Category Archives: society

Soap Operas in the News

We find ourselves in the middle of a well-known curse, for it is true that we live in interesting times. Common sense has fled, as has basic numeracy, and our media fails us yet again, for the story isn’t about what is going on, but about the cut and thrust of competing sound-bites.

Truly, this is an era — internationally, federally, provincially and municipally — where soap opera has taken over all programming.

Delays of Our Lives

Does one hand know what the other hand is doing? Can anyone count? The current contre-temps in Ottawa is Conservative claims that the Senate (dominated by the Liberals) is hold up their spending bills, while, at the same time, Liberals claim the Conservatives could move faster. Go figure.

Do any media hosts point out that the bills in question arrived in the Senate only last Thursday and that they are already in committee? No, they do not. Instead, the story becomes the current line of “they’re not pulling EI changes out”. Good heavens, an ever-shifting target — on both sides of the aisle — is all that is deemed newsworthy now. It is the game of “he said, she said” and no logic applied.

As The Stomach Churns

Then there’s the meme of the “ever worsening economic conditions”. Does anyone ask why any of us should expect that anything done to intervene could have made a difference when it is historically established that monetary policy changes take nine months minimum, and as much as eighteen, to work their way into the economy and make a difference? Fiscal policy changes are typically a year or more into the future as well, yet the charge is “not good enough, do more” mere days after action is taken.

We are staring at an abyss, mostly brought about by our own bad policy decisions. So far, in listening to the English-language news, only the Australians (ABC Radio National) seem willing to actually add up the days, challenge the wisdom of doing more until the last actions have had a chance to work, etc. But in most of the rest of the world, no one is asking the question: they simply echo the Opposition’s standard mantra of “not good enough” (wherever they are). It is certainly no different here.

Meanwhile, of course, we are not solving the underlying issues. It is now clear that systematic embezzlement and pyramiding of risk was undertaken, yet we seem determined as international policy to leave it all in place. No wonder there is no confidence. Do you hear anything of this in the stories? No.

General Horses**t

Meanwhile, of course, we all stumble down the same paths while blaming other governments. “It’s not our fault, it’s theirs” has become as much of a meme as “they’re not doing enough” has across the aisles of our legislatures.

Let’s be clear: just because everyone else wants to, lemming-like, be an idiot, why does this require you to be one?

Countries (the UK, Germany) are already having trouble selling their government debt. In the case of Germany, this is the strongest part of the EU: we are not dealing with minor nations here. US debt demand is crowding out everyone else — including corporate needs, as businesses closing around the world because they can’t sell their debt at any price shows — and yet everywhere, from profligate provinces to spendthrift nations, there is an assumption that this paper can just “be placed” — and at rock bottom interest rates, too.

Again, where is the media, adding up the deficit numbers and asking where the placement money will come from? That might actually require the ability to add 2 + 2 and get 4, so forget that. Far easier to put on competing talking heads yelling at each other, isn’t it?

Beast-Enders

Here is where this sorry story will end: governments will fail. Provinces and states will have no choice but to wholesale chop their core programs for lack of funds. Nations will have no choice but to let inflation loose — and it will rise as interest piles up on the debt they’ve added. Trade deficits will lead to protectionism and further reductions in economic activity, as will the disappearance of more and more companies and with them their activity.

Where will what’s left of the media (for it is not immune to this) be? Carrying the screaming and reporting on the riots — but never, never pointing out how we’re headed toward this due to our choices today.

After all, the talking heads won’t point that out, and the idea of putting a story in context died a long, long time ago.

Constipated Street

The refusal of the media to do its job had its roots in the ease with which they could put talking heads on the air. Real investigation, and working out how to make it approachable for readers, listeners and viewers, costs more money than opening the phone lines or letting people shout at one another does. If today the media is looking at its irrelevance and shrinking audiences, it has only itself to blame — well, that and the theory (advanced by the media) that concentration of ownership was a good thing, especially using debt to make the concentration work.

The refusal of politicians to tell the truth to the people — to treat them as citizens, not as consumers — is also a key part of this. Anyone with two brain cells to rub together can look at the banking “industry” (there’s your first sign of failure: banking is a “utility” and thus requires utility-style regulation) in the US, UK, etc. and see that the old Glass-Steagal and pre-Big Bang rules served those nations well — and that the current regime, of collateralized debt obligations, mark to market securities, liar-loan risk on mortgages, etc., has not. We might disagree about how to fix the situation, but the source of the problem is clear. It’s even bipartisan: the Conservatives made it happen in the UK and Labour has extended it; the Democrats made it happen in the USA and the Republicans extended it. Yet the issue cannot be spoken of — and the media only speaks of it in partisan terms.

No wonder our countries are dying. Systematic mediasclerosis and the big lie sound-bites will see to that. No wonder, too, the average person now has no confidence in the political system, the fixes on offer, or the news and reporting they see, hear and read.

No wonder, too, that so many dedicated bloggers have lost interest in blogging lately (myself included). There’s a feeling of ennui abroad that the train wreck is inevitable.

This is what happens when politics and the news and analysis work of the media degenerates into entertainment — and nothing more.

Getting Outside the Bubble

Whether we know it or not, we all live in bubbles. It is human nature to prefer the company — real or virtual — that we find congenial. This often translates, these days, into “people who agree with me”.

