March 01, 2010
The problem with solving global warming
Lately I have been spending more time studying the issue of climate change.
The good news about climate change is that solutions exist. We can make our machines, vehicles, and devices vastly more energy-efficient. Instead of coal and oil, we can use hydroelectric, wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear, even municipal waste to generate electricity. Clean coal has not yet been tried on a large scale, but on a small scale, it has been proven to work. Electric vehicles can easily replace oil-burning cars within the next decade or two.
So we're on course. All it takes is political will.
The flip side is that carbon-friendly sources of energy are, without exception, more expensive than fossil fuels. Dirty coal is the easiest, cheapest fuel in the history of the world. There is a reason it is cheap - the true cost is paid by future generations through global warming.
But that does not change the fact that our entire civilization is based on energy being cheap. And emerging civilizations - China, India, and the rest - are relying on cheap coal to fuel their rapid economic growth.
If we do what must be done - stop emitting greenhouse gases - we must accept, for decades, more expensive energy as a basic fact of life. That means everything that takes energy - everything not made with pure manual or animal labor - in short, almost any product or service of an industrial economy - becomes more expensive. Living standards stagnate or drop. Growth slows down, maybe permanently.
Most tragic is the rise in inequality heralded by decarbonization. The rich countries got rich in no small part by running what could be called an "environmental deficit"'; they borrowed against the biosphere, using artificially cheap energy. Now the biosphere is tapped out. That means the poor countries won't be able to industrialize as easily and cheaply as the West did. With a slower growth rate all around, it will be all that much harder to catch up to the West - maybe not possible at all.
Even within Western countries, the general rise in prices will hit the poor and middle class much harder than the rich. The oil price spikes of the 1970s (and 2008) were followed by major recessions that devastated the lives of millions. (There was of course a financial bubble in 2008, but think of peak oil as the needle that burst that bubble.) A coal price spike would be much, much worse. And we've never had a major coal price spike before.
Now it becomes clear why there is so little political will to stop global warming. Nobody wants to accept the inevitably lower standard of living this entails. That's why climate change denialists take refuge in a fantasy world where global warming doesn't exist. With the recession to remind people just what a lower living standard is really like, denialism has soared. Fewer and fewer people believe global warming exists and is man-made, even as the science has solidified in the past few years. Fake pseudo-scandals that would have been ignored in 2007 become front-page news in 2010.
Is there a way out? Maybe, one day, we will figure out ways to make renewables as cheap as coal is today. But that "one day" is not likely be within the cruelly short interval within which it is possible to act. We have 20-30 years before feedback effects kick in and global warming becomes irreversible. We cannot wait until we've found a cheap replacement for coal.
And that means a lower standard of living, lowest of all for those who already have least.
March 28, 2007
A sad day for Québec
Monday cannot be seen but as a sad day for Québec and for Canada. What was once Canada's most progressive and visionary province - the land of $7-a-day child care, affordable tuition, cheap public transit, and the Caisse de dépôt et placement - is slowly turning into one of its most backward and reactionary.
A pivotal moment in the campaign was the tabloid-fuelled furor over the totally bogus charge that the province was going to exempt Muslim women from showing their faces at the election booths. In fact, Québec law does not forbid anyone from covering their face at a booth, whether with a niqab or a hockey mask. But anti-immigrant hysteria will not stop and listen to anything that contradicts its narrative - that these backward, primitive darkies are coming in and destroying "our" values. So, at the last minute, the province actually introduced a double standard - Muslim women, and only Muslim women, would be required to show their faces, everyone else would not.
Mario Dumont campaigned on a platform of conservatism at its ugliest. Fortunately he did not obtain the premiership, but if he did he might well be the most anti-union, anti-immigrant, right-wing leader Québec has had since Maurice Duplessis. Indeed, there is nothing new about the Action Démocratique party, it is simply the old Union Nationale reborn. Québec is turning its back on the Quiet Revolution.
