Wednesday, 19 June 2019

I'll Trade You a Jason for a Greta

I am a democrat and therefor I must accept the election of Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party as government of my province. The UCP won convincingly, after all, with 53 per cent of the popular vote.

But it ain't easy. This is one of those times when accepting the will of the people is particularly hard. It's not living under a conservative government that's a challenge. I've done that most of my life and am quite accustomed to it. The difference this time is that we—and by we I mean everyone on planet Earth—face an overarching threat and our new government is on the wrong side.

The premier says he recognizes anthropogenic climate change but his actions suggest he is nowhere near recognizing the urgency of dealing with it. We had a reasonably good climate change program under the previous government (by reasonably good I mean by Canada's shabby standards) but the new guys are dismantling it and what they are replacing it with looks hopelessly inadequate. The premier has announced no more subsidies for solar energy even while we continue with generous subsidies for fossil fuels. In other words, we will not assist one of the real hopes for the future, but we will generously assist the producer of the main cause of the threat. It's madness.

The transition from a fossil fuel economy to a sustainable energy economy will be difficult. The problem with Mr. Kenney is that instead of putting all his government's energy into the transition, he is putting it into staying on the fossil fuel track. With the premier, it's oil all the way.

I cannot help comparing our 51-year old male leader with the 16-year old Greta Thunberg. Ms. Thunberg is the Swedish teenager who has gained a well-deserved reputation as a climate warrior. She recognizes the urgency of dealing with global warming and is campaigning hard to convince world leaders to take appropriate measures. "The climate crisis has already been solved," she has said. "We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is to wake up and change." All too true, Greta, but our leader is a heavy sleeper.

Must we be led by children? If only people were baseball cards, and we could swap a Jason for a Greta.

Monday, 17 June 2019

Global warming—the essential argument

The other day I had a conversation (argument) about global warming with my neighbour across the hall. He is adamant that we are not causing it. The science doesn't impress him. That climatologists are unanimous on the issue is, in his view, nothing but reason to be suspicious.

This denial of science is in the grand old tradition of denying that the Earth rotates around the sun or that evolution explains life on the planet. The difference is that it never really mattered how many people rejected those ideas whereas with global warming it matters very much. If not enough people recognize this reality and push their politicians to deal with it, humanity has a grim future indeed. And unfortunately there are powerful forces arrayed against the truth. The Trump administration continues to ramp up its attack on climate science; elements in Brazil's new government insist the global warming issue is a Marxist plot; the European far right, worried about the success of the Greens in the recent EU elections, doubles down on climate change denial; and right here in our heartland of Alberta, the new government busily dismantles one of the country's better climate change programs.

Trying to convince all these people that we should act on the best scientific advice is futile. The only approach that might work is to strip the issue down to its essence, down to the bare bones. Believe in anthropogenic global warming or don't. It doesn't matter. Flip a coin. Just recognize the essential truth. If we act on the warnings of the climatologists and they're wrong, there's little or no downside. We just wind up with a cleaner, greener planet. But if we don't act, and they are right, the downside is a cascade of catastrophes that could bring modern civilization down around our ears. Even the most zealous denier cannot sensibly ignore that logic.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Did the Chinese learn their trade antics from the U.S.?

The China/U.S. trade war heats up. The rest of us get dragged along willy-nilly. Nonetheless, there is a lot of sympathy for the American case. The Chinese have hardly walked their talk about being free traders. Ont the contrary, they have engaged in a number of nefarious trade practices. They have demanded technology transfers from foreign companies or harassed them, subsidized their own industries, exploited their cheap labour, erected trade barriers, and almost certainly spied on foreign firms to steal technology.

So what else is new? Countries who are industrializing have always engaged in a range of protective measures to protect their industries until they are competitive. And only then do they become advocates of trade. The British, for example, conquered foreign lands to provide both cheap resources for their industries and guaranteed markets for their products. And used the British Navy to prevent interference.

But while the British pioneered the strategy of protecting developing industry, the United States most ardently applied it. Economic historian Paul Bairoch referred to the U.S. as "the homeland and bastion of modern protectionism." During the latter part of the 19th century, U.S. tariffs were the highest in the world, much higher than other industrial countries.

Furthermore, the U.S. limited patent protection to their own citizens, in effect allowing American entrepreneurs to steal the inventions of foreigners. This is ironic considering that when the U.S. negotiates a trade agreement today, it tends to give its highest priority to protecting intellectual property.

And as for stealing technology, the Americans were pretty good at that, too. The British had laws against sneaking machine designs out of the country; nonetheless, American entrepreneurs advertised publicly for skilled Brits who would take the risk. The U.S. government even offered bounties to sellers of trade secrets.

