28 January 2008

It's sprawl vs. the planet, and sprawl is winning

Recent surveys that show Canadians are becoming increasingly car-dependent are not good news for the environment. According to Statistics Canada, in 2005, 74 per cent of Canadians said they made all their trips by car. This compares to 70 per cent in 1998 and 68 per cent in 1992, a slow but disturbingly sure increase. Meanwhile, the percentage travelling by foot or bicycle decreased from 26 per cent in 1992 to 19 per cent in 2005.

I am not proud to say my fellow Albertans lead this particular pollution parade, as we do others. Edmonton and Calgary top the list of people making all their trips by car. (This news coincides nicely with our premier recently announcing a "plan" to cut greenhouse gas emissions in which they don't decrease until 2020.)

Albertans are leaders in part because we continue to allow our cities to sprawl, the major reason for people choosing cars over walking, bicycling or public transit. Calgary's addiction to sprawl arose from a variety of reasons: developer's insistence they can keep house prices down only if the city annexes more land; Calgary's historic fear of fringe towns; the belief that housing should be left entirely up to the private sector; the lending policies of CMHC; the growth of malls and big box centres -- a list of decentralizing factors, many of which we share with other cities.

Most of these factors continue to work their insidious influence. Thus sprawl persists, the car culture grows, and the globe warms.

24 January 2008

If you frighten easily ...

If you frighten easily, you may not want to read the quotation below from Pulitzer-prize winning author Tim Weiner's thought-provoking (and disturbing) book Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. Weiner describes a meeting after 9/11 between the assistant director of central intelligence, James Monnier Simon, Jr., and Attorney General John Ashcroft. They discussed national identity cards for Americans. Ashcroft asked Simon what they would contain and he replied:
Well, a thumbprint. Blood type would be useful, as would a retinal scan. We would want your picture taken a special way so that we could pick your face out of a crowd even if you were wearing a disguise. We would want your voice print, because the technology is coming up that will pick your voice out of every other voice in all the cell phones on earth, and your voice is unique. In fact, we would like to have a bit of your DNA in there, so if something ever happens to you we can identify the body. By the way, we would want the chip to tell us where this card is, so that if we needed to find you we could. Then it dawned on us that if we did that, you could set the card down. So we would put the chip in your bloodstream.
The card never appeared, but the CIA was compensated with a power they had never enjoyed before: the legal right to spy on Americans.

As the British plan implementation of their national ID card system, as the watcher state closes in upon us, can one imagine, I wonder, the day when we are all embedded with a microchip at birth, rather like the one described by Assistant Director Simon? Eat your heart out, George Orwell.

22 January 2008

Blair and bin Laden: comrades in extremism?

Having recently posted on the mad antics of George W. Bush in the Middle East, I feel I must add a comment on the recent musings of former British prime minister Tony Blair. Despite Blair being famously known as Bush's poodle, I always believed he was an intellectual cut above his master. Now, judging by a recent speech he gave in Toronto, I'm having my doubts.

Incredibly, Blair claimed in his presentation that Muslims have no legitimate grievance against the West. Muslim rage against us is, according to Tony, due to their internal contradictions, nothing to do with anything we have done. He then went on to justify making war against the Islamists.

Nothing to do with what the West has done? Nothing to do with Britain and the United States destroying the first Islamic democracy in the Middle East in Iran in the 1950s? Nothing to do with destroying the latest Islamic democracy in the Middle East in Palestine? Nothing to do with wrecking their democracies on the one hand while on the other hand supporting dictators like the Sauds who oppress them? Nothing to do with imposing Israel on them and then standing idly by while the Palestinians are ethnically cleansed and robbed of their land? Nothing to do with reducing Iraq to a bloody chaos that is costing tens of thousands of Muslim lives, creating millions of refugees and breaking and scattering the heritage of the world's oldest civilization?

I could go on at length, but it's hardly necessary. Anyone even superficially aware of the long and sordid history of Islam and the West knows the Muslims have legitimate and profound grievances. Did Blair assume his audience of 2,000 Canadians was composed of unlettered rustics? Apparently. He showed the same contempt for them he shows for history.

While pondering the extreme nature of his views, another gentleman of similarly extreme views popped into my mind. Somewhere in the wilds of Pakistan, Osama bin Laden is insisting all the troubles of Islam are due to the West, and therefore Islam is justified in using violence against the West to defend its values. And in the wilds of Toronto, Tony Blair insists none of the problems of Islam are due to the West, so we are justified in using violence against Islam to defend our values. Two extreme views. One the mirror image of the other. Both immersed in self-righteousness.