So co-religionists flock to co-religionists; party members flock to fellow party members; people in technical roles (accountancy, human resources, IT, etc.) gather with others of their work in industry associations and the like; and so on. This, in turn, fits those we choose to feed our desires for opinions.

When, for instance, a die-hard Conservative says “the CBC is against the Conservative Party”, what is meant is “I didn’t hear anyone on there I could agree with”. It’s easy to find evidence of bias if you’re looking for it. At the start of the G-20 meeting in Washington, for instance, footage of Prime Minister Harper walking with President Bush was shown. Easy to think this was at the conference, but the light seemed wrong: too bright and intense for November. Then, too, it was a shirt-sleeve environment in the shot. This was probably stock footage, rather than live coverage (which is typically by pool cameras in any case and therefore seldom shows anything Canadian) — but it didn’t say so. Bias? or fairly reported. You decide. I think it was just available footage as opposed to anything sinister.

Of course, “we report, you decide” is the slogan of the either deeply beloved or utterly despised Fox News Channel, isn’t it? I can report — having spent a few days with an American friend of mine who is a Fox News junkie and has his big screen on from morning to night — that FNC is actually two channels. Morning and afternoon programming actually does, for the most part, live up to the promise of “fair and balanced”, more so than most other 24/7 news channels. As afternoon starts to slide toward evening, however, it turns into an obvious and often vicious news twister carrying forward messages that support Fox’s party of choice.

How can I mention the CBC and FNC in the same breath? Well, because I do try to get outside my own bubbles of like-minded thinkers.

I found watching FNC in the evening very hard to do, even when I was on the same side of an issue they were reporting in a favourable manner, mostly because they were so obviously so over the top in twisting things. Still, it’s good to check out other bubbles occasionally, and to try and be open enough to them to “peer behind the curtain”.

This is also why, for instance, I stay away from joining a partisan or issue-centric aggregator. Sure, I could have more traffic for this blog (although it keeps growing by word of mouth as more people find it or are referred to it). I might generally support the ideals of the Conservative Party, and do think Prime Minister Harper hasn’t done a bad job overall. (Expecting perfection — or perfectibility — is a mug’s game anyway.) Does that mean he’ll (or his party) have my support next week? Perhaps not. For the fact that I send money to parties — and in the last two years the NDP and the Conservatives have received funds, as have candidates for the NDP and the Green Party — does not mean I am a die-hard partisan. I have standards and principles and positions on issues, but my blood does not run with the rhetoric of “my party, right or wrong”.

But I do enjoy — and consider essential — reading quality writers from all the major threads of thought and political stripe. (I have little time for tripe, and less stomach for it. Nor do I want to weed through masses of screaming, foul invective, outright twisting of the facts or character assassination, regardless of issue or position on the political spectrum. Rabid Conservatives are generally as noxious as are Rabid Liberals (Warren Kinsella, anyone?), Rabid NDPers or Rabid Greens.) Passion is fine, so is commitment: just try to convince me and retain your own integrity while you do that.

We need to get out of the bubbles we inhabit because more and more issues we must deal with — from the economy, to the environment, to the military, to the question of national investments, and so on — don’t “fit” the classic shorthands for allegiance. Party tents may well be “big” (or at least the attempt is made) but we are coming to a time where more and more discussions must cross boundaries to succeed in finding ways to move forward. Listening to only one’s own group of voices can’t do that.

If so many people don’t vote and don’t care to vote, could it be because the system as it is now has nothing and no one for whom they wish to vote?

Think about this for a minute. It’s assumed that if a party has the right policies to put in its “shop window” and a charismatic leader that victory can be achieved. But what if the citizen says “you know, I like this but I can’t stand that”? The presumption of a “big tent” is that that citizen would hold his or her nose to vote for what they like. Perhaps instead people are saying “I’m not holding my nose: figure me out”.

Is this a recipe for further fragmentation in our politics? Most likely, and that implies the need to undertake some structural reforms to deal with that. Why was Chuck Cadman so admired in 2005? Wasn’t his election as an Independent something that gave him, when it mattered, the chance to act on his promises rather than vote a party line? The opposition parties ask — even demand — that the Government listen to their proposals and act on them. When the Government, in turn, takes idea “a” from one party, idea “b” from another and puts forward a course of action that contains these alongside the Government’s own electoral commitments and policies, why do we hear screaming that the Government is acting in arrogance rather than praise for having picked up “a” and “b”?

Echo chambers, that’s why. The number of people looking for co-operative, cross-boundary action is apparently smaller than the number of people who are “to the wall” partisans. Certainly the media’s approach — talking heads fulfilling “roles” in ritualized combat — and the Parliamentary game of sound-bite dominance aid and abet this.

Perhaps the non-voters are part of the cross-boundary community: their voice just isn’t heard on television, on radio, in the papers or in the Commons.

So, if you’re a Conservative, read Liberals and NDP (and so on). If you’re a Liberal, stop despising Conservatives as unethical (they’re not; they just use more moral principles than you do to reach a position, as Jonathan Haidt talked about at the TED conference) and NDPers as “Liberal vote stealers” and enter their worlds. If you’re in support of the NDP … well, you should get the idea.

After all, with new ideas and a disturbing of a “too comfortable” and “closed” mind-set, the bubble you save may be your own.

