31 December 2011

Congrats to Sista P

Not a bad way for the year to end, with the election of another woman as leader of her country. So congratulations to new Jamaican prime minister Portia Simpson Miller, or Sista P as she is affectionately referred to for her folksy, plain-spoken style. Simpson Miller's People's National Party won a convincing victory on Thursday with 41 seats in parliament to 22 for its opponents, the Jamaican Labour Party.

Simpson Miller's supporters have always respected her as a woman who was born in rural poverty and grew up in a Kingston ghetto. "She cares about the ghetto people," said one young admirer after the victory.

She has her work cut out for her dealing with Jamaica's poverty as well as its profound economic problems, including a debt running at 130 per cent of GDP. But that's for the new year. For the moment, I congratulate her again on her impressive victory and wish her success in dealing with the challenges facing her and her country.

30 December 2011

Americans OK with taxes but not with the system

I admit to some surprise. Listening to the Republican contenders for the presidential nomination, you might think Americans wanted nothing more than to pay less taxes. In fact, according to a recent Pew Research Centre survey, most Americans (52 per cent) believe they pay about the right amount of tax. Interestingly, there has been a significant decline over the past decade in the number of both Democrats and Republicans who feel overtaxed.

What Americans don't approve of is their tax system, with 55 per cent saying it's unfair. When asked what bothers them most, only 11 per cent say the amount they pay. Twenty-eight per cent say the complexity of the system, and a whopping 57 per cent say that wealthy people aren't paying their fair share.

They are so unhappy about this that 59 per cent want Congress to completely change the system, only 34 per cent believing minor changes will do.

It appears that not only Occupy Wall Streeters are concerned about the increasing unfairness in their country. This bodes well for wealth distribution becoming an issue in the 2012 elections.

22 December 2011

No-religion most successful "faith" in UK

"Give me the child and I will give you the man," the Jesuits boast. Indoctrinate a child in a faith and he, or she, will carry that faith for life. Or at least, most will.

According to the latest British Social Attitudes survey, not indoctrinating a child in a faith is even more successful. Of those brought up with no religion, 94 per cent still had no religion as adults. None of the religions came close to this retention rate. Eighty-seven per cent of those brought up in non-Christian faiths remained affiliated with their religion, but the numbers were much less for Christians with the Catholics at 62 per cent retention and the Protestants, including the venerable Anglicans, at 49 per cent.

So the Jesuits aren't 100 per cent right—in fact, only 62 per cent for their guys. A pretty poor show compared to the 94 per cent for the no-religion folks.

The survey indicated that about half the British population now belong to no religion, rising to nearly two-thirds of young people 18-24. And well over half of those who do belong never attend religious services. The number of people affiliating with a religion is steadily declining with the greatest drop among the Anglicans. Affiliation with the Church of England has halved in the last 20 years. The British, it seems, are just not very religious and getting less so all the time.

21 December 2011

Chiquita si, tar sands no

Chiquita Brands has caused a bit of a flutter on the Canadian scene by announcing it will avoid using fuel from Alberta's tar sands. The company says it has joined 13 other companies in trying to reduce its carbon footprint.

The announcement is timely. According to an industry report, the intensity of tar sands carbon emissions—the amount of greenhouse gases created per barrel of oil produced—increased by two per cent from 2009 to 2010. The industry, and the Alberta government, have both made much of reductions in intensity even as overall emissions increase with increased production. Now even intensities are increasing.

This will not help the Alberta government meet its commitments for greenhouse gas emissions. According to a report by the Pembina Institute, if the province doesn't implement significantly stronger measures, its target for reducing emissions by 2020 will fall short by 70 per cent.

Chiquita's action is not universally appreciated, however. A group of tar sands cheerleaders has announced a boycott of the company. Not surprisingly, a couple of federal ministers have announced their support. Chiquita has offered many good reasons to be boycotted over the years—this is not one of them.

