Journalist

THE TORONTO STAR

February 2008 - November 2007
February, 2008
Farming for the Future

London - Like most city dwellers, my knowledge of farming is embarrassingly limited. I know little about the origins of food beyond grocery store shelves. But a conference on agriculture and global warming has inspired me to dig deeper (pun intended) into things rural.

The speaker who grabbed my urban-oriented attention was American-born, UK-based Craig Sams, co-founder of Green and Black's organic chocolate bars. His message was, well, grounding.

"When we talk about food and farming we are talking about carbon," Sams pointed out. "The process by which food is made starts with carbon dioxide and nitrogen from the atmosphere and turns it into protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Plants conjure food out of thin air with help from water and sunshine ..."

Even better: "Of all the carbon capture and storage technologies on the planet, none can ever hope to be more efficient than photosynthesis ... It's absurdly cheap and has been tested for millions of years ..."

Sadly, the brilliance of nature has been tarnished by the short-sightedness of humanity.

Sams was born on a farm in Nebraska. In the 1880s, when his great-grandfather first ploughed the prairie, the topsoil was twelve feet deep. Now it's less than three feet and "shrinking".

Of course, we've all heard about soil erosion, but Sams added another twist.

Every tonne of soil that Sams' great-grandfather ploughed contained about fifty percent carbon and five percent nitrogen. During erosion, that tonne reacted with oxygen in the air and produced about three tonnes of carbon dioxide, along with the more damaging nitrous oxide - equivalent to another thirty tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Sams said that his great-grandfather lost about four tonnes of soil per acre annually, "so over 160 acres he emitted 21,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide from our little farm. Every year."

That was in the days of horsepower. "In the 1930s, when oil sold for 10 cents a barrel and tractors began replacing horses, production went up, ploughs went deeper, and soil erosion went crazy". The result was the Dust Bowl.

Sams pointed out that half of the world's greenhouse gas emissions from 1850 to 1990 came from agricultural activity, but therein lies the good news.

"There are 1.5 billion hectares of arable land on the planet and if you just saved one tonne of carbon emissions per year per hectare that would give us a 1.5 billion tonnes emission reduction. If you went further and instituted practices that captured and locked carbon in the soil, then you would have another 1.5 billion tonnes reduction, giving a total of 3 billion tonnes per year of carbon reduction."

This would cover more than half of the 80 per cent emissions reductions we need to stabilise our climate, he told us.

If this principle were extended to the nine per cent of the earth's surface that is farmed as pasture or grazing scrubland, then we could more than double that figure - and agriculture alone could bring about all the emissions reductions we need.

"Agriculture has always been a big part of the problem. It has more potential than any other industry to be the biggest part of the solution."

Sams said that society must offer farmers price incentives to farm "not just organic, but carbon-conscious organic." They should be rewarded for removing carbon from the atmosphere by the plants they grow. If they got a good price for every tonne of carbon they sequestered, "they would see carbon as their primary product."

"We are at war with an enemy, greenhouse gas ..." Sams concluded. "We can win it and farming is our most powerful weapon."

Who would have thought that the solution to the earth's problems lay in the earth itself? And on our plates.

December, 2007
First London to Paris, Next Toronto to New York?

London - When you travel on the Eurostar - as I did recently - at high speed from St. Pancras Station in London under the English Channel to the Gare du Nord in two hours and twenty minutes, there is less time to become acclimatized to a new country and culture. Suddenly, you are in Paris. It's a bit like flying - with no hike to the airport and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

This new speed and efficiency on the ground between the UK and Continental Europe has been dubbed, "The Dawn of a New Era" - part of a multi-billion pound rail revolution. It is symbolized, in part, by the restoration or transformation of the ornate St. Pancras station - once an "ailing shell of a building" now the gleaming "gateway to Europe."

Actually, it is quite a relief to see that this "great Victorian cathedral" with 18,000 panes of glass arching high above, allowing in natural light, has come back to life. I remember standing in front of the building a couple of years ago as it loomed in all its glass and brick splendour behind wooden barriers, looking quite forlorn. For too long, it had been a shadowy hang-out for drug dealers, users, and prostitutes. A discarded relic of a more glorious past.

In fact, this irreplaceable structure of 60 million bricks came very close to being demolished when London was being "vandalized" by modernists in the 1960s. Euston Station, just down the road, fell to the wreckers, but poet, John Betjeman, who died in 1984, rallied people to protect St. Pancras. His statue now stands in the station - a short, pot-bellied man with a carry-all bag in one hand, holding his hat secure with the other as he looks up at the structure he saved.

St. Pancras International now boasts of having the longest champagne bar in the world. It is lovely - although too expensive for my taste. A young French waiter, sounding incredibly like Gerard Depardieu, told me that the seats are heated to keep people warm in this huge place. The Eurostar departs from just beside the bar, so customers can wave goodbye to strangers as they leave for the continent. "Don't come back!" the waiter yelled as the train slipped away. He was a country boy who doesn't like Parisians.

