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Don’t count on politics to fix climate change

April 5, 2014 Leave a comment

If you haven’t paid attention to the United Nations report on climate change, now might be a good time to start.The report, issued March 31, tells us the impact of climate change is already being seen around the globe, and bigger effects are on the way.

The UN warns that the increase in emissions of greenhouse gases is having serious effects on our planet. As one example, Arctic sea ice is melting faster than ever. The consequences of global warming include extreme weather events (how about that winter, eh!), displacement of populations, food shortages, and economic shocks in wealthy as well as poor nations.

“If the world doesn’t do anything about mitigating the emissions of greenhouse gases and the extent of climate change continues to increase, then the very social stability of human systems could be at stake,” said Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The next step for the panel is to determine what steps have to be taken to head off a calamitous warming.

Warnings like these seem to come in a group. Only days before the release of the UN report, NASA put out a document containing an even more ominous forecast.

A team of NASA-funded mathematicians looked at various scenarios for the future of mankind. It came to the conclusion that the collapse of civilization is inevitable unless “major policy changes” are made to control population growth and reduce the gap between rich and poor societies.

It might be possible to dismiss the NASA warning as a speculative pondering of what might happen if we continue to eat up the earth’s resources at present rates. We’ll be reduced, says NASA, to grubbing for roots in about five hundred years.

The UN report needs to be taken more seriously. Ian Bruce, a spokesman for the David Suzuki Foundation, puts it this way:

“Climate change is more than just an environmental issue. This is an economic and security issue that will impact everyone from the biggest cities to the smallest towns.”

If you look closely, you can see a link between the UN warning and NASA’s prophesying about a collapse of civilization.

The linkage is our world’s constant diminution of its natural environment. Humans have been tampering with the balance of nature since the emergence of Homo sapiens 200,000 years ago. The real crunch started about 12,000 years ago when man first domesticated animals and took up a sedentary life style.

51bCT7TOFwL._AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-46,22_AA300_SH20_OU15_J.B. McKinnon explores this theme in his book, The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As it Could Be.

McKinnon, the Canadian who came up with the idea of the 100-Mile Diet, thinks it unlikely that disasters such as those predicted by NASA “will convince us to change our relationship with the natural world.”

“Our own ancestors handed down a degraded globe,” he writes, “and we accepted that inheritance as the normal state of things. As our parents and grandparents did before us, we go about our lives in the midst of an ecological catastrophe that is well underway.”

McKinnon makes the case that from the earliest ages of mankind’s dominance over other species, we have reduced the genetic pool of earth’s inhabitants, until today we retain only around ten per cent of the original species. And in every age, he observes, we take it as normal the condition that we inherit. As a result, we accept the plundering of our forefathers and continue in much the sane path whether it be the near disappearance of cod stocks off Canada’s Atlantic coast, the loss of bison on the western plains, the decimation of the whale population , or the extinction of the passenger pigeon and other species.

It’s worth quoting from McKinnon in any discussion of climate change because he appears to offer a solution to the precariousness of today’s world. He calls it “rewilding,” in the words of environmentalist David Foreman “to make a place wild again.”

What he means, I think, is that we will have to withdraw from certain regions that have never been suitable for human habitation. The deserts of Nevada, the high forests of British Columbia, or  the boreal forests of northern Russia. Accept that they belong to the sand turtle, the grizzly bear, or the Siberian tiger.

The linkage between rewilding and climate change is that we are more likely to deal with both challenges through economic circumstance rather than through any conscious decision to protect wildlife or reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever voluntarily shift to the low-carbon economy that we must adopt if we are to head off the most severe consequences of global warming. Nor will we find the solution in politics. The more likely outcome is that economics — aided by science, with more sustainable methods of energy conversion — will  do it for us.

Only when Las Vegas can no longer afford to bring water to the desert and the cost of oil forces millions of internal combustion engines off the roads, will we move screaming and kicking into the sustainable society that survival demands. That day can probably be measured by the span of two lifetimes — that of our grandchildren, if not our children.

So get ready for $5.00 a litre gasoline and water so expensive you’ll fill in your lawn. You’ll be saving the world.

 

 

A show of contempt for Canada

March 10, 2014 Leave a comment

A single strand has run through the Quebec separatist movement almost from the day in 1967 that Rene Levesque left the Liberal party to establish the Parti Quebecois as the vehicle by which sovereigntists hope to ride to independence. It is their contempt for Canada.