16 December 2011

The invisible dead Iraqis

U.S. President Barack Obama has declared the Iraq war over. While he proclaimed what he once termed a "dumb war" a success, he lamented the heavy cost. "Over 30,000 Americans have been wounded and those are only the wounds that show. Nearly 4,500 Americans made the ultimate sacrifice," he said. What he didn't say was that at least 100,000 Iraqis have died, hundreds of thousands have been wounded, also many with wounds that don't show, and millions exiled.

He lauded American achievements—"a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq with a representative government that was elected by its people"—yet ignored the suffering of the Iraqis that was collateral to the achievement.

Needless to say the Iraqis, faced with rebuilding their country, political instability, rampant sectarian violence and millions of refugees, are not so sanguine about the "success." Neither Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or President Jalal Talabani turned up for the departure ceremony in Baghdad. Uniformed U.S. soldiers belatedly moved into the seats reserved for the two Iraqi leaders. Perhaps an empty seat should have been reserved for the Unknown Iraqi Civilian.

15 December 2011

The "one percent" win another one as health care CEOs clean up

As the Occupy Wall Street Movement campaigns against the unfair distribution of wealth in the United States, the "one percent" they hold accountable just keep on raking it in. According to the latest survey, American CEOs enjoyed pay hikes of between 27 and 40 percent last year. Meanwhile, wages for the majority of Americans continue to lag inflation.

Surprisingly, the top earners weren't bankers. The big winner was John Hammergren, CEO of McKesson Corporation, the world’s largest health care firm. He "earned" $145,266,971 last year, most of it in stock options and perks. Runner-up was Joel F. Gemunder, CEO of Omnicare, the U.S.'s largest provider of pharmaceutical care for the elderly. He only managed $98,283,242.

Hammergren could, however, really hit the jackpot. If McKesson Corporation is sold, he is due a $469-million payoff. Not bad, a half-billion dollar reward for getting rid of your company.

With President Obama's new medicare legislation neatly designed to favour health care and pharmaceutical companies, these two industries can look forward to producing many more winners in the future.

13 December 2011

Will global civilization avoid collapse?

I consider myself a lucky man. I was born in the right place at the right time to enjoy what may well be the peak period of civilization. Never has human society offered so much to those in a position to take advantage of it—physical luxury not even kings and queens could enjoy in past eras, intellectual freedom unparalleled since the ancient Greeks, an exceptionally wide spectrum of political choice, knowledge beyond anything available previously, social justice achieved by few previous societies—a cornucopia of gifts.

Now, unfortunately, civilization—global civilization—is faced with imminent collapse, taking much of this good stuff with it. If this sounds like an old man reminiscing nostalgically about the good old days, consider the evidence.

Climate scientists tell us the only way to avoid catastrophic and irreversible climate change is to hold temperatures to less than 2ºC above preindustrial levels. Furthermore, they warn us that even if current pledges by the world's nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are met, they will not be enough. More ambitious cuts are needed. These are the views of people who, unlike our political and business leaders, actually know what they are talking about. They are our wise men on this issue.

And what are the chances of achieving the necessary cuts? Unfortunately, not good at all. At the recently concluded Durban Conference, the best the world's nations could come up with was a deal to do a deal. Developed and developing countries will work on an agreement to be legally binding on all parties, but it won't come into force until 2020. This is the date the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calculates that emissions must peak and fall rapidly thereafter if we are to limit temperature rise to within the 2ºC.

So the doomsday scenario is not the view of cynical old men. The evidence is clear, and it tells us that according to our best science and political reality, we are firmly on the road to catastrophic and irreversible climate change.

It is possible, of course, that major polluters will impose the necessary limits without a global agreement. But the chances of that are not promising either. The world's major economies made pledges to limit their emissions at the Copenhagen talks in 2009, but these are having little effect and the possibility they will unilaterally expand these pledges is remote. Meanwhile, global output of greenhouse gasses continues to reach record levels.

