ISSUES NETWORK - ENVIRONMENT AND ENERGY
Even Now, Climate-Unfriendly Products Spread Around the World
Barra de Navidad, Mexico - Apparently, the climate-unfriendly business agenda hasn't missed a beat since Copenhagen. Fast Food and Big Box stores continue to spread around the world, as if no one has noticed their negative influence - on health, cultures, communities, and the environment.
Haven't we learned anything over the past almost-twenty years?
I asked myself this tragically relevant question after reading The Ecology of Commerce, written in 1993 by environmentalist/entrepreneur Paul Hawken.
In his inspiring book, Hawken outlines his support for the concept of a Restorative Economy - not simply Sustainable, as interpreted by many, but actually Restorative.
According to the Brundtland Commission, which coined the phrase in its 1987 report to the United Nations, Sustainable Development "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".
At the time, there was lot of rhetoric from the UN, corporations, politicians, and others about their good intentions to keep Brundtland's vision in mind.
A few years later, Hawken identified the scandalous devastation still occurring in spite of those promises - "... every natural system on the planet is disintegrating. The land, water, air, and sea have been functionally transformed from life-supporting systems into repositories for waste."
He argued that it was no longer good enough to seek a "balance" between economic and environmental needs, it was time to recognize "that business is destroying the world" - and things must change radically.
Simply put: Business has to recognize that it must be "at the service of and at the mercy of nature." Sustainable Development, for what it was worth in controlling environmental degradation, was no longer enough. The planet actually needs re-building, restoring.
But living in Mexico reveals how just the opposite is still occurring - and fast. For the past month, I have watched as the First-World lifestyle of corporate, packaged, unhealthy goods is being brought to this land, swamping indigenous ways.
For years, Mexicans in communities large and small have enjoyed the natural fruits of their land - prepared in homes and on street corners by their friends and neighbours.
Everything from "aqua fresca", made of coconut, habiscus flowers, tamarind fruit, or rice, to sliced pineapple sprinkled liberally with chili powder and lime juice to ceviche from the sea are available at reasonable prices.
Generally, these products leave no unnatural waste. Their shells, skins, or bones can be tossed back to the earth - although vendors have adopted plastic containers and straws.
However, bright, new, shiny, and seductive sources of food and other products are appearing everywhere. Convenience stores - Oxxo and Kiosko - and Big Box outlets, such as Walmart, are spreading like a virus.
I've been watching as an Oxxo Store is being built in this village - and it really is a case of the First World rising from the sweat and labour of the Third.
Because wages are low, labour intensive methods of construction are used. Every day, I witness Mexican masons climb onto fragile scaffolding made of flimsy planks bridged across wobbly step ladders. Smaller bricks, used instead of larger concrete blocks, are flung with great skill from the ground to these precariously-placed masons.
Safety shoes and hard hates are virtually unknown. The normal construction garb is t-shirts, sandals, and baseball caps to ward off the hot sun.
Soon, yet another Oxxo will open its doors and tempt Mexicans with pre-packaged sandwiches, hamburgers, and pizzas, which can be heated in the microwave ovens provided. Plastic garbage will multiply.
Needless to say, the introduction of a lifestyle so divorced from what people are used to takes a certain amount of propaganda, persuasion, and seduction, if not downright coercion.
Indian physicist/environmentalist Vandana Shiva once explained how corporate, packaged, unwholesome flour replaced locally-grown and -milled flour in her country.
Indians were bombarded with advertising telling them that, if their flour wasn't factory-made and white, it might be unsanitary. As consumers fell for the lie, local farmers began to commit suicide, after losing markets that had existed for centuries.
Now, as the Oxxo store comes together day by day, brick by brick, I wonder how long it will take Mexicans to give up the fresh, wholesome, local foods they, too, have enjoyed in some cases for centuries. (Certain foods and drinks are pre-Conquest, Aztecan.)
When I told a professional, middle-class Mexican that I feared his country would soon be plagued by more obesity, malnourishment, ill-health, and garbage like Canada and the US because of increasingly-available junk food, he shrugged his shoulders and said simply: "More opportunities."
He was obviously mouthing the code words of corporate globalization.
Somehow, environmentalists and other progressives must demonstrate, as Hawken has tried to do, that there are just as many, if not more, opportunities in a co-operative, local, planet-friendly economy as there are in our present destructive and predatory one.
Why Should I Go Green if World Leaders Won't?
Toronto - Now that world leaders have admitted that they cannot or will not sign a climate change treaty in Copenhagen next month, I'm beginning to wonder if I should bother being green. The odds seem so stacked against those of us who are trying to save the planet; I'm ready to call it quits.
After all, if the most powerful and influential people around the globe don't have the wherewithal to abandon their own interests and agendas for the common good, why should I? The end result of my small actions amounts to nothing in comparison to that of presidents and prime ministers, so why make pointless sacrifices?
My fading greenness isn't all because of international intransigence. The attitude and actions of our own federal government are enough to disillusion the most ardent optimist when it comes to making a difference. In fact, the government is not only doing its least to stop greenhouse gas emissions, it is actively increasing them.
Why, for example, should I try to cut my personal CO2 emissions by eating and buying local produce when Stephen Harper is pushing for increased trade with India? He plans to add three new trade missions to the five already in place, complaining that the two countries are only doing $5 billion a year in business.
There is nothing wrong with supporting the development of India and raising its people from poverty, but Harper's globalization is more about profits. It's far from sustainable. Flying in the face of dire climate change predictions, he promotes free trade with faraway places with all the CO2- emitting transportation miles this entails. He isn't even paying lip service to the concept of local self-reliance and efforts to cut back on air and ocean shipments.
And why should I turn down the temperature, pull on a sweater, and cut my heating emissions when Canada is helping India pump up its industrial capacities in a non-green way which dwarfs my feeble gestures? Harper's plans to assist India in its expansion of nuclear power - which is dirty from the mining of uranium to the building of huge plants to the ultimate storage of radioactive waste - makes me want to tear off my sweater and turn up the heat.
Why, too, should I take the bus or walk whenever possible while the Harper government supports the tar sands - "the largest industrial project in human history" and one of the most destructive, creating three times more CO2 emissions than conventional oil production methods?
Why should I save water, take shorter showers, run shallow baths, and so on while Canada is allowing the pollution of millions of barrels a day of pristine water from the Athabaska River? Oil sands projects which have already been approved will result in the production of 3 million barrels of mock crude daily by 2018 - with as many as five barrels of water used to purify each. That water is transformed into oily waste full of acids, mercury, and other toxins. Am I crazy to suffer needlessly? Should I simply fill the tub and enjoy daily bubble baths?
Why cut down on paper products, buy recycled toilet paper, or search for the little forest-friendly symbol on the back of tissue boxes when tar sands exploiters are responsible for the second fastest rate of deforestation on the planet? In the Amazon Basin, they are tearing down the rainforest; in Canada, it's the clear cutting of boreal forests in northern Alberta, covering an area the size of Florida. Both destroy animal habitats, soil, and release carbon into the atmosphere. Are my pathetic conservation efforts going to balance the past and future destruction of all those trees?
Why should I walk or take the bus in order to safeguard the planet when government-supported - both federal and Ontario - General Motors is making a comeback with gas-guzzling muscle cars? News reports cheer the return of this giant automaker with hardly a word about its lack of green awareness and direction. Should I give my feet a rest and grab the car keys?
Governments around the world and certainly ours don't seem to understand that their moral leadership is as important as any treaties they could sign. Canada's Environment Minister Jim Prentice was recently quoted saying that because the post-Kyoto framework won't apply until 2012 "we have some time." Tell that to the melting glaciers and ice caps, the people beaten by hurricanes.
So, in spite of their power and positions, I simply won't follow the leaders - world or domestic. And I certainly won't wait until 2012 to try to influence the battle against global warming. I will continue to make my small gestures and hope that there are enough like-minded Canadians who will do the same. We all have to live with our conscience.
All Canadian Politicians Should Follow Vancouver's Mayor
Vancouver - As I sit on the deck of an apartment in the Kitsilano area of Vancouver, looking beyond the cherry trees and across English Bay to the high-peaked mountains, it is difficult not to appreciate nature's bounty and the environment.
It is also a challenge to ignore the varying voices - from local to federal - that have converged in this city over the past few weeks, particularly surrounding green issues. Apparently, one person's or party's climate change crisis seems to be another's potential political liability.
Vancouver's Mayor Gregor Robertson has made it clear that the city's goal is to be the world's greenest urban space by 2020. To this end, he put together the Greenest City Action Team a few months ago which recently released its first report recommending certain "urgent" actions be taken, especially in light of the 2010 Olympic Games.
Robertson admits that the city's present 10th place position in the greenest city race - slightly behind Toronto and San Francisco and well behind Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Amsterdam - is lower than in the past, and he wants to reverse that downward trend.
Cities in the "greenest" category must be blessed with a small carbon footprint, clean air and water, lots of parks, locally produced food, a good public transit system, cycling and walking paths, and mixed-use neighbourhoods.
To fill in certain gaps, Vancouver's Green Team wants to create the infrastructure required for electric cars, including free parking. It is also pushing to "green" the rest of the city's infrastructure and its transit vehicles, smarten its electricity grid, and offer incentives for green businesses and retrofitting homes and businesses.
"Being branded the greenest city in the world will boost our ability to attract more business," the mayor was quoted as saying.
