Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Why We Love

I've just been reading a book called “Hold Me Tight” by Sue Johnson. Johnson's claim is that love between adults has the same emotional attachment issues as the love between a mother and child. She writes, “You are emotionally attached to and dependent on your partner in much the same way that a child is on a parent for nurturing, soothing, and protection.”

Attachment Theory, is a psychological theory proposed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, that infants form attachments to any consistent caregiver who is sensitive and responsive to the infant. This is usually the child's mother, but it doesn't have to be. It could be the father, grandmother, or older sibling. The theory posits that children attach to mothers or other caring figures instinctively. The need for safety and protection, which is paramount in infancy and childhood, is the basis of the bond. If the mother figure is unavailable or unresponsive, separation distress occurs and the anticipation of such an occurrence arouses separation anxiety.

We've all seen examples of this in babies and toddlers when they are relaxed and willing to explore strange situations in close proximity with their mother but react to the same situations with fear and anger if they are deprived of access to their mother. An implication of attachment theory is that a lasting attachment bond with a mother figure is necessary in order for children to be physically and emotionally healthy. Strong evidence in support of the theory comes from observations of babies in orphanages, who, in spite of being fed, clothed, and housed, failed to thrive in the absence of emotional bonds to caregivers.

The theory, which initially was scoffed at by the psychoanalytic mainstream is now universally accepted. But the theory that adult loving relationships are attachment bonds is less accepted. Most of us would agree that adults should be mature, independent, and self-sufficient. We have names for people who are too dependent on others. We call them “immature”, “undifferentiated”, “clingy”, “enmeshed”, and “co-dependent”.

Right now about fifty percent of those who marry eventually get divorced. Having gone through one myself I know all too well how painful and destructive a divorce can be for a family. I wouldn't wish it on anybody. Sue Johnson, a marriage counsellor, wanted to help people in struggling marriages stay together. After working with and then observing them over and over on tape she developed a therapy called Emotionally Focused Therapy or EFT, based on the “key negative and positive emotional moments that defined a relationship.” When she tried to figure out why her therapy worked she came up with the idea that bonds between adult couples were based on “the innate need for safe emotional connection” just like the needs of infants for their mother.

When we feel secure with our lover we can reach out and connect to others easily, we are more curious and open to new information but when we feel insecure, we become anxious, angry, controlling or distant and we are less empathetic to others. “Just what Bowlby and Ainsworth found with children and their mothers,” says Johnson.

According to Sue Johnson, when a marriage is in trouble it is usually because the couple is disconnected emotionally. Neither partner feels emotionally safe with each other. “Most fights are really protests over emotional disconnection,” she says. “Underneath all the distress, partners are asking each other: “Can I count on you and depend on you? Are you there for me? Will you respond to me when I need, when I call? Do I matter to you?” When we express anger, criticism, and demands in a marital spat we are trying to draw our spouse in emotionally and re-establish a sense of safe connection. What we are really saying is: “Notice me. Be with me. I need you.”

When they first express these emotions it can actually work to draw couples together, but over time it only makes them more stuck. Couples quickly develop negative patterns of interaction which work to push each other farther and farther apart. When one partner becomes critical and aggressive the other becomes defensive and distant. According to Johnson, when we withdraw and detach from our partner we are really trying to soothe and protect ourselves. We are really saying: “I won't let you hurt me. I will be independent and stay in control.” Unfortunately the longer we engage in these patterns of conflict the greater the loss of mutual trust. According to psychologist and marital therapist John Gottman, “couples who get stuck in this pattern have more than 80% chance of divorcing within five years.

Johnson emphasizes that “When marriages fail, it is not increasing conflict that is the cause. It is decreasing affection and emotional responsiveness.” When a relationship is failing men often focus on sexual incompatibility. Men aren't comfortable acknowledging their need for emotional closeness so they focus on sex which is a more limited expression of this need. “Think of sexual distress as the relationship version of the “canary in the coal mine,” says Johnson. “What's really happening is that a couple is losing connection; the partners don't feel emotionally safe with each other. That in turn leads to slackening desire and less satisfying sex...”

The idea is to let secure attachment and sexuality come together by creating a “positive loop of closeness, responsiveness, caring, and desire.”

Monday, December 8, 2008

What's Happening to Canada?

There's an old Chinese curse that some of you may have heard of: “May you live in interesting times.” I think of it when I compare the Canadian election this past October and the parliamentary crisis this December. For the first time in a long time Canadian politics is actually more interesting than American politics.

When Barak Obama was elected President in November the whole world rejoiced. When Stephen Harper was re-elected the head of another minority government in Canada it seemed barely a blip in our consciousness.

But what a difference one month makes. Just last week I've had people who tell me they have little interest in politics, turn around and ask me to explain to them the workings of minority parliaments. I can't remember this much interest in Canadian politics before.

The turn out for this latest federal election should have been a wake-up call. Only 59.1% of those eligible voted. The lowest rate ever recorded. And no wonder. The previous minority government was boring. It wasn't a coalition. The Liberals, who supported the government, had no say in it. They just went along with whatever Harper threw at them for fear a sudden election would kill their popularity.

Now that Stephane Dion has agreed to step down he's finally had the guts to stand up to Harper, but, of course it's too late for Dion. Still it has made a huge difference to our political situation. We've gone from a pathetically low election turn-out to a bunch of super-motivated people. Noisy demonstrations in our nation's capital; people singing “O' Canada”; ecstatic greens and leftists; outraged -and- vocal- about-it conservatives. It's definitely woken-up a large cross-section of Canadians. And that's a good thing.

Now Albertans are talking about separation because of those “pointy-headed easterners wanting to run Canada.” And in Quebec, the until-now moribund separatist movement has sprung back to life because Harper decided to adopt the tactics of Karl Rove. (to motivate your base demonize your opponents and their political parties even if that will alienate the other half of the country.) Because all that's really important for him is getting and holding on to power.

We've been witness to the real Stephen Harper in these last few weeks. The guy who wants it all but doesn't want to compromise with anybody else to get it. In the recent election Harper seriously hurt his party's chances in Quebec when he showed his disdain for government assisting culture. Now he's permanently blown it there by demonizing the Bloc Quebecois.

If Harper gets a majority in the next election he will get it by dividing the country not by unifying it. That is the strategy of Karl Rove and George W. Bush, but they used it to their advantage in a country that's had a long history of disenfranchising and holding back African-Americans. It won't work as easy in Canada because we have always been a multicultural society. The Rovian strategy of division may work here temporarily but the long term consequences are likely to be dangerous to the Conservative party and to the country.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

What's in a Week?

All units of time are circular. They repeat themselves endlessly. Day dawns, the morning passes, afternoon passes, the sun sets, night falls and eventually a new day dawns.

The day corresponds to a relationship between the sun and the earth. The year also corresponds to a relationship between the sun and the earth. A new year is born, winter passes, then spring, summer, fall, all follow in sequence.

The “month” loosely corresponds to the relationship between the earth and the moon over a 28 day period. The two words “month” and “moon” obviously are derived from the same word, as is true in almost all other languages.

Tens of thousands of years ago, before the invention of agriculture, all humans lived as hunter gatherers. They told time by the sun, the moon, and the stars. They told tales about things that happened years ago, but they had no concept of a linear system of dating that one could refer to from any point in time. That's a modern invention requiring writing and calendars. Time was circular. People were born, lived and died and new generations grew up to replace them.

A week is a peculiar unit of time that we take for granted but it is not a natural division of time in the same way that a month or year is. Hunter gatherer societies don't really need to divide time into weeks. Their lives are organized around the daily, monthly and seasonal rhythms of nature and the weather.

Dividing a month into quarters and then naming the days probably first occurred with more sophisticated civilizations like the Egyptians and the Babylonians. The length of a week has varied in history from 3 to 8 days. Seven days has always been the most popular, because it divides evenly into a lunar month of 28 days; and because the number 7 corresponds to the seven celestial objects that can be seen by the naked eye: The Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Indeed, in many languages, including English, the days of the week get their names from the seven celestial objects.

The concept of a week is very important in the Hebrew Bible. It's first mentioned in Exodus in one of the Ten Commandments. (Note the connection of the Bible's focus on the week and the backdrop of Egypt here.) In Exodus 31, 16-17 God says: “The Israelites shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.” Nowadays we work for five days , or even less, but we still like to rest and receive refreshment on the weekend. Building heaven and earth must have been quite a job, even for God, and that's why even God needed that extra day for R and R.

When the Ten Commandments are repeated in the Biblical book of Deuteronomy, instead of citing God's making the world in six days and resting on the seventh, it says in Deuteronomy 5, 12-15: “ ...But the seventh day is the Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work... Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord God brought you out of there...”

It makes sense to me that there are all these connections to work and the week, because the organization of time into working days and resting days has to do with agriculture and urban civilizations where people for the first time were brought together as slaves, servants, or contracted labourers. I find it noteworthy that the author of Deuteronomy uses the idea of liberation from slavery as a justification for the Sabbath. Everybody needs at least one day off in a week, I recommend more. “Let my people go”, as the good book says.

