It’s the Stupid Economy

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In the late 1800s, income inequality had reached an all time high in most of the western world. What followed was fifty years of war and revolution. Did the first cause the second? It’s not certain but the evidence certainly points in that direction. The accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of the few was so great that America’s first populist President championed legislation to break up the largest corporations, notably in the oil industry but also in the beef and railroad industries. Perhaps that’s one reason the USA avoided many of the internal disruptions faced by many other countries in the 20th Century. In any case, for many countries, violence became the great leveler.

Income inequality began to fall in western nations from World War I until the 1980s when it began to rise again, slowly in much of Europe, more rapidly in the English-speaking countries and the developing world. While the USA has returned to economic divisions similar to what existed in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, countries in Latin America and parts of Africa and southeast Asia have even greater income disparities.

While at the extremes, inequality is almost unimaginable. The hundred richest people in the world have more wealth than the poorest billion. An “eat the rich” ideology now runs rampant among certain segments of the population. Personally, I suspect they’re not that tasty.

But income inequality runs deeper than that. If you are in the top 20% of the population, you have seen your wealth and income increase steadily if modestly over the last 40 years. You may not feel like Rockefeller and you may be worried about your kids’ future, but for the most part you feel secure and happy. As it turns out, money does buy happiness up to a point and beyond that point it mostly seems to buy you detachment from the real world.

For the rest of the population, things are not so rosy. Incomes have stagnated or even fell in real terms and the perceived gap between you and those ahead of you in the economic race has become magnified. And, once, we get to the bottom 20%, poverty levels have risen as incomes fall.

None of this should be surprising. The market system is specifically designed to produce winners and losers and its primary goal is the accumulation of wealth. While apologists for capitalism claim that a rising tide lifts all boats, most of them don’t seem to understand that a lot of people don’t own boats and many who do, have leaky dinghies always on the verge of capsizing and sinking.

And what does all this income inequality mean for us? Bad news for the most part. A definitive study of 23 countries suggested that increased income inequality leads to higher incarceration rates. That may seem unsurprising but it may also lead to higher rates of family breakdown, worse medical outcomes, shorter life spans, higher child mortality rates, greater social disruption and breakdown of governance systems. I suspect, since it apparently leads to more consumption, it also leads to greater environmental degradation including climate change. Just anecdotally, a single large yacht of the type owned by the super rich produces more greenhouse gases than 400 average-sized African villages. And the drive to accumulate wealth and then keep it almost certainly takes you directly through oil fields and rain forests.

It also explains the growing dislocation of most voters in western democracies. Faced with abundant evidence that the economy is failing them in both real and relative terms, they begin to distrust the politicians who lead their state—even when such distrust is clearly misplaced. The rise of populism on the left and right as well as the constant churn of single term governments comes from that distrust. Eventually, when no party seems able to solve their problems RIGHT NOW, they turn their back on democracy altogether. Which suits authoritarians (who ultimately prove to be supportive of the rich) just fine. Are there alternatives? I think so but that will have to wait because…

That’s ten minutes from Hayden Trenholm.

Photo by Raden Prasetya on Unsplash

Klaatu, where are you?

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In the 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, an alien named Klaatu comes to earth and almost immediately is gunned down. Luckily for him, death is not an impediment, at least, not initially. He delivers a message to the world – stop fighting among yourselves and join a peaceful galactic civilization. It’s not a particularly original idea (except for the galactic part) but it falls on deaf ears. They shoot him again but rather than destroying the planet he saves it from destruction be all powerful robots by famously uttering: Klaatu barada nikto!

Say what? While no one really knows what those words meant (even the screenwriter) they did the trick and the earth was spared. The theme of bringing the world together to fight alien invaders has subsequently been a well-worn trope of science fiction movies, though generally in subsequent iterations, it actually worked.

