Hope is about possibility, not certainty. Even when we know that we are rowing against the tide, as we often are, we know that the future is not preordained. We know the future is shaped by human actions, and so we act. And we hope that our actions will help to steer the future in the direction we want to go in.
Faith, Hope and Persistence
From its beginnings, one of capitalism’s prime imperatives has been an all-out and never-ceasing assault on the Commons in all its manifestations. Common land, common water, public ownership – anything rooted in the ancient human traditions of sharing and cooperation is anathema to an economic system that seeks to turn everything that exists into private property that can be exploited for profit.
One of the things that the existence of the Golden Rule tells us is that we humans are imperfect and full of contradictions. Even when we know what we should do, we sometimes fall short, and need to be reminded or held to account. That, no doubt, is why discussions of the Golden Rule so frequently stress compassion, forgiveness, and second chances. It recognizes that there are times when we need to forgive, and times when we need to be forgiven.
Morality in an Amoral World
It is one of the essential attributes of power that it insists on secrecy. Or, more precisely, those who wield power over others routinely claim that the details of what they do, and why they do it, are far too sensitive to be revealed to the public.
Secrecy and power
The business world, including business schools and the corporate media, is in love with “disruptive innovations” which "disrupt" established ways of doing things. Like all buzzwords, “disruption” has become a woolly cliche whose meaning is rarely defined. But we are meant to understand that “disruptive innovations” are great, the very epitome of progress – and anyway, they’re inevitable, so there is no use questioning them or trying to stop them.
But what gets to be called a “disruptive innovation?” We tend to think that it involves a new technology of some kind, but in fact that is rarely the case. The disruptive innovations we are seeing typically involve a new way of doing something that is already being done, using already-existing technologies.
So what about them is new?
Not so much, actually. They are simply the latest incarnation of a process as old as capitalism itself. Karl Marx described it more than 150 years ago. It boils down to this:
1) Wherever possible, eliminate jobs, because paying workers is expensive. Fewer workers = higher profits.
2) Where it is necessary to have workers, reduce their wages to the absolute minimum and make their working conditions as precarious as possible, to undermine their ability to organize and fight for higher wages and better working conditions.
3) Keep telling people that what is being done to them is (a) progress and (b) inevitable.
Could things be different?
It is possible to imagine other kinds of “disruptive innovations,” different ways of doing things which would disrupt the status quo. To bring them about, we would need to come up with creative ideas, persuade other people that they are good ideas, and organize to bring them about. Here are a few ideas, none of them all that original, which would qualify as creative disruptions of the status quo.
1) Free public transit. Eliminate fares and improve service. This would, at the same time, fight climate change, help the working poor, and save all the money wasted on fare collection. We urgently need to transition away from our dependence on automobiles. Transit service that is reliable, efficient, safe, and free is absolutely necessary if we are to accomplish that transition. Let’s disrupt the hegemony of the automobile by making transit cheaper and better.
2) Provide good housing for everyone who needs it. Our current system, which treats land and housing as commodities and relies on private developers to build housing, has failed miserably to provide good affordable housing. Let’s disrupt the real estate industry, stop treating land and housing as commodities, and start building homes for people, not profit.
3) Disrupt the military-industrial complex. Far from making us safe, the madness of militarism threatens to trigger a war that would wipe out most of the human race. The military, and especially the U.S. military, which dwarfs all other countries, is also the single biggest producer of greenhouse gases and therefore a major cause of the climate crisis. And military production distorts the economy, producing for destruction while human needs remain unmet. A first step in disrupting the military-industrial complex would be to shut down all U.S. military bases in other countries. That’s not enough, but it would be a start on the road to the ultimate goal of eliminating the military entirely.
4) Disrupt the tax system. The rich keep getting richer, and the majority of the population keeps getting poorer. One obvious step is to radically change the tax system. Eliminate exemptions and preferential tax treatment for capital gains and investments. Make the tax system truly progressive. Set a maximum income for individuals (let’s be generous, and say $300,000 per year). Any income above that would be taxed at 100%. Tax wealth as well as income to prevent rich people from accumulating and holding on to obscene amounts of wealth.
Millions of us, in many different countries, came out in late September to demand action on the climate crisis. Around the world, in diverse ways, we are working to keep up the pressure. Time is short, and the tasks are huge.
In the midst of our activism and organizing, we need to keep asking ourselves some important questions: What are our goals? And what should we do to reach our goals?
The high of massive demonstrations is often followed by a slump of discouragement, when we realize that nothing fundamental seems to have changed as a result of our protests.