That contempt was well summed up by former leader and Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard, who said “Canada is not a real nation.”

Canada was and is, however, a “real” enough nation to have guaranteed the continuance of the French language, religion, and civil law after the British victory at the Plains of Abraham. It is further “real” enough to have become a bilingual country under that son of Quebec, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and to engage in a massive tax transfer that since the 1950s has benefited Quebec to the tune of some $146 billion. Without the $4.5 billion  the province will receive from equalization this year alone, its deficit would be twice the shortfall announced by Premier Pauline Marois.

But numbers aren’t the real issue.It’s contempt that hurts.

This sentiment sank to a new low over the weekend (of March 9) when Premier Marois announced that Pierre Karl Peladeau, the controlling shareholder of Canada’s biggest newspaper chain — Quebecor Media — would be a candidate for the PQ in the April 7 provincial election. Quebecor’s properties include the Toronto Sun and Sun Media chain, plus the Sun News TV channel.

uooGS8hM2WuiOygSrHQEjBJkDsdIa0y-9e2WfALYwXiE804ouBng1L2alx2rE8uek7ho7g=s131Peladeau, whose wealth is drawn from a variety of newspaper and TV holdings in a business established by his father, declared “I am a sovereigntist” and said he was running so that his children could live “in their own country.”

While the law would require Peladeau, if elected, to put his shares in trust, he is reported to have said that he would not sell them, even if ordered to do so.

As one wag observed, Peladeau is the first billionaire to join the PQ. Aside from illustrating his contempt for all the Canadians who have done business with his papers and helped to enrich him, this sets up some interesting dichotomies which Quebec separatists are going to have to deal with.

Premier Marois touted Peladeau’s candidacy as evidence that the PQ will have a strong grip on the economy — previously a weak spot in the party’s armour. He’s seen as a “star candidate,” his candidacy hailed as a “game-changer.” It remains to be seen how Peladeau’s well-known pro-business — and anti-union — stance will go down with party supporters. The PQ is a social democratic party, and most of its followers. besides being Quebec nationalists, stand well left of centre.

The Peladeau adventure also has to set off alarm bells in the executive corridors of the National Hockey League. He’s been a prime mover in the scheme to build a $400 million, publicly-financed, hockey arena in Quebec City. The idea was that the NHL would bring a team to the city once the stadium had been built. The steel frame is already up. But the Peladeau connection is sure to be seen  as a negative by many NHL owners.

Quebec Liberal leader Philippe Couillard is asking some interesting questions about Peladeau’s influence over Quebec media during the electi0n campaign.

It is too early to make predictions on the outcome of the Quebec vote, although the PQ apparently has an edge in the key francophone vote. Overall, according to a poll by CROP, the Liberals and PQ are tied at 36 per cent.

Premier Marois refuses to commit herself to holding a referendum if the PQ wins a majority. But neither does she rule it out. That could scare off nationalist voters who don’t want to see Quebec plunged into a third, and more divisive then ever, referendum.

But it’s Pierre Karl Peladeau’s contempt for Canadians that will count for most people outside Quebec — and many inside, too. He’s used our freedom of the press to gain control of a vast media empire that has given him power and profits.

Will Canadians be much longer interested in subscribing to or supporting Quebecor Media papers, knowing that profits will conti9nue to accrue to Peladeau through his controlling interest?

We have laws in Canada against foreign ownership of news media. Peladeau should think about this when he campaigns for an independent Quebec.

Sunken ships and dirty oil

January 16, 2012 Leave a comment

UPDATE: President Obama’s denial of a permit for TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, on the grounds that the Republican-dictated Feb. 21 deadline does not allow sufficient time for a proper environmental review, is likely just the first in a series of setbacks for pipeline proponents.

They’re happenings half a world apart — the grounding of the cruise liner Costa Concordia off the Italian coast, and the hearings into the proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline, being held in Kitimat, British Columbia.

What links them is the prospect of tanker groundings in the pristine waters of the 130-kilometre long Douglas Channel. It’s this fear that is motivating B.C. native groups and environmentalists to oppose the plan of Enbridge Inc. to pipe crude oil from Alberta’s tar sands to the B.C. coast. The scheme calls for new port faclities at Kitimat that would permit more than 200 tankers a year to ply Douglas Channel en route to Pacific destinations, mainly China.

The case against the oil sands (or tar sands as they were known before  oil industry’s PR machine got to work) is eloquently made by Alberta author Andrew Nikiforuk in his book, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent.

