Home / Natural City Conference Keynote by Stephen Lewis in Toronto

Natural City Conference Keynote by Stephen Lewis in Toronto

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All of the priorities of the world are so completely out of whack … If only we honoured our promises. – Stephen Lewis

I know I have written about Lewis at length before, both when I saw him at the Make Poverty History debate and when I read A Race Against Time, the compilation of his Massey Lectures regarding AIDS in Africa and the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals. I have a huge amount of respect for Stephen Lewis, and I urge anyone to see him speak if they have the chance. He is charming, brilliant, funny and inspiring.

I saw him again last night, at Convocation Hall in Toronto. This time, he was the keynote speaker at the Natural City Conference (previously mentioned as the hosts for Jane Goodall). On this night, Lewis spoke about sustainability and about the appalling things being done to the planet, and to one and other, through an often willful ignorance.

"There is absolutely no question in my mind that the absolute greatest threat to our time is climate change," said the man who has worked with UNICEF, in federal and provincial and international politics, and as an AIDS advocate. "For me, climate change is the scariest development on the planet." He went on to address Canadian politics, calling the Harper government's rejection of the Kyoto Protocols its "single greatest mistake" — no small criticism from a democratic socialist.

So what is sustainable development? According to the Brundtland Commission, which originated the term back in 1987, the goal of sustainable development is "to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs."

Lewis used the work of the Brundtland Commission and the Millennium Development Goals as a framework to discuss where we, as human beings, are failing. To Lewis, there are connections between our failures to provide aid, medical care, and food, and our failure as stewards of the environment.

Lewis illustrated this idea with a description of a visit to a slum in Monrovia. There he saw people living in horrendous conditions, in a "wasteland" without any greenspace or any sign of the natural world. Except for one: the former Liberian president's private golf course, just beyond a wall.

This juxtaposition of wealth and poverty came up several times over the evening. Lewis mentioned that one-fifth of the world's population lives on less than a dollar a day and that the United States spends $4887 per capita on health care, versus Niger's $6. He made these points because the situation is not sustainable, and to highlight how far behind the world is on the Millennium Development Goals.

"Everybody is hungry in the developing world," noted Lewis. "The amalgam of poverty and hunger is throttling."

Lewis discussed how power is shifting on the planet as the two most populous countries, India and China, become economic powers. "It irritates me," he said, "that I am damn near senile. I'm so intrigued by what's going on in this world that I'm coming back."

Still, Lewis's curiosity doesn't mean that he's optimistic about how this shift will affect the environment. Both India and China rely on coal and oil to meet their energy needs. With their increasing economic success, there may be tremendous environmental costs. Each country also raises concerns on humanitarian grounds.

In addition to Monrovia, Lewis mentioned the slums of Mumbai, where people live in desperate conditions in spite of India's increasing economic success. This inspired a shaggy-haired boy, maybe ten or so, to make his way to a microphone to ask about something that didn't make sense.

"You said India had very bad slums and that it's economy is growing. Wouldn't it make sense to, you know, combine them?"

The crowd laughed, clapped, and cheered.

"I think I know how you'll vote," said Lewis. "This is a terrific moment. I'm palpitating with excitement."

There were several young people in the audience, many of whom stepped to the microphone to ask their questions. Lewis encouraged these youth to get involved, to pick a cause or two, and to become volunteers and activists. He noted that many of the people he's seen doing developmentally field work are young women, and rattled off the names of many NGOs into which people could channel their (renewable) energy.

I feel privileged each time I time I hear Lewis speak, both in the sense that I have won a cosmic lottery to be living the life that I do, and also in the sense that I am in the room with greatness. When you hear Lewis speak, you can't help asking those childish, obvious questions; Why can't we just give sick people medicine? Why do we keep using these energy sources that are choking the planet? He makes it all seem so simple. No, not simple; he doesn't insult our intelligence with false simplicity. But he makes it clear. He makes it imperative. You are left knowing that there is no room for waffling on these issues, that we (and our leaders) must agitate and butt heads until we have an actual solution to heal our world.

I wish I could be Stephen Lewis when I grow up. And I hope there are a lot more like him, in the pivotal generation to come.

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