Monday 27 July 2020

Off to Wordpress

I have decided to move from Blogger to Wordpress. Consequently, you can now find me at I hope you’ll join me.

Friday 1 May 2020

An Optimist No More

I am a very lucky human being. I was born into the greatest period for a member of Homo sapiens to be alive, the peak of human civilization—the period following WWII. Never before in human history has an ordinary person such as I been able to enjoy such an exceptional combination of high standard of living, comprehensive knowledge, personal freedom and influence in the affairs of his or her society. When in the past has an ordinary person been able to look up at the night sky and actually have at least a rudimentary knowledge of what he's looking at?

In the last 300 years Western society has made more social, material and political progress than in all the preceding millennia since civilization was invented in Mesopotamia. We have seen the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, the empowerment of women, the end of child labour, legal marriage for gays and lesbians ... the list is long.

Much progress has taken place in my lifetime. When I was a kid, people of Indigenous and Chinese ethnicity couldn't vote, homosexuality was illegal and women were restricted to few occupations. Now most young people can hardly imagine such primitive attitudes.

All of this remarkable social progress, most of it never before achieved in human history, has been supplemented by remarkable technical progress. As a child, I lived in a house in southern Saskatchewan that lacked insulation, running water, indoor plumbing and central heating, not because we were exceptionally poor but because in the 1930s that's how many working class families lived. Most young people today can hardly imagine that either.

Today I live in a warm, comfortable apartment with all the facilities one expects in a modern home and spend many hours investigating the world on my computer. I live a life that would seem inconceivable luxury to 99 per cent of the humans who ever lived, regardless of their station.

As a result of this background of progress and my own rising fortunes, I have tended to be optimistic. It has seemed obvious to me that, though setbacks will occur, and we have had some deep dark ones in the recent past, the general trend of humanity is upward and onward.

But here, in my twilight years, it rather suddenly appears that even if this had been true it no longer is. Humanity faces threats greater than it has ever faced before and it is clearly not dealing with them, and I'm not talking about the coronavirus. These are threats that, if not dealt with, will bring civilization down around our ears, even terminate our species entirely. One threat alone, the most immediate—global warming—has progressed to where its effects are nearing tipping points. Indeed global warming itself threatens to become irreversible in the not too distant future.

This may sound like the grumbling of a stereotypically grumpy old man. Perhaps a stereotypically grumpy old man unnerved or depressed by the current pandemic. I can, however, deny that is the case. Why? Because science, the only instrument we have to truly understand the physical world, supports the observation that humanity is despoiling its home. This isn't even pessimism. Basing the potential of an unpleasant future on science isn't pessimistic. It is, to the contrary, realistic.

If humanity is to avoid a very unpleasant future indeed, it will have to step up its reduction of greenhouse gasses well beyond what it's doing now. It will have to stop exterminating other species. And it will have to reduce its exploitation of the Earth's resources sufficiently to where the planet can sustainably replace what is exploited. Can humanity do all this? Maybe, however the opportunity is rapidly slipping away. More importantly, will it do all this? And here the pessimist enters the picture.

Tuesday 28 April 2020

Imagine a World Without Us

Since a large slice of humanity went into hibernation to dodge the coronavirus, the world outside our habitats has changed. There is much less noise. Birdsong can be heard. The air is cleaner, more breathable. The skies are bluer. It is as if by sequestering us, the world is being purified. It is as if nature could apply a bleach that sanitized it against us, it would be whole again.

And indeed it would. We do pollute it. We do foul the water, the land and the air. We do commit holocausts upon entire species. We do make a lot of noise. We are, in many ways, a plague upon nature, a pandemic upon the rest of life. It isn't difficult to conceive of the world without us—a cleaner, quieter place where almost every other species could thrive without fear of an ultimate predator.

A place where oceans weren't acidifying, warming and filling up with plastic. A place where forests weren't disappearing. A place where species weren't being systematically driven into extinction. A place where water was clean, the skies were blue and you could always hear birds sing when the sun shone.


Friday 24 April 2020

Conservatives Struggle with Science

When conservatives talk about "the elites," and they talk about them a lot, it isn't always clear who they are talking about. They certainly aren't referring to the rich, who many of us think of as the elites, because conservatives are the party of the rich, the party of privilege. One group they generally include are experts, people who really know what they are talking about, particularly scientists. University of Toronto philosopher Joseph Heath once wrote that, “Hostility to expertise in all of its forms is the closest thing that Canadian conservatives have to a unifying ideology.”