Of course, not everyone is happy with the money spent on high-speed travel for the relatively privileged. A BBC radio reporter talked to some of the locals about the project. They felt they were being pushed out of their neighbourhood - and their pubs, as it becomes trendy and house prices rise. "It's our area, our land. Why are they treating us like this?" And why, they asked, couldn't some of the money have been spent on "council" or social housing?

Other observers have complained that the new train makes London closer to Calais and Lyon in France than it is to Canterbury. Are the UK government and the city turning their backs on the rest of the country, which must rely on slower-moving, basically 19th century trains?

Good point. A parallel would be seeing our various governments build a high-speed train from Toronto to New York City - along with fancying up Union Station, while travel remained relatively slow to national destinations.

If that were the case, would Torontonians be satisfied chugging along to Montreal or Ottawa on less efficient transport - or would they hop aboard the latest in rail technology and head for the Big Apple? If they chose the latter, what would that do to our national sense of being and cohesion? Something to think about while drinking champagne at Union Station or elsewhere.

December, 2007
John Lennon Was Very Much Alive in Toronto

London - The movie poster is disconcerting for anyone who remembers the man. It promotes in bold letters: "The Killing of John Lennon." There is also a quote from Lennon's murderer: "I was nobody until I killed the biggest somebody on earth." In light of the latest inquiry into Princess Diana's death, I couldn't help observing how difficult it is for the famous to die.

I stared at the poster in a London tube station for a while as people whizzed by, apparently oblivious to this flash from the past. It brought back memories of the early '60s when I was a Beatlemaniac of the first order. Paul was my favourite because of his adorable baby boy looks, but there was something about John's style and brains. In 1964, his small, delightful book, "In His Own Write" was a welcome birthday present.

That year, my friends and I went to see the Beatles at Maple Leaf Gardens - the gaping monolith that was almost as much of a thrill as the band itself. We had seats in the top row of the grey section - where the air was thin - which meant we had to ask each other which song was being sung every time the audience began screaming louder, conveying recognition.

That concert was the closest I've been to what seemed like a minor war zone. Lights had to be turned on so that emergency workers could swoop down and pick up the bodies of fainted adolescents. I remained conscious and upright - while recognizing that I was caught up in something new, powerful, and frightening.

The next year, after my friends bowed out, I took my younger brother. We sat in the green section on John's side. For me, the best moment came when someone threw something light and non-threatening, like a popcorn box, on stage near John, and he stepped back casually and gracefully - like a dancer - to avoid being struck. My young mind told me I had witnessed an example of pure Lennon.

Because of my former mega-fan status, my younger sister was on the phone to me seconds after hearing of John's death on December 8, 1980. I must admit that she was shocked - and I now feel guilty - that I took the news with such equanimity. By then, I was raising a child in downtown Toronto and had moved on. John was history, even before he died.

And now, I am faced with the possibility of seeing a re-enactment of that death, of getting up close and personal - not only with the bullets, but with the killer, Mark David Chapman. Andrew Piddington, the first-time director of "The Killing of John Lennon," has said that he was inspired to make his film after reading a book entitled: "Who Killed John Lennon?" - a conspiracy theory about Chapman being a US government agent programmed to wipe out the radical Lennon.

The film is a dramatization based on Chapman's own words and writings both before and after he murdered Lennon, as well as the testimonies of others. Piddington has said that he was not interested in giving Chapman - who has been denied parole five times since being imprisoned - "any more notoriety", but he did want to try to "understand the psychology" behind the crime. Not a bad idea now that such acts by alienated youths have multiplied.

CNN has described the film as "truly an indie masterpiece." Village Voice hailed it as a "haunting, intensely impressionistic account." So, will this former Beatle fan rush to see it? Never. I prefer to remember the John Lennon I saw deftly dodging a popcorn box in Toronto than the one lying in blood outside the Dakota apartment building in New York City.

December, 2007
Torontonians Impressing London and the World

London - As I write, Torontonians are impressing the world - at least, that's what was expected to happen. The C40 Cities - Climate Leadership Group, chaired by London's Mayor Ken Livingstone, is hosting behind-closed-door workshops for senior municipal officials from around the globe. Because the main topic is transportation, Philip Jessup, executive-director of the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, is giving a keynote speech on plug-in hybrid (gas/electric) cars. It's sure to be a barnburner.

There are 40 cities in Livingstone's group, as the name suggests, each with a population of more than three million. Toronto is Canada's only representative, but it seems to be holding its own. Mayor David Miller is on the steering committee and C40 manager Simon Reddy describes Toronto as "out there with the leaders of the pack concerning climate change."

Reddy says that Toronto plays a "key role" in the organization because of two things: It is one of only a handful of member cities with a Climate Change Action Plan and it has a dedicated agency - the Atmospheric Fund - to make the plan reality. When I introduced myself as a Toronto journalist to Nicky Gavron, the deputy-mayor of London, she perked up and said: "We've learned a lot from them!" This time it's hybrids - and more.

