Life on a knife’s edge

Standard

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.

Advertisements

The Water Con

Standard

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

Standard

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.

The Future of Oil

Standard

Kevin O’Leary should hold off on investing in the Alberta oil industry, not because Premier Notley isn’t going anywhere but because it just makes sense. Based on the precept of investing that you should buy low and sell high, he should wait until the properties become real bargains.

The price of oil has just dropped below $30 a barrel, a level unpredicted even six months ago. It may have a way to fall yet.

A number of factors are coming together to make a perfect storm for falling energy prices.

At the top of some people’s list are the faltering economies in China and some of the other BRIC countries. Falling demand for oil is certainly a factor in the price fall. While the American economy is picking up, its thirst for oil is not enough to prop up the price by itself.

But falling demand is only part of the picture. New technologies – notably fracking – have released a great deal of previously unrecoverable oil and, more importantly, natural gas, into the North American market. Energy reserves have seldom been higher. Meanwhile, solar and wind have become serious competitors as a source for electricity and are bound to become more so if the US keeps even half of its commitments to reduce greenhouse gases. While a Republican in the White House might change that – it will have little effect on other countries that aren’t in denial about the causes of global climate change.

Of course, the real culprit in the falling price of oil is Saudi Arabia which is determined to become, once again, the world’s dominant supplier of petroleum. They are willing to drastically cut their own revenues if only to irreparably damage the oil production capacity of other countries.

Things get a lot more complex now that the new deal with Iran will release billions of barrels of relatively cheap Iranian oil onto the already glutted market. Prices as low as $20, $15 or even $10 a barrel are possible. Think it can’t happen? During the late-90s, oil hovered in those ranges for over a year before the growing world economy and conflicts in oil producing regions drove the price up again.

Of course, what goes down is bound to go back up, right? But will the world economy ever rebound sufficiently to drive up demand for oil – especially in a world that finally seems determined to lower its carbon footprint?

Low oil prices are a terrible thing for some oil producing countries – Nigeria and Venezuela may see their economies and governments collapse in the wake of lost petro-dollars – and bad for some others, like Canada and England, who rely on oil to boost sometimes faltering manufacturing industries. Only Norway – which frugally set aside most of their past oil income – is likely to escape real problems.

For other countries – particularly those who have invested in their industrial infrastructure, low oil should be a good thing in the short term – and irrelevant in the long. Unfortunately, Canada has largely failed on that front and will pay the price for over-emphasizing oil and allowing corporations to hoard now devalued cash. It may be a tough row to hoe for any investor hoping to sell high somewhere down the road.

And that’s ten minutes.

Winter

Standard

Winter has arrived and once again it appears that no one was expecting it. The City of Ottawa, having saved a million dollars in snow removal charges by our mild December, seemed reluctant to spend a little of the savings to get all the plows on the road in a timely manner. Maybe they had hoped no-one would notice. I believe they noticed.

There were over 80 traffic accidents in the last 24 hours – after a month of one or two a day. Once again, drivers have suffered from seasonally affected amnesia and forgotten that snow and ice are slippery and you can’t travel so fast or follow so close. Well, actually you can but there are consequences.

My wife’s office declared a snow day and sent all the workers home at 2 pm. The snow stopped falling about 15 minutes later – but it is the thought that counts. Most people probably didn’t get home until well after their usual commute. Liz wasn’t affected; her bus – several of them in fact – didn’t bother to come by so she worked from home. I can attest she really did work, too, despite my best efforts to distract her. Some people are way too dedicated.

It was pretty though – all that falling white stuff and the light glinting off the ice. I particularly like it when the big fluffy flakes get blown sideways. Of course, I haven’t been outside since Tuesday so it is easy for me to talk.

Winter is a lovely season of the year, especially if you know you are going to get to Mexico for a week or so in the middle of it. Not that this matters a lot – there will be plenty of winter left over when we come back –probably two months. Winter is a great time for sitting inside and drinking mulled wine, listening to music by candle light, drawing the drapes and pretending you are living in a bio-dome. Now that one can get groceries (and wine) delivered to your condo door, winter is perfectly fine.

Go out? Why would anyone do that? Skiing? Skating? Well, sure I’ve heard of those – even watched them on TV from time to time but actually do them – you must be joking.

I might have to go out this afternoon though. I need a haircut – my semi-annual trim is overdue. I’d do it myself but I’m already starting to sound like Howard Hughes (he didn’t go out in winter – nor any other season of the year either) and I wouldn’t want to start to look like him, too. Well, there must be a parka and boots in here somewhere. And I wonder where I put my glove warmers, five foot long scarf and insulated toque.

