Sunday, 25 April 2010

Always Fresh, Always...Wasteful

Yesterday, I participated in a "Tim Horton's Community Clean-up" in honour of Earth Day. For my efforts, which included fishing out and picking up plastic bags, water bottles, wrappers, and Tim Horton's cups out of the stream that runs through Moses Springer park in Waterloo, Ontario, I was given a white T-shirt with the Tim's logo prominently featured on front and back.

I was happy to make the gesture in my community and help clean the place up. It felt good and meaningful. There is nothing token or symbolic of removing plastic from an area where you see wildlife a few feet away. What I was annoyed by was Tim's sponsorship of the event; the few lousy bucks they spent on T-shirts were both. I met some interesting people, and I was reminded of the high hidden costs our civilization pays for convienience, one of which is (expletive) plastic and paper everywhere. For all that I was grateful. Tim's exploiting the occasion to play the community-minded environmentalist, not so much.

**Disclaimer**I am about to be critical of one of my country's sacred cows. If you want to alienate yourself from a crowd or offend people in Canada, be critical of Timmy Hos. You'd probably get a weaker reaction from a lot of people if you insulted their mother. If you are one of those people, I suggest you stop reading.***

Tim's cups are everywhere because people drink the stuff all the time. Those paper cups and plastic lids litter our streets, our highways, and our parks. And Tim's does very little to encourage people to bring their own cups. When the City of Toronto tried to force them to make their cups recyclable last year because of the 60,000+ cup a day litter burden they represented, Tim's fiercely resisted. And who won that media battle? The big, lovable, ubiquitous coffee chain. Toronto was the bad guy for daring to interfere or impede on people's right to their medium double-double in the brown, red and gold cup. Why is this?

It's because Tim's has now completed its transformation from the folksy, working class, sugar and caffeine brown and yellow coffee and donuts chain at the side of the highway to a giant, sleek, red corporation which commands enormous market share, fierce loyalty and religious devotion from its customers. Parents are hooked on the syrupy sweet double-double that passes for coffee, kids get treats and ice capps, people eat the assembly line, economy of scale-processed, pre-frozen food from the factory in Brantford, Ontario for lunch, and we are squarely aimed at in Canada from 360 different degrees with ad carpet bombing to get more. On billboards, on the radio, on hockey night in Canada, and, if you are a pedestrian, in trash cans and at the sides of roads. You see that logo everywhere. I can't say I've seen every post-secondary campus in Canada, but I can tell you there are multiple locations on the University of Waterloo and Carleton campuses.

But this is simply traditional good business, you say; if people like the stuff, just let them have their damn tim's. Fine. However, Tims has many accountabilities nobody thinks about. Like the integration of new Canadians. Where do most of them get they first jobs? (Queue trumpets). In a location in North York, I saw a TV ad above the counter advertising English classes at Tim's for newcomers. Wow, a one-stop job, language class, environment to socialize with your friends and take your family for lunch. Don't forget to get hooked on our products while passing through for all these activities before you enter society, so that everyone will know you're a real Canadian. It's a strategy that has clearly worked. Look at the lineup in a post-secondary institution or at King and Victoria streets in downtown Toronto, one of their busiest locations by my old workplaces which has two perpetual lineups spilling out the door into the street. If you wanted to make diversity ads, you couldn't pay to find a better cross section of people.

The Prime Minister himself is well aware Tim's pull and his political strategy is hinged on continued devotion from what's known as "The Tim's crowd"; he has appealed to them with key photo-ops at the Oakville donut factory and at the Canadian Military Base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Demographics are hard to define and I would like to excuse myself for attempting but that prime-time watchin', oilfield n' factory workin', pickup truck & SUV drivin', child havin', new suburb on prime agricultural land dwellin', troop supportin', UFC watchin', Nickelback listenin' demographic takes one thing seriously: Tim's, and they are the Conservative party's coveted (and won) constituents. Environmentalism, social justice, mainstream media, exercise, cooking and art can be summed up in one, atrocious word to them: Starbucks. Making this crude distinction even more delectable and easier for whoever is buying into it is Starbucks is American and Tim's is Canadian. There are other equally ridiculous manufactured rivalries you can do this for like PCs vs. Macs. But my argument is Tims' being used as part of the Conservatives' divide and conquer strategy for the Canadian electorate while acting as a bosom and a security blanket for immigrants, which are the two main contributing factors to their now cemented status as an unambiguous symbol of Canada.

This is heavy political stuff, and I don't expect it to bother or fascinate you like it does me. What principally concerns me and why I bring it up is that Tims' irreproachability seems largely derived from it, and prevents the company from acknowledging how much litter and trash and waste it produces and that this is a serious problem.