And so it came to pass, that this week was the one week in the year when the Prince Rupert phone book arrives at our doorstep. Now we can figure out which days are garbage days for next year. We can also read about cool outdoor activities and enjoy the local tide table for another year. All units of time are circular. They repeat themselves endlessly.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

God and Gays

I've just read a fascinating book called Biological Exuberance. by Bruce Bagemihl. It's about homosexuality in animals. Many of us have witnessed homosexuality in domestic animals - cats, dogs, sheep, bulls, etc. I had no idea that it was widespread in wild animals. According to Bagemihl, homosexual behaviour has been observed in Mountain Sheep, Mallard Ducks, Ostriches, Lions, Buffaloes, Female Cheetahs, Bottlenosed Dolphins, Grey Whales, Gorillas, Giraffes, female Grizzly bears, Canada Geese, Monarch Butterflys, and the list goes on and on.

I realize that for some readers this will be a topic to avoid at all costs. Homosexuality is morally wrong; It's not natural; It's against God's law; It's just plain disgusting; Etcetera. Obviously it's only a minority of individuals of each of these species that engage in homosexual behaviour, just like with humans. Otherwise there wouldn't be enough progeny to continue the species and it would go extinct. But you may be interested to know that humans are not the only species where same sex pairs adopt and raise youngsters. Female Grizzly Bears sometimes pair up and raise cubs. Pairs of male Black Swans are actually more successful than heterosexual Black Swans, because their combined strength makes them able to build bigger nests, and acquire the largest and best quality territories. Bagemihl says that there are at least twenty species documented in which same sex pairs have successfully raised young.

I've always thought that the most important criterion for the ability to be a parent was to love and care for one's children. In my book, it's better to be raised by loving same sex parents than neglectful or abusive heterosexual parents. But in the recent U.S. elections, people voted in Arkansas to make adoption by same sex parents illegal and voted in California to prohibit same sex marriages.

I used to think that the whole same sex marriage issue was trivial. Why were Fundamentalist Christians making such a big deal about it when there were real issues to contend with, like the loss of biodiversity, global warming, and growing inequality? What difference does it make if homosexuals can or cannot marry? No church is going to be forced to marry same sex couples. The way I see it, this whole thing is a wedge issue, used by the Republican Party in the United States to manipulate Christian believers into supporting and campaigning for their candidates. Karl Rove is an atheist, but he learned how to motivate Fundamentalists to volunteer their time and money to support George W. Bush in two presidential elections.

But after the latest elections in the States a protest movement has sprung up. Gays in California and elsewhere in the U. S. are angry about Proposition 8. They see it as a human rights issue. I admit that this whole issue makes me nervous because the more that it's championed the more vociferous the backlash from Fundamentalists, and the easier it is for right-wing politicians to use it to their advantage by motivating their religious base. Even writing about this topic is risky as I am certain to turn off a number of readers by doing so.

But for what it's worth, I think that the fact that homosexuality is widespread in the animal kingdom, as documented by biologists and other close observers of wild animals, has important theological implications. If the practice is widespread in other species then who's to say it's not natural? One can argue that it's a moral question when it has to do with humans but is it really morally wrong for same sex giraffes, and lions, and butterflies to get it on? And if it's not a moral issue for them why is it a moral issue for humans? Why don't we save morality for behaviour that helps or harms people rather than consensual activities that adults do with each other for their own enjoyment?

And if homosexuality occurs throughout the animal kingdom there must be a reason. Why does God create homosexual animals? I think a lot of people will refuse to accept the evidence in Bagemihl's book because they see homosexuality as a defect. And if it's a defect, how could God be responsible for it? That's why they think that people are not born gay but choose to be that way. Because God couldn't possibly have created them to be that way. But think about it for a minute. Why would anybody choose to be gay? There's no advantage to it. You're virtually guaranteed to be despised and ostracized if people find out. It makes it way harder to have a decent life and raise a family.

I don't remember any time in my life when I chose to be attracted to the opposite sex. It's just the way I've always been. I would think that the same would go for gays. If God created straights to be attracted to the opposite sex then God created gays to be attracted to the same sex. I'm not sure why, but how could it be otherwise? We can't always understand God's creation but that doesn't mean we shouldn't respect it in all it's manifestations.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Rise and Fall of the "Southern Strategy"

In the recent U.S. Presidential election Barak Obama won a majority everywhere in the United States but the South. There, McCain won Southern whites by 38 percentage points. For the first time in 50 years a Democratic Presidential candidate was elected who wasn't from the South.

The fact that Obama was elected President without the American South means the end of the Republican party's forty year old strategy of appealing to a Southern white evangelical base. We saw this in the recent Presidential campaign, where the veiled attacks on Obama, an African American, for being - too different, not a real American, a scary radical – appealed to the Republican base but fell on deaf ears for everyone else. The “Southern strategy” that worked so well to keep the Republican party in power had finally exhausted itself.

The Southern strategy was premised on the South's unique identity: A more rural, less educated, less tolerant, more church going, more racist white population. For almost a hundred years southern whites had voted for the Democratic party because it was the Republican party under Abraham Lincoln that had led the Union to victory against the Confederacy. But in the 1960's Kennedy and Johnson, two successive Democratic Presidents had supported the civil rights movement and enacted civil rights laws that had challenged white supremacy in the South. Because of this association an opportunity arose for the Republican party to get Southern whites to switch their party allegiance.

In 1964, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater campaigned against the civil rights act. He wasn't a racist, he was a libertarian who believed that individual businesses had the right to do business with whomever they chose. But he campaigned for “States Rights” which was a kind of shorthand in the South for continuing the policy of segregation between whites and blacks.

Goldwater lost in 1964 but he carried the South. In 1968 Richard Nixon won the election on the campaign of State's rights and law and order. Nixon was able to appear moderate to most Americans because his campaign referred to integration obliquely through State's rights and busing. Nixon won again in 1972. In 1980 Ronald Reagan started his campaign by giving a speech supporting states rights in Philadelphia, Mississipi, a town who's one claim to fame was the brutal murder of three civil rights workers in 1964. Reagan was not racist himself, what he did was to promote policies that targeted blacks, but without mentioning race.

The South has the highest concentration of white evangelical Christians of any region in the United States. Except for the Quakers, who were driven out of the South, Southern Christians actively supported slavery in the nineteenth century and white supremacy in the twentieth , often citing verses from the Bible in support of their racist views. The US government enforcing school integration coincides with the start of the association between Christian Fundamentalists and the Republican party. The perennial Republican themes of small government and "getting the government off our backs" was seen as code to Southerners for an agenda supportive of segregationism.

Since Reagan, Fundamentalist Christians have been used by the Republican party as dedicated party workers who were key to getting out the vote. Clever operatives like Karl Rove have used hot button issues like abortion, and homosexuality to motivate evangelicals to do the basic footwork for their campaigns. Because Southern Evangelical Christians have such deep abiding prejudices they were especially vulnerable to being manipulated by the Republicans.

Paul Krugman, New York Times Columnist and Noble Prize winner sums it up nicely: “The Republicans above all are concerned with making America safe for the rich. Right wing economic ideology has never been a vote winner. Instead the party's electoral strategy depended largely on exploiting racial fear and animosity. The religious right supplied the passion and the economic right supplied the money.”

A leader like Barak Obama is a great leader precisely because he rises above sectarianism. He seeks that which ties us together, that which we have in common. When we build societies together we benefit from a multiplicity of beliefs and viewpoints. Focusing on what separates us and on emotional dividing lines is ultimately destructive to society. America is changing. A growing Spanish-speaking sector in California and the South-West is making even a covert appeal to racism a non-starter. The Southern strategy has seen it's heyday and the Republican party is about to pay the price for promoting hatred and intolerance.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Value of Democracy is in Getting Involved

Yesterday evening my wife and I went to the municipal all-candidates meeting at Chances. I've been living in Prince Rupert for almost sixteen years and each time that there is a municipal election seems more important and more interesting then the last. It's only in the last two years that I've actually attended any city council meetings and I've been pleasantly surprised to see democracy in action in every one of them.

I've lived in Vancouver and Montreal – two big cities where you could never get the access to city council that you can here. There is something to be said for a place the size of Prince Rupert. It's possible to get acquainted with the mayor and city council members. There isn't a huge distance between them and the public the way there is in the big city.

Sunday's all-candidates meeting was fun. I've been so wired to the U.S. Presidential election and the Canadian Federal election that I'd lost touch with what it feels like to be undecided. Not anymore. There are two mayoralty candidates, both former one term mayors of Prince Rupert. Judging from their words, either one would make a good mayor.

There were the five incumbent city councillors and ten wannabees. They all got to have their say and I thought it gave a pretty good sense of where each of them stood on the issues. If you didn't get a chance to go to either of the two all-candidates meetings you can still listen to this last one on Channel 10, at 5 PM and 8Pm as I recall. Or visit and check out who is running for what. Then google the candidates to look at their web pages.

Unlike our federal and provincial and the U.S. Presidential elections ideology and negative campaigning don't really come into the picture. All the candidates came across as practical and pragmatic and that's a relief. Most seemed aware of the financial and employment problems that we face here, most had good ideas for solutions and most saw the importance of having a well-thought-out vision for the future of our town.

