Friday, May 30, 2008

Stuff about which I wonder these days

Main Street Rosthern

Stuff I wonder about©

by George Epp

In order to be a contributing citizen in a democratic country like Canada in 2008, it seems to me I should have a basic grounding in the facts pertaining to a number of key issues. If you have answers to any of the questions below, or if you have found a good source for their exploration, please email me at, and I’ll post your contribution for anyone who wants to know.

Information is what I need, not propaganda.

  • Does the trickle-down principle in economics really occur, and to what extent? In other words, is it good news for the masses when the powerful are doing really well for themselves? More particularly, should I (who live on a fixed income—more or less) herald or dread the economic boom in Western Canada?
  • Could the fouling of the environment appropriately be treated as a crime, like arson or sabotage?
  • What alternatives are there to the present energy-hungry economies? Would an accelerated move away from carbon-burning fuels impoverish our country? Will the time come when a dollar’s worth of wheat requires a dollar and ten cents in energy to produce? Should I be shopping for a strong team of horses?
  • Could hydro, wind, tidal and solar power supply our basic energy needs, or are we “tree-huggers” just whistling through the graveyard?
  • Is a certain share of the fruits of the economy a birthright, or must it be earned, and if it must be earned, who should decide how?
  • How much medical care are people entitled to, and how can we prepare for the crises that will come when we can neither afford nor supply anymore what is demanded? (Assuming that that’s the road on which we’re traveling.) Should palliative care be the only medical service available to the elderly, besides basic nursing care? (Who is “elderly” these days?)
  • Does an individual have the right to climb a dangerous mountain, and then request rescue when things go wrong? Are there equivalents to this in the area of harmful habits and practices? In other words, does the community have an obligation to save individuals from themselves? (Needle exchange facilities spring to mind.)
  • Constitutionally, should the government be able to take us to war without first asking us for our consent?
  • Is it appropriate for “special interest” groups or persons to finance the political parties that purport to share their values? Should all political campaigning be financed through taxes?
  • Is a fetus a person? Is there an ethical process for deciding this question outside of religious prescription?
  • Is sexual activity between (among?) consenting adults always a private matter?
  • Is the family the basic social unit in our culture, or is that a stupid question? What is and what is not a family?
  • What is the rehabilitation benefit of incarceration on deviants, and are there viable alternatives? (Shaming, flogging, wrist slaps?)
  • What, in fact, do the treaties with Canada’s First Nations legally bind both parties to?

At present, I hold opinions on all these questions, but an opinion is often just a stance we hold until we get around to educating ourselves on a subject. My education on these subjects is still lacking; my opinions often clash remarkably with friends who grew up much as I did.

I look forward to your responses.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Ever been to Grand Cache?©

By George Epp

Maybe you’ve heard of Grand Cache, Alberta. It’s a coal-mining town north of Jasper, now working hard to be more of a tourist destination for hikers, canoeists, and other aficionados of rugged mountains and rushing rivers.

Some dozen years ago, Grand Cache’s coal mine closed down, the population fled for other employment and houses went on sale for $20,000 or so as the “last one to leave turn out the lights” syndrome kicked in.

Recently, a consortium of local entrepreneurs reopened the mine and are currently selling coal to China, mainly. The town is alive again and a lady told us this weekend that a mobile home in Grand Cache today sells for ca. $220,000.

We spent a few hours of daylight and a night in Grand Cache, not for any particular reason except that whimsy occasionally takes us to places we’ve never been before, and after a day and night in Edmonton at our kids’ place, we hit on Grand Cache as one of those places that hadn’t yet had the pleasure of our presence. Also, we needed to be near mountains for a few hours and away from telephones and email.

At breakfast in the motel, we chatted with a labourer who was on his way to Grand Prairie where the Manitoba steel-construction company for which he works was just starting a big project. He said he’d be working in southern Alberta next before going up to Yellowknife for another project that would take years to complete. I asked him if there wasn’t enough work in Manitoba and he said there wasn’t much going on there at all.

