Fire, Denial, and Hope

Othello Canyon, British Columbia.

As the west coast burns and fires erupt around the world, news headlines paint an eerie landscape of our future as smoke chokes the planet. Experts are confident that these events are just a glimpse of what’s to come as we get ready for more extreme weather conditions, unreliable rainfall, violent storms, reduced agriculture, and increasing deaths. As if this wasn’t enough, we also face a long list of social, economic, and political issues.

Homelessness, racism, and isolation are just symptoms that indicate something is very wrong and getting worse as more people around the world are thrown into uncertainty. It doesn’t help when Paul Gilding tells us to stop worrying about climate change and that we need to brace for impact, or when David Attenborough and Jane Goodall tell us that the earth would be better off with less than a billion people, or when the U.S. Department of Defense predicts confidently that there will be more climate change induced wars in the next 15 years. Is there any wonder why so many people are anxious and in denial?

We have a growing list of global problems and one of the largest is that we require about fifty percent more earth to sustain our current way of life. Distribution is only part of the problem. While we talk a good story about how we can gently transition to a highly efficient, knowledge-based economy transformed by science and technology this is likely magical thinking. It seems more likely that when the carbon bubble bursts, financial markets will spiral out of control, there will be more wars, collapsing governments, shortages of food and water, and huge unemployment around the world. While Project Drawdown may provide the blueprint, significant change is not likely to occur until something awful happens. Perhaps Rilke is right that great sadness brings us closer together.

While climate changes become more severe the instability of our world is no longer out of sight and out of mind as we run out of resources and one billion people come looking for a new home. We shake our heads and wring our hands over growing homelessness around the world, refugee camps and children in cages, but we tolerate them to the degree that they become normalized. The path ahead is indeed a daunting one. Perhaps David Whyte is correct when he says that “denial is underestimated as a state of being. Denial is an ever-present and even a splendid thing when seen in the light of its merciful and elemental powers to cradle and hold an identity until it is ready to move on. Faced with the depth of loss and disappearance in the average life, a measure of denial is creative, necessary and self-compassionate: children are not meant to know they will one day die and older adults are never meant to tell them. Refusing to face what we are not yet ripe and ready to face can help us to live in the present.”

It’s easy to understand why many people embrace denial rather than give in to fear and hopelessness. That denial comes in many shapes and sizes or “faces” is not surprising. Whyte believes that most human beings are at war with reality at least fifty percent of the time. He speaks of walking into our lives fully, and that when we do so we start to realise that we have manufactured three abiding illusions; that we can somehow construct a life where we are not vulnerable; that we can somehow be immune to all the difficulties of ill health and losses of the natural world; and that somehow we can plan our way to the end. These illusions can be for ourselves as well as our community, whether locally or globally as denial is pervasive.

Climate change is only one pathway that may invite new conversations. Climate change, colonialism, capitalism, racism, poverty, hunger, overconsumption, and other issues are all part of what Naomi Klein calls a “five-alarm fire.” The anxiety and stress that comes with how to fight these fires and our inner dissonance and denial can be overwhelming. Can we save ourselves without something disruptive happening that forces us to change? What must occur within each of us first before we turn our attention outward?

While disheartening, it seems that the public needs to be presented with a different message to be moved to action. Conversations with many different thinkers and activists speak to an urgency, as well as a need, to change our divisive discourse from liberal or conservative, right or wrong, good or bad, and broaden the edges of these dialogues. Meg Wheatly urges people to get more involved in their communities and get to know their neighbours. While the doing is important, finding entry points into a conversation that open hearts and then minds seems an essential part of this process. Paul Graham suggests in The Hierarchy of Disagreement that while divisiveness has spread throughout our society there is a way to move public debate forward without invoking anger and shutting down conversations. His Hierarchy of Disagreement provides an outline of understanding in what happens in conversation’s and how to recognize new entry points.

American Journalist and author, Krista Tippet, suggests that there is an art in starting new kinds of conversations that create new departure points and outcomes. She urges that we let go of old habits that are ingrained in establishing winners and losers. This may have its place and value in civil society, but it can get in the way of caring about each other. Alternately, exploring the world with generous listening and asking better questions to start new kinds of conversations can change hearts and minds. When we ask beautiful, heartfelt questions we open up a conversation and reach beyond veils of doubt and defences.

The silver lining in the irrationality that has descended on the U.S. has sparked a growing movement to promote scientific evidence and science-based solutions through thousands of daily conversations and initiatives around the world. As technologies change, fossil fuels, mining exploration, government corruption, social justice, and human rights are coming under more scrutiny. Nuclear power costs more to build and operate than to decommission while renewable energy sources are gaining momentum, albeit slowly. As humans become more self-aware it seems more important than ever to get off the couch and join movements large and small, to march, walk, talk, and get busy changing conversations in homes, workplaces, schools, houses of worship, and perhaps most importantly, our hearts. These conversations are not just about climate change but about how we treat each other, animals, and our planet. Regardless what the face of denial may look like, it would seem that the way to reach it is not just with facts and figures or more information, but with a genuine curiosity and caring through deeper conversations. Jonathan Haidt, Andrew Hoffman, and others suggest that asking beautiful questions that open conversations may allow us to build bridges and move from denial to action changing each other and our world.

There are unsuspecting movements, acts of bravery, activism, and love that may carry the day. The chaos theory deals with complex systems whose behaviour is highly sensitive to slight changes in conditions where the smallest alterations can give rise to great consequences. Similarly, we know from history that social, cultural, or political change does not work in predictable ways or on predictable schedules. Humans don’t know what is going to happen, or how, or when, and in that uncertainty, there must be room for hope. There have been great moral causes that have advanced humanity’s prospects that have all been based on hope and fundamental truths that were resisted and denied and fought against. Some examples include the abolition movement, the women’s suffrage movement and the broader women’s rights movement, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the effort to stop the toxic phase of the renewed nuclear arms race, gay and trans rights, and more recently, the gun control demonstrations that started in Florida.

