Saturday, 21 April 2012

Earth Day: Nobody Cares

What, me worry? I know you guys got everything under control

The origins of the environmental movement in North America can be traced back to the early 1980s, with the advent of recycling and concern over acid rain. Or they can be traced back to the early 1970s, when the Environmental Protection Agency was created as an American Federal Bureaucracy.

If you like, they can even be traced to the beginning of the twentieth century, when U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt insisted on the creation of "National Parks", a concept which was unheard of at that time.

The national park system was a notable accomplishment and a welcome, if incongruous, action by a man whose favourite hobby was big-game hunting. All can agree that it is a positive development for the nation when millions of hectares of parkland are saved. But what are they saved from? Is the mining, industrial fishing, intensive use of fresh water for industrial production, petroleum drilling and refinement, coal burning, factory farming, habitat destruction, and now fracking that stops at the National Park border mitigated by the existence of the National Park? Is what goes on inside the National Park protected and immune from the activities which occur outside of it?

I think we know what the answers are to those questions. And I think we can all agree that global industrial civilization's long-term chances of being compatible with the natural environment are pretty goddamned hopeless.

The environmental movement, "green" consumerism, and "taking action", things that we are all invited to congregate around on April 20th and many other occasions, fail to acknowledge the scale that human industrial activities, the economy, and agriculture now happen on (global, expanding) and the characteristics of the environment they are paired with (soiled, shrinking, limited). Why is there mercury in fish? Well, it might have something to do with those trillion or so discarded batteries littered across seven continents. Or maybe its the by-products from turning oh, say, a few million tonnes of uranium or a few trillion barrels of oil into usable energy (Notice that nuclear power plants and oil refineries are always located on the water). Notice also the air we breathe. It's under the earth's one atmosphere and one ozone layer.

The earth is accommodating about seven times more people than it did 100 years ago. All those people have access to exponentially more food choices and products than they did 100 years ago. Where are all these choices and products coming from? The earth. Our very own grocery store, department store, kitchen and toilet all in one. Except the toilet part just keeps growing and growing.

People realise now that environmentalism is a zero sum game and that North Americans' energy-saving light bulbs, picking up litter once a year, and organic spinach are having little to no effect on the peril facing earth in the grand scheme of things. I read a great comment below an article the other day about how great it was that this "eco-blogger" featured in the article was educating people on how to find toxic-free clothing and cleaning products, yet sees nothing wrong with the laptop she's "eco-blogging" on. Oh, and don't think about asking her to give up her iphone - how is she going to tweet all those eco-tweets?

Ironically, on this earth day weekend, I had to rent a car because my wife has to pick up some special supplies for her business 62 kilometres from here and I need to go see my brother who is studying 115 km from here to help him cook and stock his apartment with groceries. The only car available at the rental location this time (which, by the way, at 9.99 per day makes way more sense than owning a car) was this massive pick up truck. So instead of the little Nissan or Suzuki I usually have sitting out front of my house when I rent from these guys there's a huge, gas-guzzling pickup outside right now. And I thought, what the hell difference does it make? If I drive one of these, there's nobody who's going to stop me. There's nobody to tell me that's bad, that I should drive a Toyota Yaris instead. Nope. If that pickup out front was mine and I didn't have to give it back on Monday, I would be just one more asshole in Kitchener, Ontario asserting my right to own a totally obnoxious and inefficient vehicle despite the market already providing substantial disincentive through $1.40 a litre gas and my province's sky-high insurance rates, the highest in the whole country. And no one would bat an eye.

I thought, why stop there? Why am I watching this 23 inch TV from 1988? I could have a 52 inch flatscreen delivered from one of those lay away places tomorrow. You see, society does not provide any incentives nor does it make being "sustainable" an attractive option. Not owning a car, growing your own food and generally avoiding consumer purchases (but not laptops! sorry, I'm just like everybody else) may save some emissions or waste somewhere but it doesn't make your life any more convenient nor does it make a huge difference in the grand scheme of things. And I am not justifying any of my choices or actions. I'm merely refuting this false sense of good conscience and do-goodery we experience from buying some stupid laundry soap with a leaf printed on its label. We have improved laundry soap by removing phosphates, yes. But a washer and dryer for every single household on earth is not something we should be hoping for.

