Friday, December 28, 2007

"Go" - contemplating the oriental mind through a board game

I'm not usually impressed by the effect of TV on children. But here's an example of something really exceptional. Consider Japanese comic books, they are called "manga" and sometimes they are made into Japanese TV animation, called "anime".

The manga and anime titled "Hikaru no Go" became so popular amongst Japanese youth that it singlehandedly reversed the decline of the oriental board game called "Go" in Japan.

The Japanese, who dominated the game for more than a thousand years, had been eclipsed by the South Koreans by the end of the Twentieth Century. By the 1990's go had become an old man's game in Japan. But the story "Hikaru no Go" which came out in manga and anime in 1998 changed all that. Suddenly tens of thousands of Japanese children wanted to learn how to play this old person's game. And once the anime series was shown in other countries it popularized go around the world.

" Hikaru no Go" is about two boys. One is the son of a professional go player. The other is a boy who is possessed by the spirit of a medieval go player. You laugh, but this TV series changed the course of Japanese culture.

It must have touched a nerve in Japan, a country that valued its past but was quickly discarding it at the same time. There is something about the game of go that deeply reflects the oriental mind.

Go is said to have originated in China, where it is called "Wei Chi", about four thousand years ago. A bit more than one thousand years ago it was introduced to Japan where it caught on very quickly.

The western game of chess is the other great game of skill. Even though chess originated in Aisia, it's character now reflects the western outlook. A game of chess represents a single battle, an all or nothing struggle to capture your opponent's King.

There are many battles in a single game of go, some of them going on simultaneously. The object of go is for each player to capture as much territory as he can.

In chess there are many different pieces, each with different functions and properties, with all of the pieces already set on the board at the beginning of the game.

Go is maddeningly simple. It starts with an empty board. Very "Zen". Go pieces are called stones and they are all identical except one player uses black stones and the other uses white stones. Once a stone is placed on the board it stays there and doesn't move unless it's captured.

What makes a go game so intricate and even more complex than chess is the go board. In go the stones are put down on the intersections whereas chess pieces occupy the squares. The chess board has 64 squares but the go board consists of a grid of nineteen by nineteen lines that forms a total of 369 intersections. That makes for many more possible moves than in chess.

A computer has defeated a chess grandmaster but no computer has come close to matching the skills of a professional go player.

The best go players play with an economy of effort. Each move they make does many things at once: extending territory, defending one's stones from capture, capturing the opponent's stones, etc. Certain well placed moves will have more effect in the latter part of the game than when they are first played.

I first learned to play go in my grade eight science club. I've played off and on, but basically neglected it. But all that changed after I watched a dozen or so episodes of "Hikaru no Go".

You can play go on the internet, but it's more fun to play an opponent face to face, snapping the pieces onto the board, rather than having the computer do the work for you.

There is a go club in town. One of the great things about go, which is not true of chess, is that players of unequal strengths can play as near equals by giving the weaker player extra handicap stones. Games are played at the Prince Rupert Public Library almost every week. If you already play go, or would like to learn please come by. For more information you can call me at 622-2716 or email

Monday, December 17, 2007

Wolves? Oh Deer!

The problem in Prince Rupert is that is that we've let the deer take over here. They're feeding off our gardens but because we don't hunt them there is a predator vacuum and that's what's drawn in the wolves.

We don't have a wolf problem on Kaien Island, we have a deer problem. There has to be a balance in nature between predator and prey, otherwise things get out of kilter. Without predators the population of deer rises until it becomes unsustainable, stripping the forest of undergrowth and leading to a population crash from starvation and disease.

I'm not a hunter, but I've been thinking about this problem for years. I'm a gardener of sorts and I've had deer eat my young raspberries and blackberry plants, strip the leaves off my four year old pear tree, and strip the bark off one of my apple trees.

For years I've had revenge fantasies. For instance: What if we sent all the women and children off the Island and all the menfolk make a sweep from one end of town to the other to flush all those varmints out and shoot them? I like the idea but I hazard a guess that it would not be a very popular idea. Besides, there's municipal rules about discharging firearms in Prince Rupert.

Still, the thought of so many gardens being eaten up by the deer and so many deep freezers begging for venison gets to me. Besides, if we don't allow any hunting on Kaien Island, the wolves get the wrong idea. These wolves need to know who's the top predator around here, otherwise they get too cocky and start hanging around where they don't belong.

I've heard of one person, there may be more, who catches his deer in his yard at night, using a flashlight and a hammer. This is illegal by the way - it's not real hunting. But in my opinion, more power to this guy.

In BC hunting any closer than 100 metres from an occupied residence or building is illegal, but that still leaves the greater part of this Island. The municipal bylaw makes it illegal to discharge a weapon but as Jeff Beckwith pointed out in a recent letter to the editor, that could be amended to exclude the discharging of a bow.

Why not allow bow-hunting in areas outside of town? Bow hunting is safer for bystanders than firearms because it is only effective within 30 metres of a deer. A hunter with a shotgun can kill a deer from a kilometre away so the potential for a hunter to not recognize human bystanders is greater. Plus bow-hunting is more difficult than hunting with a shotgun because you have to get a lot closer to the deer, so the deer have a better chance too.

We've got a local source of meat. Why can't we make use of it in a safe way instead of letting the wolves take over.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Climbing out of the Trash Vortex

A lot of my own motivation for recycling comes from guilt. (Catholics do not have a monopoly on guilt, that's for sure.) It really bothers me that my household produces so much garbage. Anything that I can recycle I hold back in various overflowing bins and containers. And sometimes these piles of recyclables hang around for a long time before I get around to bringing them out to the recycling depot.

I notice that there is a new local recycling service in town called "eco-management". They will pick up two clear plastic garbage bags full of recyclables per resident every other Saturday for 16 bucks a month. So, for all you other guilt ridden people out there who, like me, are procrastinators, I recommend this service. People out there who don't recycle because it is inconvenient, now's you're chance.

My wife pointed out to me that where she was living, in Sitka, Alaska, the city charged resident's less if they put out less garbage. Now there's an idea - the city could provide incentives like this for people to recycle. Because if more people in Prince Rupert recycle, the landfill will take longer to fill up and the city would save money.

But there are more important reasons to recycle. The amount of garbage we produce is directly proportional to our patterns of consumption. For years our rate of consumption has been increasing without limit. The vast majority of raw materials that go into manufactured goods are discarded. Much of what we consume is thrown away within a short time. Then there is all the plastic packaging.

In the North Pacific Ocean there is a great clockwise gyre formed by four ocean currents. This gyre forms an area of ten million square miles. In the middle of this circulating ocean is a huge floating cloud of garbage called the Pacific Trash Vortex. The center of the gyre is an attractor of garbage because it is relatively stationary but the prevailing winds all blow into it. Most of the garbage is plastic because plastic does not biodegrade and it is light enough to float. Instead, plastic photodegrades. Ultraviolet light from the sun slowly breaks the plastic down into smaller and smaller pieces. These pieces of plastic get mistaken for food and end up in the stomachs of sea birds and other marine creatures. Nice. If we don't get them with crude oil spills there's always the products that we manufacture out of the oil to finish them off.

Here on land, a lot of discarded electronic products or "e-garbage" contain toxic heavy metals like lead and cadmium. Each TV contains several pounds worth of lead and lesser amounts of other toxic metals In two years the United States Federal Communications Commission will have mandated a massive shift from analogue TV's to high definition digital TV. This means that up to 300 million analogue TV sets are going to end up in garbage dumps, all at the same time. What a toxic metal nightmare that will be. And for what? So that everyone can see more detail on their television screens. Apparently, this is the result of lobbying from the electronic manufacturers. Can you say, "planned obsolesence"? It's the same with all the cell phones and computers that are obsolete within a couple of years after purchase.

In Prince Rupert CityWest's cable service is going digital in January. What does that mean in terms of the number of TV's that will end up in our landfill? Here's an area where the city could be proactive and organize some sort of e-recycling so that the landfill doesn't get swamped with old TV's. Our garbage is threatening our health and the health of future generations.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Market Prices Should Tell the Truth

Market prices should tell the ecological truth. When prices “lie” about nature they lead us to devalue and destroy the environment, which ultimately supports our existence. Market prices “lie” when they don't take into account the costs of pollution and resource extraction. More than a trillion dollars is spent globally every year on activities that harm the environment. The amount spent on protecting the environment is a ridiculously small fraction of this.

