28 March 2012

Co-op beats Spanish recession

As one of the PIGS, the four (or six) European countries whose dysfunctional economies are much in the news these days, Spain is perhaps not the place you would expect to find a thriving economic enterprise. But one such enterprise is in fact flourishing, weathering the financial storm quite nicely. I refer to the Mondragon Corporation, the world's largest co-operative. Although it suffered from the recession, it bounced back nicely in 2010 with a profit of $240-million, triple that of 2009. It also added jobs and new products and services.

Founded in 1956, Mondragon is now one of Spain's largest companies, employing over 80,000 people in 256 companies that have expanded into 18 countries. The co-op includes supermarkets, travel agencies, service stations, manufacturers of everything form refrigerators to industrial components, business consultancies, architecture and engineering services, language and graphic arts services, and many others. Mondragon has its own savings bank and university and technology park. The companies are owned by their worker-members and power is based on the principle of one person, one vote. Bosses are not allowed to make a wage more than nine times that of the lowest paid worker. (In the European Union's top 100 companies, the ratio is as high as 200 to one.)

In a world where corporations are increasing their power over democratically-elected governments and the disparity between rich and poor worsens, Mondragon offers a highly successful alternative to the conventional competitive enterprise. It offers a model that is competitive yet advances both democracy and equity. For a future that demands much more co-operation among people and among nations if we are to avoid economic and environmental collapse, there is no better model available.

24 March 2012

Joseph Lister, climate change and the arrogance of ignorance

Reading about the assassination of U.S President James Garfield recently, I encountered yet another example of the power and persistence of ignorance in the face of facts. Garfield was infamously killed not by his assailant's bullets but by his doctors. He died not from his wounds but from the massive infection of those wounds caused by his doctors appalling lack of hygienic practices. Even as the president lay on the floor of the railway station where he was shot, the doctor who presumptuously took over his care was probing his wound with unwashed fingers and unsterilized probes. After 80 days of this benighted treatment, Garfield died horribly of massive infection.

The ignorance displayed by his doctors was of their choosing. The great British surgeon Joseph Lister, picking up on the discovery of germs by Louis Pasteur, had been preaching the process of antiseptic surgery for years. The results were dramatic. His methods reduced the incidence of death from gangrene in surgeries from the 50 to 80 per cent common in hospitals at that time to zero. The facts were overwhelming.

Lister's methods were well-known and had spread throughout Britain and the Continent. He had made a presentation to American doctors and surgeons at the Philadelphia World's fair in 1876, five years before Garfield's assassination. He was not well received. Most of those present dismissed his claims, some angrily, ridiculing the notion of "invisible germs." They refused to abandon their filthy practices and spoke fondly of the "good old surgical stink" that pervaded operating rooms and hospitals of the day. Lister's methods were methodical and time-consuming—simply too inconvenient for busy surgeons who could do many surgeries per day unencumbered by hygienic procedures.

This kind of arrogant ignorance in the face of scientific knowledge, even among intelligent and well-educated men when their cozy little world is threatened, led me to think of climate change. Here, too, science is threatening people's comfortable ideas about how the world works, just as heliocentricity did in the time of Galileo and evolution in the time of Darwin. And now as then, many people are reacting adversely, some angrily, to the news—the facts be damned.

Unfortunately, this time the stakes are much higher. U.S. surgeons tenacious ignorance killed many thousands of Americans. An equally tenacious ignorance of climate change may kill many thousands of entire species and bring down Homo sapiens' civilization as well.

And as the stakes are much higher, so is the resistance. Vested interests of great influence and wealth conspire with the ignorant to undermine the science. Lister's truth eventually won out, as did Galileo's and Darwin's—at least among the educated. Whether the truth of climate change will win out in time to avoid catastrophe is still very much in doubt.