We are doing what societies have been doing since human beings settled into the agricultural way of life 10,000 or so years ago. Civilization after civilization, society after society, has established itself, grown and prospered, then collapsed, and the leading reason for collapse is demanding more from the environment than it has the capacity to provide. And that is exactly what we are doing today. We are extracting resources faster than the planet can replace them and we are creating pollution faster than the planet can absorb it.

The major difference this time is that we are doing it on a global scale. Despite having the greatest perspective on history ever, and the greatest knowledge of science, we insist on making the same old mistake. It seems we have learned nothing.

There is some small hope. Occasionally societies have recognized their folly and changed direction. For example, in the 17th century the Japanese were doing what the Easter Islanders infamously did—deforesting their islands. They were faced with the same result—the loss of their most important natural resource followed by catastrophic social collapse. But they recovered in time by radically changing their culture, even their diet. They became masters of silviculture (forest management) and strictly regulated forest use; they relied less on farm animals and more on fish for protein, allowing farmland to be reforested; they used lighter construction methods for their homes; they developed more efficient stoves and relied more on the sun for heating; and they reduced their birth rates. The result was a stabilized population, more sustainable consumption of resources and today almost 80 per cent of Japan is covered with forest.

So it can be done. The question is can a diverse, fragmented, competitive and mutually suspicious global population do what a local, homogeneous population did? After all, the Kyoto nations are about to meet their collective target for CO2 emissions by 2012, when a more stringent second stage was to kick in. Unfortunately, that second stage has now in effect been abandoned. The sad reality is that we are not doing what is necessary and time is rapidly running out.

If the imagination and wisdom required to radically change our national and global cultures simply isn't there, if we have created a challenge that exceeds the capacities of our species, well ... civilizations come and go. Ours will probably go, but it's been a great ride. At least for some of us.

10 December 2011

Americans and Western Europeans—different breeds

That Americans see the world differently from Europeans is not a surprise, but what may seem surprising to many is just how differently, and how similar Europeans' views are to each other.

For example, a recent Pew Research Centre survey showed that whereas 58 per cent of Americans thought that the freedom to pursue life's goals without state interference was more important than the state guaranteeing nobody is in need, only 38 per cent of British people did. Germans, French and Spaniards closely agreed with the Brits at 36, 36 and 30 per cent respectively. The numbers nicely juxtapose American individualism against European collectivity.

This contrast was also illustrated when respondents were asked if their country should have UN approval before using military force to deal with international threats. Only 45 per cent of Americans said they should whereas 66-76 per cent in the four European countries included in the study said they should.

As to whether or not their culture is superior to others, most Americans agreed. The Europeans were more modest, all four countries disagreeing, the Germans at 52 per cent and the British at 63 per cent. Surprisingly, a full three-quarters of the French did not think their culture was superior to others.

Religion is, not surprisingly, a major area of difference. Fifty per cent of Americans believe religion is very important whereas no more than 22 per cent of the Europeans do. And over half of Americans believe it is necessary to believe in God to be moral, a view shared by no more than a third of the Europeans. Only 15 per cent of the French hold that view. And whereas solid majorities of Europeans considered themselves primarily by their nationality as opposed to their religion, as many Americans considered themselves Christians first as considered themselves Americans first.

On the gay front, sixty per cent of Americans thought homosexuality should be accepted by society, a significant improvement over earlier surveys, but still well behind the Europeans where support for acceptance doesn't drop below 80 per cent.

The Americans and the Europeans, at least judging by these four Western European countries, are indeed different breeds.

09 December 2011

Office of Religious Freedom shows its bias

The federal government's creation of what it terms an Office of Religious Freedom is not off to a good start. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, mentor of the new office, has created a panel to help lay out parameters for the proposed office. The panel is in itself hardly representative of religious tolerance. It consists of four Christians (two Catholics and two evangelicals) and two Jews. It appears anything outside the Judeo-Christian tradition is beyond the pale. No Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., need apply and—needless to say—no atheists. Even Christians from moderate Protestant denominations were excluded. Oddly, the branches of Christianity selected are two of the most intolerant.

