It’s not every day you get an email from Yoko Ono.
Imagine my surprise then, as I found myself, on the eve of my Calgary Bed-In for Sustainability, rolling over the 14th green in a golf cart at the recent Right To Play charity golf tournament in Canmore, when I answered a phone call from my friend Russell asking if I’d checked my email recently. I replied that, no, of course I hadn’t checked my email, and, that if he didn’t mind, I was putting for triple bogey, so could we talk later?
The surprise came when he told me excitedly that I’d just received an email from the mother of the Bed-In herself: the one and only Yoko Ono. I didn’t make the putt.
Somewhere, in that mysterious place where all the ones and zeros line up, Yoko Ono caught wind of what I was planning to do and her assistant tracked me down to pass on this note:
“Kristina, Congratulations for your courage and wisdom. I love you! yoko”
Considering the apprehension I felt in sticking my neck out for something I care about in such an unusual fashion, this email, from someone rather well versed in sticking one’s neck out, gave me a feeling of confidence and relief that this was indeed a good idea.
But I was still nervous that it might not go well, or that Calgary wasn’t interested or ready to hear what we wanted to talk about. And having just motored out to Canmore for a grand round of 18, even if in support of my other favourite cause, Right To Play, I was worried people might start to dissect my every move, ready to pounce on anything I’ve ever done that could be attributed to environmental destruction of some sort to which they could claim any degree of hypocrisy. Well, unfortunately I think just being born in Canada takes care of that.
It ended up being one of the most interesting days of my life. You might think that after a full day in bed I would feel rested and relaxed, but the non-stop conversation and activity left me feeling utterly exhausted. I was, however, also left feeling inspired, informed and encouraged. In spite of the seemingly impossible task of tackling the colossal environmental issues present throughout this city, everyone I met throughout the day was a shining example of someone striving to make change happen, no matter how big or small.
After spending the better part of my life striving to simply skate faster, it was illuminating to learn about the work people all around me are doing to improve their neighbourhoods, challenge their local officials, and clean up some of the mess we have made. My world grew just a little bit. But then, it was not a day about me, rather it was a day about connecting with the community and having huge conversations with people I have never met about something that affects every single one of us, whether we care to admit it or not.
My first question to most people was what they thought the word ‘sustainability’ means. It was generally agreed upon by everyone I spoke with that the word ‘sustainability’ is not the best word we could use to inspire people to listen or act. It has been claimed by everyone from big government to the oil industry and environmental groups to economists. It’s the sustainability bandwagon and everyone is jumping on.
The problem is that the word can be used in so many ways, both in terms of its definition and the broad range of topics it can describe. Dr. Noel Keough, a professor from the University of Calgary Faculty of Environmental Design, conceded that we’ve developed a tendency to gloss over when we hear the word. It’s a catchphrase, a buzzword, a misnomer even, that seems to have lost it’s meaning. We’ve heard it so often we don’t even know what it means anymore.
What exactly are we sustaining? Should we sustain infinite economic growth or infinite oil and gas exploration? Should we sustain where we are at or should we be striving to change direction? Many people defined it as using only what you really need, but then the problem becomes thinking we need more than we actually do. We need a better word.
Another question I asked each guest was: What is the biggest challenge that Calgary is facing in trying to become a more sustainable city? Here’s what we’re facing:
- poor urban planning and the endless annexation of new land for suburban development
- too much provincial control over municipal finances
- car centred infrastructure
- excessive energy usage
- lack of concern or sense of urgency from governments and individuals
- my personal favourite: nimble minds promoting rational inaction
This is a complex issue of course, and the challenges start with governments who are either diabolically opposed to the climate change issue or too afraid to take risks and end with individuals who either don’t care at all or have given up thinking they can make a difference. Not very inspiring is it?
My next question was: What are some solutions to these problems? A little snapshot of the responses:
- have the courage to get involved in politics
- use social media and marketing to inspire individual behavioural change
- lead by example
- start small: leave the car at home one day a month
- retrofit your home to reduce energy costs
- bike lanes please!
- provide an incentive for the better option
- be more thoughtful about the choices you make
A lot of us know these things inside and out, but we don’t always do it. Why is that? According to Gerald Wheatley from Bow River flow, it’s because the carrot hanging in front of us to do the wrong things is HUGE. For many of us energy is too cheap, the train is too inconvenient, biking is too hard, we want huge houses that need to be filled with stuff, and we’ve been conditioned from day one to believe that this is all normal and okay. The lack of any sense of urgency is rooted in the fact that day to day we don’t really see the problem and this attitude is continually perpetuated by the ‘willful ignorance of the wealthy’. Pretty harsh words, but not without reason.
Although everyone I spoke with had amazing things to say, the conversation I had with one person who was particularly memorable and inspiring was Dr. David Swann, the leader of the Alberta Liberal Party. I haven’t met many politicians in my day and I’d have to say that, like many people, I’ve grown a little disheartened by many I’ve seen on tv. But Dr. Swann, who is a soft-spoken, thoughtful, brilliant man, was about as genuine and passionate as it gets about the work he is doing. Although he is endlessly paddling against the current and rarely heard amid the sea of blue that washes over this province during every provincial election, he is doggedly determined to make change happen. See part of our conversation here and here.
I have a good deal more thinking to do about this day, and a lot more information to comb through to fully appreciate what I experienced and what can come of it. The end game of this event is to present a report to Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. Dr. Swann said, ‘why stop there? You should send this to Stelmach and Harper. You need to think big.’ It never occurred to me to think big. I thought it would be best to start small. I guess it’s both. New to do list: leave car at home once a month and send report to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Stay tuned!
My last question to each guest was: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of this city? Everyone was enthusiastically optimistic about the future because they’ve seen first hand the change they themselves have inspired. I’m increasingly optimistic that change is possible, over decades likely, because now I’ve met many of the people working down in the trenches, doing the work, making a difference.
So, did we change the world in a day? In a word, no. But in some ways, the world changed a little for me. And that’s a start.