We need ‘a green environmental enlightenment’

In her speech at York’s Spring Convocation ceremonies Thursday morning, Lynn McDonald repeated the ancient proverb, "Without a vision the people perish", telling graduands that it is as relevant now as when first uttered and that vision should include addressing climate change.

A professor emerita of sociology at the University of Guelph, member of parliament from 1982 to 1988 and former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, McDonald encouraged the graduands from York’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies to take up the environment as their cause, using their newly acquired skills and knowledge.

"Graduates of today face not only all the old challenges of job and family, but that of living in a world of climate crisis, environmental deterioration and declining resources," said McDonald, a health advocate and author of Canada’s landmark federal legislation, the Non-Smokers’ Health Act of 1988.

Right: Lynn McDonald

McDonald, the series editor of The Collected Works of Florence Nightingale, received an honorary doctor of laws from York during the ceremony for her pioneering work as an advocate. Nightingale (1820-1910), like McDonald, was also an advocate – one of the founders of the modern profession of nursing, a scholar, a theorist and a successful social reformer. Ten of the expected 16 volumes in The Collected Works of Florence Nightingale have been published so far.

"When I contemplate the doom and gloom scenarios – declining bio-diversity, pollution getting worse, especially global heating, I take courage in what I’ve learned in my own research, for I work on Florence Nightingale, a pioneer, radical thinker from roughly 150 years ago, who took on the toughest issues of her time – health care for the poor, even those in the dreaded workhouse infirmaries, and famine in India when millions died who did not have to."

McDonald is also a social reformer. In 1971, she started the first group at McMaster University to work toward equality in the workplace, including standardized job descriptions and equal pay for equal work, for women faculty and staff. Now she is fighting for the environment.

"Closer to our time we have seen apartheid go in South Africa, women’s rights have improved enormously from my grandmother’s day, many opportunities for women opened up in the course of my life, and universities, which certainly needed to, changed drastically to accommodate these new demands," said McDonald. "This is all to say that yes, people, even whole societies, can change, and now we must if we are to deal adequately with the climate crisis."

It will take more than just natural scientists and engineers to find a solution to climate change. It is something today’s graduates need to think creatively about as well, said McDonald. "We now need collectively to rethink how to run our societies and for this our expertise is needed. The great reforms of the 19th and 20th centuries which brought us democracy, the vote, human rights, public education and public health care were grounded in the principles of the 18th century enlightenment. We now need a new enlightenment, a green environmental enlightenment, to inspire a whole new set of political, economic and social reforms. We have to change how we live on planet Earth."

She reminded graduands that the energy-consuming actions of Canadians affect people elsewhere in the world. "Should our rights trump theirs? When did they get to vote on the policies that affect them in this global world? Don’t they have rights too?"

McDonald said people need to demand more; they need to ask their political representatives for a serious climate change action plan, not excuses.

"We need a visionary climate change plan and we need to be visionary in our academic fields as well to assist," said McDonald. "Climate change changes everything, and sociology, political science, economics and business, not just environmental sciences, need to be re-examined accordingly."

To see an archived Web cast of Lynn McDonald’s speech, visit York’s Convocation Web page.