Things aren't going quite as smoothly on the provincial level. During the campaign leading up to the May 12 BC election, the more holistic, Vancouver-style approach has been trammelled by the demands of party politics.
The incumbent Liberals and opposition NDP have been battling over one main green issue: the former want to build on the existing carbon tax, which some observers feel is too low, and add "cap and trade" to the mix; the latter want to "axe the tax" and rely solely on the "cap and trade" method of cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
For anyone who isn't yet immersed in this subject, a carbon tax is levied by governments on those who emit greenhouse gases from the burning of carbon-containing fossil fuels - including coal, natural gas, heating oil, gasoline, and diesel fuel. Its main advantage is that it is easier and quicker to implement, since governments are very practiced at the art of taxation, although it doesn't actually "cap" total emissions.
The "cap and trade" or emissions trading system, preferred under the Kyoto Protocol, requires governments to establish a system of regulated emissions allowances for polluters within a "cap" of total emissions - while allowing them to trade those allowances. This is more complex to put into place; it is susceptible to manipulation, and emissions prices are variable. But it does provide more certainty about the actual amount of emissions reductions.
Unfortunately, the either/or battle in BC has diverted attention from the wide range of emissions-cutting possibilities, including conservation, available.
Finally, there is the greenness of the federal Liberal Party, which held its "renewal" convention at the stunningly-situated Vancouver Convention Centre - considered one of the greenest buildings of its kind in the world.
It was evident from questions in policy think tank sessions and the passage of two popular motions calling for action on climate change that the grassroots support which lead in part to Stephane Dion's leadership of the party is still very much alive.
In his lengthy farewell address, Dion urged the party to follow the lead of Obama and others, greening the Canadian economy with public transit, clean energy, and ecotourism, as well as modernizing the fisheries, forestry, and energy grid. Again, a holistic approach.
There was no shortage of praise for Dion's valiant stand on the need to deal with climate change. He was given credit for putting "environmental sustainability at the heart of what this party stands for" and setting "the bar high on environmental integrity."
This kind of talk made me all the more shocked and surprised when a slick video leading up to Ignatieff's inaugural speech as leader made no mention of climate change. It referred simply to clean air and water, making the video seem like something out of the 1970s, not 2009. And Ignatieff himself referred only to green technologies and green jobs - although he later gave his endorsement for the "cap and trade" system and high-speed trains.
When some countries are moving full speed ahead on the climate change crisis, Canada is still burdened with a mishmash of attitudes and policies on the issue. At this rate, unlike Vancouver, our country will never make the "greenest" list.
Run-of-River Hydro Projects Dubious
Vancouver, BC - When you travel the world you appreciate Canada's blessings, especially its physical ones - our so-called "natural resources."
Compare this country to the United Kingdom with more than 60 million people in an area one-thirty-sixth the size of Canada. Citizens there don't have access to anything like the oceans, lakes, rivers, forests, and fertile land that we do.
Indeed, we are the envy of many nations.
For this reason, we have a responsibility to ourselves and the planet to maintain and protect what we have. But there are Canadians who prefer short-term, private plundering and profit to long-term, public stewardship.
This is especially clear since the recent re-election of the provincial Liberals in the naturally-endowed province of British Columbia - where the motto "Beautiful BC" is no advertising myth.
Typically, the election campaign focussed on a few issues - the carbon tax, the economy, crime, but there were less high-profile debates that, for many, were just as key. The controversy over run-of-river hydroelectric projects favoured by the Liberals was - and still is - one of them.
These projects involve developers staking claims on rivers and streams, as well as the pristine wilderness around them, so that they can create Independent Power Projects (IPPs). One study has shown that there are about 8,200 potential run-of-river sites. Such is the bounty of the province.
It is believed that the water rights to 120 BC rivers and waterways have already been leased by the government, and more than 550 other licences are making their way through the application process.
All is not well in paradise. Council of Canadians head Maude Barlow, who is also Senior Advisor on Water to the President of the UN General Assembly, has called such B.C. "ruin-of-river" tenders "the biggest resource pillage since the 1850s' gold rush."
Because of the high value attached to this water energy, Barlow and many British Columbians believe these IPPs are a way for a few to make millions of dollars in profit through "the back door privatization of B.C. Hydro" - and its assets, including fresh water, one of humanity's most precious and diminishing resources.
As well, they argue that, since B.C. is generally a net exporter of electricity, the government's claim that the projects are directed toward energy self-sufficiency is suspect.
In a pre-election letter, former B.C. Environment Minister Rafe Mair, now official spokesperson for the Save Our Rivers Society, asked how the government could deny that private, run-of-river power was "overwhelmingly" for export since it is mainly produced during spring run-off - when Hydro's energy-producing reservoirs are full.
Although not as "green" as many people would like, the NDP's leader, Carol James, warned during the election campaign that people should vote to keep "public resources in public hands" and promised to establish a moratorium on run-of-river projects.
With the Liberals, she said, British Columbians would "lose access to our streams and rivers. That's gone forever and that's a huge issue for people who care about the environment. This is about the future of our environment in British Columbia ..."
Take the case of Bute Inlet, a gorgeous, mountain-lined fjord located at the north end of the Strait of Georgia. Mega-corporation General Electric wants to help develop the area for $4 billion by damming 17 creeks, constructing 100 bridges and 265 kilometres of roads, and stringing 428 kilometres of power lines.
How can that possibly be considered "green"?
Barlow points out: "Even the California senate has determined that private run-of-river power from B.C. will not qualify as 'green' under the terms of their renewable energy bill."
At the same time, the Outdoor Recreation Council of B.C. includes run-of-river projects, especially the larger ones, among the reasons some of BC's rivers are in trouble.
Scientist David Suzuki also has his doubts and has warned: "Panic shouldn't guide policy." He has written: "It's in our best interests to act quickly to get as much renewable energy into play as possible ... But that doesn't mean environmental safeguards should be relaxed in the name of green energy."
Instead, with "proper government oversight and planning", B.C. - and the rest of the world, I'm sure - has to ensure that "... our solutions don't lead to the destruction of the very thing we're trying to protect."
With the availability of less damaging possibilities, such as tidal and solar power, one wonders why the B.C. government isn't moving in a better, "greener" direction - also a more regulated, low-impact one.
This province's misguided "green" policies remind me of the Ontario government wanting to put $28 billion into the nuclear basket, directing much needed funding away from the development of renewables. "These politicians just don't get it," says a friend.
The price of not getting it is clear. One long-time B.C. resident told me that 25 years ago he could fish in fresh, free-flowing streams, and watch a variety of birds and animals off the shore. But that's almost all gone. Yet again, in B.C. - and the rest of Canada for that matter - we've been warned.
A True 21st Century Attitude and Vision are Long Overdue
Toronto - When I first arrived in Toronto, after several months out of the country, I thought I had returned to the land of enlightenment. The recycling programme was much more effective and extensive than anything I had seen in London, England, and the Ontario government was busily advertising its new Green Energy Act, stating it wants to make Ontario "a green economy leader."
I felt I had moved through an invisible portal from the 20th Century - where the U.K.'s New Labour government plans to build new coal-fired power stations and expand Heathrow Airport - to the 21st where clean, green, and renewable thinking predominated. It was a wonderful relief.
But I was wrong. In spite of Ontario's new Green Energy Act, the McGuinty government plans to spend almost $30 billion to refurbish and expand its nuclear plants. In my opinion, this, too, reveals a 20th Century mentality that will not only affect the health and safety of Ontarians, but also waste their hard earned dollars and what little time we have left to fight Global Warming.
In spite of the denials of some, humanity sits at a crucial crossroads. We can either embrace the new or cling to the obsolete. Those who want to spend billions of dollars on nuclear, coal, and even gas - the Non-Renewable Three - are looking backward to ways they know and have become dependent on, rather than stretching their minds to what should lie ahead.
Indeed, what is needed is an entirely New Vision of how we run our societies and live our lives. Nature is telling us that we have a finite amount of certain 20th Century fuels - uranium for nuclear, coal, natural gas. As well, the melting of the Arctic Ice Cap and frightening weather, among others, are unavoidable indications that the status quo no longer works.
The brain power and limited amount of money we have at our disposal should be directed toward rethinking, not repeating. As Toronto architect Greg Allen states, we have to imagine and communicate a comprehensive proposal - rather than piecemeal solutions - for the future, which entails nothing less than redesigning the world.
If we look beyond our borders, we can get an idea of what that future could and should look like. In Germany, for example, the government was faced with a decision in the 1990s whether to support and subsidize its ageing nuclear and coal plants or move forward to a new energy future. It opted for the latter and passed revolutionary legislation to give green, decentralized energy sources priority access to the electricity grid, thereby allowing the blossoming of green technologies, green jobs, and even green energy exports.
Ontario - Canada - is at such a point, but too many citizens don't realize it. For this reason, governments won't act as aggressively as they need to. At the same time, most people aren't aware of the potential for exciting, innovative, and safer options and opportunities.
Green advocates have to clearly demonstrate that we can have small, less invasive, "laptop" sources of energy - from solar, wind, water, geo-thermal, "waste" gases from landfill sites and farms, and cogeneration (recycling energy from industrial and other sources). So much remains untapped.
