Wednesday, November 25, 2009

More Mixed Messaging from Conservatives on Human Rights

Earlier this year, I posted a bit of a rant regarding the Conservative’s contempt for the Divers-Cite LGBT festival in Montreal (see: Conservative Party Has No Respect for Diversity, July 22 2009) by refusing to spend stimulus funding on it. This after Tony Clement was transferred funding powers when a picture of a Conservative Minister handing an oversized cheque to a drag queen in Toronto for its Pride Festival caught the eye of ultra-right-wing Conservative MP Brad Trost.

While I continue to believe that the Conservative Party harbours those whose mindsets are clearly anti-gay, and will continue to appeal to that retrograde constituency, there was some positive news being reported by the Globe & Mail today ("Uganda’s anti-gay bill causes Commonwealth uproar") regarding the government’s condemnation of a nasty piece of legislation being brought forward in the Commonwealth nation of Uganda. Looks like Dimitri Soudas hit all the right notes in condemning this disgusting and intolerant move by the Ugandan government.

However, the Globe & Mail is also reporting that it likely didn’t take a lot of effort for Soudas’ handlers to come up with an appropriate statement of condemnation, given that Conservative writers appear to have lifted the statement word for word from an earlier statement issued by the United States on the same subject ("Of loyalty and pmo plagiarism").

While I am very happy that our government has finally weighed in on this matter in advance of the upcoming Commonwealth summit, I have to say that I’m less then impressed with the level of original thought and concern which went into Soudas’ statement. Perhaps the Conservatives really just don't know what to say to the public on issues like this. It’s nonsense like this which leads people to question whether human rights are really a priority of the Conservative government.

I think that question if likely on the minds of a lot of people recently.

I mean, come on. If you're going to pretend that you give a damn, say something original. Put a little effort into it. The hollow ring of this statement speaks volumes about the Cons concern (or more correctly, lack thereof) for rights.

Friday, November 13, 2009

An Intersection of Crises: Thinking Ahead About the GPC

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of dark, personal pondering about the future of democracy in Canada. The pondering has been dark, because the journey that I’ve taken myself on has led me to the conclusion that democracy in Canada at the national level is in trouble in the short and medium term. I believe that this trouble will be caused by an intersection of crises, some of which we already find ourselves in the midst of. These crises include: climate change; Peak Oil and the end of inexpensive energy; shortages of food & water; poverty; governmental budgetary deficits; security and democracy.

Significant issues arising from the intersection of these crises will be exacerbated by a lack of a national conversation amongst our governments, businesses and industries, and Canadians in general. A conversation regarding what we must do to better position ourselves for this dark, emergent future, will not take place for several reasons, including: a lack of desire on the part of elected officials, for fear of being voted out of office; a lack of desire on the part of our business community to fundamentally change current business practices; a mainstream media which has largely been consolidated into the hands of a few corporate elites not wanting to rock the boat; apathy on the part of Canadians in general, resulting from the above, along with fundamentally being held back by other parties should Canadians wish to engage.

As a result of a lack of a discussion about the future, I believe that democracy is likely to suffer in the name of security, as many of the things we have come to take for granted as Canadians become scarcer, and we are forced to change our lifestyles. I believe that the Canadian economy will not recover in the medium and long terms, and that we can expect rising prices for food and energy, increasing job losses, and a much higher level of poverty and homelessness than we’ve been accustomed to. Due to over-spending on “stimulus” initiatives, and due also to rising health care costs associated with an aging demographic, our federal and provincial governments will find themselves in a compromised position, and will not be able to effectively deal with this intersection of crises.

This will leave Canadian communities to deal with issues more independently than they have in the past. With a rise in localism, the role played by our federal and provincial governments will assuredly decrease. In the short term, however, we may see an increase in North American-based solutions to maintain our lifestyles, but as the systems continue to break down, localism will prevail. If democracy is remain a healthy and alive, it will be at municipal and neighbourhood levels.

I’ve documented as best as I can how I’ve managed to arrive at these conclusions through a series of 10 blogposts on my blog, titled: “The Future of Canadian Democracy: A Personal Journey.”

I realize that you may not agree with my analysis, and that you may not share my admittedly grim assertions regarding the future. Certainly, I hope that the crises I’ve identified do not come about at all, but as Bill Hulet would say, “You can’t be a Jiminey Crickett, Steve.” As I can’t simply wish upon a star for a brighter future, I feel that it’s probably wise to plan for a future which will almost certainly be quite different from our present today.

We may have found ourselves at the peak of global oil production. With no alternative in sight to replace oil as the means to power the myriad of processes on which we’ve come to depend for our quality of life, we can expect that quality of life to change. In the short term, we can expect to pay more to maintain things the way that they are, but in the medium term, we clearly are going to be forced to change our ways. Investments in alternative energy will be of assistance, but renewable energy production alone will not replace the inexpensive energy we have enjoyed through our exploitation of cheap oil.

As we emerge into this future, is the Green Party of Canada in a position to offer Canadians a viable alternative to the other mainstream parties? Do we, as an organization, represent a direction of thought and policy which is complimentary to actions which we will need to take as a society to adapt to the changing conditions which we will face? If not, are we nimble enough as an organization to adapt our own plans, policy and platform so that we are able to offer the best solutions?

Moreover, do we even want to go down that road, knowing that if we try to engage Canadians in such a conversation about the future, we reduce our electability.

It’s been my perception that the Green Party of Canada offers a largely optimistic view point of Canada’s future, predicated on the notion that we need to start making (in some cases significant) changes to various systems. Particularly, putting a price on carbon and changing our taxation system stand out. Beyond that, to address our increasing democratic deficit and to kick-start an adult conversation amongst Canadians about the future, changes to our electoral processes are necessary. Finally, we will need to engage the international community on a more sensible playing field.

If we can make these changes, the Green Party offers Canadians hope and prosperity. I believe that this is a very good thing, and I will continue to put my efforts into striving for this kind of future for myself and for my family. Since the other political parties are mired in the old way of doing business, I don’t see any hope for change on the scale we need to get us to where we should be going. For me, only the Green Party offers such hope.

However, I don’t see our society embarking on the project of undertaking the changes we need to make to get us to that bright future. In the face of inaction and indeed failure, at the hands of Canada’s other political parties, where might the GPC find itself in a future when we’ve gone past the point of being able to offer a bright and compassionate viewpoint to Canadians while keeping a straight face?

I believe that the Green Party may be faced with having to choose between two possible futures. In the first, we will have to re-evaluate our policies, and with an eye towards implementation, figure out which of our policies can be implemented in an age of dwindling resources, versus those policies which no longer make economic sense given the changing conditions on the ground. There may need to be more of a focus on adaptation, rather than about mitigation. This may very well impact some of the GPC’s “sacred cows”, including our policies on nuclear energy and the need to shut down corporate welfare to the tar sands. I’ll refer to this as a “Revised Fundi” approach.

In the alternative, the Green Party will have to re-evaluate whether we continue offer ourselves up as a rational, science-based and policy driven Party which gives the straight goods to Canadians, and instead move towards a more a populous platform in the face of increasing adversity. This may lead to electing more MP’s, but it almost would certainly water-down what it means to be Green. Instead of being driven by policy, we will be driven by politics. I’ll refer to this as the “Pragmatic” approach.

Interestingly, this is in part the conundrum faced by Green Parties across the globe. Do we stick to our fundamentals, or do we become political pragmatists?

I’ll add to the conundrum, though: I think some of the fundamentals (what I referred to as “sacred cows” above) will end up being albatrosses around our necks in a future where decision-making is hamstrung by difficult economic realities precipitated by the very crises we Greens have been trying to stave off. In the face of the intersection of crises I anticipate, I do not consider the continuation of fundi Green politics to have much of a hope of finding resonance with Canadians. Simply put, it must be abandoned, or the Party will fade to obscurity.

By way of a quick example: with a desire on the part of North Americans to continue with our way of life, and with one of the world’s largest remaining deposits of oil beneath the surface of Alberta, is shutting down the tar sands in the name of combating climate change realistic? Is it perhaps more realistic to think that oil will continue to be wrung out of the tar sands to power the North American military-industrial complex? OK, maybe we can process the oil in a cleaner way (carbon capture and storage might do this, but I’m a cynic about that). Either way, though, will Canadians and Americans really stand for closing down the tar sands when oil reaches $2 a litre? What about when it gets to $4 a litre? Perhaps if there were an alternative fuel, but what if there isn't?