Every time a country sells or leases the right to clear-cut forests at bargain prices it is encouraging environmental destruction. Every time a country subsidizes the extraction and production of fossil fuels with tax write-offs it is encouraging runaway global warming. As it stands, tax policy and economic subsidies are overwhelmingly tilted toward the liquidation of resources and increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Last January President Bush said: "We'll leave it to the market to decide the mix of fuels...” Bush likes to tout the free market and future technological breakthroughs as the solution to environmental problems. But both of these “solutions” don't exist in reality. The free market has never existed because every known economic system is guided by government tax and spending policy. Every legal system of property rights favours certain uses of capital over others.

And future technological breakthroughs don't exist here and now where it really counts. There are existing technologies that could significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions and lower the liquidation of resources compared to what we are doing now: railroads, bicycles, clean alternative energies like solar, geothermal and wind power; better insulation, increasing energy efficiency... the list is a long one. Sure, there could be new technologies out there, but there is no guarantee that any new technology will pollute less or have less environmental consequences than what we already have.

Waiting for the “Free Market” or technological breakthroughs to solve our problems is a mug's game. It's really about delaying significant change. It's really about pleasing the fossil fuel corporations . It's really about keeping the status quo, because a certain class of people benefit from things the way they are.

Last week the Australian electorate kicked Prime Minister John Howard out of government. Like Bush he was a global warming denier, and a delayer of action on climate change. But the negative effects of global warming: extreme droughts and more destructive tropical storms, had become too difficult to ignore for most Australians so they gave him the heave ho. The new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, plans to be more proactive on climate change.

Clean air, water, and earth are common property because they benefit everyone. When corporations pollute or take the tops of mountains without having to pay compensation they have an incentive to keep destroying public property.

We could shift our tax system to make polluters pay the real cost of pollution and resource extractors pay the real cost of the resource. Taxes on pollution and carbon emissions could be increased while income taxes could be reduced. This would see the cost of so-called “cheap energy” like coal increase in relation to clean energy. This would make alternative energies more competitive and encourage more investment in that sector of the economy, while discouraging dirty energies like coal and tar sands. And the decrease in income tax could free up human ingenuity to solve our greatest problems.

Future generations have no say in the way we are running our economies and liquidating natural resources, because those who are young or not yet born have no money and no votes. But they will be the ones most affected by the legacy that we leave behind. If we “let the market decide”, without changing the taxes and incentives that we now have in place, then nothing that the market does will alter the course toward our own extinction.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Smart Growth for Prince Rupert

Nature provides Prince Rupert with its greatest assets: A sheltered deep water port and proximity to the Skeena River.

You can think of both Prince Rupert Habour and the Skeena River as a kind of infrastructure. The deep water and the network of Islands make this port viable. The Skeena supports multiple uses: salmon runs and the wildlife that feeds on the salmon; a transportation corridor which made it easier to build a railroad and a highway; and finally, an efficient drainage system for a vast inland area that only backs up and overflows about once every fifty years. Just imagine if we had to provide the drainage ourselves, what that would cost. Luckily, nature doesn't charge us for the use of it's infrastructure.

We are not as blessed as the Fraser Valley where the flood plains of the Fraser have yielded ideal land for farming. That rich farmland comes from the periodic flooding of the river. The Fraser River is a great infrastructure for farming but not so great for housing in that it costs taxpayers a lot of money to protect their homes and businesses when the river overflows.

In Prince Rupert we don't have any good farmland. Nor have we experienced the unchecked growth of population that happened around the city of Vancouver in the last fifty years. As Vancouver has grown the suburbs have grown and farmland has been taken over by highways, subdivisions, and shopping malls. We may soon regret destroying that farmland, as higher energy prices will eventually convert to higher food costs.

Suppose Prince Rupert were to grow substantially in the next fifty years. Where would we put all the houses? Our town lies on the lower slopes of a mountain so there is not a lot of room to grow. We ought to think about “smart growth” about how we could avoid some of the problems of places like Surrey, where urban sprawl has significantly lowered the quality of life for many residents.

In the past sixty years urban growth has favoured the automobile over people. As a result there has been more and more land paved over for roads and parking lots, more agricultural land lost, more traffic congestion and longer commuting times. Developer's have extended subdivisions farther away from city centers but have not paid the full cost for new roads and infrastructure.

The quality of life in suburbs like Surrey has suffered because these places are not built on a scale for people to get around by walking. Prince Rupert is an exception in that it has a compact size where it is possible to walk from home to work or to school. Part of the friendly atmosphere here has to do with the ease of meeting friends and acquaintances when one is walking around downtown.

If Prince Rupert was to grow in a smart way the city could save on infrastructure costs by increasing the density of neighbourhoods rather than expanding the city's area. Smart zoning bylaws could encourage townhouses, row houses and apartments rather than single family dwellings on big size lots. This would make housing more affordable for low income and families without children. Zoning could also encourage multiple use so that businesses and residents could be in the same area. This would make it easier for people to get places by walking, reducing congestion and making for a better quality of life.

Making walking a viable means of transportation helps make a town safer and healthier. The North American epidemic of obesity is largely due to our over-dependence on cars. We could also encourage the inclusion of parks and greenways as we grow in population. These also improve our quality of life, improving the view, providing bicycle paths and walking trails. As an added benefit, natural areas of woods and field absorb more water than streets and driveways causing less runoff and saving the city money that it would otherwise have to spend on added storm drainage construction.

Adopting smart growth principles in Prince Rupert's Official City Plan would save the city money in the long run and lead to a better quality of life.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Play's the Thing

My favorite summer sound is the sound of children playing outside. You can tell by the sound of their voices that they are having fun. I'm lucky that I live in a neighbourhood where kids go outside to play.

When children play they lose themselves in what they are doing. They are not playing for external goals as most of us are at work. Unlike work, play is self-motivated. That's why it's fun and work often isn't.

I've been reading two books which both argue that play is crucial for healthy psychological growth. In, The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, Ed Hallowell argues that the ability to play is a key indicator of adult happiness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, (pronounced: Mehigh Chicksentmehigh), In his book, Flow, argues that the ability to control the flow of experience originates from childhood play.

Nowadays we have many ways to enjoy ourselves so why focus on play? Almost everybody enjoys watching TV and many people like computer games and video games. It's certainly fun and you can lose yourself in these pursuits, just as children can in play. But, children who watch a lot of TV are missing out on the challenge and interactions that ocurr frequently in play. Video and computer games are more interactive than TV, and they can be challenging, but children are missing the use of their imagination when they spend too much time on the computer. They are also depriving themselves of the physicality of play: the experience of our own bodies in motion and the richness of face to face encounters - seeing another's facial expressions and body language; hearing the tone of their voice and the timing of their conversation, and much more.

When children go out and play they create a world with its own rules, straight out of their memories and imaginations. The rules may seem anarchical or nonsensical to adults but they ensure just the right amount of challenge - not so challenging that one is continually frustrated and not so easy as to be boring.

Have you ever seen children get a big expensive toy at Christmas time and end up having more fun playing with the box than with the toy itself. They make, castles, and forts, and towns out of these boxes. Dr Hallowell says: The skill of play, of being able to make creative use of time, no matter what you are doing, is the skill that lies behind all discoveries, all advances, and all creative activity.

Adults have lots of responsibilities, which means often having to do stuff that they don't want to do. We can let children play and have fun as much as possible before they need to take on the pressures of adult life. Sometimes kids are given too much structured time with sports and lessons and not enough unstructured time where they can make up their own activities and play. Sports and music are supposed to be about playing but often they are too goal directed and cease to be fun. According to Dr Hallowell, seventy percent of children stop playing sports by the time they turn fifteen.

The purpose of youth sports should be having fun. If you make victory or discipline the first goal you can kill the fun... The problem arises when people are so fixated on what they want to achieve that they cease to derive pleasure from the present.

