A Canadian’s “American Experience”

I love PBS. It was the only thing I missed when we disconnected satellite TV (other than Modern Family, which we can now watch on-line). We have TV back for two months to watch the final season of Downton Abbey on PBS. At least, this is what I’ve been telling people, while Michelle argues that it was so I could watch the NFL playoffs.

PBS has these great shows like “Frontline,” “NOVA” and in-depth news coverage worth watching. I was watching “American Experience” the other night. I am grateful that Americans let a Canadian like me watch their shows.

The episode was about the drive to organize West Virginia coal mines at the turn of the last century. This is where I learned that “Mother Jones” isn’t just a magazine, she was in fact a woman who was immersed in the drive to organize labor at this time. She got involved after her husband and 4 children all died. I cannot imagine the anguish some humans have had to overcome.

I watch all these shows with my “Lorne” lens on. Lorne was Michelle’s father. He grew up on a farm in the 1920s with 12 siblings, was in Italy in World War II, and came home and made steel his whole life. He belonged to Local 1005 of the United Steel Workers of America and went on strike several times. He earned a good wage making steel. The company he worked for was able to make a profit even while providing its workers a living wage.

I think about what it must have been like for a worker in the early 1900s when industry was growing and they were treated poorly. You can understand the desire to unionize. They had a vision for a better future for their children and workers in our economy. They fought hard for a better, more fair future.

My father-in-law Lorne lived for that brief shining moment where the vision was realized. He earned a good wage for an honest day’s work. He was able to own a home, buy a car, and raise kids. He devoted a great deal of his spare time to the union and the social democratic movement to pay his good fortune forward.

So I watched this show and wondered what these people think of where we’re at today. WWLT? (What Would Lorne Think). It’s like that line from “Saving Private Ryan” where we see the soldier who lived through the mayhem of D-Day ask in his old age, “Did I live a good life?” i.e. did he honor those men who didn’t make it.

There are two levels to look at this. The first is this growing gap today between the rich and everyone else where they seem to just keep accumulating illogical amounts of wealth, while everyone else stagnates. I’m sure someone who saw their family starving while they walked a picket line for a better wage a hundred years ago would be severely disappointed.

But then you look at the other side of the coin and we have done fairly well. Most of us are warm and have enough food, can usually access a doctor, and many of us actually have luxuries that a striking coal miner could never have imagined. And so you ask yourself, what would that person think about how we spend our time now?

What would they think of how many of us have the luxury to fly to warm locales for holidays, or across the country to visit friends and family? What would they think about how big our vehicles are, or our houses, and what would they think about not only how much free time we have, thanks to the miracle of cheap fossil fuels that do all the heavy lifting today, but how we spend that free time?

How would they relate to the millions of us who disappear for the weekend in the grand distraction of football or NASCAR, both of which I love to watch (but not too much)? Or soccer, or people chasing little white balls around a golf course, or frozen black chunks of rubber around the ice? What would they think about how much time we spend playing video games, or flushing our energy down the internet’s endless time-wasting vortexes? What would they think about how much time we are distracted in the media by news items that really just don’t matter?

As my father-in-law got older he spent more time watching television. It was always CBC Newsworld. He continued to watch the world unfolding as long as he could. And so I analyze my own actions through this lens of “What Would Lorne Think.” I ran as the Green Party candidate federally and provincially because I know he would have approved. I continue to try and live as close to a zero-carbon life as I can. When I drive to see my grandson I know I miss that target, but I’m hoping I get cut some slack.

As you start replacing things you do with fossil fuels like heat your house and hot water, with things that don’t put carbon into the atmosphere, you realize it can take an enormous amount of time and in my case physical effort. So my time is increasingly devoted to producing less carbon. With what’s left I try and undertake activities that don’t impact the planet any more than they have to. I haven’t been on a jet in 25 years and never plan to again. I hope this focus means that my actions will have less of an impact on others of less means who often live in regions more likely to experience the negative impacts of too much carbon in the atmosphere.

I hope that if that striking coal miner was teleported ahead in time and he (most likely “he” since it seemed to be mostly men in those days) arrived at our farm, and he got to see what had become of the world, and how I engaged in it, he would think I was doing okay. I’m hoping he would think that of all the myriad of activities I could be engaged in, growing food and trying to minimize my impact on the planet, would be something he would respect. I believe a titan of industry from a hundred years ago would think I was wasting my potential. And if I am able to impress just the regular guy who had a regular person’s hopes and aspirations, well, then, I’m thinking I’m on the right track.

Cam in garden 2014

One Response to “A Canadian’s “American Experience””

  • Neil B. (Orleans):

    Cam, I found your article under http://www.cammather.com/current-events/a-canadians-american-experience-3 whereas the notification e-mails used -2 or nothing at the end of the URL. So not sure if others have read this or not..

    On another note, I recently read Pierre Burton’s book on the Great Depression. The way people were treated back then by the Canadian Government and by large corporations was horrendous!

    I agree with your last statement…you and Michelle are right on track!!

    Have a great week!
    NB

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Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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