14 March 2014

Alberta, oil, and indoctrinating children

"Give us a child till he’s seven and we’ll have him for life"—a maxim some claim comes from St. Ignatius Loyola himself, founder of the Jesuits. Somewhat hackneyed but nonetheless true, the Alberta government and the oil industry seem to be taking it seriously.

The government is engaged in a major overhaul of Alberta's school curriculum and, to the surprise of some, it is bringing in major oil companies as consultants on the changes. Syncrude Canada and Suncor Energy are listed under a working group led by the Edmonton Public School Board in the redesign of the kindergarten to grade three curriculum. Cenovus Energy will consult on the grades four to twelve curriculum. That industry would be involved in education in the higher grades when kids are starting to consider career paths makes sense, but in kindergarten?

The idea that the oil industry can be an impartial conveyor of knowledge is risible. It is one side of a fierce debate regarding fossil fuels and the environment, a debate that will affect the future of humanity, and it vigorously promotes its side. It is by far the biggest lobbyist in Ottawa, its efforts dwarfing those of other industries. And with great success—they have seen the Conservative government rewrite or repeal a host of laws governing environmental assessments, navigable waterways and other measures, and shut down or hamstring environmental research.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) inundates the airwaves with ads, aided and abetted by the federal government which has spent millions on major TV campaigns pitching Canadians on its biased version of “responsible resource development.” CAPP is already making forays into schools with its Energy in Action program designed to teach grade four and five students about "oil and natural gas resources and the importance of environmental stewardship," for which it won the Alberta School Board Association's Friends of Education award in 2011. This is ironic indeed considering that elements in the oil industry have been complicit in undermining climate science. (At least Exxon hasn't been invited to consult on the new curriculum.)

Considering the massive propaganda effort by the oil industry to hype fossil fuels, including the infamous tar sands, inviting them to participate in curriculum development for children in their most formative and vulnerable years is inviting indoctrination. Not that the children will be asked to recite "the oil sands are my friend" every morning at start of class. The government and the industry will be quite satisfied if an instinctive association between "oil industry" and "environmental stewardship" is firmly planted in young minds. The fact that the two concepts are in major ways incompatible is, I suspect, a truth that won't be included in the curricula.

13 March 2014

Federal hiring and the warrior ethos

The federal government has, it seems, something of a Jekyll and Hyde attitude towards military veterans. On the one hand, its budget-cutting has resulted in the closing of Veterans Affairs offices and a penny-pinching approach to the well-being of injured and disabled veterans.

On the other hand, the government announced it will implement measures that "will help move Veterans to the front of the line when it comes to hiring qualified Canadians for federal public service jobs." Veterans with at least three years service will be given preference in advertised external hiring and will also be able to apply for internal hiring.

Why former military personnel should be given an advantage over other Canadians for employment is hard to justify. One refrain is that they served their country. But this is meaningless—everyone with a job (or is volunteering) serves their country. Or we hear that they put their lives on the line for their country. But a great many workers do that. Ever year, an average of 1,000 Canadians suffer workplace fatalities and for every death, hundreds more are seriously injured. Agriculture is the deadliest industry with an average of over 100 fatalities a year. The military are by no means alone in serving their country or serving it dangerously.

What we are looking at here is warrior-worship, the atavistic notion that the highest form of manhood is the warrior—man fulfilling himself by picking up his weapon to defend the tribe. It is long past time to rid ourselves of such primitive habits of mind.

All civil servants, including those who train to kill, should be treated with respect by their employer, and if they need help because of job-related injury they should get it. And if they need help to retrain and obtain more constructive employment, they should get that too. But not at the cost of depriving other, more qualified citizens of their opportunities. That kind of discrimination does a disservice to those others and to the civil service itself.

12 March 2014

Saudi arms sales—the triumph of economics over morality

If nothing else, it illustrates how, in the world of international relations, economics trumps morality. I refer to General Dynamics Land Systems Canada landing a deal to sell light-armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. The deal was announced last month by International Trade Minister Ed Fast who praised it as a major success for Canadian diplomacy.

