28 August 2007

Greece on fire .... deja vu all over again

When will we ever learn?

Twenty-five hundred years ago, Plato, noticing the degradation of the land as the Greeks cut down their forests for timber and farmland, observed:
[In earlier days] Attica yielded far more abundant produce. In comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body; all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, .... But in the primitive state of the country, the mountains were high hills covered with soil, and plains were full of rich earth, and there was abundance of wood in the mountains. Of this last traces still remain, for although some of the mountains now only afford sustenance to bees, not so very long ago there were still to be seen roofs of timber cut from trees growing there, which were of such a size sufficient to cover the largest houses; and there were many other high trees, cultivated by man and bearing abundance of food for cattle. Moreover, the land reaped the benefit of the annual rainfall, not as now losing the water which flows off the bare earth into the sea ....
Now history repeats itself. Many of the fires raging in Greece today have been set by arsonists clearing the land for development.
According to
Nikos Georgiadis, head forest officer for the Greek office of the World Wildlife Fund, "Most of the reasons concern changing of land use – from forest to something else [such as] construction, or building, or to grazing, or agriculture." Georgiadis adds, "But the response from the government has not been effective at all."

Georgiadis's comment reflects Greece's environmental record, one of the worst in the European Union, particularly on forest protection. Environmental groups claim development is largely unregulated and protected areas are neglected. The Greek government seems ignorant of the country's ancient history when despoliation of the environment was a major reason their civilization collapsed.

Fortunately, like Plato before them, ordinary Greek people today are becoming increasingly aware of the problem and increasingly unhappy with their government's lack of action. "Since the response that we got after the big forest fire on Parnitha mountain, there is a big change,"
says Dr. Georgiadis, "More and more people became sensitive on environmental matters."

The ancient Greeks taught us so much, yet we failed to learn from their folly of allowing development to overwhelm the environment. Modern Greeks seem, through trial by fire, to be catching on. The lesson is there for all of us.

27 August 2007

Good news for Afghanistan's economy

Read that headline carefully. Note that I said Afghanistan's economy, not Afghanistan.

The good news is -- what else? -- the booming poppy crop. Consider the stats:

- The crop has increased for six straight years.
- Afghanistan now produces 95 per cent of the world's opium, up from 92 per cent in 2006.
- Opium and the heroin made from it
are worth $3 billion US to the Afghan economy, a third of its gross domestic product.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to defeat poppy growing and have utterly failed.
The United States is giving $200 million US this year to Helmand, the major opium-producing province, as part of a strategy of
financial incentives to suppress drug production while increasing co-ordination between counter-narcotics forces and the military. Christina Oguz, the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan, says: "They use it for growing opium. This is telling the rest of the country 'grow opium and we'll give you a lot of rewards'." This failure is hardly surprising. Imagine how much success we would have with a program whose goal was to decimate a third of our GDP.

In Afghanistan the poppy rules. Those who control the poppy control the economy, and those who control the economy control the country.

23 August 2007

Publicly fund Muslim schools? Why not Fascist schools?

The Ontario Conservatives' promise to publicly fund faith-based schools if they are elected on October 10th has rekindled an old debate. If Catholic schools are publicly funded in Ontario, as they are, why not the schools of other denominations? Or should no religious schools at all be publicly funded, not even Catholic?

One rather obvious question that never arises during this debate is, why limit the debate to faith-based schools? Why not public funding for schools based on political ideologies, say Communist schools? Or Fascist schools? Or, for that matter, why limit the debate to ideology. Why not ethnically-based schools? Why not English schools, Chinese schools or Arab schools?

Religious folk insist that religion is of special importance because it's part of them. It's part of who they are. But actually it isn't,
at least not physically. There is no Christian gene, or Muslim gene, or Hindu gene. Religion is always imposed on the individual. People are indoctrinated in it.

Our political beliefs, on the other hand, are influenced very much by our genes. People who are genetically conservative will generally adopt a conservative political philosophy, and people who are genetically progressive or liberal, will adopt a socialist or liberal political philosophy. In other words, our political beliefs are truly a part of who we are. They are built into our genes. They would seem, therefore, to justify segregating children more than religious beliefs. This is also true, of course, of ethnicity.

So let us not discriminate. Politically-based schools and ethnically-based schools deserve the same consideration as faith-based schools. On with the debate.

21 August 2007

Fighting wars we can win

The news on the war front isn't good these days: Iraq, Afghanistan, the war on terror, they all drag on and on, cost billions and billions of dollars, and seem to go nowhere.

Finally, some good news: a war to be won and to be won cheaply. It isn't a real war -- I just thought I'd borrow from the rhetoric of the day. I refer to the campaign against malaria, one of humankind's greatest enemies, a scourge that kills over a million people every year, mostly children and pregnant women. Kenya has recently announced a great victory in this campaign.

Kenya's Ministry of Health, supported by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Britain's Department for International Development, has distributed thirteen million insecticide-treated nets across the country since 2003. As a result, the number of children sleeping under a net has increased from 5 per cent to 52 per cent, and child deaths from malaria in high-risk areas have nearly halved. Peter Olumese, a medical officer with WHO's Global Malaria Programme, claimed, "Seven lives were saved for every 1,000 nets given out." The WHO recommends that the nets, which cost only $5, be used by all community members. The project is being hailed as a model for other African countries.

Extending the program across Africa would not only save millions of lives, it would go a long way toward invigorating the continent. I can't help comparing this remarkably effective "war" to Canada's war in Afghanistan where we will have spent $4.3 billion (plus another $600 million in aid) when our mission ends in 2009 for results that, so far at least, are at best questionable. One almost weeps to think how much more effectively this money could be spent, how many more lives could be saved, how many more improved -- indeed, how much better we could serve the world.

17 August 2007

Do African leaders give a damn about their people?

Africans have good reason to distrust and dislike the West. Europeans enslaved millions of them, murdered millions and stole and exploited their continent. The memories of such atrocities cannot fade easily. However, that was then. For African leaders to allow that experience, as horrific as it was, to interfere with what is best for their people today, is simply irresponsible. And yet that's exactly what they are doing in the case of Zimbabwe and its president, Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe is a psychopathic thug who has reduced his nation to utter impoverishment. And yet, at the
Southern African Development Community summit meeting this week, he received what the Guardian referred to as a "rapturous welcome" from his fellow leaders. And South African President Thabo Mbeki supports Mugabe's claim that his country's woes are due principally to UK-orchestrated sanctions.

Mugabe's claim is of course nonsense. It wasn't the UK that expropriated white-owned farms, major contributors to the Zimbabwean economy, and handed them over to his party's favourites. It wasn't the UK that drove 700,000 city-dwellers out of their homes. It isn't the UK who tortures and murders political opponents. This is all Mugabe's work, and it's vintage Mugabe.

After helping liberate his country from colonial rule, Mugabe showed his true colours. He consolidated his power by using a North-Korean trained military unit to inflict massacres on the
Ndebele people, the main source of his opposition. Twenty thousand died, mostly innocent civilians.

Nonetheless, the new country showed great promise, becoming perhaps the most stable and economically successful country on the continent. But eventually people began to tire of Mugabe, serious opposition grew, and once again the real Mugabe emerged. His scapegoating of the whites and the brutal suppression of his opponents has created an economic chaos and political wasteland that would have embarrassed his colonial predecessors.

Zimbabweans face hunger, even starvation, as the shops empty of food, and inflation hits 20,000 per cent making money worthless. Thousands of business people have been arrested for failing to obey Mugabe's arbitrary economic measures. A third of workers are unemployed. Millions of Zimbabweans, a quarter of the population, have fled the country. A
s African leaders applaud Mugabe, Zimbabweans face the bitter reality that they were better off under the colonials. They hardly had less freedom and at least they had enough to eat.

African leaders may continue to treat the West with suspicion and scorn. History gives them the right. It doesn't give them the right to justify the rule of tyrants.

16 August 2007

Afghanistan makes nice with its neighbours

The neighbours have been dropping in on Afghanistan lately.

On Tuesday, Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, led a high-ranking delegation to Kabul, demonstrating the growing rapport between the two countries. In this, his first visit to Afghanistan,
Ahmadinejad referred to their two countries as "brother nations with common interests, cultures and histories," adding, "The present condition of the region demands more exchange and negotiations between Tehran and Kabul. In this trip economic co-operation, especially over Iran's participation in Afghan development plans, will be discussed." Iran is contributing to a number of aid projects in Afghanistan as well as co-operating in combating drug trafficking.

Earlier in the week, Pakistan's embattled president, Pervez Musharraf, flew into Kabul for the closing ceremony of a cross-border jirga, or peace conference, that discussed the Taliban insurgency. He brought an attitude that was positively Woodstock. "This will usher in a new era of love and understanding," cooed his interior minister, Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, as the two leaders also spoke of "brother nations." Excessively optimistic no doubt, considering the Taliban are still knocking at the door, but a welcome change nonetheless considering the bickering Karzai and Musharraf have been known for in the past.