Of all the new faces I was most impressed by the bus driver. Now there's a great occupation to have as a city councillor. He's bound to get an earful from a good cross-section of citizens every day. I liked the way that he suggested, more than once, that more people should take the bus. He's right and everybody knows it. You can save money and make this a greener city by taking the bus. He's got my vote.

I hope the turnout is good. The turnout for the recent Canadian election was terrible. On the other hand, the turnout for the American election was the best it's been since the 1960's. That's because Americans are so motivated to avoid a repeat of the last eight years and so inspired by the promise of Barak Obama.

Democracy is a treasure that we've built up over the years. In my opinion a treasure is only valuable when it gets shared. If you horde it it becomes meaningless, it loses its value. When we vote, when we attend city council meetings, when we petition city council, when we run for council, and when we write letters to the editor we are making democracy more valuable. The more people get involved the richer we all are. So get out and vote this Saturday and make a difference to the future of this fair city.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Obama's Election Heralds The End Of An Era

By the time most of you are reading this Barak Obama will be the first African-American President of the United States. Elected on a campaign of change, he appealed to American voters, tired of the divisive tactics and incompetent government of the Bush Republican White House.

Ironically, by abandoning international cooperation, waging preemptive war, and legalizing torture Bush and Cheney have seriously weakened American power. President Obama, who so clearly represents the positive aspects of the American Dream has the potential to reverse the decline in American prestige and power because the very fact of his election has resurrected that dream in the minds of people from around the world.

Over the month of October the world has witnessed the biggest financial catastrophe since the Great Depression. In the space of one month, hundreds of billions of dollars has been flushed away by panic and the loss of trust on a truly global scale.

Even Alan Greenspan, a devoted follower of ultra-free market philosopher Ayn Rand, who resisted calls to regulate sub-prime mortgages when he was chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, has finally admitted that his free market ideology was mistaken. Testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Greenspan said: “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder's equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief...”

For years the Republican party platform of “limited government” and privatization has led to the use of government institutions for the benefit of wealthy corporations like Haliburton, Exxon, and Blackwater. The American middle class has had it's income stagnate, while the top 1% has grown immensely richer. Meanwhile fraud and abuse of taxpayer's money has reached epidemic proportions. For the entire eight years of the Bush Administration the government has not served the public interest.

During the last months of the presidential campaign much was made by the Mcain Palin team of Obama's “redistributionist” philosophy. Supposedly, the fact that Obama wants to raise taxes for the hyper-rich, means that he is a socialist. The irony here is that it has been previous U.S. Administrations' abandoning government regulation that has led to the redistribution of wealth from ordinary Americans to Wall Street CEO's.

It should be apparent to anyone today that a country cannot prosper if its government abandons economic and environmental regulation. We've seen how people have no compunction about putting the entire financial system at risk if it means they can enrich themselves by doing so. And this year we've witnessed the spectre of thousands of infants in China being put on life-support because a few unscrupulous merchants increased their profit margins by spiking milk with melamine.

Now who wants to buy food from China? Chinese dairy farmers and milk producers are pouring millions of gallons of milk down the drain and suffering severe financial losses because of the Chinese government's failure to regulate it's own food industry. Americans: Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan, Phil Gramm, and Milton Friedman all believed that capitalists pursuing their own self-interest would somehow magically lead to the best of all possible worlds. And they've been proven wrong by recent events.

Our rights to health care, public education, clean air and water, and old age security should be universally accessible to all. The unregulated market is incapable of providing universal access to these public goods. Nor is it capable of eliminating public “bads”, like pollution and global warming by itself.

A new era is dawning. With Barak Obama, The United States now has a President who is not encumbered by free-market ideology. President Obama can now work to implement universal health care, lead the way in fighting global warming, and, with the help of other world leaders, put the global financial system back in working order.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Let's Banish Violence From This Town

Early in the morning on Friday, October 3, on second avenue in downtown Prince Rupert a man was beaten within an inch of his life. Three local thugs beat him up so badly that he had to be flown down to Vancouver for reconstructive surgery. Every bone in his face was smashed and it's since been reconstructed with metal plates.

Because of a vicious act of thuggery a man has been permanently disfigured and his family's life has been disrupted forever. He and his wife have now left Prince Rupert for good. A senseless crime has been committed and the repercussions are felt for a lifetime.

It's nothing new for people to be beaten up in down-town Prince Rupert late at night, but that doesn't mean that it somehow should be tolerated. Ten years ago a fisherman was beaten to death by thugs here . No-one was killed this time. Instead a man was scarred and disfigured for life.

This is a wake-up call for Prince Rupert. We need to do something together as a community to heal this wound and to prevent this kind of thing from happening again. I am so appalled by this act of violence that I feel compelled to publicize and write about it.

In a couple of minutes three thugs have destroyed a good person and his family. Three thugs have raised the level of fear and stained the reputation of our good city. They've been arrested for "aggravated assault" and I hope they go to jail for a good long time. But it shouldn't end there.

An RCMP spokesperson has told me that they plan to meet with downtown stakeholders sometime in the near future to discuss solutions to this problem. I certainly hope that the RCMP follows through on this. And I hope that they don't just leave it to downtown merchants because I think that the entire community should be involved. Lives have been ruined and our communities reputation has been dragged through the mud by this senseless act.

Are we going to stand by while this kind of thuggery keeps happening or are we going to get together and do something to prevent it from happening again? We need to put our minds together and come up with a way of banishing violence from this town. We've got to unite on this or we risk our community's future.

Two suggestions I've heard from downtown stakeholders are: bringing back police foot patrols downtown after dark and putting up surveillance cameras on second avenue. Good suggestions, but this is only a part of it. Maybe our schools and colleges need to get involved in educating against violence. Maybe we, as a community, need to be a lot less tolerant of violence. Maybe we need to widen the focus from violence against women to violence against anyone, period.

Violence is not just a bad thing that people do to each other - it's a cancer that eats away at people's good-will and trust. It needs to be rooted out and banished once and for all.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Green Economy or an Economy Built on Sand

The three main issues of the 2008 Canadian Federal election have been, in order of importance: 1. The Economy. 2. The Economy. 3. The Economy. Leadership and The Environment were also supposed to be campaign issues but they got shoved aside by the increasingly bad economic news. That news – that the global economy is on the brink of a depression due to the sub prime mortgage meltdown in the United States – has dominated TV, newspapers, and the web for the duration of the 2008 campaign.

By the time you read these words Stephen Harper will probably still be our Prime Minister. That's a shame because what the economic news is really telling us is that Harper has got it exactly wrong when he argues that going green would hurt the economy.

For the last 25 years the economies of both the United States and Canada grew through a prolonged consumption spree fuelled by a prolonged expansion of credit. The amount of credit in the U.S. tripled while real manufacturing declined. American consumers became the motor running the global economy. The United States ran a current account deficit for years while Asian and Middle -Eastern countries contentedly built up their currency reserves in American dollars. And 5% of the world's population consumed 25% of the the world's oil.

For a long time it seemed to work well, but the American economy that was the engine of global economic growth was built on sand. And once the wind blew strong enough it proceeded to crumble.

Twenty-five years when the United States went from being the acknowledged world economic leader to the world's largest debtor. Twenty-five years when the dominant ideology was “laissez- faire”, let the market decide, and “streamline” financial and environmental regulations that fettered industrial growth. Twenty-five years when the energy security of United States became increasingly compromised by dependency on oil imports.

For 25 years Ronald Reagan, The Bushes and the Republican party have argued that going green is bad for the economy. The American way – to shop till you drop was “non-negotiable”. Now look how the mighty have fallen. The American economy is broken far beyond the imaginings of its worst critics.
What we have really seen is that 25 years of easy credit and profligate consumption have been far worse for the American economy than any carbon tax could ever have been. Yet Harper still echoes the Republican theme song that green is bad for the economy.

For ten years Europe has been going green, developing clean energy technologies and shifting taxes and they have prospered and manufacturing expertise and jobs have stayed in Europe. If we had gone green in North America the Canadian economy would have been stronger – we would have had more manufacturing jobs, the automobile industry would have made more fuel-efficient cars and would have stayed more competitive in world markets. We would have been in a better position to weather high oil prices. And we would be contributing less to global warming by emitting less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

We could have developed made-in-Canada green technologies and exported them to developing nations like China, leading the way for the rest of the world. Instead we've followed in the footsteps of the Bush Republicans, squandering our opportunity to prevent global warming and clean up the environment.

Harper has gotten it exactly wrong. By doing nothing we've made ourselves more vulnerable to the U. S. debt explosion. Going green would make our economy both stronger and more resilient than it could be otherwise.

We can hitch ingenuity and know-how to developing clean energy and sustainable technologies, and build a solid foundation for Canada's future . We can produce economic growth honestly by re-tooling to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. We can inspire Canadian youth to participate in making our Country a leading example of sustainability to the world. Or we can let ourselves become increasingly vulnerable to the fallout from the decline of the American economy.

Harper tries to scare us with nonsense about carbon taxes harming the economy while he ignores the devastation brought on by right-wing ideology. We need to move from a faith-based economy to a reality-based economy, and the only way to do that is by going green.

