All hands on deck

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

Well, 2008 was a wild ride. A global economic crisis, elections here and in the US, turmoil in parliament and a worsening environmental situation – it’s enough to make you want to climb under the blankets and hope for the best. And there are some hopeful signs. But hope, unfortunately, is not enough. It’s going to take a concerted effort on everyone’s part to overcome the looming crises the world is facing.

Let’s look at the bright side, though. The US is swearing in a president who takes global warming seriously and who is listening to the scientists and other experts who tell us that the situation is outpacing our efforts to confront it. “The time for denial is over,” Barack Obama said in December. “We all believe what the scientists have been telling us for years now, that this is a matter of urgency and national security and it has to be dealt with in a serious way. That is what I intend my administration to do.”

The president-elect also recognizes that creating green jobs in areas such as renewable energy is a good way to stimulate and rebuild the economy, perhaps even replacing some of the jobs lost in the auto industry.

Globally, although the UN climate change talks in Poland [in December] yielded no breakthroughs in laying the groundwork for a strong global agreement in Copenhagen this coming December, some progress was made, especially in areas such as reducing deforestation to reduce carbon emissions.

Also on the global front, the United Nations Environment Programme and leading economists have called for a progressive “Green New Deal.” The UN Green Economy Initiative is aimed at giving nations the tools to shift to green economies through measures such as creating employment in renewable-energy technologies, ensuring that the value of natural services is included in economic accounting and encouraging sustainable urban planning.

“Transformative ideas need to be discussed and transformative decisions taken,” said Achim Steiner, UN under-secretary general and UNEP executive director. “The alternative is more boom and bust cycles; a climate-stressed world and a collapse of fish stocks and fertile soils…”

Whether or not these initiatives and proposed emissions-reduction targets will be enough to avert catastrophe after years of stalling by governments, including George Bush’s outgoing administration and our own government, remains to be seen. Unfortunately, Canada still seems to be beating around the “Bush.”

We earned the dubious honour of winning the Colossal Fossil award (as well as 10 daily fossil awards) at the climate change talks in Poland for doing more than any other country to impede progress. Canada also ranked second-last out of 57 countries on the international 2009 Climate Change Performance Index.

We could certainly use more far-sighted and imaginative leadership. But we can’t depend on the politicians – or on those business people who care more about short-term profits than long-term survival. We must remember that they are there to serve us and that if we speak loudly enough they will listen.

We must also take responsibility in our own lives. A Statistics Canada report notes that individual Canadians are responsible for almost half the greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere, through our vehicle and electricity use and the choices we make in the products we buy.

Rather than making us feel guilty, the report should show us how much power we have as individuals to make a difference through personal choices and small steps. Another Statistics Canada study showed that Canadians are making efforts to recycle, compost, switch to environmentally friendly electrical and plumbing products and vehicles, and more.

We can’t wait for politicians to save the world, but we do have to hold them to account. And we must all get informed and involved. If we act now, we – and our children and grandchildren – can hope to lead fulfilling and prosperous lives rather than moving from crisis to crisis. But the window of opportunity is closing a bit more every day.

Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

Making democracy healthy

WRITING ON THE WALL by Joseph Roberts

On May 12, a referendum fwill be held across BC offering voters the opportunity to replace our current first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system with the far more democratic single transferable vote (STV). In order for STV to supplant FPTP, however, more than 60 percent of the total provincial vote is required as well as a second majority of ridings in BC. Progress was made in the 2005 referendum where the majority of ridings supported STV, plus 58 percent of the total vote chose STV, falling just two percent short of the 60 percent required to pass. This time around, let’s make history and unanimously support the much fairer STV system. We the people will be better served by the more democratic STV system because it shifts the power from the status quo backroom party bosses to the citizens themselves. We encourage you to get involved and help ensure a healthy democracy.

In the FPTP voting system, many – if not the majority – of people’s votes count for nothing. The corrosive effect of winner takes all steals representation from voters who did not choose the first-past-the-post front-runner. FPTP has resulted in fewer voters participating in BC elections because they get zero representation from their vote. But it does not have to be this way. No two electoral systems in the world are identical and with the huge variety to choose from, there are many better ways of counting votes than BC’s current FPTP. Here’s why: with FPTP, the individual in the riding with more votes than any one other becomes the MLA but then everyone else loses. For instance, if there are 10 names on the ballot and the “first past the post” leader gets 10 percent of the total riding’s vote – whereas the other nine people on the ballot come close but each gets slightly less than 10 percent of the vote, say between 9 and 10 percent with a small portion of spoilt ballots – the winner gets in with 10 percent. And because there is only one MLA per riding, approximately 90 percent of the votes cast amount for nothing! The majority of voters who did not vote for the one FPTP winner are left unrepresented. It even worse when you consider many have given up on voting at all.