C40 is all about sharing information among cities - so they don't have to go green in isolation. Instead, they can "benefit from the hindsight of others," according to Reddy. Whether it concerns Seoul's car-free days or Paris's 20,000 public bikes, they come together, he says, to ask the question: "Will this work for my city?"

A major topic of discussion at the London workshops is congestion charges. This is the practice of making people pay to drive in certain areas, usually city cores - although it sounds more like a charge on the poor souls who have inhaled too many fumes while caught in a jam. Anyone who has spent time on the Don Valley Parkway - or Parking Lot - will not be surprised to know that traffic congestion has been called "one of the most pressing socio-environmental issues of our time."

Various urban centres from Singapore to Stockholm have introduced the congestion charge. The radical "Red Ken" Livingstone surprised everyone by bringing it to the heart of London in 2003. Responding to claims that this made the city accessible only to wealthier drivers - which to some extent it must, Livingstone rightly pointed out that fewer cars and more smoothly-flowing traffic would create less pollution. A good point when you consider that transportation emissions are increasing faster than any other source of greenhouse gases.

One year later, the statistics told a very good story: 18 per cent less daytime traffic in the charging zone, 30 per cent fewer delays. At the same time, more people were using bicycles and motorcycles, as well as buses and taxis, which could move around the city with greater ease - although Piccadilly and other arteries still get blocked up.

When I emailed a couple of relatives to find out if they would agree to such a charge in Toronto, their positive responses were loud and clear. One said he remembers how London in the '80s and '90s was like Toronto now - but the former has improved to the extent that: "In some places you can hear birds!" He added that the charge could only work if improved alternative infrastructure and transit were provided.

The other wrote saying that she and her 19-year-old son both liked the concept, providing there was some kind of residents' pass for those already paying high property taxes. Referring to the bumper-to-bumper traffic, which they deal with too often, they observed simply that it was time to "Stop the madness."

November, 2007
Maude Barlow on Water

London - Exceptionally dedicated people like Council of Canadians chair Maude Barlow overwhelm me. Their presence leaves me feeling quite ineffectual. Such was my reaction when I bumped into Maude in London, England, at a conference called Be The Change - based on Mahatma Gandhi's observation "You have to be the change you want to see in the world."

Suppressing any sign of jet lag after her recent arrival from Canada, Maude joined other prominent speakers in outlining for several hundred people the reasons why the world as it is simply can't last. While most concentrated on climate change and dwindling fossil fuel reserves, Maude shocked the room with her analysis of the "global water crisis."

Her speech was based on her latest book - her 17th - entitled: "Blue Convenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water." When she handed me a signed copy, she explained that she was flying back to Canada the next morning to continue her cross-country book tour. Until then, there were more meetings to attend. This from a grandmother of four.

I first met Maude while we were trying to stop NAFTA in the early '90s. It was a disheartening struggle in what now seems a simpler, more innocent time. After that, she broadened her scope from saving Canada to saving the planet. Since you can't have the former without the latter, it was a natural progression. Her work has been widely recognized. She has even been awarded the Right Livelihood Award - the "alternative Nobel."

As for the book, she doesn't pull any punches - nor should she when dealing with the "imperilled" future of the world's most crucial resource. On my way home from the conference, people on my London bus must have wondered what I was reading, as I underlined sentences and turned pages lost in a frightening world of water shortages and confrontations - much of it based on Maude's own travels "to every continent and into remote and often wretchedly poor communities around the globe."

The basis of the crisis is that the world is running out of clean water. In the developed world, lakes and rivers are shrinking, groundwater sources are dwindling, and so-called droughts are more common. In the Third World, where ninety percent of wastewater is dumped untreated into rivers, streams, and oceans, megacities are drying up their water tables, millions of farmers must drill deeper to access underground reserves, and a child dies every eight seconds from drinking dirty water.

There are two reactions to this water crisis. On one side, large corporations with, as Maude points out, the assistance of most First World governments, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and even the United Nations, are trying to promote the concept of water as a commodity, like oil, to be owned, sold, and traded. "They have established an elaborate infrastructure to promote the private control of water, and they work in close tandem with one another."

On the other side, there are people who think that water is "the common heritage of all humans and other species, as well as a public trust that must not be appropriated for personal profit or denied to anyone because of an inability to pay." These people have formed "a large global water justice movement made up of environmentalists, human rights activists, indigenous and women's groups, small farmers, peasants and thousands of grassroots communities." They want water to be declared a human right.

The book provides examples, including Canadian, of these two world views colliding, and there is no mystery where the author stands. Little wonder the dedication reads: "To all the water warriors. You amaze me." Maude amazes me.

November, 2007
The One That Got Away

I wrote this as a feature for the Toronto Star. However, due to Bianca Jagger's insistence on full control over the final product, as mentioned below, it was never published.