Dumont's entire career has been peppered with kooky ideas. The ADQ was founded in 1990 based on the Allaire Report, where, embittered by the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, Jean Allaire called for Québec to remain in Canada but with Ottawa reduced to licking postage stamps. At one time or another, Dumont has demanded a 20 percent flat tax, two-tier medicine, charter schools, emasculation of unions, and simultaneous cuts for business taxes and social programs.
For an explanation of Dumont's victory, one has to go no further than the town of Hérouxville. Its now-famous resolution proclaimed that practices such as stoning and genital mutilation - which have never been reported in Canada - were not welcome among immigrants to the town. This is merely a sly way of saying that immigrants tend to be barbarians who engage in such practices, and that they, themselves, are not welcome in the heartland. They are to stay in Montréal, or better yet exit the province entirely. And let them not dare to wear a headscarf at a soccer game.
Nor was there much solace to be found in the other parties. André Boisclair revealed himself to be the worst leader in the history of the Parti Québécois. In no other province could a party leader have openly goftten away with dissing Asians as "slanty-eyed immigrants". And Jean Charest was reduced to minority status not for his right-wing agenda, but for not going far enough.
The PLQ can save itself simply by adopting much of the ADQ's agenda - for, after all, the ADQ started out as a splinter movement from the PLQ. Whether it works or not remains to be seen. If it happens, Québec will have come full circle. The party of Jean Lesage will have become the party of Maurice Duplessis.
February 09, 2007
Why John Waugh is right
Here we go again. Somebody scolds the NDP for not doing enough to help elect Liberals. New Democrats huff and puff that it's not their job to elect Liberals, who are bunch of reactionary stooges anyway, and anyone who says otherwise is probably a Liberal.
Well, let me establish my bona fides. I've been a New Democrat for as long as I've known what the words meant. I canvassed and dropped leaflets for Peter Kormos in 1988, for Rob Dobrucki in 1993, for Jack Layton and Olivia Chow in 1997. I was a delegate to the 1996 Ontario leadership convention. I was on the executive of the Ontario New Democratic Youth in 1996-97. You could look it up.
Why? Because I believe in things like national pharmacare, wage insurance, card checks, debt relief, rent subsidies, and progressive taxation. Because I believe that the overriding goal of any political movement must be to redress injustice, to defend the weak, to heal the pains and agonies that torment our world.
I have never voted Liberal because, while many Liberals share these goals, many others do not. Even those that do are often all too willing to let them slip, to pander to prejudices and ignorances, in the worst case to perpetuate the evils they should be fighting.
But the NDP is not without its problems either. Chief among them is a maddening inability to listen to what its public is actually saying. An inescapable fact of Canadian political life is that a substantial percentage of the population casts their ballot primarily to oppose the Conservative party.
In 1988, they wanted to stop free trade. In 1993, they wanted the Mulroneyite bastards out. Today, they don't want a government that would give more freedom to markets than to people. They believe Stephen Harper would destroy the fabric of this country if he had a majority, and they will vote however it takes to stop him.
The NDP thinks of itself as the only progressive party and Liberals and Conservatives as barely distinguishable reactionaries; choosing between them would be like, as Tommy Douglas famously put it, a mouse choosing the colour of cat. But that was in a different era, when the United States under Roosevelt was an inspiration to progressives rather than a repulsion, before neoconservatism in all its incarnations started to destroy our world.
The ideas of Reagan or Thatcher or Bush crossed the border to become Mulroney, Harris, and Harper. It is impossible to ignore these ideas. Progressives must fight them, or they will be defeated. Yet, even in the heat of the 1988 campaign, the Liberals and NDP could not swallow their pride and come to any kind of alliance, such as a non-competition pact. They spent enough of that campaign sniping at each other for the Tories to laugh all the way to the PMO.
Today New Democrats like to ask why it's their duty to elect Liberals. It is not. It is their duty, however, to prevent the election of Conservatives. More generally, it is their duty to put the interests of the country ahead of the interests of their party. If NDP truly wants to give disadvantaged Canadians what they want, rather than what the NDP thinks they should want, it must heed this message.
