It’s Friday evening, midway through the COP21 Climate Change Conference, and there’s an event for the young activists assembled to pressure their governments into action. It’s a spoken word night in an extraordinary location.
The old Gare Ornano in the 18th arrondissement opened in 1869, closed in 1934 and has been the site of La Recyclerie, an urban farm and vegan café, since 2014. Picture lots of exposed beams and a loft overlooking the main, cafeteria-style hall, with stations to scrap your food waste into the composter and no plastic allowed. There’s a queue outside, filled with Australian, Dutch and American activists arriving late. A man tries to sell fruit and beads without much luck. (I didn’t realize it that evening, but the garden outside is built in the old, unused train tracks running into the converted station, part of a network of reclaimed train corridors throughout Paris.)
You might be wondering what a hipster café in northern Paris has to do with Georgian Bay.
Well, you see, the spoken word poets that evening were all from island and coastal nations—Madagascar, Côte d’Ivoire, the Philippines—and their poetry dealt with a common theme: the menace climate change plays to their homelands through coastal erosion, flooding and hurricanes. In a reverse way, this threat reminded me of the work I was fortunate enough to do with Georgian Bay Forever when I was a consultant at Key Gordon Communications Inc. I had the privilege of promoting the landmark GBF/Mowat Centre/Council of the Great Lakes Region(CGLR*) report on the Great Lakes’ declining water levels. And as each poet spoke that evening of coast lines disappearing as the oceans rise or of tropical storms levelling villages, like a slow-motion, modern-day Atlantis, I couldn’t help but think of Georgian Bay’s challenge of low water levels, and the threat that poses as well.
Yes, the threat to the Bay is less immediately catastrophic than the inundation of an island nation, but the threat is real and costly nonetheless. Cottagers know all too well the irritation and expense of re-mooring a dock suddenly three feet above water level, or a boat house jutting out from the land rather than resting in the shore waters. Shipping can tell us of the major costs and the difficulties posed to their industry. Tourism suffers. Indigenous communities risk losing pieces of their culture and memory. Cumulatively, the economy and our treasured Canadian summertime lifestyle suffers.
The poetry night put this into perspective to me, but even still, it reinforced the central, moral imperative at the centre of the COP21 negotiations:
“While we may not all be hurt precisely in the same way immediately, climate change is a real, shared threat, that we have to confront together, before its too late.”
Georgian Bay has a special place in my childhood
…with fond memories playing with my sisters in the rock beaches of Christian Island at an aunt’s cedar cottage. A favourite memory—whether at Georgian Bay, or on the shores of Lake Clearwater near Huntsville, or on Lake Joe at a friend’s cottage—is always reading on the dock, as the wind catches the trees that dare to grow haphazardly at the water’s edge. Generations of writers—including GBF patron and a personal favourite novelist, the American writer John Irving—have sketched stories by the Bay’s shores, even had their characters write beside its waters.
As bureaucrats and politicians use legalese words and hammer out a treaty that would see the way forward to 2020 and greenhouse-gas reduction targets, that night at La Recyclerie reminded me of what President John F. Kennedy said shortly before his assassination about the power of the written word to create and compel change. He said,
“When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.”
Or, similarly, as Allen Ginsberg wrote,
“The only thing that can save the world is the reclaiming of the awareness of the world. That is what poetry does.”
(Originally published by Georgian Bay Forever online and in their print magazine.)