It may be worth remembering the history of other mass protests. In early 2003, a huge anti-war movement arose in reaction to the planned American invasion of Iraq. Some 36 million people came out in cities around to world to protest against the threat of this illegal war, launched on the basis of transparently false pretexts. Despite the massive protests, the war started, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died, and the fallout continues to this day. The anti-war movement continued for some time longer, and then virtually disappeared, even though the threat of war has been increasing year by year, with the United States started pulling out of international arms control treaties and engaging in dangerous military provocations on the borders of Russia, China, and Iran.
The hard truth is that while mass protests can be energizing while they happen, their momentum can be difficult to sustain unless we are able to convert them into ongoing organizing.
To keep moving forward, we have to find ways of working together to create a counter-power to challenge capitalist system, including the political structures and institutions that sustain it. To put it another way, we have to understand where the real power lies, and we have to have strategies for challenging that power with the power of vast numbers of people, organizing together. We also have to have a clear idea of what our goals are – not only specific goals related to carbon in the atmosphere, but goals of worldwide system change.
This issue of Other Voices includes a number of articles, books, and other resources which suggest approaches to, and answers to, some of those questions.
See the October 27 issue of Other Voices here.
Whenever the movement for free public transit shows signs of gaining public support, the media digs up ‘experts’ who furrow their brows and tell us what an impractical idea it is. An article in the November 25 Toronto Star is a case in point. Here is a letter I wrote in response:
Opponents of free public transit resort to two fallacious arguments.
The first is that good transit is more important than free transit in persuading commuters to take transit. This is not an either-or choice. It is quite possible – and necessary, if we are to avert climate catastrophe – to have transit that is good, accessible, safe, and free.
The second fallacy is the claim that providing free transit will be expensive. This is false. The operating costs of a transit system are the same whether the costs are paid out of fares, or out of taxes, or some combination. Providing free transit would in fact eliminate the substantial costs of collecting and enforcing payment, including the horrendous costs of the ongoing Presto debacle.
Free transit simply means that transit is paid for out of general tax revenues, rather than fares. Free transit benefits everyone, including those who don’t use it. It is an idea whose time has come.
When we look at what is happening in our world, it can be difficult to believe that there are grounds for hope, let alone faith. And yet we – we humans – continue to live and act in ways that testify to our hopes, and to our faith in the possibility of a better future. We plant gardens and trees, we have children, and we resist injustice and act to protect the planet we share.
Hope is something quite different from optimism. Optimism – and pessimism – assess the likelihood of something happening. But being optimistic or pessimistic is irrelevant to standing up for justice and defending the earth. For most of us at least, our moral principles aren’t based on a calculation of the odds. And in fact most acts of resistance, and most movements for justice, arise in the face of what are often overwhelming odds. They are the powerless challenging those with entrenched power. It is only by acting that people who feel powerless come to feel that they do have power. And when we act, that which seemed impossible to achieve starts to become possible, because enough people believe it is possible and are working together to make it so.
Hope is about possibility, not certainty. Even when we know that we are rowing against the tide, as we often are, we know that the future is not preordained. We know the future is shaped by human actions, and so we act. And we hope that our actions will help to steer the future in the direction we want to go in.
When we act collectively, we are also expressing our faith in other people, and in ourselves. Not blind faith – we know our own contradictions and faults, and we know all too well the immorality and cruelty that humans, or at least some humans, are capable of. But we also know, from our own life experience, that part of the common heritage of humanity are impulses to create community, to share, to love one another, to treat others as we ourselves would wish to be treated. And the fact that these capacities exist is a basis for faith in people, including ourselves, and in our ability to change and to rise to our potential to be who we are capable of being. By working to change the world, we change ourselves.
One of the most moving and inspiring human capacities, and one that comes out so strongly when we act together to fight for justice, is our persistence, even in the face of overwhelming odds. This issue of Other Voices shares a number of such stories. In Oaxaca, a multi-ethnic network of towns fights a tenacious ongoing battle to protect their water against corporate takeovers. Mineworkers in South Africa spend nine days underground, on strike, until mine owners agree to act on sexual harassment in the mine. In Nashville, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents show up to arrest an immigrant father and son sitting in a van in their own driveway, neighbours spontaneously come out, spread the word to others, and surround the van to prevent the arrest, remaining on the scene until the ICE agents finally leave. Shadidul Alam emerges from jail, having been imprisoned for criticising the government, and defiantly continues his work. Suzanne Berliner Weiss, a Jewish child born in Nazi-occupied France, loses her parents, is cared for by loving caring strangers, and emerges as a adult who devotes her life to working with other for social justice.