I believe that the Party has been moving in the direction of the “Pragmatic” approach for some time now, and that we will continue to do so in the foreseeable future, as much as this has offended some deep (or “fundi”) Greens. I also believe that this is likely going to be the only way that we’re going to elect any Green MP’s in the short term. As the future crises begin to unfold, however, I have to seriously question whether the Pragmatic approach and the policies we advocate today will be enough to first engage Canadians regarding the issues, and secondly to find viable solutions. In short, I believe that the future we are heading towards is going to require some fairly radical actions, and I do not believe that the Green Party is positioning itself to undertake such actions in light of the fact that we are on the road to moderation and political pragmatism.

I guess that I would argue that neither the fundamental or the pragmatic alternatives are going to get us to where we need to be if we are to become that viable alternative to the other political parties. A “Revised Fundamental” approach may be the best, but even that may not be enough.
If Greens formed government today, we would be strategically positioned to implement our vision and to take action against some of the crises. If we were forced to govern when these crises have become a little more mature, I’m not certain that our current policies and direction will offer the sorts of solutions Canadians will need in that darker future.

Who then is in a better position than we Greens? Well, on the surface, certainly the other Parties don’t seem to harbour the sorts of radical policy directions I believe will be necessary for Canada in the coming future. But that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t be able to shift gears more quickly and comprehensively than we Greens would. By way of example, I point to former Progressive Conservative Premier of Ontario Mike Harris, whose Party was able to transform my province in a very significant and meaningful way in just a few short years. Make no mistake: his transformation was a radical one in many respects. Perhaps not on the scale which I am considering radical, but fairly radical nonetheless.

With the sort of future I believe we are facing, I believe that it is likely that Canadians will continue to turn to those political parties who offer te hope that we can continue with the status quo, even in the face of the on-coming crises. The message will be easy to deliver in the short term, albeit a bald-faced lie. Canadians are likely to continue to elect political representatives which mislead us about the future. Politicians who paint a portrait of the future which looks a lot like the present are likely to remain popular. Heck, I would love for our future to unfold in such a way...but I just don’t see it happening.

What kinds of radical changes might a Liberal or Conservative majority government engage in to address the crises in Peak Oil or climate change? Might they simply fall back on trying to “stimulate” the economy through corporate and personal tax cuts? Would those changes be comprehensive enough to do much in the way of assisting with the crises, or would they be piecemeal and reactionary? Based on what I’ve seen from these parties to date, I have little hope that they would offer the sort of vision and guidance we need to see our nation through these coming times of difficulty.

And if the Green Party stays on the same course it appears to have set itself on, I have to wonder about our own ability to muster the courage to speak frankly with Canadians about the sorts of actions which we must undertake in order to salvage what we can from increasingly dangerous situations. Our “pragmatic” message of hope and optimism may have be tempered by a dose of reality.

Faced with difficult choices, any political party in power is going to have to pick winners and losers, because the party will be hamstrung by a lack of cash. That means that there will have to be write-offs: certain segments of our society will lose out, whether it will be certain industries, or communities, or demographic segments of our population. Depending on which Party is in power, I think that these write-offs might occur in different ways. Whoever the losers end up being, there should at least be an informed public policy discussion taking place at some level before policies are implemented. Depending on who is in power, that discussion may not occur. It is clearly one that all Canadians should be engaged in right now.

Can we Greens change? Yes we can, but as I see Canada itself changing, so too do I believe that the Green Party which emerges out of the present may be quite different from today's Party. That's if we figure out a way to maintain relevance with voters. A sacred cow approach to policy will likely not endear us to voters, yet a pragmatic approach may simply transform us into something akin to the Liberal Party. Clearly, we ourselves need to have our own conversation about where we see our future in light of the intersection of crises we are now facing.

Food for thought?

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey. Part X: Local Conclusions

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey
Part X: Local Conclusions

If you’ve had the fortitude to follow my thesis now through 9 previous posts (many of which have exceeded the word-count which rational bloggers try to limit themselves to for the sake of readability), than you are already aware that my personal journey has lead me to the conclusion that the outlook for democracy in Canada appears to be grim. Today, I’m going to temper this outlook somewhat, and shift focus for a moment, because there are some things going on today in Canada which I have not touched on.

My focus for these blogposts has been primarily federal; certainly, my involvement with the Green Party of Canada highlights my interest in federal politics, and as a result my observations here have looked mainly at that level of government. But, there are other levels of government, and the municipal level has become increasingly powerful. Perhaps it is at this level where a more positive future outlook for democracy in Canada exists.

Last week, I attended a presentation by Avi Friedman, professor of architecture from McGill University, who was in Sudbury to share some of his ideas regarding sustainable urban development with whoever wanted to listen. He drew a pretty good crowd, and while for me, most of what he said wasn’t new at all, his delightful musings, backed up with photos, proved to be an eye-opener for many in attendance. It was great to hear Mr. Friedman approach urban design from a health-centred point of view, rather than as a way of reducing carbon emissions. It was a good reminder that we can do the right thing for multiple reasons.

Walking home from Avi Friedman, past a local gas station: prices are up over a dollar per litre again. Yet, the papers are reporting today that unemployment stands now at 8.6%, and over 43,000 jobs were lost this past October, with the manufacturing sector being the hardest hit. One would think with this reduced output in our economy, especially within such an energy-intensive sector, that the price of oil would stay down.

Globally, though, the demand is still there, even though many global economies have been hard-hit by this recession. Production is simply not increasing to keep pace with demand, and so prices begin to rise. They will continue to rise, although there may be setbacks to the rise as economies stall because of expensive energy. Expect this era of uncertainty to be the new norm for the next little while. Some would suggest that this is the plateau of Peak Oil, or the point where we’ve just started to slip down the backside of the Hubbert curve.

In the Post Expansion era, with its attendant economic uncertainty, our lives will change. Likely, those changes will be small at first, and perhaps they won’t affect you or me directly, unless we are cast out of our jobs. We can expect to see increasing incidences of poverty and homelessness, and begin to witness more people being forced to adapt to these circumstances. Even if we manage to hold on to our jobs, inflation sparked by rising energy prices is likely going to wipe away any gains we may have made in terms of wages, whether through collective agreements or not. In short, the future is likely going to be a much more expensive place.

Our federal and provincial governments will be burdened by the debt of stimulus spending. They will not be in any shape to help significantly, and instead, we can expect to see spending cuts and assets being sold off. In an era of fiscal uncertainty and rising prices, voters will not endorse increased taxes. This situation could also doom any carbon reduction initiatives in North America, as the debate about "going green" has always been about costs in the minds of North Americans.

Walking past that gas station, I was actually a little surprised to see a few other pedestrians on the dark streets of my community, presumably walking home from school or work, or perhaps from the same seminar I had just attended. I thought about the future, and how these same sidewalks will be impacted. Almost certainly, more pedestrians will be out (they’ll have to do something about that lighting, though). Fewer cars on an emptier arterial (it was only 9pm...where were all the cars which had previously populated this "busy" road at rush hour? Oh ya...we built this four lane road to move cars a few hours of the day).

The relative emptiness of my community got me thinking about something which Avi Friedman had said which really resonated with me. In the future, we will know our neighbours, and work with them.

As our lives become more "local" and less "global", due to increasing energy prices, and as our communities try to find solutions to deal with an inevitable poverty crisis, there will be increasing pressures for communities of interest to form, many of which will be geographically oriented. Already, we are seeing more community gardens, and backyards being transformed to grow produce. Not all of us have the time to become urban farmers, but in a future where our work weeks may be cut to 4 days (out of the need to keep a few more of us employed), and with increasing food prices, more people may find the time to farm. Urban farm co-ops of neighbours who break down fences between yards are likely to start springing up in the next few years, and will become the norm in our suburban communities. There may be little choice.

When neighbours work with one another at this scale, they will have to communicate with one another. When we start talking to each other in person, we significantly improve our ability to understand one another. Right now, too much of our communication with each other is taking place in a vacuum absent of propriety and common sense: we yell and scream over top of one another, and bash each other in the proverbial heads to make our points. We complain and offer little in the way of solutions. And we communicate this way because it’s easy, and there are few consequences for our bad behaviour.