Monday, October 6, 2008

What To Do About Weapons Of Mass Deception

One of the scariest things about politics these days is the sophisticated use of techniques of deception – better known under the euphemism of “spin”. Spin originally meant to “spin out a yarn” - to tell a make-believe story. But in the hands of Dick Cheney and Karl Rove it has become something far more dangerous.

In the twentieth century totalitarian regimes were masters of deception. In the former Soviet Union, the government tightly controlled information so that the public only got to see a glowing picture of Communism and a bleak picture of Capitalism. The British journalist George Orwell wrote his anti-utopia, 1984, about a totalitarian state which controlled the news, rewrote history, and constantly manipulated people's minds with slogans like “war is peace” and “freedom is slavery”.

1984 has come and gone a generation now and we are not living in totalitarian states yet. But, there are danger signs. The Bush regime convinced the American public to go to war with Iraq by falsely equating Iraq with 9/11. and then concocting false information about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. And, in the realm of science,the Bush government has altered testimony and blocked publication of information concerning global warming.

Two people that offer insight into modern political deception are author and scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson and billionaire philanthropist George Soros. Both, in various publications, but independently of each other, are telling us that our modern societies have become too tolerant of deception because we don't want to hear about painful truths. Soros calls America a “feel-good society” - a society where success is admired no matter how it is achieved. “Politicians do not aspire to tell the truth,” he says. “They want to win elections, and the best way to do that is to skew reality to their own benefit.”

In Unspun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation, Kathleen Jamieson agrees that deception is widely accepted and even admired in our society. She talks about the “I know I'm right syndrome” - our ability to deceive ourselves by consistently rejecting evidence that contradicts our belief system.

“There's real harm in pretending that there are easy solutions to big problems or that problems don't exist,” says Jamieson. “Accepting the spin means letting the problems fester. Meanwhile, the solutions become ever more painful, or the problems overwhelm us completely.”

In his essay “From Karl Popper to Karl Rove and Back” Soros argues that democracy is being abused by techniques borrowed from advertising and the cognitive sciences. “When emotions can be aroused by methods that bypass consciousness the public is left largely defenceless,” says Soros. But, he adds, “if the public is made aware of the various techniques it is likely to reject them.”

The key then, is to call politicians out on deception and to publicize examples whenever possible. As Soros says, “Politicians will respect rather than manipulate reality only if the public cares about the truth and punishes politicians when it catches them in deliberate deception.”

This is an important role for the media. It's heartening to know that in the United States in the 2008 Presidential Campaign some of the more egregious of the McCain campaign's attacks on Obama have been effectively challenged by the mass media. And, there are now reliable websites such as that help to sort out fact from fiction in American politics. In Canada, CBC TV has a welcome new feature called “reality check” that looks at the claims and counter claims between the various parties in the federal election.

Political discourse should be about reality. It should point to problems that actually exist and to genuine evidence of what works and doesn't work. When we are misinformed or denied pertinent information we are deprived of our power to choose and just as important, our ability to learn from experience. Deception undermines trust in democracy and ultimately makes it harder to govern.

This is why the Bush government had so much trouble convincing the American people to support a Wall street bailout package recently. Because they had been deceived about “The War on Terror” the American public was not ready to accept his recommendations on the financial crisis.

If you deceive people in order to get elected, then you end up continuing to deceive when you are in power and undermining the publics' trust. Let's hope that neither the Canadian nor the American election are won again this way.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Avoiding Overshoot Means Weaning Ourselves Off Oil

In 1957 twenty-nine reindeer were introduced to St. Matthew Island, a small island in the Bering Sea that had never seen reindeer or caribou before. Six years later there were 6000 reindeer. But three years later, in 1966, there were only 42 reindeer left. What happened? 6000 reindeer were too many for such a small island. In the absence of natural predators they grew to a huge population and damaged the habitat so severely that they overshot the island's carrying capacity. Consequently the island was only able to support a small remnant of the reindeer.

The development of agriculture, thousands of years ago, enlarged the carrying capacity of land for humans. Saving and planting seeds meant that early farming societies were able to support larger populations than the hunting and gathering societies that predated agriculture. In his book, Overshoot, William Catton Jr. argues that when technology began to be powered by fossil fuels our relationship to Earth's carrying capacity changed dramatically for the worse.

By developing machines that liberate the energy locked up in fossil fuels we have supported a vastly expanded human population. Our global population is about 6 billion people and still growing. The problem is that instead of enlarging the Earth's carrying capacity, the use of fossil fuels has diminished it by giving us the ability to cut down forests, overfish the oceans, eliminate bio-diversity, and cause global warming, all at an accelerating rate. Thus, our global civilization has run out of unspoiled habitats to exploit. In the past, when civilizations ran out of room people migrated elsewhere. But now, there is no elsewhere. .

Catton draws an analogy between our dependence on fossil fuels, which originated from dead plants, hence the name "fossil fuels" with what he calls "detritus ecosystems". Detritus is the accumulation of dead organic matter. Bloom and crash cycles such as the algae blooms in lakes and seas depend upon exhaustible accumulations of dead organic matter for their sustenance. These algae blooms collapse and die off after all the seasonal detritus is used up.

"Detritus ecosystems flourish and collapse because they lack the life-sustaining biogeochemical circularity of other kinds of ecosystems." Our global industrial civilization is doing the same thing. By using up fossil fuels, a non-renewable source of energy we have managed to exponentially increase our population over a period of several hundred years. But our society is precariously dependent on dwindling non-renewable sources of energy to feed, clothe and house everyone. If we don't retool our economies soon, when we run out of oil the vast majority of people will starve to death.

Now that the price of oil has increased substantially, governments and oil companies are quickly moving into more unconventional sources, such as tar sands and shale deposits. Doing this will only accelerate environmental breakdown and global warming. It takes three times as much energy to extract and refine oil from the tar sands as it does to extract and refine crude oil. That means that the more we depend on the tar sands, the faster we use up accessible fossil fuels. The Alberta Tar Sands is already using enough natural gas to heat a quarter of Canada's homes. Not only that, but the process of extracting oil from tar sands is accelerating the growth in carbon dioxide emissions which is linked to global warming. The Alberta Tar Sands is now the largest industrial project on the planet, devouring millions of acres of boreal forest, creating huge man made toxic lakes and emitting almost a third of the total carbon dioxide emissions for all of Canada.

A carbon tax or a cap and trade system, eliminating subsidies to the oil and gas industries, and subsidizing public transit and renewable energy technology would preserve our market system and encourage a greener renewable economy.It would help make us more resilient in the face of peak oil.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

It's the Vice President, Stupid!

The office of Vice President is a kind of strange animal in the United States. Many Vice Presidents have been forgettable and inconsequential. After all, it's the President who is “The Decider”. But every once in a while a president dies in office and the Vice President becomes the President. That is how Lyndon B. Johnson and Harry Truman became Presidents. And as the case with George Bush, the Elder and many others, the office of Vice President can serve as a springboard in a new Presidential election.

In the last twenty years the choice of Vice President has had a huge impact. Bill Clinton picked Al Gore to be his running mate in 1992. Gore lost the 2000 Presidential election to George Bush, the Younger – a ridiculously close election that was decided by the Elder Bush's buddies in the U. S. Supreme court. Gore went on to become a far more influential and respected leader than the sitting President,Bush, by tirelessly raising public awareness about global warming – winning a Nobel Prize in the process.

Bush the Younger, had Dick Cheney, a cabinet member in several previous Republican administrations and the former CEO of Haliberton, choose himself as his running mate. As a Vice President, Cheney has made his mark in U.S. history by promoting torture, taking away the rights of prisoners of war, deceiving the American people about the existence of nuclear weapons in Iraq and merging official U.S. economic and military policy with that of American oil companies.

Cheney is famous for saying that he had no intentions of running for President after Bush's term ended. We now know he didn't have to because he was pulling the strings behind George W. Bush, “The Decider” all along.

The choice of a Vice Presidential running mate says a lot about the person running for President. Bush the Elder chose an intellectual light weight named Dan Quayle, who's most famous for misspelling “potato” and criticizing a TV sitcom because it's main character had a baby out of wedlock. Richard Nixon, chose Spiro Agnew, A nasty person with an attitude who ended up getting indicted for corruption charges.

As we all know, John McCain's choice for Vice President is Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin. The most interesting thing about her is how McCain's choosing her has energized his campaign. Before he picked her he was trailing Obama in the polls. After he picked her he pulled out ahead.

Compared to Obama, McCain is not a very inspiring speaker and it was difficult for him to attract large crowds. Now with Palin by his side, the crowds and the excitement have intensified. But what does that say about John McCain, that his pick for Vice President outshines his own star?

Before he picked her, Palin, who had been Governor for two years, was a virtual unknown outside of Alaska. Now,Many of us know that she is a hockey mom, she is able to shoot and field dress a moose, she is a Christian Fundamentalist, and, like Dick Cheney, she has no qualms about stepping on people to get what she wants.

She delights the Republican base, but the McCain team has kept her cocooned, away from too many prying reporters. She apparently has no experience, knowledge, or interest in international affairs. This doesn't bother the party faithful, but it should bother everyone else. Unlike John McCain, she doubts that global warming is caused by humans. She believes that Iraq was behind 9/11 and was not aware of the “Bush Doctrine” of preemptive war. Like McCain she seems eager for a war with Russia or Iran.