Is it possible to prepare for climate change and avert the worst effects of it? Perhaps, but to do so, we need to understand why climate change is happening and to make informed choices as individuals and communities based on scientific evidence and our ability to reframe a new definition of the good life. We need to be able to confront our frailties and be open to challenge our beliefs. Information alone is not enough for us to choose appropriate policies and strategies to prepare our society for the changes that are well underway. Without understanding the basic causes and various complexities of climate change and ourselves, we will be unable to make informed decisions that will affect generations to come. This crisis is about much more than the science. Humans are being asked to go deeper, to find that existential part we play in change and how all of us can make a difference.

One of my first and, ironically, last interviews for this project was with Tzeporah Berman. She is a Canadian activist known for her work in Clayoquot Sound and Burnaby Mountain, former Greenpeace director, and author of This Crazy Time. She shared a story about returning from the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009 which was a “disaster” as countries could not reach a global agreement, and scientists and experts from around the world were crying as the latest reports about the earth’s climate were devastating. She pointed out that the UN Secretary-General opened the conference by saying that “we either do a deal here, or we are sentencing humanity to oblivion!” Returning home depressed and thinking we are doomed, she wound up spending time with her ninety-year-old grandmother and shared her disappointment. Her grandmother smiled warmly and reminded her of how much the world had changed in her lifetime and that she was confident that the world will change even more in hers and that these issues can be addressed. Tzeporah admitted that when she gets overwhelmed, she is reminded of this loving moment with her grandmother. She is now certain that when she speaks to her grandchildren “about this crazy time in history,” she is convinced that “they won’t believe her, as the world will be such a different place from when we dug in the ground to get oil, chopped down the last old growth forest to make catalogues, or that we actually filled our cars with gas.” Prior to turning the microphone off as our second interview came to an end, I asked Berman if she was still as optimistic as her grandmother while demonstrating against the Kinder Morgan pipeline and she replied, “more than ever!”

“Hope is the story of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the risk involved in not knowing what comes next, which is more demanding than despair and, in a way, more frightening. And immeasurably more rewarding.” .

Rebecca Solnit


A drive around Lake Okanagan reminded me of the edges between the year that was and the one that lies ahead as it’s always been an interesting time for reflection.

The Oxford Dictionary defines the word “edge” as a noun or a verb, and often described as the outside limit of an object, area or surface. It`s that place next to the steep drop; The point before something unpleasant or momentous occurs, as personal as an epiphany at the beginning or ending of a self-realized moment, it can be subtle and sweet, or as large as the economy, perhaps our world teetering on the edge of a recession or a country or civilization at the edge of collapse; An edge is also the sharpened side of the blade of a cutting implement or weapon; A thin linear thread or a thought that holds the edges of time between this and that, then and now; The line along which two surfaces, real or imagined, meet. The forest edge or the rocky shore are examples of ecological edges which are rich in diverse resources as are the edges in time, those magical moments between one period to another.

These edges are transitional or “liminal” spaces that exist in everything known. They occur every day and in every moment, and they have throughout time. They are often unannounced as they gently take shape around, as well as within us, often unconscious as we often don’t recognize them at first, sometimes decades. Others make a momentous entrance defining the beginning or end of something such as a birth or death, a change in a relationship, the end of war, hunger, poverty, or in this case, the edges between the ending of the old year and the beginning of a new one.

There have been centuries of discussions regarding humankind and the many wonders of our world. Every new decade, a spokesperson surfaces with a poignant opinion and is provided a place in history to proclaim their particular point of view regarding the many attributes and complexities of the world we live in. These queens and kings, philosophers, holy women and men, even politicians throughout time have witnessed us at our best and worst. Concurrently, with all of this wisdom and enlightenment, it would seem that populations have become less concerned with each other, animals and nature, as they have grown faster than our planet’s ability to sustain them as carbon fueled capitalism and consumption levels soar at unprecedented rates changing the face of our world, perhaps heading to the edge of something that only a few want to acknowledge.

With so many great thinkers throughout time pointing to the frailties of humanity, the ills of society and the way we treat humans, animals and nature, it’s hard to believe that we could be at the edges of the sixth extinction. This was 2016 for me as it began with a deep dive into Genesis, Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and Seneca showing us how to live and die well. It ended (academically anyway) with Pope Francis, Rachael Carson and Frantz Fanon teaching us about the pitfalls of industrialization, racism and power and more questions than answers about our future.

I have been wrestling with how to make the transition from this apocalyptic scenario to a place of living in relationship with the rest of life and learning as much as I can from the Buddha within, you and many others at home, work, school and on the street. I like the way Rachel Carson frames this in Silent Spring: “We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smoother superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road – the one “less traveled by” – offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth. The choice, after all, is ours to make.”

Carson’s reference in Silent Spring for a choice between two roads seems a metaphor for the edges between two points. A choice to continue doing things the way we always have, or a not so gentle tug to look at the world, each other and nature a little bit differently with hope that we might do better. There are daily reminders of our interconnectedness with our own spiritual and religious beliefs, on social media, domestic and foreign policy, and centuries of socioeconomic inequalities around the world whether it be in the Dakota Hills, Burnaby Mountain or Africa. Even Sally Armstrong’s words echo in my head as we approach the US Inauguration, “that there is no such thing as an innocent bystander” and a call for mindfulness as well as individual activism.