I grew up in Suburbia. I thought it was heaven. And maybe for me it was. Although I didn’t really know my neighbours for the most part (save for a few kids my own age who lived on either side of my parent’s house), and I was encouraged not to talk to strangers. I observed my own family as well. There was little or no interaction with our neighbours. And this is not to knock my family at all, as I think this was a very typical suburban occurrence. We may have shared the same geography, but really that was all that we had in common with one another. People would get into their cars in the morning, drive off to work, return home, park in their garages, and settle in for the night in front of the TV. Maybe there would be some additional driving to take the kids to play sports (I played houseleague baseball). The interactions we had, though, were not with our neighbours for the most part. They were with communities of interest, but even then, they were scripted and compartmentalized.

Today, I don’t know the name of my next door neighbour, even though he has lived there now for about 6 months. I know my other neighbour enough to say Hi and talk about a few small things, but that’s about it. The people across my street could be living on another planet for all that I know them. I continue to believe that this is a fairly typical experience for a city-dweller such as myself.

One might think that this is a bit of a sad existence. Certainly for me, keeping to myself as I have largely done throughout my life, I believe it has impaired my own ability to communicate with others. I am a product of the suburban mindset: keep to yourself and don’t get involved.

Well, in the future, people like me are going to be in for a bit of a surprise. And it won’t be pleasant. Our world is becoming a bigger place, despite the internet. Personal contact means so very much to us, yet we continue to shut ourselves off from one another, sometimes in the name of safety and security, but I think largely because we just don’t know how to mingle, we’ve never been taught what it means to be a part of a community.

We’re going to have to learn those skills, and we’re going to have to take a much more active part in our neighbourhoods and our communities. Neighbourhoods will become more than just geographical entities; they will become places of interaction, as we increasingly abandon the car and take to the (sometimes dimly lit) sidewalks. We will get to know our neighbours as never before because we will be forced to.

This bodes well for the future of democracy at the local level. However, there will be many obstacles to overcome: right now, our municipalities do not have the tools they need to succeed and thrive. Senior levels of government must come to terms with this. Further, local elected officials must not shirk from taking up the challenges of making good decisions for their own communities. Too often I hear that since the senior levels of government can’t get their acts together (or chip in for the costs), inaction is the preferred course for local decision makers.

Right now, many of our municipalities are too large for to implement local solutions, and they too will have to downsize. In my own City, which went through an amalgamation exercise in the last decade, many smaller communities were brought together under a single governance structure. Right now, geographically, Greater Sudbury is the largest municipality in Ontario, and the second largest in Canada. It’s not clear to me that in the future a City of this size will be a sustainable entity, and it may need to return to its former constituent components.

Citizens like you and me are going to have to take a greater interest in what goes on in our own communities, because those decisions will impact us far more significantly in the future. When gas for our cars, food for our families, and rent money become increasingly scarce, we will be faced with unforeseen situations which will require local solutions. Our senior levels of government will not be able to help out in sustainable ways.

I think that we will become more involved politically at local levels, because of the increased opportunities for interaction. And this spells good news for democracy. So although I believe we will become increasingly divorced from decision-making at senior levels of our government, we will become more involved locally.

This will not be a surprise for Greens at all. Indeed, many Greens have already started focussing their own efforts on local initiatives, believing that our Federal government isn’t going to have the power or ability or desire to implement the changes we need to make as a society. Perhaps it is better to start from the bottom up (although personally I believe that our Federal government should be taking much more leadership, and I will continue with my efforts to bring about change at that level...for now).

What might this say for Canada, though? If we increasingly turn our attentions to local solutions, as our Federal and even provincial governments become increasingly unable to deal with multiple crises of climate change, peak oil and poverty, what kind of Canada will we inhabit?

Localism in the Post Expansion Age may well end the age of the nation-state as a viable political entity. It may be replaced by larger semi-autonomous units, such as a North American confederation, comprised of state and provincial level governments (and some city-states). Alternatively, we may see a general breakdown in larger governmental entities altogether. I’ll include provincial governments here too, as many of the geographical areas over which they currently have jurisdiction are comprised of regions which do not have a lot in common with one another.

Can Canada hold itself together? I don’t think it can. And increasingly, it may not matter. If the world can’t get its act together on facing the multiple crises which we will find ourselves in the midst of, there will be no national or international level solutions to implement anyway, leaving us to find our way through the chaos at the community level.

I don’t want to live in this kind of future. I would much rather continue to be a global citizen of a nation-state. I would much rather that the nations of the world figure out some way of working with one another to address circumstances brought about by these crises. Discussion, agreement and sacrifice will be the order of the day, however, should that situation come about.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe that our Canadian government, and indeed most Canadians and North Americans, are willing to make those sacrifices. Instead, I believe that we will continue to try to fight to "save" our quality of life, even as fewer and fewer of us enjoy it. I believe this because we are not talking about our collective future in any meaningful way, and it appears to me that we don’t want to have that discussion. We’ve grown accustomed to a certain way of life, to which we feel entitled. I can not see us giving it up voluntarily.

Locally, though, we will have to adapt to our unique circumstances brought about by these crises. And we will find solutions...hopefully some of them will even work for us. What we can not do is give up; simply, that’s not an option.

My personal journey looking ahead to the future of democracy in Canada appears to have wound up. This might appear to be a bit of a grim location, this ground which I have landed on. Personally, I’m rather scared about this future I’m likely to inhabit. But I must try to be optimistic in the face of the future, because I believe in the adaptability of humanity. Democracy will be a part of that future, although it will not be like the democracy we have today. Democracy will continue to evolve to suit the times and needs of us all, just as it has always done. In whatever form it may take, it will remain a part of our lives. Rest assured that democracy will not be a part of that lost legacy we seem intent on leaving behind us.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey. Part IX: Suggestions for a Consensus-Driven Future

The future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey
Suggestions for a Consensus-Driven Future

We’re on a narrow path to fundamental changes to the way in which we live our lives, yet no one is talking about it. Faith is constantly being eroded in our democratic and economic systems, yet the incremental changes to both appear to be taking us in the wrong direction we need to go to face the facts and hard reality of the future. In this circumstance, what can we do to start turning the ship of state around in order to begin acknowledging and addressing where we are headed, and how we can get there in the best shape possible?

Yesterday, I may have left you with the impression that I am not optimistic that we’re going to be find a way to correct our course through the icy seas of the future before ramming into multiple icebergs like a vision-impaired bumper-boat captain. After a lot of critical analysis, I am still very sceptical that we will find the wherewithal within our selves and our institutions to grow up and start talking about the crises, much less actually doing something about it.

What I realized overnight, though, was that’s not a reason to abandon all hope, as much as it would be the easy way out. There is a lot of hard work which we should all be doing, and which we must do, if we’re to have a hope in hell of averting the very worst of the disasters which are upon us. I’m going to offer some suggestions below, and perhaps offer a discussion around how plausible these suggestions might be. Certainly, all of the suggestions are going to require a fundamental re-ordering of our society, and that’s one of the reasons I’m pessimistic that we’ll be able to achieve the needed outcomes. Currently, I don't believe that our democratic system has the flexibility needed to implement these suggestions.

Maybe what we truly need to start thinking about is an alternative to our current democratic system, which has been changing in increments over time anyway. Democracy is not static in Canada, and nor should it be. Let’s not also presuppose that tomorrow’s democracy is going to be the same as today’s. Keep this in mind when reviewing suggestions.

Also keep in mind that these suggestions require urgent implementation, which is going to be controversial in itself. Perhaps the urgency of the needed implementation will lead to the democratic changes necessary for pursuit of these suggestions.

First though, one quick item: please do not construe these suggestions to be in any way endorsed by anybody other than myself (and even then, I'm not certain that I actually endorse them; rather, I think they might be necessary, albeit unpalatable in some cases). Although I belong to the Green Party of Canada, please do not construe these ideas here to be the Green Party’s policy. In fact, in most cases, I think that you will find a careful analysis of what I’m going to suggest as being quite a bit outside of current GPC-approved policy. And I’ll blog about that in a little while.

Here are the suggestions:

Changing Public Opinion through Education.

Seems like this is going to be a generational project, as public education requires time and energy, and is best accomplished through education which begins at home with children and continues through meaningful exposure through our school systems. The good news here is that we have been largely turning out a good number of critical thinkers in the recent decades who understand and acknowledge the perils we face to a greater degree than do most. So, we’ve already got a bit of an advantage here. It’s too bad that many of the youngest in our society are disadvantaged by mounting debts, and disengaged from the political process and our civil society, which often dismissively shuns their involvement. Given our aging demographic, this doesn’t really come as a surprise.

