Tuesday, February 26, 2008

BC's Carbon Tax

A year ago Premier Gordon Campbell painted himself green, following in the footsteps of the California Governator. Campbell had committed to slashing BC's greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2020. Would he succeed? Was he really serious? These are the questions we've been asking ourselves for the past twelve months. Now the other green shoe has dropped and Campbell's finance minister Carol Taylor has presented a “green budget” that includes one of the first real carbon taxes in North America.

The BC carbon tax, effective July 1, will start at $10 a metric ton. That's 2.4 cents a litre, in case you're wondering. By 2012 the tax will rise to about $30 a ton. This is not an increase in taxes it's a “tax shift” because the government plans to compensate taxpayers for the lost revenue by doling out $100 to every citizen and decreasing income tax across the board.

Both the Sierra Club and the Mining Association of British Columbia are in favour of this budget. Marc Lee, senior economist for The Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, a left-wing think tank, said “ certainly the best budget I've seen coming out of the liberals.” And the president of the BC Chamber of Commerce, John Winter said: “I think we were nicely surprised.” Can this be happening? Talk about politics being the art of the possible.

For someone who used to despise Gordon Campbell, I have to admit I'm impressed. But I still don't trust him. After all he hasn't done anything about the billion dollars in subsidies that BC gives the oil and gas industry every year. And he's pouring one billion dollars into highways while at the same time giving only a pittance - about a third as much for public transit.

Instituting a carbon tax, is an excellent first step on the road to combating climate change. And it doesn't hurt that business and the environmentalists are on side right from the beginning. A carbon tax has the potential to bring the price of fossil fuels in line with their contribution to global warming. Once prices reflect reality on the ground then the market can do its work of nudging people in the direction of conserving energy, buying more fuel efficient cars, or driving less and using alternatives more.

“When you walk, you save money, you save yourself, and you save health care costs,” said Gordon Campbell last week. If I didn't know any better I'd swear that Campbell has been reading my newspaper column.

The dark cloud on the Horizon is Alberta. Premier Stelmach and Prime Minister Harper are dead set against a carbon tax because it would stall the growth of the tar sands. Harper made a clandestine deal with the United States in 2006 to ramp up tar sands production fivefold by 2020. His hands are tied by his foolish agreement, so he has no intention of actually lowering greenhouse gas emissions (GHG's).

A fivefold increase in tar sands production would yield an estimated 140 million tons of GHG's per year. That would be about three times what Premier Campbell plans for all of BC by 2020.

Harper's environment minister John Baird is pedalling something called “carbon intensity targets.” which is a public relations scam for making the appearance of lowering emissions without actually lowering emissions. Kind of reminiscent of tobacco companies suggesting that “light” cigarettes were better for your health. Carbon intensity targets are also favoured by Premier Ed Stelmach and U.S. President George W. Bush. Do I detect a pattern here?

The vacuum of leadership on global warming in the United States has led to governors like Arnold Schwarzenegger taking the initiative to lower emissions through emission caps and stricter fuel efficiency standards for cars – all of which have been mightily resisted by the Bush administration.

The same vacuum of leadership exists in Canada but Premier Campbell has taken a solid first step in the fight against global warming. Other provinces are sure to follow. The dynamics of Canadian politics is changing and the greatest threat to national unity now comes from Alberta and not Quebec.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Ballroom Babies

I just had a look at the latest in reality dance shows: “Ballroom Babies”. about prepubescent children in an Australian dance competition where the object is to be the best ballroom dancing couple.

Dancing and music are about people enjoying themselves. And the more often people actually get out and play music or dance the greater their enjoyment.

Just watching people sing and dance on television eventually becomes boring. That's why reality dance shows are obsessed with winning. Like a heroin addict who develops a tolerance to his drug so that he has to keep taking bigger doses, television programmers are always upping the ante by emphasizing the drama – the highs and lows, the losses and the triumphs, and the more risque subjects. But this obsession with “winners” and “stars” denigrates all the rest of the participants who were eliminated.

This isn't the the case in real life. If we go to a dance every week we can enjoy ourselves in spite of our imperfections because we get involved physically. Meeting people and getting to talk are added benefits.

Think for a moment about the neurological disorders of autism and attention defecit. ADDH kids and autistic kids love watching TV. But in real life they have major difficulties with other kids, their siblings and their parents. It's harder for them to get a sense of reward from paying attention to other people.

An autistic baby doesn't respond to facial expressions. But a normal baby appears to catch our smiles. The autistic brain gets no reward from interaction with people.

A normal person feels pleasure from talking and interacting with other people. That's because our brains are wired that way. We grow to love our immediate family, in part , because of the pleasure we get from being with them over a period of time.

But television short circuits our reward system and lets us feel pleasure with no effort on our part. What happens when your brain is wired differently is that television provides that reward if you can't get it from being around other people. It constantly changes scene and subject so that it keeps you from getting bored. It does all the work for you.

They say it takes 10,000 hours to become a world expert. If you devote three hours a day for ten years than you can become a recognized expert. Devoting time to a subject increases our mastery. But people aren't going to devote time to a subject if they don't get pleasure from it, and,or, they spend their time watching television. Do we really need to spend our lives watching TV shows about how winners eliminate their competition?

I hear there's a trend today for parents to let their babies and toddlers watch TV. They say it' educational. In fact, this practice is taking away vital experience from the formative years in childhood.

Children's play is physical. It can be risky and it can be messy. But it is vital because it shows children how to derive pleasure from doing things and interacting with other people. By contrast, the more television they watch the more easily they are bored because they have less ability to derive pleasure from just living.