The fact that Blair is the now a "peace" envoy to the Middle East makes one despair. Is this yet another act of arrogance by the West?

18 January 2008

Has Bush gone completely freaking crazy?

What kind of a man saunters into a neighbourhood and tries to turn neighbour against neighbour? And then provides guns to one of the neighbours? And does all this in the most volatile neighbourhood in the world? A mad man? A psychopath? This is certainly more than simple trouble-making. This is evil. Yet this is exactly what U.S. President George W. Bush has been doing in the Middle East: Encouraging the Persian Gulf Arabs to "confront" Iran while peddling a multibillion-dollar arms deal to them, including advanced weaponry for the misogynists who rule Saudi Arabia.

While Bush makes his mischief, the Gulf states attempt to improve relationships. For example, Saudi Arabia recently invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the annual hajj pilgrimage, an honour Ahmadinejad gracefully accepted. That old peace-maker trade continues to flourish in the area driven by merchant families with members in both Iran and Arab states, despite American efforts to discourage these age-old patterns. The United Arab Emirates are the repository of hundreds of millions of dollars of Iranian investment. Historical ethnic and economic ties between the Gulf Arabs and Iran cry out for peace in the region.

But it is not only in the interests of the residents that we have calm in the Gulf. It is in the interests of all of us.

And does the Bush administration believe that Saudi Arabia is a safe place to deposit billions of dollars worth of arms? The country is seething with extremists in government and without. Have they forgotten where most of the 9/11 bombers came from? Have they forgotten the result of arming the mujahideen in Afghanistan? Have they forgotten the result of arming America's former ally Saddam Hussein? Does the word "blowback" not resonate in their ears? Do the Americans ever learn?

They are engaged in folly. We can only hope the Arabs will show more sense and spare the world yet another blood bath in the region. We might also hope the next president of the United States will consider finally relieving his nation of the white man's burden.

16 January 2008

Harper's Palestine policy: sucking up to the Aspers?

That the Conservatives should side strongly with the Jews over the Arabs in Palestine is to be expected. Conservatives, after all, are inclined to support the haves over the have-nots. I suspect in this case, however, there is a more immediate political reason. The most powerful media organization in this country is the Asper family's CanWest Global which owns five of the country's top ten newspapers, including one of the two national papers, as well as one of the two private TV networks. And the Aspers are aggressively pro-Israel.

It has been said that Rupert Murdoch is the world's most powerful man because of his vast global media holdings. He can make or break politicians with a flick of his rhetorical wrist. The Aspers might well be considered Canada's version of Rupert Murdoch. The prime minister may be the most powerful man in the country at any moment, but while prime ministers come and go, the Aspers' media empire goes on and on. Offending them is politically risky. Currying favour with them, particularly on an issue dear to their hearts, is politically astute. And Harper is nothing if not politically astute.

10 January 2008

A carbon tax: responsible, moral and fair

When I was little, I was instructed at my mother's knee that if I made a mess I should clean it up. It was one of those rule of life things -- a moral imperative, if you like. I may even have been over-instructed because I confess to being somewhat anal about it. If, for example, I see someone toss candy wrappers on the street or leave their garbage in a public park, it annoys me. How dare someone show such disrespect for the property of others, for the public domain, a righteous little voice inside me complains. And yet I do the same thing myself all the time.

When I drive my car down the street, it emits a cloud of noxious vapours into the air, the very air everyone else has to breathe. My garbage may not be visible, but it is surely there and it makes a much fouler mess than candy wrappers or picnic trash. But how do I remain true to my mother's instructions and clean it up?

I could stop driving of course but seeing as I, an inveterate walker, do less than 3,000 kilometres a year in my little Honda civic, I feel that's asking rather a lot of me. And if I should rely on buses or planes ... well, they dump a similar garbage. And yet the little voice nags at me.

Fortunately there is a solution, and it doesn't involve attaching a balloon to my exhaust and dropping it in the trash bin when I get home. It is a carbon tax. If I am required to pay a tax on the gasoline I buy, and that tax is dedicated to reducing pollution, then I am, indirectly at least, cleaning up after myself.

So, I say to our governments, bring it on. Carbon tax us. Insist that I, and all the others out there littering public space with their foul gaseous messes, clean up after ourselves, or at least compensate for our behaviour. It is morally responsible and it is fair. The more you pollute, the more you pay. Mothers everywhere would approve.

07 January 2008

Wasting precious space in The Globe and Mail

As an inveterate reader of The Globe and Mail (persevering even through the new year's 25 per cent price increase), I am struck by the contrast between two types of articles.