However, given that we don’t have the luxury of time, what other means are at our disposal to start changing public opinion? Clearly, the mainstream media needs to be brought into the equation. Sure, the internet is a great resource which many turn to for their source of information which ultimately shapes opinion, but the mainstream media is, and will remain, the true bastion of public opinion for quite a while, I believe. TV continues to reach Canadians in a compelling way, particularly the older Canadians who must buy-in to the societal transformations we need to undertake.

I’ve been arguing that the media has been doing a bit of a poor job when it comes to discussing the reality of the future which we’re going to live in, and I’ve indicated that there are many reasons for this. I am still not optimistic that the media will start reporting the truth and facts around the on-coming crises, but if we are to truly engage Canadians in discussions about the future, the media has to act in this way. Our mainstream media must begin to bombard our society with messaging about the facts.

And this won’t happen easily, as it requires the media itself to change direction first. Media pundits who deny reality and facts (and these are routine in our major media outlets today) must be called out by others who understand the concept of "truth". Media outlets must dismiss deniers, who are some of their most popular commentators. Media must move from it’s do-nothing bias and start reporting the truth. If balanced stories are to be a goal, those balanced stories must be based on reality, not conjecture or outright lies.

The media must be the impetus for the message, because the lonely voices like mine crying out in our communities, both real and virtual, will continue to be sidelined otherwise.

Leaders Must Initiate a Public Discussion About the Future

Right now, our governmental Leaders have been completely ducking these discussions. Other leaders, though, are stepping up throughout all sectors of our society, and are trying to engage Canadians. While the media has largely ignored these efforts to plan for our increasingly local futures, the momentum is clearly in place. Our elected Leaders need to play some catch up. Shifting public opinion will be their impetus to do so.

This discussion must begin quickly, and it needs to take place in an unbiased manner, based on fact and not conjecture. Special interests who refuse to admit the reality staring them in the face will need to be sidelined as non-contributors to this discussion, because we just don’t have the time for them. Unfortunately, these people and groups I easily refer to as "special interests" are in reality some of the most powerful business, union and industrial organizations in our country, not to mention our neighbours, friends and family. But if they continue to base their arguments on conjecture and not on facts, they should be considered non-contributors. Their opinions should therefore be afforded much less weight in a rational decision-making process.

Our governments need to lay out a series of facts about our future as a starting point. If you want to engage, you accept the stated reality. This will certainly not be easy, but it will be required given the short time which the public must engage in this conversation.

South of the border, the U.S. has been embroiled in this kind of conversation for time now, as the Obama administration attempts to reform the American Health Care system. Such a public dialogue is a worthy example of the national focus needed to address an issue. Unfortunately, this discussion has all too often been highjacked by special interests and media pundits who continue to deny hard facts and reality, and rely on lies to spread their vested interest and often partisan messages. The conversation may have benefited from a statement of facts at the outset, as a starting point. Although it’s unlikely those facts would not have been contested by a very uncritical media and special interests.

If things are bad here in Canada with regards to the media, they are an absolute mess south of our border.

Which is why...

We Must Not Wait for the United States to Get Its Act Together.

Waiting is, frankly, inexcusable. An abdication of leadership on the part of Canada. Where there is real leadership, others will follow. We must become one of the leaders. This would be a complete turn-about for Canada, one of the world’s worst (if not the worst) environmental laggard on a per person basis (a fact which Canadians need to come to terms with).

It is completely inexcusable to say that we can’t lead, that we can’t formulate our own policies here in Canada. Those who say so seem to have abandoned the notions of both sovereignty and leadership.

Yes, there will be implications for going it alone...but the implications of inaction are too great. We need to move on. Right bloody now.

Sweeping Legislative Changes

The tools for implementation will require sweeping changes to federal and provincial legislation, and that’s not going to happen over night, especially when the public service is going to be focussed on cuts. However, these changes will be needed to force the agenda. Pressure to do so must be unrelenting: from the public, from the business community, from other levels of government, from the media.

There are many impediments to changing our laws, even when there is a laser-beam focus to do so. Some things to consider:

-Abolish the Senate in case they decide to hold legislative changes up (provincial governments don’t have Senates anyway; we won’t have the luxury for this Chamber any, think of the cost savings). If abolishing it won’t work, then suspend it.

-Stop the practice of partisan politics and restore meaningful debate to parliament. A bit of a tall order to say the least, but we can do this if we elect fewer politicians who are in Parliament to play games.

-Adopt a much more representative form of government which is based on proportional representation. This must be a priority, although we often think it will take time. It doesn’t have to. Our elected officials can just do it. And should.

Give Local Governments the Powers They Need

There will need to be greater partnerships with all levels of government. This includes municipal governments, who are going to be tasked with delivering at least part of the mandate. Municipalities will need to receive real powers from senior levels of government, and finally transition from "creatures of the province" to "mature levels of government". Municipal elected officials must assume this responsibility with foresight and in good faith: they must acknowledge that they will be under a greater degree of public scrutiny, which is as it should be, if municipalities are given the power to tax. Power comes with responsibility. Deal with it.

Of course, not all municipalities are sophisticated enough to become those "mature levels of government" overnight. Investments in capacity must be made. Failing that, write them off, and let the province deliver services and make decisions directly. This would appear at first not be a democratic decision, but where elected municipal officials refuse to look after their own interests and those of the voters who elected them, what other choice would there be? I sincerely hope that this would not happen very often, but the reality is, there is likely already a need for this sort of action today.

Our future is going to be increasingly local. Our local institutions are not yet at a level whereby they can deal with the challenges of this shift. We need to beef them up, and it is here, I believe, where the best chances for a flowering of democracy are going to occur.


Here is a big one: the discussion must be as much about what we can do as what we can’t. There will be conclusions made that there are clearly certain actions which just can’t be taken. For example, we may have to financially abandon really unsustainable communities which no longer make economic sense, and which will be a burden on our finances. Ouch. What a terrible concept. Yet it needs to be happen, in the name of fiscal responsibility, which must be an underlying part of any plan to fight climate change.

Where current investments don’t make sense, they must be halted. If that means writing off segments of our society, including some communities and some businesses (I’m thinking the Quebec asbestos industry here, as well as the East Coast Seal Hunt), so be it. We just can’t simply continue on with a business-as-usual approach, waiting for obsolescence to happen incrementally. It will be time for tough choices. But we really don’t have any choice but to make them.

What I’m not talking about, and let me be clear about this, is writing off people, leaving them to their own devices, cutting them out of our civil society. No, that’s not what I mean at all, and I feel the need to explain the difference here. By way of example, look at the closing of outport communities in Newfoundland after that province joined confederation. Relocation efforts were undertaken. Yes, there were initial costs, but as a result there were long-term savings. Similar activities may need to occur in unsustainable parts of our nation in the near future. But that does not mean that we leave anyone behind.

Writing off segments of our society will not be popular. However, I really do think the time has come for this form of economic triage. I have already suggested that we ignore those who offer opinions based not on facts, but on lies and conjecture. This is no different.

Where would that leave democracy? While it has always been the case that our democratic tradition has sought to be inclusive, the reality is we have always failed to represent the interests of many within our society, and here I suggest that the poorest amongst us have constantly been unrepresented. In the future, without the luxury of time, we will need to disengage the foolish and the liars. It won’t be a question of IQ. But disengagement is a dangerous process. Simply, though, we won’t have any choice. Non-fact-based arguments and policy direction can not be tolerated by the rest of us. We truly need to sideline people who will not engage rationally in a discussion about our future, or else we risk the whole endeavour.

And where might that lead our democracy? I acknowledge that we’re talking about some potentially scary terrain here. Which is why we need to do these things very carefully, or else we risk becoming an eco-friendly China. That’s not the model we need to strive for. Balance will be necessary.


I’ll say it again: All of this must occur within the context of a sense of impending urgency. Some have suggested something akin to a "wartime mobilization"; I’d like to see a little more thought than that go into it, but really I’m still talking about significant action being discussed over a very short period of time (say 6 months) and then action being implemented quickly. If we’ve learned one thing from the Stimulus spending, it’s that it’s not always as quick to make decisions or implement them as we might like it to be, however, it can still be done.