This is not to say the NDP should simply merge with the Liberals - the ideological differences are too great, and Canadians do not expect this. Rather, the party should be prepared to work with Liberals to figure out the best way of defeating extremist right-wing parties. One obvious solution is non-competition agreements, where in selected ridings one of the two parties agrees not to run a candidate.
The NDP would be perfectly within its rights to demand cabinet seats in return, bringing it more power than it has ever had before. Indeed, many Canadians would welcome a Liberal-NDP coalition government - many more, in fact, than would be prepared to accept a purely NDP government, even a minority one. Canada's best and most popular governments, for the past 70 years, have been Liberal minorities propped up by the NDP. Failure to form an alliance more often than not leads to electoral disaster - witness the 1990s, or 1974, or the 1987 Ontario election.
It does no good for the NDP to stubbornly stick its head in the sand and behave like a northern version of Ralph Nader. It hurts the progressive agenda, it hurts the NDP, and it hurts Canada.
January 11, 2007
Cross-posted from my other blog, Wente Watch. This post serves as a summary of my opinion of the Canadian newspaper columnist, Margaret Wente
Margaret Wente is not the worst columnist in the Globe's stable - that honour goes to the insufferably narcissistic, jejune, and misandrist Leah McLaren. Unlike McLaren, however, people actually take Wente seriously. She shows up regularly as a TV talking head, has won several National Newspaper Awards, frequently provides fodder for the most rabid blogs in both Canada and the United States, and has a good deal of power at the nation's most influential newspaper.
And what does she do with this media spotlight? A count of the fifty-odd columns refuted in this blog shows that fully a third are devoted to criticism of one or another non-Western culture or nonwhite people. It is hard to think of any other writer in English who is so single-mindedly concentrated on ethnocentrism as an ideology. There are, indeed, writers more Islamophobic, or more hostile to blacks, or anti-immigrant, especially in the United States. But I know of no one else who works so hard on smearing all non-white peoples with a broad brush, who will invent social problems where none exist, who will scurry to find any possible racial angle to a story.
And indeed this is why Margaret Wente provokes such fury in me, for I am everything she despises. I was born in Canada. I am not white. I look to Tiruvalluvar or Kalidasa for inspiration every bit as much as Shakespeare or Dickens. I believe the Bhagavad Gita has as much to teach us today as does Locke or Montesquieu. I make no apologies for eating samosas, celebrating Diwali, dressing my children in traditional dress, or sending them to Tamil classes. I take pride in my ancestors and their achievements.
None of these things make me any less Canadian. To Wente, however, I have not "assimilated" (in other words, abandoned my identity) and am therefore at best a living example of overly tolerant political correctness, at worst a potential terrorist. Over and over again, she tells us we don't fit in, that we don't belong. The welfare state doesn't work if we are around. Feminism cannot coexist with us. Liberal democracy breaks down under the threat of our clothes alone.
Is there any limit to the lies and distortions Wente's pen will cast? An immigrant to Canada herself, she has no hesitation in telling native-born Canadians what they should wear, how they should behave, what our identity is, merely on account of the colour of our skin. She has only contempt for our ancestors, our traditions, and our values.
Every possible stereotype, every smug expression of superiority, every casual smear at a nonwhite culture that one can conceive of has found its way into Margaret Wente's columns. She cannot see past the colour of our skins, to read us as individuals and not symbols of our races. In her world, Muslims are destroying democracy in Europe, blacks are firing guns in a gangsta rap-induced frenzy, South Asians are beating their wives, Africans are deliberately infecting women with AIDS, and aboriginal Canadians abandon their children to alcohol and drugs.
The various social problems Wente describes exist in white communities as well, and she rarely has any empirical evidence to back up her claims that patriarchy and violence are endemic to non-white communities. Indeed, she does little actual research, relying mostly on unknown cranks and "everybody knows" statements.
Her popularity is due to her uncanny ability to strike a chord in the reader's id, the hidden coterie of prejudice that all of us have but that we like to think we have let go of in a modern society. Wente strikes this atavistic nerve, reawakens the fear of all that is dark and different, tells us it's okay to let logic, reason, and evidence fall aboard, and trust the evidence not of our eyes, not even of our hearts, but of our fears.