I found the edges distracting this year and I had to work my way back to the middle, finding those liminal moments for quiet refection and gratitude in each day. For all that I have learned from the Buddha within, friends and family, teachers and colleagues and many strangers around the world, I am ever grateful. Its easy to get lost in the past or future and miss those important moments like traveling down century old laneways that gave up stories of the people who lived in those old buildings that lined cobblestone lanes. And the many wonderful magical moments with friends and family in Vancouver, Kelowna, Venice and Cambridge watching my daughter (Paisley) get her Masters.

If loss and grief are gates to something better, perhaps we have seen enough to stop and hear the words of those poets that speak to each of us. They have left an indelible mark in history in front of us as we work our way from the shadows to save each other, animal, as well as our planet. Aeschylus with an all too familiar refrain seems a good message to take into our new year “Tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world”.
Thanks for pulling me back from the edge!

With gratitude and heartfelt thanks, Happy New Year!

What Is Wilderness

wilderness2Earlier this year I took an evening course at Simon Fraser University that was called, Contested Relationships between Humans, Ecosystems and Other-than-Human Animals.

I shortened it to Humans, Animals & Other with SFU Professor, Stephen Duguid.

What is Wilderness became a whisper shortly after our cohorts first discussion of Aldo Leopold’s, A Sand County Almanac. The diverse opinion’s and viewpoints regarding what wilderness is or isn’t, started a journey down a fascinating rabbit hole that has led to interesting existential, political and economic discussions involving eco and social psychology, religion, foreign policy and centuries of socioeconomic inequalities around the world.

Professor Duguid and my cohort warned me that this was a very diverse and dense subject and that I should try to narrow this theme. If anything, it just keeps getting bigger. What was originally a dozen pages is now a twenty-page essay and growing weekly. This is an edited version from a recent symposium. Still, in an effort to provide a secure and definitive home for what is wilderness, I opened the door to more uncertainty and more questions trying to define what wilderness is or isn’t, how it came about and what we can do with it or for it as current events will certainly influence this subject.

This journey began with a few basic questions:

When humans enter a space for the first time that has only been enjoyed by other than humans, does that mean that the wilderness is gone? Or, as humans are we part of the larger ecosystem who share all of the planet with all that inhabit it, very much at home in wilderness regardless of where it is or who got there first?

As cities spread out around the world, wilderness seems to be shrinking, and nature is unexpectedly asserting itself. Many animals are not just adapting to urban centres, but actually thriving and, biting back so to speak. Some urban trees grow faster than their counterparts outside of the city which seems to beg the question, is there an urban wilderness?

If you were homeless and sleeping on the street what would be the difference to sleeping under the stars in an untamed forest?

Finally, is wilderness a place or a state of mind that resides deep within each of us?

These themes circle around a definition of wilderness, what it has become, the impact of society, climate change and more…

There are a number of viewpoints and definitions regarding what wilderness might be. One of those is from Gary Snider who writes in The Wilderness Condition that wilderness is a place where the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and non-living beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order.

Wilderness is usually thought of as a natural place on Earth that has not been modified by humans. Even Wikipedia, Merriman-Webster and many other sources seem to agree that wilderness “is the most intact, undisturbed and wild natural areas that humans do not control and have not developed with roads, pipelines or other industrial infrastructure.”

Aldo Leopold is considered an important wildlife and conservation figure in the US and one of many naturalists concerned about the welfare of nature and our planet. Leopold was concerned for what he considered the misuse of our planets natural resources and he felt protective of America’s wilderness.

In Wilderness and The American Mind, Roderick Nash says, That for all of its benefits, designated wilderness areas might be regarded as a kind of “zoo” for land. Wilderness is exhibited in legislative cages, clearly mapped and neatly labelled. The unknown is known. Uncertainty decreases. So do risk and fear. Trails, shelters, ranger patrols, and search-and-rescue teams further compromise wilderness. Quotas, permits, lotteries, waiting lists, prescribed itineraries, and campsite assignments devastate the feeling of wilderness.

In The Encyclical of Climate Change and inequality, Pope Francis wrote: Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity.

As cities grow, wilderness becomes smaller and more exploited. Some simply believe that wilderness is a construct and that it only exists in the minds of humans. This seems like a paradox because mostly we tend to think of wilderness as places where there is an absence of human influence. Ironically, it would seem to make sense that in order for there to be wilderness, there needs to be humans in non-wilderness places defining what is wilderness and what it isn’t.

One of people that first struck me outside of our required reading was Mary Catherine Bateson who wrote in Composing a Life, The self does not stop at the skin nor even with our circle of human relationships – but is interwoven with the lives of trees and animals and soil: that caring for the deepest needs of persons and caring for our threatened planet are not in conflict.

As this wilderness theme widens, many believe that there are too many signs all around us of a society and planet in decline. Others are in denial in their busy lives and distracted by the changes taking place. Still, some believe that the technological advances that got us here will ultimately save us. Pope Francis, Carl Jung, Kelly Oliver, Freud and many others have written volumes about this.


As species diminish and oxygen and natural resources including wilderness become scarce, it’s hard not to wonder how we have come to a place where we are destroying the very home that supports all of us, wondering if at this pace – we will ever recognize or care what wilderness is, or worse, what it once was. How do we make the transition from this apocalyptic scenario to a place of living in relationship with the rest of life?

Hopelessness would seem a natural instinct however when I was speaking to students from UBC and SFU on my daily radio program, they were full of optimism and had a refreshing passion committed to saving our planet as well as each other. Each have a vision of a brighter future filled with social innovation and change, measured consumption of our natural resources, a growing respect for nature and all things living, and each with their own interpretation of wilderness. Whether this youthful optimism is enough for younger generations to avoid becoming super consumers like their parents and grandparents remains to be determined.

Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History in 1992. He believed that the worldwide spread of liberal democracies and free market capitalism could signal the end of humanity’s sociocultural evolution and become the final form of human government. He initially thought that the future would lack any exhilarating struggles believing that life would be “boring”. Meanwhile that same year, the United Nations hosted a “framework” convention on climate change where it acknowledged, “that changes to the Earth’s climate and its adverse effects are a common concern of humankind”. Aware of the role and importance in terrestrial and marine ecosystems the United Nations put the world on notice. It seems hard to believe that less than two decades later countries around the world would be uniting to save our home and protect our “wilderness”, or that a Pope would be leading the world for climate change.

Ecopsychologists study wilderness and the relationship between human beings and the natural world through ecological and psychological principles. As they bump into the harmful use of fossil fuels, displacement of humans and animals, expansion and consumption beyond sustainability and the growing possibility of extinction, this expanding group of professional’s, academics, romantics and friends of the earth seek to develop and understand ways of expanding the emotional connection between individuals, animals and the natural world, thereby assisting developing sustainable lifestyles and solving the alienation from nature.

Carl Jung Carl Jung puts this another way in The Earth has a Soul: Nowadays animals, dragons and other living creatures are readily replaced in dreams by railways, locomotives, motorcycles, aeroplanes, and suchlike artificial products… This express’s the remoteness of the modern mind from nature; animals have lost their numinosity; they have become apparently harmless; instead, we people the world with hooting, booming, clattering monsters’ that cause infinitely more damage to life and limb than bears and wolves ever did in the past. And where the natural dangers are lacking, man does not rest until he has immediately invented others for himself.

Consider that our rainforests once covered approximately fifteen percent of the earth’s land surface and this natural resource is shrinking every year. Nearly half of the world’s species of plants, animals and microorganisms will be destroyed or severely threatened over the next quarter century due to rainforest deforestation. According to the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), it is estimated that we are losing approximately one hundred plant, animal and insect species daily.

With wilderness shrinking around the planet, behavioral ecologist Bill Bateman in an interview with the Zoological Journal believes that the cities of the future may be where wild things are. As their natural homes disappear, many carnivores have rooted themselves in cities as a means of survival. Have our animals become the new cast in a “Hunger Games” type of setting as we observe them being captured, tagged, computerised and watched 24/7, and then managed for the rest of their lives regardless of where their wilderness happens to be? If we are the audience, what can we learn from them as they attempt to teach us to be human?

The National Film Board of Canada released a web documentary by Leanne Allison and Jeremy Mendes in 2012 about a grizzly bear in Banff National Park, who was collared at the age of three and watched her whole life from trail cameras in the park. “Bear 71,” explores the connections between the human and animal world and the far-ranging effects that human settlements, roads and railways have on wildlife.

Bear 71

According to a recent article in the Globe and Mail Newspaper, conservation officers are reporting a dramatic increase in what they term “human-wildlife conflicts” in the lower mainland. There were over 1,800 human-wildlife complaints in September 2015. Bill Batemen stated that “the red fox, coyote, racoon, badger and other medium-sized carnivores not only survive in cities but have managed to prosper, living off garbage, fruit, rodents, birds, pets, livestock, roadkill and food that people intentionally leave out for them.”

As cites expand into what was once considered wilderness, city trees grow eight times faster than their counterparts in rural areas. The speed of which current climate change is unfolding is making it increasingly difficult for humans and our natural world to adapt. As pointed out by Pope Francis and others, some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable are already the most affected by global warming. Rising sea levels, droughts, floods, storms, heat waves and other catastrophic events are expected to disrupt food production and threaten wildlife and their habitat.

The World Wildlife Federation states that Canada is poised to feel the impact of climate change first. By the end of this century, the Arctic will be a very different place. Temperatures here are warming faster than anywhere else on the planet. Even a slight shift in temperature could potentially result in an ice-free Arctic in this century. As the Arctic warms, it has less ability to cool the planet, posing a threat to the entire globe.


Sigmund Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents believed that the sum of our achievements and the regulations which distinguish our lives from those of our animal ancestors serve two purposes – namely to protect men against nature and to adjust their mutual relations. Freud suggests that the primal needs of community and civilization are largely responsible for society’s misery and, “that human predisposition to aggression is a consequence of this primarily natural hostility of human beings and as such, civilized society is perpetually threatened with disintegration”. Freud goes on to say that “As men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with little help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man”.

Assuming Freud was over zealous with his comments and that humankind chooses another path, then, what is wilderness really? Is it in our mind or all around us? Are we better off in urban clusters with confronting signs of a society in decline or is there a call for something different, a call for change. As more animals become displaced, homelessness and placelessness has become epidemic in large urban centres for animals and humans alike. While animals search for abandoned buildings and cars as well as parks and alleys for safety and rest, where do our homeless go when shelters are full or are unavailable. Both human and animal interventions are on the rise as police and conservation authorities respond to more calls from displaced humans and animals every year. Our newly urban and unwanted wild, animals and human, seem to have a kinship as they are both victims of a social, economic system that marginalises and controls.

The field of ecopsychology extends beyond the conventional purview of psychology, which had traditionally considered the psyche to be a matter of relevance to humans alone. Ecopsychology examines why people continue environmentally damaging behaviour, and to develop methods of positive motivation for adopting sustainable practices. Evidence suggests that many environmentally damaging behaviours are addictive at some level. Considering Freud for a moment, if civilisation and the loss of wilderness or our own wilding imposes such great sacrifice on humankind and our “aggressivity,” how can we ever be truly joyful if we have just traded our happiness for urban security.

While discussions of denial and hopelessness prevail, at the 9th World Wilderness Congress in Mérida, Mexico, “WILD” in collaboration with other international organizations, governments and individuals, officially debuted Nature Needs Half, a social movement to protect and connect at least half of all nature on Earth, land and water, in order to support the existence of nature and the services it provides. To offer more hope, many Canadian provinces are exceeding WILD’s goals and Norway recently banned deforestation.