Yes, acting quickly might open up the government to accusations of boondoggles. That would be an unfortunate outcome, but our governments don’t have the best track record when it comes to spending money quickly and not trying to hide some of it themselves, even when they do so in plain sight (think about those big cardboard cheques with the Conservative Party logo on them). But the fact is, we don’t have much in the way of luxury to choose the timing here. Action is required now. Build in a meaningful oversight process, that’s the answer, as the U.S. and Australia have done with their stimulus spending processes.

Take Personal Responsibility

You must take personal responsibility as a member of your family, your community, your province and nation. You must educate yourself to the point where you have a decent understanding of the challenges we are faced with. You must act in concert with the emergent consensus. You must acknowledge that the consequences of inaction are too great to consider.

In short, you must change, because you are not sustainable.

And so must I, because I am not sustainable.

Only together can we do this. It’s going to be hard work, but really, we don’t have any choice. Change is upon is. If we want to shape that change nominally to our advantage, we must do so in concert, with our heads held high and eyes wide open. Otherwise, we will only be able to react.

One way or another, Canadian democracy will have changed in the coming decades. While I hope that we become a better prepared, more civil society, even with my own suggestions we are sowing the seeds of mean-ness (think: Write-off). Many will take exception to that suggestion in particular, and I welcome dissent. Hell, I don’t like the idea any better than you do, but I don’t think we actually have a choice.

I’m nearing the end of this personal journey now. I’m not sure that I like where this is all going, but at least I am better prepared for it now, after examining it all. I will have no choice but to accept it anwyay, unless I can convince you that we need to engage one another in conversation and take needed action. Even then, things will move beyond us all in truly unexpected ways. Still, though, we must try to move into the future of our making, and do so in a way where as many of the best and sensible elements of our present are carried forward.

(Concluded in Part 10...)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey. Part VIII: The Erosion of Rights in the Name of Security

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey
Part VIII: The Erosion of Rights in the Name of Security

Here’s brief recap of the scene so far: Our democratic institutions are in trouble. Canada itself, along with every other nation in the world, is facing multiple crises which will impact the lives of each and every one of us. These crises consist of but are not limited to: the crisis in climate change; Peak Oil and the end of inexpensive energy, which will bring with it the inevitable shortage in food. As a result of these crises, our economy will not enter a period of sustained recovery. Our government and media are aware of this, yet they are not engaging you and I in a discussion about what this might mean for our future. I suggest that this is irresponsible in the extreme, but I believe that my own position is compromised by the fact that many Canadians want to remain disengaged from having that sort of conversation as well.

Yes, our governments are aware that we’re in peril. We in North America are going to be particularly at risk in the near future, as we have been the biggest energy gluttons and greenhouse gas emitters around. We have structured the very fabric of our society around the notion of cheap energy and damn the pollution! In North America, the suburban car-culture remains king, even though it is completely unsustainable. Largely, this hasn’t been an issue for several generations now, as our economy has always gone up, Up, UP, and we’ve come to expect that our quality of life will continue to increase as a result. In fact, somewhere along the line, this expectation in "progress" has morphed into an entitlement.

Which is completely in opposition to the reality of the world we live in. Our world consists of a finite set of resources. Expansion can not occur indefinitely. As far as fossil energy resources go, we may now be at the peak of oil production and can expect less oil to be pumped out of the ground every year to fuel our economy, even though demand for that resource will continue to increase. As far as replacement resources go, there are none which are viable, none which are an acceptable substitute for oil.

That means our way of life is not sustainable. That means our lifestyles are going to have to change whether we want them to or not.

Our governments in North America know this, yet we don’t seem to be taking any action to start those changes a-rolling. Instead, we appear to be clinging to the delusion that tomorrow will be like today...only better! And it really is a delusion. Without enough food to go around, I don’t see how we can consider that an improvement over the status quo.

We are globally moving into the Post Expansion Age, whether we here in North America acknowledge this or not.

Let’s do a little mental exercise. You’re the leader of a society which relies on a particular resource, call it oil. Your whole society is structured in such a way that people need to travel significant distances between home, work, and recreation. You’ve not invested in public transit, and instead you’ve done everything in your power to make personal vehicles available to the masses (including the injection of so-called stimulus funding into failing auto companies). You’ve convinced the populace that this is the best way to live, and they largely have bought-in over several generations. The price of oil has remained relatively inexpensive. Your populace has embraced the concept of single-family suburban home ownership, and has invested heavily in property.

Now, there is increased competition for oil from other nations, driving the price of oil upwards. Just as this is happening, no new oil production is coming on-stream to replace depleted fields. You’ve used up the vast majority of oil in your own nation, and are reliant on imports from territories which you do not control. As a result, the ability to price this resource has been taken away from you. If the price ends up going up too high, you know full well that your populace is going to start going bankrupt: jobs which depend on oil will be lost; mortgages will go into default as property values plummet because people are trying to unload their homes on the urban fringes because it’s too costly to travel. Stagflation will occur, and millions may end up homeless. All the while, the price of oil continues to rise. People want to throw you and your Party out of office, and maybe replace you with a group which might have a different idea of how to run things, maybe starting with the capitalist system itself, or taking a different look at land tenure.

What do you do to head this situation off? Well, you can take a couple of approaches. Perhaps you might want to consider investing in the sort of infrastructure that your populace is actually going to need in the future. Forget about highways for personal vehicles which a decreasing number of people will be able to afford to drive on. Maybe public transit is a better option. Certainly you’ve got to figure out what you’re going to use as a substitute for oil. Coal maybe? Renewables such as wind or solar power? How about nuclear? Natural gas isn’t going to last. Hydro might be ok. But nothing seems to be a great fit, especially for the agricultural community. Damn. The whole society is structured in such a way that it’s going to be very difficult to start turning the ship around, even though you will be tempted to try, incrementally. But don’t try too hard, because your citizens, who have come to feel entitled to this way of life, will start to complain very loudly when you tell them that the party is over. Maybe you would have to devise new laws to shut these people up, despite their democratic right to complain, so that you can implement aspects of your program.

What other approach might you take? Well, if the world’s supply of oil has peaked, and supply is continuing to increase, and given that it’s just going to be too hard to turn that ship around, then you’d better be able to assure your public that they are going to get as much oil as possible to continue down the path you’ve been travelling. Of course, this can only be a stop-gap measure, but perhaps it will buy you just enough time to turn that ship, despite the naysayers.
Let me translate this little mental exercise into real-world terms: As Leader of this nation, you start telling your people that they need to think about the future; maybe greater fuel efficiency in personal vehicles or investing a little bit in wind energy. Just so that you can say you’re doing something, even though you know it’s not enough. Meanwhile, you corner the market on oil in one of two ways, both of which amount to conquest. You do what you did with Canada, home of the tar sands, and secure a significant supply of the remaining resource through an agreement which compels that nation to provide you with the resource, even if it can’t provide it to themselves (which is what NAFTA does for oil and natural gas). Or you secure the resource by occupying the oil and controlling the oil fields, such as the U.S. has done in Iraq. Either way, you want to make sure that your society is going to continue on the path it has been on, because you have effectively cornered the market.

Knowing that this situation isn’t going to last forever, though, you’ve got to start thinking about a future beyond oil. Even with cornering the market, you know that the economy is going to be all over the place, that people are still going to be thrown out of work, out of their homes, and suffer from a lack of food. You anticipate civil unrest. What do you do about that?

Well, perhaps you make sure that the foundations for rapid reaction are put into place: you create the mechanisms for a police state in waiting, so that when the time comes, you deploy your security forces to protect the installations and citizens which are vital to the continued economic health of the nation. If that means that you have to write off a decent chunk of your population, and possibly territory, in the process, well so be it, because they’re not contributing anyway. In fact, they’re a hindrance.

Wouldn’t this trample on people’s democratic rights? How can we live in a police state and still call ourselves a democracy? The fact is, we can’t. But when the time comes, people are going to be far more concerned about their own personal security than their democratic rights. Security will trump democracy.

In the United States, some are having a debate about what this scenario means for their Constitution. They’re coming to the conclusion that the Constitution appears to be in the process of being trampled, particularly after Homeland Security laws passed by George Bush changed on paper some of the very legal practices held sacrosanct by Americans since their founding fathers put pen to paper. Many believe that the U.S. Constitution has largely become a historical document.