Playing gives us access to the infinite resources of our imagination. What we most enjoy when we play gives us an idea of the kind of person we can become. According to Hallowell, play teaches skills of problem solving and cooperation. It teaches the ability to tolerate frustration and the "all important ability to fail"

But play does a lot more: according to Csikszentmihalyi, people who can enjoy themselves in a variety of situations have the ability to screen out stimulation and to focus only on what they decide is relevant for the moment, just as we are able to lose ourselves in play by focussing on the object of play and ignoring everything else. Studies of survivors of extreme conditions show that what all these survivors had in common was the ability to transform bad situations into subjectively controllable situations. They were able to take a very bleak objective condition and focus on the minute details, some of which led to the discovery of hidden opportunities.

According to Dr Hallowell, it is crucial for happiness that you feel in control over yourself and your environment. But what people enjoy during play is not so much the sense of being in control, but the sense of exercising control in difficult situations. According to Csikszentmihlayi, it's not enough to be happy to have an excellent life, the point is to be happy while doing things that stretch our skills, that help us grow and fufil our potential. When we do this we feel good about ourselves because we know that we have done something we couldn't do before. We get an inner feeling of accomplishment which raises our self-esteem. This experience is a powerful motivator. And that's why play is so important.

In play children naturally match skill to level of challenge. The experience of play is enjoyable because we are so easily able to focus our attention on the object of play and screen out anything extraneous. The problem with TV and computers is that they do this filtering out for us so we aren't actually excercising any control over our experience while we are engaged. When we stop watching the TV we don't have the memory of ourselves doing anything. Play and our memory of playing connect us to our imagination - the most important resource we have.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The tipping point for big oil

For the past thirty years the rules for the global economy have been steadily and consistently changed to favour big corporations. GATT, the WTO, NAFTA, and the SPP – are all agreements that lower the barriers and costs of trade, making it easier for corporations to move capital to countries which offer the highest returns.

At the same time, these agreements have also made it harder for governments to regulate corporate behaviour.

During those thirty years the richest one percent have gotten immensely richer while the income of the poor and middle classes has stagnated, and the middle class itself has shrunk as a result of jobs moving south to Mexico and east to China.

Meanwhile, rising global economic growth has caused demand for oil to outstrip supply and the price of oil has risen to almost one hundred dollars a barrel. Exxon, the world's largest corporation, is making the largest profits in history. Now the public is wanting a slice of that pie.

At the same time as fossil fuel companies are making record profits the spectre of global warming has called into question the very idea of free unregulated markets in energy. We may be reaching a tipping point where global warming becomes an unstoppable runaway train. But what I am talking about is a different kind of tipping point – one that tips public opinion towards disapproval of the way these corporations are doing business.

Yesterday I saw an interview on CTV about the fuss over Alberta raising its oil royalties. Craig Oliver was interviewing big shot American financial adviser Dennis Gartman, author of The Gartman Letter. Gartman was all over Alberta premier, Ed Stelmach for planning to raise oil royalties a billion and a half per year by 2010.

Gartman had high praise for Saskatchewan for voting out the “far-left” NDP and electing a “right of center” political party. He predicted that oil investors would move money out of Alberta and into Saskatchewan as a result. And last week, Preston Manning, founder of the Reform Party, and longtime friend of the Alberta Oil Industry, questioned Premier Stelmach's competence over the issue.

We should note that Alaska, which has a thriving oil industry and a Republican government, is seriously considering raising taxes on oil extraction. But oil companies have launched a campaign to stop the increase, with TV ads showing ordinary Alaskan working people telling the viewers how tax rises could jeopardize their petroleum industry.

From Dennis Gartman and Preston Manning, to the big oil companies the message is the same: Be afraid, be very afraid. If you try to syphon off more of big oil's profits, they will pack up and leave.

It is instructive at this point in the story to observe what happened to Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, an oil producing country with much of it's oil in tar sands. In 2001 Chavez hiked oil taxes to thirty percent. Needless to say BP and Exxon did not take kindly to this. But Chavez stuck to his guns and eventually the oil companies were forced to go along. There were a number of assassination attempts on Hugo Chavez's life, but this, of course, had nothing to do with any law abiding oil companies with investments in Venezuela

The reaction of the United States was most interesting. In 2002 there was a coup attempt on Chavez which was openly supported by the U.S. government. But Chavez was prepared for the coup and it failed. We can get an inkling of the real attitude of the American government toward the Chavez government from the TV commentary of Pat Robertson, fundamentalist media tycoon and long standing friend of the Bush family. In August 2005 Robertson had this to say:

"Hugo Chavez thinks we're trying to assassinate him. I think we really ought to go ahead and do it. It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war and I don't think any oil shipments would stop. This is a dangerous enemy to our South controlling a huge pool of oil that could hurt us very badly....It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with."

Luckily we in Canada lie North of most of the United States so we couldn't be that dangerous enemy that lies to the South. And besides, if we raise taxes on oil extraction the oil companies will just move somewhere else. Why should the oil companies pay for the huge sections of boreal forest they are destroying and all the fresh water that they are permanently sequestering from the rest of the earth when they are giving us jobs and supplying the United States with badly needed energy?

Premier Stelmach should be kissing big oil's butt for all the things they have done for Alberta's Economy. Instead he is raising oil taxes. That ungrateful SOB. Perhaps big oil can do Alberta a favour by ensuring that he loses the next provincial election. It's a lot cheaper than a war, isn't it?

Friday, November 9, 2007

Jeremiah and Global Warming

According to Martin Buber, A true prophet does not announce an immutable decree. He speaks into the power of decision lying in the moment and in such a way that his message of disaster just touches this power.

Martin Buber was born in Austria in the late nineteenth century. His most famous book is I and Thou. In that book Buber argues that human existence can be divided into two ways of relating. One is towards an object that is separate in itself, which he calls “I-it”. That is the way we think about things and use things. The other kind of relation is called “I – Thou”. which occurs in love and friendship. The “I – Thou” relation, is not a relation of subject to object, but rather a relation in which both members in a relationship share the unity of being. The ultimate Thou is God.

Martin Buber died in 1965. Here is a quote from his book The Prophetic Faith:

From the moment when a (large scale) disaster appears inevitable and especially after it becomes a reality, it can, like every great torment, become a productive force for the religious point of view. It begins to suggest new questions and to stress old ones.

Dogmatized conceptions are pondered afresh in the light of events, and the faith relationship that has to stand the test of an utterly changed situation is renewed in modified form.

But the new acting force is nothing less than the force of extreme despair, a despair so elemental that it can have but one of two results: the sapping of the last will of life, or the renewal of the soul.

I love the way these existentialists can be so dramatic with words: utterly changed situation....... extreme despair.... the sapping of the last will of life, or the renewal of the soul.

What's interesting about that quote is how relevant it is as a description of the response of religion to global warming. Of all the Biblical prophets, Jeremiah is the most relevant to our modern problem of global warming because it was Jeremiah who after his prophecy of destruction was fulfilled, realized he had been in error, and reversed his prophetic mission.

There are two kinds of prophets in the Bible. The early prophets were diviners who foretold the future and transmitted the divine will for special occasions or for important persons. Descriptions of these prophets is sketchy and not much of what they had to say has been written down. In contrast, the Writing prophets which includes the twelve so-called Minor Prophets and the three Major Prophets: Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, addressed themselves to the Hebrew nation as a whole and challenged the popular values and moral practices of the people and their rulers. The Hebrew word for prophet is “nabi” which means “one who is called”. They are called to speak the word of God even if it is opposed to what the rulers and their subjects want to hear.

The role of the prophets was critical during the four hundred or so years after the reign of Solomon because The Hebrews were twice threatened with extinction, and it is the prophets during these times that speak most relevantly to the dangers of extinction and to the choices that people must make in order to ensure survival.

The Prophets and the Hebrew kings together form about a third of the Hebrew Bible. The ancient Hebrew prophets were a variety of people: A son of working people like Micah. an aristocrat like first Isaiah, or a son of a priest, like Jeremiah. The prophets were said to speak God's word directly without intermediaries.

Three thousand years ago the kingdom of the Hebrew speaking peoples reached it's height with the two successive kings, David and Solomon. But things drifted downhill from there. Solomon's kingdom split into two after he died – A northern kingdom called Israel and a southern kingdom called Judah.

This is a period when not only are the Hebrew kingdoms declining but they are assailed on all sides by the greater powers – Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. Sometimes the little kingdom kept from being swallowed up by making alliances with one or the other big power but it didn't always work in their favor.