Kay Milton shines a light in Loving Nature, towards an Ecology of Emotion: If human beings are truly a threat to life on earth, we shall have a better chance of reducing that threat if we understand as fully as possible the kinds of beings we are.

As we come out of this rabbit hole, climate change, ecological and economic crisis, as well as social unrest, are all signs that our wilderness and our planet is in great distress. There is no shortage of material or opinions regarding wilderness, the many things that it can be, or its interconnectedness with our own spiritual and religious beliefs, domestic and foreign policy, or centuries of socioeconomic inequalities around the world.

If it is nature and our personal definition of wilderness that allows us to realise that we are not the centre of the universe and that it helps us reconnect with the voices of our ancestors, can we get free from this trap of a modern world that is reliant on more technology to solve our problems? Is Freud right that it’s our loss of connection with the past and ourselves which has given rise to the “discontents” of civilisation? Can we learn to travel in this world and give equal consideration to human, animal and other – before more species slide into extinction, more forests and wetlands are obliterated, and more lives are destroyed from hunger, war and isolation.

It would seem that consumption aspirations are going to have to change with a radical commitment to equality. As Pope Francis suggests, this will have to be a global initiative, which means the more highly developed countries will suffer the most in order for us to reach any kind of global equality. It saddens me when I see Great Britan and other countries building stronger borders to keep the world out.

Finally, If loss and grief are gates to something better, perhaps we have seen enough – to stop and find the wildness and soulfulness in ourselves as we work our way from the abyss to save each other, animal and human, as well as our planet.


Podcast of Wildlife Essay

The Magic Is In Our Hearts

_WDP1781Families around the world used to gather and listen to what Orson Wells referred to as the “magic inside that little box”. Those gas filled tubes glowed brightly with the news of the day, live music, special events, theater and voices large and small that brought our world a little bit closer. The format was as varied as the talent and we called it “full service” radio. Most days there seems little magic left on the radio with more sensationalism, shrinking playlists, less creativity, less choice and very few stories worth sharing.

I believe the internet saved radio, or at the very least, leveled the playing field so that almost anyone with something interesting to share could reach people with similar interests. With the exception of some very small town radio stations who remain hyper “local”, most commercial radio stations haven’t caught on to what’s happening at CBC, NPR, BBC, campus or community radio stations or hundreds of online storytelling sites that can be really interesting to listen to.

Just over a year ago our small company which is made up of four families from British Columbia and a staff of about 30 was awarded a license to build a new radio station in Vancouver by the CRTC. After what seemed like years of dreaming, endless hours of brainstorming, research, planning and finally writing a heartfelt application for a commercial radio station with a community focus that we call Roundhouse Radio, we set out to build it.

SarahAs our small team celebrates our accomplishments of getting this far in a new digital age – its a great time to reflect on the past year and what lies ahead in the new one. There was finding a building from 42 others, building permits, designs and construction. The painting, staining, furnishing and Yvonne guiding our hiring, look & feel.

Tracey, Monique and Barb in temporary offices at Red Robinson’s planning our web and and social media strategies and hours with Tracey and I meeting at Nelson the Seagull looking for potential team mates one at a time from over 300 resumes. Six applications to the City of Vancouver to find a better transmitter site and a nine month delay, hundreds of community meetings and weeks of rehearsals, 100’s of little things and then finally signing on the air October 13th 2015 with Sarah McLachlan. What a year!

Our owners group and advisory boards have been amazing through this crazy “startup process” and a real source of support and inspiration. In my 52 years in this crazy business, I have never seen anything like what is happening at our roundhouse. It’s magic on air, online and on the street, with a stellar lineup of heartfelt and talented hosts and support staff, a steady stream of guests focused on social change and regular people who simply want to make Vancouver a better place to live. It’s a joy to be a small part of such a unique project that is truly making a difference. That’s real magic!

The pace has been quick and I almost became a casualty to our momentum in a car accident driving to Kelowna this December. As my Jeep lost control on the black ice and tumbled into oncoming traffic the first four cars had a nurse and helpful partners who likely saved my life. What’s the chance?

Anne Newlands suggests that there are no accidents in life so…This could be an existential crisis, or more likely, one of those wake up calls that gave the holidays a very special meaning as everything changed for me in a heartbeat.

accident 3

Every moment has become more precious as it clearly wasn’t my time. I am revaluing everything in life and what I am doing with it, understanding and feeling our impermanence and finding more meaning in every moment.

It seems like a good time to wake the Buddha within!

To suggest this has been a bench mark year for me is an understatement as I could write volumes. It’s been as big a a year for my family and friends – old as well as new, at Roundhouse and with a great cohort at SFU. We all became a little bit closer. I am full of gratitude for everyone’s love and support and that I am able to write this and dream about how to make tomorrow even better! It seems somehow ironic in all of this that I will be leading the discussion next semester on Genesis?

I hope you have an opportunity to reflect on the wonderful things you accomplished this past year and consider the new one with optimism, wonder and joy.

Heartfelt thanks!


Canadian Music Week

10404517_813725658679908_4787489178306961401_nI received a phone call from an old friend a few months ago advising me that I had been chosen for a life time achievement award at Canadian Music Week.

While awkward and humbling, I am naturally full of gratitude for all who made this possible. I did my best to thank everyone that took the time to help me along the way in a few interviews and at CMW this past week.

Acknowledgments (from my CMW Speech)

I am honored to be this year’s recipient of the Allan Waters Lifetime Achievement Award. Allan was a great broadcaster and humanitarian and I am grateful to the CHUM organization, the Waters family and everyone at Canadian Music Week to allow me to share this stage with so many good friends, mentors and colleagues.