Nikiforuk does more than criticize. While declaring that the pace of oil sands development represents a political emergency, he offers up a 22-point plan to avert disaster, both environmentally and economically.

His arguments need to be taken into account by the National Energy Board in its hearings that opened in Kitimat last week. It’s going to take two years for the NEB to reach a decision. Even then, no matter what  it recommends, the decision could be overturned by the pro-oil Harper cabinet in Ottawa.

From what we’ve heard out of Ottawa, the hearings could turn out to be an exercise in  futility.

They got off to a rocky start with that infamous open letter from the minister of natural resources, Joe Oliver, pointing the finger at “environmental and other radical groups ” w0rking with “foreign special-interest groups” in opposition to the pipeline.

That line was set down last fall by Prime Minister Harper when he warned against “American interests trying to line up against the Northern Gateway project.” Another indication that nothing happens in Ottawa without Mr. Harper’s fingerprints on it.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the foreign money of international oil companies who are spending large sums in Canada to back the project. That’s because their cause is in the “national interest,” according to Harper & Company.

Northern Gateway is about more than the pipeline, however. It’s about the morality — and the long-term economic consequences — of the environmental degradation caused by extracting oil from the tar sands.

The premier of Alberta, Alison Redford, was quite accurate when she suggested that some opponents are primarily motivated by a desire to stop or slow down the oil sands.

Pipelines are the only way to get the oil out. Stop the pipelines and you stop the oil sands.

The delay in approving the Keystone XL line in the States — a prospective key carrier of oil sands crude to the Gulf of Mexico — is a serious setback to the hopes of oil sands proponents.

A strong argument can always be made for the jobs and other economic benefits that flow from exploitation of natural resources.

We need to argue equally strongly against destroying our planet to feed the voracious beast of oil consumption. The best way for North America to achieve energy self-sufficiency is to consume less, not produce more. Will anyone make that argument to the National Energy Board?

Potash and Prosperity – 2 cases where Harper’s got it right

November 4, 2010 Leave a comment

A couple of good things happened in Canada this week. I have to credit the Harper government in both cases.

First came the announcement by Environment Minister Jim Prentice stopping the proposed Prosperity gold and copper mine in the Chilcotin district of British Columbia.

Then we had the decision of the federal government, announced by Industry Minister Tony Clement, to bar the acquisition of Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan by the Australian mining giant, BHP Billiton.

I’ve written here previously about the Prosperity mine. It’s said to have offered promise of five billion dollars in jobs and other benefits over the next 20 years. This in an area that’s been hard pressed economically.

But even that’s too high a price to pay to destroy the ecology of this incredibly beautiful and pricelessly pristine region. The idea of draining Fish Lake and using it as a tailing pond was an obscene and despicable concept.

The scheme would have been fought “to the death” by First Nations of the area, according to the local chief.

I first gained an appreciation for the grandeur of the Chilcotin district when I read Rich Hobson’s classic book, Grass Beyond the Mountains.

It tells the two of two young Americans who meander into the Chilcotin country in the 1930s and establish a cattle ranch far beyond the existing ranches of that day. I finally had the opportunity to visit the district just a few years ago. It’s breathtakingly beautiful and we need to keep it that way.

Grass Beyond the Mountain has since become a classic of Canadian pioneering literature, a 20th century counterpart to Susanna Moodie who wrote of the primitive life of early 19th century Upper Canada.

Both decisions of the federal government this week were a little bit unexpected, although it seemed to me that in the case of Potash, Harper & Co. had little or no choice in view of the almost universal opposition the deal ran into in Western Canada.

The Saskatchewan mines of Potash Corp.  hold about a third of the world’s known supply of potash, the key ingredient in fertilizer. The world is going to massively need this stuff if a global famine is to be avoided in the next fifty years.

Potash, along with oil and water, has the potential to make Canada the richest country in the world in the 21st century.

Some see the decision as a betrayal of Harper’s pro-business Conservative philosophy. The rejection supposedly imperils Canada’s claim to be open for business. Foreign investors won’t want to come here, according to this argument.

That’s a fallacy.

The Billiton bid was for Potash shares, which would of course have given it ownership of the company. The proceeds would have gone to current shareholders, fewer than half of whom are resident in Canada.

The only Canadian investment that could have come from this deal would have been if Billiton were to back up its share purchase with additional money to expand the business, open new mines, and create more jobs for Canadians. The record of other foreign buyers, such as U.S. Steel (Stelco) and Vale Inc. (Inco and Falconbridge) in this regard, is not good.