When McCain ran against Bush the Younger in the 2000 Republican primaries, he called Fundamentalists Jerry Falwell, and Pat Buchanan, “agents of intolerance”. Fundamentalist Leaders, James Dobson and Richard Land, who were previously lacklustre in their support of McCain, are now vowing to help get out the vote for the McCain/Palin ticket. Just before the 2008 Republican convention McCain who wanted senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate, was told by party bosses to pick another choice because Lieberman was too liberal for the Fundamentalist Republican Base. He then picked Palin and launched a campaign as the team of “mavericks” out to reform Washington. As New York Times columnist Frank Rich said in last sunday's paper, it's amazing that Palin,“...a candidate who embodies fear of change can be sold as a “maverick”...”

Since picking Palin, McCain has become more hardline about abortion and backed off from any firm position on dealing with global warming – both positions that sit well with Fundamentalists. As Frank Rich points out, McCain's choice of Palin, against his own preference for Lieberman, and his recent policy shifts toward the fundamentalist base call into question “who has the power in this relationship and who is in charge.”

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

How the Economy Caught FIRE

A fire is a chemical oxidation reaction. It's products are heat, light, and carbon dioxide. When a small amount of combustible material, a match, for instance, reaches a threshold temperature, a chain-reaction ensues. The fire feeds on itself and keeps itself going until it runs out of fuel.

Think of debt as a combustible material. When entire classes of debtors default on their loans , as has occurred with the U. S. sub-prime mortgages then banks and mortgage companies that hold large portions of these debts become vulnerable to their own creditors. This can create a chain-reaction of bankruptcies where the value of all debt holdings, even the ones with AAA credit ratings go up in smoke as everyone tries to sell at once. This kind of “deflation” in value doesn't stop burning until it runs out of combustible material unless the government steps in and buys up the bad loans, letting taxpayers foot the bill.

The above scenario is getting played out, more and more frequently, as huge financial behemoths like the hedge fund “Long Term Capital”,Bear Sterns, and now the two mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have had to be successively bailed out by the U.S. Government. These two private companies hold five trillion dollars in home loans, one half of the U. S. Total. This time, it's the biggest and costliest government bailout in U.S. History.

It's as if the government has been busy snuffing the fires without really putting them all out. And for years they have been adding to the amount of combustible material by loosening restrictions on credit and finance, allowing private debt to became a larger and larger proportion of the economy. The United States Government has been supporting the Financial, Insurance and Real Estate industries – the “FIRE” Economy – at the expense of other important sectors of the economy, such as manufacturing. That's the thesis of American pundit, Kevin Phillips, in his recent book Bad Money.

According to Phillips, between 1987 and 2007 debt became America's largest fastest growing business. In that period, credit market debt quadrupled from $11 trillion to $48 trillion. “ The financial services sector...muscled past manufacturing to become the largest sector of the U. S. Economy.” By 2005 financial services made up 20 % of U. S. GDP while manufacturing was only 12%. “Instead of seeking to restore the older manufacturing industries or build the new technological sector, Washington steadily protected and advanced banking and finance.”

During the eighties and nineties U. S. Corporations “downsized their labour force by eliminating five million jobs and shifted production overseas or south of the border, sharply lowering their tax burden. By doing so they were able to triple their profits and increase their value on the stock market eightfold. Shareholders and CEO's benefited but obviously workers did not. That explains why the top 1% have become immensely richer while everyone else's income has stagnated.

Since the 1970's economic growth and social health indicators have diverged from each other. The problem with a large portion of economic growth in the last thirty years is that is too focused on financial markets which is too narrow a base to build a stable economy on. For instance, over the last five years the U.S. Housing sector provided 40% of growth in GDP and that was fuelled by a huge expansion in mortgages. No country can remain a major economic power by increasing the number of houses it builds. The focus on financial markets at the expense of manufacturing, and skilled jobs, Phillips argues, has been endemic to the steep decline of previous European Empires, namely the Spanish, Dutch, and British. “ The Dutch of the 18 th Century polarized into a nation of rentiers in which the wealthy lived off interest, while industry, fishing, and shipping declined.”

In the United States, the Great Depression of the 1930's followed a similar expansion of credit and widening gap between the rich and the poor in the 1920's, but it was reversed by the policies of FDR, leading to a huge increase in the average American standard of living during the 50's and 60's During the 1980's and 90's successive right wing administrations dismantled FDR's regulatory system while keeping interest rates artificially low, leading to excessive credit expansion and the crash and burn eras of the savings and loans fiasco, the Nasdaq tech stock bubble bursting, and most recently the sub-prime mortgage debacle.

Not only does this make the U.S. Economy more and more vulnerable to crashing, it puts the entire globe at risk. The BC lumber industry is dying because of bad mortgages in the United States.

We need to avoid the vicious cycles of deregulation and government bailout, that leads to burning up and wasting our national wealth. Our government can make our economy more self-sufficient by encouraging us to produce real manufactured goods, instead of encouraging us to buy more stuff on credit. That way we'd have more jobs, higher skill levels and economic growth would be benefiting a wider base of population, leading to a more stable economy.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Can We Trust "Trust"

What is trust? Trust is a universal relationship we have with people and situations in the world. Most of the time, we make exchanges with other people without having full knowledge about their intentions. When we “trust” someone it means that we believe in their honesty, benevolence, and competency even though we don't have certain knowledge that they have those qualities.

An important aspect of trust in relationships is delayed reciprocity. We do things for other people without expecting immediate gain from doing so. We trust that eventually our good deeds will get back to us. But we don't really know if and when that will be. This is how society works. Mutual trust is a kind of “social glue” that creates a sense of community and makes it easier for people to work together.

Trust is an essential part of many kinds of relationships – in love, friendship, and companionship, for example. We can relax and feel comfortable with people we trust. When we trust a situation we say “I feel at home”.

The opposite of trust is hostility, hatred, fear, and paranoia. In these cases we do not trust others because we believe that they are either incompetent or they mean us harm. We do not trust strange situations, and we say that we do not feel at home there. Not enough trust leads to social isolation, breakdown and bloodshed.

Ironically this kind of situation can lead us to trust certain people and certain religious doctrines too much. People are attracted to religious cults because of fear and a desire for certainty. In a small group such as a cult a leader can demand and obtain blind obedience from his followers. The followers of Jim Jones committed mass suicide after he told them to drink cool-aid laced with cyanide.

The price we pay for absolute certainty is always too high. Too much trust is wrong because it prevents us from correcting course when we make mistakes. The more you concentrate trust in one leader, in one set of ideas, and in one book of Scriptures, the less trust you have in outsiders and new ideas. It is inevitable that everyone will make mistakes, and that many of our ideas will turn out to be wrong. If we put too much of our trust in particular people, groups, or ideas we will not be open to making corrections when reality contradicts what we thought was true. In extreme cases, people will refuse to hear information that contradicts what they believe and will do anything to suppress the information and attack the messenger. But if we make it impossible to learn from experience we will eventually end up destroying ourselves.

The problem with trust is inherent in all relationships. That which we trust can end up harming us. We trust in our food supply, but sometimes packaged meats that we buy in the grocery store can kill us, as happened recently with meat tainted with Lysteria. We trust that nature will be predictable and benevolent – supplying us with water, sunshine, warm temperatures and good soil for growing crops. But sometimes nature is not benevolent as we witness major earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, hurricanes, and forest fires. We trust in our parents or our minister, or teacher and the vast majority of the time we benefit from this trust. But sometimes our leaders breach our trust and exploit us physically or sexually.

We trust the “system”, but sometimes our political and economic systems let us down – if we are in the midst of a war, or live in a “failed state”, or if we are living through an economic depression, or hyperinflation. When enough bad things happen to us we can lose faith in society, grab a gun and head for the hills. This makes the world an even more dangerous place.

Today our deep trust in human progress has been broken by the prospect of human-induced climate change. Climate effects virtually everything on earth. It determines the temperature, the amount of rainfall, the amount of ice and glaciation, the length and character of the seasons, and even the sea level. It is ultimately what makes a place livable.

This particular breach of trust is too much for some people to handle which is why they've ended up denying global warming. That our industrial civilization is accelerating global warming means that we can no longer trust our technology and economic systems to make the world a better place. It means that we have to get off our butts and help change the direction our society is going before its too late.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Defeating Terrorism One School at a Time

On Monday Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf, a longtime ally of U. S. President Bush, resigned in the face of growing calls for his impeachment. Musharraf was a problematic ally to the United States. Although he agreed to rein in the Islamic extremists and help root out al Queda, both groups have grown and prospered under his command. In spite of the twelve billion dollars that the United States has given Pakistan since 9/11, 90% of which has gone to the military, the Taliban and al Queda are now healthier than ever and using the northern territories of Pakistan as a base for incursions into Afghanistan.

At 169 million, Pakistan has the 5th largest population in the world. Born in the Indian Partition of 1947, it has been ruled by the military for most of its existence. While it has a nuclear arsenal and a modern army it is a “failed state” lacking in basic public infrastructure. It is in fact a feudal system, without a sufficient middle class population to ensure economic and political stability. With the majority illiterate and uneducated, Pakistan is mired in corruption and a breeding ground for Islamic extremism.