We must emphasize the great savings we can make through energy conservation - by generously subsidizing the insulation and retrofitting of homes and businesses, insisting on stringent energy-efficient standards for new construction, making the purchase of energy-efficient appliances compulsory, and returning to more natural methods of lighting, cooling, and ventilating (the sun, trees, windows).
Money spent on expensive, high-tech, pie-in-the-sky schemes such as carbon sequestration (burying CO2) should be diverted to those that work - building efficient public transit, bicycle lanes, and planting trees (the best carbon sequestration method we have).
We must begin to "terraform" our cities and towns, where most of us live. This means seeing them as life-supporting environments which function together, circulating and regenerating renewable energy, rather than just endlessly consuming the non-renewable variety. As Allen points out, this requires planners to promote the "interconnectedness" of the urban infrastructure.
It has been calculated that 64 offshore wind sites situated along the Canadian side of Lake Ontario could provide more than enough power for Ontario's peak output consumption. We should be pushing for the retooling of our also-obsolete auto plants in order to build thousands of wind turbines, as they have done in Germany, and create plenty of jobs for our autoworkers.
Finally, with the full-blown support of governments, we must replace our oil-dependent lifestyles with fresh, green ones - trading sea-doos for sailboats, using natural products with no or less packaging, and planting gardens wherever possible. Once we break from old habits, we will find the new paths invigorating.
Again, this is no time for expensive nuclear power which pollutes from the time the uranium is mined to the building and running of huge plants to the desperate attempts to deal with radioactive waste. And major government spending on nuclear sends a message to renewable energy developers - and the public - that it isn't really that serious about going green. Instead, it's time to promote and publicize a clearly-defined, multi-faceted New Vision, which will spark people's imaginations and enthusiasm - and leave them clamouring for change.
Climate Change is a Symptom of a Greater Problem
Kingston, ON - Tragically, it can take too long for certain crucial messages to get through to humankind. And, often by the time they do come to the forefront, they have been upstaged by more urgent considerations.
The bad news keeps snowballing.
For example, most of us have heard about climate change or global warming. After years of denial by certain governments, interest groups, and some scientists, it has been acknowledged - almost universally - as a legitimate threat.
The message has finally penetrated humanity's wall of blissful ignorance.
But now that we have reached this level of global consensus, there is a larger, more pivotal issue to deal with - of which global warming is just one symptom. The real, overall problem is that our global economy has outgrown the earth's capacity to support it.
Human activity relative to the earth's reserves is tipping dangerously toward disaster. A century ago, economic growth was measured in the billions of dollars, now it is measured in the trillions.
As we concentrate on bottom-lines and obsessive growth, non-renewable resources, such as oil, which nature took millions of years to create - and on which we are now dependent - are being depleted with frightening rapidity.
We are also using up renewable resources faster than the earth can replace them. Forests are shrinking, grasslands deteriorating, soil eroding, water tables falling, fisheries collapsing, glaciers melting, coral reefs dying, and species disappearing.
This over-consumption is occurring while those greenhouse gases accumulate because we are spewing them out faster than they can be absorbed. Mother Nature's lung capacity is also limited.
In 2002, a study conducted by a group of U.S. scientists came to the startling conclusion that humanity's demands have already surpassed the earth's regenerative capacity. They calculated that this significant turning point occurred as far back as 1980.
By 1999, they estimated, these demands were actually exceeding the earth's capacity by 20 percent. This dangerous gap is thought to be expanding by about one percent a year. You do the math!
This means our world of plenty has become an illusion. We are like a family, once living off the interest of its wealth, now dipping heavily into the principle.
In other words, our needs and the planet's ability to sustain them are on a collision course. We are what Lester R. Brown of the Earth Policy Institute calls "a civilization in trouble."
Too some extent, there is nothing new about environmental crises like those listed above. We all know about the dust bowl in the 1930s, a result of poor farming practices.
What is new is that the problems we face today are no longer isolated in one corner of the world or another. For the first time ever, the entire world is heading for a kind of sustainability meltdown because, with globalization, we have become more interconnected and interdependent.
We are facing what ecologists call "overshoot-and-collapse" - only this time it is happening to all of humanity at the same time. And, it is not simply environmental collapse in a variety of areas we must concern ourselves with, but also a downward spiral of our global economy and lifestyle.
Perhaps, the most frightening thing of all is that we are crossing certain sustainability thresholds - some of them irreversible - without realizing it until its too late. Take the Atlantic cod fishery as an example.
As stocks began to diminish, those in positions of responsibility failed to recognize the urgent need to reduce quotas and cut back on the plundering of the ocean. At a certain point, the breeding population became so low that the codfish was no longer viable.
We all know the result.
Lester R. Brown points out in the updated version of his book, "Plan B" that there is some good news. In the third millennium, we have the distinct advantage of looking back over history. With the help of archeological records, we can learn from the mistakes of past civilizations.
Other societies have faced environmental and economic demise. Some have responded wisely and flourished. Others have done the opposite, and have left behind nothing but ruins.
In Iceland, six centuries ago, society was facing a crisis due to the overgrazing of their grass-covered highlands. The already thin soil was being depleted. Fortunately, the farmers had the foresight to come together and cut back on their sheep herds, allocating quotas, and returning to sustainable levels.
The people of Easter Island, it appears, were not quite so smart. Although their soil was rich, their diet was based on seafood, mainly dolphins, which they caught from solid, ocean-going canoes. These canoes were built with the large trees that grew on the little island, but, over time, the trees were gone.
That meant, of course, that fishing became a challenge - and so did survival. The population peak of 20,000 has dwindled to about 2,000.
Again, we can and must learn from such experiences. However, we must keep in mind that those simpler societies had only one environmental crisis to deal with. We have several.
Harper Government Lags Behind World - even the Queen - on Global Warming
Kingston, ON - Stephen Harper just doesn't "get it." But, fortunately, more and more people do.
According to Sir David King, Britain's top scientific advisor, Queen Elizabeth II, who recently celebrated her 80th birthday, "got it" on global warming a few years ago. She understood the severity of the problem.
Perhaps she had noticed that spring now comes to England three weeks earlier than it did when she ascended the throne a half-century ago.
Indeed, the present weather scenario looks so frightening that Her Majesty, traditionally apolitical, has presided over a British-German conference on climate change - or the climate crisis, as some people think it should be called.
As well, it has been reported that she is concerned about the American government's position on the subject, and has offered to do her part in enlightening those who don't yet appreciate what is going on.
In fact, unlike too many North Americans, everyone in Britain - from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the head of British Petroleum - seems to "get" the dangers humanity faces as temperatures rise.
I found the awareness and concern highly refreshing when I was there last spring.
In the U.S., some Hollywood stars "get it." George Clooney and Julia Roberts drive environmentally friendly cars, among other things. Roberts is building a solar-powered home.
Former U.S. vice-president Al Gore "gets it." He is travelling around the world giving a multi-media presentation on what he calls "the biggest challenge our civilization has ever confronted."
He points out to all who will listen that most of the world's glaciers are melting away, including the enormous Tibetan Plateau, which supplies up to half the drinking water for 40 per cent of the world's population, and the North Polar cap, which helps cool the planet.
At the same time, Gore warns, the climate control system itself, based on the redistribution of heat from one part of the planet to another, is threatened as the Gulf Stream, El Nino/El Nina, and the monsoon cycle in the Indian Ocean appear to be changing.
(These and other phenomena - the oceans are becoming more acidic - cause many scientists to warn that we have no more than ten years to make major changes or we will pass the point of no return.)
Dr. James E. Hansen of NASA "gets it", and has received phone calls from his superiors advising him to stop talking. He has warned that if global temperatures increase two to three degrees Celsius - as they are in the process of doing - sea levels could rise up to 80 feet, sinking many coastal cities and towns.
(The Greenland ice sheet diminished by 50 cubic metres last year. If it were to melt completely, sea levels would rise 20 feet, leaving much of Washington, D.C., for example, underwater.)
Sadly, however, our federal government doesn't "get it," as witnessed in its first budget, which one environmentalist called "a climate change catastrophe".
With its $150 tax credit to bus pass users - a ploy that does not guarantee expanded public transit use - and its cuts to Kyoto support, its commitment is feeble at best.
The new minority government appears to prefer buying voters with tax cuts and credits; the future be damned.
Typically, the administration of Harper's ally in Afghanistan and other venues, George W. Bush, hasn't managed to "get it" for years. In fact, it originally attempted to diminish what is happening to our planet by using the more euphemistic term "climate change."
At the same time, it has wreaked havoc on that nation's environmental legislation.
Small wonder that Bush's own party members, Republicans for Environmental Protection, declared early last year that the Bush first term record would "result in lasting damage to public health and to America's natural heritage."
As well, the decidedly non-Republican Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has stated that, during its first term, the Bush administration "led the most thorough and destructive campaign against America's environmental safeguards in the past 40 years."
Getting back to global warming, it has been reported that millions of dollars have been spent by such groups as the now-defunct Global Climate Coalition (GCC), created and financed by the auto and energy industries, to make the public doubt the science behind global warming - to cause people believe it was, as one writer has put it, "theory rather than fact."
Of course, we all know that the corporations originally behind the GCC (Shell, Ford) are great friends and supporters of Bush, and one former member, Harlan Watson, has become the State Department's chief climate negotiator.
(High-profile scientist, Dr. Frederick Seitz, another "global warming denier," also worked for the tobacco companies denying any link between their product and health problems.)