London - When I first cold-called Bianca Jagger in London to enquire about an interview, I could hear the tentativeness in her voice. How did I get her number? She wasn't rude, but very cautious. It was obvious that she feels the media have misrepresented her too often over the years, making inaccurate claims about her personal life - and she doesn't want any more of it. Happily, however, after I dropped a couple of familiar names and explained my own interest in writing about her as a fellow progressive, the ice melted - and we chatted like long-lost friends for almost an hour. But, she insisted, she wouldn't give me a real interview without control over the final copy, photos, and publication date. Ultimately, after a series of phone calls and emails, I learned that this tenacious woman means what she says.

According to a prominent UK activist, who preferred to remain anonymous, Jagger has a reputation for being "difficult," but I am still a fan. She is so much more than Mick's ex-wife that I can't blame her for wanting to manage her image somewhat as she pries herself away from that label. A list of awards received over the years demonstrates that she is very much a person - a hero - in her own right. Last year, she was given the Office of the Americas Peace and Justice Award for her "bravery, eloquence and strength of convictions." In 2004, Mikhail Gorbachev presented her with the World Achievement Award for her "worldwide commitment to human rights, social and economic justice and environmental causes." The list goes on with recognition from organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Rainforest Alliance, the Hispanic Federation, and the United Nations.

The reason for this eclectic mix of appreciation is that Jagger has been active on behalf of many different causes in many areas of the world. After several years in New York City, she now lives in London to be near her daughter Jade and two grandchildren. However, she travels so much that she really "lives in a suitcase." This is partly because she has responsibilities as chair and founder of her own Human Rights Foundation; she is the Council of Europe's Goodwill Ambassador, a member of the Executive Director's Leadership Council for Amnesty International USA, a member of the Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch America and more.

But much of her travel has to do with her courageous work in the field - from saving lives by standing up to the guns of a Salvadoran death squad to halting logging in the indigenous lands of Nicaragua and Brazil to evacuating wounded children and speaking out against rape and genocide in Bosnia. She has also fought for individuals, pleading for clemency on behalf of certain death row prisoners in Texas, and has spoken out against the death penalty in general. She has shown her concern for the AIDS crisis from Harlem to Calcutta.

Earlier this year, Jagger became chair of the newly-formed World Future Council (WFC), which describes itself as an international lobby designed to "... challenge decision makers everywhere to reflect on the huge cost of many of their decisions ..." Council of Canadians head Maude Barlow is one of the councillors. More concretely, the WFC will try to fill in "action gaps" by publicizing positive changes in various countries - from Denmark's support for wind power co-operatives to the efficient Bus Rapid Transit system in Bogota, Colombia - and pushing for their adoption elsewhere. I recently watched Jagger - still elegant and beautiful with dark eyes and high cheek bones - in her capacity as WFC chair in the basement of a large hall in central London asking a group of young people to write letters urging the G-8 leaders to "save life on earth." She will personally deliver the letters during the G-8 summit in Japan next year.

So what makes this highly dedicated woman run? Call it location and timing. She was born in Managua, Nicaragua, in 1950 and grew up in a socially divided and politically repressive society, watching her fellow citizens being terrorized by the US-backed Somoza government. After her parents' divorce, Jagger's mother struggled so her daughter could continue her convent education. At 16, the young Bianca won a scholarship to study in Paris at the Institute of Political Studies. In 1972, the year after she married Mick, she returned home to search for her parents after a devastating earthquake destroyed Managua, killing more than 10,000 people and leaving tens of thousands homeless. In 1979, the year of her divorce, she was back again on a different mission - to help the British Red Cross deal with victims of the conflict which led to the overthrow of Anastasia Somoza by the Sandinistas.

Little wonder Jagger is frustrated by journalists' "narrow vision," portraying her as someone who suddenly became a political advocate. She told me she wouldn't be interested in "all these intricacies in the world," if it weren't deeply rooted. "This is what I am. You don't change in life. Something motivates you. You evolve and learn."

During one of our phone conversations, Jagger told me about a recent speech she had given to young students at Oxford University, and how she advised them to do more research into the way the world is being run. Specifically, she told them to find out about the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), founded a decade ago, which describes itself as "a non-profit, educational organization whose goal is to promote American global leadership." Most of its members are or have been key people in the George W. Bush administration - Vice-President Dick Cheney, his convicted former Chief of Staff I. Lewis Libby, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and many more. Jagger said she finds it tragic how few Americans - and Canadians, I'm sure - realize that Bush's tactics are part of a "preconceived strategy." She stated clearly that she is not a conspiracy theorist. On the contrary, there is concrete evidence that a group of people had a game plan - and have succeeded, for the most part, in putting it into action.

Jagger is particularly upset about the outcome of the Bush Administration's adventures in Iraq. During an investigative tour of that country in January, 2003, she found that Saddam's friends and foes alike thought an invasion would be "a big mistake" and they feared what lay ahead. She was especially moved by the Iraqi scientists, who were offered safe passage to Jordan, if they falsely claimed there were Weapons of Mass Destruction. Some of them cried as they told Jagger that they preferred to stay in their country and face the consequences, rather than lie. "I felt like we were abandoning them to their fate," she admitted sadly. Jagger was very active in trying to stop the madness before it began. Tragically, since the invasion and occupation, many Iraqi intellectuals have been killed.