After numerous elections based on the FPTP system, BC voters are disillusioned. Voter apathy is at an all time low with people’s votes essentially being rendered useless if they did not vote for the FPTP winner. The overly simplistic FPTP inevitably results in unfair representation and the forming of governments that do not proportionally represent the wishes of the people, thereby making a mockery of democracy.

For generations, responsible, intelligent and concerned citizens have worked hard to offer an alternative to FPTP. This edition of Common Ground is dedicated to those individuals as well as to the people in the Citizens’ Assembly who volunteered their time and energy to study, compare, research and choose a fairer and more proportionally representative electoral system. Help make history in BC’s May 12 referendum during the provincial election. Your vote for BC-STV is a vote towards putting an end to an electoral system that has not accurately reflected the voice of the people. (For more information about STV, please see our feature article on page 10 and visit www.stv.bc).

Jim Fulton 1950 – 2008 – Environmental advocate and ally will be sorely missed

by Milt Bowling

Pictures in the newspaper could not have prepared me for the bear of a man I met for the first time at the David Suzuki Foundation – Jim Fulton. Jim was one of those people whose gaze let you know you were being appraised as friend or foe in the first few seconds. His handshake and/or hug revealed how you’d fared.

Jim started as a probation officer in the Queen Charlottes and then entered politics, winning three successive elections as the NDP Member of Parliament for Skeena from 1979 to 1993. He then became the first executive director of the world-famous environmental organization, the David Suzuki Foundation. There, he gave selfless assistance to many groups doing their best to help our ailing planet. Ours, the Electromagnetic Radiation Task Force, was one of them, and I’ve met very few people who are such a quick study on the subject of harmful effects of electromagnetic radiation as Jim.

In 1997, the Vancouver School Board was persuaded that leasing out school roofs to cell phone companies for their microwave transmitters was a good way to raise money. It was an idea I did not agree with, especially because they chose my son’s elementary school as a location. After conducting extensive research that uncovered a number of unsettling facts, I organized the community and we successfully opposed the involuntary exposure of 600 children to this radiation. Another phone company then hid their transmitters inside a cross that they donated to the church right next to the school. An appeal to the Board of Variance resulted in the transmitters being taken down, which I have been told is a first in the world. Soon, other communities were asking for help and the Electromagnetic Radiation (EMR) Task Force of Canada was born.

As anyone who has taken on an environmental issue knows, you can get intense pushback from the affected industry and also from government regulatory agencies that may have been asleep at the wheel. You become “the problem.” In looking for supportive allies, I couldn’t have found better in Jim, who I met through my first benefactor, wildlife artist Robert Bateman.

Jim picked up on our concerns right away. We were thrilled that he wrote to then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Health Minister Allan Rock in November 1999, demanding that Parliament take our concerns seriously and act upon them. And this was on the Foundation’s letterhead! We felt lifted to a new level of credibility. Jim continued to prod the government on our behalf for years.

To offset political pressure that continued to build until 2002, Rock, by then Minister of Industry, announced that a review panel on health effects of cell towers would be set up. Jim immediately fired off a letter stating that our EMR Task Force had more experience on the issue than anyone else in Canada and demanded that we play a key role in the review. Not surprisingly, it took seven months to receive a reply from Rock, which stated that the committee was already set up without our help. Also not surprisingly, their report found no problem with the current setup, which gave the industry carte blanche to put their towers wherever they wanted – beside schools, day care centres, hospitals or seniors homes – without community input.

Our work continues around the world for the deployment of safe telecommunications infrastructures using available mitigating technology. We are a lot closer to the implementation of solutions than we were a decade ago, in large part because of the early boost given without hesitation by Jim Fulton. The planet lost a warrior on December 20, 2008 and we all lost a friend.

Milt Bowling is president of the Clean Energy Foundation and director of the Health Action Network Society. Reach him via miltbowling@telus.net or call 604-436-2152.

The spirit of love

by Deepak Chopra

Like the tiny spark of fire that consumes a forest, the spark of love is all you need to experience love in its full power and glory, in all its aspects, earthly and divine. Love is spirit…

In the West, what we generally call love is mostly a feeling, not a power. This feeling can be delicious, even ecstatic, but there are many things love is meant to do that feelings cannot. When love and spirit are brought together, their power can accomplish anything. Then love, power and spirit are one.

