I’ve been worried about the environment for a long time.
In fact, my concerns about the environment were the root for what was likely the most significant crisis in my life. It was a long time ago. More than 33 years.
When I was in high school I joined the first environmental club ever formed at Queen Elizabeth Composite High School in Edmonton. The “Green Club” was officially a student group, but the driving force behind the group was a younger teacher in the social studies department, Sylvie Krogh. I would reconnect with Ms. Krogh (as I then kner her) may years later though my work with USC Canada (now SeedChange). I didn’t know it at the time, but Sylvie had a life-long commitment to social, economic, and environmental justice informed and reinforced by her faith. She was optimistic, and encouraged those of us in “Ms. Krogh’s Green Club” to act.
Act we did. Through the 1989-90 school year we identified a local pulp processor and negotiated with the school administration to enter into a contract for the collection and recycling of waste paper. Late in the school year, tall blue and white cardboard boxes appeared in every hallway and every classroom, and soon the bins were adopted by students and staff. Paper that once littered the halls now accumulated in and around the rapidly filling recycle boxes. It was the first recycling program in any school in Alberta, we were told. It gave us hope that a sustainable future was possible.
My hope didn’t last very long. In August I attended the General Council of the United Church of Canada, as a participant in the Youth Forum. That event shaped my life in ways I did not see until years, even decades later. Some of those charges were side effects of my environmental commitment. Maybe the most notable tangential impact was in normalizing sexual diversity for me. It seems like an unlikely link, but the simple fact that the only cold drinks available to Council participants came in non-recyclable tetra packs meant that I spent every break hanging out at the (pink) lemonade machine at the Affirm United table. My disdain for avoidable garbage led me to hang out with “the gays”. I am grateful for that.
The shattering of my enthusiasm happened all at once, but not right away. Bouyed by the success of the high school recycling program, and confronted by systemic waste delivered to us every day in individually packed paper bag lunches, I joined together with fellow Albertan (and advocate extraordinaire) Shauna Gibbons to push the local arrangements team of the Council to have Western University make its recycling progun accessible to the Council. They did! The power of youth could not be stopped!
The next day the unthinkable happened. Procedural manipulations on the floor of Council left many in the Youth Forum stunned and angry. (Sadly, that wasn’t the unthinkable part.) Recognizing the high emotions at play, the Youth Forum leaders called for a special debriefing session prior to the midweek break. We all collected our paper bag lunches and trundled off to the Youth Forum meeting space.
Two hours and many tearful conversations later, everyone got up to leave. I watched as my peers filed out the door, discarding their paper bags in the garbage can sitting directly beside the recycling bin. Still reeling from the emotions of the morning, I stormed over to the garbage can and proceeded to sort out the paper bags, tears streaming down my face as the others mostly ignored me and continued throwing the remnants of their lunches in the garbage.
I don’t fully recall all that happened next. I’m pretty sure I was the last to leave the room. Most of the rest of the Youth Forum participants had boarded a bus to Canada’s Wonderland. I remember riding the elevator up to my floor in the university dorm, and finding myself sitting alone in the common room; staring at the door to the balcony; thinking about jumping. What hope did the world have, what possible future could exist if the very youth who have the most to lose can’t be bothered to sort their own trash?
That might have been the end of my story, had not one of the few other youth who had been left behind not, at that moment, poked her head into the room, looking for someone else. She pulled back and let the door close behind her after I said “no” to her query. A moment later the door opened again and she leaned further into the room, asking in a gentle voice “are you okay?” Up until that point I hadn’t even liked her. I quickly blurted the mandatory “I’m fine”. She paused for a moment, watching me, before stating in that same open and caring tone that she would be there if I needed someone to talk to.
That was enough to bring me back. It didn’t restore my optimism. That was gone forever. But it did assure me that I was not alone. That assurance has never faltered
This morning the Copernicus lab in Europe confirmed that the mean global temperate in 2023 was 1.48°C above the pre-industrial average. It is by no means an exaggeration to say that we have lost the battle to prevent catastrophic climate change. Our leaders have been unable to confront the greed of capitalism and the political weight of social inertia. The future is going to be hard.
But there will be a future. This is not a fall from a balcony with a sudden stop. It will be a long pilgrimage with an incomplete map, and predictably uncertain weather. We aren’t all going to make it, but then again, we were not immortal to begin with. This journey will come down to how we hold together, show compassion for each other, and strive to be resilient and resourceful.
I’ll be here if you need someone to talk to.