Interestingly, most of the above information was gleaned from the latest issue, the special Green Issue, of one of the glossiest, most star-studded magazines in the U.S.: Vanity Fair.
On its very green cover, the magazine dares to state boldly that global warming is "A THREAT GRAVER THAN TERRORISM." It also calls for "A NEW AMERICAN REVOLUTION." Presumably bright green.
Obviously, Vanity Fair editor, Graydon Carter, raised and educated in Ottawa, "gets it."
The Writer Says Good Riddance to Some Cottagers
Battersea, ON - At this time of year when cottagers and other water lovers from across Canada are abandoning the lakes, rivers, and ocean shores for their city homes, I have one thing to say to the more thoughtless ones among them: Don't come back.
Why the harsh words?
Simply this: I am tired of watching too many Canadians abuse cottage country in the name of summer fun. Rather than appreciating the joys of nature at its pristine best, they seem intent on transplanting city life with all its comforts, conveniences, entertainment, and environmental degradation to the water's edge.
If you don't believe me, or think I am over-reacting, read on as I review some of the sins I have witnessed over the past few months. (Needless to say, certain permanent waterside residents create problems year-round.)
According to my observations on beautiful, 20-mile-long Loughborough Lake north of Kingston, Ontario, the first offenders of the summer are the fishermen and fisherwomen (now referred to gender-neutrally as fishers I understand).
In my area, pike season brings eager fishers to the lake ready to stretch their legs after a long winter and work the waters. Legally, of course.
Invariably, some of these enthusiasts can be seen hovering around the shoreline hoping to catch spawning bass. This, however, is out-of-season and, therefore, illegal for the very good reason that these fish are in the process of breeding future stock for the lake - and must be protected.
Drawing the protective male from its nest, even temporarily, or taking it home for dinner is extremely short-sighted.
(On a brighter note, throughout the summer I have seen fishers throw back or "live release" large, in-season bass in order to preserve the hardier, stronger breeders.)
To make matters worse, many fishers now sit behind the wheels of 18-foot bass boats equipped with motors of up to 250 horsepower which can exceed speeds of 70 miles-per-hour. Unfortunately, some of them seem more interested in the adrenalin rush of dashing from one fishing hole to another, rather than the gentler art of catching fish.
Of course, fishers aren't the only water lovers armed for speedy summer fun. More and more cottagers are the proud owners of noisy, high-powered watercraft, including jet skis, and are turning picturesque waterways into the aquatic equivalent of dangerous highways.
In fact, I was told this year that I would be taking my life in my hands if I were to take a canoe, kayak, or sailboat out of my relatively-tranquil bay into the well-travelled waters beyond. This is sad and very unfair to those of us who enjoy quieter, non-motorized pleasures.
However, assaults on nature aren't confined to the realm of fishing and boating. Cottage and shoreline "improvement" can also take their toll. Dock, boathouse, and retaining wall construction, dredging and the dumping of sand for beaches often disturb or destroy fish and other wildlife habitat.
Indeed, as I watched the perimeter of our lake become dotted with various projects this season, I wondered how many builders were conscious of the environmental damage they could be inflicting.
So too, the all-too-common obsession with lush lawns and the indiscriminate cutting down of natural vegetation to create them can wreak havoc.
In a chapter cutely entitled, "Sedimental Journey," an Ontario government brochure warns cottagers not to clear their land and shoreline to such an extent that erosion will occur, sending dirt in its various forms into the water.
The resulting sediment build-up hastens the natural evolutionary process of the water body which will eventually convert it to a bog and finally to dry land. This is the lake version of ageing and death. As with humans, this can happen prematurely if the conditions are right - or, more correctly, wrong.
And then there are those nasty aquatic weeds - often aided and abetted by cottagers' careless use of phosphates (basically plant food) which make their way into the water in laundry detergents, via leaky septic tanks, and fertilizers, carried by that erosion and run-off mentioned previously.
A certain amount of water vegetation maintains water quality, stabilizes the river, lake, or ocean bottom and shoreline, provides food, protection, and spawning beds for fish, and food for herbivores ranging from waterfowl to moose.
However, too much greenery clogs the works, destroying the natural balance of the ecosystem. Weeds, both living and decomposing, use up oxygen and space needed by other living creatures, and, as we all know, aren't much fun to swim in either. Why feed them?
Yes, we nature lovers with our toxic, non-biodegradable, household products, our wood sealers, preservatives and stains, our pesticides, insecticides and herbicides, our plastics, gases, oils, and numerous other agents of the good life present a real challenge to Mother Nature.
Fortunately, we can minimize rather than maximize our impact - and have just as much summer fun.
Those who do will be welcomed back next year.
Cottage Country Offers Global Lessons
Near Battersea, Ontario - There are people who, somewhat jokingly, blame the hockey players -Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark, Kirk Muller.
They also throw actor Dan Ackroyd into the mix, claiming the problem really began with him.
Weeds. In lovely Loughborough Lake north of the historic city of Kingston, Ontario.
Of course, there have always been weeds of one sort or another in this 25-mile, half-limestone-half-granite-based body of water. But the variety and quantity have increased in recent years, causing long-time cottagers to look for the cause.
The proliferation of large, year-round houses, including the million-dollar-plus-or-minus homes of Ackroyd and company, have become prime suspects.
In other words, urbanization and development - of the increasingly unsustainable type. Something not unique to this gorgeous neck of the woods.
I suppose the history and development of Loughborough Lake can be seen as a microcosm of the planet with the evolution of human beings and their needs - or wants - from the simple and benign to the complex and damaging.
Although I am not an anthropologist, it is not difficult to sit on the cottage deck and imagine the first people who gently enjoyed the local waters and lands.
Indeed, as I drive in a gas-guzzling car to the cottage, unpack plastic-encased groceries into an electricity-demanding refrigerator, pour detergents into the sink and washer, and tear around the lake in a gas-guzzling motorboat, it is easy to appreciate the non-intrusive lifestyle of the first native dwellers in this area.
The original human beings here had no chemicals, no petroleum-based products, no need for power of any kind. They lived with what was naturally available; they made use of elements that came from the environment and could easily slip back into it.
No soapy foams, no floating gasoline slicks, no poisoned fish, and a lot less noise.
Even the early cottagers were relatively kind to their surroundings. Kitchen plumbing usually consisted of water in a bucket carried from the lake to wash faces and dishes and an outhouse tucked behind a minimal cottage structure.
I remember 30 years ago when a friend's father at the east-end of the lake decided to go modern and install an indoor flush toilet - for night use only.
Unfortunately, this avid lake-lover also chose to locate the necessary septic tank closer to the lake than legally required, assuming the relevant authorities would be none the wiser.
Little did I realize at the time that I was witnessing a new phase in the modernization and development of the lake. Small wonder that about twenty years later (ten years ago) a government survey was taken to locate just such hidden problems because water quality was deteriorating.
But the introduction of septic tanks to replace the old two-holers isn't the only relatively-recent challenge facing the lake.
A life-long cottager I know estimates that, until 20 years ago, the maximum boat length was about 16 feet. Now, he says, at least 25 per cent of the boats that speed along the water are 18 feet or longer - requiring added horsepower and gasoline with the obvious increased impact on the environment.
And, of course, there are the jet skis. Small, but powerful and polluting. Fortunately, the Ontario Government now requires a licence for jet-ski drivers, which should cut down on some of the ecological damage these toys have been wreaking.
At the same time, some of my boating friends are advocating a switch to four-stroke rather than two-stroke jet skis and outboards, which are less polluting although, at this point, more costly.
Again, the lake reflects the globe in the fact that increased inter-lake boat travel is leading to the importation of foreign weeds and the infamous Zebra Mussel.
The local cottagers' association is advising boaters from other waters to leave their boats in the sun for at least three days or wash them thoroughly before launching them in Loughborough. An ounce of prevention.
However, back on land, the monster homes continue to pop up along the shoreline. One aspect of these gorgeous homes seems to be the penchant of their owners for well-manicured lawns leading down to the lake.
These lawns are often the result of "weed and feed" chemicals, which kill dandelions while fertilizing the good stuff - grass. Sadly, these chemicals are often washed down into the lake after a rain - providing water weeds with more nourishment than they deserve.
That is one reason the complaints have developed.
However, everyone should know that hockey and movie stars are not the only lake fans to blame for the many problems facing a popular fresh-water basin in the middle of a highly-developed province.
As with the planet, we are all responsible.
Global Environmental Heroism
Toronto - I came across a list of heroes on the Internet who, until recently, were largely unsung.
These heroes were this year's recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize, established by the wealthy owner of a San Francisco insurance brokerage firm and his wife more than a decade ago. It is the only major prize honouring grassroots environmentalists and appears to be a truly global honour.
Nominations from each continent for the Goldman Prize are submitted anonymously by a network of 23 environmental organizations and a panel of experts representing nearly 50 nations. In fact, the prize is so prestigious it has been recognized by 113 heads of state. No small potatoes.
But it is the work done by the prize winners that both moved and shocked me. Sadly, their efforts illustrate the kind of dedicated activism this planet desperately needs if it is going to survive - and reveal just what is happening in country after country, putting our planet's survival in some doubt.
Frighteningly, what most of the prize winners have experienced could very well be a foreshadowing of the brave new battlefields of this millennium - communities fighting to protect their lives and living space from the invasion of aggressive, profit-hungry corporations.
Let me introduce you to these heroes.