When people are moved to act, when they have faith in the people who are acting with them, and when they have hope in at least the possibility of success, then they – we – can be astonishingly persistent. And so we carry on.
See the December 15, 2019 issue of Other Voices here.
I’m walking to work along Bloor Street this morning. Two guys are smoking in a doorway. One of them stops me: “Excuse me. My friend and I, we are having a discussion. Do you know, what is purgatory?”
I reply: “Yes, it’s where you go when you aren’t good enough to go straight to heaven, but not bad enough to go to hell. It is an in-between place, sort of like jail, where you stay for a period of time, and then when you have served your time, you go to heaven.”
Guy: “So you do go to heaven after?” He looks meaningfully at his friend.
“Yes,” I reply. “If you believe in that kind of thing.”
They seem happy with my answer. I go on my way.
Toronto’s newest street sign went up yesterday on Miriam Garfinkle Lane. I don't think I ever had a favourite street sign before, but this one is now definitely my favourite.
Psychologists call it cognitive dissonance. George Orwell called it double-think. Some of us might call it organized hypocrisy.
Call it what you will, it surrounds us. The government proclaims its commitment to ‘reconciliation’ with indigenous people, and says that its relationship with them is its most important relationship. At the same time the RCMP, following an order by a colonial court, invades unceded indigenous land and arrests people for occupying their own land. Governments mouth platitudes about the importance they place on dealing with the climate emergency while at the same time they build new pipelines and approve massive new tarsands projects. The biggest polluter on the planet – the U.S. military – meanwhile receives constant increases in its budget, even while it pursues demented schemes to take us to the edge of war, mostly recently by deploying a new generation of “low-yield” thermonuclear weapons on submarines. The theory, presumably, is that if the U.S. drops a few “low-yield” nuclear bombs on Russia or China, the Russian and Chinese won’t mind too much, and won’t retaliate.
All this is business as usual. Fortunately many people across the country, and around the world, are saying no to business as usual. They are taking a stand and disrupting business as usual.
In this issue of Other Voices, we spotlight the actions of people who are taking a stand and, in many different ways, are insisting on change.
See the February 18, 2020 issue of Other Voices here.
A crisis is a mirror.
It shows us – if we have the courage to see – who we are as individuals and as a society. The self-congratulatory poses of governments, politicians, and state institutions are confronted with the harsh test of reality. Each of us – as individuals, friends, families, neighbours, communities – face new and sometimes difficult challenges.
The novel coronavirus COVID-19 is such a crisis. Governments? Some are well-prepared, with solid public health systems and free health care for all. Meanwhile, in the US, in mid-February, two weeks after the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, the Trump administration pushed ahead with major funding cuts to U.S. public health programs, including a $25 million cut to Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, and $85 million in cuts to the Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases program. In Ontario, when COVID-19 struck, public health authorities were facing the looming 27% cut to public health spending announced by the Ford government in its budget. (Belatedly, Ontario has just declared a state of emergency and put those cuts on hold – for now.)
In the confusing rush of events that mark a crisis, it is easy to be so focused on what is happening that we forget to ask why. Yet it is when we ask why that we confront the ethical and moral questions that illuminate who we are and what kind of society we live in.
Why, for example, are pharmaceutical companies competing to produce a vaccine for COVID-19? Why, instead of keeping their work secret, aren’t scientists around the world collaborating, sharing their research, and making the results freely available? Why isn’t this question even being asked in public discourse? It seems that we are supposed to take it for granted that, above everything else, the goal of scientific work should be to make a profit. U.S. government officials have already stated that an eventual COVID-19 vaccine may not be available to everyone in the U.S., let alone in poorer countries, because it may be ‘too expensive.’
We’ve moved backwards.
The worst epidemics in Canada and the U.S. in the last 100 years were the recurrent polio epidemics. In Canada, an estimated 11,000 people were left paralyzed by polio just between 1949 and 1954. In 1954 alone, there were 9,000 cases including nearly 500 deaths. In the U.S., in 1952, there were 58,000 cases of polio, resulting in 3,135 deaths and 21,269 cases of paralysis. The polio nightmare started coming to an end when Jonas Salk developed the first successful polio vaccine in 1955. The patent? None. Salk refused to patent his discovery: he wanted it to be freely available to everyone.
Salk himself was following in the footsteps of Fredrick Banting, Charles Best, and James Colip, the discovers of insulin. They did patent their discovery – and then sold the patent to the University of Toronto, for $1. They said they didn’t want to profit from a discovery for the common good.
Salk’s and Banting’s attitude would be unthinkable now. What capitalism has succeeded in doing, it seems, is to make it acceptable for corporations to engage in behaviour, on a large scale, which most of us, as individuals, would refrain from as a matter of common decency.
And indeed, as individuals, as friends, as a community, people continue to support and help each other in times of trouble. Informal networks of mutual support spring up, as they nearly always do in a crisis. Beyond the headlines about COVID-19 emergency measures, closures, and social distancing, there are countless stories about people reaching out and helping those who need help.
Yet capitalism tells us, endlessly, that selfishness is good and inevitable. In the place of morality, it proclaims an amoral vision in which nothing matters except making as much money as possible. Greed is good. Exploiting others, destroying the planet, condemning people to a life of poverty and suffering, it’s all good, as long as money can be made. Capitalism allows no moral qualms.
While there are some – too many, it’s true – who have internalized this attitude, most of us do not act this way in our own lives. Society could not exist if we did, because we need each other. As social beings, we survive and thrive to the extent that we can form and count on relationships that are built on mutual support, co-operation, and trust.
The moral principle that has come to be known as the Golden Rule embodies this truth. Versions of what we call the Golden Rule emerged in many different religions, as the Golden Rule poster below illustrates. The fact that it is part of so many different traditions tells us that it pre-dates those traditions: it is embedded in human nature itself.
If we, or at least most of us, did not recognize the fact that each of us is worthy of respect and deserving of having our needs met, we could not survive as a social species. At the same time, if treating others as we ourselves would wish to be treated were always perfectly natural and automatic, then we wouldn’t need a Golden Rule. We don’t have a rule that tells us to breathe. We just do it.
One of the things that the existence of the Golden Rule tells us, then, is that we humans are imperfect and full of contradictions. Even when we know what we should do, we sometimes fall short, and need to be reminded or held to account. That, no doubt, is why discussions of the Golden Rule so frequently stress compassion, forgiveness, and second chances. It recognizes that there are times when we need to forgive, and times when we need to be forgiven.
At the same time, no rule, no matter how profound, is a substitute for thinking critically about real-life situations. For example, few of us would advise a woman in an abusive relationship to return to her violent partner and give him a second – third – fourth – fifth chance. There are times when anger is a healthier response than turning the other cheek.
There are occasions, in fact, when, confronted with the life’s complexities, we might also want to keep in mind George Bernard Shaw’s contrarian dictum: “The golden rule is that there are no golden rules.”
Nor does the Golden Rule, by itself, guide us in dealing with those who have power over us, especially when that power is wielded to oppress. To deal with them, we need to draw on another part of our human nature: our impulse to come together and support each other to fight for justice. As Cornell West has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
The coronavirus outbreak is a crisis that challenges us to look beyond our own immediate concerns and ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in. We don’t have much time: climate change will make this virus seem like a picnic.
But we do have some time right now, because many of us have had our lives put on hold. Let’s try to use that time as constructively as we can.
There are things we can do to help, like donating money, even while we are self-isolating. There are people who are facing this virus – and other concurrent public health disasters, like malaria, which kills 3,000 children every day – under infinitely worse conditions than we are. Think of Yemen, Gaza, Congo. Venezuela and Iran are trying to cope with their outbreaks even while the United States is tightening sanctions on medical and humanitarian supplies.
They need our active solidarity.
One step you can take today is to donate to Tarek Loubani’s GLIA Project, which is printing 3D masks and stethoscopes for Palestine and other under-served communities whose capacities for dealing with a health crisis are much worse than ours. You can donate to them here here.
Please help. And stay well!
This article appeared in the March 19, 2020 issue of Other Voices.
Among the many myths about the COVID-19 coronavirus is the theory that you can use bleach on yourself to kill it. DO NOT do this!
In an uncertain, disquieting world, it is reassuring to have moments that are predictable. For me, one such moment comes every morning when the Toronto Star lands on my doorstep. When I pick it up and take it inside, I am comforted by the knowledge that even though almost the entire paper will be full of COVID-19 coverage, every day the Star will manage to find one page to run a self-laudatory full-page ad telling me that
“We don’t repeat... We don’t repeat... We don’t repeat... We don’t repeat... We don’t repeat... We don’t repeat... We don’t repeat...”
A crisis like this pandemic is not a time to stop thinking. It is a time when critical thinking and public discussion are more important than ever.