The groundwork for this future is clearly being laid here in North America, led by our neighbour to the south, with the approval of Canada. Where the U.S. goes, Canada will follow. Hell, our government really has abandoned many of the pretenses of sovereignty already. We’re certainly not going to make our own policy on the environment, for example. And with NAFTA, we surrendered our energy sovereignty. The future will continue to see increasing integration between our two nations.

To prepare us for these dark days ahead, our governments will have to find away to continue to influence the will of the people, so that we will continue to buy into whatever security measures are proposed for our own good. Where buy-in with certain groups of stakeholders can not be achieved (the food rioters, maybe, or simply those opposed to the erosion of democracy), the security measures themselves will ensure that dissent is not on-going. Being critical of one’s government might be considered treasonous in the future. Heck, if you watch Fox News or CNN, in the United States, the mainstream media seems to have decided that it already is.

And when you watch Baird and Harper and Clement call a non-confidence vote by the Opposition parties akin to a coup, you know that Canada can’t be far behind.

What we can do to potentially avert this situation will be the subject of the next Part. That next post may be some time in coming, because right now, I really don’t have a clue what it is we can do to avoid what I see to be an inevitable future. Whatever it is, though, we’re going to have to start doing it pretty darn soon, that’s for sure.

(Continued in Part 9...)

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey. Part VII: Planning for the Future

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey
Part VII: Planning for the Future

I received a lovely Christmas present from my beautiful wife last year: a copy of Gwynne Dyer’s "Climate Wars". I loved the book so much that I dragged my wife out to Mr. Dyer’s presentation at Laurentian University which he gave here in Sudbury over the summer time. As a result my wife has vowed that I’ll be getting a tie and sweat socks for Christmas this year.

Of relevance to my personal journey through the future of democracy in Canada, though, is Mr. Dyer’s conclusion that governments around the world are taking the threat of climate change very seriously, even if they are not discussing it publicly. Dyer contends that military planning in the United States and Europe is way out ahead of the public on this issue. This means that our elected officials are being briefed on the very topics I’ve been discussing: the crisis in climate change, Peak Oil and the looming energy shortage, along with the anticipated shortages in food and water. Our Canadian government is aware that Canada will not escape these global challenges.

They know we’ve blown through the carrying capacity of Planet Earth. And they are preparing for the consequences.

Whew. I guess maybe we can feel warm and secure with the knowledge that our governments and military are planning for the future after all. Surely that must be a good thing.

Well, when I went to school and studied urban planning, one of the lessons that was drilled into my soul is that when you are preparing a plan, any kind of plan, you must engage in meaningful consultation with all effected stakeholders. If you don’t do this, you are putting their buy-in to the plan at risk, and will experience subsequent delays and maybe even the eventual watering down of the plan. A truly successful plan is one which has received the maximum level of buy-in by as many concerned parties as can be found. To achieve this result, though, you must consult.

Our government does not appear to be consulting with effected stakeholders in any meaningful way at all with regards to their plan for Canada’s future in a world impacted by climate change and the end of cheap energy. In fact, our government has been doing just the opposite: they’ve been promoting a complete disengagement from any discussion about these topics. In effect, they’ve been taking the public line whereby they are denying reality. And our media has been letting them get away with this. The majority of Canadians appear to be complacent with this approach.

Clearly though, we Canadians are the very "interested parties" or stakeholders who should be consulted on our government’s plan for the future. Why, then, are we being left out?
Consultation and planning are inherently democratic processes. There is often give and take which goes into good plans, to accommodate interests. Sure, sometimes this kind of planning takes a long time, and certainly a healthy public discussion about where Canada wants to be 20 or 50 years down the road would be the sort of planning exercise which isn’t going to be finished in six months. These things take time.

Often, important components of plans end up getting "watered down" in order to find a solution which can accommodate the largest number of parties. We often refer to these solutions as "win-win", but sometimes they are actually "lose lose", as each side has to give or bend from their positions. But again, that’s democracy in action: coming up with the best solution for the most people. And that’s why things seem to take so long to happen in democracies, and why the pace of change tends to be incremental.

To meet the coming threats from the climate change and Peak Oil crises, one has to ask, is our democracy nimble and flexible enough to handle the threats which may not be moving incrementally, but instead which may hit us fairly quickly?

We’ve seen the erosion of our democratic traditions occurring over time. Power in our federal democracy has largely been taken out of the hands of our MP’s through their constant whipping, and put into the hands of the Prime Minister. Even on opposition benches, we’ve come to witness this rise in the cult of the Leader. Instead of in the hands of many, power is now de fact vested in the hands of the few. In practice, our Canadian example of the Westminister-style of parliamentary democracy has turned into a system whereby we have turned over most power to a single individual elected to office by only several thousand direct votes.

Our public institutions, as well, are becoming less accountable to the public, and more secretive. Information which used to flow to the public is now hidden behind "Freedom of Information" laws. Government watchdogs are being muzzled, and even the media doesn’t seem to want to bark very often any more, unless it’s about partisan games. Question period in the House has degenerated into a crude joke as very few questions are ever actually answered. And voters have become increasingly disengaged, having lost faith in the whole process.

And instead of trying to engage Canadians in a discussion about our collective future based on the known threats which exist, our government does nothing, and our opposition politicians and media pretend that there is no need...that the future will be like the present.

Well...our future is not going to be like the present, and our governments know that. Why are they not talking to us about it?

And why are we not demanding that we be consulted?

(Continued in Part 8...)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey. Part VI: Dark Days of Deficits and Disillusion

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey
Part VI: Dark Days of Deficits and Disillusion

Neither the Conservatives or the Liberals want to tell you how they’re going to reduce the deficit created by the on-going orgy of "stimulus" spending. This stimulus spending must represent the single biggest mis-allocation of governmental funding in the history of Canada. With economists throughout the world shouting "spend, spend, spend", we were presented with a golden opportunity to begin investing in the green economy, and in the projects which we will need for our communities tomorrow. Instead, the spending has been entirely ad hoc, and if some green projects ended up receiving funding, it was purely happenstance, and certainly not from a co-ordinated effort.

The deficits we’ve accumulated, federally and provincially, are truly massive. The Conservatives want you to believe that we’ll be able to pay them down through increases to economic activities. They don’t want you to connect the dots between what economists are referring to as a "sluggish" recovery and the aggressively bullish recovery we would have to see occur to pay off our deficit through this means alone.

Both the Conservatives and the Liberals have committed to a course of action whereby they will not raise taxes, therefore foregoing this revenue stream in favour of another. So, despite the fact that we have loaned ourselves several hundred billion dollars in the fiscal years 2009-2011, ostensibly to meet our needs as a nation, the Conservatives and Liberals have decided that we’re not going to pay for them, and instead we’ll hand this burden over to others to look after.

Well, the truth is, we will all pay for this massive ejection of money from government coffers, but disproportionately the burden will fall upon those of us who can pay the least. That’s because the only way in hell we’re going to pay this deficit off is through cuts to government programs. Economic growth is going to cut it, no matter what the Minister of Finance says. And tax increases really do appear to be off the table; certainly the Conservatives aren’t about to increase your taxes. That only leaves tightening the government’s own belt as an option, and that means cuts to programs coupled with asset sales.

Welcome to the privatization of the public realm. This is what we Canadians have voted for consistently over the past 25 years. It seems that we’ve bought into the notion that the private sector can deliver services more economically than the public sector can. And perhaps that’s the truth. But the problem with private sector service delivery is that not everyone can afford private sector prices.

Think about one small example here. You used to be able to go to the eye doctor and receive a check-up. That used to be covered by OHIP here in Ontario. No longer. You must pay for it yourself now. Sure, the cost of an eye exam isn’t a significant burden at $60 or so. Well, not to me anyway. But how many amongst the least well off have decided that healthy vision is something which they can no longer afford to pay for?

Since someone is going to have to deliver many of the services which are bound to be cut, clearly the private sector stands to gain significantly. Other programs, though, which may be considered "nice to haves" (such as subsidies to low income renters or money to assist with legal aid), could disappear outright, and will certainly shrink in the name of fighting the deficit. I can’t help but wonder if the all of the roads being repaved throughout Canada for all of the new cars being produced by the bailed-out auto sector are going to be worth the ultimate price we’re going to pay.

Isn’t it funny how all of this spending just kind of seemed to happen without any discussion of how we’re going to pay for it? Sure, there were a few who questioned, but mainly they were not elected. The Liberals and the NDP, you will recall, only shouted for more, More, MORE! when the budget was handed down in January. The NDP voted against the budget not because it was irresponsible with its profligate spending, but because it was not irresponsible enough.