With me today are my wife and partner Yvonne Evans, my daughter Paisley & her husband James, my son Evan – my son Heath with his son Oliver – my daughter Ally – my sister Khris and Tracey Friesen who is our Director of Programming at Roundhouse Radio. Unfortunately my daughter Shalon and my step daughter Monique, were unable to attend today along with my daughter in law Sarah, granddaughter Esther and my nephew Ben and his family.

I’d like to think Shalon is here in spirit.

Having just celebrated 50 years in broadcasting I am indebted to a handful of owners & managers who had the faith and vision to turn their radio & television stations over to me. I am as grateful for the talented teams I was allowed to work with and for their patience and understanding as I learned my craft.

There are many people to thank as it’s been many years since listening to the magic of that little box late at night growing up in Pittsburgh. I mentioned some by name in a recent FYI interview but there just isn’t time to thank everyone in every chair at every station, all the passionate music people, promoters, artists, advertisers and good friends that I have met across the country.

There were some lost years learning more about my craft and myself. Leaving the states and traveling across Canada has taken it toll and I will forever be humbled by the love, understanding and most importantly – forgiveness of my family and close friends for those darker times.

I would be remiss not to acknowledge those who have seen me through some of those darker times; Yvonne, Gary Slaight, Bill Varecha, Nancy Brown-Dacko, Rob Parkin, Eric Rothschild, David Marsden, Jim McLaughlin, Nancy Brown Dacko, Gail & Cliff Goldman, Neil Dixon, John Parikhal, Shelley Zavitz, Frank Gigliotti,John Honderich, Roy Hennessey, Ray Daniels, Sam Feldman, Bruce Allen, Red Robinson, Terry David Mulligan, Jim Waters, Rick Pushor and my coach Dr. Anne Newlands.

Heartfelt thanks to my family, each of you, a great independent ownership group and the CRTC. I have never been more excited to be building a new radio station with a new team that are inspired to make a difference in Vancouver.

In closing I would like to leave you with a few thoughts.

Sally Armstrong says that there is no such thing as an innocent bystander. You can be part of the problem or a part of solution!

Taking my own advice, I hope that CMW will consider having more women on their panels next year!

Also, I’ve become a big fan of David Whyte. He is an Irish poet that lives on a little island in the Pacific Northwest

In his poem “Sweet Darkness” he writes,

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

That anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.

I have had the privilege of working at a time when there were no rules, formats were in their infancy and creativity was encouraged by some of the most amazing owners and teams – that were never too small for me, and with very few exceptions – they all brought me alive.

I have always loved radio and I remain passionate about what it can do. Gifted story tellers, artists and creative people from all disciplines will always find a way to be heard. As will driven journalist who are committed to witnessing the world we live in.

Radio can do much good work in local communities and I believe that the companies that encourage innovation and allow creative teams to do what they do best will be the most successful on air, online and on the street!

So please remember
anything or anyone (any person or any company)

that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

Thank you very much

mo·jo /ˈmōˌjō/ Noun 1.A magic charm, talisman, or spell. 2.Magic power.

medicine bagThis marks my 50th year in broadcasting where I began running for burgers and teletype copy while in high school. I have since occupied almost every chair in radio and television stations in two countries as well as a few at the Toronto Star Newspaper.

Funny, as I am still running, maybe not as quickly and looking forward to renewal and “reinvention”. While God only knows what that looks like, I do love media whether it’s on air, on line or on the street and particularly people like you that bring so much passion and intelligence to it. I remain committed to find a place that will allow me to continue contributing to its growth and making a difference in the communities we serve.

With this said, I will be leaving Bell Media at the end of this month.
I wanted to write a short note to thank everyone who has been instrumental in my career since leaving Pittsburgh and moving to Canada from Los Angeles in the late 60’s. Admittedly it’s a growing list!

I realized that as I moved from station to station over the years that each of you played an important part in my development and growth in an industry that I remain very passionate about. It has been and continues to be a great honour to learn from each of you and to share your lessons and mentoring with others.

I am off to Italy in a few weeks to attend my daughter’s wedding, maybe a little fly fishing and camping to contemplate life and “reinvention” – and then I’d like to publish my monograph, “Media & Not For Profit Organizations” , take a few guitar lessons and launch or the Hamilton Media (waiting for approvals) to help advance the good work of the not for profit community across the country. I know a little bit about fund raising, media and teamwork so if you know of any organizations looking for their “mojo” please send them my way.

I appreciate all the recent help from my friends in radio & television stations across the country with PFLAG Canada and the LGBTQ Community as well as the many other organizations that I have the privilege to work with.

All the best and my heartfelt thanks…

Advocate or Activist

good2greatI seem to find myself involved in more discussions lately regarding advocacy and activism. Admittedly both are terms that are often used interchangeably, and while they often overlap, they also have different meanings. It’s important to remember the distinctions especially if you or your organization plan to participate in either activity.

An activist is a person who makes an intentional action to bring about social or political change.
An advocate is one who speaks on behalf of another person or group.

Activism can be described as intentional action to bring about social and political change, economic justice, or environmental well being. This action is in support of, or opposition to, one side of a controversial argument.

An advocate can also be involved in controversial activities or issues, but because they are speaking on behalf of a group, they tend to be more likely to follow the paths of lobbying and legislation. They are also often part of a bigger group, such as celebrity speaking on behalf of the UN, Green Peace or other global organizations.

I recently wrote about the need for more activism in media to be more aggressive and vocal about crimes against humanity and discrimination of all types. Media readily promote or give time to the top diseases in the world but not as much time about sex trafficking, rape, domestic abuse, female circumcision in third world countries, civil rights for the LGBT community, poverty, homelessness, a more sustainable planet and a growing list of issues, attractive and not so attractive with the exception perhaps being the headline of the day.

Knowing that ratings drive programming perhaps that says as much about us and our desire to escape what’s really going on in the world and what we choose to watch or listen to?