Mere Anarchy Unleashed is Closer Than We Think

Last night in the Vancouver area was a case study in how even carbon-taxed gasoline, and pump prices above $1.50/litre, aren’t even beginning to make a change in the average person’s habits, exemplified by jumping behind the wheel and sitting idling for hours in traffic. (In the interests of fairness, I count myself amongst that group — although a combination of good timing with the double lane northbound on the Lions’ Gate Bridge and the reopening of the Ironworkers’ Memorial Second Narrows Bridge meant we only spent 25 minutes in the queue on West Georgia St. to access the North Shore. This is not an exercise in pointing fingers: we all have a lot of habits to re-educate.)

What made this fascinating was the sheer number of people moving back and forth between the North Shore and the City core for the purpose of getting to a prime vantage point to see the Dominion Day fireworks at Canada Place, launched above Burrard Inlet, which separates North Vancouver from Vancouver proper — and that, from the prime points of Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver to the area around Canada Place itself runs the SeaBus, a public transport system (plus free parking in quantity at Lonsdale Quay). In other words, the long queue — stretching from the bridge approach all the way back to three blocks from Lonsdale Quay of people trying to leave the North Shore for the city — was eminently avoidable (as was my family’s car trip to North Vancouver for dinner and fireworks watching as well).

Nevertheless, complaining about the sheer cost of fuel, cars lined up and docilely spewed exhaust while consuming tankloads of fuel, simply because we can’t imagine any other way of getting there from here. (Raphael Alexander’s report at his blog, Unambiguously Ambidextrous, on his mis-adventures in road life, serve as another view on yesterday’s behaviour here in Lotusland, the ecotopian gem of the country.)

It ought to be clear enough, one would think, that we have approached an inflection point where how we lived previously is in jeopardy, and that learning new habits is required. (It was in the summer of 2001 that I was purchasing fuel for my car — the same trusty economical Honda Civic I still drive — for $0.54.1/litre; today it’s $1.52.0.) Yet nothing has really changed: we complain, but suck it up and continue to pay. In the same way we move to ever-farther suburbs (excusing our pending commuting costs as “something that will come back down”) to maintain a reasonable cost of accommodation, or take on masses of debt in a price bubble real estate market (when an 80-year-old bungalow on a minimal lot in need of serious renovation and repair in my neighbourhood sells for $2.3 million, all I can do is shake my head and picture the likelihood the buyer will end up under water with that mortgage!) — common sense has left the building, and mythology and a refusal to recognise that the changes have already occurred and now intensifying in amplitude and intensity rules the day. As Shane Edwards at The Politic.com pointed out, the “law of unanticipated consequences” now waits in the wings, bringing further disruptions and systemic shocks. Enjoy the summer; the fall and winter promise to be rocky, indeed!

I engaged in a quick conversation at lunch hour today with a fellow user of Twitter.com whom I happened to bump into in person (you can follow me on Twitter via this link) and he noted how the language of environmental change offered by his neighbours in the Bowen Island community is not borne out in practice — down to development on the island and the decisions being made with general public approval that reflect a “growth mentality” unabated. We parted agreeing that the price signals being received are nowhere near the point where behaviour will begin to change. “A doubling, at least, to $3.00/litre [and its equivalents for heating oil, natural gas, etc.] will be needed” was our consensus.

Since that conversation, however, I’m not convinced that even that will be enough. This is not even a reflection of the lack of investment in alternative public infrastructure. Rather, the rapidly freezing real estate market (it has flipped, suddenly in the last six weeks, into a buyer’s market from a seller’s market) and the mass indebtedness of society will cause us to freeze, deer-in-the-headlights style, in our current arrangements. Many will be trapped in mortgages that are under water, owing more than the sale of their property will realise, and forced to continue driving to work, to buy groceries, to ferry children in child-unfriendly suburbs (cul-de-sac communities branching off of arterial roads with single-purpose zoning are, alas, decidedly child-unfriendly: there’s no alternative to being driven), and the higher costs of everything just bring the moment of dispossession or bankruptcy closer. If one is trapped and there is no alternative, change is seldom entertained.

It has, of course, the potential to get much worse. Business activity will be severely impaired. Jobs will be shed in an effort to manage rising costs. Goods delivery will be increasingly erratic, as trucking falls apart (already its economics have eaten the profits from driving, and truckers are going bankrupt or parking their rigs because they can’t afford to operate them). Laying taxes down on top of these — BC is already sending the public smoke signals that the promise of lowering personal and business income taxes as the carbon tax escalates might not be kept if the economy slows, as “revenue neutrality” will convert into “maintain government revenues” — is a deadly double whammy.

As W. B. Yeats said in his well-known poem, “The Second Coming”, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. This is what it will take to bring us to the point of actually changing our habits. For, as Yeats also said, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The average citizen is not bad; he or she is merely juggling priorities, and trying to hold his or her nose above the water while being squeezed unmercifully. Meanwhile, as always, those who thrive on controlling others escalate their volume and demand “action, more action”, thus making the problem worse as unanticipated consequences continue to pile up. Eventually, of course, the centre is rejected and the anarchy comes, but by then a generation or two have lost their assets and been crippled, and society has fallen apart to be rebuilt again.

Many, of course, plant their belief in technological change, most recently as reported in The Economist. In the long run, technological advances may well give us energy alternatives that make sense. In the short to medium term, however, we cannot reasonably expect the development and large scale deployment of the alternatives required, especially when delaying the purchase of a new vehicle is the first choice of action for anyone who is already financially strapped (and in BC, where a twenty year useful life for an automobile is not at all out of the question, and the cost of living is already sky high, don’t expect a fast turnover of the fleet on the roads to take advantage of changes). Demonstration projects and local initiatives, yes — not a wholesale replacement of the fossil fuel economy. (Indeed, just as with the oil sands in Alberta, which required the previous rise to a sustained oil price of $50.00/bbl or higher to make them economically viable, these alternatives will require today’s prices to be sustained or go higher to make them economically viable. Only those who are full of passionate intensity also believe the laws of supply and demand, or of sustainable economic activity, can be waived aside with the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen and a politician’s speech.

No, it is the very dependence upon private (and near-private) motor transportation that must be overcome. But our urban and suburban infrastructures, our “globalised supply chain” economy, our ideas about single-purpose zoning and many more “facts on the ground” stand four-square against changing this, except for those willing to relocate and take losses in economic potential to do so early (the later switchers will find that the viable non-driving infrastructure is “not available at any price”).

Never forget that the Campbell Government’s top transportation priority is not public transportation, but roads for private trucking and private cars. The carbon tax that took effect yesterday is just a cash grab despite all the rhetoric: all the rest of their programme is geared to “more of the same”. Ignore their passionate intensity on the subject. As for the Stéphane Dion “Green Shift”, it is this and ten-fold worse, with its unabashed sense that “government will know best” — and no sense of what the priorities ought to be.

The life portrayed at Barkerville is returning quickly to being the best we can expect, except that we shall face it in the ruins of a civilisation that built to excess on a non-renewable resource basis. Where is the leader who will speak the truth of this? Where is the elimination of programmes to make way for investments in public infrastructure to mitigate that future? Where is the down-sizing of government to deal with a society that can’t afford its current taxation level as its economic output shrinks?

For make no mistake, if we do not prepare for this, all the personal habit changing in the world will be overcome by the violence and anarchy that will be unleashed as the centre finally fails to hold.

Who We Are: A Guide for Perplexed Canadians

Today marks the 141th recurrence of the coming into force of the British North America Act of 1867 and thus the transition of the colonies known as the Provinces of Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia into this new creation, the Dominion of Canada. It is for this reason that this day has been historically known as “Dominion Day” — and so I still call it.

I do not wish to rant about Pierre Trudeau and his underhanded stealing of our national symbols and heritage in an afternoon, shovelling three readings of his act to, amongst other things, change the name of our national holiday to the insipid “Canada Day”, through both the House of Commons and the Senate in the space of an hour or so, then driving the act for Royal Assent to the Governor-General’s residence so that, between lunch and dinner, our history as a nation was disposed of. Just let it be said that I disagree fundamentally with his actions and refuse to recognise his changes. (Perhaps one day I shall be blessed with a Government in Ottawa that will undo this travesty — but I’m not holding my breath waiting for it.)

Instead, today, to celebrate Dominion Day, I want to reflect on what makes Canadians “Canadian”. This is as true of the newest immigrant who chooses to remain here, landed (even if never becoming a citizen), as of those of us who (unlike me) can trace their Canadian roots back hundreds of years to before the coming of European settler colonists.

We are the land of multiple identities, overlaid and interacting one with another.

Few nations have consciously chosen to be so, especially since the American and French Revolutions, which brought forth the notion of (to use Eric Voegelin’s words) a “civic theology” to bind their inhabitants together. The United Kingdom attempted something less deep, overlaying the notion of being British on the top of being (at one level) Irish, Welsh, Scottish or English, and at another level being of a particular shire or county.

When our Fathers of Confederation met — and we should not forget that it was the Maritime colonies who called that meeting to discuss forming a unitary state, and that the representatives of the Province of Canada who came then discussed a larger project (but one that could not be carried out in the context of a unitary state, thus requiring a Federal model — they recognised the pre-existing identities of the parts of what would become Canada. They also recognised that the British model would serve a Confederated Canada well: Queen-in-Parliament would apply at two levels of government, and each would have their respective domains.

In choosing to name our land, the original idea was “Kingdom of Canada”. (The Queen is Queen of Canada in her own right; if the United Kingdom became a republic tomorrow and overthrew the monarchy, the Queen would still be our Queen. Indeed, the first Act of Parliament following the death of King George VI was one to recognise Queen Elizabeth as having ascended the throne — and to style her “Elizabeth II” to avoid confusion [England’s Queen Elizabeth I having reigned long before the Canadian monarchy existed, or, indeed, settler colonies in what is now Canada]. At the passing of our current monarch, we may choose to enthrone someone other than the inheritor of the British throne — but we will remain King-or-Queen-in-Parliament for all that.)

A good name, but there were worries about the reaction across the border in the United States, where the Union Army, having just won the Civil War, could be remobilised easily. The choice that was made, therefore, was “Dominion of Canada”, a new term in political parlance, to recognise the monarchical principle without suggesting that a royal house was being settled in North America. The name was used by others: the Dominion of Newfoundland and the Dominion of New Zealand come to mind — but we were the first.

We fail, often, to remember that our formative constitutional document, and our form of government, falls amongst the oldest continuous ones on earth. France, for instance, has been through an empire, three republics and the Vichy interregnum in the same time we have governed ourselves. Germany was proclaimed in 1871, when BC became Canada’s sixth province and four years after the Dominion was proclaimed, and has been through an empire, two republics plus the Soviet republic in the east, the Reich and occupation by the Allies since then. In other words, long-standing governmental systems are quite rare. We should be proud of how well our forefathers built.

