July 2nd, 2010
It’s Canada Day, and fireworks are lighting up the Middle Eastern sky. I am far from home; in fact, I am thousands and thousands of kilometers away. Yet Canada has followed me here, in the complicated, golden, multi-racial, hotly contested city of Jerusalem.
Sitting at my hotel desk, typing this blog, I was suddenly startled by a familiar snap, pop, and bang interrupting the evening hum of cars and electrical wires. This is Jerusalem, and loud sounds of any kind immediately produce a tightening in the spine and a skip of the heart. I jumped to the window and stepped out on to the balcony to see a glorious spectacle of large, colourful fireworks illuminating the Jerusalem sky, spotlighting the minarets and towers of the Old City beyond the walls, and the spread of local, light yellow stone of which every building must be constructed here. Turns out the Canadian Embassy was celebrating the nation’s 143th birthday and I just happened to have had a privileged view of the light show. Imagine that–Canada was responsible for such a warming, delightful surprise so far from home.
I am here for a Canadian Studies conference, and so with a hundred or so other scholars from around the world whose work focuses on Canada in some way I have been talking and listening to many things Canadian. In particular, we have gathered here in Israel from several different disciplines to discuss environmental issues in view of Canadian research, social and economic policy, and national contributions to climate change, including representations of it in art, literature, and film. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has an active Canadian Studies program at its Halbert Centre, and the campus has played host to this conference every two years for some time. This is my 6th conference in this ancient, magnificent city, and as always I have learned something about Israel and Canada and worlds beyond.
For the most part, I have heard scholars speak to the irrefutable evidence of just how vulnerable the world is to climate change. That there are still highly educated people on the planet who think this is all a myth is sometimes more troubling than the fact of environmental threat itself. Israel is hot and dry and largely a desert, while Canada is, of course, the opposite in every way, but both countries are equally threatened by what is happening to the ice caps, to rivers, glaciers, and the oceans, and to the polluted, industrialized landscapes that scar the surface of the earth in developed and emerging nations alike.
All week I couldn’t help but think of the ironies of talking about these pressing matters, especially from a Canadian perspective, in a land so deeply absorbed by armed conflict and bloodshed spilled over ideas of the land itself. At times I had to wonder whether climate change could be seriously entertained in a country with a compulsory draft, where tragedy is common and young male and female soldiers carrying mighty mean-looking ammo swagger through shopping malls and parks as if they were merely swinging their walking sticks. Surely, I thought, Israeli society has other things to be thinking about than the long-term health of the planet?
Canada is at war, too, to be sure, but somewhere far from our city streets and parks. Our attention is directed to our participation in Afghanistan only when a soldier is killed and his body is ceremoniously brought back home. We are, however, not really any more socially or politically engaged in dealing with climate change and its imminent effects than Israel, and indeed we might even say that Israel is more progressive in its social and political policies governing waste recycling and water usage. When you have so much less of something as precious as water you are likely not to take it for granted.
I like to recall the conversation I had with an Israeli academic a few years ago at one of these Jerusalem conferences. I was trying to convince him to extend his planned vacation to Canada to include Newfoundland, and to that he said it would all depend on one thing: would he be able to stand in the shower and let the hot water run down his back for as long as he wished? The question startled me into recognizing what a hugely privileged world we inhabit, where for most of us taking a hot shower is a right of citizenship, not an extraordinary gift of nature and a reliably sophisticated sewage system.
It’s been one of those extraordinary conference experiences, where established scholars and doctoral students from Canada and Israel compare notes, offer multiple perspectives, examine the problems and challenges, and admit that there is so much work to be done, and, sadly, such staggering political indifference in the face of the facts. Indeed, our own Prime Minister has openly said he has no intention of observing Kyoto Accord standards. It was time to disabuse the Israelis of the myth that Canada is a progressive eco-conscious nation, and time for us to learn how attuned Israeli politicians, especially municipal officials, are to the need to take radical, long-term measures now. Many contradictions here, but then the best academic conferences ought to point these out where they exist, and fuel–no pun intended–our desire to make change.
On this Canada Day, here in the biblical land of milk, honey, and interminable conflict, it is humbling to think of how lucky we are to inhabit such a resource-rich country. It seems more urgent than ever to recognize and protect those resources, and not just for our own sake.