Friday, June 26, 2015

Earth, People, Energy

Energy. It's one of the most intractable preoccupations of world governments these days.

We learned in high school physics that you can't make energy; you can capture it, you can store it but you can't make it. Nature stores the sun's energy in ingenious ways: in the berries we pick and eat, in the coal and oil in the ground, in the wind that drives dynamos, in the snows that fall on mountain tops to melt in the spring and rush down again to drive hydro generators.

Two days ago, we made a quick trip to Saskatoon, I hosted a museum tour, we packed and hauled several carloads of stuff to the condo and by evening, any energy I had captured through eating and stored in my muscles had been spent and I was running on empty. What I was feeling is what the earth is feeling; too much energy demand, not enough charge in the batteries.

But my case was renewable. I could eat stored energy, rest to let my batteries be recharged with it and get up to face another day.

The problem is not so much that we can't capture and store energy enough to move our cars and trucks and trains and airplanes, it's that the processes required to capture and store it threaten to destroy us: greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming, pollution that makes air in China and Mexico city unbreathable, methane gas release that contaminates water supplies, destruction of arable land and life-giving forests.

So the challenge governments face is to capture more and more energy to satisfy the burgeoning demands of a growing population while cutting back on those processes that are—in the end—robbing Peter to pay Paul. 

We've made considerable strides in reducing our demands as in more energy-efficient homes, cars that consume less fuel per kilometre, light bulbs that provide more light energy and less heat energy, etc. But I'm pretty sure that the solution for phasing out fossil fuel energy consumption will require two things: a more serious effort to switch to non-polluting wind, sun and tides energy and a massive tax on energy use so that individual households and industries are actually required to reduce consumption or face significant consequences.

B.C.'s carbon tax is a move in that direction but if Naomi Klein (This Changes Everything) is right, the cap and trade alternative is a farce, a way to put a better face on industrial pollution without actually reducing world carbon emissions appreciably. The NDP government in Alberta has just announced tax disincentives to make carbon dioxide emitters get serious about reducing their contributions to global warming.
We all want to be comfortable and happy, entertained and “massaged.” For some, for instance, that currently means flying to exotic places and warm beaches whenever means and schedules allow. This won't be possible in a post fossil fuel, energy-efficient world. At present, it's only an option for the top 10% (more or less) of world citizens, the same 10% that are consuming multiples of actually-required energy.

In the future world, people won't live in massive detached homes; condos and apartments require far less energy per person than stand-alone homes. They may not own cars but rely instead on commuter trains to get them to work.

Question is, can we be happy living and working closer to home? Can we relearn what it means to take pleasure in small things, in making music, in community dances, in the parks and flower beds just across the road, in a new kind of culture that is far less demanding of energy stored in the earth than on energy delivered daily by a sun that has never yet failed to shine on us?

Can we rediscover the community that actually includes our next-door neighbours?

Monday, June 22, 2015

2,300 is 2,300 too many

An anemone of Hope and Peace
“More than 2,300 Afghan soldiers, police and pro-government fighters have been killed since the start of the year — more than the total number of U.S. troops killed since the 2001 invasion that ended Taliban rule.”

Sometimes what's reported as a minor detail in a news story grabs you like an epiphany. The casualty figure above was part of a narrative about an attack on the Afghan parliament by the Taliban yesterday. All seven insurgents were killed; no Afghan fighters or civilians died in this particular attack but the number of dead Afghan soldiers and police who've died since January—2,300—gives pause. 2,300 is the approximate population of the bustling little town I live in plus it's nearest neigbour village.

Well, you might say, that's not so many. What's the big deal?

Being members of the Afghan army and police, I'm guessing that these were all, or nearly all, men. I'm guessing further that they had families, so it's obvious that at least 2,300 families lost a father or brother, son or son-in-law. Picture this number as men lined up in rows of 100, 23 rows ranged on a soccer field, then strafe them with machine gun fire from the stands until all are dead.

It doesn't seem like such a minor number illustrated this way. It's more than the total number of US soldiers killed in the 2001-2014 fight to oust the Taliban from power though. Canada lost 158 military personnel in that war, so just a row and a half of fathers, sons, sisters, mothers, brothers and sons-in-law, daughters-in-law.

Canada has recently been a participant in Western military interference in Afghanistan, Libya and now, Iraq/Syria. It seems a fair question to ask: has our military involvement in these places rendered the lives of civilians better, unchanged or worse? Libya is in a state of murderous anarchy, Iraq is dealing poorly with a growing ISIS that makes the Taliban look like a consortium of Sunday School teachers and Afghanistan, although not governed by the Taliban, must deal with their insurgent threat on a daily basis.

Apparently only the NDP and the Green Party have dealt with this question thoughtfully. So far, Harper hasn't got past the simplistic paradigm that there are only two choices: bomb ISIS or do nothing. Trudeau's position on this is similar to that on Bill C-51: appear as much as possible to be on both sides of the question lest a genuine decision should turn out to be electorally unpopular. Thomas Mulcair and Elizabeth May have seen some daylight on this: military involvement by us in foreign wars has historically contributed little more than the appearance of strength and resolve. Contrarily, the best propaganda for ISIS may well be the fact of Western powers dropping bombs on their country.