From the beginning, it was expected that we would be citizens of our country, of our province, perhaps even of our region within that province. Rather than subsuming all into one “love of country”, as a civic theology impresses upon citizens born and naturalised alike, we have always accommodated the notion, so well expressed originally in Plato and as echoed in the works of Canadian philosopher George Grant, that love of the whole is built up from love of particulars. We are called, in other words, to have multiple identities, multiple loyalties, and to (as a mathematician might note) to have these be fractal structures and form a complex adaptive system of evolving identity at the national level.

Multiculturalism (yet another “gift” of the Cartesian-inspired rational Trudeauvian recreation of Canada) plays its role in this as well, as long as the multicultural community comes to share in the fractal Canadian identity (and so, to CKNW’s Christy Clark, who won an award for her shriek at a guest over whether or not “New Canadians” needed to become “Europeans”, I say “to the extent that Canada is European in its civilisation and culture then, yes, all of us do, to some extent. That’s the nice part about the Canadian identity: it is not one that replaces or encompasses other identities one has: it is just another part of the person who holds it.)

The Welsh have a wonderful word — cynefin — that means (more or less) “the place where your multiple identities dwell”. That is what the Dominion of Canada means (as opposed to the half-flag wordmark “Canada” that replaced it under Trudeau). The Trudeau change was one to create a single identity, to rationalise the others out of existence. This, in turn, backfired, and created a void in its place.

The next time you despair at pointing to “single-payer public-sector health care” or the theme for Hockey Night in Canada as symbols of the Canadian identity, saying “is that all there is?”, know that you are living in the world’s first state designed for identities that are a rich tapestry of parts that may not fit perfectly together — and was meant to allow you to be human in this way, rather than moulded to fit an invariant model of what you are to be. Americans, for instance, might say “America: Love It or Leave It”. That thought is alien to the core of a Canadian: we both love and despair, exult and wonder why, with every breath we take — and we do it regardless of what part of the country we are in, or how long we have been here.

We are a land of many nations — many First Nations, the Québécois nation, our various “English Speaking” nations, the Newfoundland nation, and on and on threads taken from around the world — interacting in a kalidoscopic interplay of light and colour. All within a set of traditions that do go back to Europe, and are a part of Western civilisation: this is the inheritance of our founding fathers, and all those who have led this country since. (Even Trudeau, whom I abhor, drew on this: simply different parts.)

We have much, indeed, to be proud of, in our quiet and unassuming way. (It is why, when I bumped into a Francophone Quebecker at the Citadel in Cannes, France, in 1991, he said “In Québec, I am from the Saguenay; in Canada, I am a Québécois; in the world, I am un Canadien”. He was an ardent supporter of both the Bloc Québécois and the Parti Québécois — and yet said this freely and with passion.) This is who we are.

May you have a joyous Dominion Day, my fellow journeyers on the pathway known as “being Canadian”.

We Need a Leader Who Will Deal in Reality

Green Shift, Green Shaft, Red Shift: there are as many names emerging as there are writers. The vitriol is rising: those who don’t offer carte blanche sign-on to the notion of adding a carbon taxation element to the tax scheme (regardless of whether the new tax is “revenue neutral” or not) are climate change deniers, antediluvian cretins and a whole series of other epithetical labels. It’s enough to make one want to climb under the comforter, pull it up and block the world out — except, of course, for the nonce it’s far too hot for that, being summer and all.

So, let’s look at why neither the BC carbon scheme that settles its hooks into my meagre income tomorrow morning nor the Stéphane Dion “we must do this or the world will end” Green Shift promised as policy should the Canadian people be conned into electing a Liberal Government the next time around is deserving of support.

Frankly, both schemes are hung on several petards where these political “leaders” could hoist themselves, thence to flap in the breeze, for neither BC nor the Federal Liberals offer a true programme aimed at the environment (despite the mounds of lying statistics, promised carbon savings, threats and jeremiads unleashed by their hangers on in the corporatist “environmental axis” of academe, foundations and pressure groups). For neither is dealing in reality.

That this sort of idiocy continues to dominate the pages and airwaves of the pabulum-pushing media, of course, is due to the equally inept and ridiculous approach the Harper Government, the BC NDP, etc. are taking to the issue. They’re not dealing in reality, either. In a clash of “ideas” (hah!) between these forces it is Canadians that are the losers.

Reality: Suburbia is a Dead Duck: The notion of a car-centred plot of land with a McMansion on it that requires two parents to be pressed into permanent roles as drivers, to get to work, to get the groceries, to ferry the children everywhere, has run its course. Those who live there, for the most part, are stuck there. House prices will crash decline rapidly to reflect the cost of filling the tank and operating the vehicles. This will be accentuated by the collapse of credit, which is already unfolding around us (and is a correlate to the loss of growth potential as cheap energy fades from the scene, coupled with the blow-off strategies that have ruined balance sheets all through the 1990s and 2000s to date).

Reality: Oil Production is Already in Decline: New finds? Practically none for fifteen years now; what’s been found is extremely expensive to recover, and a small field (by comparison) to boot. World production for the last two years has not exceeded 84 million barrels/day (Mbbl/d), down from its peak of 85.7 Mbbl/d in 2005, despite many new wells, extensive growth in non-traditional oil recovery, etc. Cantarell (formerly the world’s third largest field) is collapsing at over 15% per year; Ghawar (the world’s largest) likewise. Meanwhile world demand is well over 87 Mbbl/d. While there will be price ups-and-downs (as there are with any commodity) the trend is up — and up on an accelerating curve.

What’s more important is that no oil will be saved through carbon taxation. With demand greater than supply, savings in Canada translate into product available for immediate purchase and use elsewhere. In other words, it’s not as though we would be acting to either reduce emissions or save oil for future years, when it will be even harder to come by. (Canada has less than 10 years left of conventional light crude and natural gas. The United States has less than four. Mexico has less than five.) No, it will just be burnt and add to that devil of the twenty-first century, global warming, elsewhere. A true reduction is worth some disruption; taxing ourselves to death to allow the Chinese, the Indians, etc. to drive themselves (and us) to the breaking point of civilisation as we know it just as rapidly makes no sense at all. (Note that Stephen Harper’s objections to Kyoto have centred, in good measure, on its exclusion of these countries: apparently “blue” is greener than “red”, “orange”, “teal” or “green” itself, not that any of that army of environmental “experts” nor zeitgeist-setting tub-thumpers like Lawrence Martin, Jeffrey Simpson, Carol Goar, etc. will acknowledge it.)

Reality: Trucking is for the “last mile”, not for distance: So shipping goods by truck, if fuel will be hard to come by, is a pretty dumb idea, right? Not according to the BC Government, nor the Green Shift. BC wants to build new perimeter roads, new bridges, etc., all to make shipping by truck even easier. Billions to be spent — ahead of the investments in alternative transport, either as public transit, interurban rail or heavy rail infrastructure for commerce (and nothing for water-borne transport) — to make it possible to build ever more suburbs on the country’s prime agricultural land. Stunned? You bet! Meanwhile the Dion Green Shaft makes Western Canadians and Atlantic Canadians pay so that the same sprawl lifestyle in Ontario and Québec can be maintained and extended. (Sprawl in the West and in the East isn’t sustainable either, of course, but sucking the productive parts of the country dry to keep the unproductive parts — such as Dalton McGuinty’s “same old transfer mind-set” province — carrying on just as before ends up reducing us all to penury (and makes the inevitable changes we must make that much harder for the waste of the resources we have today).

But, hey, it’s about votes, right? Not about the environment, not about changing us to live in the real twenty-first century: it’s all about just getting elected (or in Campbell’s case in BC, re-elected yet again). À l’enfer avec vous politiciens libéraux perfides — especially those who have the knowledge to know better, like Garth Turner. Comment about Garth Turner removed.

Reality: We need a better infrastructure: We need a massive investment in rail, and an electrification of many of the lines. We need to restore the interurban (lighter rail, regional services) systems we once had and ripped up to accommodate the automobile. We need electrically-run public transit: trolley buses or streetcars or light rail trams. We need the nuclear and hydro plants to power these — or a minimal number of carbon sequestration coal plants. We need to restore water-borne transport systems, using our rivers and canals. We need local agriculture. We need local manufacturing (no more McCrap from China at the “Great Wall” Mart). We need to restore communities of human scale. There is a long list of jobs, in other words, and it will be expensive.

This is what a real environmental programme would look like. Note that none of this depends on changing the behaviour of any other nation: just our own. We (barely) have the time and resources to do this now, but we (unlike our southern neighbours) can do it — our cracking of deficit financing last decade by first Chrétien and then provincial premiers, building on the removal of operating deficits under the Mulroney years, has given the country the fiscal capacity needed.

Separately, once in a generation you can uproot and restructure the tax system in a big way. If there is a complaint I have about the BC carbon tax regime and the proposed Green Shift it is that it misses that opportunity. Wipe out income tax entirely and replace it with consumption taxation (carbon and/or value added tax). Wipe out all other taxes (excise, gasoline, etc.) and just have a pump-based carbon tax. This was a time for big opportunities. Unfortunately, what we’re getting are the ideas of little men afraid of their shadows.

The Conservatives have yet to be heard from: It is time for the Conservatives to stop whingeing, fear-mongering and lashing out. Will they provide what no other party has (or probably can): a set of policy proposals that actually deal in the reality we are experiencing and that will unfold over the next few years? Or will they, too, miss the chance by playing it safe?

The time for a real leader is now.

The Disruptive Years Ahead

We stand at the brink of a great change. It is not given to every generation to face a major shift; we are facing several piled one on top of the other. The times ahead will be confusing, difficult, and more than ever each of us will be called to keep our reason intact and to act virtuously.

The End of an Economic Model

Carroll Quigley, in The Evolution of Civilizations, speaks of what allows a civilization to avoid terminal decline. In it, he points out that the West has had three different economic models, the first two of which ran their course and ossified into a degenerate form that was taking Western civilization onto the path of decline, but which were wrenched out and into a new growth path, revitalizing our culture. The third, industrial capitalism, ran its course around the same time he wrote this book, and degenerated in the 1970s — a period, as John Ralston Saul noted in Voltaire’s Bastards, and The Unconscious Civilization, is an economic disruption akin to a low-grade depression. It was replaced by its degenerate form, which has ossified and forced the West again into decline, of finance capitalism, which is now being exposed as a web of treachery, scam and deceit, such as Karl Denninger has reported in his “Market Ticker” on a near-daily basis.

