of vaccination rules have already been put in place, the number of people who choose to be vaccinated has risen—surely a benefit to the entire global community.]

In any case, absent a mandate for everyone to be vaccinated, people desiring attention will still get it by proclaiming their decision to their family and friends, and on social media.  Those in search of power will still find it by exercising their inalienable right to make their own decision about vaccinations with no coercion either way.  Those who would seek revenge of some sort if forced to be vaccinated can still remain unvaccinated.  And those who feel inadequate, incapable of making such a momentous decision, can prevail upon family and friends to help them decide.

The concept of free choice has never meant freedom to do as one wants without consequences.  As surely as night follows day, every decision a person makes has an impact on someone—somehow, somewhere.  And that consequence, if it’s logical, can be a force for good.

The nascent teacher in me still believes it is possible to help people learn this quaint notion.

Consequences

With few exceptions, everything we say and do has a consequence.  The consequence may be intended or unintended; it may be natural, unreasonable, or logical.  But one thing is sure—we leave a wake on the surface behind us as we wend our way across the watercourses of life.

The significance of consequences has been on my mind as we find ourselves (let us hope) emerging from the worst of the pandemic.  Our behaviours and actions over the next several months, both individually and collectively, will generate outcomes we shall either welcome or bemoan.

In most cases, the things we say or do are intentionally-designed to elicit a beneficial response or outcome.  For example, we might tell a friend her new dress is beautiful, hoping a similar compliment might be returned.  And if that intended consequence does come to pass, we benefit from our actions. 

But our actions can lead to consequences we don’t anticipate, as well.  For example, if we keep putting off a repair to that leaky toilet, only to find it springs a raging flood in the middle of the night, we shall surely suffer an unintended consequence

Natural consequences are fairly easy to understand. If I leap off a high bridge, believing I can fly, the natural consequence of my action will quickly disabuse me of that notion. Gravity wins.

There are unreasonable consequences that arise from someone’s words and deeds, too, of course.  Washing a child’s mouth out with soap for use of bad language, for example, is not only inappropriate, but usually ineffective.  Imposed consequences like that are often applied as punishment, particularly in response to obviously improper behaviour.

Logical consequences are a more common-sense or natural reaction to the actions they follow. For instance, when someone fortunate enough to own a dishwasher forgets to turn it on after supper, they may find a scarcity of clean dishes available for breakfast. On a more positive note, a person who regularly washes his car in the winter is less likely to have a rust problem come spring. In both cases, the outcome logically follows from the original action.

Societal behaviour at large is currently a hot-button issue, of course, because of the varied response we are witnessing to the Covid vaccine availability.  It appears that, in most jurisdictions, a majority of people has taken advantage of the opportunity to get vaccinated—not only for their own protection, but to reduce the chances of spreading the disease and its malignant variants to others.

But everywhere, there are those who are refusing the vaccine, leading to a wider discussion as to where individual rights intersect with those of the collective good.  Does my right not to be vaccinated take precedence over your right to be safe when you and I are in close proximity?  Or, if it’s you who insists on remaining unvaccinated, do you have the right to possibly infect me with the disease you may be unwittingly spreading?

Does government have the right to dictate to its citizens in this scenario, citing the common good?  Or can every citizen determine a course of action for her- or himself, citing individual freedom?  Where does the balance lie in the struggle between the common welfare and individual liberty?

My own opinion on this particular matter is formed more by pragmatism than ideology, leading me to favour the collective good over the individual right.  We live in a larger society, after all, and most of us are not sufficiently self-sufficient to survive without the protections and services provided by that society.  Certainly I am not.

I live in a condominium community.  Before buying my home, I was made aware of the covenants and rules governing residence here.  And although there were some requirements I chafed at, I accepted they were part of my agreement to purchase.  Nobody forced me to accept those covenants; I accepted them myself when I exercised my free choice to move in or look elsewhere.

By the same token, it’s my belief that no one should be forced to be vaccinated against Covid—unless, of course, the very survival of our society were to be threatened by their refusal.  That seems unlikely, given the ‘herd immunity’ we are likely to develop once enough of us are vaccinated.

But I also believe those who choose not to be vaxxed must accept the logical consequences of their free choice.  I support businesses, educational institutions, entertainment venues, food providers, transportation providers, public services—any setting where large numbers of people gather in close proximity—who establish guidelines regarding denial of entry to people who have chosen not to get the vaccination, or who refuse to wear masks.

I accept, subject to my earlier proviso, that folks have the right to refuse a vaccine if they so choose.  But I do not accept that they also have the right to impose their unvaccinated (and possibly disease-carrying) selves on the rest of us who have acted to protect, not only ourselves, but our families, friends, and fellow-citizens. 

I believe we do, as a society, have the right to limit an individual’s rights if they are shown to be harmful to the welfare of others.  In so saying, I rely on John Stuart Mill, who wrote—The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

Alas, we are not all there yet.  And so we all bear the consequences.