These blossoming relationships will hopefully be strongly encouraged and supported by the West. They will do far more for peace and stability in the region than we can with our swaggering around, attempting to impose democracy out of the barrel of a gun.

15 August 2007

Infant mortality: America's shame

While the abortion issue remains hot in the U.S. (and lukewarm in this country), the fate of babies once they are born seems to be of much less interest. This is surprising. Surprising, because the chances of survival for newborns in the U.S. are among the worst in the developed world. An American newborn is more than twice as likely to die in its first year as a child born in Sweden.

The U.S. infant mortality rate of 6.4 deaths per 1,000 live births compares to Sweden's 2.8 (the world's lowest). Other Scandinavian countries closely follow Sweden's example with Finland at 3.5 and Norway at 3.6.
France and Germany follow at 4.2 and 4.1 and we Canadians tag along at 4.6. Our rate is nothing to brag about, but America's, considering that country's great wealth, is downright shameful.

As always in the U.S., race plays a role. For African-Americans, the mortality rate is nearly double that of the United States as a whole. We might expect the lack of medical insurance for millions of Americans to also play a part.

If American pro-lifers demonstrated as much concern about babies surviving as they do about fetuses, they might be more convincing that it is life they care about, not dogma.

10 August 2007

Bush or Iran's neighbours ... who to believe?

While George W. Bush persistently insists that Iran is a menace to its neighbourhood, the neighbours beg to differ. Afghan President Hamid Karzai refers to Iran as helpful to his country, while Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki emphasizes the growing ties between Iraq and Iran.

Bush accuses Iran of
destabilizing Iraq (a comic accusation considering the U.S. has brought down a chaos on Iraq that would warm the hearts of barbarians like Attila or Genghis Khan). Al-Maliki, on the other hand, praises Iran's constructive role in fighting terrorism in his country.

So, Iran as menace or as good neighbour? Who to believe? Karzai and al-Maliki, who represent the neighbours, or George W. Bush, who represents a nation on the other side of the world and whose ignorance of the Middle East surpasses belief?

I opt for the local boys.

09 August 2007

Subsidizing energy

Reading A Globe and Mail article on solar power, I was struck by two facts. One is that Germany is the world's leading solar power generator despite having a wet climate with clouds covering the sky 60 per cent of the time. And two, this leadership results from the industry being heavily subsidized.

Germany generates over half the photovoltaic power in the world and intends to increase its reliance on the source from three per cent of its electrical needs to 27 per cent by 2020. According to the Globe, "It is a thriving industry with booming exports that has created tens of thousands of jobs ...." The photovoltaic systems are owned by homeowners, farmers and small businesses that benefit from a law requiring power companies to buy the electricity they produce for at least 20 years at more than triple market prices.

Detractors might oppose this degree of subsidy because it seriously distorts the market. This argument, however, overlooks the unfortunate fact that the market often doesn't account for the true cost of products, and certainly doesn't with energy.

Gasoline provides a good example. The pump price of a litre of gas accounts for only a fraction of the cost of using that fuel. To begin with, it excludes
the costs of the pollution it creates, including its contribution to global warming. Then there are costs like policing roads, the health costs incurred from road accidents, and all the other costs of urban sprawl. And then there's tax subsidies to the oil industry through items such as the depletion allowance, program subsidies such as the cost of transportation infrastructure, research and development. The list is long. The International Center for Technology Assessment calculates that when all costs are included, the price of a gallon of gas is five to 15 times the pump price. The hidden subsidies of fossil fuels can be immense.

Criticizing solar, or other more environmentally sound energy sources, because they are subsidized makes little sense without an accurate evaluation of all the costs involved. No energy sources carry their true weight in the marketplace. All are subsidized. The simple fact that solar power produces no emissions almost certainly makes it cheaper than fossil fuels, keeping in mind the cost of global warming could be civilization itself.

07 August 2007

Lucy goes on tour

The famous Lucy, or at least 40 per cent of her skeleton, is about to be put on display at museums in the U.S.

Lucy, a 3.2 million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis, was once thought to represent our most ancient human ancestor. Although only a little over a metre tall, with a brain case the size of a chimpanzee, she walked upright and is
, therefore, considered one of us.