The company, of course, is doing "everything it can" to reduce litter. See if you buy their explanation here I'm sorry, I don't. We need to recognize that walking around and driving around drinking coffee all day has not been an innately human activity since the dawn of time. It's a relatively recent phenomenon, and everyone needs to be encouraged actively and forcefully to use travel cups. The same as they need to be told of the shame and wrong of that other ridiculous convienience we now insist on, bottled water. Every company has a "sustainability" section on it's site now with a leaf, which looks very nice and everything, but can we please address some simple, fundamentally wasteful habits we've acquired and denounce them with courage rather than this pathetic lip service? I digress.

The Tri-Cities where I live has one of the highest per-capita Tim penetration rates in the world. Drive thrus are backed up with pickups, SUVs and leased GM sedans morning, noon, and night (Another very un-environmentally friendly by-product of TH dominance). People around here brag about visiting the place like they're addicts who just scored crack. The one closest to my house looks like a swiss ski-lodge, and is rammed 24-7. Tim's ain't going anywhere, I know. On their site, they have answers for critics like me, which shows a lot of initiative on their part, given their uncriticizable stature in Canadian society. The thing is, I'm not satisfied. Why don't you have contests for people using their own cups instead of stupid roll up the rim? I know your main customer base isn't typically or generally concerned with environmentalism but you, Don Schroeder, CEO of Tim's, are in a unique position to change their perception. I, reluctant occasional sipper of the medium regular on a road trip, although I am more and more loathe to be, wish you would.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The International II - Planet Slumville

The year 2007 was significant because it was the first year in human history that we passed 50%...more than half of the humans in the world lived in cities than in rural areas. Africa's urban population has increased tenfold from 33 million to over three hundred million since 1952 and Asia is also following this tendancy with the same galloping rates. Wealthy nations are already almost totally urbanized and continue their trend towards this as we speak passing 80% and moving towards 100% urban dwelling, and poor nations, for better or for worse, are following them.

The most extreme example of the consequences of the folly is Port-au-prince which double-quintupled its size (what I mean is increased there a word for that? Dixtupled?) in a very short period of time, without any expansion plan or building code, which is why it literally collapsed like cards in January. A natural disaster was at fault here, but what I think we really need to be asking ourselves is what this means, this unfettered and continued expansion of the industrial revolution, the same industrial revolution that started it all (England, highly urbanized in 1720 with 20% of its population in urban areas, was 80% urban 150 years later)?

It means that capital, money, commerce, and most importantly, work, are in cities. Cities are where you go to work, make money, get money, grow and grow like our system does and tells you to do. The cities grow and get more expensive, and expand and get more expensive. Neighbourhoods and areas experience ups and downs. And every city is different.

But all cities have one thing in common. Everything must circulate, all the time. Populations outgrow roads which must be expanded but are never big enough. And there are 55% more heavyweight trucks on the road in Ontario than there were 15 years ago. A tunnel that opened in Antwerp in 1970 for 65,000 vehicles a day now sees more than 300,000 a day. A third of that is heavyweights. Unlike the ancient city states, we have created a network of "poles of commerce" which are all connected and all play their role in the world economy, and when I think about it this way I get the impression that all the activity is building up to this crescendo after which...after which we will have nowhere to go but down.

If in 20 years since I was six being a six year old entertainment has gone from watching the polka dot door to having an iphone, and if in the same 20 years every major city on earth has gone from being itself to becoming obsessed with skyscrapers, golf courses, condos, conference centres, gated communities (which the emir of Dubai has bragged about introducing to the middle east) and of course, highways to carry more heavyweights to its growing population filled with things for it to consume, all in the name of attracting more foreign investment and hitting that elusive GDP growth target so the Wall Street Journal and the Economist can go easy on us and praise us to attract more investment, I can't help but seeing the connection between the two and the paradoxical evolution upward but also way downward.

Because an Iphone might be infinitely more complex and smarter than the polka dot door, but I'm pretty sure it's a lot more dangerous for someone who doesn't know its own strength. And it will be thus, I'm convinced, with our network of glitzy shiny megapoles we're building.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Professional Update

I'm sitting here on my computer, and because my next posting is still incubating, I am just going to write some bullet points. Not terribly interesting, but nobody reads this thing anyway, so it will at least remind myself where I am taking this ship.

-I have decided to make proceeding with edits on my 2009 Nanowrimo entry "The Safe" my top spare time priority.

-My latest short story competition results were not good. I am off that beat for now.

-I want to write here twice a week but it has fallen back to one (next posting - Monday?)

-My desk is a terrible mess of papers, articles, scraps of writing, and I just bought five books today that I'll never have time to read.