The last great, majestic species on earth, from the time when we didn't appropriate the entire place for our own personal use, are dying off. Elephants, sharks, grizzly bears, and polar bears' environments are all under attack. Each species has its own scourge hunting it down (that would be ivory poachers, shark fin soup drinkers, mining and oil/gas companies and climate change) and the common denominators in all the cases are greed and stupidity. Ivory obviously fetches lots per pound. Shark fin soup is $200 a bowl. If grizzlies are admired, well, the minerals and oil/gas under the massive territories they need to sustain themselves are admired more. As for the Polar Bear, the whole system is out of whack up there, thanks to the climate change phenomenon the North American right is unanimous doesn't exist.

In short, animals dying makes us sad. But any compromises to driving, appliances, cellphones and internet/computers/tablets is a non-starter for any civilization. The Conservative government in Canada, with respect to mining/bitumen sands/pipelines has a very clear message to residents, natives and anybody concerned about the environment: Get the f--- out of the way, because we are going balls-out and digging up whatever we find. And as sad as it is, things would be no different under the other parties. Modern industrial has always needed massive amounts of resources to sustain itself. What's the point of pretending otherwise now? Besides, haven't we come such a long way now that seven year olds don't have to mine the coal? We can just blow up the entire mountain its in. And thank god there's no black people singing songs and picking cotton with chains around their ankles any more. There's just black people in Congo working in palm oil fields and brown people in Bangladesh sewing our kids' pyjamas for 25 cents a day.

The world is a mean, nasty, complicated place. And it's been pretty good to me. I could not be any luckier, compared to most people. But I get annoyed when Bono, or the Kielburger brothers, or Mr Kony 2012 try and guilt trip me into feeling bad for being born and living in North America and learn from all their first hand experience and concern about how awful Africa and parts of Asia are. These guys are not heroes. If the world is going to improve from an environmental standpoint, it would involve humans giving up things they are not inclined to give up. As long as reversal of the economy and humanity's appetite for resources in considered sacrilege, these windbags can use their internet-enabled devices and take planes more than the average joe while lecturing the average joe on his lack of virtue compared to theirs all they want. This environment is going down the tubes because of greed and convenience, and if you care, say so! Don't turn your stupid lights off for an hour and think you've "done your part".

It's great that the mainstream conversation is more "environmentally conscious" now. If only that meant anything substative.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Permanent Deck Chair Season

On an unrelated note, we got our deck chairs out early this week. In fact, we never had to put them away. You could say humanity has entered the era of permanent deck chair shuffling.

Happy Titanic Anniversary everyone! It is significant that the centennial one of the most studied and defining events of modern 20th century culture, the foundering of the H.M.S. Titanic, is occurring today, while the same mentality of hubris and bravado that was partly responsible for this event is careening the global economy into a deep sea rust bucket wreck of its own right now.

When I was a child, I received a book on the Titanic as a gift which detailed, with excellent pictures, the mid-1980s undersea expedition led by Dr. Robert Ballard to the site of its wreck. When I picture the night of April 15, 1912, how not to be as captivated today as I was a child learning this story? It is such a stirring event that I don't mind rehashing the important points here, even though you know them and it's been done a million times. Late at night on its maiden voyage, the "unsinkable" ship, the most modern and high-tech of its time, strikes an iceberg. The six compartments in the hull (that were actually designed for such an occurrence!) quickly flood; after a couple of hours, the massive steamship is so waterlogged that it is half underwater on an incline. It snaps in half from the pressure, and the bow sinks majestically to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean where it remains well-preserved today. The stern, on the other hand, takes a terrifying 90 degree tilt with people still on it, and sinks broken end first. It ends up half a kilometre or so away, on the ocean floor, in significantly worse shape.

The telegraph lines were buzzing and the newsroom typewriters were clacking then and really, the flow of content around this event has continued with impressive vigour since. Essays, books, film...yes I saw James Cameron's grandiose epic in 1997, and my 14 year old brain had to admit it was entertained. I haven't bothered to revisit it, not least because of that terrible chest-thumping Céline Dion song.