Klatuu failed in his mission of world unity but that wasn’t the point. What the director and writer might have been getting at is that the world was doomed if it kept on its current road of nuclear proliferation. It would take more than the intervention of one man (or alien) to change that. It was a collective exercise requiring international collaboration. We signed a couple of treaties and the world didn’t burn (though a couple of guys seem determined to change that).

Sort of like what we are currently facing with climate change. Much like the arms race, the world has been in a competitive frenzy to have more, to make more, to control more. Economies have expanded—not a bad thing in itself—at the cost of the environment and, as well, as the end game plays out, at the price of greater social and economic inequality. It is not sustainable but, for most of us, present pleasure always out weighs inevitable pain. Anyone who has had more than one hangover can attest to that.

But nothing is inevitable. In 1980, most of the countries of Africa were in the hands of dictators who had clung to power—using violence, propaganda, patronage and corruption—for more than 20 years. Most had the support of one of the Great Powers at the time—the US and its allies on one side and the Soviet Union on the other.

Then Michel Gorbachev arrived on the scene with the idea of glasnost, which lead to the fall of communism and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, caused mostly by internal transformations rather than the exhortations of Ronald Reagan. The effect in Africa was dramatic. The iron grip of Marxist dictators was loosened and, in many countries, multi-party states began their shaky existence. Western powers, too, no longer saw the benefit of supporting “useful dictators” like Mobutu in Zaire. Without continuing CIA support many lost their positions (though not the billions they had stolen over the years). It was not the end of Africa’s problems but it set the stage so that, in some countries at least, real progress could be made, while in others, things became less bad.

So maybe we don’t need an alien invasion after all (though I’d love to hear Donald Trump say he was going to build a wall around the earth and make the Martians pay for it). What we need are a few brave leaders to transform the earth… No, that’s not it, we need the whole population to wake up and kick a few of our so-called leaders in the butt and then, get on with the job at hand.

Because we really can’t be saved by the actions of one person (look at Russia today) but only by the collective action of the many, even if we have to drag the rest kicking and screaming into the future. While we still have one.

And that’s ten minutes from Hayden Trenholm

With a Whimper

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The UN report on the state of biodiversity offers a bleak assessment of nature. Species are going extinct at a rate never before recorded in human history. And almost all of it is caused by human activity. Climate change is taking its toll, of course, but the destruction of forests, growing urban sprawl and poor land use practices are all adding significantly to the devastation.

Many scientists now call the current era the Anthropocene (when man dominates the environment) and predict it may end with an extinction event equivalent to the five major events that wiped out more than 75% of species at various times in the past. The last came when an asteroid came down in the Yucatan and tipped the scales against the dinosaurs but there were similar catastrophes in the past.

The difference, of course, were those were caused by random accidents – this one seems deliberate.

One might think that it is a silly animal that fouls its own nest but humans have been doing it for, well, forever. Tribes of humans were generally nomadic because they had wiped out the local wildlife or depleted the soil in slash and burn farming. But it didn’t matter. Until 10,000 years ago, there weren’t enough humans on the planet to do real damage (though ask the giant sloths about that). Then came large-scale agriculture and it’s all been downhill since then. Though those early cities were pikers compared to what we’ve accomplished in the last two hundred years.

You would think we might be prepared to learn from history and some of us have. There is certainly plenty of evidence about what happens when humans think only in the present tense, ignoring history while pretending the future will take care of itself.

But do we listen? Sometimes. Do we change? Less often. When even the slightest effort to encourage better behavior (a modest carbon tax for example) is met with howls of rage from both left and right, you know there is not much hope for the human race.

It doesn’t help that a significant portion of the population are eagerly awaiting the end of the world and their (but not your) resurrection into the kingdom of heaven—no matter what version of the heaven they happen to hold dear. If you believe the end days are coming—as fundamentalists of various sects seem to hold true—what difference if the world burns and the birds fall from the sky? God’s plan and all that self congratulatory nonsense.

Then there is the “I’m alright, Jack” crowd who seem to believe that if they accumulate enough wealth, they and their descendants will somehow thrive in a devastated world. These are the same jackasses that believed that if they dug their bunkers deep enough, they would survive an all-out nuclear war. Sometimes I’d like to flash forward a couple hundred years and ask the dregs of the superrich how that worked out for them—if they haven’t already been eaten by their poorer cousins.

The worst are those who read these pronouncements of doom and acknowledge their truth, then throw up their hands and admit defeat. Nothing I can do personally so eat, drink and be merry… I’ve got nothing against any of those activities but I’m quite capable of multi-tasking. I can personally reduce my carbon (and equally important plastic and toxic waste) footprint while paying others to do more and voting in governments with the will to make all of us do better.

In any case it’s not the end of the world. Life has been almost wiped out on 5 previous occasions but here we are, in a world (still) filled with life. A million years from now there will still be life—different perhaps, but here nonetheless—while all the works of man from our cathedrals to our SUVs, from our arts to our imaginary friends in heaven will be reduced to a thin layer of plastic infused sediment for future intelligent beings, if new ones should arise, to ponder over.

On that hopeful note, this has been slightly more than ten minutes by Hayden Trenholm.

Photo by Dominik Vanyi on Unsplash

Burn, Baby, Burn

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Currently a war is being waged in Canada over something that should be a unifying proposal. The Canadian public, who overwhelmingly believe that climate change is one of the major issues facing the country, must be confused. Almost everyone agrees it is happening and most of those also accept that human activity is a major factor in causing it. Scientific studies show that is so and, moreover, that there are specific things we can and must do about it.

Now before you link me to the phony web-sites denying all this or trot out your long-debunked theories about WHAT IS REALLY GOING ON, let me tell you I’m not interested – that ship is sailed. You have been relegated to the trash heaps of voodoo history, along with anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers and Holocaust deniers. I can’t waste my precious time debunking that which, on the face of it, has no merit.

Besides, I want to get back to that which should unite us. The Carbon Tax, hereafter referred to as TCT.

Oh, I can already hear the gnashing of teeth—on both the left and the right. What’s that you say? You thought TCT was nothing but a leftist plot to destroy business and fund their crazy progressive programs. Well, not quite. A fair number on the left prefer a cap and trade system or a regulatory regime that gets at the real culprits of climate change, that is, large corporations, while protecting the innocent victim, ordinary folks like you and me. TCT is not sufficiently punitive to industry and governments, especially non-left ones, can’t be trusted not to keep the cash rather than use it to help taxpayers (which oddly is what those on the right say, too). What’s more, industry will simply pass the tax on to consumers. Bad all around.

Certainly, cap and trade worked pretty well for getting rid of sulfur (and hence acid rain) and regulation took care (mostly) of ozone-killing chlorofluorocarbons, which is why I, too, used to think they were the way to go for carbon emissions. Then I realized that not only was the chemistry different, the distribution of emitters was different, too. Everybody produces carbon emissions and, when the law of large numbers kicks in. individual emitters are collectively very significant; everyone must be engaged in reducing carbon. And the simplest way to do that is to put a tax on carbon. Of course, that reeks of market economics, also anathema to those on the left. Phooey, I say; I’m proud to use the tools of the enemy to advance good causes. Policy shouldn’t be designed to punish bad behavior but to change it. And people respond to price.

Which is why many real conservatives (and most of industry, including the oil industry) support a carbon tax. It is simple, requires little government intervention or bureaucracy, can be designed to be more-or less revenue neutral (put simply the government gives back in tax credits or rebates, all –or in my preferred scenario, most—of the revenue it collects) and creates a level playing field where individual choice moves the market from carbon-heavy to carbon-light alternatives.

Then why do so many so-called conservatives (Scheer, Kenny, Ford and the other camp followers) oppose it? The simple answer is that Trudeau and the Liberals support it. That pretty much sums it up. It is not principle or fighting for the little guy or, even, ideology that motivates these guys – it is pure partisan politics.