There has never been a spiritual master – not Buddha, Krishna, Christ or Mohammed – who wasn’t a messenger of love, and the power of the message has always been awesome. It has changed the world. Perhaps the very immensity of such teachers has made the rest of us reticent. We do not accept the power love can create inside of us and, therefore, we turn our backs on our divine status.

Love is spirit. Spirit is the self.

Self and spirit are the same. Asking, “What is spirit?” is just a way of asking, “Who am I?” There isn’t spirit outside you; you are it. Why aren’t you aware of it? You are, but only in a limited way, like someone who has seen a glass of water, but not the ocean. Your eyes see because in spirit you are the witness to everything. You have thoughts because in spirit you know all. You feel love toward another person because in spirit you are infinite love.

Restoring the spiritual dimension to love means abandoning the notion of a limited self with its limited ability to love, and regaining the self with its unbounded ability to love. The “I” that is truly you is made of pure awareness, pure creativity, pure spirit. Its version of love is free from all memories or images from the past. Beyond all illusion is the source of love – a field of pure potential. That potential is you. What is the path?

The most valuable thing you can bring into any relationship is your spiritual potential. This is what you have to offer when you begin to live your love story at the deepest level. Like the seed needed to start the life of a tree, your spiritual potential is the seed for your growth in love. Nothing is more precious. Seeing yourself with the eyes of love makes it natural to see others that way too. You will be able to say of your beloved, as the poet Rumi does: “You are the secret of God’s secret. You are the mirror of divine beauty.”

The path to love is something you consciously choose to follow and everyone who has ever fallen in love is shown the first step on that path. The unfolding of spiritual potential has been the chief concern of all the great seers, saints, prophets, masters and sages in human history. Theirs was a carefully charted quest for the self, a far cry from our notion of love as a messy, emotional affair.

In India, the spiritual path is called Sadhana and although a tiny minority of people give up normal life to wander the world as seekers of enlightenment (monks or sadhus), everyone, from those in the most ancient civilization of Vedic India until today, considers their life to be Sadhana, a path to the self. Although the self seems separated from us, it is actually intertwined in everything a person thinks, feels or does. The fact that you do not intimately know your self is amazing, if you come to think about it. Looking for your self, the Vedic sages declared, is like a thirsty fish looking for water. But as long as the self has yet to be found, Sadhana exists.

The goal of the path is to transform your awareness from separation to unity. In unity, we perceive only love, express only love, are only love.

While the inner transformation is taking place, every path must have some outer form to sustain it. In India, a person’s nature leads him to the style of path appropriate to reaching fulfillment. Some people are naturally intellectual and are therefore suited to the path of knowledge, or Gyana. Some are more devotional and are suited to the path of worship, or Bhakti. Some are more outwardly motivated and are suited to the path of action, orKarma.

The three are not mutually exclusive; ideally, one would include in one’s lifestyle daily periods of study, worship and service. All three approaches would then be integrated into a single path. It is, however, entirely possible to be so taken with a single approach that your whole existence may be centred on reading the scriptures, contemplation and scholarly debate – the life of Gyana. Or you may spend your time meditating, chanting and participating in temple rituals – the life of Bhakti. Or you could do social work, apply yourself to mental and physical purification and do God’s bidding in daily activity – the life of Karma. Even in the most traditional sectors of India today, these paths have broken down, giving way to modern lifestyles in which study and work have little or nothing to do with spiritual aspirations.

What does this mean for a Westerner who has never been exposed toSadhana? I propose that being on the spiritual path is such a natural and powerful urge that everyone’s life, regardless of culture, obeys it. A path is just a way to open yourself to spirit, to God, to love. These are aims we all may cherish, but our culture has given us no established, organized way to reach them. Indeed, never in history has a seeker been confronted with such a disorganized and chaotic spiritual scene.

What we are left with is relationships. The desire to love and be loved is too powerful ever to be extinguished and fortunately a spiritual path exists based upon this unquenchable longing. The expression “path to love” is not simply a metaphor; it reappears throughout spiritual history in many guises. The most ancient version is the Bhakti or devotional tradition from Vedic India, in which all forms of love ultimately serve the search for God.

The Sufis of Islam have their own devotional lineage. Rumi, who I quote so often, was more than a poet; he was a great teacher of this path. To him, God was the sweetest, most desirable lover, whose touch he could feel against the skin:

“When it’s cold and raining, you are more beautiful. And the snow brings me even closer to your lips. The inner secret, that which was never born, you are that freshness, and I am with you now.”