In light of the past three decades, it seems odd to ask about Mick, their much-publicized wedding in the south of France where she as a bride was scantily dressed, and those wild, endless nights at the popular nightclub Studio 54 in New York. On this, Jagger refuses to talk. In fact, I have read that she has turned down generous offers to "kiss and tell." Frankly, in this age of young female stars making spectacles of themselves and Heather Mills McCartney ranting about her life and marriage to Paul in the media, I respect Jagger for this. However, her attempts to strictly control any coverage mean that too few people know about her impressive accomplishments.

October 2007 - June 2007
October, 2007
Clone Town UK ... and Canada

London - The problem was urgent enough to pressure the Conservative - yes, that's large "c" - council of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to act. Those colourful London shopping areas we've all heard about - Portobello Road, Notting Hill Gate, Earl's Court Road - were "in transition from a distinctly local to a more uniform character." Small shops were disappearing, swamped by large chains. I'm sure that sounds familiar.

So, in spite of its ideological bent toward the free market and laissez-faire capitalism, the council set up an independent and heavy-hitting Commission on Retail Conservation. Sir Terence Conran of restaurant and retail fame came on board. The goal was to "preserve and enhance the character and vitality" of high (main) streets and neighbourhood shopping areas. Being dominated by Starbucks, Tesco supermarkets, and the Gap just wasn't working.

The commission's report - aptly titled: A Balance of Trade - contains recommendations galore, of which a majority were accepted by the council just days ago. They include: the creation of two classes of retail, based on size, to be treated accordingly; forcing developers to prove that a need is being met by their projects; issuing development "Stop Notices" if necessary, and restricting competition-destroying "Sales" to specified dates.

The report also warns of "planning creep" or "planning by stealth" based, obviously, on too many bad experiences. By contrast, there are proposals for "Community Strategy," "Local partnerships," "Consultation between developers, retailers and residents," as well as a "Retail neighbourhood watch." A full-time "Champion" to network with groups concerned about local sustainability is, well, championed.

The perennial problem of parking is raised, even the possibility of 30-minute free zones to compensate for the lots of larger stores. As well, farmers' markets are to be encouraged. Retail directories published. A borough retail conference organized. Shopfront designs improved with shopfront grants. Residents and visitors urged to "Shop local."

Not surprisingly, landlords, who are often on the front lines of the transition from small to large, have not been overlooked. They are being asked to offer fixed-period leases and to increase rents based on sales turnover. The sad reality is that it is difficult for a landowner to resist the lure of big bucks when a corporation comes calling. A Toronto friend, who owns a popular cafe on Bloor Street, learned that lesson when wealthy Starbucks wanted his corner location. It was only the determined lobbying of his loyal clientele that prevented his landlord from accepting the better offer.

When I read about the "Chelsea Charter," as it was labelled by one tabloid, I decided to talk to some shop employees on the King's Road, my new borough neighbourhood. I certainly wasn't prepared for the barrage of anger and resentment. "It's much too little too late," said one salesclerk. "They're trying to destroy anything that is slightly quaint and British." Then she mumbled something about America.

This attitude and the council's effort to stem the tide doesn't come as a surprise in the UK. Two years ago, the new economics foundation (nef), a progressive "think and do" tank, produced a survey, dividing towns into three categories: clone towns, where high street shops had been "replaced by a monochrome strip of global and national chains," home towns, which had maintained their "individual character," and border towns - "on the cusp." At that time, the nef identified 42 per cent as clone towns.

Just before leaving Toronto, I found myself downtown on King Street. I wanted to buy a novel treat for my sister and began looking for an interesting bakery or grocery store. No luck. I soon realized I was trapped in a world of coffee shops and other chains. Would Toronto be considered a clone town?

September, 2007
Ontario Politicians Drop Green Ball

Kingston, ON - Are we all living on the same planet, being exposed to the same frightening information about climate change? Based on the provincial election campaign so far, I wonder. You would think that the status quo is fundamentally fine, but just needs adjusting. Perhaps, they are following Stephen Harper's lead.

There is no shortage of reminders about the crisis we face. Lester R. Brown of the Earth Policy Institute has written that: "Saving civilization means restructuring the economy - and at wartime speed." Author Jeremy Rifkin states that: "There are rare moments in history when a generation of human beings are given a new gift with which to rearrange their relationship to one another and the world around them. This is such a moment."

Yet, I detect no real appreciation of this "moment" from our provincial campaign, no sense of urgency, no vision of a brand new, relatively carbon-free future. During the leaders' debate, no one picked up the green ball and ran with it. The closest thing to inspiration was Howard Hampton saying we needed "leadership" on the issue of global warming. (Apologies to the uninvited Green Party leader if he has a vision.)