Finance capitalism has (as with many things) been neither an unalloyed evil nor an unalloyed good. It has led us into massive personal debt, an expectation of ever-rising asset values in the face of all experience, an implicit Marxism of bailout expectation (21.03.2008 posting, “Bailout Nation”, subscription required)as posted by Bill Fleckenstein at his Fleckenstein Capital blog, and as in his new book, Greenspan’s Bubbles: The Age of Ignorance at the Federal Reserve, or in the works of William Bonner (Financial Reckoning Day, Empire of Debt and Mobs, Messiahs and Markets, amongst others. We, in other words, have our backs against the wall, and expect someone else to pay to “make us whole”.

Is this not what someone like Garth Turner, MP (Lib.-Halton), has been warning of? Forget, for a moment, whether this is a story being “spun” for partisan advantage or not — even as a rowboat goes over the high waterfall and is in flight down to the rocks of the whirlpool below there will be those who tell the story in one way or another for a temporary advantage. Listen to the roar: around that bend, the water falls. We are on our way over the edge.

The End of Cheap Energy

Take a look at how we build cities: endless kilometres of sprawl over the countryside. As James Howard Kunstler noted in The Geography of Nowhere, Home from Nowhere, and The Long Emergency, we have built out a continental infrastructure that is wholly and completely based upon ubiquitous, cheap energy. Some locales may well do better than others if energy is less regularly available, less affordable, etc., as Kunstler noted in The City in Mind. None, though, will be untouched.

Canadians may not think much about energy availability: “aren’t we the great petro-power of the future?” Well, yes, we have substantial stocks of expensive-to-extract energy left. We needn’t — NAFTA claims aside — be left immobile and freezing in the dark for want of energy in a world where it is in decline. But it will not continue to be cheap. From Matthew Simmons, the West’s foremost oil economist, to Kenneth Deffeyes, leading petroleum geologist and expert on the question of peak supply conditions, to Paul Roberts, observers from all sides of the political spectrum conclude the same thing: we are experiencing the oil peak now. (Similar conclusions exist for natural gas, which is post-peak in North America.) In other words, from here on in, we are at supply limits that manifest themselves in two ways: rising prices as the available supply is matched, via the price mechanism, to the demand which, in exceeding it, is brought into conformance by raising the stakes and having some bidders choose not to play, and at a now-declining output, which reinforces this mechanism without let-up: a return to the supply shocks of 1973 and 1979, but this time without a “return to normal”.

The suburbs, the mall culture, the endless driving for everything, the not-in-my-backyard-ism of modern society: all of this is unaffordable. Ultimately, this cannot be patched (for instance, by allowing basement suites, granny flats, and adding transit services). We will need to make choices about where to concentrate — recall the interurban rail lines spreading out from cities, the “heavy streetcars” of their day, and how all development was within 300-400 m of a stop, the distance a person, loaded with bags, could handle on foot. Much of suburbia and exurbia will end up being abandoned, and mined for resources: this will be the slum clearance of 2030-2050 and beyond.

The End of the Pax Americana

Although I may, with ease, recall the fear of annihilation that pervaded the early 1960s, what with the building of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the like, we have in fact, whether in North America, in Western Europe or in the Antipodes, benefitted immensely from the long “peace” of the Cold War and the post-Soviet Union collapse period of the 1990s and early 2000s. American predominance, and its projection of power (there are nearly 800 American bases overseas, and the United States is the only world power able to project itself within days in force anywhere on the planet), has allowed the rest of the West to “coast”.

This is coming to an end as well. We in the West — Canadians, Australians, British, French, etc. — have, of course, been called upon to act on the ground in recent years in multiple theatres. That is because, as Thomas P. M. Barnett pointed out in The Pentagon’s New Map, military capabilities today fall into two classes: those that can quickly dispatch an enemy, and those that, over a long period of time, pacify the conquered, settle it, restore civil order, train their replacements, etc. (much as with Canada’s role in Kandahar). Most countries can afford only one military, and this is the one that is chosen; a very few can aspire to the one that can conquer a theatre half-way around the planet in a few days.

But a military capable of bringing relative peace to the planet depends on mass logistics, chief amongst which are cheap energy and sound government finances. The United States — as with the rest of us — is losing the first, and does not have the second. They have not gone through the wrenching adjustments needed to ground public finance into the realm of the affordable — an exercise Canadians will again have to go through as this combination of effects bears its weight upon government revenues and expenditures (at the same time that the demographic transition of the baby boomer generation hitting prime medical-care years hits) — and as Washington’s failing financial regime finally comes to grips with reality (either through the destruction of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency, sanity reigning in Congress and the White House, or both) the US’s forward presence and massive fleet and air force capabilities that lead to effective global policing will end. As with Britain (when it went through its successive waves of retreat from the world in the face of its “imperial overstretch”, as Paul Kennedy dubbed it in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers a decade ago, so, too, America.

Couple that with the fact that, in the twenty-first century, the advantage is to the defender, not the attacker, as outlined in the megapolitical analyses of James Dale Davidson and Sir William Rees-Mogg, Blood in the Streets and The Great Reckoning (two books whose investment advice was only spottily correct but whose historical and megapolitical analyses were prescient). This does not just mean that jihadis and terrorists can run amok, and that suicide bombers will be a fact of life. It means that there will be thrust and counter-thrust as the eternal game of great power jockeying takes place — and that continental-scale countries will ultimately fall apart.