The roots of Pakistan’s malaise centers on the military’s longstanding rivalry with India, which started during the 1947 partition of India when the two states fought over who should control Kashmir, with it’s largely Muslim population. Early on, India won control, and the Pakistani military has remained obsessed with getting back at India, fighting a series of costly wars and bringing the world to the brink of a nuclear war twice, in 1999 and 2002. Meanwhile the rulers of Pakistan have consistently neglected economic development to the detriment of the Pakistani people.

Pakistan’s problems have been compounded by their “friendship” with the United States. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the CIA funneled billions into arms and training of Mujehadin insurgents in Pakistan through Pakistan’s military intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, the Americans, under George Bush senior, lost interest in the region. But the Pakistani military and the ISI continued to support Islamic extremists as part of their greater game plan to foment insurgencies in Kashmir and install a weakened regime hostile to India in Afghanistan.

According to Ahmed Rashid, Pakistani author of Descent Into Chaos, one of the best books ever written about the region, the Pakistani army backed the Taliban in the ensuing civil war in Afghanistan “encouraging thousands of Pakistani youngsters to fight and die for the Taliban just as it mobilized thousands of Pakistanis to fight in the Kashmiri insurgency against India.”

“Pakistani militants were providing manpower for both the Taliban and al Queda and running a vast logistics, communication, and transit network in Pakistan on behalf of al Queda… This support base in Pakistan was to prove critical to al Queda’s survival after 9/11”. Meanwhile, George W. Bush was supporting the very Pakistani military and political system that helped fund and arm the Taliban that sheltered al Queda when it attacked the U. S. in 2001.

Let’s stop for a second and consider the following: Suppose that instead of giving military support to Pakistan’s army, the U. S. had given money to build schools in Pakistan. Think what would have happened to Pakistan’s economy and democratic institutions if aid money had gone into building and operating public schools for the last twenty years. . People who remain ignorant are more likely to offer themselves up as suicide bombers for al Queda and the Taliban. When society becomes literate the mullahs become disempowered

 fighting terrorism only perpetuates the cycle of violence.  as one well-known American said:  “You can drop bombs, hand out condoms, build roads, or put in electricity, but unless girls are educated a society won’t change.” When you educate girls infant mortality decreases, population growth slows down, and the general health improves. .

The CIA and the ISI both contain the word “intelligence” and yet that is the very quality that is missing from their actions in the “War on Terror”.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Trees Are the Answer

My dad, Clive Justice, has a bumper sticker on his car that says: “Trees are the Answer”. No, he's not a member of a religious tree cult. He just thinks that planting trees can answer a lot of problems: climate change, the food crisis, pollution, urban blight, and many others.

As a landscape architect, he has spent his entire adult life working around trees. When I was a child he designed the grounds of the Vancouver Unitarian Church at 49th and Oak and had trees planted along the main sidewalks and took some of the trees from the original site to complement the church building. Some of the new trees were scraggly looking things then but fifty years later they've grown larger and given the church and it's grounds more maturity and substance.

Many trees live long lives. Trees grow very fast initially and then their growth tapers off and they slowly decline over hundreds of years. The twisty knarled yellow cedar that grows all along the BC coast, can live for thousands of years.

The first thing I noticed when I saw Prince Rupert, was how many trees there were surrounding the town. We are surrounded by mountainous coastline, with forests as far as the eye can see. You'd think that with so many trees in the distance, we wouldn't need so many here in town. But the fact is that trees are important in town as well.

Consider our golf course, the Hays creek ravine, the wooded areas around summit, the beautiful vertical park on Fulton that features maples at the bottom, rhododendrons in the middle and a majestic stand of sitka spruce at the top of the cliff - trees are essential to the identity of these places.

Even individual trees have importance. There are four big oak trees in town I've noticed that include a pair of tall and stately oaks on the grounds of the Masonic Temple. There are two beautiful big linden or lime trees, with their spicy fragrance, one on E 7th and one a couple of blocks away on E 6th. There's a huge Cottonwood down in the “holler” between E7th and 8th. There's a mysterious MonkeyPuzzle Tree on Borden Street across from the little park.

Trees that are commonplace elsewhere can seem exotic in town. Drive up the Skeena valley past Smithers , and quaking aspen are ubiquitous. When the wind blows their circular leaves shake. But, it's hard to find them in Prince Rupert. That's probably why I'm very fond of the aspen that towers over my back yard. Here and there the odd chestnut tree, with it's big palmate leaves gives deep and satisfying shade in the summer.

Trees can keep a house cool in the summer, and protect a house against wind in the winter. They are pleasing to the eye. Their roots help to hold the soil together absorbing excess water and preventing erosion. Trees provide vital nesting habitat for birds. Trees help to moderate dry climates by pulling water up from the ground and allowing it to evaporate into the atmosphere from the leaves. Large forests, like the amazon, actually make their own climate by creating rain clouds. Without trees the Amazon would not get any rain.

Trees give off oxygen and take in carbon dioxide. They are an answer to global warming. Planting trees store carbon in a form that doesn't cause climate change. Trees also absorb pollution, taking mercury up from the soil and up to one and a half pounds of air pollution a day per tree. A recent study from Columbia University showed that children who lived on tree lined streets were 25% less likely to have asthma than children who lived on streets without trees.

We stand to lose many pine trees in the BC interior because global warming has made BC more hospitable to the pine bark beetle. The pine beetle crisis is leading to economic devastation in Northern BC, as a gap in time of more than a generation lies between harvesting the dead and damaged pine and the growth of more mature trees to replace them.

When you plant a tree, you have to plan ahead, because the benefits of trees are often not fulfilled for a generation. It takes decades to build up an orchard. But after twenty-five years you have a renewable harvest of apples, pears, cherries, or what-have-you.

The red and yellow cedar, the sitka spruce, could be used here, on the BC North Coast for timber, for local construction, for furniture making, for boat building. It takes time to grow a tree, and you don't realize the benefits right away. If we develop resources that we have here we can support each other when times get harder. If we let big corporations extract our resources without our say, they won't look out for our future. We need to grow businesses and contractors here that use local wood and get involved, as stakeholders in the sustainable harvesting of our forests. If trees are the answer then we need to take the long view while we still have time.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Sheep Vegetation Management and Permaculture

Permaculture  Principle no. 11 -  "Use edges and value the marginal"  "The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place, these are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system." - David Holmgren

Let's talk about clearcuts in Northern BC.  Clearcuts are edges, between the forest and cleared land where fast growing broad-leafed plants like fireweed and alder outcompete conifer seedlings.  We think of clearcuts as ugly but they are a valuable food source for browsers like deer and sheep.

Principle no. 5 - "Use and value renewable resources."   "The proverb, "let nature take its course", that control over nature through excessive resource use and high technology is not only expensive, but can only have a negative effect on our environment." - Holmgren

It's cheaper and easier for big forest companies to control broad-leafed vegetation by helicopter spraying with herbicides.  But what are the costs?  Yes it's cheaper for the company but the costs are borne by the critters downstream  and some of those who suffer from the toxic effects of herbicides are people.

About four years ago I met an Australian by the name of Dennis Loxton.  This man is wonderfully articulate.  In less than two minutes he had me fascinated by the idea of sheep farming and silviculture - a combination I had never heard of before.   And the story that he told me about his career and his vision tie in very nicely with permaculture principles and local resilience.

In Australia there were 180 million sheep at peak, before the latest period of droughts.  Loxton got his training in wool classing or grading.  He knows his Merino wool.  Loxton came to Canada in the seventies and started in the tree planting business.  After seventeen years in silviculture he decided to combine his previous experience in Australia with his silviculture business and sheep vegetation management of tree farms in BC became a reality.

Loxton did the research.  He tested Merinos  and dairy sheep.  He found that the clearcuts in the coastal forest were so lush that the Dairy sheep could breed and lactate their lambs on the clearcuts, then be taken back to the farm to be milked in the winter.  Most of the lambs could be sold but the best could be kept as breeders and milkers for the next year.

Well, what about predators I hear you say.  How do you keep the sheep out in the clearcuts from being eaten by wolves and bears?  Loxton maintains that the solution is livestock guardian dogs.  In seventeen years of sheep herding and tree planting, averaging about six thousand sheep per year, he lost only eight sheep, thanks to the dogs.

According to Loxton,  the most expensive dairy product in the world is sheep cheese.  And globally. there is more milk produced from sheep than cows.  "The thing about sheep", says Loxton, "is that they can walk right to the market. They can deliver themselves right to the consumer.

Here's the beauty of it -  sheep don't like conifers.  Sheep won't eat pine or spruce, or fir, but they'll eat the fireweed that grows in the clearing and competes with the seedlings for sunlight.  Then they leave behind a valuable manure  that provides much needed nutrients for the depleted soil, accelerating the growth of the seedlings.  According to Loxton, all the silviculture plantations that were sheep grazed are in superior condition to the plantations that weren't.