I believe that much of this spending was necessary in order to provide confidence to Canadians that our sagging economy was not something our government was going to ignore the way governments did back in 1929. However, the investments in the public realm have in many cases been misguided, and the corporate welfare hand-outs received by ailing mega-corporations such as Ford and General Motors were absolutely misguided, particularly in that there was little that these businesses would have to show to Canadians in the way of positive outcomes for the cash received.

Spending was necessary, but it should have been targeted in such a way as to be a net benefit to Canadians. We should have invested in the green economy of the future, rather than in the brown economy of the past. But we did not. So, instead of streetcars being purchased, new roads for new cars are being paved. Instead of investments in wind energy, we get carbon capture and storage.

The next 10 years are going to be very difficult financially for governments in Canada. Forget the climate change and Peak Oil crises for a minute here, and look at what Canada might be like in a "Business as Usual" scenario: with the baby boomer demographic beginning to retire and health care costs increasing, that one extra burden on government resources along will necessitate significantly larger investments in our health care system. Couple that with current deficits, and where does this leave us?

Pretty much up the creek, that’s where. Even in a Business As Usual scenario, we’re going to have to find new money somewhere...or cut, Cut, CUT! And the choice which Canadians seem ready and eager to make will be to call for spending cuts, rather than raising taxes. That way, it seems that someone else will likely suffer more than we ourselves would (well, those of us who think we’re middle class anyway).

But that’s the big lie. In a scenario where public services have been outsourced to the private sector, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer, and the disparity between the rich and the poor will continue to grow. Factor in the fact that energy prices are going to rise continually, and jobs are going to be lost as a result, the stagflation which we will experience is liable to wipe out middle class savings completely.

Yet your government doesn’t want to talk about this. And the media refuses to hold them to account. And Canadians continue to turn away from all of the political nonsense, because it’s just so much crap.

This is how our democracy is liable to die: through abuse and apathy. By the time that most of us have become dispossessed of the quality of life which we expected to inherit, our voices will have become silenced.

Think about the chain being created here: Increased energy costs leads to fewer jobs. Fewer jobs means less economic output. Less economic output means that Jim Flaherty’s plan for recovery is out the window, and either taxes will be raised or spending will be cut. Public services become increasingly expensive. Services to the poor and unemployed suffer. Homelessness increases. Yet, people need to live somewhere. Third-world shanties start appearing in greater abundance (like the tent towns in the Don Valley in Toronto, and even here in Sudbury). Increasing numbers of people begin to live outside of "civil" society, and are subject to the lawlessness inherent in those situations. Civil society demands more protection. "Law and Order" politicians promise to deliver, despite the costs. Gated communities are formed. Society begins to split into "Us" and "Them". Food, energy and education become scarce for those who can no longer afford to pay for it. Civil unrest begins. Those on the margins have become entirely separated from the democratic process by this point: they are powerless to effect change except through demonstrations of strength. Class warfare on the horizon. Governments forced to use Emergencies Act to impose law and Order (formerly known as the "War Measures Act"). Freedoms are curtailed, increased security measures become the norm. Fear predominates. Elections may be stolen. Fringe movements invalidated. Voters rights restricted (we can’t let those homeless people vote, they don’t contribute!). Maybe we end up looking something like China by 2025. But a colder, crueler China. A China without the state assistance for the least well-off amongst us.

Goodbye, Democracy; we hardly knew you.

Yes, that’s a rather dark depiction of the near-end point of this personal journey I’ve been on. I can not, however, see how this can be avoided, unless enough of us begin the process of rising up sooner rather than later, in protest of what our governments aren’t doing. I don’t see that happening, though. Not until some sort of crisis compels action to be undertaken. It’s sort of like the position that the neo-conservatives were in at the tail end of the Clinton administration. They knew that we were running out of cheap oil, and that existing stocks of the stuff were largely in parts of the world unfriendly to Americans, like Iraq. But they just couldn’t invade Iraq; they needed a "new Pearl Harbour" to whip up support for a War for Oil.

But I can’t hope for a catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Katrina or a pandemic which kills thousands of Canadians as the cattle-prod to action. Right now, while there is a growing sense of disillusionment with our government, Canadians remain largely complacent, and lacking in motivation. Even a federal election isn’t something likely to stir us out of this complacency.
If there is one thing which may move us, it will be rising energy prices. And I fear that this may actually have the opposite effect on the action we need to take in order to get our act together as a nation. In the face of rising energy prices, Canadians will probably clamour for greater tax relief, thus subtracting even more resources from our budget.

Do you think that our government doesn’t know what’s on the horizon? Do you think that they aren’t planning for the contingencies, planning for the energy and climate crises? They are. They know what the score is. Even if Canada’s plan might be no more than just to go along with the United States. And the U.S. certainly has been planning for some time now with regards to their place in a future where energy, food and water will become increasingly scarce. Their actions have indicated as much. They are preparing for this bleaker future in many ways.

What will it take for Canadians to demand action from their governments? What will it take for the media to start reporting on the growing unease Canadians have with decisions being made on their behalf? What will it take before we start having meaningful and intelligent discussions of what the Canada of the future ought to be like? Are we willing to simply let these decisions be made for us, by those amongst us who likely do not have our interests at the fore-front of their decision making processes? That seems to be the road that we’re on. Canada, we need to find another way to get to the future.

(Continued in Part 7...)

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey. Part V: Peak Oil and the End of Inexpensive Energy

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey
Part V: Peak Oil and the End of Inexpensive Energy

The challenges which face our democratic system as a result of Peak Oil can not be understated. Indeed, much more than our democratic system is at risk due to the looming energy crisis. In keeping with my theme related to democracy, however, I’ll try to stay as focussed as I can in my discussion regarding the potential impacts which Peak Oil will have on our Canadian society.

First off, I guess I’d better explain the concept of Peak Oil. You may wish to visit Wikipedia or just type the term into the search engine of your choice, though, because my brief little explanation will certainly not do the science behind the term the justice it deserves. But rest assured that there is science at play here, due to the fact that oil, like all fossil fuels, are a non-renewable resource. That means that what’s in the ground today represents the absolute sum total of the resource, and there is no where else from where this resource can be obtained.

Peak Oil is probably best associated with the Hubbert Curve, named after the eminent geologist who first postulated this phenomenon. Picture a traditional upward than downward sloping bell curve. That’s it. The bell curve represents total production. The top of the curve, which is right in the middle is the peak. We’ve been steadily climbing the production curve ever since we first started drilling for oil. Where we are at in the curve right now is open to speculation. Some believe we are already at the peak, many others believe we are close to it.

Interestingly, although Hubbert was highly respected in his field, his predictions about Peak Oil were not taken seriously. Hubbert, based on his analysis, indicated that the U.S. production of oil would one day "peak", meaning that there would come a time when production began losing ground, and the overall number of barrels of oil produced in the U.S. in a day would begin decreasing. He indicated that, based on the industrial planning which takes place in the oil industry, that there would be about a 30-year lag time between the height of prospecting (finding new oil fields) and the production peak.

The interesting thing about Peak Oil is that you don’t know you’re peaking until you’ve looked at the production numbers for a series of year past the peak. Only in hindsight can you say with certainty that there was a peak. For the U.S., the industry peaked in the late 1960s. And although new fields continued to come on-line in the U.S. throughout the 70s and 80s, total overall production was never higher than those heady days of the late 1960s.

OK, so that’s the U.S. What about the rest of the world? Well, back in the early 1970s, when the first Oil Crisis hit us western democracies quite hard, the oil companies began prospecting like there was no tomorrow. The results were new discoveries in the North Sea and Alaska, among other places. In the North Sea, the oil was more expensive to extract, but given the market conditions, still a very viable alternative.

And that’s one other thing to keep in mind about Peak Oil. As we continue up the Hubbert bell-curve, keep in mind that easily extracted oil is already all gone, and that we are largely now extracting oil which is harder to get at or of a lesser quality (and therefore more expensive). I’ve heard that at the outset of the oil-driven portion of the Industrial Revolution, that you could extract 20 barrels of oil for only 1 barrel’s worth of energy used in the extraction process. Today, the ration is closer to 4 to 1 globally, and it’s a lot more expensive for certain types of extraction, such as tar sands oil, which I’ve read is closer to 3:2, but may be as high was 2:1. Note that these numbers are constantly being refuted, and I make no claim on them, other than to say that the overall trend is to get an increasingly smaller bang for your oil buck invested in extraction. However, others do make on a claim on those numbers, and you might want to look into that further for yourself.