Well, I better go look because that’s ten minutes.

Mining

Standard

In 1992, nine miners were killed in Yellowknife by a deliberately set explosive device, tying it for the fifth worst mass murder ever to occur in Canada. That may not seem like much to my American friends but we are, for the most part, a peaceful nation. For the City of Yellowknife, the event was shattering; it took years for many in the community to find some closure. Some, of course, will never get over it.

The blast came towards the end of a long and bitter strike that had divided the community for months. The striking miners fought – physically in some cases – with the replacement workers brought in to do their jobs. It didn’t help that a few of the strike-breakers were former union members. The mine itself had been running for decades and brought a lot of prosperity to the city and the country. But now it was on its last legs, run by an unscrupulous chief executive determined to wring the last dollar out the gold seam no matter what the cost.

The mine is now long closed but it still haunts the minds of Yellowknifers and the northern mining industry. Besides the labour strife, Giant has left behind a legacy of pollution more or less unrivalled in Canada. One of the by-products of gold mining is often large quantities of water soluble arsenic compounds. There is enough arsenic at the Giant Mine site to kill every rat in the world several times over. The Federal government – the corporation is long gone and in those days there were no reclamation security deposits required as is the case today – has spent close to a billion dollars on a plan to bury the arsenic back where it came from and then freeze it permanently (we hope) using self-sustaining heat pumps.

There has been a lot of community involvement in the clean-up plan and most – though not all – people think the remediated site will be safe enough. If it isn’t, it is hoped that leakage into Great Slave Lake will not exceed dangerous levels. As I say, most of us feel the project will work.

However, the history of Giant Mine is often raised as a scare tactic – or at least a stern lesson – on the dangers of all mining. In many parts of the north, mining projects are stalled or made excessively expensive by the mere mention of Giant’s legacy. The fact that times have changed and regulations are tougher is a hard sell in the face of a mountain of poison.

Yet mining continues to be a key part of the northern economy and probably will be for decades to come. And for those who see it as the same as that other great extractive industry – oil and gas – answer me this: what exactly do you thing solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars and public transit networks are made of? Done right, mining has less of an impact on the ecosystem than any form of farming or forestry.

As I’ve said before I’m a rational environmentalist and responsible mining is part of my vision of a sustainable future.

And that’s ten minutes.

 

Work Makes You Free

Standard

Sometimes I forget the value of work. We all have to do it and on many days, it seems like drudgery. On some days, you have to focus on payday to get you through the day. On some days, you wonder if you are accomplishing anything. On some days you think: well at least I did no harm.

However, on good days, work is its own reward. You put your head down and you plow through a task to its completion and at the end of the day, you look up and wonder where the time went. You look down at your desk and realize – hey, I just got something worthwhile done.

It doesn’t matter what your work is, you have good days and bad days. If you love your work, the good days outnumber the bad but even the worst job offers moments of actual joy. It may merely be the smile of a satisfied customer; it may be the pleasure of a really clean kitchen. It may be writing the end on a short story (even though you know there are re-writes ahead).

Work can also let you ignore the world and some days, ignoring the world is the best thing that happens all week. Sometimes I bury myself in mundane tasks just to take my mind off the fact that China just had to declare a red alert due to pollution in Beijing where some poisons have reached 10 or even 40 times the ‘safe’ levels. Who needs to think on that? Well, we all do just as we all need to think about the wider environment that we will leave to our kids and grandkids.

Still, it is a relief right? – to pretend for a day that filling out these forms or fixing that gasline or getting the bug out of that game code is what’s really important. At least we can say we accomplished something, can say that we aren’t powerless to make a real change. Though we’re not, of course, not collectively. Collectively we are quite capable of saving the world. Maybe tomorrow, right?

Work also lets you tune out the crazies and the haters. While you’re focused on finishing that painting or getting the cows milked, you can pretend you didn’t hear Donald Trump step over the line (again) into the realm of 1940s fascism. It’s better not to listen – let his hateful supporters do all the listening. If you work hard enough, you can shut out their hateful growls and grunts of approval. You can pretend Trump is a rational human being and not a bombastic egomaniac whose only purpose in life is not to get things done but rather to be at the centre of attention.

Yeah, that’s right. Work will set you free. Isn’t that what they used to say in Auschwitz and Dachau? Arbeit Macht Frei. Go for it. Just hope you look up from the job sometime soon. Before it’s too late.

And that’s ten minutes.