Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The right thing for the Arctic

Recent claims by Denmark (yes, Denmark, in the news!) has reignited interest in the "ownership" of the Arctic. I notice that I made a blog entry way back in 2007 on this same subject, and not much seems to have changed since then, and certainly nothing for the better.
I still find the whole idea of ownership of the Arctic by anyone wholly repugnant. In these supposedly enlightened days, why is there no major movement to treat the Arctic as international patrimony, like Antarctica, which was declared a zone of joint scientific research as early as 1959, prohibiting military activity, mineral mining and dumping, and supporting international scientific research and the protection of the eco-zone?
Instead, we are arguing over who owns the rights to exploit the potentially vast natural resources of the Arctic region (possibly as much as a quarter of the world's undiscovered energy resources). Stephen Harper has even specified that Canada's claim specifically include the geographic North Pole itself, presumably as a matter of national pride and general tub-thumpingness...
Can we not put our national hubris and economic rapacity behind us for a change (and I am referring here not just to Canada, but to Denmark, Russia, and anyone else who thinks they should have a share of the pie)? Can we not, for once,do the right thing?

Oil in freefall - the good, the bad and the ugly

As the price of oil continues its freefall (currently $56 a barrel and still falling), a variety of different responses can be heard in different places.
Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland (the major oil producing provinces) are wringing their hands with angst and righteous indignation, although few others have much sympathy for them, especially not for Alberta, which steadfastly refuses to institute a sales tax, and has salted away a puny amount of contingency funds from its many years of fat oil profits.
The federal government has severely downgraded its budget surplus forecasts (again), perhaps belatedly realizing that maybe an economy that lionizes oil almost to the exclusion of all else is not such a good idea after all. Or perhaps not.
One foreign investor after another is cancelling or putting on hold major planned investments in the Alberta oil sands, a mixed blessing to say the least given the environmental profile of the oil sands as a whole, and Canada's abysmal record on climate change initiatives.
Meanwhile, as gas pump prices locally fall below $1/litre, for the first time since I can't remember when (actually, I just checked: it was 2010, although it seems much longer), struggling businesses that rely heavily on transportation and power, especially the manufacturing industries of Ontario and Quebec which have had such a hard time in recent years, are getting a bit of a break, and motorists are relishing the (probably short-lived) breather.
But even this is not an unalloyed good. Apparently, the lower gas prices have already resulted in an increase in sales and orders of relatively gas-guzzling SUVs, which of course has environmentalists upset. And I am sure that the average Joe on the street is much less likely to think twice about taking the car to the local shops when gas prices are 99c/litre and not $1.40/litre.
It never ceases to amaze me how efficiently the open market can work sometimes, although usually not, it seems, in a socially and environmentally responsible direction.

Strange Empire indeed

I am not a big television viewer, and in fact we cancelled our cable/digital subscription some years ago on the grounds that we rarely watched anything (or found anything worthwhile to watch), and certainly not $70/month's worth.
But I do see some TV from time to time, either online or via the free-to-air digital signal afforded us by our DIY rabbit-ears-on-the-chimney arrangement, and I must admit to being quite taken currently with the CBC series Strange Empire.
Set in the wild and lawless west of 19th Century Canada, just north of the Montana border, the "strange empire" of the title is a remote mining outpost and associated whorehouse, and the series follows the struggles, tribulations and rare victories of some of the idiosyncratic individuals, and particularly the women, who chose (or in some cases not) that hard-scrabble, hand-to-mouth life.
It is replete with instances of the moral ambiguity and compromise forced on people by hard circumstances, and it showcases some of the violence, sexism, racism and sheer unadulterated greed that underpinned much of the development of our modern country. But, for me, it is the individual character studies that provide much of the program's appeal, including (but not limited to):
  • The young doctor's wife (actually the old English doctor's adopted ward, whom he "married" after his own wife's death as the best way of keeping her safe), who herself takes on the role of doctor after her husband's death. She is fiercely intelligent and committed to the pursuit of science in a milieu where such things are frowned upon and unappreciated. She is also extremely socially awkward and naïve in the ways of the world, and perhaps slightly autistic in a high-functioning way, as well as clearly reigning in, and struggling with, a boiling cauldron of repressed emotion.
  • The hard-baked but deeply moral Métis woman, who takes on the thankless but necessary job of law-maker in a lawless community constantly teetering on the edge of chaos and turmoil. She also adopts and ferociously protects two young orphan girls, who were otherwise destined for a life of whoring and worse, and struggles to come to terms with the death of her own beloved husband and soul-mate.
  • The two above-mentioned adolescent girls, rough and tomboyish on the outside, but clearly very much young women underneath, with all the desires, frailties and hormonal imbalances that come with that time of life. The seething mixture of resentment, reliance and unconditional love they reveal towards their new "mother" and towards each other is a fascinating study in coming of age in difficult circumstances.
  • The quiet and unassuming young buck, who follows the young lady doctor around like a puppy, clearly smitten despite the doctor's (albeit ambiguously) married state, and who actually turns out to be a woman in disguise.
  • The beautiful ex-whore, now married to the mine owner, who exhibits a cruel and cynical drive for self-preservation and self-aggrandisement, but whose hard exterior briefly slips from time to time to reveal the confused and needy woman within, so that we are always tantalisingly suspicious of the existence of a hidden good heart, even though she never quite justifies our suspicions.
  • The mine owner himself, one of the only male characters developed to any great extent, to all appearances an unreconstructed, smarmy, self-centred and cruel lothario, hell-bent on money-making and dynasty-building. But even he lets slip the occasional pang of regret and doubt, so that we never quite write him off completely.
The series is a tour-de-force of characterization, well-acted, well-filmed and meticulously envisioned, a great example of what the CBC can produce. Unfortunately, of course, the CBC is in the process of being financially and culturally gutted, pared down to just another sports-and-syndication network, and such dramas are unlikely to survive in the new Zeitgeist. Which is a crying shame.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Canada's embrarassing climate change performance