The Americans enjoyed a major coup when a young Brit with an exceptional knowledge of mechanized spinning, Samuel Slater, emigrated under a false name to join an American firm. With his new partners he created a thread-making empire. President Andrew Jackson referred to Slater as the father of the American industrial revolution. To the British he was "Slater the Traitor."

The Chinese today are simply aping the antics of the Americans of the 19th century and stealing all the technology they can to catch up to their major rival. When the U.S. and other Western nations criticize developing countries for protectionism, they are exhibiting no small amount of hypocrisy, in effect saying that's how we did it but we aren't about to let you follow in our footsteps. The Chinese, it appears, have other ideas.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Tribalism and the global challenge

This, the 21st century, is a unique time in human history. It is unique in many ways, of course, but most importantly it is the first time in the history of our species that the greatest challenges facing us are not local, not national, but global. The most urgent of these is global warming. The others, like global warming all man-made, include species extinction and the exhaustion of the planet’s resources. None of these recognize borders drawn arbitrarily by Homo sapiens. Even war, at one time confined largely to the belligerents, if it progressed to nuclear weapons could engulf us all in catastrophic and universal destruction.

What this means is that if we are to deal with our greatest challenges, we must deal with them as members of humanity, not as members of our various tribes as we have been inclined to do in the past. Not as Canadians, or Americans, or Nigerians, or Japanese, but as human beings. This presents a very great challenge in itself because we have been designed by evolution to identify with small groups of others with whom we have characteristics, or behaviours, or beliefs, in common and in opposition to other groups with whom we differ.

This, in a world where our greatest problems confront us as a species, we can no longer afford. And yet, just as the need to overcome tribalism and turn our loyalty to humanity as a whole becomes essential to our future, we seem to be retreating into it. In the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, "Multilateralism is under fire precisely when we need it most." That masterpiece of unity, the European Union, is beginning to fracture, with the UK opting out and Eastern European countries retreating from its principles. Above all, perhaps, we have the United States elect a president who is not only intensely tribal to other nations but even within his own. And, at home, tribalism is usually on display among the provinces and regions of our own country.

Tribalism is defined simply as attitudes and behaviour that derive from loyalty to one's social group, and it is programmed into us. Evolution designed us to be a social species. We live in groups, from families to nation-states, and suffer psychologically when we are isolated. We need to belong, to be part of something larger than ourselves, whether as members of a religion or political party or profession, as patriots of our nation, or as fans of a sports team.

Our genes insist. Consider for example the OXT gene, involved in the production of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin, found in almost all mammals, affects social behaviour in many species, including ours. It plays a role in sexual attraction and maternal affection, as well as social bonding generally, including promoting trust, empathy and generosity. Thus we are genetically programmed for loyalty to our family and even larger groups, to be compassionate toward and co-operate with our fellow members.

But what brings us together also drives us apart.

While one tribal imperative will cause a man to love his country, quite another will lead him to hate those of a different race or religion even though they are his fellow citizens. What can bring people together as a nation can also tear their nation apart as religious or political or ethnic groups embrace their own tribe over that of the larger society.

For an explanation of this dichotomy, we may once again look to our genes, and once again to oxytocin. Oxytocin is a Jekyll and Hyde hormone. It leads us to love our family, clan and tribal fellows, but it can also alienate us from those of other tribes. It causes us to be more defensive of our tribe, increases our desire to protect those we see as vulnerable members of our in-group, and causes us to align more closely with our tribe’s beliefs. What is powerfully beneficial within groups can be powerfully destructive between groups.

We cannot escape our tribal instincts. We are all prejudiced in favour of our group and against the outsider. We can't help it. What we can help is what we do about it. We can and must recognize its reality and its power and what it does to us.

The irony is we overcome it every day even as we allow it to tear us apart. In Canada a multitude of races, religious groups, professions, sports fans—tribes of all kinds—maintain loyalty to their groups while getting along remarkably well in the larger tribe of Canada. Other countries do the same. And countries, too, often overcome their selfish instincts to their mutual benefit. At this, the most critical moment in human history, we must conquer the tribal imperative as never before.

We must choose our leaders on the basis of their capacity to think outside the bounds of tribalism and reverse the current trend toward increasing nativism and xenophobia. The trend in this country, if recent elections are any measure, is not encouraging. In Alberta, for instance, we now have a premier who is threatening to go to war against pretty much anybody who disagrees with him from David Suzuki to oil company execs who support a carbon tax. The tribal drums are beating.