22 March 2012

Alberta universities make illegal donations to Conservatives

Oh my, even the universities are doing it. According to the CBC, a number of Alberta's post-secondary institutions, including Athabasca University and the University of Lethbridge, have been donating to the provincial Conservatives. They have joined those municipalities and counties that have been donating to the Tories for years. All of this is, of course, illegal. It is against the law in this province for publicly-funded institutions to make political donations.

The Conservatives appear to have been alone in enjoying this generous use of the taxpayers' money. The CBC investigation revealed that a variety of colleges and universities have maintained close ties exclusively with the ruling Tories, and that their governing boards and senior executives have actively supported this relationship. These same boards are, of course, appointed by the Conservative government.

The Conservatives were quite aware of what was going on. Tory fundraisers solicited university executives and boards directly. Carol Lund, as head of Athabasca University’s secretariat responsible for administration of its policies and procedures, personally signed off on several requisitions for Tory fundraisers and actively recruited university executives to attend these functions. Lund is also president of the Athabasca-Redwater Conservative riding association.

One obvious question is, why do they need to break the law? They receive more than twice as much legal funding as all the other political parties combined, so it can't be for campaigning. Can it be a subtle, or not so subtle, reminder to these institutions where the money comes from and who appoints the board members? Can it be that Conservative municipal counselors and post-secondary board members believe their party rules by divine right and therefore is owed fealty? Has the Conservative Party been in power for so long it is now synonymous with government? Or is it a simple matter of never enough?

Whatever it is, arrogance or greed, it suggests it's time for a change in Alberta. Or is that blasphemy?

17 March 2012

Americans primed for Iran attack

According to recent surveys, Americans are in a dovish mood on Syria and Afghanistan, but that mood is tempered by a hawkish attitude toward Iran.

Two-thirds say the United States does not have a responsibility to interfere in the Syrian conflict. There is also strong opposition to bombing the Syrian military or providing arms to the opposition. A solid majority also want American troops out of Afghanistan as soon as possible.

However, their attitude toward Iran and its nuclear potential is quite different. Almost 60 per cent say it is more important to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if it means taking military action, than it is to avoid a military conflict. Fifty-four per cent are concerned that the U.S. will take too long to act while only 35 per cent are concerned it will act too quickly. About two-thirds believe sanctions won't work.

On the other hand, a majority believe the U.S. should remain neutral if Israel attacks. Furthermore, it isn't an issue to which a great deal of attention has been paid. Thirty-eight per cent of Americans say they have heard a lot about it, 39 per cent have heard a little and 23% nothing at all. Maybe the reluctance to support an Israeli attack and an increased knowledge of the risks would modify the belligerent mood. Maybe—but there is clearly a lot of fuel for a fire.

The new capitalism—reward without risk

Royal Dutch Shell chief executive Peter Voser earned more than $15-million in pay and bonuses in 2011, more than double his remuneration for 2010. Last year also saw Shell increase its oil spills to 207, substantially more than the previous year.

The two are not related of course, but the coincidence is interesting. Voser wasn't penalized for his company's oil spills, presumably because he wasn't considered responsible for them, however he was lavishly rewarded for something that he wasn't responsible for either. His extraordinary pay increase resulted from Shell's strong operating and share-price performance in 2011—annual earnings were up 54 per cent over 2010. The impressive financial success was not, however, Mr. Voser's doing, but rather because of high oil prices and surging demand for natural gas.

Being rewarded when things go right but avoiding consequences when things go wrong seems to be typical of the new capitalism. For example, when American banks were selling huge amounts of questionable securities at escalating prices, they made billions, but when their shady practices caused the market to crash and they were faced with massive losses, the government, i.e. the American taxpayer, bailed them out. Exhibiting the inflated sense of self-worth characteristic of modern CEOs, their executives continued to collect fat bonuses. Under the old capitalism, entrepreneurs reaped the rewards of doing things right and paid the consequences of doing things wrong. Reward was tempered by risk. Under the new capitalism, only the first half of that equation seems to apply.