I get a little bored with reporting on climate change developments, and it rarely provides an opportunity for edification or optimism, particularly here in Canada. But these people have to be called out, for what it's worth.
The Canadian government's own environment ministry is admitting in no uncertain terms that the country is falling well short of its own modest greenhouse gas pledge (to reduce GHGs by 17% from 2005 levels by 2020). Stephen Harper's pledge, made in Copenhagen five years ago, was for 611 megatonnes of GHG emissions by 2020. Current projections by Environment Canada suggest emissions of the order of 727 megatonnes are to be expected "unless new measures are taken" (and fat chance there is of THAT under the current government).
My home province of Ontario has managed to offset up to 50 megatonnes of GHGs by closing down its coal-fired power plants and investing in renewables (even if they have attracted much flak in the process), and British Columbia's carbon tax has single-handedly reduced their GHGs by 16% since 2008. The oil and gas sector, however, led of course by the Alberta oil sends, is fuelling a 45 megaton increase in GHGs. It's a sad state of affairs when we are relying on an economic downturn from the nose-diving price of oil as the only way to reduce such an increase.
Meanwhile, lame-duck environment minister Leona Aglukkaq reassures us that there are still six years left in which to meet the targets, to which the government remains committed. The very next day, she blusters: "Our record speaks for itself. We have show that it is possible to protect the environment while supporting economic growth." She is even planning on addressing the upcoming United Nations climate summit in Lima with a view to a post-2020 agreement!
Her boss, Mr. Harper, unapologetically asserts that, if it going to cost money, then the environment just has to wait: "Under the current circumstance of the oil and gas sector, it would be crazy... We are clearly not going to do it". He then attempts to take credit for the progress made in the area of coal-fired electricity generation (actually due to the Ontario government).
Such audacity! Such a disconnect!

A position of suspect morality

More dirt surfaces as a result of the ongoing Jian Ghomeshi probe (or maybe that is the wrong word to use in this context?).
The Canadian Media Guild has made the unequivocal statement that: "While we believe firmly the evidence of wrongdoing should be investigated and necessary measures taken as required, no employee should be put in a position of exposing themselves to discipline based on information they themselves have provided".
Unless I'm missing something, this condones lying, dissembling and anything else that might conceivably reflect badly on a person or otherwise inconvenience them. Probably not a very moral position to be taking, I wouldn't have thought.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

My "hobby sites"

I finally got around to updating the list of links to my personal websites in the left-hand side-bar. Just for the sake of an extra plug, here they are again:
Some of those towards the bottom of the list are pretty old now, among the earliest websites I ever made, but people still use them, and anyway they have sentimental value!

Support for thalidomide victims

The Canadian parliament recently voted to provide "full support" for thalidomide survivors, after a lot of campaigning and agitation in recent months, something that I imagine few people would take issue with. The vote was 256:0, the first unanimous vote in parliament since 2011 apparently (1 wonder what that one was?) The difficult part - establishing the amounts, judging the severity of deformities, etc - still remains of course, but the principle and ethics of the matter have now been well and truly established.
I have to say it took me quite a while to realize just why it has taken so long for this talk of settlements and reparations to crystallize, until it was explained to me that the survivors were only now reaching the kind of age (50 plus) when their bodies were starting to physically break down under the pressure of their deformities. Other than a federal deal reached in 1991 and a few unspecified out-of-court settlements, generally agreed to have been too little and too narrowly focussed, most thalidomide victims seem to have just kept their heads down and got on with life to the best of their abilities, and many have managed to lead full and active lives. (See here for a summary of the Canadian experience of thalidomide and its survivors).
However, after decades of reliance on weak and malformed limbs and the need to improvise in day-to-day tasks the rest of us take for granted, the victims are now experiencing increased physical and mental stress due to the greater wear and tear on their remaining joints and muscles, as well as the premature onset of arthritis and chronic pain, often leading to enforced early retirement and rising healthcare bills.
They deserve a fair and generous payout, as well as a recognition of their suffering.