Bottled wolves: writer Thomas King tells stories at York

Thomas King, an acclaimed First Nations storyteller, novelist, literary theorist, broadcaster, activist and professor, presented the seventh annual Ioan Davies Memorial Lecture on Sept. 20, at York’s Keele campus. In his lecture titled, "The Amazing Race: Social Responsibility, Home Construction and Bottled Water", King delivered a personal account of his own struggle to go green.

Not surprisingly, King began his lecture with a story: "When you hear old stories, the hair rises on the back of your neck and you can hear the sky and smell the wind. It starts like this: We all have two wolves that live in our stomach. These two wolves are always fighting each other. One wolf is lazy, selfish, greedy, lying and complaining. The other wolf is hard working, honest and likes to help others. Which wolf will win?"

Left: Thomas King

This opened his discussion of social responsibility and the fragility of the environment. King believes there are two general reactions to climate change – one is denial and the other is alarmism. He describes denial as "global warming is just a natural cycle; only the strong survive; it’s not my responsibility". Concerns about dwindling fresh water supplies and melting icecaps are multiplied to extremes by the alarmist camp. King said he is not fond of either reaction but finds himself, like many, somewhere in the middle and describes his position as, "pragmatic but empathetic. We’re good but not great."

Remember the internal battle of the two wolves? King pointed out that in spite of all the green talk and best intentions, leaders have backed away from the Kyoto. Stating that "we still rely on coal for energy and we have the highest child poverty in the industrial world," King continued, "we’ll consider the benefits of high-density dwellings if we don’t have to live in them. We’ll fly to Rwanda to photograph gorillas [eco-tourism] but not blink about the airplane pollution. We’ll buy food locally, but only in June and July and look out if we don’t have bananas in our cereal in December!"

King used a personal example to illustrate the dilemma. He and his wife, Helen Hoy, decided to fulfill their dream of building their own home but wanted it to be a role model for environmental responsibility. With all the decisions that came with the process, they discovered that going green often costs a lot of green saying, "Cha-ching! Social responsibility is a slippery corner where ethics and finances crash."

Comfort and convenience also played a part in King’s choices. An avid cook, King wanted a six-burner open flame stove (not so green) and found himself fighting a losing battle with desire. Though the green construction of the house was moderately successful and King did not need air-conditioning – he got the stove nonetheless, admitting ruefully, "there are two wolves inside us."

King was even less forgiving on the convenience of bottled water for "imprisoning clean water in clear plastic". He marveled that a litre of bottled water costs more than a litre of gas or Coke, despite the absence of standards that guarantees it Is no better or worse than tap water. That this invented need is a $100-billion business proves that "nobody will go broke selling convenience." Despite recycling, the bottles are choking landfills, says King, and big companies like Nestle are draining water resources near Guelph, Ont., at a rate of 3.6 million litres a day, while local residents live under water restrictions. The answer to this particular problem said King is simple: "Stop buying bottled water! All we have to lose is the privilege of convenience…or is it the convenience of privilege?"

The answer to the overall problem is not a matter of means but of will and commitment, asserts King. "Most of us are content to sit on the railing and take pictures of the tragedy. The concern is slower than the damage. It is also no longer a matter of individual effort, even if you’re David Suzuki," said King. "We need a thousand David Suzukis!" King believes that a majority coalition is needed to make tough and expensive decisions and promote mass awareness and cited the activities of local organizations like the Wellington Water Watchers as a good place to start. King himself is running as federal candidate for the NDP.

Can stories change the world? "I love to think stories could help the environment. I know it won’t happen but I get up hoping it will," King qualified his remarks saying that stories have in fact changed the world, only "we’ve told the wrong ones".

What was the end of the story about the two wolves fighting in our stomachs, and which one wins?

King remarked, "The wolf that wins is the wolf you feed."

Ioan Davies Memorial Lecture and Award

This year, the annual event was organized and introduced by York Professor Amin Alhassan. Professor Janine Marchessault presented a heartfelt tribute to the life and work of Professor Ioan Davies. Marchessault described Davies as an interdisciplinary teacher, writer, and activist who sought to "engage the fabric of every-day lives, interweaving popular and high culture. He worked against standardized education [useless knowledge of useful facts] to create a classroom without walls."

Right: Ioan Davies

He was a tireless advocate on behalf of students, built solidarity among his colleagues and was known as "The Fixer" for his administrative talents, said Marchessault. "He was a big sweetheart", and is sorely missed.

His wife, Diane Davies, presented the Ioan Davies Memorial Award to Phil Rose, PhD candidate in the Department of Communications & Culture in York’s Faculty of Arts. York English Professor Terry Goldie reflected on both Davies and Thomas King before introducing the featured lecture.

Submitted to YFile by Chris Cornish, a freelance writer and frequent contributor.