What to Do?

In the one sense, there is little “to do”, other than at the personal level. We may yet create a fourth method of economic vitality — the West is near unique in its ability to do this, historically — but in the span of our lifetimes we must live through the unsettling of society brought about by the choices we made as a society in the twentieth century. Personally, one can choose to live more locally, and more lightly, upon the land — the only sane answer to $200 … $300 … $400 per barrel oil (and similar increases in petrol, natural gas, and electricity prices) is to equip oneself to use far less of it, both directly and indirectly in the food and product choices that one makes. If the potential for violence is increasing, one can move to areas of lower potential for it.

But the world we grew up in, and that the promise of our RRSPs, our investments, and our governments, is coming to an end. It will be a time of great turmoil and disruption, and of reinvention, simultaneously.

There is one thing you can be sure of, though: no one currently in a leading role in politics has any answers for this. The future will come from new leaders, willing to see the world as it is and not through ideologically-blinkered eyes. As, of course, will it come to those who shed these blinders personally, as well.

Enough of the National Security State

There have been no shortage of indignities heaped upon us all in the past few years, all in the name of security. The great idol of “Security”, in fact, has been used to steadily dissolve our liberties — liberties we spent centuries bringing to the forefront of Western societies. We are, I believe, at a tipping point: it won’t take much more before liberty itself disappears. Once lost, it will be hard to regain.

Saturday morning’s Daily Telegraph over in the United Kingdom leads with a story about how various airport terminals in the UK will require fingerprints (four of them) from each and every passenger entering and boarding flights. Frankly, I don’t much care what “problem” we are ostensibly solving with this sort of treatment. As Patrick Smith, author of Salon’s“Ask the Pilot” [warning: premium service] notes, flying is an annoying experience on the ground, starting with the alternating “hurry up”, “queue up” and “wait” sequences involved in dealing with the procedures around check-in, security, boarding lounges, boarding and the jetway. Adding facial image verification and the repeated application of four fingerprints simply to make it through these queues and onto the airplane will make a horrid experience even worse.

I really don’t give a care whether, as BAA says, “the biometric information will be tossed away within 24 hours and never given to police” because I don’t believe it for a second. We have spent more than a quarter-century now reciting the mantras of “cops are tops”, “only criminals need to fear”, etc.: what the police want they will get — and, when politicians are concerned, whether they want it or not, it will be forwarded regardless, “in the interests of security and early detection”. British Columbia’s Bill 73 (affectionately nicknamed the “Anti-USA Patriot Act” Law) forbids the storage — for any length of time — of any personal information about BC citizens where it could be subject to the American USA Patriot Act provisions for turning information over to police, security agencies and intelligence services. Laudable, one might think, except that for many of us — Nexus card holders, former INSpass holders, and now flyers to, from and through the UK, fingerprints, faces, etc. will be routinely available. If it is routinely available, it will be made available.

Separately, I am finding my anger rise every time I hear that phrase “police say he was known to them”. (Sometimes, it’s “well-known”, which is worse.) It seems that in just about every incident that makes the news these days the possible suspect(s) are “known to police”. What this phrase is starting to mean to me is that each and every one of us is on file. Our ability to be presumed innocent is gone: almost by definition, those “known to police” are those the general public sees as “up to something”.

So many of the “safety and security” procedures we are subjected to, of course, make us known (and make us feel as though we must have done something, to boot). Putting the fear of sudden arrest into us, of course, is part of the security state’s strategy: if everyone feels slightly guilty all the time, they will go along instead of standing up for their rights. The man who, for instance, protests the plain inefficacy and stupidity of airport security is the man who does not fly — not now, and possibly not ever again. The man who, for instance, questions why those people over there are being beaten with a billy club is not only likely to find himself in the paddy wagon, but probably sporting a lump or two as well. The man who, as happened in North Vancouver, stands on his right not to have his premises searched without a warrant finds his door broken down, himself thrown to the floor, and the search proceeding anyway while he is hauled off on charges of obstruction. So it goes, and so freedoms are lost.

In many cases, now, our laws are in direct conflict with one another: you cannot act without violating one of them. Read your province’s highway traffic or motor vehicle act carefully (often, this represents upward of 25% of all laws applicable in the jurisdiction). One must observe the posted speed limit, yet one must not obstruct traffic: in Halton, Ontario, a driver was charged with obstruction for driving at the speed limit on a road with legal passing zones by a police cruiser (not signalling with lights that there was an emergency) that was driven by an officer who wanted to go faster than the posted limit. When you can be charged with anything at any time, contempt for the law sets in.

This is the problem with the whole “law and order” motif, actually. Politicians love it: it’s a great vote getter. Media personalities love it, too: the boards light up for talk radio. Frothing at the mouth about “wrestling the problems to the ground” is easy to come by. But the rising violence in our streets is correlative to the crackdowns, thus generating even more “security apparatus”, which creates more contempt, and so on in a positive feedback loop.

A minimal set of laws; the sense of obligation to serve rather than to control: these are the tools for a polite, well-behaved society. Everything beyond that eats into liberty, public decency — and destroys a free people.

It is time to stand up and say “enough”, if we can. No special favours for groups. No law-piled-on-law. No constant monitoring. Assume a man in the street is minding his own business, as the presumption of innocence suggests.

It’s that — with all the inefficiencies involved — or the national security state. Leviathan will out if not restrained.