A small number of officials and politicians are taking decisions with enormous and far-reaching implications for the lives of many people, not just for the duration of this pandemic, but far into the future. The time to have serious discussions about what they are doing, and the direction we are heading in, is now, not some day in the future when it will be difficult, or too late, to change course.
To be clear: I believe that public health officials, the people who are taking a leading role in shaping our response to COVID-19, are doing their best to deal with a very real crisis. I respect their dedication, and I know that it is very difficult to respond to a rapidly changing situation with imperfect information and limited resources. And I certainly have no stomach for the rapidly spreading pandemic of conspiracy theories, let alone the disgusting racist attacks on Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer.
Nevertheless, we need to be asking questions....
Read the full article here.
I’ve written a children’s book about my partner Miriam Garfinkle, who died in September 2018.
It’s an alphabet book, illustrated by Emma Lightstone, with each page devoted to some aspect of Miriam’s life: C is for Community, D is for Doctor, G is for Garden, L is for Laughter, N is for Nature, P is for Piano, Q is for Questions, S is for Solidarity, W is for Waffles....
It’s intended for kids aged roughly three to nine, but adults who knew Miriam seem to like it too. For more information including how to get a copy, see the Contact page.
I’m sitting out back reading (Uncle Tungsten, by Oliver Sacks) but I find I’m being distracted by the sounds coming from up in the trees above my head. Usually I have some idea of what I’m hearing from up above – swifts, robins, cardinals, sparrows, squirrels, cicadas later in the summer – but these sounds I can’t place. They’re just weird: a combination of whistles, clacking sounds, chuckling, rattling, in no particular sequence that I can make out, and certainly not musical.
Finally I grab my binoculars and have a look. Two birds, darkish. It’s not so easy to recognize a bird when it’s 30 feet up and you’re directly below it. Not for me, anyway. Hmmn, yellow bills. Aha: starlings. Since they have yellow bills, I presume they are adults, since the young have dark bills. They’re sitting on separate branches, but occasionally one hops onto the branch the other is on. Some kind of mating behaviour? That seems possible, but they don’t seem to be actually doing anything.
I look them up. My Peterson guide says they are “garrulous.” That they are. Another bird book tells me that starlings are “monogamous,” their version of monogamy being that they stick with one partner until they pick a new one. Yeah, OK.
So maybe they’re discussing the pros and cons of raising another brood? Or maybe they just enjoy sitting around making weird noises? I don’t know.
This seems to be the story of my life: I see things, but I don’t really know what’s happening, or why. It wasn’t always like this: when I was 20, I knew everything. Since then, life has been a constant journey of discovery: that is, discovering how much there is to know, and how little I know.
The mosquitoes drive me inside. Back to Oliver Sacks.
The first time my partner and I arrived in Pukaskwa, a wonderful national park on Lake Superior, planning to spend a week or so camping, we were presented with some disconcerting news. “I just want to inform you,” the person in the registration booth said, “that a woman was attacked by a bear in the park yesterday.”
Not exactly news one wants to hear. I looked at Miriam, she looked at me. We didn’t actually discuss what to do, because we knew each other well enough to assume that we’d have the same reaction, and looking at each other’s expression was enough to confirm that. Off we went to pick a campsite and pitch our tent.
We had encountered enough black bears in the woods over the years that even the news of an attack wasn’t enough to shake our conviction, born of our own and other people’s experience, that bears are usually no trouble as long as you remain alert and, when you encounter one, back off slowly, muttering apologies. Even though we felt sorry for the woman who had been attacked, we suspected, perhaps unjustly, that she must have done something to provoke the bear – and we felt sad when we heard subsequently that the bear had been shot. After all, the park was its home, not ours.
The only time I can recall feeling nervous about a black bear was one time when we encountered a mother with three cubs. We backed off quite expeditiously on that occasion.
Mother with 3 cubs. Photo by Miriam Garfinkle.
I contrast this Pukaskwa experience with another one, in Southern Ontario, when we were told that a certain path was particularly bad for ticks, that is, the black-legged deer ticks that carry Lyme disease. We declined to set out on that path, both because of a fear of Lyme disease, and because seeing ticks crawling on your pants and sleeves, trying to find a way to get at your flesh, is really creepy. But we did head out on another path, relatively clear of tall weeds, where the tick risk was less, though certainly not non-existent.
All in all, I’m warier of ticks than bears. Black bears will nearly always leave you alone, as long as you leave them alone. Ticks will not leave you alone.
Black-legged (deer) tick.
It’s similar with dogs. I’m comfortable around big dogs (unless the owner looks vicious) but wary around small dogs, because I know from experience that it’s the yappy little ankle-biters which are liable to rush up to you and take a nip without any provocation.