No, 2,300 is not a big number as far as war statistics generally are concerned. But to be blasé about even one death deliberately inflicted is to abrogate our responsibility as peace builders and pursuers of justice—and to throw in our passive lot with the Harperites and Bushes of this world. 

Claiming to follow Jesus and taking the high road that he took presents a true test of courage. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Black and White America

A few days ago Rachel Dolezal's parents (who are white) outed their daughter (who was passing herself off as black) and the media feeding frenzy was on. That is, until Neil MacDonald of the CBC put some perspective on the thing in a piece titled Why can't Rachel Dolezal be as black as she wants to be?
People identify with—even pass themselves off as members of—cultures and groups to which they don't belong by birthright. Take Grey Wolf, for instance, an Englishman who passed himself off as Aboriginal for years. 

And then there are the politicians who pretend to be leaders by reeling off talking-points with a show of confidence, or people with little applicable skill pretending to be teachers, doctors, etc.
The furor over Dolezal's story indicates once again that the most important marker of identity in America is race.

I remember my older brother participating in a quartet that performed Stephen Foster songs at a community event. They blackened their faces with . . . I'm not sure what. The practice of blackfacing and performing in a way that comically presented the stereotypes of the descendents of slaves grew up in the USA and was called minstrel show, or minstrelsy. Click HERE to read more about this practice.

In South Carolina, a 21 year-old walked into a black church yesterday, apparently sat in the pews for an hour or so and then stood up and shot and killed 9 people. He was white, they were black. Reports so far suggest that they were shot only because they were black; the perpetrator had a history of expressing white-supremacist sentiments.

It's difficult for me to imagine what changes would have to occur in the USA in order to turn it from a black and white country to one in which race is no longer the divisive identity marker that it is today. Perhaps a massive crisis would do it, some catastrophe that would make everyone dependent on cooperation for survival. I've heard that people who find themselves in life and death situations lose sensitivity to racial or ethnic distinctions . . . at least until the crisis has passed. 

Dolezal claims that although she may not be black biologically, she is black culturally. That is, she's come to identify primarily with the American black sub-culture. And we all know that owning a satisfying identity is enormously important to a person's mental health.

Denying people a satisfactory identity is a sure-fire formula for deviance, even violence. “Who steals my purse steals trash,” Iago says in Shakespeare's Othello. One might well add, “who steals my identity, however, robs me of my most precious treasure.”

I'm with MacDonald on this. If Dolezal has come to feel more at home in black circles than in the culture into which she was born, what in heavens name is the problem?

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Miller, Milgaard, Fisher and 'pure evil'


Many of us remember it. It was 1992. The question of David Milgaard's responsibility for the rape and murder of Gail Miller in an alley off Avenue O in Saskatoon was reopened in the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC). Milgaard had spent 23 years in jail for that murder, but emerging new evidence seemed to point to possible errors in his conviction.

The newly-developed ability to connect perpetrators to their crimes through DNA evidence was finally a clincher in proving that it was not David Milgaard but Larry Fisher who was guilty of the brutal attack on Miller. Fisher was eventually convicted of the crime, even though he had appeared before the SCC as a witness only, and was sentenced to life in prison.

Fisher died in prison this week.

An abbreviated story of the dramatic turn-around in which a witness became a suspect can be read HERE. Under questioning by Milgaard's lawyer, Hersh Wolch, Fisher was led to set the stage for his own conviction.

The same article on the CBC website quotes Wolch in a later interview as saying: "My impression was that [Fisher] was pure evil." My understanding of the comment is that Wolch saw in Fisher only evil thought and action, uncontaminated by any trace of goodness or kindness. Pure in other words.

The choice of that adjective is interesting, if odd.

It's no accident that if you add a “d” before evil, you get “devil,” the immortal, anti-god of religious tradition who is blamed for urging humanity to undo what is good and replace it with hate and violence. Anthropomorphised in mythology into a horned creature with a lashing tail, the contradiction of his immortal nature technically admitting to two gods in a monotheistic faith seems to have been lost.

We're generally past the time of diagnosing pathological mental illness as “demon possession,” although for some strains of Christian religion, that view of evil persists in part because scriptures reinforce it. (eg. Gaderene swine episode; for a dark painting by Briton Riviere of this event in Mark 5:1-13, click HERE.) The treatment of sociopathy and psychopathy could never have developed until that mythology had been abandoned. That Larry Fisher suffered from psychopathy is hardly in doubt; that it was not suspected and diagnosed before he went on his rampage of rape and violence is the weak link in our understanding of what goes wrong in the minds of men and women.

Evil obviously conjures images of a leering Satan when used as a noun. As an adjective, it has its place. Larry Fisher was not “pure evil”; had he been raised attentively and with an eye to his developing exploitative, cruel behaviour, Gail Miller's life might have been saved. A number of women would not have experienced his brutal attacks.