The government has made the right decision. It also probably saved a dozen Tory seats in Saskatchewan – most of which might have been picked off by the NDP in the next election. No wonder Jack Layton tried so hard to characterize the Clement announcement as but the prelude to an eventual cave-in.

In the case of the Prosperity mine, Mr. Prentice cited the “scathing” report of an environmental commission that looked at the project. He has since resigned from cabinet, announcing he has accepted a senior position at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC). He’ll be missed. Don’t be surprised if you see him back one day in some future Conservative party leadership campaign.

Chile Rescue: A Canadian parallel

October 14, 2010 Leave a comment

The marvellous rescue of the 33 Chilean miners — watched by millions around the world — brings to mind a Canadian underground rescue operation that also was a media sensation in its time.

On Easter Sunday, April 12, 1936, three men went down into the decrepit Moose River Gold Mine in Nova Scotia. Two of the trio were the mine’s owners who were on an inspection trip prior to putting this albatross up for sale.

The tunnels, weakened by the extraction of gold from the rock pillars that supported them, were cluttered with splintered timbers and fallen rock as the men picked their way underground. Water gurgled menacingly. The noise of creaking timbers alerted the men to an imminent collapse.

What made the Moose River mine disaster famous was not so much the 10-day effort to retrieve the men, but the fact that news of the search was broadcast throughout North America via the infant communications medium of radio.

J. Frank Willis, the 28-year-old regional director for the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (predecessor to the CBC) hurried to the scene, along with dozens of newspaper men.

Over a 56-hour stretch, from Monday, April 20 to the end of the drama just after midnight on April 23, Willis broadcast live reports for two minutes every half hour. He was on the air for 56 hours straight. Radio stations all over North America picked up his accounts, delivering an audience of 100 million listeners.

In Willis’ final report, he told unbelieving listeners, “I can hear the men working, breaking through the rocks.” Then came these heart-stopping words: “They have been saved. They are out of the mine. That is all. This is the Canadian Radio Commission.”

A probe had been forced down to the 43-metre level where the three men had been trapped by a cave-in. A garden hose was shoved down, and for five days it carried candles, matches, brandy and hot soup to the trapped men. Sadly, only two were still alive when diggers got to them. One had succumbed to pneumonia.

As far as I know, the only book about the incident is It Happened at Moose River, by David Stephens (Lancelot Press, 1974).

It’s understandable that the sales of this book never matched that of Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (Avon, 1975) by the British author, Piers Paul Read. This gripping account of the survival of 16 of the 45 people caught in the Andes plane crash of a Uruguayan rugby team also was made into a movie.

You can bet that the race to publish the first book about the ordeal of the San Jose copper miners is already underway. It’s reported that the miners have agreed to collaborate on their own book. They kept a common journal during the 69 days they were locked underground.

The English-language  Santiago Times has an interesting on-scene account of the rescue of the Chilean miners.

Many thoughts went through my mind in watching the last hours of the rescue:

  • How must the last man out have felt while he waited alone for the final trip of the Fenix capsule?
  • What a triumph of ordinary mechanics that rescue was. It looked like a giant Meccano set. Not a computer chip in the whole system!
  • How did the men manage to contain the inevitable rivalries and jealousies that would have been present during those long days and nights underground?
  • And how many will find their lives in turmoil and distress as they endure the inevitable pressures of fame in the months and years to come?

In the Moose River disaster, the two survivors went on to live normal lives — David Robertson, an investor in the mine who was the chief of staff at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, and David Robertson, who had worked as the timekeeper at Moose River. The second owner, Toronto lawyer Herman Magill, died underground.

We need to save Fish Lake

September 14, 2010 Leave a comment

 The Harper cabinet is facing a decision that will go a long way toward revealing how serious the government is about balancing environmental protection with economic growth.

It is about to make a decision on an application by Taseko Mines Ltd. to mine a copper-gold find near Fish Lake in British Columbia’s Chilcotin district.

The good news is the mine would create several hundred jobs over the next 20 years. The bad news is the company’s plan to use Fish Lake as a toxic dump for mine wastes. The company promises to dig another, smaller lake nearby for the trout that would be doomed by the mine’s operation. The story’s here. 