The federal election this fall offers us an opportunity to get it right, keeping in mind that the Conservative leader, Mr. Scheer, supported Brexit, one of the most tribal exercise in recent history. The stakes are high—there is no bigger issue.

Friday, 14 June 2019

Open letter from an Albertan to his government

14 June 2019

The Honourable Sonya Savage, Minister of Energy

Government of Alberta

324 Legislature Building

10800 - 97 Avenue NW
Edmonton, AB

Dear Minister:

Recently I read in the news that you are establishing a “war room” to defend the oil and gas industry from criticism. I urge you to abandon this misguided project.

We are facing the greatest threat humanity has ever had to deal with—global warming—and you are defending production of the major source of the threat. This is perverse. Climatologists, i.e. the experts on global warming, tell us that if we don’t deal with it with great urgency, it may become irreversible. If that happens, it will bring global civilization down around our ears.

In the 1940s, we threw everything we had at the Nazi menace because it threatened European civilization. Global warming is much worse—it threatens global civilization. We must use every tool at our disposal.

And yet you reject carbon taxing even though almost all economists including this year’s two Nobel Prize winners, both specialists in climate change, believe it is one of our best instruments. Furthermore, your policies seem to suggest we should continue to produce fossil fuels indefinitely even though that will accelerate the threat. And you are even going to war against David Suzuki, a man who has committed his life to promoting respect for the natural world, the source of all our wealth. The idea of my tax dollars being used to hound such people is profoundly unsettling. And I am not surprised that we earn the censure of outsiders when we engage in such regressive actions.

I am 84 years old and have no children, so why do I care if humanity’s future is ruined? I will not suffer from the coming societal collapse, so perhaps I should simply sigh and pass on into the great beyond. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, I am fond of the human race, and I would like to see it prosper for many generations after I am long gone. That will not happen if we do not deal urgently and forcefully with global warming.

I realize we cannot phase out fossil fuels overnight, but we must at least set ourselves solidly on that course. I beg you to rearrange your priorities and become leaders in our species’ overarching challenge.

Bill Longstaff

cc. The Honourable Jason Kenny, Premier of the Province of Alberta

      Joe Ceci, MLA, Calgary-Buffalo

Still here!

I must apologize to readers of this blog for allowing my posting to come to an abrupt end a couple of years ago without explanation. I got caught up in writing a book and I'm afraid it absorbed all my writing energy. Happily, the book is written and I can now get back to blogging.

In fact, I have started a new blog to supplement this one. It's titled Notes on Democracy, the same as my book, and is intended to be an extension of it. The intent of this blog is to discuss self-governance in the full range of our institutions, commenting on issues and events that range from peripheral to democracy to those central to it, from theory to practice.

Again, I apologize for my disappearing act and I hope you too will return ... and maybe give Notes on Democracy a look as well.

Monday, 27 March 2017

World’s richest country and it can’t even do health care. Sad!

Watching the Americans thrash about trying to put together a decent health care system prompts much head-shaking and eyeball-rolling. The Republicans have bitched and moaned about Obamacare for seven years, but in all that time haven't been able to come up with a plan they can agree on.

"It's complicated," wailed President Trump. But of course it isn't. It's a challenge every other advanced country mastered generations ago. All the Americans have to do is open their eyes to the variety of universal programs in effect in other countries and choose those elements that would create the best system for their purposes. The result could be a system that covered all their people and provided better outcomes, all at a much lower cost.

Universal, publicly-funded medical care is one of the finest social inventions in all of history, and our system is, along with the Charter, one of Canadians’ two most popular institutions.

One can only speculate about why our good neighbours to the south seem incapable of what we and every other modern nation has managed. Their failure is due in large part, certainly, to a hard core of market fundamentalists who still haven't forgiven FDR for his "socialism" and have never quit attempting to roll back the state to little more than the police and military. Their commitment to ideology is such that they have no qualms about sacrificing the peoples' health, or even lives, on the alter of dogma.

Not even the master of the art of the deal could get a new program past the Republican zealots. And considering what was on offer, it was just as well. Obamacare will now persist for the foreseeable future. It may be a third rate system, but it's still much better than anything that went before.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

You can't educate Republicans on global warming

Many progressives believe that if the public were better informed about the science behind climate change, people would be more inclined to accept the reality of anthropogenic global warming. A U.S. survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that's only true for some people.

Climate scientists tell us that global warming will result in phenomena such as rising sea levels and more severe storms and droughts. Pew asked samples of Democrats and Republicans with low, medium and high levels of science knowledge whether they believed the scientists. They found that only about 20-30 per cent of the Republicans agreed with the scientists and the level of science knowledge made little difference. More of the Democrats with even a low science knowledge agreed with the experts and the number increased rapidly with the level of knowledge.