When we spend our time doing things we get better at doing things and we get a deeper, more satisfying appreciation of the world. This, in turn, makes it easier to enjoy spending time with families, working, and playing sports. What I don't like about the “Ballroom Babies” is that the pleasure that one can get out of dancing is drilled out of these little children so that they can win a contest. What a shame.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Prince Rupert Needs to Clean Up its Act

I had a talk with Harbourmaster Gary Paulson last week. He did a good job of convincing me that we have the greenest container port around. Sailing times from the Far East to Prince Rupert are up to three days shorter than to the big Pacific ports like Long Beach in California. Plus our port utilizes the railroad ( a more efficient form of transportation than trucks) to a much greater extent than other ports. There are no long lines of idling trucks waiting for containers as in Long Beach, no congested highways, no bottlenecks.

According to our harbourmaster, there is another reason that our container port can be considered green - its wastewater treatment facility. Prince Rupert's new Container Port has a sewage treatment plant that treats greywater and blackwater from the port and puts out water into our harbour that is clean enough to drink. It even has a rainwater separator that separates the oil residue from the rainwater runoff.

When it comes to wastewater treatment Fairview Terminal clearly outshines the city of Prince Rupert, which has absolutely no sewage treatment at all. Nothing but seven aging outlet pipes that drain untreated sewage straight into our harbour. And if you think that that sewage always stays on the bottom think again. If we really want to be considered a green port Prince Rupert needs to clean up its act.

If you look at what we have in our city for separating oil from runoff and oil from bilge water it's pathetic. When it rains, oil from our roads goes straight into the harbour. The two waste oil containers that are situated near the water - one at Fairview Marina and the other at PetroCanada on George Hills Way, are constantly overflowing and guess where the overflow ends up?

Prince Rupert has stringent rules forbidding ships from dumping wastewater, which it should have, but the irony is that many of the big cruise ships that visit in the summer have state of the art wastewater treatment that produces cleaner water than what we have in our harbour.

The cruise ship industry, that a decade ago was considered the bad boys of waste disposal, has come a long way. Now in partnership with an outfit out of Victoria called Peninsula Wastewater Services Ltd. the cruise ships that visit our city send their recyclables to the local recycling depot, donate reusable items such as clothes and tablecloths to local charities and pay the Prince Rupert landfill to truck in their garbage.

According to Keelie Barr, Port Coordinator for Peninsula, there are plans afoot to build a small oily water separation plant for Prince Ruperts' waterfront - something that I think the city should encourage and expedite as much as possible. When it comes to wastewater treatment and recycling the new container port and the cruise ships are leaving Prince Rupert in the dust. If we want to go green we need to follow in their footsteps. As a port city we ought to be consistent. If we are going to call ourselves a green port we need to live up to that standard across the board.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Television's Dark Vision

The 2004 U.S. Presidential race cost Americans $693 million dollars. The 2008 election is projected to cost at least twice as much. In contrast, the 1988 election that put Bush the elder in office cost just 59 million dollars. If this trend continues, in a few decades presidential elections are going to cost more than health care for Americans.

Most of that money goes for TV ads. But how much can one tell about a candidate from TV ads? At the same time that American political parties have been spending an increasing amount on TV ads there has been a trend towards fewer and fewer people voting in elections. There is something ominous about these two trends, if you ask me. And the common denominator is television itself.

I've already talked about the decline in civic engagement from the mid 1960's to the present, chronicled by Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone. According to Putnam, most of that decline is due to the passing of the generation that fought in the Second World War. But Putnam also points out that the next strongest cause of the decline in social and civic engagement is television.

The trend is clear, the more television that people watch the less they are involved in social and community life. Part of this disengagement is due to time constraints. If one is spending time watching TV then one has less time to pursue activities outside the home. But the same cannot be said for other activities such as reading newspapers, which is positively correlated with civic engagement.

Television was first introduced to a mass audience in the 1950's. By 1959, 90% of Americans had a TV. Since then the amount of time people spend watching TV has steadily increased, until by the 1990's Americans were watching on the average four hours of television a day.

Not only is amount of TV watched correlated with social disconnection, the greater the exposure to TV during childhood the greater the degree of disconnection. My parents didn't get a TV until I was about five, and during the fifties there wasn't a lot to watch. I did watch a lot of TV in my adolescence but I was never wedded to it. But the generation after me, Generation X, grew up with the presence of TV from the moment they were born. That's a big reason why Generation X'ers both watch more TV and are less socially engaged than baby boomers.

“Television is the cheapest and least demanding way of averting boredom”, says Putnam. It engages our attention without requiring the effort of actually being engaged. But what makes TV so attractive is exactly what makes it so potentially dangerous for democracy. It's no coincidence that television plays such a sinister role in 1984, George Orwell's famous novel on Totalitarianism.

As Putnam says, TV privatizes leisure. It makes us feel engaged with events and people without actually having to leave our houses or spend time with anyone else. The problem is that if not enough people are involved and volunteering in civic and political organizations then democracy itself becomes staged - a virtual reality like everything else on TV.

I'm not suggesting that we throw away our TV's but we might consider watching less. And, instead of just turning it on to see what's on we ought to be more purposeful about what we do watch.

Spending time outside the home, whether volunteering, playing in a local band, serving on a comittee, playing sports, learning a new subject, visiting friends, or just going for a walk is ultimately more satisfying than watching TV. The strictly private environment of television is an impoverished environment. Getting involved in social activities has a wide range of benefits for both ourselves and society as a whole. The thing is it takes effort and courage to get involved. But the rewards are more profound and can last a lifetime.