Some would urge treatment of people like Fisher with exorcism, some with drugs or other therapies. Our current government thinks the correct treatment is severe punishment, the problem with that being that punishment always follows the evil act, contributes nothing to prevention.

For Milgaard, Miller and now Fisher, all the potential options have gone under the bridge. Sad beyond belief.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

"The Star-spangled Banner" . . . and all that

Found Beauty
“Quebecois pretend not to know English just to irritate you when you're buying gas there,” and “Americans don't know anything about Canada.”

Two of my pet-peeve urban myths.

The latter myth was “illustrated” by a CBC story about a Jeopardy category involving Canadian cities in which the American contestants got not one answer correct. I'm skeptical about this proving anything; the clues were pretty abstruse: "An intersection in this provincial capital is the original western terminus of the Trans-Canada Highway." I would have said “Vancouver?” and I would have been wrong—it's Victoria. I guess I was blind-sided by the “highway” word so that I missed the “provincial capital” phrase. 

Highways don't generally cross features like the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Another question asked for the name of a Canadian city whose inhabitants were called “Moose Javians,” and I wondered how many Canadians would have known the answer. Another depended on your knowledge of Shakespeare and his city—Stratford upon Avon—to come up with Stratford, Ontario which is also located on a River Avon.

The myth of American congenital ignorance about Canada came up in one of my adult ed classes. I countered it by asking them questions about the USA: “If you drove straight south into the USA from Westlock (where the class was), which state would you be in?” Nobody knew. I could have countered with “It would be Montana, and what is the capital city of Montana?” I wonder how many Canadians know that it's Helena.

It's pretty easy to show that Americans ignorance about Canada is equalled—and possibly exceeded—by Canadians lack of knowledge about the USA.

As regards the myth about Quebecois pretending to be French-only, I'd remind people that the majority of English Canada is also uni-lingual. I live across the river from St. Isidore de Bellevue, a French-speaking village, and I'm totally incapable of conversing with them in their language. Am I pretending when they come through Rosthern and ask me for directions in French?

Such myths encourage stereotyping, and stereotyping is one of the scourges of our age. In police forces, it results in profiling so that the majority of people stopped for questioning in the street by the police are black or aboriginal young men. In the general public, it restricts individuals in minorities from involvement in the affairs of the community; if one is stereotyped, profiled, judgements are made about you by people who don't even know you. You're pre-judged, the origin of our word, prejudice.

To sum up: the range of ignorance/knowledge among Americans is very similar to that of Canadians, and French Canadians who can't help me out in the English language are no different from me, who can't be helpful to them in French.

Shame on the CBC for reprofiling Americans on the basis of one category in one Jeopardy episode.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Slippery Slopes

I've never held much with “slippery-slope” arguments. The kinds that say if we make one small change, it will lead to other changes of greater magnitude and like a snowball rolling down a hill (slippery slope??) will gain momentum and size and the world will go to hell in a handcart.

But there are slippery-slope cases in our history and in our current reality that are either getting—or ought to be—real attention and action.

Today Justice Murray Sinclair presents the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The report will show that what appeared to be a solution to the “Indian problem” for fully 100 years turned out to be a thinly-veiled conspiracy to commit what is now called “cultural genocide.” Residential schools alienated children from their parents, parenting practices with thousands of years of history behind them were disrupted, destroyed, it's effects echoing down the hills of time to the present—and likely beyond. That decision to use education to “take the Indian out of the man” represented a true slippery-slope turning point in our history.

Another item in the news today should probably be given some serious slippery-slope analysis. World unemployment is rising, the reliance on part time work, handouts and low-paying, meaningless work for survival is on the increase world wide. Globalization, free-trade agreements, have meant that jobs can go anywhere in the world, and generally to the poorest areas where desperation has meant that people either work for a pittance or content themselves with nothing at all. 

Failing to check the corporatization of industry and government was a “small change” that was a snowball at the top of a slippery slope. It's not a precursor for global peace, is it? Here in Canada, the attack by industry and governments on trade unions is symbolic of a process having the effect of enriching upper classes by shrinking the possibilities of those who do the work.

The worst unemployment rates are in the Middle East and in Northern Africa, according to Brian Stewart. These are also the regions where uprisings and insurgencies are decimating populations, creating massive refugee problems and rendering states ungovernable. Although we blame "evil people" like ISIS (ISIL?) and Al Qaeda for the problems, the turmoil may be nothing more nor less than a logical conclusion to decisions made earlier, decisions that failed to recognize potential slippery-slope effects.

As regards Truth and Reconciliation in Canada, another failure to reset the relationship between First Nations and the Canadian government will undoubtedly have quite predictable effects down the road. It's up to us settler-citizens to make sure that the recommendations of the Commission are seriously addressed.

The most pernicious aspect of slippery slopes is that once you start the slide down one, it's damned hard to stop yourself.