First, there is Rodolfo Montiel Flores from Mexico. Montiel Flores is a peasant leader who successfully organized his community to stop logging by U.S.-based Boise Cascade in the mountains of the coastal state of Guerrero. In fact, he brought together subsistence farmers and environmentalists so effectively that the Mexican Army intervened and Montiel Flores was arrested, beaten, and remains in prison. But the forest stands.
Then there is the obstetrician, Oral Ataniyazova of Uzbekistan. She founded a clinic and movement to help her community deal with the hideous effects of environmental degradation in her region. Pesticides and other toxins have created an ecological nightmare affecting about three million people. As well, the diversion of water to irrigate the area's cotton crop has caused the rapid disappearance of the Aral Sea - one of the world's largest inland seas - and displaced up to 60,000 people who were dependent on the fishing industry. Ataniyazova is working mainly with women and children to deal with the mess that surrounds them.
In the same part of the world is Vera Mischenko, who scored the first environmental victory in the new, tumultuous Russia against a transnational corporation. Mischenko won a lawsuit in the Russian Supreme Court against a company which wanted to begin oil exploration on Sakhalin Island without an environmental impact assessment. Because of Mischenko and her group, the indigenous people of the island, migratory birds, and marine mammals are safe - for now.
More brave heroes in Paraguay. Oscar Rivas and Elias Diaz Pena began their environmental battles in 1986 under the dictator of the time. In the midst of ongoing political turmoil, they organized a campaign to stop the internationally-backed Hidrovia Paraquay-Parana navigation project which was going to drain, dredge, and redirect that region's waterways. More recently, Rivas and Diaz have brought attention to the World Bank's Yacyreta Dam on the Rio Parana. Their work forced the World Bank to deal with the environmental and resettlement needs of the many people negatively affected by the dam - and even resulted in an apology for the irreversible harm done.
Another brave soul to be recognized with a Goldman Prize is Alexander Peal from Liberia who helped develop that country's first and only national park. He began in the mid-70s to protect the disappearing forests of his country - which is the only land in West Africa with many trees left. After years in exile during a vicious civil war, Peal is now continuing his work and has established a vocal environmental conservation group.
And finally, a hero who is not under siege, not fighting to protect something, but has the luxury to smell the roses or the plants - literally. Nat Quansah is an ethnobotanist in Madagascar, one of the most diverse islands on earth with a rich variety of plant and animal species. Quansah has established a clinic in a small village and is re-introducing the use of local plants to heal people. His work illustrates the value of the natural world around us - and why we should preserve it.
Fortunately, these people are not unique in the world. There are battles large and small across the globe between those who want to plunder and profit and those who want to sustain and nurture. I have the distinct feeling - as I look out over the city of Toronto where 1,000 inhabitants die annually because of the air they must breathe - that not all the environmental heroes of the future will be beyond our border.
Toronto Slowly Poisoning Residents
TORONTO - Help! I'm being poisoned. Slowly, but steadily. Twentyfour hours a day.
Yes, life in this city is one unceasing case of toxic exposure - to a variety of unhealthy metals and chemicals, ranging from lead to PCBs. I can taste the poisons as I walk down the street, especially when large trucks and buses pass by leaving clouds of dark smoke floating in their wake. And one frightening night, while staying with friends in their home above the railway tracks, I awoke with a pungent taste in my mouth as a loud train passed by. What must it be like, I wondered, for children being raised by those tracks, inhaling noxious fumes as they sleep?
The alarming state of Toronto's environment became even clearer for me recently when "eye", one the city's two free weekly newspapers, featured an article entitled: "Who Profits from Poisoning Toronto?" Good question, I thought, as I snatched a copy, hoping to find a secluded bit of green space where I could read and enlighten myself. (This, too, is becoming more difficult as undeveloped land is disappearing rapidly. The residents of one downtown neighbourhood are now heavily in debt after an expensive court battle to protect their only park from the ubiquitous cement trucks.)
The article, written by Bruce Livesey, began by pointing out that: "So far this summer there have been more airquality warnings issued by the Ministry of Environment than in any previous year." And, it continued, the notsurprising result is that one city epidemiologist "estimates that smog could be responsible for 500 to 1,000 deaths, with tens of thousands of incidents of hospitalization, respiratory and cardiac distress, and reduced lung capacity."
I immediately thought of my brother's comments last week after he sailed east from Toronto toward Kingston. Much to his horror, because he is raising a small child in downtown Toronto, he observed a long yellow stain in the sky, which began above the Greater Toronto Area and extended for many miles along the shore of Lake Ontario.
But our air isn't the only problem, Livesey warned in this revealing piece of journalism. Toronto's drinking water, taken from Lake Ontario, "contains 362 different kinds of heavy metals, pesticides, chemicals, and radioactive wastes. Twentyfive sewage treatment plants pump an estimated 225,000 kilograms of heavy metals, like mercury, lead, and zinc into the lake every year. Another 1.2 million kilograms of pesticides end up there, too. All told, 15.8 million kilograms of Ontario's industrial pollution are discharged into the lake annually."
(It should be noted that exposure to lead can result in cancer, brain damage, hypertension, and learning problems for children; mercury affects the neural system, and can cause developmental problems in children. Needless to say, some effects of the sorry tale of environmental recklessness described above won't be detected for years to come, although radioactive tritium from the Pickering nuclear plant appears to have taken its tragic toll already with double the number of Down's syndrome children being born in the area than statistically expected.)
So what is being done about this disastrous state of ecological affairs? Almost nothing. In fact, worse than nothing. The Mike Harris government has, Livesey noted, "exacerbated" the problem by slashing the budget of the Ministry of Environment (the department responsible for protecting our vulnerable surroundings) by 45 per cent, and cut staff by 35 per cent. And it appears that a toxic freeforall has resulted. "The ministry has virtually stopped charging companies with infractions. Between 1997 and 1998, the number of companies violating air pollution standards rose from 58 to 106, with violations jumping from 1,224 to 3,354. Only two of these companies were charged."
Indeed, the Harris government - which apparently puts the right to make money above all other rights - has adopted a policy of selfpolicing under which polluting offenders more or less supervise and supposedly rehabilitate themselves. One environmentalist recently compared this to the concept of speeding highway drivers turning themselves in when they exceeded the speed limit by an unacceptable amount. The point is, of course, that this simply does not happen, because selfpolicing is bunk. It is a public relations sham designed to make citizens feel secure - more secure than they really should.
Coincidentally, I spoke with longtime environmentalist David Cadman just after reading the expose on the poisoning of Toronto. He wasn't surprised by Livesey's findings and told me that in the competitive `90s the "public commons" - our air, our lakes, rivers, and oceans, our forests - are being polluted and will eventually be destroyed because no one exists to protect citizens or the spaces and resources they share. Governments - theoretically guardians of the "commons" - have abandoned those who elected them. And the result is that too many children are breathing poisonous air as they walk to school in the daytime, and as they sleep at night.
How long can this continue?
July, 1998 Walkerton?
As an Ontario Citizen, I Feel Ashamed Because of Deaths in Walkerton
TORONTO - As a citizen of Ontario, I am feeling very ashamed right now.
I feel ashamed because of the deaths and illness caused by E. coli contamination of the drinking water in the community of Walkerton. How did we as citizens in a presumably modern, civilized society let it happen?
What bothers me most about Walkerton is that the root of the problem lies in the ignorance of Ontarians themselves. We simply do not understand well enough how our province works, how things get done - or, in the case of Walkerton, don't get done. And that ignorance is a dangerous thing.
You see, any society is like a jigsaw puzzle. There are various pieces that fit together to create a certain level of efficiency, convenience, safety - and humanity. If pieces are taken away or rearranged, the community, province, or country no longer functions in the same way. Obviously.
So, it is up to the citizens to define what kind of society they want, what level of sophistication, even decency - and then make sure all the pieces fit together to create just that.
But here in Ontario - and across Canada - we are failing to do our job. We are reneging on our social responsibilities. Few of us have a substantial idea what kind of society we want - and even fewer know how to build or achieve it. Most of us are completely lacking in political and social awareness and vision. We are, therefore, ill-prepared to fulfil our role as citizens in a democracy. And our passivity has allowed the likes of Mike Harris to rise to the top and tamper with what we value and take too much for granted.
Sadly, the tragedy in Walkerton provides an excellent example. Although the findings from the various inquiries and law suits will not be known for a long time to come, some contributing factors have already been identified - and illustrate my point.
How many Ontarians know that the Ontario Ministry of the Environment (MOE) operating budget had been slashed by 42.4 per cent - from $287 million in 1994/95 to $165 million in 2000/01? Or that the MOE's regional and enforcement staff has been cut from 2,400 in 1994/95 to 1,500 today?
Most residents of this province are probably completely unaware of these facts. And yet, such drastic cuts to a government ministry as crucial as the MOE are bound to have an impact on their lives - or their children's lives - at some point? How can we accept such blindness, if we are to have any real understanding of how well our society is functioning?
To continue, how many of us are aware of the farming revolution, which has both the federal and provincial governments promoting large industrial farm at the expense of smaller family farms. These mega-farms often house thousands of livestock - but there are no new guidelines or regulations for waste management. (Animal waste is a source of E.coli bacteria.)
How many Ontario voters know that the Harris government turned the testing of our drinking water over to private laboratories, some of them American-owned, in 1996? Now, our water is no longer tested in publicly-funded facilities by public servants, but by businesses trying to make a buck.