Omitting a Muslim representative particularly stands out. There are twice as many Muslims as Jews in Canada, they are the fastest growing of our non-Christian faiths, they compose the world's second largest religion, and they have been most in the public eye, yet they are omitted in favour of two Jewish representatives.

Also conspicuous by their absence are representatives from human rights organizations such as Amnesty International. Although their absence is, perhaps, not surprising. A neutral human-rights group may have made their religious colleagues uncomfortable by challenging them about their own intolerance, such as the vicious, Christian-inspired gay-bashing currently going on in Africa.

Religion is, after all, an arena of intolerance. Religions tend to be their own greatest enemy. The biggest threat to the freedom of one religion is usually another religion. Who has persecuted Christians more down through the years if not other Christians? Baird's panel could clearly use some neutral participants.

The makeup of the panel leaves one wondering if the object of the new office will be not so much promotion of religious freedom as promotion of Judeo-Christian proselytizing. In any case, as an atheist I am suspicious of singling out religion for concern about freedom. If we are to have an office to defend and promote freedoms, it should apply to all freedoms. Now that might be worth a few taxpayer dollars.

08 December 2011

Alberta values are not Western values

Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson recently gave a talk to a standing-room only crowd of Torontonians about how a set of Western values has captured the country. Ibbitson was, I suspect, making a mistake common to Eastern pundits. He was assuming that what might be called Alberta values form a monolithic set of what might be called Western values. In fact, the idea that Alberta values are Western values is false, as is the idea that there is a monolithic set of Western values.

Alberta is a generally conservative province and its politics reflect this. Conservatism has a presence in other parts of the West as well, but to a lesser extent, while other philosophies are also powerfully represented. Manitoba, for example, has an NDP government and the NDP form the official opposition in two other provinces. Alberta is in fact the odd man out, the only Western province with a weak New Democratic Party.

Medicare was invented in the West and that was a triumph for democratic socialism, not for conservatism. The Kyoto Accord, much in the news these days, was least popular in Alberta but its popularity in Manitoba was exceeded only by its popularity in Quebec. Gay marriage was also least popular in Alberta, no surprise there, but popular in B.C. (again behind only Quebec). There is often greater disagreement on issues within the West than between the West and the East, as these examples illustrate.

The current state of political affairs in this country is due a lot less to a rise in  "Western values" than to recent self-destructive tendencies within the Liberal Party. Apparently in his talk, Ibbitson suggested the change is permanent—the journalist as prophet. He should keep in mind that it wasn't long ago the Conservative Party self-destructed and now it forms the government. The only thing we can be sure of is that things will change again.

In the meantime, while I recognize columnists' apparent need to simplify things, I would appreciate Eastern pundits respecting the real West rather than leaning on caricature. We are, in fact, a people of great variety, intellectually as in other respects, a people among whom views and values are strongly represented from left to right, progressive to conservative. It does us an injustice to pretend otherwise, even if it does make for good columns in the Globe and Mail.

07 December 2011

Talking to Iran

I am beginning to get the uneasy feeling that we are psyching ourselves up for war with Iran. With the Americans' two Middle Eastern buddies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, egging their patron on, with the U.K. exchanging unpleasantries with the Iranians, and with Canada's new militarism offering a "ready, aye, ready" attitude, we seem to be moving in a dangerous direction.

All this is ostensibly about Iran developing nuclear weapons. If this is indeed Iran's intent, I fail to see how an attack would deter them. It might delay them, but it would also provide them with greater justification and probably greater determination.

True, they have signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, so arming themselves with nuclear weapons would indeed be naughty, but then they wouldn't be alone in failing to meet their obligations. The treaty requires the nuclear powers to rid themselves of such weapons and they aren't. And of course nuclear-armed Israel hasn't even bothered to sign the treaty.

