28 April 2012

Wildlife flourishes in human dead zones

We all know what the big problem with planet Earth is—people. Homo sapiens. The most destructive of species. Ever since we walked out of Africa 70,000 years ago, we have been an enemy of nature. Long before we invented agriculture, we were annihilating other species. The only big land animals left on Earth, live in Africa because they evolved with us and learned to survive our aggressive ways. Everywhere else, from Madagascar to Europe to the Americas to the Antipodes, we annihilated the megafauna as we encountered it. When we invented agriculture, we declared war on entire ecosystems, turning lush plains and forests into deserts wholesale.

It is no surprise then that when we are eliminated, nature flourishes. Such is the case in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. This 1,000 square kilometre area that wanders across the peninsula is a no-go zone for humans but has become a paradise for other animals.

From the Japanese occupation of 1905 to 1945, when radically increased exploitation of mineral and other resources brought dramatic environmental decline, to the Second World War to the Korean War, the natural world of the peninsula has been savaged by human violence. Continuing deforestation for fuel and clearing for agricultural land combined with unrestrained industrialization has further undermined the region's ecological health. Established in 1953, the DMZ has allowed nature to recover and the green strip now stands in stark contrast to the failing ecosystems that border it north and south.

It is home to thousands of plants and animals that are extinct or endangered elsewhere on the peninsula. One hundred species of fish, 45 types of amphibians and reptiles, over 1,000 insect species, 1,600 types of vascular plants and more than 300 species of mushrooms, fungi and lichen are believed to exist in the zone. Included are the rare Amur goral, Asiatic black bear, musk deer and even tigers, believed extinct in Korea since before the Japanese occupation, have been reported.

Similarly, wildlife in the area surrounding the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine appear to be doing very nicely despite the explosion and its aftermath, apparently surviving radiation better than they survive humanity. According to University of Portsmouth Professor Jim Smith, "The wildlife populations in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl have recovered and are actually doing well and even better than before because the human population has been removed." Local scientists have reported large increases in wildlife populations since the accident. Rare species such as lynx, Przewalski's horses and eagle owls are thriving.

The message is clear: For a healthy planet, exterminate its biggest pest. Such is the judgement on our stewardship of the Earth.

25 April 2012

Co-operatives—the proven alternative to capitalism

In this, the International Year of Co-operatives, we cannot remind ourselves too often of the tried and true alternative to conventional capitalism. Co-operatives have for generations offered a more humane approach to economic activity than competitive enterprise, even while competing successfully in a capitalist marketplace. They have provided a full range of economic services at the local, national and international levels, combined with social benefits absent from capitalism.

The greatest benefit is that they are democratic institutions—one member/one vote—as opposed to capitalist corporations—one share/one vote, a classically plutocratic arrangement. By providing equitable investment in the economy and reducing the excessive influence of wealth in society, they answer the Occupy Movement's two concerns about corporate power. They help create community locally, nationally and internationally. They are amenable philosophically to both left and right—they are capitalist in the sense that ownership is private but socialist in the sense that ownership is equitable.

Their capacity for success is illustrated nicely by the Calgary Co-operative Association. Principally involved in supermarkets, the Co-op also provides service stations, home health care, pharmacies, travel agencies and liquor stores. It has 440,000 members—40 per cent of the city's population. All its employees are member-owners, sharing power equitably with the customer-owners.

Needless to say, I am a long-term member. I buy almost all my groceries there as well as my booze and gas for my car. I round out my co-operative experience by doing all my banking at First Calgary Financial, the city's major credit union. Going co-op to the max is my way of helping to build a more humane and democratic economy.

The co-operative is here, and it works at every level. Globally, one out of five people are already members of co-ops. We need look no further for an answer to capitalism with its inequities and its insults to democracy. By maximizing our own economic relationship with co-ops and pushing our governments to favour co-operative enterprise over competitive enterprise, we can replace the misguided mantra "we must compete in the global economy" with the more civilized "we must co-operate in the global society."