Take the northern kingdom. Remember the Iranian president Ahmadinejad's misquote about wiping Israel off the map. It's happened already, in 722 BCE, when Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and permanently exiled the majority of its inhabitants. They were dispersed to other nations that Assyria had conquered and were assimilated and their descendants eventually lost awareness of their original identity. These are the ten lost tribes – so important to the Mormons but forgotten by everyone else.

All that was left was the tiny kingdom of Judah and the Assyrians came very close to conquering it. But they retreated before they could capture the Judean capital of Jerusalem. Then the Assyrian empire weakened and over a century the Babylonians become the dominant power.

In 621 BCE a “forgotten” scroll was discovered in Solomon's Temple by the high Priest Hilkiah during extensive renovations. When the young king of Judah, Josiah heard the scroll he tore his clothes and repented of his grandfather Manasseh's syncretistic policies, setting out on a violent and dramatic religious reform. What was this scroll? Most Biblical scholars believe that it was some intermediate form of the book called Deuteronomy.

Some Scholars believe that Deuteronomy was composed in the 8th Century BCE to address the threats to Israel's political and religious survival. It was brought from the northern kingdom to the southern kingdom where it was then hidden from King Manasseh until the more sympathetic grandson, Josiah, came to the throne.

Deuteronomy means “second law” in Greek, because the Ten Commandments occur for the second time in the Bible in this book. The real influence of this book is its overriding message about choices that the  “ Chosen People”can make. It goes like this: If they have a strictly monogamous relation with the Hebrew god Yahweh,  he will bestow his great blessings. But if they go whoring after other Gods, then they will be cursed by terrible suffering and destruction.

The book is a series of speeches that Moses gives to the Hebrew tribes just before they reach the promised land. But Moses doesn't follow the Israelites into the “Promised Land” He dies before they cross the Jordan River.

We called on Yahweh, the God of our fathers. Yahweh heard our voice, and saw our misery, our toil, and our oppression, and Yahweh brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. (Deut 26: 5 – 10)

For this law (Torah) I enjoin on you today is not beyond your strength or beyond your reach.... I call on heaven and earth to witness against you today: I set before you life and death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live. (Deut 30:11 – 14, 19)

The Deuteronomic formula, that good times follow the people's faithfulness to Yahweh and bad times follow when they worship in the temples of other gods, quickly became a powerful influence on prophets and scribes. Scholars call the two historical books of “Kings” in the Old Testament “The Deuteronomic history”. It's the history of Hebrew kings scrupulously edited to fit the Deuteronomic formula. The people are always rewarded with good times when the king prohibits the worship of foreign gods and punished when the king permits syncretistic worship.

Deuteronomy was so influential and still is, because it gives an overarching meaning to history. It helped the Jews feel that Yahweh was a just God even when they were suffering. But its essentially a formula. No matter what bad things happen it can always be explained as caused by the people's infidelity. It cannot be refuted. It's patently false, but that didn't prevent it from being very successful. Proof of that is the fact that Judaism is more than three thousand years old and still going strong.

In contrast the scientific evidence of climate change and prediction of global warming can be refuted if the refuting evidence is strong enough. Science can always be improved and updated.

Modern day fundamentalists try to deny the reality of global warming. They see global warming as a rival to their Deuteronomic explanation of why bad things are happening. Preaching about Hurricane Katrina punishing the New Orleans sinners is vintage Deuteronomy. But contrary to the Deuteronomic theory which divides the”Chosen People” against everyone else, Science has the potential to unite people from all cultures because it does not demand absolute faithfulness to one particular religion.

The Deuteronomic formula does not speak to our times any more. Are the people who lost their Southern California homes being punished for angering God? I don't think so. Were the poor in New Orleans sent Hurricane Katrina as punishment for their licentiousness? I don't think so. Was the Nazi Holocaust God's punishment for Jewish sins? The very idea is monstrous. It would make God a worse tyrant than Hitler.

The other major innovation of Deuteronomy is that it insists on one central place for worship. That's why a big part of Josiah's reforms was to destroy rival shrines and execute foreign priests in the countryside of Judah and in Samaria, the former site of Israel. Places with important Biblical connections, like Shiloh and Bethel were downgraded and sacrifices to Yahweh were only permitted in Solomon's temple in Jerusalem.

Before the Assyrians came along the Hebrew tribes were more equal rivals with the other tribal groups - the Moabites, the Canaanites, the Philistines, etc. But when people make peace with their neighbours it becomes almost inevitable that syncretistic worship will develop. Syncretism, is that very pagan, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and yes, Unitarian approach of mixing different religious elements together.  But when the great powers of Assyria and Babylonia come to the fore the practice of syncretism was not so benign, for these huge empires and their triumphant gods threatened to swallow Judaism without a trace. That's why the prophets worked so hard to steer the people away from syncretism.

After twenty years of his reign Josiah was killed by the Egyptians in the battle of Megiddo. His death necessitated some reworking of the Deuteronomic theme. Josiah had kept faithful to Yahweh,  so why did Josiah die young and most of his reforms die with him? Only one of his reforms remained after he died and that was the centralization of worship and sacrifice in Solomon's Temple.

There are some scholars that think that the prophet Jeremiah had a hand in writing and rewriting Deuteronomy. There are similarities in style and focus between the writings of Jeremiah, and the content of Deuteronomy. And whoever wrote the Deuteronomic History had put a lot of hope in the promise of Josiah's reign. They must have been sorely disappointed by Josiah's untimely death.

Three months after Josiah died Jeremiah prophesied that Jerusalem would be destroyed unless the Judeans changed their ways. Jeremiah believed that the Babylonian Empire was doing the will of Yahweh and punishing the Judeans for their sins of syncretism. That's the Deuteronomic formula.

Jeremiah was an unhappy and a very unpopular man. He first resisted his calling. ...He refused again and again to pass sentence in Yaweh's name upon his beloved people, but the word remained in his heart like a burning fire,shut up in his bones and he was weary of the vain effort to contain it.(Buber, Ibid.) People called him a traitor. Perhaps he saw the inevitability of the Babylonian juggernaut, perhaps he felt obliged to castigate the people of Judah for neglecting the poor and allowing syncretism. But his claim that the Babylonians are Yahweh's retribution against the Judeans was rejected by most Judeans.

There was a popular sense amongst the Judean royalty after Josiah's death that they could evade Babylonian captivity by allying themselves with the Egyptians. But after the Assyrians and Egypt were defeated by the Babylonians at the battle of Carchemish, Egypt ceased to be a big player.

By adopting the Deuteronomic centralization of Worship the Judeans put all their eggs into one basket, increasing the vulnerability of their religion. Many Judeans had faith that the temple in Jerusalem would not be destroyed because it was so holy. But Jeremiah saw that this idea was threatening the survival of Judaism. If the temple was the only place to go to worship Yahweh then what if the Judeans were exiled?

Jeremiah is commanded by God to go to the Temple gate, and there proclaim:

Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, who enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another... I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors for ever and ever. (NRSV Jeremiah 7)

Jeremiah hears God's voice telling him to do unusual things that we might now call street theatre, as many of the other prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel did. He walks around Jerusalem with a wooden yoke around his neck to symbolize the yoke of Babylon that he claims everyone must take on for their sins. When the Babylonians captured Jerusalem they spared Jeremiah.

Five hundred years later, as recounted in the New Testament, Jesus is forced by the Roman Centurions to carry a huge wooden cross through the streets of Jerusalem to the place of his crucifixion. The cross is both symbol and reality of Rome's brutal repression of dissent. Ironically it becomes the symbol of triumph in Christianity.

Jeremiah is commanded by God to go down to the potters house and watch the potter work his wheel.

The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me. Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?....At one moment I may declare concerning a nation that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it. But if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on. NRSV: Jeremiah: 18)

According to Martin Buber, the future is not something already found in the present hour, it is dependent on the real decision that is to say, the decision in which man takes part in this hour. ... To be a prophet means to set the audience, ...before the choice and decision, directly or indirectly.

