Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Social Activist Art: towards a new paradigm?

"As our world, our culture, continues to race headlong toward some precipitous collapse (really, so many people see it coming but feel so helpless to alter course), doesn't art have a crucial role to play in this search for the kind of reve[lation] that can break the psycho-spiritual impasse that has settled over the western world?"


Harper muzzles Conservatives' Right wing?

               In our last article, we wrote,

         "Governments - and political parties - are probably less internally "coherent" - in a psychological sense - than are individuals. Governments and parties are not people but collections of individuals and groups who seek to serve their interests through acquiring political power..

          However, the desires and interests of the various groups which found a party may, at times, come into conflict. The temporary resolution of conflict most likely indicates that one side has, for a while, surmounted its adversary (the adversary may die or disappear only to be replaced by another later on as the new balance of power generates a new generation of the disaffected, those left out in the cold or who feel they have lost former advantages)."


           Here is a recent example of what happens when internal conflicts within a party or government threaten to explode in internal dissention (one also recalls the Chrétien - Martin feud which undoubtedly crippled the federal Liberals' leadership during their last years in power). 


            It would appear that Harper is attempting to muzzle the Right wing of his party who wish to debate 1- abortion in general and 2- sex-selective abortion of female fetuses (a practice alleged to occur in some ethnic communities in Canada).

             It is interesting to note how these contentious issues actually span the conventional political spectrum. Many conservatives vigorously oppose abortion in general or would put severe limitations on its use. But sex-selective aborting of female fetuses is also opposed by the traditional Left (feminists). 

              One suspects that Harper is playing the game following a traditional piece of political wisdom: "campaign from the Left / Right, rule from the center". Once in power, parties tend to moderate their rhetoric and move toward the pragmatic center of the spectrum in order to govern. However, I wonder if Steven has received good counsel on this issue. Given that sex-selective abortion is a "Left wing issue" - with the added advantage of being supported by many of his own people! - would it not be better to crack down on sex-selective abortion and win kudos from both Left and Right? This would certainly win votes. In addition, if played right, such a move could pull the sting of his own hard Right who oppose all abortions. This would further enhance his appeal to the political center, winning more votes. I get the impression that our PM is not the brightest of political strategists (??) Not when it comes to thinking outside the box at least..

Monday, March 25, 2013

Of pandas and profit

           The giant pandas arrived in Toronto, Monday, March 25, a "gift" from the Chinese people (for which Canada has to pay a million bucks each year of their 10 year visit). Obviously, one welcomes such gestures of peaceful solidarity between "peoples" but I was also left with a sense of irony. When the Harper government was first elected - and still very inexperienced - they were quite vocal in their criticism of the Chinese government for its poor civil rights record. To the point that they appeared a bit buffoonish in their populist excesses: oh, those nasty communists! (I even wondered if there was some crypto-racism at play, at times.) I felt irritated, too, at the Harperites' apparent hypocrisy since, at home, here in Canada, they were busy cutting funding to programs whose function was to improve people's quality of life and provide opportunities to build a better life. If you reduce someone's access to justice, or work, or dignity is that not a form of de facto civil rights abuse?

             But those days of China bashing now seem a distant dream of the past. Lost in the shuffle to insure Chinese investment in big energy projects like the Alberta tar sands. One can only scratch one's head and ask: what happened, why the change? Are the Chinese really more respectful of civil rights these days? The situation in Tibet, for example, would not tend to support such a conclusion. Or what about the human rights of those dying of industrial pollution or mining accidents in China?

           In reality, what we are witnessing is probably an example of the "schizophrenia" of the Harper government and its supporters. Governments - and political parties - are probably less internally "coherent" - in a psychological sense - than are individuals. Governments and parties are not people but collections of individuals and groups who seek to serve their interests through acquiring political power. At best, their interests are seen as co-inciding (or largely overlapping) the public or common good of the nation. (A few inspired leaders may actually desire to serve the common good of "humanity" or the future generations of all nations.) 

          However, the desires and interests of the various groups which found a party may, at times, come into conflict. The temporary resolution of conflict most likely indicates that one side has, for a while, surmounted its adversary (the adversary may die or disappear only to be replaced by another later on as the new balance of power generates a new generation of disaffected, those left out in the cold or who feel they have lost former advantages). This process may explain the strange shift in attitudes towards the Chinese on the part of the Harper government in recent years. Their initial populist communist bashing borrowed a theme made popular - or infamous - during the Cold War by American Rightwingers like the John Birch Society or the much criticized McCarthyite witchhunts:

                But as time passed, the desire to maximize the profits of petrochemical corporations, their vassals (pipelines, construction companies..) and shareholders became the dominant force in Conservative foreign policy. "Money won out" and the Harper government is now much less exercised by Chinese civil right abuses than formely. Global Warming "sceptics" like to say "follow the money" to find the motivation for peoples' stance on environmental issues. In the case of the Harper government, one could say the money trail leads back to big oil in Alberta..