24 April 2012

Albertans reject retreat

During her concession speech last night, Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith stated that Albertans just needed more time to get to know her party. In fact, that was why Wild Rose lost so surprisingly—Albertans got to know her party.

Midway through the campaign, Wildrose was sailing. At 40 per cent in the polls, majority territory, it appeared Albertans were indeed in the mood for a change of party, the first in over 40 years. And then voters took a closer look at what kind of change Wildrose represented—and decided they did not want to go there. The fresh young face of Danielle Smith, a bright and vivacious woman, was hiding the reality of old-time fundamentalist Alberta—Social Credit freshly packaged. Albertans are an urban people now—two-thirds live in Calgary and Edmonton—and have no interest in returning to rural values. Indeed, as I have blogged previously, they are rapidly developing more progressive views on social issues.

Wildrose's roots were apparent in the election results. Out of the party's 17 seats, only three were urban—two in Calgary and one in Medicine Hat. Even the smaller, more conservative cities of Red Deer and Lethbridge went PC. As the campaign progressed, Smith had an increasingly difficult time concealing the party's fundamentalist core and spent the last week trying to whack-a-mole her reactionary candidates.

Premier Redford also promised change, and she is indeed a refreshing change from the Klein/Stelmach years. We are now about to see how Progressive her Conservatives are.

21 April 2012

Dumbing down Canadians

It started, perhaps, with the Economic Council of Canada. The Council, a Crown Corporation whose role was to conduct a wide range of economic and policy research for the federal government, provided Canadians with an objective analysis of economic affairs. In 1992, Brian Mulroney, furious over a Council report that said Quebec separation might not have the dire consequences his government predicted, shut it down. Mr. Mulroney did not want certain inconvenient facts before the public.

Our current Prime Minister's distaste for facts goes well beyond Mr. Mulroney's. Demographic analysis increasingly shows that equitable societies are healthy societies, a fact antithetical to the Conservative fetishes for capitalism and privilege. So out went the mandatory long-form census.

Indeed, social inequality is not something Mr. Harper's government wants to hear a lot about, so the National Council of Welfare has now been scrapped. The Council in effect acted as the country's conscience, identifying areas of poverty, providing appropriate information to the government and bringing social policy thinkers together to develop solutions. It provided citizens, particularly low-income citizens, and NGOs the facts they needed to speak out effectively about poverty, facts that may no longer see the light of day.

Nor does the PM think too much knowledge about climate change is good for us. Facts in this area tend to conflict with the agenda of the Conservative/Oil Industry coalition. So the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Lab is closed (global warming is particularly pronounced in the north), the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy is shut down, environmental reviews of major projects will be "streamlined," and so on.

Indeed, science itself often produces too many inconvenient facts for the growth at all costs policies of this government, so its scientists are routinely muzzled. And National Research Council funding that once might have supported pure scientific research will now be handed over to private companies. One suspects that energy and mining companies will be high on the priority list.

And then there's the recent budget assault on the CBC, the only national mass medium in the country not owned and controlled by the corporate sector. The Harper administration prefers to have the dissemination of information safely in corporate hands.

Citizens of a democracy need sources of information independent of vested interests—governments, political parties, and corporate agents—in order to make informed decisions. Universities and other non-profit groups need objective information to participate effectively in analysis and policy formulation. Lacking the expertise and the funding to conduct their own independent research, and confronting an increasingly complex world, citizens rely heavily on institutions like those mentioned above. A fundamental responsibility of democratic government is to ensure that citizens have the information they need.

The Harper government clearly has no intention of fulfilling this responsibility. It prefers to leave Canadians dependent on corporate institutions such as the daily press, PR firms, and right-wing think tanks. Facts, and indeed entire issues, in which these agents have little interest or outright antipathy can be conveniently massaged or simply ignored. The result is a citizenry more indoctrinated than informed. And that, I fear, is the direction we are headed.

19 April 2012

Will the Fraser Institute be audited?