Now how on earth can selling arms to Saudi Arabia possibly be a cause for celebration? The Saudi regime is one of the world's most oppressive dictatorships and certainly its most misogynistic. According to Human Rights Watch, “In Saudi Arabia, 2013 was another bad year for human rights, marred by executions and repression of women and activists.” And Saudi repression isn't just local. In 2011, Saudi Arabia invaded Bahrain to suppress dissent by the Shiite majority against another gulf dictator. The vehicles we are about to sell them could conceivably be used in their next invasion or, for that matter, against their own people.

And why is our government, a government that has in the past objected to religious discrimination around the world, championing the sales of military equipment to a regime that forbids the public worship of any religion but Islam and even systematically discriminates against Muslim faiths other than its own?

The answer of course is money. The contract is worth $10-billion over 14 years and will sustain more than 3,000 jobs annually. This is the lipstick on the pig.

And there's a bigger picture. Saudi Arabia controls 25 per cent of the world's oil supply, giving it a uniquely influential role in the world economy. It is a country too big to fail. So if the Saudis want weapons, the Saudis get weapons. And our government is happy to help, morality be damned.

11 March 2014

The global economy—a case of bad engineering

For a number of years I toiled in the oil industry as an engineer, and not infrequently lessons I learned from my engineering experience return to inform me in other contexts. Recently I have been thinking of the global economy in such terms, and it fails miserably to pass the test of good engineering.

When an engineer designs a bridge he doesn't simply design the supports to meet the stresses he expects to be imposed upon them. He conservatively designs the supports to meet the expected stresses—and then adds a generous safety factor. In other words, he follows the precautionary principle, knowing that he cannot account for every eventuality.

And that is the way a sensible society would design its economy. It would conservatively estimate the demands the environment is capable of meeting from resource extraction and waste disposal, and then add in a generous safety factor. It would then design its economic activities to fit into the calculated environmental capacity.

Unfortunately for society after society, civilization after civilization, throughout history, humanity has not done that. The usual practice has been to exploit the environment to whatever extent the desired economy demands, even if that pushes it to the maximum. And then, when the maximum shrinks, as it always does, due to drought or flood or other whim of nature, that society's economy is threatened, not infrequently to the point where it collapses, bringing society down with it. This is a pattern repeated over and over, yet we have never learned the lesson of living within our means, or more correctly, within the means of our environment.

Past civilizations might have been able to plead ignorance for their failure. They didn't fully understand the relationship between their economy and the environment. We do, we are by far the best informed generation in history, and yet we are making the same mistake. In our case, it isn't ignorance, it's stupidity.

According to the Global Footprint Network, we are using the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use and to absorb our waste. UN scenarios suggest that if current trends continue, by the 2030s we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us. Unfortunately, we only have one.

Representing the amount of productive land and sea area necessary to supply the resources a population consumes plus the waste it produces in global hectares (gha), the Earth's biocapacity is estimated at 1.8 gha per person. Our actual demand, however, our global footprint, is 2.6 gha per person. We are sucking the planet dry.

We frequently hear talk about balancing the economy and the environment, but this is an error. The environment has no need of our economy, indeed it would be vastly better off without it, but our economy is totally dependent on the environment. Our economy must, therefore, not balance the environment but fit comfortably within it with room to spare. Only then will we have a well-engineered economy and only then will our civilization be able to sustain itself.

10 March 2014

U.S. conservatives going all progressive?

If Justice Minister Peter MacKay announcing that the Conservatives may soften marijuana laws came as a surprise, the change of heart among some conservatives in the U.S. is nothing less than a shock.

Addressing the 2014 Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference in Washington, CPAC's blogger of the year, Mary Katherine Ham, argued in favor of accepting marijuana legalization in states such as Colorado and Washington and wherever else it may be adopted. She argued that allowing people to make their own choices about their health was a core conservative value and might even reduce pot smoking by taking “the cool out of it.” Apparently, she got a good hearing from a highly receptive crowd.

And that ain't all. In a debate on security, when one panelist referred to Edward Snowden as a traitor, he was loudly booed. His adversary, arguing that it was conservatives’ duty to take the programs Snowden exposed as affronts to personal liberty, was much better received.