Jeremiah's pleading and castigating didn't seem to work very well for him. He was thrown in jail. Then into a dungeon. The false prophets who had the ear of Josiah's weak successors, predicted that the temple would survive the Babylonians, but it happened instead, as Jeremiah foretold. In 586 BCE Jerusalem was levelled after a terrible siege and Solomon's magnificent temple was reduced to rubble.

The Babylonians exiled ten thousand of the most well-off Judeans and sent them into slavery in Babylon. After the exile and the destruction of the temple, Jeremiah realized that the covenant between the Israelites and Yahweh was not made from temple worship or following the written Torah but from the living relationship between the chosen people and Yahweh. He then proclaimed his most famous prophecy. It's a prophecy of salvation for this time of deep suffering. In it, Jeremiah foresees the day when Yahweh will form a new covenant with his people one that's written in their hearts without tablets or intermediaries.

This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God , and they shall be my people.....for they shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest.

According to the Deuteronomic formula, when Jeremiah was not successful in getting his people to change their ways, his prophecy of destruction was fulfilled. But that didn't mean he wasn't ultimately effective. I think Jeremiah realized that instituting religious reforms from the top down wasn't going to work, because those reforms would just disappear when the reforming king passed on. But if the moral sense of Judaism was taken to heart then it would make for a more lasting covenant. After the exile the Jewish religion survived both in Jerusalem and in the Diaspora. And I believe it has a lot to do with the Jewish people taking up Jeremiah's call for a new covenant. As also it becomes the inspiration for the Christian Bible, the “New Testament” which means in Latin - “New Covenant”.

Jesus was greatly influenced by Jeremiah and by the book of Deuteronomy. The Shema, the Deuteronomic prayer that starts out: Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is our God, the Lord alone.You shall love Yahweh with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might. Deuteronomy 6: 4-6 is called the great Commandment by Jesus. It is the one he says that sums up all the other commandments. The Shema is considered the main statement of faith by all Jews. It is recited at sunrise and sundown and at special occasions, in practicing Jewish households to this day.

Deuteronomy had it's day. The Deuteronomic formula gave Jewish history meaning and an enduring sense of purpose. But the Deuteronomic theory that the fate of the chosen people is dependent on their faithfulness to one God is too exclusive. We need to think about all humans being the chosen people not just one group. It shouldn't be a Darwinian race to the bottom to see who survives. And we need to understand the consequences of how we live and how it affects others and the very ecosystems that we depend on.

The false prophets tell us that we don't have to change, that we can avoid hard decisions indefinitely. Can we really trust their soothing words?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

How the Tar Sands Industry is Sticking it to Us.

The Exxon Valdez was not the biggest oil spill but it is the most well known. Prince William Sound in Alaska has a similar tidal marine habitat to BC's Northern Coast. In cold water, oil takes a long time to degrade, so it literally sticks around under the rocks and sand for years. In the first year after the spill more than one hundred thousand sea birds died. Killer whales and sea otters were decimated. Nineteen years later neither the once abundant herring nor pink salmon have recovered.

Exxon gave generously for the big clean-up. It was good for PR. But even though they lost a class action suit brought by the fishermen to compensate their losses, not one Alaskan has received a dime in compensation from the world's largest corporation.

As visiting speaker Richard Steiner from the University of Alaska said, oil spills happen, and once they do their is very little that can be done. Even the best clean-ups only contain about ten percent of the spill. Therefore the emphasis has to be on prevention.

And what is the easiest way to prevent oil tanker spills? Don't allow oil tankers on our coast. As Oonagh O'Connor, energy campaigner for Living Oceans Society ( points out, the government of Canada imposed a moratorium banning oil tankers from BC's north and central coast in 1972 because of concerns about the marine environment. These concerns were born out in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, spilling two million litres of oil into the waters of Prince William Sound.

But a year ago, without publicizing it, the Harper Conservative government let Condensate Oil tankers come to Kitimat through Douglas Channel. Condensate is a type of petroleum that is used to thin the tar sands. It is being unloaded in Kitimat and shipped to Alberta by CN Rail.

Now here's my thought on this. Our federal government is allowing and encouraging the Alberta Tar Sands Industry to ship oil by supertankers through Douglas Channel, putting our marine environment at risk so that Alberta can make more oil out of the oil sands. There's a boondoggle if I've ever seen one. Use oil to make oil. Does this make any sense?

Now that we've heard how Alberta oil companies are not happy about the increase in royalties that Premier Ed Stelmach is planning on imposing, one has to wonder, with the price of oil at more than ninety dollars a barrel aren't these oil companies rolling in dough? Apparently not. Remember that in Alberta they are using oil to make oil, so as the price of oil goes up their costs may rise faster than their profits.

That explains why the Harper government has never even brought up the subject of eliminating subsidies to the Tar Sands Industry. If they eliminated the subsidies, maybe there would be no industry. And that means that all of us Canadian citizens are subsidizing oil consumption by the biggest consumer of tar sands oil – the Americans.

That might explain why Harper has such cold feet about doing anything serious to lower greenhouse gases. If we were to get serious about reducing GHG's it would put the Tar Sands Industry in jeopardy. A boondoggle only has the appearance of producing on its own. In fact it has to be constantly fuelled by government largess in order to remain viable.

What I'd like to know is why don't these tar sands companies invest in North American oil refineries to make the condensate so they don't have to ship it across the ocean and risk major oil spills? Why are they willing to invest billions in pipelines to Kitimat and not willing to invest in making the condensate here on this Continent?

Or to put it simply – why do they need to buy oil from across the ocean when they are producing plenty of it here? The whole thing smells of a colossal boondoggle – a huge welfare scam for oil executives. What really gets me is the fact that we are putting our coast at risk for this monumentally stupid make work project.

Monday, October 22, 2007

whats all the fuss about?

Something interesting happened last week, after Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize. The right wing went apoplectic. We even had a letter in Friday's paper condemning Gore from some guy in Mission, BC. Mission to Prince Rupert - am I missing something here?

Sometimes, its the reaction to an event that shows just how close to home it's hit. Paul Krugman, New York Times columnist calls it the “Gore Derangement Syndrome”. “What is it about Mr Gore that drives the right wing insane?”, he asks. Two main things: “partly it's a reaction to what happened when the American people chose Mr Gore but his opponent somehow ended up in the White House.” and”..He's taken everything that they could throw at him and emerged more respectable and more credible than ever.”

Thomas Friedman, another nyt columnist writes: “It is impossible not to note the contrast in his leadership and that of George W. Bush.” Al Gore stuck with his campaign against climate change, starting small and eventually building it into the center of a global consensus. President Bush took the unity that was given to him after 9/11 and squandered it by starting an ill-conceived war against Iraq.

Bush has done more than any other person I can think of to bolster Arab support for Osama Bin Laden and Al Queda. Right now he has approval ratings under thirty percent in his own country, about the same as Nixon had after the Watergate scandal.

Al Gore won an oscar for his movie, “An Inconvenient Truth”. Now he has won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in publicizing human-induced climate change. The reason he got the Peace Prize is because the Nobel committee understood that climate change has the potential to be the greatest threat to world peace in history.

It's only in the last month (is that a coincidence or what?) that the majority of Republican contenders in the presidential race have admitted that human caused climate change is a major problem. For years Republicans have been denying the existence of global warming because their supporters in big oil and big coal wanted it that way. And besides – Gore was trying to raise awareness about it, so it must be a hoax.

Meanwhile George W. and his cronies are laying the groundwork for a war with Iran that is rumoured to involve nuclear weapons. “Iraq didn't give us all the goodies we expected, so let's nuke the next axis of evil country before they can build their own. They've got a “bad”leader just like Iraq's bad leader. It is conceivable that Iran will be able to build nuclear weapons in five years so let's nuke them before that happens. Too bad we didn't do that with the third axis of evil country, North Korea. Iran, Armeggedon, World War III here we come.”

Here in Canada we have a Prime Minister who wants to follow as close as possible in W's footsteps and, like his mentor, he's running as far away from doing anything about global warming as he can. Imagine, we have someone in charge of Canada who sees George W. Bush as a model.

A poor leader ducks from the big challenges and leaves his country with a bigger mess than he inherited from his predeccesor. Bush may have started the Iraq war, and made it even more of a quagmire through sheer incompetence, but he'd rather see someone else deal with the messy consequences. And the same thing goes for global warming.