Now that the federal government has allocated $8-million for the auditing of charitable groups ostensibly to ensure they stay within the Charities Act, one naturally wonders if this will include all charities or be limited to environmental groups, the bĂȘte noire of the Conservative/oil industry coalition.

The Fraser Institute is a case in point. Although having charitable status, it serves principally as a propaganda vehicle for right-wing views. It is funded by corporations and other business interests, including business-oriented charitable funds such as the Donner Canadian Foundation, a group controlled by the American Donner heirs. It has been referred to as the "lifeblood of conservative research" in Canada.

An audit of the Fraser Institute would be in order for a number of reasons. For instance, to ensure its work is primarily educational as it claims or primarily political propaganda which it more closely resembles. Also, the public should know just which corporations are insinuating themselves into our "democratic" process by funding the Institute, particularly if they are foreign corporations. This, at a time of increasing corporate influence in society, is almost as important to know as which corporations are contributing to political parties. And do contributions from American-controlled charitable funds such as the Donner Foundation meet the requirements of the Charities Act?

These are important questions. I await the audit.

18 April 2012

The Monroe Doctrine is dead

A new age has dawned in the Americas. The Monroe Doctrine, a policy established by the United States ostensibly to keep European imperialists out of the Western Hemisphere but which eventually deteriorated into an instrument to maintain American dominance, is now effectively deceased. At the recent Summit of the Americas, the Latin nations couldn't have made it clearer that they intend to be treated as equals. On two key issues—Cuba and drugs—the United States was effectively isolated, except of course for Canada. The Americans insist on pursuing the drug war and precluding Cuba from summit meetings in the face of solid opposition from the other OAS members.

Particularly interesting was the prominent position played by Colombia, host of the summit, in emphasizing the two issues. It has been the Americans' chief supporter in Latin America in recent years, including on the drugs portfolio. When Colombia challenges the United States, something important is happening.

A number of developments have contributed to the American decline in commercial and political influence in the region: the rise of regional powers such as Brazil and Mexico, gains made by China as a leading trade partner, the successes of the South American left, and the rejection of the free trade agreement proposed by the U.S. in favour of agreements more suitable to the economic and social interests of the Latin nations.

At the last summit, President Obama spoke of "equal partnerships" and "a new chapter of engagement" with the region's countries. He promised the U.S. would "take aggressive action to reduce our demand for drugs, and to stop the flow of guns and bulk cash across our borders." Yet little has changed in American policy or practice. They continue to pursue an aggressive "free trade" agenda; they have escalated militarization in the "war on drugs"; and they persist with cold war policies of containing left-wing governments.

If the United States wants to maintain a credible role in the hemisphere, never mind a leadership role, it will have to be more accommodating to the views of the Latin nations. It might also offer its Secret Service agents a quick course on how to deal tactfully with booze and hookers when on international missions. And President Obama might say ten times before breakfast—it's the Malvinas, not the Maldives.

13 April 2012

Albertans—more progressive than conservative

As Albertans face an election later this month and the Conservative Party is seriously challenged by an even more conservative party, the Wildrose Party, we might stop for a moment and ask just how conservative Albertans really are. If the question pertains to social conservatism, the answer is not very.

Last November, a survey taken in Lethbridge by the Citizen Society Research Lab at Lethbridge College, indicated Albertans are a lot more socially progressive than they are socially conservative, and rapidly becoming more so. For example, 82.7 per cent of respondents favoured abortion choice, up from 73.3 per cent just two years ago. Even a majority of the "very religious" supported abortion choice. Gay marriage was supported by 69.6 per cent, up from 58.3 per cent two years ago. Doctor-assisted suicide was supported by 70.2 per cent. Lethbridge seems to have progressed well beyond its one-time reputation as a Bible belt city. Surveys in Calgary and Edmonton show even higher numbers on the progressive scale.

Quite aside from all the stats, in the last municipal election Calgarians chose the very progressive Naheed Nenshi as mayor. (I will tactfully avoid mentioning who Toronto elected.) And, of no small significance, the leaders of the two leading political parties are both women, so regardless of the election outcome we will have a woman premier.