"Here's the really interesting thing about northern BC - there's no bloody food up here."  Yep, we in the north are totally dependent on grocery stores and supply lines thousands of miles long to survive.  "  One day", he muses, " the truck won't come - and we'll be sitting here with no food."  "I was brought up in the Australian Outback.  I learned the importance  of bringing food home from the land."

Principle no. 2  -  "Catch and store energy"    Sheep turn thousands of tons of vegetation into meat, dairy, wool, and fertilizer.  Feeding them on clearcuts takes them off the farmer's fields in the summer, eating hay that could otherwise go towards feeding them in the winter.  It should be a win-win situation for sheep farmers, consumers, and forestry companies.  Instead, the sheep vegetation management business, which, in it's heyday was up to 50,000 sheep in BC, is down to zero now.  What with the pine beetle, collapse of the housing bubble, and the end of Skeena Cellulose,  one of Loxton's best customers, it's apparently cheaper for forestry companies to use herbicides.

Am I repeating myself here?  As Loxton opines - "Monsanto wins".  Not if I can help it.  It's about time we saw to our own food security here in the North, instead of foolishly believing that that food truck will always be there when we need it. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Midsummer's Festivals

We live in the BC Rainforest. No doubt about it. A friend of mine told me he had lived here thirty years and never saw a summer so bad.

I've been hitting the summer music festivals in the Valley. First there was Smithers. That really is held on “midsummer's eve”. So of course I stayed up all night and sang songs with a select drunken few, including a scotsman from Terrace who insisted on singing this Stan Roger's song over and over again.

The old Kitimat Indian village, at the head of Douglas Inlet, is a beautiful setting for a music festival,. Thank god they didn't have camping and we stayed in a motel as it rained and rained. And you wonder why we don't have an outdoor music festival here in town. Let's face it, camping does not work well in Prince Rupert.

A certain musician I know insists that our town should have a proper covered bandstand like the one in Terrace. I don't know, Third Ave around city hall worked on Earth Hour. It would work even better with amplification. A festival can use a mix of indoor and outdoor venues. That's why the rodeo grounds in Smithers and Kispiox work so well.

Of the three music festivals I went to Kispiox outshone them all. Certainly the weather helped. But it was also the crowd. There was a wonderful mix of all ages: from babies to grandparents and a lot in between. And the feeling at Kispiox was relaxed and laid back. The perfect atmosphere for a music fest.

There were a good number of Rupertites at Kispiox. Three of our bands were playing: Mermaid Cafe, The Grifters, and Nonsuch. We all did well and got a good reception.

I love that song of the Grifters: “I'm not adapting well” It's kind of like what I feel at music festivals. So much music, so many people. Too many choices. I ended up turning in early and missing a fantastic late night drum circle with some real African drummers.

Smithers had the best jam sessions, both formal and impromptu. I especially enjoyed Skeena Skiffle, Ray Leonard's new band that features Cynthia Pyde, James Powell, as well as former Prince Rupert musician Paul "Ammo" Sametz.

One of the high points for me was the Akasha Belly Dancing Workshop at Kispiox. Krystyna Moss is a Belly Dance teacher in Terrace. She gave the workshop to a group of about thirty women. I was the only guy there, but I wasn't dancing. I got to play Middle Eastern drum beats on my “doumbek” That's an Arabic type of drum that's usually featured in Belly Dancing. I had a wonderful time. One of the great things about Belly Dancing is that a woman doesn't have to be shaped like a ballerina to do it well. Why can't Prince Rupert have Belly Dancing classes? Only in Terrace and Smithers, pity.

Now Prince Rupert has two great dance acadamies that are training a lot of good dancers. We host a provincial dance competition, but we're behind the other towns in this Valley in musical events.

My favourite concert at Smithers was the Valley Youth Fiddlers. It was a whole lot of kids from Smithers playing fiddles together, accompanied by an adult rhythm section. For them to play that well, required a lot of dedicated parents and teachers. Smithers has got a really well established support network for all kinds of musicians, and you can hear the result. It is impressive.

Kispiox, has got the atmosphere down though. Partly it's location, out in the country beside the Kispiox River, it just seems made for it. One of the organizers told me it takes six months out of the year to organize the festival. The volunteers at all the festivals made it all possible, setting everything up , cooking for the musicians, cleaning everything up.

By the time we played at Kispiox I was getting better at doing announcements and microphone patter between songs. I made a point of thanking the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition for all the work they've done in publicizing Royal Dutch Shell's proposed coalbed methane drilling in the Sacred Headwaters. They had set up booths in all three of the festivals this summer. Shannon Mcphail first brought this issue to my attention, and her organization has done an amazing job of getting this issue out in public view where it needs to be.

It's our water they're messin with. People all up and down this valley are deeply concerned about the risks to salmon and wildlife. We need to bring our concerns to the BC government and to Shell Oil. We have a lot in common with people from the other towns in the Skeena River Valley.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

On The Beat

A lot of people feel that the drums are the timekeeper for a band. But if that were really true most bands could replace their live drummer with a drum machine and be the better for it.
The drums sets up the groove, which is not just keeping time but producing a sense of forward propulsion that drives the music and makes our bodies want to move.

In keeping time, every division of time gets equal emphasis but when the drums lay down a groove they do so by varying the dynamics and tonal qualities of every note played. Every groove is a rythm – a cycle of increasing tension building to a climax then a release – A mini crescendo and decrescendo.

The fact that drums do much more than keep time was brought home to me this weekend at a rainy outdoor concert in Kitimat when I saw a trio from Alberta. I won't tell you their real name, let's just call them – “The Anemics”. They were bass and lead vocals, lead guitar and rythm guitar. Three musicians but no drummer. Instead, they were using a drum machine.

The problem was, without a live drummer, they sounded anemic. No dynamics – no sense of propulsion. A drummer could have supplied dynamics and energized that band. Believe me, one whack from my snare drum could have woken that lead singer up in a big hurry.

A drummer in a band is like a system within a system. Each of his four limbs plays a different instrument, and it's as if they each have a mind of their own when they play. The left foot keeps time on the hi hat cymbals whereas the right foot plays the bass drum. The left hand plays “ghost notes” and back beats on the snare, while the right hand plays a driving pattern on the ride cymbal. When they all play together the parts interweave into a cyclic pattern of tension and release , tension and release. That pattern gives a feeling of forward movement that propels the rest of the band and the audience.

The bass drum is the foundation of the drum set. It's the largest drum, the lowest pitch and the one that is most felt throughout the body. When I was first taking drum lessons I was taught to use the bass drum as a timekeeper. Military marching bands also use bass drums to keep time. When you keep time with your right foot, by playing each and every beat, it provides a very solid foundation for the two hands. A steady, even bass drum is easy to follow and easy to dance to but it very quickly sounds monotonous.

In “swing” jazz, the bass drum keeps steady time, as the right hand plays a pattern of broken triplets on the ride cymbal, while the left hand plays ghost notes on the snare. In latin music the bass drum forms a regular pattern, called an “ostinato”. African and caribbean music often use the bass drum as the “backbeat” in place of the snare drum as it is used in rock music. Rock music borrowed the ostinato bass drum rythms of latin but used them to set up a regular back beat with the snare.

Modern jazz dispensed with the steady four bass drum and the back beat and freed up the bass drum to improvise and punctuate the phrasing of left handed ghost notes, while the high hat kept time. The phrasing in modern jazz is much longer and more relaxed than in rock music. Some people describe the feel of modern jazz as “spacey” because of the lack of a solid bass drum beat, especially on the “downbeat”, or first beat.

A lot of drummers play “double-bass” by having two bass drum pedals and using both their feet instead of just the right foot. That way you can do bass drum rolls and effects that go well with heavy metal music. I have probably irrational objections to the double-bassdrum. I would never use it myself because I consider the high hat too important to abandon, and I find double bass too much foundation and not enough architecture. I guess that means that I don't like heavy metal music. Although I do like Led Zeppelin, and their late great drummer John Bonham. He got his big bass drum sound with a single bass drum. It was a twenty-six incher, four inches bigger in diameter than what most drummers use.

Because the bass drum is the foundation, if you try and make a major change to the way you play it you can end up messing up your sense of time and the coordination of all the rest of your limbs. Don't mess with the foundation unless you've got a lot of free time and a basement where you can chop wood (ie., drum sticks). If you've successfully rebuilt the foundation, then you can take your drum set out of the woodshed and use it to energize a real band. Rock on drummers.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Tipping Point

For those of us who want to facilitate change toward sustainability the idea is to find the point of leverage where a small effort can create a big change in behaviour. According to the latest research, one underestimated and underemployed lever is our perception of what other people do in our neighbourhood and community. We think we do things because of the kind of person we are, but much behaviour is contagious. If we see others doing something in a certain situation, we are more likely to act in the same way.

“When it comes to interpreting other people's behaviour, human beings invariably make the mistake of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of situation and context.” So writes Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point. The Premise behind Gladwell's book is that while the world might seem like an “immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push – in just the right place – it can be tipped.”

According to Gladwell, the key to finding tipping points is to see social change as like an epidemic. Social behaviour is contagious, and there is always a minority of people who seem to have an inordinate influence on shaping new social trends, just as there are certain people who contribute more than their share in disease epidemics because they are great social mixers.