But to more serious matters at hand - because no amount of ingenuity is going to bring that ship back(remember when they tried?) The Titanic can be and is often used as an analogy to describe the state of certain things like the economy, a nation state, a sports team, a military or a company. In short, anything which, like it, is 1) subject to a lot of attention 2)has very high expectations placed on it 3) can expect to encounter danger and hazards and 4) affects people's lives. More than anything, the widespread use of the Titanic analogy is because it symbolises the arrogance of Homo Sapiens and the way the species comes to grips with the epic failures that sometimes befall it.

Our culture is so replete with Titanic references, and I am sorry to be using the most unoriginal and lazy Titanic cliché of all by saying that central bankers of "rich" countries are “re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” with their tricks machinations. But unfortunately, for all their smug smartness and pretensions of all-knowing that we have the pleasure of witnessing, that’s exactly what they’re doing!

The Titanic was infamously described before setting off as "unsinkable". We know that despite this assertion from the shipbuilders and business people behind it, the laws of physics, gravity, etc could not be flouted on the high seas. And now, nearly four years into the aftermath of the September 2008 financial collapse, the same pernicious mentality has inflicted the entire financial system, which is global. Yet we foolishly talk about a "recovery"

Every week, you're still hearing about "stimulus", "stabilization funds", "holding steady on low interest rates", and "sovereign debt". This all means that the European Central Bank and United States Federal Reserve are doing all they can to contain the "crisis", but the societies whose financial systems they preside over remain awash in debt and stricken with high unemployment and anemic economic growth. Every move by these Central Bankers which devaluates the currency (causing inflation) by adding more debt has the effect of filling yet another compartment with water, despite being portrayed as "taking action"

What does that mean? Forgot all this crap about "austerity" and "pulling back on stimulus" - no broke Western government from France to the UK to Ontario has spent less this fiscal year. It's record spending across the board. Barack Obama is going to bring down an insane record like 3.7 trillion budget this year, 1.6 trillion of which will be deficit. Make no mistake: when 2008 happened, it took a trillion dollar intervention to bring the stock market back to the 12,000 level, from the fall from 15,000 to 7,000 that happened over a few days in September. What you don't know is that it's taken nearly three trillion more dollars of slush from the Fed and the ECB since then to keep the Markets at those post-bailout levels. Recovery my ass - it's more like a refusal to acknowledge reality. Couple that with the refusal to raise interest rates, causing new housing and debt bubbles, and the destroying of the average guy's purchasing power from all this shadow money printing, and you see that we are witnessing a very clear case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic indeed!

The ship was divided into first, second, and third classes, or upper, middle, and low classes if you like, and all three suffered losses with the disaster (the low classes the heaviest). Which class will lose the most when this Titanic goes down? The elite have heavily tilted the playing field in their favour, but the middle classes will pay dearly with their car loans and home equity credit ponzis. The poor, who live on shitty calories and cheap booze now but seem to find money for satellite dishes and cellphones, may come out ahead in this with their lack of real estate/investments. That may sound callous but it's less heartbreaking in some ways to start from zero, which is what it looks like most of us will be doing after the financial collapse that is currently being engineered.

I have an Atlantic magazine from last month with Bernanke on the cover. This guy just thrives on being vilified. I get it, I get it. Soft-spoken, chooses his words carefully, neatly trimmed beard, school teacher wife. The guy oozes modesty and humility and his stature only seems to grow with all the hot-headed cranks in Congress and on the blogosphere complaining about his endless money printing and bubble blowing. His pronouncements are staid and professional but have a distinct I-have-a-phd-in-ecomonics-from-Princeton so I know what I'm talking about and F--- you vibe to them. Except Mr. Bernanke has done a total William Shatner and gone where no Fed Chairman has gone before. Namely, since China and other nations have stopped buying bonds from the U.S. treasury, about 1 year or so ago, he has just started buying them himself. Essentially, the U.S. is now buying its own debt off of itself. That's like me sitting at my Kitchen table and writing IOUs to myself to pay my Mastercard bill.