I was thinking about this in the light of our reactions to COVID-19, and the different ways in which the people that I encounter seem to assess risk, and the choices that leads them to make.
It needs to be said though, that being able to make choices about what kind of risk to accept is itself a luxury and a privilege. The most dangerous situations are those that present a risk that can’t be avoided. If your skin is dark, going to the corner store is inherently a riskier activity than it is for someone whose skin is light, and if a cop arrives on the scene, you may be in real danger. If you work in a factory where you are breathing toxic chemicals every day, you may be aware of the risk (though very likely the company is lying about it), but you also know that if you don’t go to work, you won’t be able to pay the rent and feed your kids, so accepting the risk is not much of a choice. If you’re in a First Nations community and dangerous industries open up nearby (e.g. Grassy Narrows, Aamijwnaang), on land that used to belong to your people, you have no choice about what is happening to the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the fish you eat. The risks can be severe, but the choices are crummy.
This is true in the context of the pandemic as well. Even when ‘everyone’ was being urged to “stay home, stay home” there were many people who had no choice except to leave their homes, go to work and run the risks. The spike we are now seeing among migrant farmworkers, crammed together in close quarters so they can put food on our tables, is a grim illustration of this reality.
Even for those who are able to minimize the risks by mostly staying at home and taking all the recommended precautions, the coronavirus challenges us to assess risk, and react to it in ways that seem appropriate to us. I’m out and about quite a bit, and I also have people coming to my place regularly to pick up copies of the children’s book (“M is for Miriam”) that I wrote recently, so I’ve been observing, and musing about, the noticeably different ways in which people react to the invisible threat of the pandemic.
The most obvious thing is whether or not they are wearing a mask. I rarely wear mine (a kerchief rather than an official mask) except when I go into a store, but if someone I’m talking to is wearing one, then I’ll pull mine up, even when we’re standing far apart, mostly because putting people at ease seems like the right thing to do.
Recognizing people I know, and reading their expressions, even when they are wearing a mask, has turned out to be much easier than I would have thought. I know I continue to smile and make other facial expressions when I am wearing my mask, and I perceive that other people do the same. Our eyes and our body language, it turns out, speak for us even when our mouths are covered. And some people, it’s easy to tell, feel anxious whenever they are out of their homes, even when they are masked and the behaviour they’re engaged in carries little or no risk.
But then what does “little or no risk” mean to each of us? After all, nothing we do in life is totally free of risk. Most of us engage in activities in our daily lives that carry some risk without worrying about it, and yet we may feel disproportionately anxious about other things. I know about that: every time I fly in an airplane, I’m convinced that I’m going to die. Other people, so I’ve been told, actually like flying.
I was talking to a friend about camping experiences a while ago and mentioned Algonquin park. “But aren’t there wolves there?” she asked. “I sure hope so,” I replied. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable going where there are wolves,” she said. Yet this person goes scuba diving in waters where sharks have been seen, which would terrify me. Most of us, it seems, make emotionally based judgements about risk that don’t necessarily correspond to actual levels of risk. It’s just human nature.
When it comes to COVID, my gut reaction is that everyone who is taking fewer precautions than me is reckless, and everyone who is taking more precautions than me is overly timid.
On the one side of that admittedly indefensible attitude is my own reluctance to die prematurely. I don’t expect to live forever, but I really don’t want my cause of death to be my own stupidity. I do NOT want to be remembered with a Darwin Award.
That said, I think the most dangerous thing I do on a regular basis – or used to do until our office shut down for the pandemic – is walk to and from work. To do this I have to cross several major streets: Bloor – College – Bathurst – Dundas – Queen – Spadina – Richmond — in a city (Toronto) where pedestrians get mowed down by cars at an appalling rate. So I try to stay alert, which so far has served me well in avoiding cars – and, where applicable, bears – as well as humans who look like they might come too close and spread their viruses in my direction.
Being out in the world, whatever its risks, to me seems preferable to sitting at home and suffering the risks of a sedentary life, which in my case would probably involve eating way too many Covered Bridge Sea Salt and Black Pepper potato chips (Best potato chips ever!). As Thoreau said, people sit as many risks as they run.
I’m going to go for a run now before it gets too hot.
The Solstice falls at 5:44 EDT on June 20 this year.
It’s a special day, and for nerds like me, it’s also historic because it was on the Solstice in 240 BCE (give or take a couple of years, the record is a bit unclear) that Eratosthenes, a Greek geographer, mathematician, astronomer, poet, and librarian, first calculated the circumference of the earth.