I’ve been enchanted by the Chilcotin district most of my life. I first learned about this magnificent inland empire when I read Rich Hobson’s book, Grass Beyond the Mountains. It chronicles the ranch life in this B.C. outback of Hobson, son of a wealthy American, and his sidekick Pan Phillips. They found their way up to the Chilcotin, which is part of the Cariboo region, in the 1930s.

That book set off a series of titles, some by Hobson and some by his daughter, as well as by other writers. The latest volume, Beyond the Chilcotin by Pan’s youngest daughter Diane, is coming out in paperback this month.

The proposed mine at Fish Lake is bitterly opposed by the Tsilhqot’in Nation Government, representing six bands in the area. Their opposition – they’re ready to “fight to the death” to prevent the mine — recalls the blood-spilling of the Chilcotin War back in 1864.

That was fought over a roughshod attempt by whites to push a road through native lands to feed the gold mines of the Cariboo.

The B.C. government approved the Taseko mine project after carrying out an environmental assessment.

A federal panel has since found that the mine would have “significant adverse environmental effects” on the area. Hence, a decision has been handed over to the Harper cabinet.

I have fished Fish Lake and I know of no other place where the sublime beauty of nature is so grand. I don’t want to see it corrupted with mine tailings.

But I also see the benefit of the jobs that would be created, many of which would hopefully go to First Nations residents.

So instead of building a new lake for the fish, why not a new lake for the mine tailings?

Unless some innovative thinking is done here, there’s going to be big trouble in the Chilcotin before the snow flies.

Failure of the management class

March 16, 2009 1 comment

For years, I’ve bored my friends with rants about what I call “the failure of the management class.”

The root of most of our problems, I’ve argued, lies at the feet of a largely incompetent, ignorant and uncaring management class — the people who fill the executive offices with fradulent characters interested only in what and how much they can get away with at the expense of their organizations, its customers, and society at large.

The economic crisis has brought this home as never before. And today. I’m intrigued to read a long piece in The Globe and Mail  by Professor Henry Mitzberg on this very issue.  I’ve never read such a brutal analysis from the pen of a recognized business academic.

By exquisite irony, the Mintzberg article comes the very day that the big insurance outfit, American International Group (AIG) is being lambasted for giving its executives $165 million in bonuses while shareholder wealth was going down the drain.

It was AIG, you might remember, that lost $61.7 billion in its fourth quarter, laying the  biggest egg in American corporate history. Even Ben Bernake, the chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, says it’s scandalous that $170-billion of bail-out money is going to keep the company afloat.

In his Globe article, Mitz asserts that the present situation is being called “a financial crisis or an economic one, but, at the core, it is a crisis of management.”

He uses the subprime mortgage mess (which Canada has not entirely escaped) to ask:

How could these mortgages have come to exist in the first place and worse, how could they have spread to so many of the bluest of blue-chip financial insitutions?

His answer:

“What we have here is a monumental failure of management. American management is still revered across much of the globe for what it used to be. Now, a great deal of it is just plain rotten … From where I sit, management education appears to be a significant part of the problem.”

At the risk of oversimplification, I put the failure of the management class down to three main causes:

  1. Ignorance. The typical denizen of the executive suite, if he’s American, knows nothing about the rest of the world and is ignorant of culture, art and literature
  2. Selfishness. Too many people in  upper mnanagement care only for their own salaries, bonuses and perks — as witness the immense and growing disparity between management salaries and worker pay.
  3. Hubris – lack of accountability, lack of responsibility. How often have you heard – “It’s not my problem,” “It’s not up to me to fix that,” “that’s not in my department?”

Meanwhile, we have to suffer witness to the continued depradations of these people on not just workers’ earnings or shareholders’ investments, but the money that Washington (and now Ottawa) is pouring into failed companies.

As Prof. Mintz says, outfits like General Motors, rather than being “too big to fail” are actually “too big to succeed.” Our preoccupation with saving the auto companies is nothing short of bizarre. Their products are the machines that are our  biggest cause of climate change, they inflict massive congestion on our roads, and they take thousands of lives every year. Yet we’re so caught up in the rewards of building them that we can’t separate ourselves from their toxic grip!

Sure, most of us need cars to get around. A statistic I heard recently illustrates the dilemma we’re in. Canada has about 70 cars for every 100 people. In the U.S., it’s 100 cars for every 100 people. You see where the problem is.

Meanwhile, the next time you get poor service in a store or restaurant,  have to put up with work that’s not up to par, or discover the rest of your savings have been swallowed up by a manipulative stock market, don’t blame the workers. Blame management.