One of the big problems is, of course, demand isn’t likely to be decreasing any time soon. In fact, demand will continue to increase world-wide as China and India ramp un industrial production. Even in a situation where the western democracies choose to conserve oil, it is incredibly unlikely to speculate that the overall demand for oil will flatline any time soon. Oil has driven our economy for the past 100 years, and we are addicted to it. Without oil....

Well, there’s the rub. Without oil, what kind of future do we face? Think about all of the things which we use oil for. Transportation. Heating. Agriculture. Product production. Our whole darn integrated global economy is based on the availability of inexpensive oil. Right now, there is no viable alternative to oil with which to run our economy.

Peak Oil is not predicting the immediate end of oil, as many in the media, government and oil industry would confusingly have you believe (so that they can brush it off as a crank position. "There’s still plenty of oil in the ground you know". That’s when they bother to talk about this at all). Instead, it’s the end of cheap oil, and that’s just a factor of Basic Economics 101. When the demand goes up and supply goes down, what happens to price?

On the downward slope of the production bell curve, keep in mind that demand remains high, and continues to increase for quite some time. This makes the purchase of the commodity more expensive. That means in Canada that we will be faced with higher gas prices for our cars, home heating, the price of food (which requires oil inputs from our oil-dependent transportation system, not to mention from the oil-based factory farm practices which produce the food). You can expect Canada to find itself in a situation of spiralling inflation, as consumers compete for a diminishing but necessary resource with their hard-earned dollars.

Inflation leads to economic instability, and has in the past thrown a lot of people out of work. This will happen again, particularly since there will be a decreasingly supply of oil available to run our industrial economy (or at least a significantly more expensive supply). Industry will be forced to "rationalize", and that likely means "downsize". This will in turn lead to additional pressures on our economy.

And you can forget about those cheaply made-in-China products which we’ve become so dependent upon to enrich our lives (and I’m as guilty here as anyone else, what with my own laptop having just bit the dust this past weekend...I’m already in withdrawal mode, and am starting to feel my whole world...shrinking...!) because the costs of making these products in China or where ever are also going to be on the increase due to greater energy prices. And then factor in the increases to transportation costs.

Everything is going to become more expensive, and there will be fewer Canadians making money. That’s one of the biggest challenges we face from Peak Oil.

Is our institution of Democracy here in Canada robust enough to address this imminent situation? I don’t believe it is, and largely that’s because I don’t believe that our government, be it Liberal or Conservative, is going to be ready to admit to Canadians that the good times have come to an end. They will not be alone amongst western democratic governments in this denial of reality. Since democracy inherently works on presenting the best set of options to those who are voting for you, what chance would a political party which advocates the imposition of austerity measures have?

Such a political party wouldn’t even have to run on a platform of energy rationing to be ineffective. Just telling people that our lifestyles need to change as a result of the crisis which we find ourselves in the midst of is going to limit popular votes, and nullify the voice of such a Party. Our government has spun the truth about the climate change crisis now pretty much since day one; if we continue to lack for an adult conversation about climate change, which is a pretty popular topic right now, what chance do we have to address Peak Oil?

At least when we start sliding the slope, we’ll be able to point to rising energy prices and say "this is directly impacting our health and well-being today". Unfortunately, the solutions which we might try to address Peak Oil may be to lower government taxes on the product, and make gasoline and home heating oils less expensive, or at least to offset those increases in price. The problem here is that if we do so, our governments will lose needed revenues which could otherwise translate into investments in infrastructure which would assist Canadians in truly dealing with the crisis in the end of cheap energy.

Make no mistake here, successive Liberal and Conservative governments have been cutting away at taxes for decades now, although the Taxpayer Federations would have you believe otherwise. Our government have lost hundreds of billions of dollars in revenues through tax cuts, which have primarily benefited the richest in our society at th expense of public investment which would benefit all. Cutting taxes on oil after the peak will be another wasteful exercise which the majority of Canadians, facing higher prices, are likely to embrace.

There will be consequences to these decisions, however. Our economy has always created winners and losers, with the losers grossly outnumbering the winners. As they say, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. With the end of cheap oil, we are likely to see even more of a split between rich and poor, through the democratic choices we make at the ballot box regarding the level of appropriate taxation.

Without public sector investments, the least wealthy in our society will start to feel the pinch. Likely this will manifest itself in a very real way when the working poor can no longer afford to get to work due to higher gas prices and a lack of commuting options. In situations where there are an increasing number of unemployed, coupled with shortages in energy and food, what might happen? I think that this mix will be explosive.

With the ballot box an ever-decreasing option for citizen engagement with government, how might Canadians begin to engage? Is it possible that if events continue to unfold as predicted, and we find ourselves in a situation where the economically disadvantaged feel that they can no longer rely on the good of the greater society just to get by, I think that we are going to see a significant level of agitation and social unrest, starting with civil disobedience, but leading potentially to violent clashes with whoever is in authority.

When change can not be affected at the ballot box, there are likely going to be attempts made to affect it through other means. Over and over and over again our Government continues to prove to Canadians that it is not ready to take the actions necessary to address the crises which we find ourselves in the midst of. With a complacent and co-opted media, there is really no one leading the call for action.

When inaction is no longer viable for a significant segment of our society, which will have largely already turned away from democratic processes, we can expect dire consequences.
I do not advocate this approach. I am merely saying that I believe Canadian democracy is in trouble because we are not being honest with ourselves about what the future holds. I believe that we need to demand change in all of our governmental institutions (starting first with passing fair election laws where the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box actually translates into governance). If we do not begin to change, than change will be thrust upon us, and it will likely not be an expression of the democratic majority. Instead, it will be reactionary.

And what sorts of measures might our government take to address this sort of reactionary change? Well, there are models for that scenario as well.

(Continued in Part 6...)

Inaction on Climate Change will Cost Too Much

(originally posted at

Letter to the Editor of the Sudbury Star in response to the Star's excellent article regarding the anticipated impacts of climate change on Sudbury and Canada.

The publication of this article, however, does not alter my on-going thesis that the mainstream media is out of step with regards to discussing the climate change crises which we are now in. However, it gives me a little more hope than I had last week. I certainly appreciate this story appearing in my local Sun-media owned paper, after having to read Lorrie Goldstein, Peter Worthington and the rest all week long. The comments from the local cadre of climate change deniers which appear at the end of the story on the Star's website should not be construed as being representative of the opinions of Sudburians. And I say that as someone who has monitored the media here, as well as the mood of the populace, for some time now. Still, though, it pisses me off.


Re: Taking the heat - Climate change, life will be different in 2050, Lara Bradley, Sudbury Star, October 31, 2009.

On the eve of the Copenhagen climate change talks, and with the recent release of the Pembina Institute/Suzuki Foundation economic study of the Conservative’s proposed greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, Canadians are thinking more and more about how our changing climate will impact our lives. Much of the analysis in the media has been focussed on the negative economic aspects of taking action to reduce emissions. Saturday’s article about the price of not taking action to address climate change was a bold and welcome departure from this approach, and a welcome addition to the climate change debate.

That debate is no longer about whether human-made climate change is occurring. Climate change is happening, and our carbon-intensive lifestyle has been the cause. The past advances which we have made and which have contributed to our quality of life have also sown the seeds which now threaten that quality of life. The current debate now is whether we are going to try to do something to curb the worst threats of climate change, or stand idly by and let our changing climate make those decisions for us.

Climate change will impact our lives in many ways, and we will have to adapt to this reality. We need to do so on our own terms. Our elected officials need to start talking to you about what these impacts will mean. However, there remains a great reluctance on the part of our elected officials to take meaningful action to address emissions, due to the wrong-headed perception that jobs will be lost and the economy will suffer if we implement measures to reduce emissions.
Our leaders are not talking about the price of inaction: how many jobs will be lost and what will happen to our economy when we find ourselves living in the Canada described in Saturday’s article? The price of inaction is significantly higher than acting now to reduce emissions, even at this late date. We still have an opportunity to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Our elected officials, however, don’t seem to be getting the message that "doing nothing" is the more economically dangerous course of action.

Steve May
CEO, Sudbury Federal Green Party Association