Eratosthenes lived in Alexandria, where he served as the librarian of the great library of Alexandria. He learned from travelling merchants that in the town of Syene, far to the south of Alexandria, on midday on the day of the solstice, the sun shone directly down a deep well, reflecting off the water below, something that happened on no other day of the year.
Eratosthenes knew that the sun would have to be directly overhead for this to happen, and he also knew that this never happened in Alexandria. Using the shadow of a vertical stick, he measured the sun’s angle in Alexandria on day of the Solstice, and found that it was about 7.2 degrees away from being vertical, about one-fiftieth of a circle (360 degrees). He reasoned that if he could measure the distance from Alexandria to Syene, he would then be able to calculate the earth’s circumference.
Traders told him that it took 50 days for their camels to travel from Alexandria to Syene. Eratosthenes knew that travellers riding camels could cover about one hundred stadia (about 11-and-a-half miles) in one day, so he calculated that the distance from Alexandria to Syene was about 5,000 stadia, or about 570 miles. He multiplied this figure by 50, and arrived at an estimate of about 28,500 miles for the earth’s circumference. That’s about 15% off the current measurement of about 24,900 miles; not bad for 240 BCE.
The chimney swifts lured me outside again this evening. I’d already been out for one walk, but my door was open, and hearing their calls pulled me out in search of them, as it so often does. They’re active in the evenings in my neighbourhood, and going for a walk in the summer pretty much guarantees that you’ll hear them, though seeing them is not always quite as easy.
The tricky thing about seeing swifts is that you hear them, look up to where the sound came from, and they aren’t there. These are birds that can fly 100 km/hour, so if it takes you a half a second to look up, they can already be 100 metres away. They are called swifts for a reason.
Swifts are mysterious birds, enigmatic and paradoxical.
In a sense, they are supremely urban birds, at least during the summer, having adapted themselves to nesting in chimneys a long time ago, though once upon a time they nested in hollow trees. Centuries of logging pretty much eliminated that option, and now they live among us, though as old chimneys get capped or disappear, so do their options for nesting sites. Common swifts and Alpine swifts, species found in Europe, Africa, and the Mediterranean, have been nesting in human-built structures for thousands of years. A swift colony in the Western Wall in Jerusalem has been there for more than 2,000 years: the land has seen enormous changes, but every spring, without fail, the swifts arrive and claim their nests.
Yet unlike other urban birds, swifts have nothing to do with us. They don’t interact with us or hang out in our vicinity in the way that we are used to other birds doing. They don’t perch in trees or on wires, they don’t land on the ground or at a birdbath. They can’t: swifts are so uniquely evolved to a life in the air that they have shed features characteristic of most of the birds we know. Their feet only allow them to cling to vertical surfaces like bricks or trees. That is sufficient for their purposes, because they spend such a small part of their lives down in our terrestrial world.
It isn’t quite true to say that swifts are all wing, but they come as close to it as it is possible to be. By way of comparison, the biggest wings of any bird belong to the Wandering Albatross, a bird much bigger than a swift, with a wingspan of about 10 feet. However, if an Albatross wanted to match the wing-to-body-weight ratio of a swift, it would have to have a wings that are 300 feet across.
In old Persia swifts were called “wind-eaters.” The name reflected the mystery of these birds, which seemed to live in the air, never coming down to eat or rest.
We now know that their diet consists of aerial insects, invisible to us on the ground. The other mystery, of why, outside the nesting season, they never seem to come down to the earth, has been answered only recently, and the answer to that question has merely unveiled new mysteries.
Just a few years ago, it became possible to develop tiny sensors light enough to be attached to the wings of swifts (Common swifts and Alpine swifts) banded during the nesting season. The data from the sensors showed that, astonishingly, the old legends were true.
When they aren’t nesting, these swifts really do live in the sky. After leaving their breeding sites in the early fall, Common swifts and Alpine swifts were found to spend upwards of 200 consecutive days in the air without ever coming down to earth. Not only do they eat, socialize, and mate in the air, they even sleep in the air. At night, they’ll go up several thousand feet to catch a favourable wind current, and then, it seems, they sleep on the wing.
More recently, research on first-year swifts has expanded the picture. First-year birds don’t mate, so there is no need for them to return to nesting sites in the spring. Young Common Swifts outfitted with sensors have been found to spend 300 days or more in the air without coming down to the earth. Occasionally one will come down for a night to escape a storm, but others were found to remain continuously aloft for 10 months. Swifts are estimated to fly at least 200,000 km a year, and since they can live more than 20 years, they will fly several million kilometres during their lifetimes.