             Our entire political system - that of Canada and the West in general -  seems presently afflicted with a generalized lack of moral backbone. This theme is often adopted by the Right, especially in the US. We should not dismiss them too lightly - we do so at our peril - because their sentiments reflect a valid perception of the political reality we live in today. It is easy, especially for those leaning toward the Left of the political spectrum, to vilify the Harperite neocon wanabes. But in reality, the rot runs much deeper than a single party...

             We forget, for example, why the Harper Conservatives came to office in the first place: public outrage over misappropriation of public monies for partisan purposes, corruption.

Jean-Chrétien's final scandal

             And then there is what can only be called the Kyoto Scandal. Given the longterm consequences of climate change and our failure to rise to the challenges presented by the depletion of cheap fossil energy reserves, this is probably the most egregious of the moral failings of all recent Canadian governments. And it was perpertrated, be it noted, under a Liberal, not a Conservative government. In a 2007 Mcleans interview, a former Chrétien staffer, admitted that the Liberals had no clear game plan when they signed onto the Kyoto Greenhouse Gas Emission Control Protocol. It was a "feel good" symbolic gesture made without insight into the real costs of climate change and resource depletion nor any clear vision of where Canada should be heading over the next 50 years of crititical transition. Such short sightedness is a moral failing in those committed with the governance of a nation.

Kyoto Protocol fiasco 

              The world lacks leaders of caliber at the this critical time of transition. God help us all!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Experimental Lakes Area: a most curious episode

         A curious episode in the ongoing saga of Canadian environmental science. The Experimental Lakes Area (northern Ontario). This multidecade project is world renowned for providing essential information on the dynamics of freshwater ecosystems and their interaction with air and water borne pollutants: acid rain, mercury, phosphorus runoff..

         In an interview on the CBC radio program, "As it happens", Prof Britt Hall, an earth science researcher claimed that the federal government gave her the run around when pressed for reasons for cutting funding to the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) project. Successive "reasons" provided:

1- Budget. This is BS for several reasons. Firstly, ELA costs a measly $2 Million (that is "Million" with an "m", not billion with an "b"). In return, not only does ELA provide info essential for assessing environmental risks, remediating them and drafting legislation but ELA puts science Canada on the world map. As one scientists puts it succinctly: "ELA is Canada's Hadron Collider". The services ELA provided in the long term study of freshwater ecosystem dynamics were, in fact, unique in the world. And all this for a measly $2 million (with an "m", remember). Secondly, most of the $2 million in funding were internal federal expenditures for the salaries of federal government employed scientists. Thus even if the feds chose to withdraw their participation in the scientific side of the project, there is no reason for physically closing it down. At present, full staff maintenance of the facility costs a mere $600,000. Maintaining a skelton maintenance staff for externally funded university and private industry researchers would cost "much less" than $600,000 (Prof Hall in the 18 march"As it happens" interview). We are now getting down into the $100,000 range which is chicken feed even for provincial governments! No, budget is not a legitimate excuse for shutting down ELA.

2- The second phony "reason" the feds tried to get Prof Hall to swallow: "not our mandate". But ELA reasearch does actually relate to the environment in Canada, duhhh.. (Who then should be responsible for the Canadian environment - the Vietnamese environmental agency, maybe??)

3- The last pathetic excuse for a rationale for killing ELA: redundancy - work done at ELA overlaps that covered by other federally funded projects. Problem: one can't find 'em when one looks for 'em.. More BS..

               When pressed by the "As it happens" interviewer for a plausible reason for the cuts, Prof Hall said simply, the only conclusion one could draw is that the feds don't want research on air pollution / fresh water ecosystem quality to continue. Aside: Prof Hall is a soft spoken woman and does not come across as an ideological firebrand of the confrontational environmental Left. She is an academic.

                 After the jaw drop provoked by this astounding interview, comes the obvious question: but WHY?? Why the hell cut a high prestige, world class long term science project of great potential value which, moreover, operates on a shoestring budget? What have the feds got for brains??!! What is Steven Harper and his friends dropping or smoking?

               Perhaps research on air quality bothers Harper's friends / supporters in the Oil Patch. This is the closest to a rational motive I could find. Anybody got better?

Podcast of "As it happens", CBC, monday, 18 march, 2013. To quickly access the  interview with Prof Britt Hall advance the cursor one third.

                 The CBC deserves a bit of credit (not much, but a little) for sticking with this story a bit longer than usual. The day following the interview with Prof Hall, Prof Moss, a limnologist (studies terrestrial water systems) registrered his astonishment at  Canada's  recent "loss of good sense": gagging scientists, restricting access to research results, radical - and apparently strategic - budget cuts to scientific projects of long term proven value. Prof Moss particularly lamented the loss of the long term data base provided by ELA's 45 years of continuous monitoring and research.