This leadership vacuum is tragic indeed, because, in spite of the fact that many of us support the crucial transition to green, it isn't going as well as it could or should. Instead of confronting the earth's crisis in a co-operative, enlightened way, some are using it to make a questionable buck. Take wind power. Who would have thought it could be controversial? Harvesting energy from thin air without drilling, refining, transporting. No need to exploit foreign resources, no wars or occupations. It sounded like a godsend.

But controversial it is - from the islands near Kingston to Atlantic Canada to Australia, the UK, and India. People are protesting against the turbine "monstrosities," "the juggernaut which runs roughshod, unchecked over some of our loveliest land," "the resources exploitation and industrial domination over our territory."

Over the summer, the proposed introduction of what one opponent called "industrial scale wind plants" on nearby Wolfe and Amherst Islands divided these quiet, rural communities. Some residents secretly leased their land to Canadian Hydro Developers Inc., so that the Calgary-based company could install more than 80 giant steel turbines on each island.

Dividing families and friends, the company's methodology was far from green. Anti-wind-plant protest groups were formed. On Wolfe Island, opponents were mainly worried about the distance of the 90-metre-tall turbines from homes, a wetland, and bird migratory routes. After taking a township council bylaw to the Ontario Municipal Board, the setbacks were increased much to the relief of many. The issue is still festering on Amherst Island.

To my mind, these controversies illustrate that our society hasn't learned anything about how we have reached today's crisis, how running roughshod over lives and resources just doesn't work. The fact is that we can't simply create new sources of energy; we must create a new kind of society - by building and designing our new systems in humane, democratic ways with strict regulations and community input.

Rifkin warns that we can't allow our energy future to be hijacked by profit-driven corporations the way the Internet was. "The great promise of the Net ... has been compromised, at every step of the way, by commercial interests determined to gain a foothold over the medium."

Yes, the world is getting off to a rocky start when it comes to "saving civilisation." Here in Ontario, as the UN focuses on the issue with little help from Canada, it doesn't look like any person or party is going to lead us out of the increasingly hot wilderness - no matter what the election outcome. That is a disgrace when so much is at stake.

August, 2007
Establishing New Uranium Mine in Ontario is a Step Backward

Kingston, ON - Call it an advantage of aging, but, more and more, I appreciate historical patterns. Having lived through the last half of one century and the first years of another, I have a greater sense of trends - past and present. With this new perspective, I have begun to categorize things and activities in terms of eras.

Take energy, for example. For me, coal power reeks of the dirty, unregulated 19th century, nuclear of the blindly-scientific 20th, solar and wind of the oh-oh-we've-gone-too-far 21st. Therefore, no matter how much the advocates of coal and nuclear energy try to dress up their products for the present, I can't accept them. They are just too old-fashioned. Perhaps someday the technology might exist to make them clean and safe, but that seems a long way off.

This is why a controversy over uranium mining in the beautiful countryside near Sharbot Lake, 80 kilometres north of Kingston, appears so out-of-date and wrong. The idea of establishing such a mine in a land of wild blueberries, maple syrup, fishing lodges, boys' and girls' camps, and cottages conjures up bygone days when society didn't know better.

Having played a minor communications role in the 1992 decommissioning of the Elliot Lake uranium mines, which left behind 130 million tonnes of radioactive sludge, I thought we were done with all that. Now, the prospect of using CO2 emitting trucks and heavy machinery to tear apart more pristine Ontario acres - this would be the only such mine outside Saskatchewan - in search of a metal that is potentially toxic both locally and generally is, well, anachronistic.

In fact, things nuclear seem so out-of-sync with today's world that I had been ignoring the Sharbot Lake mine controversy, merely glancing at media reports of anti-mine demonstrations along Highway 7, the First Nations' 24/7 blockade of the mining company's access roads, the company's $77 million dollar suit of the Natives, and its injunction request to stop the blockade.

But things are coming to a head. At this point, a judge has granted a temporary injunction, which the Natives plan to ignore. They say the solution needs to be political, not legal, since legal heavy-handedness has lead to nothing but violence in the past. Ipperwash, Oka. They have written to Premier Dalton McGuinty asking for a moratorium on mining to provide time for proper negotiations.

Yes, the debate over uranium mining in my backyard has proved impossible to avoid for a variety of reasons. A recent study casts doubt on the safety of living near a nuclear plant, due to higher rates of childhood leukemia; the cost to re-seal the site of the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown will be more than one billion dollars, and we've just marked the August 6th and 8th anniversaries of the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - with bombs of Canadian uranium.

But, it wasn't simply the mining issue that kept tugging at my consciousness and conscience in recent weeks. There was also a new awareness of the presence and needs of the First Nations involved in the controversy - the .

Growing up in Kingston, I knew of the Natives in Deseronto, who have made headlines recently with their protests, but not of those near Sharbot Lake. I wasn't alone. Several long-time Kingstonians I surveyed had "no idea they were up there" either.