The new capitalism is selective of course. It only applies to members of the "Too Big to Fail" club. Smaller companies still have to labour under the strict rules of the old capitalism: do well and you are rewarded, do badly and you are penalized. Life is not fair.

15 March 2012

The Alberta Advantage—for men only?

It seems the famous Alberta Advantage doesn't apply to women. Alberta lags all other provinces except Newfoundland and Labrador in women's wage parity with men. According to a report issued by the Parkland Institute and the Alberta College of Social Workers, in Canada as a whole women's wages for full-year, full-time employment in 2009 were 78.4 per cent of men's. In Quebec—the parity leader—they were 85 per cent. In Alberta they were only 68.1 per cent.

Even more disappointing is that progress toward equality is also slower than in other provinces. In 1976, Alberta's wage gap was 62 per cent, on a par with the Canadian average. While other provinces have seen double-digit gains, Alberta has only closed the gap by six per cent.

Women make up the great majority of Alberta's low-wage workers. Almost half of working women earn less than $25,000 while only 30 per cent of men do. On the other hand, while almost 40 per cent of men earn over $60,000 per year, only 16 per cent of women are so blessed.

The most recent boom in Alberta was principally a boom for men while both men and women shared the ensuing bust. Median incomes for men increased 32 per cent from 2005 to 2008 but only 18 per cent for women, while in 2009 the median income for both fell 7 to 8 per cent. In the economic upswing of 2010, unemployment decreased for men but increased for women.

Alberta's women are disadvantaged in part at least because of the province's conservative nature. Alberta is the only jurisdiction in Canada without a minister or advisory council responsible for the status of women. It is not surprising, therefore, that men in Alberta are much more likely than men in other provinces to disproportionately share the fruits of economic wealth.

14 March 2012

Rare earth metals—the plot thickens

In my post of March 12th about peak everything, I mentioned that China, which produces 97 per cent of the rare earth metals, elements critical to the production of many hi-tech products, is becoming increasingly skittish about exporting these valuable commodities. Yesterday the CBC reported that the United States, the European Union and Japan have filed complaints with the World Trade Organization about China's limiting of these exports, charging it with unfair trade practices. The U.S. claims the export restrictions give Chinese companies a competitive advantage by providing access at a cheaper price while forcing American companies to manage with a smaller, more costly supply.

The Chinese defend their quota system on the basis of conserving scarce resources and limiting environmental damage. Mining, refining, and recycling of rare earths have serious environmental consequences if not properly managed and have caused major environmental damage in parts of China.

The rare earths occur in many parts of the world (China only has 30 per cent of the known deposits) but are often too dispersed to justify economic mining. Nonetheless, we can expect to see a scramble to discover new deposits and open old mines elsewhere. As is the case with new oil sources, such as the tar sands, these new rare earth sources will quite likely be more expensive to exploit and more environmentally destructive. Such is the race to the bottom of resource supply.

In this case, the battle for scarce resources may be resolved peacefully through the World Trade Organization, but ultimately, as resources deplete ever further and nations become ever more desperate, we may begin to see less civilized ways of settling such disputes.

12 March 2012

Peak oil? How about peak everything?

We are all familiar with the concept of peak oil. Oil is a non-renewable resource therefore at some point global production will reach its maximum capacity and then decline, creating an urgent need for alternate energy sources. Peak oil has already occurred in the United States, in 1970 in fact, as the accompanying graph shows.

What is discussed much less is that all non-renewable resources will eventually reach peak production. In the Untied States this has occurred for many commodities, including bauxite in 1943, copper in 1998, iron ore in 1951, magnesium in 1966, phosphate rock in 1980, potash in 1967, rare earth metals in 1984, tin in 1945, titanium in 1964 and zinc in 1969.