The first is exemplified by Stephanie Nolen, African correspondent for the Globe. Nolen's articles carry wonderful stuff. She brings Africa to your doorstep with useful information and keen insights into the continent and its peoples, the very thing discerning readers look for in attempting to understand the world they live in. A two-time national newspaper award winner for international reporting, she has been commended for her "creative brilliance, humanitarian compassion, personal courage and the relentless pursuit of truth that combine to make much of what [she] writes vivid and urgent for her readers."

And then, by contrast, another kind of article, exemplified by much of columnist Christie Blatchford's work. Here we find a writer rambling on about why her dog won't sleep with her any more, ranting petulantly against a judge she doesn't like, or indulging in maudlin pieces about how cuddly our troops are. Not that I blame Blatchford for this. She is what she is. I blame the Globe for wasting space on this fluff.

As the number of newspapers has shrunk over the years, space has become increasingly precious. There are hundreds of writers out there who are capable of writing witty, well-researched, literate material on issues of substance who would give their left arm to fill some of that space. Wasting it on shallow writers writing frivolous material is irresponsible. I realize the first priority of newspapers is not to inform, nor to provide democratic discussion, but rather to peddle advertising and maybe this fluff does that. But there's a place for stuff of that calibre and it's in the tabloids. The serious press bears the responsibility of serving as public forums in this democracy of ours, and when fluff displaces news and intelligent discussion, democracy is not served.

Not that there isn't room for lighter material in the daily paper. God knows, news, or at least what the media decides is news, is heavy enough. A good example of what works is Michael Kesterton's "Social Studies" in the Globe. The section itself isn't overly spacious and offers a variety of very short pieces, some funny, some absurd, some intriguing, spiced up with delightful mini-cartoons, for a delicious, light-hearted break from the heavy stuff. And then of course there's the cartoon page, a pleasant and perennially popular interruption of fantasy and whimsy, and not to forget John Allemang's brilliant and wickedly satiric poems in the weekend Globe. Fun does have its place in the pages of the daily press.

But the filler I'm referring to above is not fun, not funny, absurd, intriguing or creative. It is self-indulgence and little more. It is space that could be much better used. The serious news pages should be serious.

As an example of what the Globe and other papers might do, I offer for consideration one of the most popular sections they offer -- the letters-to-the-editor section. Here
a bit of democracy intrudes. Ordinary citizens get an opportunity to have their say on issues of the day. What a great favour the daily press would do for democratic discourse if they dropped their weaker columnists and expanded both the space for letters and the number of words letter-writers are allowed.

No doubt the daily press could come up with other innovative ideas to set a higher standard for themselves. As for the tabloid trash, leave it to the tabloids.

03 January 2008

Try Omar Khadr for what?

Five of Britain's top legal organizations are calling on the Canadian government to take "urgent action" to bring Omar Khadr, the young Canadian imprisoned in Guantanamo, home to Canada and afford him a fair trial. The groups accuse the Harper government of complicity in "breaches of fundamental international standards of conduct in relation to children." It is encouraging that these prestigious British legal organizations will defend this youngster's welfare when his own government won't; nonetheless, what exactly would they have Omar tried for?

Omar was captured after a battle against American forces in Afghanistan in 2002. Before succumbing to serious injuries, he threw a grenade that killed one GI and wounded others. The Americans have charged him with various offences, including murder.
Although he is clearly a prisoner of war, the U.S. has declared him an "unlawful combatant," a term invented to circumvent the Geneva Convention. The American hypocrisy is exemplified by their suggestion they will hold him indefinitely even if he is acquitted of the charges, claiming he is a prisoner of the war on terror and convention allows them to hold him until the war is over. It seems that under American justice, he is not prisoner of war if they can convict him, but he is a prisoner of war if they can't.

Furthermore, he is a child soldier and child soldiers are internationally recognized as victims, not perpetrators, and offered rehabilitation, not imprisonment. The United States itself recognizes this, and is bound by it as a signatory of
the United Nations Optional Protocol on the Rights of the Child, which states that people under 18 who are enlisted or conscripted into armed conflict are not adults and therefore “are entitled to special protection.”

Considering that Omar was indoctrinated from birth by fanatical parents
, who raised him to believe that religious martyrdom was the highest achievement he could aspire to, and sent to Afghanistan by his father, he would seem to be a classical example of what protection for child soldiers is all about. All he was guilty of doing was what good boys are supposed to do: honour and obey their parents.

Justice demands that Omar be released immediately, compensated for the appalling brutality he has endured at the hands of the Americans, returned to Canada and offered the medical
care he undoubtedly requires to minimize long-term psychological damage. If our government demands anything less they are betraying their responsibility to a young and vulnerable Canadian, a victim of first his parents and then the U.S. military.