Thursday, January 14, 2010

Dearest Asha: Will Horter of the Dogwood Inititative Shares a Letter to his Daughter

On Children's Day, we asked readers to write a letter to a child explaining what they are doing to stop climate change.  Today we are running Will Horter's letter to his daughter, Asha.  Will is the Executive Director of The Dogwood Initiaitive, an environmental NGO based in Canada.

It is an honour to publish this. If you have a letter you'd like to share, it's not too late to send it in!

Dearest Asha;

Today is your birthday. I decided to sit down and write to you because by the time you can read, and understand, this you will probably be demanding an explanation for why things are as they are, and what steps I took to protect your future.

There is no easy answer.

It has been two years since you joined this world—a lifetime in a blink of the eye.  Since your premature entry into my life, the universe has expanded. I thank you for the gifts you bring. Your joie de vivre has stimulated me. Joy has once again become a daily visitor, and your laughter invigorates my soul.

Your entry into my life, (your simple existence) has changed the way I think about both the present, and the future. In the present, you continue to remind me of what is important in life—those instants of connection where people come together and share of themselves. I look forward to those magical moments – which seem to occur more frequently when I am around you – when the world seems to disappear and you Claudia and I become the center of the universe surrounded by a powerful force field. I feel more human, more connected to something both primal, and divine. I feel better connected to the essence of both my and other’s humanity, which makes me a better person, a better parent and a better activist. Somehow being around you helps me ratchet down my excess intensity, which is the manifestation of most of my demons. Thank you.

My outlook on the future has also been transformed. Suddenly, global warming is no longer just an issue of concern. It seems like a matter of life and death. The choices humanity make today take on an urgency I haven’t felt before. And to be frank, I’m struggling to figure out how to best channel this urgency.

To be honest with you; I never thought I would be a father. It’s not that I don’t like children. I like kids (albeit until you came along I was nervous around infants). Rather, I think I was being cowardly.  I was afraid I didn’t have the patience, the wisdom, perhaps the love in me, to help shepard a child towards the life I aspire for you (and all the other children of the world). I’m still not convinced I have what it takes - only time will tell - but I’m working hard at it.  When you look back at our relationship some day after I am gone, I hope you evaluate me on my success as well as the consistency of my effort.

The second reason I thought I wouldn’t become a father was political. I wasn’t sure that bringing a baby into our increasingly unjust, inequitable and unsustainable world was the responsible thing to do.

My ambivalence about parenthood was related to what I saw as my role in the world. I am an activist. It is more than my profession. It has been my raison d'etre since I woke up 25 years ago in a hospital in Amsterdam with the doctors telling me I had a brain tumor and might not live. When I awoke I had amnesia, was disoriented, and in pain, but I remember clearly seeing a headline in the International Herald Tribune that said hundreds of thousands of black people were going to be forcibly “relocated” in South Africa. I remember pledging to myself that if I ever got out of that hospital bed I would do my best to ensure things like this didn’t happen. If I survived, I would become formidable.

Since then I have tried to live up to this pledge. I have worked on a number of “issues” over the years (anti-Apartheid, human-rights, equality, justice, aboriginal and environmental issues).  Yet as I look back I realize that since awaking in Amsterdam these seemingly unrelated strands of my life have had a common goal; I have been trying to summon up my life force to help people understand, and collectively act on, their own inherent power; To help people believe in their being that a better world is possible, and that they have what it takes to fight for it.

But is it enough? Is this my own quixotic windmill?  Now that global warming has made the choices we make today more urgent, do I have the courage to take the kinds of action I believe necessary?

I don’t know.

Until I was a father I thought that all one could do was try one’s best. But now when I see your face, when I watch you laugh, when I glimpse you exploring your expanding world with a curiosity and a joy that both inspires and terrifies me, I wonder if merely trying is sufficient.

Merely trying hard, doesn’t force me to confront my demons, my fears, my personality quirks that so often prevent my success both as activist and a parent. For me, merely trying harder too frequently means ratcheting up my intensity, spinning faster on the hamster wheel. I realize now this seldom works.

A friend of mine once told me that effective activists instinctually know when to ratchet up the energy, and when to withdraw or calm the energy in situations. Until you came along I frequently was not as good at the latter. I’m still not great, but I’m getting better at recognizing when excess intensity is counterproductive.

This challenge of moving past “trying harder” (ratcheting up the energy) suddenly seems like an imperative. The more I read about what the leading scientists predict about global warming—the more I contemplate my responsibilities as a parent—working harder, trying harder, doesn’t seem adequate.

I feel like we are entering one of those eras when epochal shifts are needed or calamity is likely. My friend Matt Price recently compared the situation to one of those movies where scientists predict Earth will be hit with a large meteorite. In the movies, governments’ mobilize immediately and recruit someone like Bruce Willis or Clint Eastwood for an urgent mission into space to blow up the meteorite. In the real world, despite equally dire scientific warnings about the future of life on earth, our politicians are doing virtually nothing. They talk a lot, but don’t walk the walk.

I fear the world you will inherit if we don’t stop polluting the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases. It is not the environmental consequences—the loss of polar bears and tropical forests, the drought and rising seawater—that terrify me; it is the economic and social dislocation that will result that fuel my nightmares.  The “haves” already impose their will on the “have nots” and I see the brutality, injustice and persecution increasing as global warming forces us to wake up from the delusion of abundance and accept forced scarcity.

It will not be a fair fight. And it is the human toll of this disparity that terrifies me. Surprisingly, the North American elites haven’t figured out that there is no way to isolate and protect their loved ones if the worst of climate forecast become a reality. If the carrying capacity of the world is shrunk to 1 billion – which the scientists predict will happen if we keep on our current fossil fuel dependant path – what can I do to guarantee that you are one of the advantaged amongst the 1 billion?  I see no such guaranteed paths forward in that dystopian nightmare. The only viable option I see is to avoid it.

I can’t help but remember what Winston Churchill—one of your grandfather Ivor’s heroes—said during World War II: “It's not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what's required.”

Do I have the courage to accept Sir Winston’s challenge?

Visions of your potential dystopian future haunt me. As your dad, and as an activist, I feel I need to step out of my comfort zone, to do something drastic. But what?

The answer isn’t obvious.

Besides dramatically cutting our family’s emissions by avoiding jet planes, walking or biking, eating local and maximizing the energy efficiency of our house, the only route to a safe de-carbonized future is MASSIVE state intervention—similar to efforts in North America during World War II. But instead of focusing the power of our governments, North American leaders keep arguing about the expense of the climate equivalent of sending Bruce or Clint on a life saving mission. They say they are worried about jobs, but our current politicians really are mostly concerned about the elites that control the wealth generated by status quo. If this doesn’t change quickly, everyone, including the elites, will suffer, but it is the poor and disadvantage, especially in places like India, Bangladesh and Africa, that will suffer most and first. The forces of business-as-usual are formidable, inertia is powerful, but as they say, there are no jobs on a dead planet.

Given the failure of current leadership, the only path forward that makes sense to me is a people’s movement unlike anything the world has ever seen.

But how do we make this happen?

As an activist I have been working these last few years to stop my governments from allowing massive new fossil fuel infrastructure to be built: coal, pipelines, coalbed methane. Working with local people, and aboriginal groups, we have won most battles, but the business-as-usual machine funded by big oil and coal continue to win the war. Their tactics: impede, distort, delay and manipulate aggressive discussions about emissions reductions in the name of the almighty dollar (this, of course, can only happen with the help of their sycophant supporters in the various governments of the world).

The tar sands here in Canada are the poster child of this perversion. Imagine, the world’s largest industrial project focused on transforming a massive deposit of an asphalt-like substance into oil so the United States and China can maintain their addiction to oil. By burning almost as much energy as is produces, not to mention destroying hundreds of thousands of kilometres of boreal forests, and producing the world’s largest dams of toxic tailings, it is insanity personified.

Although my goal of keeping tar sands-related oil tankers off the British Columbian coast, and shutting down the expansion of unconventional oil and gas, are worthwhile, they somehow seem insufficient.  Given the fossil fuel addiction of Canadian and provincial governments, massive state intervention seems unlikely.

So how does one jump start a people’s movement unlike anything the world has ever seen? How do we quickly ignite Gandhi’s salt march, King’s sit-ins, the South Africa’s general strikes, Poland’s Solidarity movement, and the uprising that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, all at once, on a global scale?

I don’t know. And I often lay awake at night pondering how.

But I have figured out a few things. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and I doubt any one person (even a real life Clint or Bruce hero) will save us. Instead, I believe it is going to take literally millions of courageous individual actions to forestall the impending disaster.

Personally, my gut tells me there will be no way to get to the Promised Land without stepping far out of my comfort zone. That is scary… especially because there is no road map.

And pushing the envelopes that need shoving, will inevitably produce pushback.

How do I balance my role as a parent now with the risks of pushback?

I can’t be a very good father to you if I’m in jail. Is it time to step beyond the tactics I am comfortable with? I don’t know. But when you ask the inevitable question, I want you to know I thought about it.

When I get scared, frustrated, or tired by the enormity of the challenge we face I return for inspiration to a few words of wisdom author and thinker Paul Hawken shared in his commencement address at the University of Portland last spring. The challenge he offered those young people venturing into the world struck a chord with me:

You are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation…Basically, civilization needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.

This planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken.

There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: You are Brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring. The earth couldn’t afford to send recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint.

And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.

As a father, and an activist, I’m trying to figure out my personal instructions for deciphering the invisible ink—what is my role in the coming action thriller?

I don’t’ feel brilliant, but I try to keep focused on what needs to be done, even if it seems impossible. You are proof that impossible things happen. How a baby born 14 weeks prematurely at just over 1 lb, overcame brain hemorrhages, heart murmurs, 4 months in intensive care tethered to more tubes then seems possible can blossom into the beautiful, inquisitive girl you have become confirms that the odds don’t matter and the impossible can happen.

My generation’s conspicuous consumption, our attention deficit-like death wish, and our failure to meaningful take action to avert climate change may be incomprehensible to you when you grow up.  They are to me as well.

I wrote this to try to explain to you why I made the choices I did. Some will be good, some bad. Let’s hope there are more of the former. When you evaluate my performance do not forgive me for merely trying hard, determine if I acted with courage, whether I did all I could do to step out of my comfort zone to strive for success.

As a father, as an activist, as a human being, anything less would be cowardly.


  1. I would love to take part in the equivalent of Gandhi's salt march. There's just one question though - where is Gandhi? We don't have someone like him around. I don''t agree with many of Gandhi's ideas, but boy did he have the guts to follow them! We need someone whom we all can relate to - someone we can all admire. Someone who is clearly and obviously beyond reproach and guided by a powerful moral compass. Someone we can rally behind. Someone who's not involved in the daily grind. Someone...

    We need a powerful leader today like never before. And he can't be in politics. Looking at history, it's the only thing that can save us now.

  2. @Will, thanks for this post. It's really got me thinking about what to do, what is required, etc. Really appreciate you taking the time out to do write this.

    @Bhagwad, in my reading of history, the leadership question is usually a chicken and egg one. A strong enough movement will throw up many capable leaders. It will take many capable leaders to build a strong enough movement. All of them will be "political" in the sense that anyone who organizes people is political; let's hope none of them will be political in the sense of those who see the political system, and the power that comes from it, as an end in itself.

    We'll all be up more nights thinking about the how and when, right?

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