Who among us has followed the Ontario government's "downloading" of responsibilities, including day care, road maintenance, and, you guessed it, water-testing, to the municipalities - with no accompanying transfer of money and expertise?
No, most of us don't know much, do we? True, it's a complicated world and we can't all be experts. But the more I write about politics and the world, the more I realize how few people are taking an active role in very crucial areas affecting their homes, families, and country.
Indeed, what we have seen in Walkerton is just a small part of the problem. Right now our federal government is engaged in activities on an international level which most Canadians have heard nothing about. In just a few days, for example, Canada will be represented at the Organization of American States (OAS) conference in Windsor, Ontario.
The main aim of the conference is to put together yet another major free trade agreement - this one covering North, Central and South America - which will clear the way for more privatization and corporate profits.
But, again, how many Canadians know what is being negotiated in their name? How many have even heard of the OAS or the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA)?
We had better smarten up.
Do We Want to Save Family Farms?
Toronto - Hey, city slickers, another growing season has begun across this great, often-fertile land. Acres of fields have been ploughed and seeded, newly-born calves, lambs, and piglets are on their feet. But do urban dwellers have any idea what is happening to the people who produce food in this country? No?
Well, several things are happening - and they aren't good.
I, too, was unaware of the challenges facing our farmers and rural communities until I came across a presentation made recently by the London and Hamilton Dioceses of the Catholic Rural Life Conference (CRLC) to the parliamentary committee which examines the various free-trade deals being pushed so enthusiastically by the Chretien government.
The CRLC representatives appeared before the committee because they are nervous about negotiations on the future of agriculture scheduled for next year at the World Trade Organization (WTO). (Canada will be an active participant, but, if past trade deals are anything to go by, most of us will know little of what is said or done on our behalf - even though the outcome will have a major impact on our lives and future food supply.)
The Catholic Rural Life Conference describes itself as "a grassroots rural membership organization which addresses issues of agriculture, food and rural life ..." It is worth noting that the London and Hamilton branches of the CRLC are located in one of the richest agricultural areas in Canada. In other words, these people are not idle complainers.
And their submission pulled no punches. It pointed out that CRLC members "... find it ironic that we seem to be abandoning, on the federal level, the system of family farms which has for generations ensured rural prosperity and job creation through both farm and retail and service industry jobs in our rural communities ..." It noted that the town of Dresden once had four equipment dealerships and five grain dealers, but they are gone now - because fewer people are farming bigger, more industrialized, and capital-intensive farms.
The group warned that increased consolidation or "gigantism" in the farm community has had environmental and health effects, especially, but not exclusively, in the livestock area. For example, the manure of huge numbers of animals has caused "run-off" problems for local water supplies; huge herds are usually kept healthy in overcrowded conditions with the use of antibiotics (which we humans indirectly ingest and become resistant to), and larger fields have cut down windbreaks and led to soil erosion.
The CRLC cited a study conducted in the U.S. which compared two towns. One consisted of several family farms; the other depended on a few large-scale agri-businesses. The study concluded that the residents of the former had a substantially higher median income and standard of living, better infrastructure, more parks and other amenities, and twice the number of civic associations. It was a happier, more secure community.
With the CRLC's comments in mind, it is difficult to understand why the federal Liberal government has been quietly "trading away" our ability to protect and promote family farms and rural communities - and clearing the way for corporate-run (and not necessarily Canadian) enterprises. But how, you may be asking, do government policies play a role in destroying family farms?
For the answer, I will turn to the words of a farmer who also appeared before the parliamentary committee to voice his fears about the WTO negotiations. Perry Pearce, a hog farmer in Ontario's fertile Essex County for more than 20 years, told MPs that the Corporate Farm Model with its "... simplistic assumption that bigger is better" was benefitting from free trade, but family farms were not.
This is because the government is concentrating on the export market, and, in order to gain access to that market, is tearing down all protective barriers and allowing cheap produce into the country. As Pearce, who told MPs his farm income is half what it was in 1978, pointed out: "As we focus on export markets, we are often, at the same time, giving up domestic markets at an equal or greater pace. The result is often that we 'trade' stable, high-priced Canadian markets for volatile, low-priced foreign markets."
Pearce notes that there are already corporate hog mega-barns producing up to 100,000 hogs a year, and enterprises which have 10 or 20 such barns. In the U.S., corporate farms are "cranking out" more than six million hogs a year. Small farmers simply cannot compete with vertically-integrated corporations, which own these huge barns, as well as packing plants and marketing operations.
The farmer described his dilemma this way: "Few family farms can assemble the capital needed to produce 6,000 hogs per year, let alone six million. And even if I could expand production ten-fold, it would merely mean that I survived and nine other family-farm hog producers did not. In the expansion model, for one to gain, a great many must lose."
This is where we city slickers come in. Do we care about the survival of the family farm in this country? Do we want domestic, public control over the quality and security of our food supply? Or would we prefer to have a wide-open, corporate-controlled food industry providing cheap food of questionable quality and safety from wherever?
It's our decision. We had better make it fast.
We Need a National Water Policy Now
Kingston, ON - I would like to share some thoughts (both pure and impure) about water (pure and impure) with you.
To begin with, this colourless, seemingly unimpressive liquid is not too dull to be the subject of a column. Far from it! In fact, I would argue that the protection of our water - which one writer described as a "miraculous substance" - will be among the most difficult challenges facing Canadians in the not-too-distant future.
Let's face it. Water is crucial. Our bodies are built of the stuff! Without it, our lungs wouldn't breathe; our kidneys wouldn't cleanse; our cells wouldn't multiply. Water helps us fight disease by eliminating germs; it prevents strokes and heart attacks by thinning the blood; it can even slow down the ageing process. At the same time, this wonder fluid is a basic food full of the nutrients we need every day of our lives.
(Actually, Canadians should be drinking eight glasses of pure, fresh water a day.)
Have I made myself perfectly clear - as clear as water? This innocuous substance that flows freely from our taps is key to our survival. That is why I find three trends which threaten our access to clean, healthy water - pollution, privatization, and exportation - very frightening indeed.
As a Kingston resident, I live at the end of what one local health professional calls "the biggest inland water-sewage collection system in the world." Needless to say, that makes the water supply questionable. Therefore, Kingston, like many municipalities, uses chlorine in the purification process. But, sadly, this adds to the problem, because chlorine creates by-products when mixed with certain organic materials found in water - and these by-products have been linked to bladder cancer and birth defects.
So, like my neighbours, I have "natural spring" water delivered to my door (even though the bottled-water industry is unregulated and there is no real guarantee that what I am drinking is truly pure). This means that we are already paying for private water - something that has a real un-Canadian ring to it.
I am sure this development doesn't upset some members of our society - including the Ontario government - who would like to see entire water systems privatized. In fact, some municipalities are already looking at public-private ventures for the treatment and supply of water. And, of course, there will be no shortage of business interest, because, according to the magazine, "Canadian Perspectives," published by the Council of Canadians, there are investors who "see water as the oil of the next century."
Obviously, any product that is crucial to life itself is bound to sell!
But privatization would mean that our national water supply, which has always been considered a public resource, would be divided up as the property of one company or another. (Many of which, under free trade, could be foreign.) And we citizens would lose control of the care and distribution of this "miraculous substance." Indeed, water would become just another commodity to be exploited for profit.
As well, the experience of privatization in countries, such as England and Wales, has not been positive. Again, according to "Canadian Perspectives": "... customers have seen their rates soar, water shortages have been severe, and thousands of low-income people have had their water disconnected, raising serious concerns about the public health consequences."
Finally, there is the prospect of the bulk export of our freshwater. There is no doubt citizens in other countries are in need of safe, clean drinking water. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, best-selling U.S. author, the water available to more than 100 million Americans has significant levels of at least three cancer-causing chemicals. Even rural water supplies have been seriously compromised by chemicals from agricultural run-off (as they have in parts of Canada).
Inevitably, there are entrepreneurial types who can see big bucks in shipping our water to the U.S. or elsewhere. (We have 20 per cent of the world's supply of freshwater.) In fact, over the past year, three American companies have launched lawsuits against Canada under the terms of NAFTA in order to gain access to our water. As well, two Canadian-based companies are waiting for the go-ahead to begin exporting.
Given the desperate need of human beings for water, it is difficult to imagine saying "no" to anyone facing a shortage of this liquid. However, handing our water over to private interests and putting a price on it will not help those in need. Instead, we must better protect this precious resource in Canada and around the world, and we must keep it in public hands so it will be available to all.
But right now, Canada has no national water policy, no legislation controlling or prohibiting its export, and no clear exemption in NAFTA preventing its exploitation and export.
The Planet Has Become a Frightening Laboratory - and We are the Guinea Pigs
Kingston, ON - I am beginning to think that we are all - without exception - part of an enormous, possibly catastrophic, experiment on humankind. This experiment is being conducted without our consent, knowledge, or understanding, and yet it has the power to change, possibly terminate, our lives.
I realize I sound quite melodramatic, like an introduction to one of the many science fiction movies or television series which are so popular these days (especially among the young who must sense what is happening), but examine the world we live in. Take, for example, the recent news that the federal government has finally listened to concerned groups - including the Canadian Institute of Child Health - and warned consumers about toys and other consumer products made of vinyl. Although Ottawa's response was not as powerful as one might have hoped - given the dangers posed by the lead, cadmium, and phthalates found in these products - it offered a brief glimpse at just what is happening in this dangerous world we have created. Our children are literally sucking on toxins every day of their lives.