The United States is the most richly endowed nation that ever existed and only a few short centuries ago its resources were virgin, yet it is now seeing one resource after another decline and the country become increasingly dependent on other nations. The global supplies of these resources have not yet peaked, but with the U.S., the world's largest economy, requiring ever more of other people's resources, and with nations such as China and India increasing their vast economies at eight or nine per cent per year, we can expect to see what is happening to the Americans happen internationally.

For example, China produces 97 per cent of the rare earth metals,  elements critical to such hi-tech products as catalytic converters, color TVs, flat panel displays, batteries, petroleum refining, missiles, jet engines and satellite components. But China can't keep up with demand and it is getting skittish about exporting what it increasingly needs itself.

Even what we tend to think of as renewable resources are depleting. For example, every year significant areas of agricultural land are lost to desertification, salinization, erosion and development.

As resources deplete we might expect substitution and efficiencies to make up for some of the losses, but they can hardly make up for all of them. Unless we want a future where humanity is like a pack of dogs fighting over the last bone, we are going to have to change our ways, and change them dramatically. We must start planning for a steady-state global economy where renewable resources are exploited at a rate lower than the Earth's ability to replace them; where non-renewable resources are used at declining rates and extensively recycled; and where human population is constrained to a level consistent with the above. We must start thinking of growth in ways that increase human happiness without increasing consumption, ways that are far more cooperative and far less competitive. And we must start now.

We can transition peacefully into a new economy or we can allow chaos to precipitate us into a new economy. The choice is ours.

11 March 2012

Happy birthday, Douglas Adams

Today is Douglas Adams' 60th birthday. Or it would be if he hadn't been thoughtless enough to die in May of 2001, thereby depriving us of yet more of his insanely eccentric humour. I owe Doug a quite considerable debt. For his TV series "The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy," a delightfully lunatic romp through the universe which I enjoyed many years ago, and for his equally delightful and equally lunatic detective stories "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" and "The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul" which I just recently read. I haven't yet ventured into "The Meaning of Liff" and some of his other brilliant stuff and won't until my funny bone has healed.

I would wish him well wherever he now is, but he was an atheist so would have known he wouldn't be anywhere, just his molecules returning to the universe that so fascinated him and out of which he made such great sport. I can only agree with his friend and fellow atheist, Richard Dawkins, who dedicated his book "The God Delusion" to Douglas and lamented on his death that science had lost a friend and literature a luminary. Indeed.

So thanks for the laughs, Doug, and now I will get back to contemplating 42—The Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything.

09 March 2012

Iran under siege ... for 2,500 years

David Cameron hoisted himself onto the world stage once again, as he is wont to do, and declared Iran an international threat. This is rich coming from a British PM. The Brits have been harassing Iran since the days of the Great Game. They invaded the country in the 1940s and were instrumental in destroying Iranian democracy in the 1950s. And while Iran hasn't invaded another country in centuries, the British, like their anti-Iranian allies the Israelis and the Americans, haven't seemed able to keep their troops within their own borders in living memory. And Cameron says Iran is the threat?

If any country is justifiably paranoid, it is Iran, not the U.K. The Iranian people have been able to maintain their national integrity for 2,500 years but not easily. They have been invaded by the Romans, the Arabs, the Mongols (who slaughtered three-quarters of their population), the Russians, the British and the Iraqis.

And threats continue. The U.S. has largely replaced Britain as Iran's imperial nemesis, denying it the right to be an equal player in its home region. The Americans surround Iran with at least 15 military bases, and three U.S. allies in the region—India, Pakistan and Israel—possess nuclear weapons. As of course does the U.S. itself. And the Americans provide massive military aid to hostile Sunni neighbours of Shia Iran, such as Saudi Arabia. The U.S. has also had great success in rallying other nations to impose sanctions on the beleaguered Iranians. And if all this isn't enough, Iran is subjected to interminable threats from Israeli and American hardliners such as Benjamin Netanyahu and the contenders for the U.S. Republican presidential nomination.