A true leader, like Al Gore, will meet the big challenges and galvinize public support for decisively dealing with them. When his time is up he leaves his country better able to deal with the most important problems facing them.

Harper wants to keep us in a futile war in Afghanistan that's doomed to failure because the Americans bailed out when they invaded Iraq. Like Bush, he'd rather delay decisive action on global warming until he is out of office. Like Bush he got to be a leader without a majority of votes. Unfortunately for the people of Canada, Harper took the wrong U.S. leader as his model.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Lessons From October's Kayaking Tragedy

The recent kayaking tragedy off Anvil Island in Howe Sound gives pause for thought. Eight kayakers were in four double kayaks, two of which capsized. Two kayakers survived immersion but had to be taken to hospital. Two kayakers died.

In calm seas they could easily have made the crossing between Anvil Island and the mainland. But the seas were not calm. The wind had come up and the eight kayakers had collectively decided to make the crossing anyways. Why not? After all, they were in top physical shape, all extreme sports enthusiasts. They had just paddled over to Anvil Island, ran up the steep slope to the top and back down and were intending to paddle to the mainland and bicycle one hundred kilometers to Whistler over logging roads the same day.

We need to respect the power of the sea at all times. And that means always err on the side of caution. Being a strong experienced paddler can give one a false sense of security. It didn't keep two men from drowning.

We can have a false sense of security in numbers too. It's obviously safer to paddle in a group but paddling in a group of eight still didn't stop two of those eight paddlers from dying.

I notice that fishermen deeply mistrust kayaks because they have little “freeboard”. The distance between the water-line and the top of the deck is measured in inches on a kayak. In reality, kayaks are very sea-worthy because they have covered decks and the kayaker wears a “sprayskirt” that attaches around the cockpit and forms a waterproof seal that keeps rough seas from entering the boat. However kayaks, being fairly light and narrow, are tippy. They are especially vulnerable in steep breaking seas. Unless the kayaker knows how to execute the proper brace against a breaking wave the kayak can potentially capsize.

We can draw some lessons from this tragedy:

1.Know the area you are kayaking in – the prevailing winds, waves and the local hazards. The steep slope of the coast of Howe Sound and of Anvil Island and their close proximity to each other probably contributed to the high winds through a funnelling effect. If they had known of this effect beforehand they could have made a more accurate assessment of the dangers.
2.Dress appropriately for exposed crossings. The eight kayakers were all wearing life jackets but they weren't wearing wet suits or foul weather gear. Three of the kayakers were in the water for about an hour before they were picked up. They were all hypothermic. The two who died could have survived an hour in cold water if they had been wearing wet suits or dry suits. Ever since I capsized off Tugwell Island on a cold December day fifteen years ago I always wear a wet suit when I am paddling in exposed waters. Even if the weather is fair, always bring a paddling jacket that can keep you warm and dry in rain and high seas, and stow it in your cockpit where you have easy access.
3.Use an appropriate type of kayak for the waters you will be paddling in. The first kayak that capsized was a racing kayak. Racing kayaks sacrifice stability for speed – not a good trade-off when you are paddling in strong winds and high waves.
4.Anticipate the worst and be ready to back out if conditions deteriorate too far. If nothing else, this alone could have prevented the tragedy. If the kayakers had turned back once they encountered the wind and waves they could have gone back to Anvil Island and waited until conditions improved or radioed for help.

The deaths of two kayakers was a terrible tragedy but it could have been avoided.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Jeremiah - prophet of doom or prophet of hope?

Some Fundamentalist preachers call a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or drought “punishment from God”. They use the fear induced by a disaster to divide people . The impending destruction from global warming is going to be fertile ground for religious innovators. During a prolonged crisis people tend to get religion. Just look at Iraq, which used to be a secular country but is now threatened with civil wars based on the religious divide between Sunni and Shia Moslems. Instead of spreading apocalyptic doom, we could profit by seeing global warming as a challenge for each and every one of us to behave responsibly, in order to increase our ability to survive.

The ancient Hebrew prophet Jeremiah is a prime example of someone who profited, in the right sense from a disaster, because by his writings he managed to reinforce the survival of the Jewish people at a time when they were threatened with extinction.

Jeremiah prophecized the destruction of Jerusalem, the capital of Judea 2500 years ago. At the time, the Jewish kingdom of Judea was threatened by the Babylonian Empire, centered in what today is called Iraq. A hundred years earlier, the Assyrian Empire had crushed the adjoining Jewish kingdom, Israel, and scattered its inhabitants to the winds. That was a wake up call for the Judeans.

Josiah, the king of Judea, got religion. He instituted religious reforms and executed all the foreign priests in Judea and Israel. He had apparently discovered a “forgotten” scroll while renovating the Jewish temple. Jeremiah was a contemporary of Josiah's and probably was an advisor to the King. There's a credible theory that Jeremiah is actually the author of this scroll. Most Biblical scholars think that the scroll was what we now call the book of Deuteronomy, or “second law”. It was called that in a later Greek translation because it referred to Moses' second telling of the Ten Commandments.

Why does the Bible have Moses recite the Ten Commandments twice, each time in a seperate book in the Old Testament? The book of Exodus tells the dramatic story about how the Hebrew slaves in Egypt were given their freedom, new laws and a new land through God's intervention. But surely pronouncing the laws a second time takes away from that dramatic story line.

Meanwhile, back in Judea, King Josiah gets killed and so do his religious reforms. Jeremiah is thrown in jail for warning everybody that Jerusalem is about to be destroyed. Unfortunately he's proven right after the Babylonians lay seige to Jerusalem, take it and the Jewish temple and break it up into rubble. Then for the coup-de -grace, they round up all the upper and middle class and march them into slavery to Babylon. You may have heard the song: “From the Rivers of Babylon” which refers to this event.

Jeremiah is spared exile because he advised the people of Jerusalem to surrender before the seige. Half of his people, the people of Israel, were lost to history after they were conquered by the Assyrians. What can he do to save the other half when they've just been enslaved and exiled to Babylon? It doesn't look good. But Jeremiah, who predicted this would happen, has been thinking about this eventuality for a long time. He's learned from the example of King Josiah that instituting religious reforms from the top down lasts only as long as the King lasts. If Judaism is to survive in exile than it must come from the heart. And it must reflect a people's humble origins, not the rich and the powerful.

The “Shema” is by far, the most important Jewish prayer. It is singled out by Jesus as the “Great Commandment”, the one that sums up all the rest of them. The name “Shema” comes from the first two words of the prayer: “Hear oh Israel”. The words of the Shema, especially the words: “ shall love your Lord God with all your heart...” are not in the book of Exodus when Moses first recites the commandments. But they are there when Moses recites the commandments the second time in the book of Deuteronomy. Could Jeremiah have inserted the Shema into Deuteronomy? He may not have created it, but it's a prayer that sums up his life's work.

Deuteronomy is a more subdued book than Exodus. Moses is preparing the Hebrews for their life in the promised land but he doesn't get to go there himself. He keeps telling them “Remember you were slaves in the land of Egypt.” Kind of a strange way to prepare people to live in a promised land don't you think? But not if the people that you are adressing are slaves in exile, as was the situation when Jeremiah adressed the Judeans. Remember your humble origins and keep religion in your hearts. This is the message of Jeremiah and Deuteronomy.

Jeremiah's “rediscovered” scroll that fizzled when King Josiah's rein ended, got a second lease on life with the Babylonian exile. Jeremiah had profited from the destruction of Jerusalem because he had learned to use the story of Moses to inspire the exiles from their hearts. He had discovered a way to keep Judaism alive in an age when the Jews were going to be under the thumb of empires for a long time.

To this day, in Jewish homes everywhere, the Shema is recited at sunup and sundown and at other significant times as well. That's the mark of a great prophet. Someone who can turn a catastrophe into an opportunity for people to keep the world alive.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

War, the tar sands, and the dollar

If George W. Bush had campaigned for a weaker economy and a weaker dollar it's doubtful he would have been reelected in 2004. Bush didn't intend for the American dollar to lose 40% of its value relative to the Canadian dollar but this was the unintended consequence of the Iraq war.

When the neo-conservatives in Bush's administration planned the Iraq War their intentions were probably twofold: to secure a steady supply of oil for the American economy and, by making an example of Iraq, to shock and awe the rest of the world into agreeing with whatever Americans wanted.