Now, these low-profile neighbours want to re-claim some of their land based on a Royal Proclamation - from the 18th century. Ironically, in a panic, some of the area's non-Natives have recently offered to sell their property to the Natives, because First Nations ownership comes with mineral rights, not simply surface rights. (Few landowners know they probably don't have the mineral rights to their property, and are vulnerable to prospectors' incursions.)

With their allies, the protesting Natives say they are trying to protect the watersheds of the Ottawa and Mississippi rivers, which provide water to about one million people in our nation's capital. They are also speaking out against the failure of Queen's Park to consult with locals - and notify them that a private company, Frontenac Ventures, had been given the exploration go-ahead, staking the land of unsuspecting owners.

These images of incommunicative government, an aggressive corporation, and an unsustainable industry also harken back to the past. Sure, China is clamouring for uranium, but, at this "inconvenient" time, wouldn't it be better to move together in the right direction - green?

Imagine the impact, if those who are clinging to the moribund and the unhealthy devoted their time, money, expertise, and enthusiasm to the technologies and needs of the 21st century.

July, 2007
The Next Casualty of the Afghan War Should Be Our Participation

Kingston, ON - Kingston has always been a very military community, but, since the recent death of Capt. Matthew Dawe, the city's second Afghan war victim, it has become even more so. With numerous reports of the young man's violent death by roadside bomb - along with six others - and the suffering of his prominent military family, the realities and tragedies of battle have made their way into local homes.

At the same time, the war's supporters are exhorting citizens to strengthen their resolve in the fight for freedom - making it awkward for those opposed. Just days before Dawe's death, I attended an outdoor concert in the city's downtown. When the MC mentioned supporting our troops, I yelled loudly: Bring them home! No more war! The crowd was silent then, but I wouldn't do it now.

For a long time, war seemed a thing of the past for Kingston. Old Fort Henry and the limestone towers, which dot Lake Ontario, are testaments to earlier fears that the Americans might invade from the south. They are the stuff of tourism now. The mobilizations of the First, Second, and Korean Wars, too, are history.

While growing up there, I thought that my father, who died at age 31 as a delayed result of being interned during World War II, was among the last victims of fighting. The immediate world was safe. The Cold War and nuclear threat were far away, abstract.

Nevertheless, it was difficult not to have a sense of things soldierly. On Sundays, I would watch in awe as colourfully dressed Royal Military College cadets marched in tight formation from St. George's Cathedral across the La Salle Causeway to their lovely campus. I never dreamed that their successors would actually go to war as Dawe, who graduated as a civil engineer in 2004, did.

Last Saturday, more than 2,000 people attended Dawe's funeral. Needless to say, this change in the status of war from abstract to very real is not a good thing. However, it illustrates - as does every death and injury since 2001 - how desperately we need a national debate on Canada's presence in Afghanistan. It is time we asked some very serious, possibly unpleasant and controversial questions.

We must begin with an assessment of our overall goal in the Middle East. Our main ally, the United States, has a blighted history in that region. The CIA conducted its very first coup in Iran, 1953, overthrowing a democratically elected government and installing the Shah, a human rights abuser. When the Islamic fundamentalists finally tossed out the Shah, they vowed they wouldn't be "liberal" victims of the US, like their democratic forerunners.

Militant fundamentalism is similar to communism. It provides a disciplined response to perceived injustices - internal and external - and American geo-political and economic agendas are fanning its flames. (Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iraq, the resurgence of the Taliban, and more) Do we really want to be part of this destructive dynamic? Can we not think of a more positive role?

Concerning Afghanistan, we must also ask ourselves about the immorally high number of civilian deaths caused, according to President Karzai, by coalition forces' "extreme use of force", the inhumane detentions, the torture. These aren't mere details or unavoidable side effects. And what about the corrupt government? Karzai's election was marred by complaints of fraud and improper procedures. Is this really our style?

Finally, there is the raison d'etre of the war itself. I have read that the FBI has not laid charges against Osama bin Laden in relation to 9/11, presumably because it lacks the evidence to do so. If this is the case, do we have enough evidence to sacrifice our young people's lives?

July, 2007
"Errorizing" Citizens All Too Common

Kingston, ON - The Canada no-fly list is a great success - if success is measured by the drama of innocent citizens becoming victims of government ineptitude. Children are being grounded at airports. Fighting terror by error seems to be the name of the game.

I know this too well from first hand experience - while traveling by rail from Montreal to New York City. At the border, US customs officials boarded the train. I obediently got out my not-yet-compulsory passport. Why take chances? I thought naively.

A no-nonsense official asked me where I was going. New York. Where was I staying? With a friend. Where did I meet this friend? Paris. (Oh, oh, land of the hated French Fries.) What was that friend doing in Paris?

At that point, my democratic sensibilities got the better of me. Is this necessary? I asked. The official then told me she was keeping my passport. Someone would get back to me. I sat there feeling like a criminal as my fellow passengers, mainly Americans, looked at me sheepishly.

A younger official soon approached and asked me to follow him to the end of the car where there were empty seats. Had I ever been arrested? He asked, once we were facing each other across the aisle. Well, I smiled, trying to make light of the situation, I was a student radical in the '60s and we did have some run-ins with the police.