Iran could escape the current peril by submitting to American hegemony, but it is apparently unwilling to do that. Another alternative of course would be to develop a nuclear weapon thereby achieving military parity with its antagonists, but it claims it doesn't intend to do that either. The siege, it seems, will continue.

07 March 2012

Women win one, lose one ... and so it goes

The good news is that the European Union is considering mandatory quotas to get more women on corporate boards. They have tried the voluntary approach and, as is so often the case, it hasn't worked. Currently only one in seven board members at Europe's biggest companies are women despite the fact that 60 per cent of university graduates are now women. The percentage of women chairing major companies has even fallen slightly in recent years, to barely three per cent.

More—many more—women are needed in corporate management for at least three reasons: to provide equal opportunity for women; to bring a more collegial, sympathetic approach to decision-making in organizations that now hold disproportionate power over people and the environment; and to create more successful companies (studies show that gender balance contributes to better business performance).

Despite the advantages of a healthy gender balance, women have trouble making inroads into the old-boys' clubs of business, just as they do in government. The macho atmospheres of these institutions create an often unspoken bias against women. If the EU takes affirmative action to reduce the bias, everyone, except perhaps a few undeserving men, will benefit.

Such progress is not to be made in Afghanistan, at least not if the mullahs have their way. The country's top clerics have declared in a statement that women are subordinate to men, should not mix in work or education and must always have a male guardian when they travel. The clerics denounced the equality of men and women enshrined in the Afghan constitution, saying "Men are fundamental and women are secondary."

An ominous note was that the statement associated the restrictions on women's rights with peace talks. MP Fawzia Koofi claims the two are being linked "all over the country" and warns the new rules are a "green light for Talibanization." Particularly disturbing is that the rules, while not legally binding, have been endorsed by President Karzai.

So while European women look forward to progress, Afghan women face a return to the status of chattel. Thus the world turns.

05 March 2012

Conservative war on truth escalates

The Conservative government made another assault on the gathering of facts with its announcement that it is closing the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Lab (PEARL) in Canada's High Arctic.

Its timing was impeccable. A climate scientist, Dr. Richard Peltier, has just been announced this year's winner of the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal, our country's highest scientific award. PEARL is one of the sources Dr. Peltier relies on for his data and one of only three stations in the world that keep track of activities in the atmosphere around the Pole, that part of the world where changes are happening more quickly than anywhere else on the planet. Now one-third of the data from the High Arctic will be gone and models of climate change built by scientists such as Dr. Peltier will be less precise, a development that will make climate change denial a little easier.

The Conservatives have done well in their war on the truth, perhaps their greatest victory being the termination of the mandatory long form census, but opposition is growing. A few weeks ago, the Canadian Science Writers' Association, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada and the World Federation of Science Journalists and several other groups sent Prime Minister Harper an open letter calling on him to unmuzzle federal scientists. Now Nature, one of the world's leading scientific journals, has stated in an editorial that it's time for the Canadian government to set its scientists free. It pointed out the role reversal that has taken place between this country and the United States—as scientists in the U.S. free themselves from the repressive regime of George W. Bush, Canadian scientists are gagged by the Harper regime.

PEARL and Dr. Peltier, working as they do with climate science, are perhaps particularly dangerous in Harper's view. Canadian scientists were, after all, part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change team that shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007.

It is sad indeed, in this day and age and at time when climate change makes science more important than ever, that scientists in the free world have to beg a government to allow their colleagues to speak freely.

03 March 2012

Baroness Tonge, Israel and the pain of political correctness

Of all the various catalysts of political correctness, perhaps Israel is the most powerful. Anyone who seriously criticizes Israel or seriously supports the Palestinians is seriously in danger of being accused of such wickedness he or she must be dismissed from public discourse. Such was the fate of Jenny Tonge, Baronesss of Kew, recently a Liberal Democratic member of the House of Lords. Lady Tonge, during a heated debate at Middlesex University made the following remarks:
Israel is not going to be there forever in its present form. One day, the United States of America will get sick of giving £70-billion a year to Israel to support what I call America's aircraft carrier in the Middle East—that is Israel. One day, the American people are going to say to the Israel lobby in the USA: enough is enough.
The "not going to be there for ever" phrase miffed a host of Britons, including the chief rabbi, Lord Sacks, who called the remarks "dangerous, inflammatory and unacceptable," and Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg who demanded she apologize. She refused, resigned as party whip, and Clegg then ejected her from the party, an act neither liberal nor democratic.

