The world we leave our grandchildren

When David Suzuki’s 10-year-old grandson says, ‘Grampa, grampa, take me fishing where you used to fish,” he can’t. “There are no fish there any more,” says Suzuki, the biologist and longtime host of CBC’s The Nature of Things.

“We lived in London (Ont.) in the late ’40s, and I fished in the Thames River and we ate the fish. Now people say, ‘My God! I wouldn’t go near that river!'”

What kind of world are we leaving our grandchildren?

A beautiful world, there’s no denying. A world of flowers and trees and rainbows and mountains and wonderful sunsets. But also a world where, year by year, that beauty is being degraded, where rivers and oceans are poisoned, the land contaminated and the air fouled.

“All over the world,” says Suzuki, “I talk to older folks about where they grew up. They say there used to be birds and fish and butterflies and insects. But they’re not there any more. It’s as plain as the nose on our face, we’re trashing the earth.”

And too little is being done to stop it.

Since 1995, says Paul Muldoon of the Canadian Environmental Law Association: Ottawa has slashed spending on the environment by a third. The idewas that provincial governments would take up the slack. It’s called “devolution.”

However, the provinces have also cut back their environment ministries by 40 to 44 per cent, dumping many of their responsibilities on the municipalities – the level of government least able to afford to fight pollution.

“You probably won’t pay the price for this disregard for our environment,” Paul Muldoon told a packed Later Life Learning session of over-50s at the University of Toronto recently, “but your grandchildren will.”

Our children and grandchildren are already paying the price.

“When I was a boy,” says Suzuki at his home base in Vancouver, “I didn’t even know what asthma was. Today, you can’t go into a classroom without finding two or three children with puffers.”

Asthma rates among Canadian children have approximately doubled in the past two decades. One in five youngsters in the so-called “Golden Horseshoe” area centred around Hamilton, Ont.,  have asthma, according to a study published last year in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. This rate was twice as high as asthma levels among children in Saskatoon, the researchers reported.

However, Saskatoon parents should not breathe easy. Rates in both cities “are among the highest reported” in the world. And don’t put all the blame on Hamilton’s steel industry. Rates were just as high in affluent Oakville, 20 kilometres away.

No one knows for sure why this disease of the affluent countries is growing so alarmingly among children. Or why, for that matter, the incidence of cancer in Ontario is growing three per cent a year. However, there are clues.
Increasingly, we live in a chemical stew. Our homes, workplaces and vehicles are suffused with chemicals from synthetic materials. The countryside – Nature’s lungs – is harmed more and more by sprawling development that can only be reached by pollution-spewing automobiles. And every summer there are more and more days when cities declare smog alerts and children and the elderly are warned to stay indoors.

At a time of unheard of prosperity in Canada, when money is worshipped and billionaires have achieved the status of saints, and the media reports glowingly about record car sales and housing starts, we earth-bound residents never pause to consider how that all contributes to our degraded environment.

We are, says Suzuki, “in a consumer frenzy that I find obscene.”

All the while, silently, unnoticed – and largely unchecked by our neglectful governments – industrial pollution gushes into our waterways and taints the skies.

“Blame the Americans!” was our traditional response. That won’t wash any more. In most parts of the U.S., pollution controls are more stringent than here.

Next page: The proof: three years ago …

The proof: Three years ago, states and provinces began reporting amounts of pollutants discharged – based on industry figures. For two years, Ontario held third place in North America for the amount discharged. Last year, it came second only to Texas in the amount of filth discharged (Quebec, Canada’s second worst polluter, occupied 20th position). Astonishingly, Ontario now discharges more toxins than auto-obsessed California, which has a population roughly equal to Canada’s.

It would be so easy for people of our 50-plus generations to say, “That’s not our problem.”

We are, most of us, in the supposedly “easy” years. We’ve paid our dues, why should we bother ourselves? The future belongs to the young. Let them fight for it!

Easy to say – and profoundly irresponsible.

Herb Barbolet, of Vancouver, a grandfather as well as an environmentalist, demonstrated at the “Battle of Seattle” – the World Trade Organization meeting — last winter.

“There were people in their 80s demonstrating,” he says. He came away full of optimism, believing the pendulum is finally swinging away from “the insane marshalling of wealth in so few hands and toward a priority that dictates that we care again for the earth and the people.”