The more publicity given the atrocities occurring globally and in our communities the more anger I feel and the more compelled I am to take action professionally and personally.

The more people I speak with the more I find others wanting to get engaged in some form of “legacy work” and to give back. Thus, a lot of introspection and more questions regarding what our individual roles should be and the degree of advocacy required to make a meaningful difference. I am not for a moment diminishing the importance of curing the diseases looking for a cure or any particular activity as all causes that make this a better world are worthy of support!

I know that I can become emotional charged quickly, and my partner has been careful to point out that activism that comes from anger or aggression simply attracts more of the same. I will admittedly have to work on this – however it does speak to how we move from anger and emotionally charged events to a higher place that can actually facilitate change. So, I have been introduced to Andrew Harvey recently and the principals of “Sacred Activism”.

I like the balance this provides me and thought it worth sharing as I work at being kinder and gentler, and as we move forward with a list of activities that are “heartfelt” and that we want to engage in. Consider this…

“A spirituality that is only private and self-absorbed, one devoid of an authentic political and social consciousness, does little to halt the suicidal juggernaut of history. On the other hand, an activism that is not purified by profound spiritual and psychological self-awareness and rooted in divine truth, wisdom, and compassion will only perpetuate the problem it is trying to solve, however righteous its intentions. When, however, the deepest and most grounded spiritual vision is married to a practical and pragmatic drive to transform all existing political, economic, and social institutions, a holy force – the power of wisdom and love in action – is born. This force I define as Sacred Activism.” ~ Andrew Harvey

There is a common theme among NGO’s and Not for Profits as they are often organized by individuals propelled by a wound around a particular issue and who understand the principals of “sacred activism”. It gives them a sense of purpose and meaning to create a structure to hopefully instigate change.

This said, there are often many gaps in their business acumen and knowledge of leadership and infrastructure that many of them do not succeed. I don’t believe that this means that they should operate more like business as there are many poorly run businesses however it does suggest that all organizations require a common purpose, heartfelt connection to their work and most importantly greater disciplines in all aspects of their enterprise. Jim Collins points out in his Monograph that accompanies “Good to Great” in the social sectors that ‘a culture of discipline is not a principal of business: it is a principle of greatness.”

Hopefully you are involved or perhaps considering getting involved with something that stirs you to action and a desire to “give”. Activism of all types truly makes a difference and we all have a piece of the solution to make this a better world!

Start-ups & Turnarounds

deerheadsI’ve had a number of questions recently from some newer not for profit organizations as well as a few mature ones who are at a crossroads. While both are looking at different ends of the elephant the questions are similar when doing a start-up or reinventing an organization.

I usually start by asking “What do you stand for”? Then I ask if you have a lawyer and accountant on your board but that’s another story for another time.

When I ask that question of audiences and organizations I usually get that deer in the headlight “look.” Another question to consider and equally important is, “what do you want to be known for”?

Some organizations have done the serious work required to answer these fundamental questions to ensure that their companies or organizations are built on strong purposeful and caring foundations. Others spend a lot of time coming up with clever mission statements that fall short of the vision. More often than not organizations requiring retooling started out missing some of the key fundamentals.

There a hundreds of books that deal with start-ups and turnarounds however most have an old world view of organizations where only a few speak to a new business or organizational paradigm so be careful what you wish for. Too often mission or vision statements are just “happy talk” and in conflict with the day to day actions and culture of an organization.

Fortune 500 companies do something different than all others. The best not for profits get the best marks from Charity Navigator and as importantly the IRS & CRA for their ability to run their organizations efficiently and effectively. It’s not just about the bottom line or raising more money. I am more convinced than ever that communication, good and bad, brings out the best or worst in any organization and it’s pretty easy to see who walks their talk.

Alignment is difficult and requires hard work from everyone. When an organization is built with integrity and where careful consideration has been given to every aspect and detail of the organization for the well being of their constituents and staff alike – they are congruent and magic happens.

A back to basics approach might start with a quick check list to see how you are doing. So take as much time as required to figure out “What you really stand for” and “what you want to be known for”? Does everyone in the organization believe it? Does everyone understand what to do and what they are responsible for? Is there mutual respect and trust? How do you measure your desired outcomes? Is there alignment throughout the organization and so on…

While business plans can be valuable they can also be shallow make work projects that exhaust human resources when they are not embraced and championed. Engagement and passion not realized can easily turn into disillusionment and turnover leaving an organization in constant chaos. That is not to say that a road map or plan is not important. For any organizations there are a number of places to go that will help get you get started and hopefully avoid some potholes along the way.

The Mutart Foundation along with the Alberta Government, Culture and Spirit created a number of workbooks to help design the best not for profit boards and job descriptions for its members. There are many other templates and suggestions available however this is a good one and may prove helpful during a start-up or reorganization. After all if your board isn’t sure what the organization is all about or what is expected of them how can you expect it to be successful?

If your board of directors, staff and volunteers look like they could be in the picture above, you clearly have some work to do. If you are certain that everyone knows what you stand for, their place in the organization and what is expected of them and as importantly – is passionately engaged in this work – you really can change the world!

The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves!

The Toronto Star

My daughter has a sticker on her 4×4 that speaks to this old nautical slogan. I’ve always liked it as it also speaks to leadership and management styles and the differences between various companies and the way they think as well as how they operate.

Every once in a while I dust off a favorite book or training manual to see what I may have forgotten that could help me and perhaps help inspire our team in our current economic and competitive environment.

Jack Trout, Jack Welsh and others come to mind as they have studied the habits of great companies however last weekend was one of those occasions where I stumbled onto a leadership program that I attended with the Torstar Media Group in 2001 . I was struck by some of the similarities in the world economy and how this particular company chose to deal with a recession and an ever changing media landscape.