But the history of the twentieth century is littered with wars like the First and Second World Wars that got way out of hand, creating chaos and destruction unparalleled in previous human history.

Before the American invasion, Iraq, under Sadamm Hussein, was a stable country. Soon after the invasion social and political order crumbled. As a consequence Iraq produces less oil now than it did before the war. This, and the uncertainty that goes along with wars in an oil producing region, has led to a huge increase in the price of oil. Because the United States imports so much oil, the high price has led to a steady loss in the value of the American dollar.

While the Iraq War has led to the recent decline in the American dollar, it has also led to the rise in the value of the Canadian dollar. The higher price of oil has made the Alberta tar sands, which contains almost as much recoverable oil as Saudia Arabia, a very valuable piece of real estate. As the price continues to rise, investment money pours into Alberta, helping raise the value of the Canadian dollar. Unlike the United States, which has to import most of its oil Canada is a net producer of oil.

But what if the Bush administration were to launch a “pre-emptive war against Iran, which it is, in fact, threatening to do? Iran would likely attack oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, shutting down the flow of oil from Saudia Arabia. The price of oil might reach two hundred dollars a barrels as a result.
The unintended consequence? The Canadian dollar would surge ahead of the American dollar as American dollars pay for Canadian oil and foreign investment pours into Alberta and drains out of the United States. The Alberta economy has benefitted from the Iraq War and would benefit even more from a war in Iran.

But the rest of the Canadian economy would be squeezed between skyrocketing energy costs and the high dollar, devastating the manufacturing industries in Ontario and Quebec. This would be especially true if we are locked in to producing more and more oil for export to the U. S. as a result of the NAFTA proportionality clause, and U. S. demands for greater “energy security”, which is the theme of the new “Security and Prosperity Partnership”.

Since coming to power, Prime Minister Harper has echoed American foreign policy, from uncritical support of Israel's agression in Lebanon to helping the Americans fight the Taliban on a semi-permanent basis. If the U.S. bombs Iran, will Harper fall in behind George W. Bush yet again? It would certainly benefit Alberta but not the rest of Canada.

With the possiblility of higher oil prices on the horizon the least we could do is increase the royalties from oil production and put a surtax on oil profits. The oil companies will protest that they will pull out if it happens, but that's a joke. Right now, almost no-one is making as much money as the oil companies. A country like Norway, which produces similar quantities of oil is receiving twenty times as much in royalties as Alberta.

At eighty-five dollars a barrel, oil profits are not earned but are the unintended consequences of America's wars. And the rest of Canada is going to need some compensation from the crippling rise in energy costs.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Where does sex come from?

Why is sex important and where did it come from? I'll let you know right off the bat, that I'm not going to be talking about the sexual act. What I want to talk about is what preceded it and what comes afterwards, in evolutionary terms.

Scientists tell us that the Earth is 4.6 billion years old. And life is 3.4 billion years old. But sexual reproduction originated about 600 million years ago . That means that life was around for three billion years before sex came along. Before sexual reproduction, life consisted of bacteria and single-celled algae, which both reproduce by splitting in two.

When a bacterium reproduces it makes an identical copy of itself and then it divides into two. So, for asexual reproduction all that is needed are the basic ingredients of life: air, water, nutrients, energy, and DNA. What's interesting is what you don't need. When a bacterium reproduces asexually it doesn't need to relate to other bacteria, and it doesn't need to take care of the copy of itself.

Bacteria don't mature and they don't die either -- they just keep on dividing. No wonder it took three billion years for sex to develop: eternal life, no commitments, and at the first sign of responsibility bacteria can always say: "I'm splittin’."

For the purposes of this talk I'm going to define sexual reproduction as the production of offspring from two parents. Going from one to two changes the whole world. All of a sudden sex makes reproduction very complicated because it doesn't just require the elements of life that I mentioned previously. Now we're talking about a relationship between two parents, and a relationship between parents and their offspring, and the maturation of the offspring so that it too can become a parent, and then the inevitability of death. That's right -- the price of being able to reproduce sexually is death because once you start to mature you can't stop.

But where did sex come from? Somehow bacteria started relating to each other. They started to communicate -- they exchanged genetic material. And when they did that they were able to change their own genetic makeup. That's why bacteria can develop immunity to antibiotics so quickly -- because they can transfer the genetic material that confers immunity amongst themselves.... Smart little critters....

OK, but that's not real sex, so where did sex come from? I believe that sex is inherent in all life, from the very beginning, even though it was not always manifest. But I can't explain it in scientific terms, so instead, let me tell you a story:

When the solar system was created, at first there was no life on Mother Earth. She has had a long-standing relationship with Father Sun -- there has always been an attraction between them. But at first nothing came of it. We know that for sexual reproduction to work the prospective parents need to be in just the right relationship. Mother Earth and Father Sun had maintained just the right distance from each other. If Mother Earth had been any closer she wouldn't have been able to protect their offspring from the heat of Father Sun's rays. And if she had been any further away she wouldn't have been able to capture enough of Father Sun's heat to keep their offspring warm.

But in sexual reproduction the relationship isn't everything. You also need to reach a certain level of maturity. And here is where Mother Earth had to take the initiative. We know that females mature faster than males and I propose that this is because women bear more of the responsibility for raising children so they need to be ready sooner. It was just so with Mother Earth and Father Sun.

You just have to look at the way Father Sun treats everyone else to realize why this is. You see, Father Sun shines his light on everyone without fail. He can't help it. For all the light that he radiates he has no way to discriminate, no way to choose who to shine on and who not to shine on. Talk about ironic -- his light may be the origin of consciousness but he himself is blind and couldn't care less.

On the other hand, Mother Earth grew and physically matured. From out of her body arose the oceans and the atmosphere and these interacted to form perhaps her most beautiful feature -- the ever-changing patterns of weather. For she never appears the same from one day to the next.

Just as sexual reproduction requires two adults, the creation of life required both Earth and Sun. For without the continued outpouring of Father Sun's energy life could not flourish. The Sun is a dependable but a harsh father because he shines on everyone without mercy. His rays of ultraviolet light would kill all life without the protective blanket of Mother Earth's atmosphere. And just as a blanket keeps us warm by keeping the heat from our bodies from escaping, Mother Earth's atmosphere holds Father Sun's heat even when she has turned her back on him, which she does every night.

Thus, out of the enduring relationship between Earth and Sun, life came forth to clothe and transform the Earth into a being unlike any that the universe has ever known before. So different from either parent, the living Earth creates its own chemical, physical, and biological environments in a single evolutionary process called the web of life.

To answer the question, "Why is sex important?",
I bring your attention to three vital factors whose evolutionary development was only made possible by sex and whose qualities help to define both our humanity and our unity with all life. These three are: biodiversity, consciousness, and love.

Sexual reproduction first occurred roughly at the boundary between the Pre-Cambrian and the Cambrian eras from 500 to 600 million years ago. Before sex we have three billion years, during which single-celled creatures replicated asexually. After sexual reproduction becomes possible there is an explosion in the variety of life forms: from single-celled, to multi-celled, fungi, plants, animals: crustaceans, echinoderms, fish, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. All because when two parents reproduce sexually they create offspring that's different from either parent. This magical increase in genetic variety accelerates evolutionary change which, in turn, accelerates biodiversity.

It's obvious that asexual reproduction, which creates copies of the same creatures, (which is what happens in cloning) does not produce biodiversity except via mutations over fantastically vast spans of time. Sex changed all that, it made complex forms of life possible, it made human beings possible, and it made possible the wonderfully intricate interplay between the myriad of species which we call an ecosystem.

As we all know, there's logistics in sex, which we mostly take for granted but, when you think about it can be quite challenging. First you must be able to find and distinguish members of your own species. Then you must distinguish those of your own species who are members of the opposite sex from those who are of the same sex. Then you must choose a member of the opposite sex and communicate to them who you are such that they in turn can recognize you as a member of the opposite sex and make the appropriate choice.

Asexual creatures, on the other hand, don't have to go to all that trouble. They only need to recognize food or danger and they have no need to be recognized. But sex requires cooperation and communication and reciprocal recognition. These needs seem to point evolution in the direction of increasing powers of awareness and consciousness and to the development of love in humans and higher animals.