So don't listen to the mainstream propaganda about this guy being a magician and a genius, hanging onto his every word. I'm sure he's a very nice man and I don't wish to attack him on a personal level. But it is abundantly clear on this Titanic anniversary that he is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We didn't have a winter in Canada this year so we didn't need to put away deck chairs. And evidently, Bernanke and the world financial system are dealing with some deck chairs of their own. The powers that be seem to think they can just shuffle these in perpetuity.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Oh wait - You Mean The F-35 Deal Was a Boondoggle All Along?

Not pictured - Giant Wall of Public Discontent to the left

It was quite some time in the making, but in the end totally worth it. Auditor General Michael Ferguson, Canada's stern-looking bearded taciturn guy in chief, delivered a devastating report yesterday on the Harper Government's management of the proposed F-35 jet deal and procurement process with Lockheed Martin.

It was a great moment of professional vindication for a guy who started the national profile part of his career with what was basically a Comedy Central roast in the parliamentary committee that vetted him. For weeks, before he got to audit a single thing, headlines revolved around his lack of French skills, and he suffered quite a bit of humiliation at the hands of NDP MPs on the committee. In the end it didn't matter. The Conservatives got their man, they had a majority, and they rammed his appointment through.

Then he spent a good nine or ten months amassing the biggest pile of crap he could ever possibly hope to drop on Steve Harper's face.

It's not a huge shock; this is, after all, a pattern we are well acquainted with as Canadians. Governments idiotically spend money, then within a year or so, Auditor Generals make what the public more or less knew what the government was up to official to the public, publicly excoriate the government with some memorable catchphrases for good measure, then go back to their Auditor Generalling. So I shouldn't have said earlier that the report was "devastating". The opposition, the media, the blogosphere, and pretty much anyone I talked to who knew a few particulars of the deal were saying for three years that there were serious flaws in the plan to buy 65 F-35 jets from Lockheed Martin. Let's see - the jets were being built with unproven technology. They are unsuitable for Arctic use. Every other country that signed up to buy them is bailing. And the bill kept having extra zillions on it every time we looked at it, despite not a single jet being delivered. Not to mention stories of at least one Conservative lobbyist with ties to the company lurking around Parliament Hill. Well now, the jig is up, and here is the long and the short of the country's dilemma.

I guess Lockheed thought they were dealing with their Colorado Senator and Congressmen friends, or maybe the US Pentagon.

I felt so such strong misgivings about the biggest DND purchase in Canadian history that I distributed a newsletter in my riding to try and swing the vote before the May 2011 election. No such luck. But I am not smiling today because of the findings. I'm smiling because the moronic intransigence of the Conservative Party is getting a full, smelly airing out for what it is, finally. And because there still are a few checks and balances. Even ones appointed by the Conservatives.

The spin on the F-35 deal went far past the usual "It's the previous Liberal government's fault". The hard line taken was that it was costly (even though we were deliberately misled about the actual prohibitive cost) but necessary, and every Conservative response, including the PM's, to questions about it channelled huge amounts of five-weeks-after-9-11-George Bush. You're either with us on the F-35s or you're against the Canadian military. Harper even dealt a vintage tear jerker (whether that tear is from laughing or despair, hard to say) about the opposition playing politics with our brave men and women in uniform. I cannot think of another time he has put such a fat foot in his mouth.

And thank you, John Ibbitson at the Globe and Mail, for pointing that out. Mr. Ibbitson is generally not a rabid Conservative booster but does usually seem in awe at the Conservatives brash tenacity and stubbornly high popularity. And he acknowledges today that there is no path away from the F-35 fiasco that does not pass through the garden of public shame. After all, this episode makes the Harper government, normally (and wrongly) perceived as prudent economic managers look positively McGuinty-esque. "Sorry...where do we hand the billions over with no oversight? Quick, take our money as fast as you can. What's that? You need more?" A government that has urged Canadians for eight years to "play it safe" with its fiscal management is anything but, and hopefully this will be the beginning of the end of that popular myth.

Military purchases, because they're so expensive, have a way of getting noticed in our lightly populated country. And because they're usually bungled, they stick to leaders like skunk spray. Who doesn't associate the words "Sea Kings" with Jean Chrétien. Of course, that didn't prevent him from winning two more majorities. I am not here to analyse how this will affect future election results, though. Not today. I'm just happy to witness on full display a file that this government, which prides itself on such a high level of control, has totally lost control of.