On the way back to Edmonton, we stopped for lunch at a grubby Smitty’s restaurant in Edson. A group of burly young men were feeding at the next table, apparently on their lunch break from work. The one with his back to us wore a T-shirt that read “I got a new gun for my wife yesterday; the best trade I ever made!” We reminded ourselves that we were in rural Alberta and—trying to be less judgmental—considered the possibility that the gentleman had picked up the shirt at a thrift store and that the message on it was not his message at all, but an accidental consequence of picking up a bunch of work shirts cheap.

What motivation would result in anyone buying a shirt with such a clearly misogynistic message on it—and wearing it blatantly in public? There must be men in this world whose association with women would no longer be necessary. . . if they could only find a way to have sex with their rifles.

Had we taken the time to scoot up to Grand Prairie and to drive back to Edmonton down the Alaska Highway, we would have passed Mayerthorpe, where a man with a bunch of guns and a festering rage killed four Mounties a few years ago.

We used to live and work in the Stony Plain/Spruce Grove area, and as we drove through these towns, we marveled at how what had been towns were now cities: construction of buildings, roads, overpasses everywhere, heavy traffic at midday; along the highway, car dealerships overflowing with sleek cars, pickup trucks, SUVs and RVs. Suburban sprawl as far as the eye can see. We wondered how life had changed for the people of the two bedroom communities.

Gas in Grand Cache sells for 123.9 today; Macs on 109th Street and 61st Ave in Edmonton was selling it for 120.4 and here in Rosthern, it’s 129.9. The president of Exxon-Mobil was asked by a senate committee hearing in Washington yesterday how much he earns in a year in salary and bonuses. He said he had earned $12,500,000 last year.

I can’t understand how Exxon expects him to live on that!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Gang Warfare

Gang Warfare; Saskatchewan Style©

By George Epp

Reading the paper over breakfast is a routine that can make or break your day. This morning, I read an editorial in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix that didn’t do much for my mood. The headline said: Anti-nuke gang won’t carry day in province now. The gist of it was that Saskatchewan has come to its senses since it turned down a proposal to build a uranium refinery back in the 1970s, supposedly as a result of the work of the “anti-nuke gang.” One paragraph pretty much sums up the argument:

Had the radicals not knocked Saskatchewan out of the game, first in the 1970s and again in the 1990s, this province could have been a world leader not only in extracting raw uranium but in milling and refining and processing it and using nuclear power to generate electricity. It also might have meant this province would be the world leader in the most lucrative side of the business—finding a secure location in the stable Canadian Shield to permanently store the wastes.

Later, in coffee row, the conversation turned to the decimation of the BC forests by the Mountain Pine Beetle. Someone said that the outbreak had started in a national park and environmentalists had successfully lobbied against spraying and that dealing with the pest at that time would have prevented what we are seeing today. Someone else said, “Those damned environmentalists!”

Are people who actively promote the protection of the environment really “damned?” Do they run around in “gangs?” Is common sense on the side of economic growth, or is it on the side of the protestors? Today, I felt attacked. Well, call me sensitive!

Environmentalists and assorted “tree-hugging” activists are as likely to make foolish errors in judgment as anybody else. The criticism leveled in the StarPhoenix appears to be that nuclear energy is a clean, safe way to make a pile of money, and we’d be stupid not to buy into the concept. Ergo, the “anti-nuke gang” has foolishly sabotaged the happiness of the entire province.

(For the “anti-nuke gangs” of a few decades ago, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island were fresh in memory, and they can surely be forgiven for not wanting to put the label “safe if used as directed” on any nuclear facility.)

But are proponents of nuclear energy justified in declaring it safe now? Are there good reasons to believe that the Canadian Shield provides a safe place for disposing of nuclear waste? These questions still have to be answered to my satisfaction.

Nuclear power plants are terribly expensive to set up and maintain . . . and to decommission. How many wind generators could be purchased for the same amount, I wondered. So I searched the web for information and found some. For instance, is a web page that allows you to enter your location and energy-use information, after which the viability of setting up your own wind generation facility is calculated.

I learned this: Rosthern is a good place for wind generation; to set up my own small wind generator would cost about $16,000 complete; this generator would provide me with half my current electrical needs. Downside: the cost recovery period would be about 52 years. The life expectancy of such a wind generator would be about 25 years.