“We should be starting a grey for green movement,” suggests Suzuki. “Grey hairs for a green world. We ought to be speaking out and saying, ‘What the hell are we leaving our grandchildren!”

But what in a real sense can we do to improve the world our grandchildren will inherit?

It starts with looking at the advantages we hold. We have, most of us, far more time on our hands than our often-harried children; we may have more disposable income as well. With any luck, we have acquired a little wisdom. In addition, says Ruth Grier, formerly Ontario’s health minister and environment minister, thanks to increased longevity, we’ll probably have more years than our grandparents did to exert an influence.

But don’t be preachy, she warns. Teach by example, and start with the little things.

Last Christmas, she and her husband took three of their grandchildren on the streetcar down to Toronto’s city hall to see the lights and to go skating. For some of them, it was their first trip on public transportation. The unstated
message: you don’t have to use a car to go everywhere.

Or there’s reading labels in the supermarket. She believes foods should be labelled if they’re genetically modified. But her granddaughter, Genny, 10, has even sharper eyes than she does when it comes to labels. “Don’t buy that, Granny,” she said one day in the supermarket. “There’s too much fat in it.”

Children these days are dazzled by video games and television, and it can be tough getting their attention.
“They’re hooked on the Internet and Pokemon,” says David Suzuki. “They want to be hit by something spectacular and it’s hard for grandparents to compete. Geez, it really hurts when I take my grandchildren on nature hikes and they say they’re bored.

“My dad always thought fishing was the best way to connect with nature,” he adds. “It didn’t matter if you caught anything. It was all about being there.”

Next page: Grier has the same philosophy

Grier has the same philosophy. “I tend to take them to outside places,” she says. Walking in the woods, shell turn over a log so they can study nature in miniature, and at the cottage she likes to talk about respect for living things, including spiders and bugs.Your own back yard can be a classroom, too. Composting, says Grier, makes kids think about the growth cycle, and harvesting your own vegetables makes them realize food doesn’t just come from the supermarket.

In summer, when the children and their dogs are visiting, there’s a green “pesticide-free lawn” sign out front that they got from the Toronto Environmental Alliance.

And then there’s the activist option. Merryl Hammond, mother of five, was appalled, when she arrived here from South Africa several years ago, at the amount of pesticides and herbicides sprayed on her neighbours’ lawns in a Montreal suburb.

“I don’t feel strong enough to tackle global issues,” she says. But lawns – that was another matter.

Hammond has testified before a parliamentary committee and in the Supreme Court of Canada on the issue (one Quebec municipality, Hudson, passed a bylaw banning lawn spraying, but has been challenged in court by the chemical companies). Also, she helped start a national network of activists – many of them grandparents – fighting for local laws to reduce chemical spraying. 

“It’s only done for cosmetic reasons,” she says. “The only crop we’re growing in suburbia is children.”

Several thousand kilometres away, in Jasper, Alberta, Basil and Jill Seaton are just as involved in creating a better world for the next generation. The couple (she’s 69, he’s 81) are active in the Jasper Environmental Association, fighting to preserve the national parks she calls, “absolutely our greatest national treasures.”

The WTO debacle at Seattle, says Basil, “was one of the best things that has happened. It’s cause for hope.”
The demonstration unfolded only because activists organized through e-mail and over the Internet, he says. “We old folk must learn to use the technology to avert world catastrophe for all living creatures.”

He cites clear-cut logging, the disappearance of fish stock, the misuse of water and, above all, the reckless burning of fossil fuels as some of the issues threatening our world. Closer at hand, he deplores the swarms of recreation vehicles that invade Jasper each summer, most of them belonging to older people. They burn fuel at an excessive rate and “some of them cost $200 for a fill-up,” he says.

Jill and Basil are models for the new older activists. They hike, kayak and cross-country ski and, says Jill, “We like raising hell.”

In Vancouver, Herb Barbolet, who heads up an environment group called FarmFolk-CityFolk, says linking kids back to where their food comes from is of vital importance. In a world where food production is more and more in the hands of multinational organizations, they’ll need to have a say in its production, he believes.

It starts with a seed. “A miracle occurs,” he says, “when a child plants a seed and watches it grow.” His one grandson is only 14 months old, “but (as he grows) I want to see him have his hands in the soil.”

He notes, too, that a U.S. survey revealed that 90 per cent of families no longer share meals together. If parents are too busy, grandparents are the ones who can sometimes provide that sit-down meal where there is time to talk and listen.