And when the quest for power (which they want so they can cut taxes for the rich and tell the rest of us what we can or cannot do with our hearts, souls and, mostly, our bodies) is the only motive, facts and rational arguments cease to mean a damn thing. Appealing to our most venal instincts (Damn taxes! I like shiny trucks! I don’t want to change! It’s someone else’s fault!), they will say and do anything to gain it.

And when the world burns to the ground, they can always say: I never knew!!! But, of course, they do.

And that’s 10 minutes (or somewhat more – I’m a bit rusty, but I’ll improve)

Life on a knife’s edge

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As those of you who read my blog will know, I am definitely a glass half full kind of guy. I have argued and will continue to argue that we’ve made a lot of progress and will continue to do so if we exercise our agency to do so. I’m not one of those “new optimists” who think progress is inevitable and largely due to the ‘hidden hand of the market’ or ‘western-driven globalization.’ For one thing I’m pretty sure that the market and global capitalism work for the interests and because of the agency of a relatively small and coherent group of very rich people.

Still, some recent news reports have given me pause. Nukes and missiles in North Korea should alarm us all—though no more than in any other place. I’m more troubled by headlines that describe entire islands emptied of humans by record breaking storms. Or the news this week that for the first time in decades, world hunger is again on the rise. Or that diseases we should have eliminated are again a threat because bone-headed celebrities speak out about vaccination. Or new diseases are coming out of the tropics that might take us all down.

So I’ve been thinking like Fermi these days.

The Fermi paradox poses the question: if there are millions of technologically competent (i.e. as good or better than us) civilizations in the universe, why have we never detected even one?

There are several ways to answer this question. Some will say that we are God’s special creation and therefore unique in all the infinite reaches of space. To which I can only say—well, you’re certainly “special.”

More rationally, one might say we don’t yet have the technical sophistication to winnow out their messages from the background noise of radiation – but that argument, if it was valid ten years ago, is probably not valid now.

The most optimistic answer might be that they are hiding – deliberately keeping us from finding them until we are civilized enough to join the intergalactic club. Yeah, it’s one big conspiracy and everyone is in on it except Earth.

The most common response is this: as soon as a society is capable of transmitting signals—even accidental ones—across interstellar space, they are also capable of destroying themselves and inevitably do. The reason we don’t hear from advanced aliens is that they’re all dead. Dead by their own hands.

All it takes is a couple madmen whose dicks are… I mean, whose nukes are bigger than their brains to pretty much take us back to the Stone Age. Of course, they could always be replaced if there was the will to do so.

Much more concerning is the matter of climate change, which requires nothing to proceed to its inevitable conclusion other than we keep doing what we’re doing. There is some hope there, even now. Emissions have stopped rising—though they are still high enough to tip us over the edge and earth’s natural defenses may have reached their limit. Still, every year they don’t go up, there is a chance we will act to make them go down and actually reduce civilization-killing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Which is our only real hope.

Well, your hope—I’ll probably be dead before it all goes to hell. So if the glass is now half empty, maybe I’ll just order another round and party like it’s 1999.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Water Con

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There is nothing like walking on a beach to reconnect you to the world. On one side is the ocean, filled with life both large and small, the steady pounding of the waves on the shore much like a heartbeat. On the other side is the land – in this case, jungle – filled with dense vegetation, the stirring of animals and the twitter of birds. Beneath your feet, rocks and sand – itself the product of thousands of years of steady grinding to turn coral and stones into fine soft grains. Where the land and sea meet, endless interactions between the two worlds – most visible in the pretty hunting birds darting into the surf.

And after a storm you see the other world – the human world – in the detritus of civilization washed up on the shores. Some things are almost natural – bits of wood or concrete washed away from human buildings. Even lost shoes don’t seem so bad, sandals and beach shoes torn loose by the waves.