It would seem that socially at least, Alberta is a rather progressive place. Now if we could just get over that addiction to dirty oil.

I know more about American political parties than 92 per cent of Americans

Don't take my word for it. The Pew Research Center says so. All I did was take their quiz about the two major American political parties and answer all the questions correctly. And that put me ahead of 92 per cent of Americans surveyed by the Center.

Take the quiz yourself. It's at http://pewresearch.org/politicalquiz/?src=prc-newsletter. You, too, may be "more news-savvy than the average American."

11 April 2012

The Mary Jane debt solution

The Spanish village of Rasquera is 1.3 million euros in debt, and with Spain's battered economy, not much relief in sight. Until now. This week, Rasquera held a referendum and the villagers voted 308 to 239 to rent land for growing marijuana.

Although trafficking remains illegal in Spain, growing cannabis for personal use isn't. Apparently the Barcelona Personal Use Cannabis Association (ABCDA) is prepared to pay the village 650,000 euros a year for the right to grow its annual supply there. At that rate, Rasquera could pay off its debt in a couple of years, a tempting offer indeed.

Considering that most pot smokers are youth, it may be unfair to ask them to pay off the village debt when they are already suffering from high unemployment. However, the ABCDA will no doubt get its dope somewhere, it may just as well be from Rasquera. And nothing like a joint or two to relieve the pain of unemployment.

The idea sounds win-win to me. The members of ABCDA get their high and the citizens of Rasquera get their debt paid off. Is there something here for Canada to ponder? It certainly beats building more prisons.

Baseball and that freedom of speech thing

Sports is a tribal business, and Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen has upset his tribe. The outspoken Venezuelan had the audacity to express admiration for Fidel Castro in Time magazine. “I respect Fidel Castro,” he is reported to have said. “You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that motherfucker is still here.” The team and a number of the fans objected to his comments and the now contrite Guillen will apologize for his reckless exercise of freedom of speech. In the meantime, he has been suspended for five games.

In its statement, the Marlins declared there was nothing to respect about Fidel Castro. That of course isn't entirely true. Castro liberated Cuba from the criminal dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and his Mafia partners who had plundered the country for years. And Cuba has built easily the best health and education systems in Latin America, better in some respects than those in the United States, no small accomplishment for a country heavily embargoed.

Nonetheless, the country remains a dictatorship and expressing  respect for Fidel is probably not the most prudent move in Miami-Dade County, the Marlins' home base, a jurisdiction 34 per cent Cuban-American. And yet, Guillen was right—despite the best efforts of the CIA to kill the old motherfucker, he's still there. That does deserve a little respect. As does freedom of speech.

04 April 2012

Marriage one man/one woman? Not in the Bible

Although gay marriage seems to have settled into acceptance in this country, it still meets with virulent opposition elsewhere, including in the United States. Certain of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination serve as good examples. Strutting their Christian credentials, they loudly proclaim their mantra, "Marriage means one man and one woman."

Their credentials do not, however, seem to include knowledge of the Bible. Far from one man and one woman, the Biblical prophets were more inclined to one man and many women. For example, Abraham, father of the Hebrew nation, had three, a piker however compared to David, first king of Israel, who had at least eight, plus 10 concubines for those days when he was feeling exceptionally randy. Moses, bearer of the tablets, only had two, but Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Reputedly the world's wisest man, he may also have been its most libidinous. Jacob, father of the twelve patriarchs of the tribes of Israel, was clearly a man of more modest appetites, limiting himself to four wives. Marriage as one man, one woman? These lusty buggers would have laughed you out of the room.

The nuclear family—one man, one wife and children—adopted by Christianity probably came about because the religion was created within the Roman Empire which, drawing on European customs, had a tradition of monogamous marriage. The Muslim faith, truer to Middle Eastern custom and therefore to the Bible, still allows polygamy.

So when Christians fundamentalists trot out their marriage means one man and one woman mantra, we might tactfully suggest they read their Old Testament and refresh their fundamentalism.