From the point of view of asexual reproducers these powers of consciousness, cooperation, communication, and love are unnecessary expenditures of energy. But the most wasteful of all is the goal of sexual reproduction, the production of offspring. Instead of simply making an identical copy of yourself you gotta nurture and take care of a baby. Pre-Cambrian critters must have been scandalized. Why make that kind of sacrifice when you could be immortal -- busy churning out copies of yourself forever and ever? A baby has half it's genetic material from somebody else. You're gonna grow old and die for that?

Whenever we see a baby we can't help but smile. We often feel joy. Sometimes a lot of joy. We can't help being interested in a baby, wanting to care for it. Babies grow up to be so different from either their mother or father. Maybe from the point of view of an asexual reproducer this is a scandal, but from the human point of view it's always a miracle.

Babies need to be protected, loved, and nurtured. Mothers do this naturally because they can't help loving their babies. Caring by it's very nature, spills over into caring for others and other kinds. We care about our children and our grandchildren and even about everyone else's children. We develop complex networks of cooperation between peoples who are not just our kin, to further the goals of caring. Indeed, we are here today because countless generations of people loved and cared for their children and families and fellow humans. Without sexual reproduction this would not be so.

We see a direction in evolutionary development which originates with sexual reproduction, such that sexual attraction which initially guides animals towards prospective mates leads to more enduring forms of love via the birth and nurturing of babies. We hardly ever see fish and amphibians caring for their young. Among reptiles, only alligators and crocodiles do this. But when we get to the higher animals such as birds we see them feeding their young and helping them to fly, and we see mammals caring for their young for extended periods of time. Only a handful of animals form enduring bonds of love: geese, who mate for life, elephants, killer whales, the great apes, and humans.

A mother bear will fiercely defend her cubs. She will stand her ground against bigger and more powerful males. But a father bear has no love for his cubs and will just as soon kill them as look at them. But something beautiful happens when humans arrive on the scene because not only does a mother love her child but a father does too. And unlike most other animals, children are capable of loving their parents even into their adulthood.

In humans affection and caring comes to transcend procreation as we develop deep relationships amongst family and friends. These relationships add to a web of social cooperation that makes up human societies. Our caring for others has come to transcend caring for ourselves and our offspring because our survival depends on cooperation with many others. But our consciousness is evolving even further as we come to realize that caring for our kind requires that we care about the entire web of life of which we are a part.

For, just as the evolution of sex was contained in the relationship between Earth and Sun, the evolution of consciousness is contained in the relationship between humankind and the entire web of life on Earth. The Sun shines on, indifferent to whether we live or die. But we are conscious. We can choose whether to create or destroy, whether to love or to hate. We have that power and that responsibility. Just as all life depends on the Earth and the Sun, our future depends on what we do with our consciousness.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Real Cost of 'made in China'

When market fundamentalists argue that the free market works best for the general welfare if it is not 'handcuffed' by regulations they are ignoring the problem of the cost to the environment. But, they say, the U. S. economy saw rapid growth in its first two hundred years with very little in the way of regulations. Once the American economy grew big enough it then became easier to tackle pollution. This is the approach that China is taking, but unfortunately, because of global warming, it is too late for it to work the way it did for the United States.

Capitalists love China because labour is so cheap. That's why so much Capital has flowed into China from abroad. Consumers from the developed world love the cheap clothes and the cheap electronics. A win-win deal. Everybody benefits - right?

What's more, not only do we pay less for Chinese goods, we don't have to suffer from the pollution that Chinese factories emit. Instead the Chinese people get to live their lives immersed in grey toxic clouds of smog. In China cancer is the leading cause of death. Deaths from unsafe air and water dwarf deaths from traffic and mining accidents. The Chinese Communist government is so concerned about this that it has banned the publication of statistics on public health and air and water quality. They say that that they have to do this in order to prevent social unrest.

I guess if there was this much pollution here people would get up in arms about it. Eventually we could get the government here to do something about it either through various means of persuasion, or by the ballot box. But the Chinese people have capitalism with a communist government. They get to work for low wages and they don't have the option of free speech or democratic change.

Regulations or taxes could work to lower emissions. A carbon tax at the well-head and the mine entrance could make the price of fossil fuels better reflect the cost of global warming and pollution. We could slash expensive subsidies to fossil fuel corporations in order to get rid of perverse incentives that encourage fossil fuel production and consumption. We could require that all new coal-fired power plants sequester their CO2 emissions and old power plants be retrofitted. Unfortunately the Chinese people have no way of pressuring their government to do these things. They are prevented from even discovering the extent of the problem. After all, it could cause social unrest.

According to Joseph Romm, founder and CEO of The Center for Energy and Climate Solutions, in his book Hell and High Water, if the United States had made the Same goods that were imported from China during the period from 1997 – 2003 there would have been 720 million metric tons Less CO2 in the atmosphere.

China's rapid rate of economic growth now depends on energy from coal. Coal is the cheapest form of energy but the dirtiest in pollutants and carbon dioxide. China uses coal for two thirds of its energy needs. That is the source of the smog blanketing Chinese cities. They say every week a new coal-fired power plant is built in China. And these power plants are less energy efficient than power plants built in North America. But hey, their cheaper to run.

Cheaper labour, cheaper power, less regulations and “social stability”makes building a factory in China very attractive to Capitalists. So naturally capital flows into China and away from the more costly developed world.

The problem comes further down the road when the Chinese economy overtakes the U.S. economy. Not only will they outproduce the U.S. in manufactured goods they will also outproduce it in emissions of CO2 and particulates.

The least we could do is help countries like China become more energy efficient. And we should set an example by significantly lowering our CO2 emissions ASAP. By allowing so much capital to flow to China the “free market” is accelerating the growth in CO2 emissions which will increase the risk of irreversible global warming. It's a lose-lose proposition and no amount of baloney about unfettered markets is going to save us from climate melt-down unless governments work together to lower emissions now.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Politicizing threats

The larger a threat is, the more important it is for us to face and fight it together. In the worst of times, a good leader, like Franklin D. Roosevelt rallies his country and inspires citizens to give the very best of themselves. But a poor leader uses a crisis to enlarge his powers at the expense of others and by doing so he makes his country more vulnerable to threats.

George W. Bush was given an opportunity by the terrible events of September 11 2001 to build on the unity and the good will of the world. But he chose to squander that good will by unilaterally invading Iraq, a country which was not a direct threat to the United States and had not been involved in the events of September 11. This is not an isolated mistake but it is the way his administration operates. They use threats such as "terrorism" to drive a wedge between potential critics and supporters, Then they act unilaterally, giving themselves special powers and shrugging off national and international cooperation. Ultimately this has weakened America's power.

But it's not just the war on terror that's been used to win by dividing people. Frank Luntz is a Republican public relations consultant who came up with the idea of discrediting global warming in order to keep this issue from benefiting the Democrats in the 2000, 2002, and 2004 elections. In an infamous memo he distributed to Republicans in 2002, Luntz, who now says he accepts the science behind global warming, wrote the following:

"The scientific debate is closing (against us) but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science... Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore you need to make the lack of scientific certainty the primary issue in the debate."

It's apparent from this memo that Luntz was aware that the science behind global warming was sound, but he chose to make it a partisan issue to help win elections for the Republican party.

We can see how influential Frank Luntz has been. The Bush administration has sucessfully stalled any action on global warming and significant numbers of Americans are in the dark as to the meaning and importance of climate change. All to serve the delusion of a permanent Republican majority.

In America, winning is everything. American politics is all about winner-takes-all, unlike the possibilities in a true parliamentary system. American TV reflects this zero sum game with it's "survivor" and "Idol" and it's game shows.

Who wins when terrorism gets a new lease on life in Iraq? Who wins when inaction on global warming puts future generations at risk? When you're so involved in winning you lose sight of the long term goals. Kill Iraqi's and the next generation become terrorists. Delay acting decisively on global warming and you destroy the chances for coming generations.

The Republican strategy of winning at all costs will lose conservatives votes and influence over the long term. As hurricanes become more frequent and destructive and flooding and drought become more common Republicans will be seen as the party that stood in the way of doing something to prevent it.