-I am excited to sign up for a six week, online course with the University of Waterloo this week to step up my game a bit

Friday, 9 April 2010

Rich Perspective, Poor Perspective

When I was a teenager, at some point in the mid to late nineties that I can’t recall, my dad had this book called “Rich Dad, Poor Dad.” I remember leafing through it at the time, and the premise was simple. The narrator had two dads, just like in the title, and they each behaved in a certain way and made certain decisions which had an effect on their lives and shaped the economic situations they found themselves in. And the moral of the story was, because the guy learned lessons from and paid attention to and aspired to be his rich dad, he became a rich dad too. Sort of like that Issac Newton quote about how if I had a great vision or a stroke of genius, it’s because I was standing on the shoulders of giants. Using the wisdom of great thinkers and doers before you to accomplish great things, which you then in some way owe them thanks for. I’m a big believer in the quote and I aspire to live up to my ever expanding circle of giants. But apparently, Robert Kiyosaki decided to spin his most famous book into a laughable, quasi-legitimate, fake get rich quick scheme whose ubiquitous ads I see on buses everyday now.

I have been meaning to comment for awhile on how Kisoyaki went from preached wisdom, prudence, sticking to strategy, and sound investment principles in his book to now peddling some garbage he has the gall to call “education”, when a Star investigation found this “education” to involve $500 up front to attend a weekend how to get rich seminar to listen to sales pitches to attend a $12,000 seminar. The Rich Dad himself is of course too preoccupied to debase himself by actually being present, it says right on the ads, but hey, he’ll throw in a free USB key. Not only is this an evident ludicrous waste of time money preying on gullible folks who he assumes presumably have piles of money lying around, it begs the question of who has managed to accumulate enough wealth to pony up for something like this and stay dumb enough at the same time to believe it? The question that befuddles me is how, to borrow one of my favourite lines of my stepmothers, there are still people with more money than brains, given everything we know today.

If you have or have had the patience to read my exasperation and annoyance with our ineptness and stupidity in front of the mammoth problems humanity faces in the postings heretoforth, I will tell you that it comes from the fact that I am not saying or doing anything new and my conclusions and observations are hardly restricted to 2010. Will I take the valuable lessons I’ve absorbed and tried to share with others in the past, and put them to dubious and exploitative uses like Kiyosaki? Because he may still be a rich dad but he’s conducting himself poorly. The perspective of others may have made my perspective richer, but I could just throw it all away and become a pothead or a sweatshop owner or anything, really. Why shouldn’t I just be in it for myself like the rich dad when I see the lessons we have failed to learn from the others who have said it so much better than me? Why choose to have a rich perspective? What am I talking about?

For men without “jobs” may be still be productive and creative members of society; indeed, in the future, they may be among the most productive and creative. If we manage to change our attitude toward the Gross National Product and realize that it ought to include health, brains and creativity then we may begin to use our resources properly. Until now they have been wasted shamelessly: the nation sickly because of its lack of a comprehensive medical scheme, its brainpower half used because of a university program that caters to the upper class, its creative artists stifled because of a narrow, bookkeeping attitude as to what constitutes “work”
-Pierre Berton, “The Smug Minority”, 1968

Have we learned from Mr. Berton’s wise words in 42 years? Yes, health care came into being, but it is expensive and problem riddled. Yes, more people attend university than ever before, but with back breaking debt and often bleary job prospects when they get out. Two pertinent observations that could be fairly made is that there have been great movements, but we are far from perfect. However, if you stop nitpicking and actually look at the argument, we have learned nothing. Zero. Zilch. Faster, Cheaper, Bigger, Better, Crazier, Higher Tech. With absolutely no regard to the cost. We are Pavlovs dogs whose bell is 3% GDP growth a year, 8% on Mutual Funds a year, 5% on Real Estate a year. As long as we hear those things we feel safe and secure to go into debt and spend money and trust the government and companies and free trade. Even when simple logic and a closer inspection reveals the facts, not secrets, that not only is it doomed to fail but noone knows or realizes the real cost?

…a close inspection of our countryside would reveal, strewn over it from one end to the other, thousands of derelict and worthless automobiles, house trailers, refirgerators, stoves, freezers, washing machines, and dryers; as well as thousands of unregulated dumps in hollows and sinkholes, on streambanks and roadsides, filled not only with “disposable” containers but also with broken toasters, TV sets, toys of all kinds, furniture, lamps, stereos, radios, scales, coffee makers, mixers, blenders, corn poppers, hair dryers, and microwave ovens. Much of our waste problem is to be accounted for by the intentional flimsiness and unrepairability of the labour savers and gadgets we have become addicted to…The truth is that we Americans, all of us, have become a kind of human trash, living our lives in the midst of a ubiquitous damned mess of which we are at once the victims and the perpetrators. We are all unwilling victims, perhaps, and some of us even are unwilling perpetrators, but we must count ourselves among the guilty nonetheless.