It turns out that swifts aren’t the only birds capable of sleeping while they are flying. Great Frigatebirds have been found to remain in the air, above the ocean, for a month or two at a time, without ever landing (unusually for seabirds, frigatebirds can’t land on water).
How swifts and frigatebirds can sleep while flying remains a matter of speculation. One theory is that somehow half of their brain falls asleep while the other half remains awake. Whales and dolphins have evolved similar adaptations. They need to sleep, and yet they have be aware of their surroundings and of potential danger, and they need to wake up in order to come to the surface and breathe. They do it by shutting down only one-half of their brain at a time.
Remarkable as they are, what makes swifts so special to me is not their astonishing biological adaptations, but what they seem to represent.
Earthbound as I am, my options for going places further constrained by a pandemic, I long for their freedom to fly wherever they desire. Theirs appears as the ultimate freedom: soaring far above the earth, as long as they please, going where they please, yet never alone, because they are always with others of their kind, chattering wherever they go.
Most birds embody unattainable freedom to some extent. The robin that comes to my birdbath looks at me with its bright eyes as I look at it: two vertebrates, each of us standing on two legs, facing each other, and for a moment I feel a sense of what we share. Then, in an instant, and with no apparent effort, it takes to the air, and I am left standing on the ground, keenly aware of what it is able to do that I can never share.
Swifts have taken to the sky and liberated themselves from the surface of the earth more than any other bird, and that very fact is part of the reason for the emotional attachment I feel for them. I don’t mind that it is unrequited love: I know they don’t even know I exist, and that’s fine.
There are other birds that have also come as close as possible to severing their ties with the land, in a different way. Ancient murrelets, seabirds that live in the north Pacific, also need to come ashore to lay their eggs, which they do in burrows on the forest floor on Haida Gwaii and a few other locations. As soon as the eggs hatch, the parents leave and return to the sea. From the shore, they call to their chicks, and the tiny day-old chicks rush along the forest floor on their wobbly little legs, to where their parents are calling from. Another mystery, another example of birds’ ability to do things that we don’t even understand, is that each chick is able to distinguish the calls of its own parents. Once reunited, they swim farther out into the ocean, where their parents will feed them. Ancient murrelets spend less time on land than any other bird. I have never seen one, but I am happy to be able to share the planet they live on.
I have been lucky enough to see sea turtles, and their newly hatched young, on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. Sea turtles’ sole tie to the land is also the need to lay their eggs. The young head straight for the water as soon as they hatch and remain there throughout their lives until eventually, guided by their own mysterious sense of direction, the surviving adult females swim through thousands of miles of ocean to return to the same beach they came from to lay their own eggs. Their vast world is also one that I can never be part of, and yet in some vicarious way, in my imagination, I claim a small share of their freedom.
I have felt the same way on the occasions I have encountered whales, including one humpback off Newfoundland which swam back and forth underneath and beside our boat, evidently curious about us and what we were doing. It was free to go where it wanted, and yet it took a few minutes to hang around and engage in some human-watching. We felt very privileged.
The natural world is very important to me, and a source of happiness, and for that reason it is also, in these times, a source of pain and grief. Chimney swifts are supremely adapted to a life in the air, and extremely independent, but their numbers, like those of all aerial insectivores, have been declining precipitously. The one thing they cannot adapt to is human-caused destruction of their food supply and nesting sites. Sea turtles have lived in the oceans for 100 million years, but now their survival is threatened by oil slicks, plastics, industrial fishing, beach ‘development’ and the warming of the oceans.
It is not just a few species that are at risk. Plankton, insects, trees, and everything that depends on them: the whole web of life from the smallest to the largest is showing signs of unraveling.
The calamities that are besetting our world have many faces: greed, short-sightedness, militarism, racism, sexism, endless growth – and they all have one name: Capitalism. The source of the problem, and the hope of a solution, lies with our own species: simultaneously the most intelligent, and the most stupid, of all the creatures living on this earth.
The natural environment I am most at home in is a forest. I have spent countless hours in forests, but I have never seen a wolf, though I have heard, and been thrilled by, their distant howls. Even though I never see them, it is important to me to know that they are somewhere out there in the forest, wild and free. I yearn for them to be there long after I am gone. Yet I am afraid that they, and countless other species, including many whose names I don’t even know, may soon disappear from the earth. Knowing this, knowing that we are losing the battle – though it is not lost, and I keep fighting – is a source of profound grief.
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