Answer me now, or you will be arrested immediately, he warned me. The light approach had obviously failed. I admitted that I had been arrested during a particularly tumultuous demonstration, but was acquitted of the charge. After further questioning, he told me that his supervisor didn't agree, but he was going to let me enter the US.

My first reaction was to yell thanks but no thanks. Instead, I dared to ask what this was all about. He looked at me mysteriously, and said simply: Buffalo, 1985. I told him I could remember being in Buffalo in the '80s, but couldn't recall anything eventful happening. Then, I meekly returned to my seat.

On the return trip, about a dozen US officials boarded the train just before we reached Canada. I was questioned briefly without incident. When my inquisitor passed by a few minutes later, I asked if it was customary to check passengers as they were leaving the country. No, he said, but there's a "bad person" on board.

I wanted to tell him that I was the "bad person" on the way down.

Back in Canada, I called the US embassy to find out what damaging details my own government had given them about me. I was told to go to the nearest border checkpoint, present my passport, and ask why I had been given a hard time. I did just that. But, after three humourless officials stared at a computer for almost half an hour, they refused to tell me anything.

I pushed harder. If I wanted to cross the border, would they allow it? They then made me fill out a form, searched my car, and said I could go. They also gave me the address of Homeland Security and told me to write with my questions.

Surprise. I received a response a few months later, giving me a clean bill of political health. They had found "no derogatory records of information." (I now carry this proof of purity during my travels. Every citizen should have one, it seems.)

In fact, Homeland Security even expressed regret for any "inconvenience or unpleasantness" I had experienced - at Dulles International Airport. Dulles? Airport? Who did they think I was this time?

We citizens need to start our own war - on "errorism".

June, 2007
Don't Book on the Future!

Kingston, ON - This isn't a eulogy for a defunct Canadian book business. That would be much too extreme. But it is a note of concern. After all, in this era when both money and time are often in short supply, here is an industry that expects people to pay $20, $30, or more for the joy of taking a hardcover book home to sit quietly for hours, deep in reflection.

Such an expectation in the midst of the so-called 500-channel universe (my seven channels are plenty), the internet (definitely addictive), and aliteracy (people who can read, but don't) verges on the quixotic. The sad reality is that the book market is being described as "tight", "stagnant", even "shrinking."

But the publishing industry is nothing, if not determined. At the recent BookExpo Canada in Toronto (which too-typically followed on the heels of a similar event in New York City), one focus was on the "tension" between "the sexiness of 'the gadget' and the beauty and enduring value of the physical book." (Interestingly, such discussion came during a segment entitled "Devices and Desires" - which conjured up much more than a quiet read!)

As one industry observer has put it, "the challenge is efficiency in the face of uncertainty." Sure, there is worry about the "perceived declining value placed on books by the Canadian consumer," but there are also exhortations about surviving the "book revolution." To the ink-stained barricades, comrades!

Booksellers, too, are a feisty lot. Especially those independents, who are managing to hang on to their way of life, their love of books, like survivors of the Titanic clinging to pieces of debris. After all, they are not only contending with e-tailing (amazon.com etc.), e-books, and non-traditional sellers (Costco, Winners), but also "concentration in the supply chain" (Chapters !ndigo/Heather).

Nevermind. I attended a BookExpo workshop - more like a love-in - on "handselling" during which the surviving independent booksellers waxed poetic about the personal art of passing on their own appreciation of books to their customers. It was all about connecting, they said, a rare experience in the Big Box stores.

Canadian Sarah McNally, who has daringly opened a McNally Robinson bookstore in NYC, later summed this up: "Can you imagine a world without bookstores? ... Prairie literature, Maritime literature. What has been the role of local literary communities in fostering these? Where would those communities be without locally-owned bookstores?"

With the same spirit, her parents, who bill their three outlets in Calgary, Winnipeg, and Saskatoon as "Canada's Most Eventful Bookstores," are expanding to Toronto, the belly of the beast. Never say die!

And what about the creators of the product on which the book industry is based - the writers? Ironically, if my experience is anything to go by, every second Canadian seems to be writing some kind of tome. There is little time to read, but certainly hours to kill spawning the Great Canadian whatever.

Again, however, the romance of writing, as with publishing and selling, is being challenged, possibly diminished, by the virtual. One non-fiction writer announced at a BookExpo workshop that she had managed to attract an American publisher. However, she had been told in no uncertain terms that she would have a daunting variety of responsibilities unrelated to her muse.

As part of the bargain, she must provide a web site, blog, newsletter, podcast, and appearance schedule. All this in order to, as one Expo speaker noted, "break through the clutter to get noticed."

I must confess that I am one of the multitude of hopeful novelists, and I'm beginning to find today's ultra-competitive, multi-media environment very daunting. Facebook and YouTube are not where I want to flog my work and myself. Perhaps, I need to attend the Paris Hilton School of Self-Promotion.