03 April 2012

Americans increasingly support interracial marriage

At a time when Americans agonize over the shooting of Trayvan Martin in Florida, and racial tensions simmer, a Pew Research Center survey reveals at least one encouraging development. According to the survey, 43 per cent of Americans believe the national rise in interracial marriage is a change for the better while only 11 per cent believe it is a change for the worse. Forty-four per cent think it makes no difference.

Not surprisingly, support for interracial marriage increases with youth. Sixty-five per cent of the 18-29 age group see it as a good thing while only five per cent do not. Among those over 65, only 28 per cent are positive about interracial marriage. However, considerably fewer—19 per cent—view it negatively.

The survey indicates the U.S. is a rather more racially tolerant country than the Trayvan Martin incident might indicate. Americans still have a ways to go to overcome their ancient nemesis, but they seem headed in the right direction.

02 April 2012

My two cents on Calgary's Peace Bridge

It's finally done. Over budget and overdue, but it's done. One of the most controversial pieces of infrastructure in Calgary's history, the Peace Bridge, a pedestrian walkway over the Bow River, is finally open for traffic.

I am a strong supporter of the compact city as a more efficient city, both financially and economically, and that means I am a strong supporter of promoting pedestrian traffic and public transit use over cars. But that doesn't mean I support any and all pedestrian amenities, and the Peace Bridge I do not.

In the first place it is, as so many people have pointed out, a bridge from nowhere to nowhere. At the north end it launches itself from a bicycle path in the middle of a block. The local alderman is now desperately consulting with her constituents to figure out how to get pedestrians safely across the busy 4-lane street (Memorial Drive) that borders the path—an exercise rather late in the day. As for who will use the bridge, the Sunnyside embankment limits the source of commuters to a very small area.

And that brings me to my next point. Only two blocks west, there are three pedestrian bridges—one on either side of the Louise Bridge and one under the C-train overpass. In other words, the Peace Bridge is quite unnecessary. A number of locations in the city offer a much better opportunity for a bridge or crossover that would encourage pedestrian traffic and public transit use.

Aesthetically, the bridge is alien to its environment. It reflects none of the forms, colours or materials of the Bow River Valley in its design. It is a pretty, sparkly thing in its own right but it is out of context—a sort of magpie architecture. It manifests one of greatest sins of the architectural profession. Architects design structures that are handsome in themselves but don't fit into their neighbourhood. This bridge has been defended on the basis that it is a work of art that will help make Calgary a great city. Perhaps, but it tends more to make Calgary look like a city with insecurities, desperate to prove it is in the big leagues.

The bridge doesn't just sin against its environment, it sins against the citizens of Calgary. With cavalier disregard for the taxpayers' dollar, and in violation of city policy, the design was selected without a competition. Although Calgarians may not have the refined artistic sensibilities of transportation department officials, it is their bridge after all and they might have been offered an opportunity to express their views.

This sort of arbitrary process undermines peoples' faith in their government. Government-bashers have been offered a very big stick to beat City Hall with and they are taking full advantage. Almost every rant about big government and high taxes you hear in Calgary these days starts off with the Peace Bridge. I fear the bridge will make it more difficult to provide truly worthwhile pedestrian amenities in the future, doing a great disservice to our city.

Some of the points supporters of the bridge have made, I heartily agree with. For example, that the $25-million spent on this bridge would hardly have earned a whimper of protest if it had been spent on a freeway or an interchange. I agree also that public infrastructure should have aesthetic appeal. Of course it should. But these are general considerations—they don't justify an ill thought out piece of infrastructure.

In any case, it is done and we are stuck with it. Now we must consider what we can learn from it. A number of things actually. First, always, except in exceptional circumstances, subject projects to competition. Second, consult the public early, not after the fact. Third, design for the context. And finally, don't be governed by our insecurities—Calgary doesn't need baubles to make it a great city.

If we are to build the compact city, we must be jealous guardians of the public purse. The public will not be dissuaded from urban sprawl if they see amenities for pedestrians and public transit users linked to financial recklessness.