Wendell Berry, “Waste”, 1989

And what have we learned in 21 years from Mr. Berry’s moving, astute observations. Nothing! We are three bubbles, two recessions, and a whole bunch of kajillions dollars deeper in debt as nations and consumers, not the mention the waste and useless consumption that has resumed unabated. I also stumbled upon an excellent section of Naomi Klein’s No Logo, famous bestseller, yes, but deep inside beneath the scathing indictments of brands is an excellent, firsthand report on life in EPZs (export processing zones). So reading about the “recovery” to start pouring our money back into “China’s red hot economy” which is made up of 1 in 13 residents slogging away in these, well, concentration camps, has led me to believe that the vast majority of us have chosen the poor perspective. Although I continue to be fascinated by USB keys.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Provincial Lament

Ah, spring. A sense of renewed optimism with the warmer weather and the longer, lighter days that are buoying everyone's psyches up from the depths of the long cold, dark winter. Tax refunds, March Breaks, graduations just around the corner, and easter eggs. Hard not to feel warm and fuzzy and optimistic, what with the "recovery", "growth" and "plans to returned to balanced books" outlined in provincial and federal government budgets, to top it all off. Don't you start with your doom and gloom buzzkill again, you're probably shouting to me through your computer screen.

I won't. I too have been enjoying lifted spirits and brighter outlooks with advent of this season. My band played a good show, and my dismal finances from trying to write have turned around after some weeks back working for the man (I hope I'm still keeping my eye on the ball). I'm looking for a baseball team, as well as some organic matter to mix with my dirt and grow a better garden this year. Need some manure or something. And a good place to start might be behind Queen's Park, where our provincial government has hidden some huge piles of smelly bullshit (fat cats on their payroll and broken promise on new transit for T.O.) in their latest budget. Rather than an opinionated lambast of them here in my echo chanber, I've decided to write a respectful letter worthy of those who have the democracy's confidence to govern. Here it is. I will send it.

To: The Premier of Ontario
The Honourable Dalton McGuinty

cc: The Honourable Minister of Transport
Kathleen Wynne

The Honourable Minister of Training (my local MPP)
John Milloy

The Honourable Finance Minister
Dwight Duncan

Dear Honourable Ministers,

I was extremely disappointed to see that you delayed even further plans to build new subway lines in Toronto in your last budget. I believe this was motivated by embarassment of the enormous deficit and the press' continual complaints about it and what it means for Ontario's changing role from the economic engine of Canada to a province plagued by structural economic problems. As such, this move appeared to me to be entirely politically motivated and ill-advised.

I grew up in Scarborough-North York and I have thousands of hours of TTC riding experience. I can tell you from observation that the system has worked for getting around the city but it barely does anymore. The city's population has tripled in my lifetime and there has been little to no new transit or infrastructure created. You are now asking the metropolis and economic engine of the province to spend an even longer period of undetermined length taking a toy subway from 1970 that breaks down often and barely goes anywhere. Sure, we can sit on new buses with expanded service (yes, thank you for the new buses), but how much of a consolation is that on our extremely congested roads?

I don't know how ministers get around our city but I can tell you it has become a nightmare. The highways are choking, the main roads are write-offs, and the transit is totally insufficient. And I know that you do, of course, intend to continue accepting 50,000 new immigrants a year for Toronto despite declining to make this critical investment. Even though Torontonians are already one of the highest per-capita vehicle owning major city populations of Earth. Even though the average commute in Toronto is 80 minutes now, higher than both notoriously gridlocked New York and L.A.

I've never heard a government speak so much about "innovation" "competitiveness" "investing in our future and in tomorrow's green economy" and "moving forward." You know the expression money talks and another bad word walks? I often deplore the lack of vision on our federal government's part, whose governance seems to be based solely on strategy and endless pandering to special interests, and yet here you are on the verge of wasting two majorities without building any new vital infrastructure (even though this is the first government I've ever heard of with an "infrastructure minister"). All to save a lousy 4 billion bucks which you will certainly lose in productivity, health care, and a whole bunch of other indicators by continuing to ignore this critical issue for the city and the province.

We already had a tunnel on Eglinton dug. The previous government filled it up. That cost a lot of money. Now, 13 years later, we finally have a plan to build, and you've just cut the funding. All the buzzwords I've mentioned in the previous paragraph don't mean a heck of a lot, if I may speak freely, when something as basic as transit in the 4th biggest city in North America is this much of a joke.

And I know that you are busy people, so I will keep it to one issue, but you are paying an awful lot of people (almost 65,000) enormous salaries (like, a million dollars to run an art gallery or a university), so frankly your argument about fiscal challenges that you've floated out to the press to justify this sounds to me like a bunch of bunk.

I thank the low-level unpaid intern reading this for listening to my candid and unsollicited views.
Respectfully Yours,
Christopher Lackey
Life-long (so far) Ontario resident