We certainly saw that with the Harper government. Harper's “war on science,” as it was not unfairly called, included such measures as the cancellation of the long-form census, widespread butchery of environmental law, the reconfiguration of government-funded research away from pure research toward commercial, and in effect making the National Research Council a “concierge” to industry.

Jason Kenney brought much of that anti-expert agenda to Alberta, particularly as it pertains to the environment. Environmental groups are demonized as foreign-funded pawns of a “radical ideological agenda” and subjected to assault by the infamous “war room.”

Nationally, on energy and the environment at least, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer seems little more than a Kenney puppet. Like their provincial counterparts, the federal Conservatives apparently see government's first priority as enabling the rapid extraction of natural resources. We see conservatives elsewhere in the world reflecting that attitude, including the Trump administration in the United States and the Bolsonaro regime in Brazil where the Amazon is now under increasing commercial assault. Both Trump and Bolsonaro reject climate science utterly. Bolsonaro rejects also the seriousness of COVID-19. Both see such concerns as arising from the insidious influence of "the elites."

The reason for the hostility isn't hard to adduce. Experts, particularly scientists, often undo conservative dogma. Experts insist “tough on crime” legislation generally fails to make people safer. Experts point to increasing evidence that unequal societies are unhealthy societies. Experts warn that use of fossil fuels has brought a climate crisis upon us. Experts tell us that meat, particularly beef, is a terribly inefficient and environmentally destructive way to provide ourselves with protein. Messages unwelcome to conservative ears simply won't stop.

One way to make them stop, of course, is to cut off the source of information that enables them. Consider, for example, Stephen Harper's disdain of sociology and the way its conclusions frequently conflict with neo-liberal dogma, including the idea that unequal societies are unhealthy societies. If you don't want to see the results of sociological studies on issues such as inequality, starve them of the necessary data, i.e. the long-form census.

Science is the only method we have of properly understanding the physical world. Without that understanding, faced with global warming, species extinction and resource exhaustion, humanity is in grave danger. We are disarmed in the face of our gravest threats. Politicians who struggle with science are not only unfit to govern in this modern age, but are outright dangerous.

Sunday 19 April 2020

Albertans Want off the Oil Train ... Eventually

A common opinion about Albertans is that when it comes to energy they are about oil and nothing but oil. Like most generalizations this contains some truth, but also like most generalizations it isn't quite true. A CBC News poll, taken just before the pandemic changed everything, reported that 79 percent of Albertans believe the province should transition toward renewable energy. Over 90 percent think the government should do more to encourage the technology sector.

But that doesn't mean Albertans are prepared to abandon oil just yet. While about half want the province to transition away from oil and gas, the other half don't. The opinion varies greatly between town and country. The strongest support for abandoning oil, not surprisingly, is in Edmonton or as it is sometimes known, Redmonton. Nonetheless, most Calgarians agree (55 percent to Edmonton's 58). Outside of the two major cities, however, support for kicking the oil habit drops to 37 percent. This is important. The countryside belongs to the UCP.

So what exactly does overwhelming support for transitioning to renewables modified by 50/50 support on transitioning off oil mean? I suggest it sends a clear message. Albertans are ready to move from where we are—highly dependent on oil and gas—to where we need to be—in a low carbon economy—but they have to feed their families on the journey. And that still means oil.

It's an encouraging message. It means Albertans know we have to go green, but they have to be convinced we can do it humanely. They have been providing the life blood of modern society for generations; they don't want to be human sacrifices to the new age, even while they recognize the new age must come. This is fair and Canada must meet the challenge.

Unfortunately, our own government is less than helpful. Our premier knows the transition must occur. In his own words, “I have a firm grasp of the obvious. There is no reasonable person that can deny that in the decades to come we will see a gradual shift from hydrocarbon-based energy to other forms of energy.” Yet in his policies and, except in these weaker moments, in his words, he appears to be always doubling down on oil, desperately clinging to the past.

Perhaps the combination of the oil price collapse and the pandemic (and, oh yes, the Keystone pipeline is back in legal limbo) will shock him and his government free of their obsession with crude and shake loose some policies to get the province on the right track. Most of his people are waiting.

