Telling The Planet Where to Stick It

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Ontario gas pump sticker violators will face fines, says Ford (Global News)
Elections Canada climate advertising guidelines puts chill on green groups’ advocacy (Reuters via Yahoo!)
Democratic National Committee votes against allowing 2020 candidates to participate in climate change debate (CNN)

My personality is probably a good explanation for why I tend to be such a night owl, but my earlier living situation played a large part in that as well. For most of the time I lived in Toledo, I was going to bed in a house that bordered I-475, close to two of the major traffic interchanges of the western suburbs, and going to bed later at night meant not only that I had an easier time falling asleep, but I also got more time to read and write late at night, when the quiet helped me. Things are so quiet in this part of Wisconsin that I really don’t need to worry about those issues any longer, and I’ve been teaching early morning classes ever since I got here without much trouble, but I’d be lying if I said that I don’t miss my old nocturnal habits. If nothing else, I really miss the sound of cars driving by on rain-soaked pavement in the middle of an overnight shower. I don’t know why I like that sound so much, but I really miss it now.

My apartment here recently became the place I’ve lived the second-most number of days in my life; until about a month ago, that record was held by the hotel room my family stayed in after the 2001 house fire. That hotel was about six miles south of my home, and it was right down the street from yet another major highway exit of western Toledo. I must have used that interchange thousands of times, but it underwent a major revision and rebuilding about a decade ago, as part of the stimulus package passed by Congress and the Obama Administration shortly after Obama was sworn in as president. The improvements were welcome, and they weren’t anywhere near as drastic as all the roundabouts and diverging diamonds that started infesting Toledo in my last years there.

What I remember the most about the redesign of that exit is how there were signs posted at either end of the construction zone, announcing that the work was part of the stimulus package. I was never really sure how I felt about those signs; on the one hand, I kind of appreciated knowing where my tax dollars were going, especially at a time as economically fraught as the early years of the Great Recession. At the same time, though, I was kind of concerned that the signs could be seen as a kind of advertisement for President Obama and Congressional Democrats, the people responsible for the stimulus package. Even though I agreed in principle with the stimulus package (if anything, I thought it didn’t go far enough to provide direct relief to the people hit hardest by the economic collapse of 2008), I wasn’t sure if signs like the ones I saw on that interchange were appropriate.

What’s happening to the rainforest in the Amazon right now is attracting a lot of attention, and for good reason, but one of the environmental stories that I’ve been keeping tabs on for months now is the plan by the Premier of Ottawa, Doug Ford, to force gas stations in the province to display stickers on gas pumps showing how an upcoming federal carbon tax will affect gas prices over the next few years. Just like the construction signs I saw near that highway interchange in Toledo a decade ago, it could be argued that the stickers are merely stating a fact, and maybe shouldn’t be viewed as political speech. Having followed what Ford and his fellow Progressive Conservatives have been doing since they won power in Ontario last year, though, it’s hard not to look at these stickers and see them as part of a broader campaign of trying to normalize far-right framing of complex issues in purely economic terms.

My primary concern, when I first heard about these stickers, was the potential for conservatives here on this side of the border to imitate this plan. If the Trump Administration were to announce some kind of mandatory sticker on gas pumps, I don’t think that the opposition to such a plan would be more than token. I certainly believe that Republicans would have raised a great hue and cry if President Obama had proposed anything similar, but if President Trump decided that he wanted to do anything like what Premier Ford is doing with these gas pump stickers, it would happen, and I worry about how that could quickly escalate into other attempts to push far-right, overtly political speech into public venues.

The recent announcement by Elections Canada that groups talking about climate change in advance of next October’s election could lose their tax-free status, though, may be even more chilling. Canada is currently warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, and the effects of this on their land mass will have a cascading effect on the rest of us, both here in the United States and throughout the world. Managing political speech is never an easy task, especially in the leadup to a nationwide election, but to have this pronouncement come down at such a dire time in the planet’s health is more than problematic, especially when looked at alongside the Ontario gas pump stickers being mandated by the Progressive Conservative provincial government there.

I’ve been trying to take inspiration these past few months from Greta Thunberg and the amazing things she’s been doing, especially when it comes to motivating younger people — who will bear far more of this climate crisis than the rest of us — to force it into our discourse, and to make us think more critically about our own role in making sure this planet remains habitable for generations to come. As the Democratic Party once again neglects its alleged role in stemming the tide of climate change, though, I have to wonder just when, or even if, the necessary steps will be taken to avert self-induced catastrophe. Even the possibility of being able to talk about those steps in a public forum seem to be disappearing with each passing day, and not just here in America.

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