But the rest? Endless water bottles, plastic rings from six packs and bottle caps, scraps of plastic of all kinds, even toothbrushes and hair combs – all the disposable junk we throw away and forget. So much of it winds up in the ocean, clogging the waves and killing millions of seabirds and mammals.

And for what? For convenience – nothing more than that.

There is seldom any need for anyone to buy water in a plastic bottle. There are exceptions, of course. Many First Nations have been on boil water advisories for decades. Places like Flint, Michigan, have had their water systems ruined by clumsy or venal politicians (who really need to go to jail). But for most of us in North America – where the bulk of water bottles are produced and discarded – the water in those bottles is no better, no cleaner, no healthier than the water that comes out of our taps.

This disservice we do to the environment, we do because we are too lazy to fill a renewable container with water from a tap. Even in Mexico, where municipal water systems don’t always supply potable water, you can get clean water at your hotel. There is no need to spend a lot of money for a product you have, in fact, already paid for.

It is a vicious cycle. As tax payers we have already spent money to produce reliable water systems – which when we obsessively use bottled water — It’s more healthy!!!! – become underutilized and so underfunded. And, of course, as water systems fall into disrepair we actually begin to need bottled water. Which is exactly what the corporations who sell the stuff want.

Which is funny. Because a lot of that bottled water comes from the same source: a municipal water system. This has been proven over and over again. A number of companies have been sued and forced to pay settlements because of falsely claiming to have drawn their water from mountain springs when it was really the town down the road that did the purification. By the way, most mountain springs are filled with parasites and other contaminants. Beaver Fever is not nearly as much fun as it sounds.

So when you buy that bottled water in the store, you are not only committing a crime against nature, you are being conned out of your hard earned money. And the corporations – who used to rely on cola and sugar to make their money – go laughing all the way to the bank. And I don’t mean the river bank.

But that’s ten minutes.

Pipedreams

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To hear some people tell it, the future of Canada depends on the completion of a pipeline from Alberta to the East Coast. Alberta independence is right around the corner – as if an independent Alberta could force its former countrymen to move their oil when they couldn’t get it done inside of the country. The logic, if you want to call it that, is baffling. But that’s politics.

While the Prime Minister wants Canada to be known for its resourcefulness and not, as the previous one did, for its resources, he knows full well that part of our resourcefulness is our ability to extract resources and export them to people who want and need them. That includes oil and gas but also a wide range of minerals and, as well, energy products such as hydroelectricity.

Quebec mayors have stated they don’t want a pipeline running past their cities when they should be far more wary of trains full of volatile petroleum products. Lac-Megantic is a dreadful reminder of the dangers of rail transport – which we are told is the only real alternative to pipelines. While pipelines are hardly perfect, their safety record is superior to every other form of transporting oil.

So it would seem a no brainer, right? The government needs to find a way to get east and west to both agree (and when I say east I mean Quebec because most people in New Brunswick are pretty keen to get that oil to their refineries) on the need for a pipeline while getting the majority of Aboriginal leaders onside and the public satisfied that the environment will be protected. They have no choice.

Well, maybe they do. The real choice is not between pipelines and trains but between petroleum and other energy sources. While I don’t for a minute believe our world will drastically reduce its consumption of energy – which remains linked to economic growth and human progress – there is some doubt whether we will continue to demand vast quantities of oil. If we are really committed to a low carbon future 10 or 20 years from now, then why would we build a pipeline designed to carry oil for 40 or 50 years?

Obviously, pipeline proponents – who are in my experience very fiscally cautious – don’t believe the world can wean itself off oil. They fully expect that the Rona Ambrose’s of the world (I’m amazed she didn’t chant ‘Drill, baby, drill!’ in the House of Commons this week) will be on the winning side – even if it means the world will be on the losing one.

The next few years should interesting ones for all concerned. If the government can make real progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions – or more importantly if the USA and China can – the urge to build pipelines both by governments and by the bankers who will be expected to finance the pipe may diminish.

Then Canada will truly have to show its resourcefulness.

And that’s ten minutes.