Not everyone is happy with Lucy departing the Natural History Museum in Addis Ababa
. Indeed, the agreement between Ethiopia and the Houston Museum of Natural Science for her tour would seem to violate a resolution of the International Association for the Study of Human Paleontology which states that fragile fossils should not be moved from their country of origin. Ethiopia and the U.S. both signed the resolution. Renowned palaeontologist Richard Leakey insists the skeleton is too fragile to be moved while some museums, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Smithsonian, have refused to participate in the exhibition.

Nonetheless, Lucy has resided in the United States before, having spent the first nine years after her discovery in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Let us hope the venerable lady survives her current trip.

03 August 2007

Fairness in broadcasting doctrine revived in U.S.

An encouraging development as the U.S. presidential election creeps ever closer is the revived interest in restoring the Fairness Doctrine for radio and TV broadcasting in that country. The doctrine, which required licensed broadcasters to present controversial issues of public importance in an honest, equitable and balanced manner, was introduced as policy in 1949 and incorporated into the U.S. Federal Communications Commission regulations in 1967. Although unwieldy and subject to challenge in the courts, it served to bring a measure of fair play to American broadcasting until it was abolished under the Reagan administration in 1987. Attempts by Congress to restore it were vetoed by Reagan in 1987 and George H. Bush in 1991.

Now, a number of Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, are aggressively expressing interest in restoring the doctrine. The dominance of right-wing talk radio and the rampant bias of Fox News, among other things, have revealed the failure of the American "free" market in broadcasting to
afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views.

If citizens are going to put public forums in the hands of private interests, they must have assurance those interests will serve the public good. Licensed commercial broadcasters want to be trustees of public property -- the air waves -- but without responsibility.

Perhaps the Fairness Doctrine is not the best way of providing the requisite assurance.
As American journalist A.J. Liebling once pointed out, freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who are rich enough to own one. Rupert Murdoch and other oligarchs can afford to own many, and the Fairness Doctrine won't change that. The only real answer is more philosophically diversified ownership and local control. That, however, will require much more comprehensive reform than restoring the Fairness Doctrine. Meanwhile, at a time when American mass media remains the property of those few who are rich enough to own it, the doctrine would introduce at least a modicum of fair play.

So good luck to Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats in this initiative. Needless to say, the quality of debate of issues in the United States often affects us all, so we all have a vested interest.

Canadians also have work to do in bringing democracy to our mass media. While it is true we do have one TV and radio network that is independent of the plutocracy, and we haven't yet thrown up a journalistic wasteland like Fox,
here too, except for the CBC, TV networks and the daily press are in the pockets of a few oligarchs. We, too, should be discussing ways of assuring balance and variety in our mass media.

This is hard to do when the public forums, which in the modern world are TV networks and the daily press, are owned by a tiny special interest group that prefers to avoid such a discussion. But democracy demands no less. A new grassroots organization, Canadians for Democratic Media, is addressing itself to this very issue. They, too, deserve our support.

02 August 2007

Support our troops ... we have a choice?

There seems to be a lot of noise these days about supporting our troops, whatever that means exactly. Even bumper stickers have crept into the debate. Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach in his wisdom is allowing "support our troops" decals on provincial government vehicles after lobbying by Alberta sheriffs. Applying these decals on public vehicles has also been an issue in the city councils of Toronto and Calgary.

I wasn't aware we had a choice about supporting our troops. Everyone who pays their taxes supports them, and our teachers, and our police officers, and our garbage collectors, and all the rest of our civil servants. I may support our troops with some reluctance, never having been a great admirer of the killing professions, but support them I must.

No word yet if Premier Ed will allow "support our postal workers" decals on public vehicles.

01 August 2007

Obama chooses his quagmire

It's well over a year before the U.S. presidential election, but Democratic candidate Barack Obama has already chosen his war. Iraq is Bush's war, so that won't do. Obama will pull out of Iraq. Instead, he has warned Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf that if he doesn't take a stronger stand against terrorists in his country, the Americans under an Obama presidency would invade and do the job themselves.

Obama chooses his folly well. The Hindu Kush has a long history as a quagmire for foreign armies.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, has been out-machoing Obama and apparently it's working as her popularity rises and his falls. She voted to go into Iraq, of course, and has been dismissing his willingness to talk with nations like Iran and Cuba without conditions as naive. She seems to be ahead on the testosterone scale and this is worrying her opponent.

It appears the "war" on terror will survive the next American presidential election regardless of who wins. And so will bogging down the country in foreign military adventures. Plus ca change ....