The irony of course is that Israel itself has no intention of being there forever in its present form. It continually accretes more land—taken illegally from the Palestinians—and Israelis have stated they are willing to swap land for peace in a two-state solution to the hostilites. Indeed many people, including according to recent polls a third of Palestinians and a quarter of Israelis, increasingly believe in a single, secular state covering modern-day Israel and the occupied territories. In short, Lady Tonge's expression was a reasonable, indeed factual, contribution to the debate.

And are these British critics forgetting their own recent history. The UK is itself in a different form from what it was a mere century ago. Most of Ireland has departed and the rest will surely follow, and Scotland is getting very itchy feet. Or perhaps they could take a look across the Atlantic. Three hundred years ago, the most powerful country in the world today didn't exist, and the nations that had occupied the western half of North American for millennia are now entirely gone except for scattered remnants. Change in the form of nations is an immutable law of history.

In Canada, things are not much different than in the UK. If a Canadian politician suggested that Canada wouldn't be around forever in its present form, no one would blink an eye, simply because we live with that possibility every day. But if the same politician suggested, as Lady Tonge did, that Israel wouldn't be around forever in its present form, he or she would be enveloped in a storm of protest similar to that suffered by the Baroness. And they would quite likely be tossed from whatever political party they were a member of. Our political and media elites are immersed in the same fog of political correctness on this issue as the Brits.

The insidious nature of this censoring was illustrated by Britain's Labour Party leader, Ed Milliband, who said there is "no place in politics for those who question the existence of the state of Israel." Chief Rabbi Sacks went further, saying, "Views such as those expressed by Baroness Tonge have no place in civil public discourse." In other words, if you contradict the politically correct view of Palestine, you are to be dismissed not only from the political arena but from public discourse. You are to be silenced.

Israel is a nation based on race and religion, a foundation inimical to the principles of Canadians. Questioning the justification of such a state does not make one a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or an Adolf Hitler, yet this is what the defenders of Israeli policies would have us believe. Questioning Israel's form is part and parcel of thinking seriously about the Middle East's, and possibly the world's, most toxic political problem. The last thing we need is for the discussion of this most dangerous of issues to be restricted by the biased boundaries of political correctness.

01 March 2012

Americans prefer small government ... or do they?

It is a practically a cliche that Americans prefer small government. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center would seem to confirm this. When asked if government regulation did more harm than good, 52 per cent of Americans agreed while only 40 per cent felt regulation was necessary for the public good. Cliche proved.

But wait a minute. When Pew when on to ask about specific regulatory bodies, the response was often quite different. For example, 53 per cent said regulations on food production and packaging should be increased and 36 per cent said they should remain as they are. Only seven per cent said they should be reduced. Fifty per cent said environmental regulations should be strengthened, 29 per cent said they should remain the same, and only 17 per cent said they should be reduced. Furthermore they felt some groups, including large corporations and banks and financial institutions should be regulated more. While Americans may view federal regulations negatively in the abstract, solid majorities want to maintain or even strengthen them in certain specific areas. Clearly, sometimes they want more government, not less.

Nonetheless, one thing is not in doubt. They are unhappy with government. When it came to the effect various institutions were having on the country, they ranked government at the bottom—only 20 per cent felt their federal government was having a positive effect.

So what does this mean? Do Americans really support smaller government, or are they just very unhappy with the government they currently have, or is government just a convenient scapegoat for a deeply troubled country? The answer is obviously a lot more complex than size alone.