What if the provincial government were to subsidize the cost of these generators to make them more viable for individuals? Say, with a $10,000 initial grant and a yearly maintenance subsidy of, say, $200.00. That would make it cost-effective for individuals. Suppose they coupled this with an aggressive conservation program. (I’m sure I could cut my electrical needs in half if you put a taxation gun to my head.)

Mind you, the spectacle of a wind generator 30 meters above every house in Rosthern would be . . . odd.

Add solar panels, water power and you’d have a province where energy production left no carbon footprint whatsoever. Well, except for the oil we will be extracting in the future tar sands project up near La Loche.

There’s another gang forming. The powers that be should take note. It’s an anti-growth gang, and they may soon be hard to stop. They’re much like the anti-nuke gang except that they will argue convincingly and loudly that the economic growth mentality is not only destructive, but unnecessary. “Unsafe” for them won’t just mean the possibility of accidents; it will mean the far greater danger of feeding a feverish economic growth shibboleth to the point of insanity and planetary ruin.

We don’t need to grow more energy; in particular, a nuclear energy alternative for Saskatchewan is a want on the part of the “economic growth gang.” It is not a need of the population. But given our current “free enterprise” government, we will likely see an all-out verbal battle between the two gangs, after which the growth gang will undoubtedly defeat those “damned,” dreamy environmentalists.

Or maybe not.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Alberta Tar Sands Project - Satellite View

Go right, go left, go straight ahead?©

By George Epp

Do you consider yourself a conservative or a liberal? I know those terms are fraught with more than meaning; they arouse fervour, anger, elation, all kinds of emotions that don’t have much to do with what was intended when they were coined. A good check on this can be found at numerous Conservative/conservative websites where the vitriol aimed at liberal thought borders on trespassing hate-mongering laws. Explore the contents of one or two of the US “conservative radio” websites and you’ll see what I mean (KRLA 870 at, for instance).

The PERSONAL FINANCE Section of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix featured an article called “Historic rivals share success” on April 28th, 2008. The gist of it was that the fertilizer, fuel and food industries are simultaneously enjoying windfall sales and profits. Well we all know about the cost of gasoline, but many of us are not aware that the potash mining industry in Saskatchewan is booming big time. Shares in PotashCorp have gone from around $30.00 less than a year ago to around $140.00 presently (according to Ray Turchansky’s article).

That fertilizer prices should climb alongside food prices is not surprising; neither is the rise in fuel prices, since food production is so dependent nowadays on fossil fuel, both for growing and transporting. The three industries will continue to extract higher and higher profits in tandem with each other, and the question for me is: while the shareholders are gleefully pocketing their increasing dividends and the CEO’s are enjoying massive raises, and the western farmer is finally enjoying some business success (if the cost of fertilizer and fuel don’t eat up the increases), what will be the NET effect on the human populations of the world?

Such escalations both in price and in quantity of resource exploitation are unsustainable; we all know that. In this, we are well advised to be conservative. So chocolate cake tastes good—that doesn’t mean that you can get away with eating it morning, noon and night. A breaking point has to come. Balance must be restored.

Conservative thinkers will cry, “Go back! Go back! It was better back there.” Liberal thinkers tend to realize that “You can’t go home again,” and either despair, or get to work turning the new reality into something workable.

I’m a conservative when I think that our best hope for a sustainable future is to reduce, reuse and recycle—particularly the reduce part. The West’s focus—food wise—is to find ways to curb people’s insatiable appetites or to develop means to prevent obesity while overeating regularly. That picture is obscene to most of the world, but it still serves as an apt metaphor for the resource gluttony that characterizes North America particularly.

I’m a liberal when I think that conserving won’t be enough; we’re going to have to picture the world as different in the future and begin devising technologies and practices that shape that future. Think outside the box, if you will.

There are people who are challenging the deeply-held conviction in the West that economic growth must be the yardstick for success in managing our communal affairs. I would urge my readers to check out the website, where filmmaker Dave Gardner seeks to do what he can to propose an alternate view of the how the future world will need to work.

However you view the future of the globe, whether conservatively or liberally, you may come to the conclusion—as I have—that the dialogue needs to leap the political barriers in order to meet the challenges of the future.