Monday 13 April 2020

Oil Industry Disses the Free Market

The free market, who needs it. Not the oil industry obviously. Not the industry nor the governments that depend on its largesse for royalties and taxes. We just had a taste of it and it horrified all parties concerned.

OPEC and its erstwhile collaborators recently fell out and instead of limiting production to maintain price, as they had been doing, they engaged in all-out competition. That, of course, is the point of the free market. Unrestrained competition drives prices down toward the level of the most efficient producer's costs. And the lowest lowest price is what the consumer wants. But the lowest price is not what the producer wants, nor what royalty and tax-collecting governments want.

So while the recent price-busting skirmish was a bonanza for consumers of oil products, it was not happy-making for oil companies and their governments. So they have made an unprecedented pact to constrain production in order to drive oil prices back up. They have decided to rig the market. They find a price-fixed market much more appealing than a free market.

The OPEC cartel and other oil producers, including Russia, the U.S., Mexico and Norway, agreed Sunday to cut crude production by a tenth of global supply to "stabilize" the market. This is the largest cut to oil output ever. Canada is not part of the pact as our production is under provincial jurisdiction. Nonetheless, Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage was "cautiously pleased" by the deal. 

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not criticizing the move. I'm not opposed to government interference in the market place. Quite the contrary. During this COVID shock, a lot of unprecedented policies have become necessary. What does annoy me is the support among certain politicians and business people for free markets as a veritable answer to all problems. And the oil industry is replete with such believers. I am one Albertan, and there aren't a lot of us, who recognizes that the wealth of this province derives primarily not from a free market but rather from government interference in the market, specifically by the OPEC cartel, i.e. from a monopoly, the very antithesis of a free market. OPEC's antics over the years have made an Alberta oil industry profitable, and a tar sands industry possible.

No one philosophy has all the wisdom. Free markets are a wonderful economic instrument. Indeed they must be the foundation of a healthy economy, but in some areas and at some times, they are less than the best, sometimes much less, and therefore should be considered on their merits for a particular activity, time and place and not as an economic panacea. It appears that virtually the entire oil industry and its political acolytes currently agree. If perhaps unwittingly.

Saturday 11 April 2020

The Vatican's Lady Problem

The Vatican just doesn't seem able to get past its misogyny. Once again it is debating whether or not to allow women some role in the Church hierarchy. The Pope has created a commission of experts to examine whether women can be deacons, the bottom rung of the ecclesiastical ladder. In at least one concession to the fair sex, the commission includes equal numbers of men and women. Some of the fustiest clergy are upset that the idea is even being considered at all, insisting that allowing women to be deacons would become a slippery slope toward ordaining women as priests. And who knows what mischief women priests might get up to.

Not that the Pope has any intention of allowing women any power over men. He hews to tradition on that point, affirming that only men can become priests and referencing an ecclesiastical letter written by Pope John Paul II in which that pontiff declared “that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.” So there, ladies.

The Church has long based its prejudice on the fact that Christ chose only men for his apostles.This argument overlooks the fact that Christ also chose only Jews for his apostles. So how did all those Italian guys get into the act? Indeed, I understand that the first Christians debated over whether Gentiles should even be baptized and allowed into the Church.

And it isn't as if the institution can't change its mind. At one time it accepted abortion. Now it doesn't. At one time it rejected evolution. Now it doesn't. Were all the popes before these changes wrong, or all the ones after? So much for papal infallibility.

Although the Pope's commission includes women, it is still under the stern stewardship of men. Its president is the archbishop of the Italian city of L'Aquila and second in command is an official from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Church's KGB. Both needless to say, are male.

Here in the 21st century what other institution would need a commission to deliberate upon whether or not women can be allowed, not to hold power of any sort, but just to enter the lowest level of the hierarchy. The entire exercise serves to illustrate nothing more than just how deeply misogyny remains entrenched in the Catholic psyche.

Thursday 2 April 2020

I'm Becoming an Oil Baron

For those who complain there's nothing in the news but COVID these days, try the Alberta section. Lots going on. For example, our government just laid off 26,000 school support staff while shelling out $1.5 billion, plus a $6-billion loan guarantee, to buy us a piece of the Keystone XL pipeline.

I'm already part owner of the Trans Mountain pipeline which the federal government kindly bought for us for $4.5 billion in 2018. And then there's the investments that Alberta crown corporation Alberta Investment Management Corp. has made in various pipelines. That's the group that our premier has decided will manage my government pension. I am practically an oil baron.