                  Access to the interview with Prof Moss is easy, first interview on clip:

Internal blog links (gives numerous internal links):  


Book review: The Great Warming

The Great Warming by Brian Fagan, Bloomsbury Press, NY, 2008

Epigram: Drought is the "silent elephant in the room" of Climate Change Science 
why cynics might hope those who pray for warmer winters will have their prayers answered.

Dr. Fagan has done it again in his sequel to The Little Ice Age. This book is an original, pleasantly readable, contribution to the data base of activists who search for intellectual ammunition in the "Climate Wars" and the "Sustainability Wars".

It's subject matter is the Medieval Optimum, the warm (Europe) period which preceeded the Little Ice Age of the 14th century. This period, being a generally warmer one, is highly relevant to the present Global Warming (GW) "debate" as it provides us with a climatological "analog" to where the world now appears to be heading.

This is either a book to confirm the despairing in their desperation and cynicism or a goad to the activist. It reveals the degree to which precipitation - and particularly the lack of it, drought - will probably be the critical issue, not temperature rises, in the next several decades. Fagan, in this well documented text, demonstrates how civilizations rose and fell, prospered or declined with the rains. In drier cycles, like the Medieval Optimum in parts of Asia, Africa, N. and S. America, deserts and arid zones become "pumps" expelling animal and human populations into neighboring regions. Major geopolitical shifts such as the spread of Islam result from these migrations. Other regions, China, the Mayan empire,.. suffered internal stresses and dislocations leading to their collapse and / or reconfiguration in a new human ecological equilibrium with the altered environment.

Fagan's book is a fascinating read and provides much food for thought. He argues that modern industrial societies with their massive and concentrated populations are actually far less resilient than earlier human cultures. Where for example are large numbers of "environmental refugees" going to migrate in the crowded earth of today? Do we have enough arable land left to feed a growing population when GW disrupts traditional agricultural practices and systems? Fagan cannot answer these questions of course but he sheds new light on a public policy (non)debate that too often degenerates to the name slanging infantilism of the ad hominem tirade. Fagan reminds us that we are, in reality, dealing with serious issues..

For me, personally, this book reinforces my belief that we have waited too long to employ "bridging technologies" - cheap oil and natural gas, energy efficiency, simple solar technologies (passive solar, solar thermal..) - to transit smoothly to a green, "business as usual", future. Our heel dragging has assured that the transition to the emerging "New Economy" - Post Peak Petroleum - will be anything but smooth or "business as usual". We better get used to ideas like "economic contraction", "deglobalization", "re-regionalization"..

Transtion Initiatives argues, perhaps a bit hopefully, that the transition may be to a better, more humanly fufilling and saner world:

In retrospect, Dr. Fagan's book will likely be seen as one of a growing number of contributions to the emerging paradigm of the "New Economy" (post peak oil).

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Who controls the controlers?

            The Harper government promised us transparent government. At first, they actually seemed honest in their commitment. Alas! Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely..

             The Harperites, keeping to their promise, appointed Kevin Page as the first parliamentary budget officer, a sort of watchdog who would ensure that the government was not wasting money (or doing worse things). But Page has recently stepped down in controversy. He has not pleased his masters and he wants to ensure  "arms length" status of his office from the government and the cabinet. The following article suggests the feds are not in much of a hurry to replace him either. Power may corrupt - as a Law of Nature - but the rot seems to have set in quickly with this gang.. From transparency  to opacity in such a short time. Gives pause for wonder..

Ottawa drags feet on Page replacement

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

blow open the doors and let the real world in

                Truth from the Harper government? Transparency? (they were elected on a platform promoting geovernmental transparency - anyone remember??)

                Well, astronaut and Liberal Party leadership contender, Marc Garneau, doesn't seem too impressed with the Harper government's transparency record on environmental issues:

"As prime minister,” [Garneau] said, “I would want the unvarnished truth from the head scientists in this country, telling me, ‘Yes, global warming is real’ — that kind of stuff. I believe we need to blow open the doors and let the real world in — we need to share it with Canadians whether it’s embarrassing to us or not. If you believe global warming is a fact based on scientific evidence you should be able to say that as a scientist.”

                  We have come a long way: from the promise of transparency to a situation of informational blockage and de facto censorship requiring dyanmite to "blow the doors open".

                   An American oceanographer who has done research under the auspices of the Canadian government has signaled his displeasure with the current climate at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The decline in transparency, freedom of speech and action over the past seven years is deplorable, says Dr. Andreas Muenchow:

""I feel that it threatens my academic freedom and potentially muzzles my ability to publish data and interpretation and talk timely on science issues of potential public interest without government interference."

                  Good Lord! This smacks of the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics under Stalin, those nasty communists whose "perverted philosophy" Harper and company are - supposedly - so opposed to. Yet, given the chance Steven and his friends in the oil patch control the news just like the old Central Committee of the Communist Party did during the Cold War. Funny world, strange..

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?" Matthew 7:3

internal blog links: