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Opinion Here, kids, take the keys. We shouldn’t be driving this planet

ILLUSTRATION BY HANNA BARCZYK

The word of the year, according to Dictionary.com, was “misinformation.” While that is a very fine word to describe the lies, untruths, euphemisms and deceptions that hung over 2018 like a miasma over a malarial swamp, I’m not sure it encompasses the sheer madness of what we’ve been through.

If I’d been asked to choose a word or phrase that represented 2018, I might have gone with, “What the hell just happened?” or the classic comic-book scream of the damned, “Aiiieeeeee.” Or possibly just a random selection of letters that represents a human head hitting the keyboard.

Goodbye, 2018. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. This was the year that will be remembered for many things, most of them bad, and the rest absurd. It was a year so ridiculously painful that people turned to peacocks – not a bird known for cuddly properties – for emotional support. It was a year when our neighbours to the south put children in cages, to put billions of dollars in the pockets of people who built and managed the cages, and then called the cages “tender age shelters.” Shame would have died in 2018 if it hadn’t jumped off a bridge long ago.

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It was the year when wildfires tore through much of Western Canada, leaving the air thick with choking smoke, and Alberta and British Columbia launched a trade war using the odd weapons of wine and bitumen. It was a year when hundreds of climate scientists agreed that we have about a dozen years to turn this ship around or we risk unalterable damage to the planet. Considering that the Earth is about 4½ billion years old, that is some frat-party damage we’ve managed to inflict overnight.

In Britain, my second home, there’s been a massive stockpiling of bandages, Branston pickle and other necessities as the country hurtles toward a cliff of its own making. Seriously, three years ago there was no cliff, and then some jokers decided to build one out of lies, hot air and bits of old cake left over from the Queen’s silver jubilee. Now, they’re teetering at the edge, bickering about how many limbs they’ll lose when they plummet.

It was almost impossible to find respite from the sound of things breaking all around us. I should have been reading thrillers about murderous cheerleaders, and instead, I read books with titles such as Fascism: A Warning and The Death of Truth (thank you, Madeleine Albright and Michiko Kakutani, for the excellent nightmares you planted in my head).

Perhaps the only good thing that happened this year is that we realized there might be something sinister behind social media’s bland, friendly face. We’d let it into the house, welcoming it like a nice foreign-exchange student and then came down in the middle of the night to find it pouring a suspicious white powder into our coffee. The most valuable lesson of 2018 might be: Never turn your back on the computer.

There were other useful lessons from this year, to be fair. They all just came from children. Even as my heart fell every time I looked at my news feed, it perked up a little when I saw and listened to and read and watched the actions of teenagers, children and young adults. Is it fair the burden is left to them? No. Does it at least give me hope? You bet.

Two teenagers gave frank, heartfelt speeches to the United Nations on environmental issues that should be provided as templates for adults studying public speaking, and how not to put audiences to sleep. In March, Anishinaabe teenager Autumn Peltier, from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island, gave a moving speech on International Water Day. She talked about the movement to give water the same rights as people, in order to protect and preserve it. “Now is the time to warrior up,” she said, “and empower each other to take a stand for our planet. We need to sustain the little we have now and develop ways not to pollute the environment.”

“Warrior up” is a good way to describe Greta Thunberg’s scorched-earth speech at the United Nations’ climate summit in Poland. First, she called out adults’ inaction and then she came for our hypocrisy. “You have ignored us in the past, and you will ignore us again,” Greta said. “You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”

Greta is a 15-year-old Swede who launched the Climate Strike movement across the globe, in which students leave class to protest ineffective climate policies (hey, they’re ditching school, but at least they’re not going to the mall). There seems to be a youthful, defiant spirit of protest in the air, like 1968 without the tear gas and batons: Look at the thousands of kids who walked out of class across Ontario to protest the provincial government’s retrograde decision to roll back their new sex-education curriculum.

In the United States, the survivors of a high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., joined forces with young people protesting violence in Chicago to form a movement calling for greater gun control across the country: There are already tighter laws being passed at local levels and in some state legislatures – including Florida.

This year, I was lucky enough to sit down with young people working for social justice in their communities and running for public office. My book tour took me to many different Canadian cities where I met young women who were fighting against harassment in their workplaces and schools, and for gender equality in their jobs – and in their relationships. I met young men who were talking to boys about paths of non-violence.

They were doing it quietly, away from the spotlight and headlines, the slow, grinding work of social change. That’s the work of tomorrow. It’s got to be better than today.

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