And what about Health Canada's warning to farmers that they must voluntarily cut down on the antibiotics fed to livestock - or be forced to do so. It seems that a report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal made it clear that the continued excessive use of these antibiotics would lead to the creation of superbugs - deadly new infectious diseases for which there is no known medical treatment for animals or humans. Also, we can't forget that the meat from antibiotic-laden livestock is headed for our tables.
Indeed, the physical environment we humans must cope with is nothing like it was a few decades ago. For one thing, we are now surrounded by what an Australian author refers to as "a multitude of substances we cannot see, smell, or taste." Products we come in contact with regularly are being grown or manufactured with natural toxins - as well as highly-artificial chemical compounds which are being introduced to our world at a dangerous rate. (A published source has put that rate at one new compound every minute. Could that possibly be true?)
The frightening thing is that the planet has been converted into a gigantic, living laboratory - and modern human beings are unwitting guinea pigs. We are the first generations to exist so intimately with such a vast number of toxic substances. As a result, there is no way of knowing what the cumulative (as they build up in our cells) or the combined (as they mix together in our cells) effects will be. Of course, the rise of diseases such as cancer gives us a clue to the body's response. Some have predicted that cancer, which now strikes one in three, will soon hit fifty per cent of us.
How has life changed to reflect this brave new world?
Where once a home might be kept clean with such relatively benign substances as Sunlight soap, baking soda, vinegar, and lemon oil, there are now chemical-based kitchen, bathroom, oven and carpet cleaners, furniture polishes, stain removers, and air fresheners. All of which we accept without question for the sake of keeping the home looking - superficially, at least - like a nice place to live.
But the grand experiment does not stop with our obsession with chemicals. Our bodies are also increasingly exposed to other potentially dangerous influences, such as electromagnetic fields (EMFs). In his syndicated column, W. Gifford Jones put it this way: "... due to modern electrical conveniences, we're all literally bathed in EMFs day after day." Jones cites studies connecting children living near power lines with leukaemia and male - yes, male - electrical workers with breast cancer. He advises his readers to minimize their exposure to electric blankets, razors, clocks, and fans - and limit the hours their children spend in front of the television and video display terminals.
What else is going on in this wide-open, few-holds-barred lab we call the earth? Well, there is genetic engineering, which entails the transfer of genes (the blueprints for proteins) from one organism to another - thus creating new and unnatural proteins. For example, one large biotechnology company is taking certain virus, bacteria, and tomato genes and introducing them to another type of tomato in order to delay the ripening process and prolong shelf life. Sound tasty?
One molecular biologist commented on this bizarre advance in food production by stating the obvious: "Because people have never before eaten these proteins, the effect they might have will not be known." The Canadian government, by the way, has led the fight against - yes, against - the labelling of such "foods" which would allow consumers to make an informed decision when purchasing such items.
Yet another glimpse into the laboratory was offered lately: The federal government's failed attempt to ban the gasoline additive, MMT, because such a ban ran counter to NAFTA. (Incredible when you think about it!) Again, scientists have warned that the manganese found in MMT is a potential neurotoxin - causing damage to our nervous systems - and children are particularly vulnerable.
Life in the global lab is very precarious - because our governments often can't or won't protect us.
Unregulated Gas Prices Sap Our Energy
Ottawa - On a sunny afternoon in a small village just north of the nation's capital, I watched helplessly as a few young men were brought face to face with a brutal reality of the Nineties - the power of unregulated free enterprise. Their lesson came in the form of the ridiculously high price we're paying for gas these days.
As the youths pulled up to the only gas pump within miles, they stared at the numbers on the sign above them: 61.9 cents! Like many Canadians, they absorbed the shock with aplomb, hiding behind the humour that has made us world famous. One pretended to faint while another joked that it was either pay for the gas now or for a taxi when they ran out.
But the unfunny fact remained - they, as consumers, had no real choice. There is no authority in this country ready to protect them or any of us from sudden, apparently arbitrary, price hikes.
We might have had a fighting chance if a private member's bill promoting an Energy Price Review Commission hadn't been killed in the House of Commons recently. The Commission would have forced the five big oil companies - which wield so much power over the supply of a crucial resource - into explaining their actions, such as the eight to ten cent per litre jump we've seen over the past month or more. (That would have been almost forty cents a gallon!)
When he introduced his bill, NDP member John Solomon, a former businessman, called on the Liberal government to bring the insatiable oil companies under some control. These companies, Solomon argued, are raking in record profits while laying off employees in great numbers. Imperial Oil had a 43 per cent increase in profits last year, but dropped 452 people from its payroll. Similarly, Shell's profits rose by 63 per cent, as 471 workers were let go. (Imperial Oil has plans to lay off another 10 per cent of its workforce over the next 18 months.)
What is significant is that millions of dollars are being forced from our wallets (most of us can't walk to work, for example) and handed over to the oil companies at a time when the over-all economy is lagging because of consumer fears and financial constraints. According to Solomon, every cent in increased gas prices costs us a total of $375 million. That works out to $4 billion a year.
In explaining why the Liberal government was voting against a bill to control the oil giants, Marlene Cowling, parliamentary assistant to the Minister of Natural Resources said: "... today Canadians are more conscious than ever of the advantages of business versus government in delivering goods and services, what they want, when they want it, at a price they want to pay."
But is Cowling and the government she represents right on this one? After all, when some Canadians were asked by their local paper if government should regulate the price of gas, 93 per cent of the 4,000 respondents said yes.
The Reform Party also voted against Solomon's bill calling it a "socialist solution" to the problem and railing against government intervention in the marketplace. This is an interesting position in light of what is happening in the United States where price hikes have been lower than ours. That great socialist President Bill Clinton has formed a task force to look into the problem and report to him next month; he has also freed up 12 million barrels of crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to help lower prices.
Admittedly, this gesture is more symbolic than real, but it is bold when compared to political attitudes here.
Solomon has asked the oil companies why they have raised prices so sharply over the past few weeks. One reason given was that the price of a barrel of crude oil has gone up. But the average cost has declined since 1990 and last month it was actually slightly less than in 1992.
Another reason given for the price jump is the fact that Iraq will be adding its oil to the world market supply. But doesn't increased supply usually mean lower prices? That's basic economics.
So what are frustrated consumers supposed to do? For his part, Solomon, with the support of his party, has called for a boycott of the mighty Imperial Oil and its Esso stations. His office reports that it has had many phones calls in support of the idea. (For those of us still trying to avoid buying gas at Shell stations because of political executions in Nigeria, the options are narrowing dangerously.)
And then there is the special oil and gas complaint line (1-800-348-5358) run by the federal Competition Bureau. Although the Bureau claims there is no evidence of price fixing among the oil companies, it admits to receiving about 900 calls a week from Canadians unhappy with everything from gas prices to alleged misleading advertising.
Like the young men at the gas station, we are a gentle people, but we know when we are taking it on the chin.
Corporate Control of Fisheries is Bad News
Ottawa - We all have our idiosyncrasies. I, for example, am a central-Canadian urbanite who can't tell a pickerel from a flounder - and yet, I've been worried lately about the federal government's new Fisheries Act, now making its way through the House of Commons. I am also very concerned about the impact of the Pacific Salmon Revitalization Strategy or "Mifflin Plan" underway in B.C. Bizarre behaviour on my part don't you think?
Indeed, the fisheries - be they fresh or salt water - do seem to be someone else's concern. The majority of us come in contact with the subject while standing over the frozen food section in the supermarket or ordering the "Catch of the Day" in a favourite restaurant. There is, too, some sense that people in Atlantic Canada who make a living from the cod-depleted ocean have had a rough time of it lately, but that seems a long way away.
Unfortunately, however, fish are a dwindling national resource which we should all be losing sleep over. That's why it's important to be familiar with the direction the Liberals in Ottawa are taking in terms of who manages this resource and who gets to exploit or use it.
I'm not in the habit of quoting former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, but in the case of fish habitat management his basic grasp of the issue cannot be ignored. According to a former Fisheries and Oceans official, Trudeau explained his support for federal jurisdiction over the care and protection of the natural environment for these cold-blooded creatures with the simple words: "Fish swim."
If only today's Liberal leadership would demonstrate an equally profound understanding of our fine scaled friends. A little "reelism" might make their Fisheries Act - described as "the first major rewrite of the Act since the last century" - less controversial.
In the area of freshwater habitat management, the Chretien government is ready and willing to delegate (some would say pass off) certain responsibilities to the provinces. As the Fisheries Ministry puts it: "The Bill would enable the Minister to delegate responsibility to provinces to authorize certain types of projects and exercise day-to-day management powers on provincial lands." It is claimed that this is being done to reduce overlap, but perhaps Trudeau should be consulted first!
Just as fundamental as the maintenance of the resource is the question of who benefits from it. As a representative of fishers in Iceland told his Nova Scotia counterparts recently: "Governments all over the world favour big fisheries, and the coastal communities will eventually lose out if they don't unite." Indeed, in the age of turbo capitalism and global competition, the belief - in areas from banking to farming and fishing - is that mergers, consolidation, and corporate control are the only way to go.