Not only did Torstar reinvent their newspaper business but they also jumped into the internet with over 30 “start-ups” including a new television station with a view to create a third “leg” and find new opportunities for their predominately print organization.

They also invested significantly in training for the their managment team throughout the organization as part of a two year commitment to an intensive training program. This began with the vision of their VP of Human Resources, Karen Hanna who organized a cadre of amazing trainers from around the world.

It began with an Australian, Yvonne Evans who had a new integrated performance model called “Position 3” to help develop personal greatness along with teams from the Centre for Creative Leadership in the US, the Rotman School of Business and others. The materials and circulim were traditional as well as unique and customized to the challenges facing each of us personaly as well as the company.

David Galloway and John Honderich’s leadership led the way with a clear commitment to an unknown future. In a corporate address they recognized that with an increasingly competitive global economy and more demanding customers, that more was expected from their senior managers and they made it a priority to enhance their strategic and leadership abilities throughout the company.

In their words, “The success of our Company in the next five to ten years will depend on the leaders who are developed today”.

Unlike many companies that retreat, pull back or “turtle” in tough times, Torstar invested in creativity and personal development with the belief that they would strengthen their ability to compete in the years ahead. I suppose that could be why Torstar is still one of the top picks along with Canadian Satellite Radio by TD Securities in 2012.

Like Torstar, Astral, The Kauffmann Foundation and many other “great” organizations that support and encourage creativity and entrepreneurism, there is hope that businesses, individuals and our world will evolve, grow and prosper. I remain optimistic in the human spirit!


I awoke this morning with a crushing pain in my chest. Gasping for breath as another anxiety attack pulled me back to the realization that the alcohol and sleeping pill must have worn off.

The memory of the phone call hours earlier telling me that my daughter had a few days, maybe weeks to live, pulled my heart and head back to the horrible reality our family and close friends were living. We all rushed to Fayetteville from all points of the globe where her big sister Paisley was inspired to write this …

Shalon Leigh Shafer Hays, a bright light whose straight-talk, humour, beauty and love touched people around the world, died Sunday after a long battle with breast cancer. She was 33.

Despite her prognosis, Shalon lived life to the fullest and found true love in June 2009 with her husband-to-be, John Middleton Hays, an Army Special Forces medic. The pair, who met at a rockabilly barbeque in North Carolina, married in July 2010. John stayed by her side until the very end.

A jack-of-all -trades and a scholar in the school of life, Shalon grew up in Ladner, British Columbia, where she had an early career as a hair dresser. Years after, she moved to Seattle where she bartended at some of the city’s most popular watering holes, but she yearned for a more creative trade.

Talented, tenacious and artistic, Shalon obtained her welding certificate training that allowed her to forge beautiful works of art that included furniture and sculptures. But then, in a Eureka moment during a visit to Paris, she decided on another calling that had long been a part of her life tattooing. Those vibrant pieces of art that now adorn the bodies of the lucky few are part of her artistic legacy.

Shalon’s many talents and ability to do anything was best summed up in a word she coined “ingenuitive,” a state of being combining ingenuity and intuition.

Wherever she went Barcelona, Ladner, Vancouver, Sturgis, Bellingham, Seattle, London, San Juan, Paris, Kelowna, Southport, Fayetteville, Kyoto or Montego Bay Shalon held court. People were captivated by her vibrant spirit.

Her many loves included dogs Augie, Cleo and Hank, motorcycle riding, guns, rockabilly music, vintage fashion, clothes, sunshine, traveling, creating, Dia de Los Muertos artwork, pirates and her family. After her step-mother was diagnosed with leukemia, she dropped everything to spend years helping with her family and setting an example for her younger sister’s one of her many selfless and generous acts that spoke to her integrity and character.

She will forever be remembered for her wit, bravery, generosity, laughter, her ability to rock the boat and a wicked ability to be both naughty and nice in tandem.

Survivors include her husband John Middleton Hays, mother and step-father Renee and Kevin McCluskey, father Don Shafer, brother and sister-in-law Heath and Sarah Shafer, nephew Oliver Shafer, sisters Paisley Shafer-Dodds, Allyn and Evan Shafer, mother-in-law Patricia Quinn, father-in-law Sam Hays, mother-in-law Ronalda Hays, sister-in-law Meg Hays, her dog Hank, family friend Dawnie-Jack Scheck, friends Kirstin Briefs, Elizabeth Raab, Liz Doolittle and a legion of others who were touched by her.

She will be missed by all.

As we celebrated her life on the beach in Southport North Carolina, the pastor read a requested passage for her mum from Gibran …

“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”

As the sun came out and the dolphins swam by John spoke …

“A very long time ago a man, infinitely wiser than myself, defined love.

He said that without love, “I am nothing.

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful. Love is not arrogant or rude. Love doesn’t insist on its own way. Love is not irritable or resentful. Love does not rejoice in wrong doing but rejoices in truth. Love bears all things. Love believes all things. Love hopes all things. Love endures all things. Love never ends.”

What I take from this is that love is more than mere feeling or emotion. Love is behaviour and action.

In the short time that I shared with Shalon, I was privileged to receive such a true love. As was I blessed with the opportunity to give it.

In a letter that I wrote her from across the sea, I told her that she was why the sun rose and set, why the moon pulled the tide back and forth. Why flowers bloomed in spring and why autumn painted the trees.

She inspired and challenged me. She lent me comfort and peace. And it is a vast understatement to say that I am sad that she is gone.

I consider myself abundantly fortunate to have been her husband, her friend and partner. Her ability to love still amazes me and I will forever be a better man because of my love for her.

I will miss her smile and laughter. But I am incredibly grateful that I was the cause of a fraction of it.

I love you Shalon, now and always. ”

You can learn more about Shalon on FB @ Shalon Hays