In a panel on criminal justice, Texas Governor Rick Perry, while not backing off on his state's use of capital punishment, defended reforms for nonviolent offenders that included “drug courts,” which give judges more latitude on sentencing and provide alternatives to incarceration. “You want to talk about real conservative governments?" he said, "Shut prisons down. That’s what can happen with these drug courts.” He was supported by fellow panelist Grover Norquist, the infamous anti-tax crusader, who suggested that conservatives could attack prison systems on the basis they are vast government bureaucracies.

Heady stuff, not at all what we expect from the Republican right, but maybe they are just tuning in to the real America. The country has sometimes been described as a land of liberals governed by conservatives. Perhaps that's changing, or maybe they are simply coming to terms with the fact that the best solutions to their nation's problems lie on the other side of the philosophical divide.

Perhaps Mr. MacKay's change of heart on marijuana is yet another example of the Harper Conservatives taking their cue from American Republicans. If they take these cues on security and prison reform as well, they will be making further progress.

07 March 2014

Ukraine and American arrogance

The New York Times ran an intriguing headline earlier this week. It read "Debate Over Who, in U.S., is to Blame for Ukraine." Apparently American politicians are debating which among them is responsible for recent events in Ukraine, Republicans blaming Obama and Democrats blaming Bush.

The arrogance is extraordinary. The debate seems predicated on the notion that if something goes awry in the world, it's because the Americans in charge aren't managing things properly. Somebody must have slipped up. In other words, it's their job to run the world. It seems incomprehensible to the American political class that they should not be involved in everything that's happening everywhere.

Sadly, there's a certain truth to the notion. The U.S. is constantly interfering in the affairs of other nations, and apparently they have been interfering in the Ukraine. That they should leave the Ukrainians and the Russians alone to sort out their own quarrels just doesn't seem to cross the American mind, or at least the political minds.

Nonetheless, if they can help negotiate a truce between the various parties, that would be helpful indeed. Unfortunately their standing in Russia at the moment is at a very low ebb. They have created the distinct impression of being partial to the anti-Russian elements, and their credibility wasn't helped by John Kerry accusing Russia of 19th century behaviour for "invading another country on completely trumped up pretext" when a mere 10 years ago the U.S. did exactly that. And of course, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland's well-publicized comment "fuck the EU" won't help bring the Europeans on side. Running the world isn't easy.

06 March 2014

Does the terrorist threat justify the snooping? Not according to the stats

British Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking about the need for mass surveillance of communications, talked about keeping concerns about civil liberties "in proportion." Perhaps what should be kept in proportion is his enthusiasm for mass snooping. Mr. Cameron and other national leaders justify their obsession about security and its attendant secrecy on the terrorist threat. But how much of a threat is terrorism?

In Mr. Cameron's Great Britain, since "the world changed" in 9/11 terrorists have killed less than 60 people. Every one of those deaths is a tragedy, of course, but on a national scale the number is trivial, about five deaths per year. This is roughly equal to the number of Brits who die annually from bee stings.

The numbers in the U.S. are hardly more disturbing. Since 2000, deaths from homeland terrorism average out at 235 per year, including of course the World Trade Center bombing. Again, for a nation of 314 million people, that is a minor threat. Twice that many Americans die every year from falling out of bed.

The only death in Canada from terrorism over the same period was the man killed by the anglophone Quebecer who attempted to assassinate Parti Québécois leader Pauline Maurois on election night.

Terror attacks present great drama and therefore attract enormous media attention, rather more than bee stings or falling out of bed even though they hold no greater threat to the average citizen. And politicians dread attacks because they make them look weak, which of course is often the point, and politicians fear little more than looking weak.

As a result, Britain, the U.S. and Canada have invested massively in and given unprecedented powers to security institutions including surveillance agencies such as Britain's GCHQ, the Americans' NSA and our very own CSEC. This year, CSEC's budget was increased from $444-million to $829-million, including part payment for its new headquarters. The lavish new building, estimated to ultimately cost $1.2-billion, has been aptly described as a spy palace.

Terrorism has been long with us and will no doubt be with us for much longer. Reasonable precautions are justified, but let's stop using a minor threat to justify major surveillance, to say nothing of extravagant expenditure.