The Fisheries Act appears to be doing its part to move the "industry" in that direction. The legislation calls for what is benignly referred to as "partnering." It authorizes the Minister (presently Fred Mifflin) "to enter into a fisheries management agreement" with various fisheries organizations which will then have more say in areas, such as the management and conservation of the resource. The government says it is "encouraging the industry to be self-reliant", but some fear that the most self-reliant fishers (the corporations) will be best positioned to negotiate and oversee such agreements.
These fears are not groundless. In the eighties, the federal government began introducing something called "Individual Transferable Quotas" (ITQs). These allowed boat owners to buy their own catch quotas, instead of being part of a general community or fleet quota. Not surprisingly, this has led to wealthier owners buying out the quotas of smaller, less prosperous ones.
The "Mifflin Plan" on the west coast is achieving the same results. In this case, the federal government is cutting the 4,500-boat salmon fleet in half by buying out boat owners. At the same time, it is forcing fishers to buy separate licences for particular fishing zones. Again, this will only be possible for wealthier owners. (This scheme has proven to be so controversial that it is being put to a vote later this year. Of course, by then many of the smaller owners will have "voluntarily" taken the buy-out.)
Much of this "rationalization" is being done in the name of conservation - the theory being that a smaller number of boats chasing the fish is best. But this is simplistic since many of the remaining boats will be big, high-tech and very effective. For example, one "handline" fisherman (using a single line) working in, say, the Bay of Fundy might catch about 12,000 pounds or more fish per season; a company-owned "dragger" (with a mammoth open-mouthed net) can scoop up 30,000 pounds in three hours. It can then move on when the resource is depleted.
Some observers say the federal government's actions are leading to nothing less than the privatization of what has been for centuries a public resource. Even the Senate in its wisdom has begun hearings on the subject. Perhaps, some Senators fear as I do that we are heading toward a time when the phrase "Gone Fishin'" will apply only to a select few?
National parks and heritage sites will soon change for the worse under Liberal plans.
Ottawa - This summer, there's something lurking around Canada's national parks and heritage sites - from the Pacific Rim National Park in British Columbia to Signal Hill in Newfoundland - most visitors know nothing about.
That something is change - for the worse.
With little public consultation, the Chretien government is revamping our proud national parks system - the oldest in the world - by drastically cutting needed funding and devising plans to replace professional Parks Canada staff with private companies (some, at least temporarily, made up of former employees).
This means that instead of being served by unionized and reasonably well-paid public servants in national campgrounds and interpretation centres, for example, Canadians and other visitors will be dealing with the employees of profit-directed businesses, who will, if precedent is anything to go by, have less training, no job security, lower wages, and fewer benefits.
Why should we care? I can think of several reasons. The first is provided by history and experience. (Always good teachers!) In the past, the government's flirtation with commercialization or contracting out has not always been successful. The operation of a campground in Banff National Park by an outside company trying to make a buck was short-lived after the public complained that facilities were cramped, dirty, and run-down.
As well, instead of saving money, the federal government had to spend millions of dollars because of the environmental damage incurred during this hapless experiment. When I asked a Parks Canada spokesperson about this, she said the government can always replace poor contractors with better ones (presumably). But should our delicate parks be subjected to this kind of uncertainty and chaos?
Secondly, the federal government is setting up a special agency to operate the parks system which will be very concerned about the bottom-line. That is fine if this concern translates into increased efficiency and less waste - and Parks Canada staff are now putting together plans to do just that. But in the agency's case, it could also mean more user fees and money-making ventures.
(User fees for personal park services - everything from interpretation centres to hiking trails - have already been introduced. A battle raging over plans to convert the historic Upper Canada Village run by the St. Lawrence Parks Commission into a theme park with video arcades, batting cages, and mini-golf also offers a taste of things to come.)
I realize this is an unpopular stance to take in these deficit-obsessed times, but, it seems to me, not everything is meant to make money. Parks are like children. They cost money; they don't generate or earn it. They are not meant to, because they have other value. Sure, they can help contribute to their own maintenance, but their existence should not be profit- or dollar-oriented. The new thinking around Parks Canada appears to run counter to this.
Canada's majestic parks system and heritage sites are national symbols which shouldn't be toyed with lightly - and without open and widespread public consultation. Remember the CBC strike when employees argued that contracting out was simply privatization through the back door? The same holds true for our parks. How much outside business penetration can they withstand before they are public in name only? (Upper Canada Village is now being sponsored by Holiday Inns and American Express, among others.)
Another often-overlooked danger of contracting out in this era of free trade - especially in sensitive areas involving national identity and culture - is that US and Mexican companies now have "the right of national treatment" and must be given the same access as Canadian companies. They could soon insist on their "right" to bid on various parks-related contracts. Disney Banff, anyone?
Doing research for this column wasn't very difficult. Here in Ottawa, the National Capital Commission (NCC), responsible for maintaining the parks and monuments around the region, has already gone the commercialization/privatization route. Many long-time, loyal employees have been terminated over the past year and employee-owned companies are picking up the slack, even on Parliament Hill.
But the men and women who tend the shrubs in the shadow of the Peace Tower are not happy. Many of them have lost thousands of dollars a year in pay and most of their benefits. Sure, that doesn't mean much to the hoards of tourists who come to view the sites, but there are other changes as well. One employee, who estimated that the number of workers on certain jobs has been cut by at least half, expressed his frustration that they simply cannot get the work done.
This former public-servant feared that, over time, the difference could become noticeable to the public. How obvious will it have to be before Canadians complain about the neglect of national treasures from coast to coast to coast? But then, do we care?
Future Canadians Could Face Chilling Reality
Ottawa - It's ironic that government and business leaders are quick to voice their concerns about the legacy of debt we might leave our children and grandchildren, but they ignore another equally frightening prospect for future generations -- freezing for six months a year.
In a country where temperatures can drop to well below zero as they have recently, it is surprising how little attention is being paid to the future of those non-renewable resources -- oil and gas -- that keep us warm and comfortable year-round. Instead, we have slipped (or been pushed) into a dangerous de facto continental energy policy without debate or protest.
With full government approval and assistance, Canada's western oil patch is diverting its shipments away from the dependent central and eastern provinces toward the United States, our insatiable, energy-devouring neighbour. Total annual exports have now reached the $7-billion mark - a boon for those in the business, but disturbing for anyone who doesn't think "conservation" is a silly, old-fashioned idea.
Corporate profit-making has successfully pushed aside the concept of Canadian energy self-sufficiency and the very idea of a National Energy Policy that might regulate oil field prices and exports and protect energy reserves for Canadians-to-come has been ground under the heels of those running to the bank with increasing export earnings.
Even Petro-Canada, which offered Canadians the opportunity to buy gas and wave the flag at the same time, has virtually been privatized with the federal government owning just one-fifth of the company - hardly worth driving that extra block to support. Through Petrocan, the federal government managed to increase Canadian control of a very strategic resource to 50 per cent in 1984, but this has since dropped considerably.
And the National Energy Board, the body mandated to regulate the oil and gas industries with an eye to future needs, has been neutralized. One Alberta observer said the NEB simply "rubber stamps" export licences, taking as little as four hours to decide the fate of billions of cubic feet of the country's irreplaceable liquid gold.
Some patch watchers estimate that we now have approximately 11-13 years of known natural gas reserves and about 10 years worth of conventional oil (pumped by rigs) left in the ground. Non-conventional oil supplies, such as those found in the Tar Sands, will be more costly and environmentally less friendly to extract. And yet, we pump and ship as if there is no tomorrow.
These developments didn't just happen. They are part of the general move toward continentalization which a majority of Canadians - those who tell pollsters they don't want to be Americans - seems unable to stop. In her book, "Yankee Doodle Dandy", journalist Marci McDonald quotes Peter Murphy, the US trade negotiator for the Canada/US Free Trade Agreement. "We didn't enter the agreement over tariffs," Murphy admits. "The Canadian agreement is a political one - to make sure you don't go back to those policies like the National Energy Policy."
I don't think many Canadians realize what Murphy and company managed to pry from the spineless Canadian government under Brian Mulroney. It's quite scandalous, especially in light of the fossil fuel plundering we're now seeing by American corporations. The Canada/US trade deal and NAFTA contain clauses that call for what is referred to as "proportional sharing". Even in times of scarcity, Canada must continue exporting energy resources to the US in the same proportion as in the previous 36 months.
In other words, we no longer have complete control over these dwindling resources. Our governments can't stop or slow down the flow south as they see fit - even if the wells appear to be running dry. Canadians no longer come first in terms of our own oil and gas no matter how low the mercury drops.
The "proportional sharing" clause in the free trade deals is particularly frightening because our exports are increasing steadily. Some experts predict that an extra 300,000 barrels of oil a day could be flowing to US cities within a year. And purveyors of natural gas hope to build a huge pipeline to deliver that resource south more effectively.
To add insult to future injury, the trade deals have ensured that Canada can't benefit financially from the present situation. We have promised not to impose minimum prices or export taxes, which could be used to foster the growth of alternative energy technologies - something we might well need after the export binge.
So what does all this mean as we turn up our thermostats and warm our cars for five minutes every morning? As far as I'm concerned, it means that an important factor in our lives as Canadians - energy for warmth and survival, as well as for industry - is being callously and carelessly thrown away to the highest and most forceful bidder. I think I'll advise my daughter to emigrate to a warmer clime.