I once worked in the oil industry. It was good to me and I quite appreciated it, but that was long before the product I was proud to help produce became commonly recognized as the major contributor to global warming. I have recognized the need to downsize fossil fuels for years and yet here I am becoming increasingly invested in producing more of the stuff. I think it's called irony,

Sinking the public's dollars into pipelines may seem foolish at a time when oil prices have collapsed and investors are becoming increasingly wary of the industry, but Alberta has a premier who seems to consider the oil industry more a religious institution than a mere economic one. And he is a man of faith. The evidence that governments in this country are serious about global warming gets thinner and thinner. If they were, I wouldn't be becoming an owner of ever more pipelines, i.e. increasingly becoming an enabler of greenhouse gas emissions.

All hope is not lost however. On April 1st—this is not a joke—the federal carbon tax ramped up from from $20 to $30 a tonne. An action to reduce emissions can't help but be appreciated in these days of respiratory pandemic.

Sunday 29 March 2020

How Do You Wash Your Hands When There's No Water?

Handwashing is a lifesaver. As we are being reminded constantly in these days of pandemic, thorough handwashing with soap and water is one of the most effective barriers to the spread of disease.

Unfortunately, according to the UN, 40 percent of humanity are without basic handwashing facilities, i.e. soap and water available at home. And not only at home. Almost half of schools around the world lack handwashing facilities. A third of schools worldwide and half of schools in the least developed countries have no place for children to wash their hands at all. Even health facilities often lack proper hand hygiene due to a lack of water.

Consider, for example, the Central American Dry Corridor, the tropical dry forest region that runs along the Pacific Coast from Mexico to Panama. The region has suffered five straight years of drought as the climate becomes hotter and drier. According to Dr. Claudia Morales, a doctor at El Carmen hospital in Honduras, “Sometimes we run out of water and we have to buy some. Other times we can’t buy any.” Dr. Morales said the hospital has been forced to ration water for the last four years.

The idea of hospitals suffering water shortages that preclude proper hygiene is frightening. The thought of 40 percent of the world's population denied the most basic protection against disease as the pandemic descends upon them is horrifying.

Wednesday 25 March 2020

Back to the 30s?

“We are facing a period of profound adversity unlike any we have since the 1930s,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said last week. The premier was referring to the province's economy which has, like the rest of the country, indeed like the rest of the world, been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis. Unlike the rest of the country, however, Alberta's major industry was already tanking before the meat market in Wuhan launched the bug.

Strolling down 17th Avenue in the Beltline—the high street of Calgary's most vibrant neighbourhood—I do indeed witness intimations of the 30s. Its normally bustling shops, pubs, restaurants and coffee shops are disturbingly quiet, many closed. The scene causes a twinge of guilt. I have reluctantly given up my usual afternoon coffee and pastry or lunch, one of the highlights of my day. By depriving these shops of my business I am contributing to the suffering of their small business owners and their minimum-wage staff. But what can I do—the pandemic is upon us and social distancing is de rigueur.

The other day a friend and I were discussing how in our lifetimes society had consistently improved, and now in our dotage it seems to be reversing. And it's not just cranky old age. We aren't imagining Donald Trump, Brexit and the taint off fascism in the political air.

Harking back to the 30s struck a particular chord with me. I was born in Saskatchewan in 1934, in the heart of the Great Depression. That's where I came in. Is that where I'll go out?

Early in the 20th century, Saskatchewan was a province of exceptional promise. Here was the country's breadbasket with vast expanses of agricultural soil among the richest in the world. Then came the 1930s bringing depression, drought and plagues of grasshoppers. Wheat prices collapsed and the fertile land began to blow away. That was the Saskatchewan I was born into. Now here I am in Alberta 85 years later and this province, lately the richest in the federation, watches the price of its major product collapse and waits for its leading industry to dry up and blow away.

I could be pessimistic, wondering if hard times just have a thing for the Prairies. Yet I cannot overlook the fact that the "Dirty Thirties" catalyzed the rise of left-wing social movements on the Prairies, particularly the CCF (forerunner of the NDP), that ultimately resulted in great social progress including Medicare, the jewel in the crown of the welfare state. Perhaps this round of hard times will lead to another social awakening.