If Iran really does want nuclear weapons, it will almost surely obtain them. Even North Korea managed that. And, considering Iran is in a nuclear-armed neighbourhood and it has a hostile relationship with three nuclear powers—the U.S., U.K. and Israel—a nuclear ambition would be understandable. The question, perhaps, is do we want to influence that ambition or would we rather wait for a nasty surprise as was the case with Pakistan? If the former is the case, then the answer is dialogue. Jaw-jaw rather than war-war, as Churchill put it.

Canada, rather than leaping to support every act of hostility toward Iran, might suggest the U.S. and Iran sit down and work out their differences across the table, not with preliminary talks but with unconditional, comprehensive negotiations. These would include Iran's nuclear designs as well as the Americans', and of course the Israelis'; Iran's support for Hamas and Hezbollah and the Americans' support for Israel; Iran's hostility toward Israel; American support for the assassination of Iranian scientists; the roles of the U.S. and Iran in Iraq and Afghanistan; and so on—everything on the table.

The Americans might keep in mind that the slide into mutual hostility began when they, in collaboration with the British and the Iranian military, overthrew the progressive, democratically-elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. An apology from the United States for this egregious act might be a good start.

03 December 2011

Americans turn against the Tea Party

A recent Pew Research Center survey indicates that Americans, or at least those who have an opinion on the matter, are turning against the Tea Party. A year ago, as the Republican Party was making sweeping gains in the midterm elections, 24 per cent of Americans said they agreed with the Tea Party while 14 per cent disagreed. That has now reversed with 20 per cent agreeing and 27 per cent disagreeing. A majority in both surveys offered no opinion.

Even in districts which elected Tea Party candidates, support has changed significantly. Agreement has dropped from 31 per cent to 25 per cent and disagreement more than doubled from 10 per cent to 23 per cent. Again, most Americans had no opinion.

Apparently the Tea Party in action has turned out to be a lot less appealing than the Tea Party in theory.

02 December 2011

Elizabeth May, Tuvalu and honest representation

I was intrigued by Green Party Leader Elizabeth May's attempt to join the Tuvalu delegation at the Durban Climate Change Conference. As she explained, "If my government, the Government of Canada, does not need my help, I offer it to another government, one that works for my children because the Government of Canada does not work for my children, my grandchildren." Unfortunately, May missed the deadline so will be attending the conference as a mere observer.

Not only is May's attempt to collaborate with a nation that is disappearing under the waves praiseworthy, but it illustrates a problem with the way Canadian views are represented in the global arena. As May points out, "When Canada goes to an international negotiation, it doesn't go as the Harper government, it goes as Canada." Well, it certainly should, but unfortunately it doesn't. It represents only the Conservative Party. A great many Canadians, obviously including Elizabeth May, are not represented at the Durban Conference and are reduced to gnashing their teeth in frustration as Environment Minister Peter Kent "plays hardball." Many of us are, in this instance, better represented by the government of Tuvalu.

This applies to many, perhaps most issues. A government elected by 40 per cent of the voters purports to represent all Canadians on the world stage. This representation may be politically legitimate but it is morally fraudulent. The morally sound approach—the democratic approach—would be for a Canadian delegation to include representatives from all parties in the House of Commons, allowing them to debate and vote their consciences as they see fit. That, unfortunately, is hardly likely, certainly not with the current government.

Including all parties would not only represent Canadians more democratically, it would represent them more logically. After all, divisions in the world are less accurately described by nationality than they are by philosophy. Environmentally responsible Canadians have more in common with environmentally responsible Tuvaluans than they do with Canadian climate change deniers, or Tuvaluan climate change deniers for that matter ... if there are any.

All Elizabeth May attempted to do was ensure that Canada was honestly and morally represented. I salute her effort. If the government persists in denying large numbers of Canadians representation at international conferences, I hope the other opposition parties will follow her example.