The same was true regarding the cause of climate change. Ninety-three per cent of the Democrats with high levels of science knowledge agreed that climate change is mostly due to human activity whereas only 49 per cent of Democrats with low science knowledge believed this is the case. Among Republicans, again the level of science knowledge made little difference to their beliefs about the causes of climate change.

It would appear that when it comes to climate change, you can lead a Republican to knowledge but you can't make him think.

One might reasonably suspect, I hope not unfairly, that Conservatives in this country share this rejection of science with their Republican cousins. Unfortunately, a lot of available evidence, including the attitude and behaviour of our last federal government, suggests they do.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Will Alberta revert to Social Credit?

In August, 1971, Alberta had its quiet revolution. For 36 years it had been governed by Social Credit, a largely rural-based, social-conservative party led for most of those years by E.C. Manning, father of leading conservative intellectual and unite-the-right guru Preston Manning.

By 1971 Alberta, like the rest of the country, was increasingly urbanizing and Albertans wanted to join the modern world. The Progressive Conservative party, led by the very urbane Peter Lougheed, answered the call.

Social Credit was ultimately absorbed by the PCs, but a rural-urban split simmered within party ranks, the urban element generally predominating while vestiges of Social Credit periodically emerged as fringe parties. Then in 2007, Premier Ed Stelmach announced he intended to increase oil royalties. The oil industry was not amused and decided to show Ed who was boss. They poured their big bucks into the coffers of the latest fringe party, the Wildrose and turned it into a contender. It very nearly unseated the Conservatives in 2012 (and would have if some of its fundamentalist views hadn't leaked out) and currently sits in the legislature as official opposition.

The Alberta Progressive Conservatives (the "progressive" may soon disappear) have now elected Jason Kenney, a strong social conservative, as their new leader. Kenney ran on a platform of uniting with Wildrose, an almost entirely rural party to the right of the Conservatives.

He has stated he wants to create a big tent party. The big question is whether or not the urban moderates will go along. Already there have been defections. The two women candidates for the leadership both dropped out, citing personal attacks, and one has crossed the floor to the NDP. And long-time Conservative stalwart Senator Ron Ghitter has indicated Kenney's views are inimical to his and hinted that he, too, may support the NDP.

It will be interesting. If the right merges into a rural-based, social-conservative party and wins the next election, Alberta will have come full circle.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Shell bails on the tar sands

I read with interest Royal Dutch Shell's decision to sell sell most of its stake in Alberta's tar sands. It brought back memories. I toiled for Shell Canada during my days in the oil patch, now a long time ago, and the last project I worked on was in the tar sands.

Shell was a good company to work for. It paid well, offered generous benefits and excellent training opportunities, and always allowed you to progress to the limit of your abilities. And I made many good friends. I packed my bags mostly because I wanted a change, but also partly because I thought of myself as an oil man and considered tar sands development more as mining, something I had no interest in. Since then, my attitude toward the sands has hardened further and I now oppose their development entirely.

So when I read about Shell's disengagement, I couldn't help but wonder if it wasn't tracking my journey. Its decision was no doubt economics based—its hard to wrestle a profit from the sands at $50/barrel—but I suspect economics fueled by environmental concerns to some extent at least. Investors in the industry are becoming increasingly worried about stranded assets. According to CEO Ben van Beurden, "I do think trust has been eroded to the point that it is becoming a serious issue for our long term future."

Shell has for some time shown sensitivity to environmental concerns. It intends to increase its investment in renewable energy to $1-billion a year by the end of the decade. Ten per cent of its directors’ bonuses will be tied to how well the company manages greenhouse gas emissions. Van Beurden has said that government policies, including a carbon price, are essential to phase out the most polluting sources of energy, and, indeed, when Alberta Premier Notley revealed her climate change plan, which included a carbon tax, the president of Shell Canada stood on the stage along with other executives, academics, environmentalists and First Nations' leaders.

In 1991, years before Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth, Shell produced a film entitled Climate of Concern in which it warned about climate change "at a rate faster than at any time since the end of the ice age—change too fast perhaps for life to adapt, without severe dislocation." It continued, nonetheless, to invest heavily in oil and gas, largely ignoring its own warning, even as it continued to recognize the threat. Habits are hard to break, particularly when they're profitable.

I am delighted, therefore, that it is now joining other oil firms, including Exxon Mobil, Conoco Phillips and Statoil, in writing down or selling tar sands assets. Still a long way to go, but at least it's moving in the right direction.