For instance, teenage suicide is a good example of a contagious behaviour. When one charismatic teenager in Micronesia committed suicide, a rash of similar suicides erupted in these islands over the months and years that followed. There is evidence that when a prominent suicide is featured in major newspapers, the rate of suicide temporarily increases afterwards.

In The Tipping Point, Gladwell features James Q Wilson's and George Kelling's “Broken Windows Theory of Crime” as a prominent example of epidemic behaviour. If a window is broken and left un-repaired, then people walking by will assume no-one cares and no-one is in charge. This sends a signal that anything goes, which encourages criminal behaviour.

In the 1970's and 80's a crime wave swept the inner cities of America. In New York, the subway system became dysfunctional as graffiti, litter, fare-jumping, public disorder, and muggings increased dramatically. In the the late 1980's and early 1990's the New York Transit Authority hired David Gunn and William Bratton, both disciples of George Kelling, and his broken windows theory of crime. Subway cars were kept clean, graffiti was painted over, and fare jumpers were prosecuted. They believed that graffiti, and fare beating were small expressions of disorder that invited much more serious crimes. Bratton went on to become head of the NYPD, where he applied the same strategies to the city at large. The result was a dramatic decline in serious crime in New York by the late 1990's.

Following from the idea that social change is like an epidemic, Gladwell lists three guidelines for finding tipping points They are: “The Law of the Few”, “Stickiness”, and “The power of context”.

“The Law of the Few”, states that certain kinds of people are critical in spreading information. These are people that can manage to take new innovations and translate them into something that the rest of us can understand. They often cultivate large circles of friends and are up on all the latest information. Gladwell calls them “Connectors”, “Mavens” and “Salesmen”.

While contagion is a function of the messenger's behaviour, “stickiness” is a function of the message. Messages that have stickiness are messages that are memorable and that move us to action. By tinkering with the presentation of messages we can significantly improve their stickiness. Gladwell goes into some detail to show how by progressively honing the message through continually testing on preschool audiences, the makers of the children's TV shows – Sesame Street and Blue's Clues were able to get and keep the audience's attention and promote learning.

The Power of Context is essentially a generalized version of the broken windows theory. “Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places they occur.” “ We are more than just sensitive to changes in context,” says Gladwell, “we are acutely sensitive.” “The power of context says what really matters are little things... It is possible to be a better person on a clean street or in a clean subway than in one littered with trash and graffiti."

Hence the potential power of such programs as Communities In Bloom and Civic Pride. If people in Prince Rupert participate together to clean up and beautify their property - clean up litter, plant flowers, cut down weeds, and do some landscaping, they feel pride in having a cleaner city and pride in having contributed. Neighbours are inspired to clean up their yards Social trust increases and more and more people are willing to pitch in and cooperate in other public projects. A better looking city stimulates tourism and discourages crime. The small effect of a group of people cleaning up their yards can have big effects on their city. That's the idea behind “The Tipping Point”. Major positive change can come about from small changes in people's behaviour because behaviour is contagious.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

There's Hydrocarbons in Them Thar Hills

Last week Shell Oil came to town and gave an open-house about their coalbed methane project in the Sacred Headwaters. I had a fascinating chat with Shell Canada employees, Larry Lalond and Kathy Penney. It was disappointing to note that only a handful of local people came to the open house. Perhaps Shell could have done better to advertise their open house. I would think it would be in their interest to encourage more local participation.

Hopefully, we have gotten past the bad old days when resource extraction was a kind of smash and grab operation with no meaningful consultation with stakeholders. This time I'm assuming that Shell, who appears to be in this for the long haul, is really serious about listening to the public. The issue that grabs attention anywhere downstream of the Sacred Headwaters is the issue of water. In order to get the methane out, Shell is proposing to pump water from underground to the surface. This “produced water” could well be contaminated with heavy metals or salts, we don't know yet, until it is properly tested.

Shell insists that it will truck all the contaminated water, a thousand kilometers away to Fort St John, where it will be re-injected underground. This is dubious, because it is not only a ridiculous waste of energy, but also totally impractical, once more than a handful of holes are drilled. The other problem is that pumping water out of an aqueduct is likely to affect ground water levels which could adversely effect salmon fry. These are all excellent reasons for local people to get involved in the consultation process with Shell. We're talking about them screwing around with our water, people!

Royal Dutch Shell is one hundred years old. It is now the second largest energy corporation in the world, after Exxon-Mobil. Last year, Shell made thirty-two billion dollars. The CEO of Shell, Jeroen van der Veer, acknowledges both Peak Oil and Global Warming. He'd like to see a global agreement on Carbon Cap and Trade soon.

Why I mention this is because it has direct consequences for all of us. Peak Oil means that the global demand for hydrocarbons is or will soon exceed supply. The price of oil may have its ups and downs, but as long as global demand keeps rising faster than supply, which is near peak production, it's likely that it will become more and more expensive over time. This means that there is and will be a massive transfer of wealth from consumers of oil and gas to producers. Ordinarily, this would be business as usual in our global capitalist system, as the higher price would just encourage everyone to avoid these products, but in this case it isn't – for two reasons: First, there are no good substitutes for oil in our modern economy; and Second, burning hydrocarbons on the massive global scale that has been happening is leading to climate change. For these reasons it is essential that governments step in and limit the amount of carbon emissions in the economy by putting a price on carbon.

Everything is connected. The atmosphere is common to all and if too much carbon dioxide gets produced the costs are spread to everyone, in terms of the damage from climate change. On the other hand, Oil companies, and consumers of oil products are not paying for those costs. This is what is called: “market failure”, when one group in the economy avoids paying for all the costs of their activities. That is why government has to step in and devise a fair means of compensating the public for this cost and at the same time, slow down the massive transfer of wealth from consumers to oil producers. Stephan Dion, leader of the Federal Liberal party got it right when he said polluters should pay.

Unfortunately in all this consultation with Shell, where are our governments? The Campbell government has streamlined and fast-tracked coalbed methane tenures and subsidized roadbuilding and initial drilling. Not only that, the Campbell government has taken away the legal rights of municipalities and regions to have a say in resource extraction decisions. Something doesn't jibe here with the provincial government's commitment to fight climate change .

This is where the other problem of “political failure” comes in. From the huge transfer of wealth from the public to oil companies, a portion of big oil's money is going towards lobbying governments. This has led to political corruption on a scale not seen since the nineteenth century. As a result oil extraction, production, and consumption is subsidized instead of being properly regulated. And we have huge military expenditures for wars in the Middle East which just might possibly have to do with securing oil supplies there. You can see the damage this has done to our democratic institutions in the obvious bias of the Bush and Harper governments toward oil companies and their blatant foot dragging over doing anything decisive about global warming.

You may say, “What's global warming got to do with me personally?” Here's the connection: Only if ordinary citizens get involved and take governments to task on these issues will we be able counter big oil's money and influence. Otherwise they'll run the show. And if you want to know what that's like, take a look at Iraq.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Carbon Dioxide and the Magic of Exponential Growth

If a frog is put into a pot of boiling water he will immediately jump out of the pot and save himself. But if the same frog is put into a pot of water at room temperature and the water is slowly heated, the frog will not notice the water is getting hotter until it is too late. The frog is a lot like us. He is built to notice and respond to sudden changes in his environment but is not as good at responding to gradual changes.

Two hundred years ago, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million (ppm). It is now 385 ppm and increasing at a rate of 1.7% a year, due largely to the industrial development of China and India, and their increasing dependence on coal – the dirtiest of fossil fuels.

At 1.7% per year the amount of CO2 emissions will double in 43 years. That's the magic of exponential growth. As the world industrializes, more and more energy is needed and if that energy is from fossil fuels, the amount of CO2 emissions keeps growing too.

At this rate of growth, before the end of the century the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will reach and surpass 1000 ppm. Carbon dioxide is toxic to the human heart causing decreasing contractile force as well as difficulty breathing. At concentrations of 1000 ppm CO2 causes discomfort in the form of nausea and headaches for about 20% of people. At concentrations of 2000 ppm – which we would reach within a century – the majority of people would experience discomfort. At that point, we might want to live outside all the time because the concentration of CO2 inside buildings would be even higher.

Although it is true that plants need carbon dioxide to grow, not all plants would benefit from increased levels of CO2. Specifically, our food crops would not do as well, but apparently weeds would thrive under these conditions.

Is this the kind of world we can look forward to? A world of mass hunger, misery, and nausea? Notice I haven't even mentioned global warming up until now. What is driving almost all the greatest threats to humanity, including global warming, is industrialization and economic growth.

People who believe we can continue on with business as usual are a lot like that frog in the pot – they don't notice any difference from day to day. It's not hotter today than it was yesterday. More and more children are getting asthma, but the increase is gradual so we don't notice. More people are getting cancer from the increased amounts of toxins in the environment, but the increase is so gradual that we barely notice it. Forests, which are net absorbers of CO2, are being cut down at an alarming rate – but we don't notice it because it's happening somewhere else.

Some people are worse than the frog. They're more like the ostrich that hides its head in the sand. They find the consequences of this news too overwhelming. They are too chicken to face up to the fact that we have to stop the growth of industrial output or we won't survive.