Christ initiated another version of the path in his supreme teaching, “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” Jesus always spoke of God as a loving father. The Christian version of the path is therefore a relationship not so much between lovers as between parent and child or a shepherd and his flock (we shouldn’t forget, though, the image of Christ as bridegroom and the worshipper’s soul as the bride).

So it isn’t the tradition that is lacking. One might more fairly say that in most religions the teaching of love, as originally presented, seems to have faded, to become more an ideal than a practical reality. But amidst all the confusion and breakdown of traditional teaching, there is still the spark of love that brings two people together, and out of that, a path can be made.

Like the tiny spark of fire that consumes a forest, the spark of love is all you need to experience love in its full power and glory, in all its aspects, earthly and divine. Love is spirit and all experiences of love, however insignificant they seem, are actually invitations to the cosmic dance. Within every love story hides the wooing of the gods and goddesses.

In a different age, the most fleeting of infatuations had spiritual meaning; the nearness of God in the beloved was taken seriously. Since the advent of Freud, however, psychologists have assured us that falling in love is illusory; the sense of ecstasy that is part of falling in love is illusory; the sense of ecstasy that is part of falling in love isn’t realistic. We must learn to accept the temporary nature of romance and disregard the “projected fantasy” that we might be as immortal and invulnerable as passionate lovers feel.

We would therefore have to be skeptical of Walt Whitman when he rapturously declares, “I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself. (They do not know how immortal, but I know).”

See Deepak Chopra in Vancouver at the Orpheum Theatre, February 20. Tickets through Ticketmaster, 604-280-4444 or www.ticketmaster.ca Deepak Chopra is the prolific author of more than 50 books.www.deepakchopra.com

Obama and the return of the real

by Jonathan Schell

The inauguration of Barack Obama, whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant, is both a culmination and a beginning. The culmination is the milestone represented by the arrival of a black man in the office of president of the United States. That achievement reaches back to the founding ideals of the Republic – “all men are created equal” – which have been fulfilled in a new way, even as they resonate around a world in which for centuries white imperialists have subjected people of colour to oppression. The event fully justifies the national and global jubilation it has touched off. This much is truly accomplished, signed and sealed.

But what of the hour, the broad shape of the new world that Obama and all of us will face? If only the economic crisis were involved, the path ahead would have something of the known and familiar. Economic cycles come and go and even the Great Depression eased up in a little more than a decade. But this year’s crisis is attended by, or embedded in, at least four others of even larger scope. The second is the shortage of natural resources, beginning with fossil fuels. Oil prices have fallen sharply from their peak of last summer, but does anyone doubt that when the economy bounces back those prices will rise with it?

A third crisis – less on the public mind, perhaps, because it is so old it is taken for granted – is the spread of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction. A fourth crisis is the ecological one, comprising global warming, the wholesale human-caused annihilation of species, population growth, water and land shortage and much else. Like nuclear danger, the planetary ecological crisis threatens something that has never been at stake before our era: the natural foundations of life upon which humans and all species depend for survival. Economic and military ups and downs are for a season only. Extinction is forever.

At a glance, this tangle of crises might seem merely to be the result of a colossal accident – a world-historic pileup on the global thruway. Yet in addition to being interconnected, the crises have striking features in common, suggesting shared roots. To begin with, all are self-created. They arise from pathologies of our own activity, or perhaps hyperactivity. The Greek tragedians understood well those disasters whose seeds lie above all in one’s own actions. No storm or asteroid or external enemy is the cause. Today, the economic crash is the result of investment run amok: The “masters of the universe” are the authors of their own (and everyone’s) downfall. The nuclear weapons that threaten to return in wrath to American cities were born in New Mexico. The oil is running short because we are driving too many cars to too many shopping malls. The global ecosphere is heading toward collapse because of the success, not the failure (until recently), of the modern economy. The invasion of Iraq was the American empire’s self-inflicted wound – a disaster of choice, so to speak. All we had to do to escape it was not to do it. Here and elsewhere, the work of our own hands rises up to strike us.

All the crises are also the result of excess, not scarcity. Too much credit was packaged in too many ways by people who were too smart, too busy, too greedy. Our energy use was too great for the available reserves. The nuclear weapon overfulfilled the plans for great-power war, making it – and potentially ourselves – obsolete through over-success. The economic activity of humanity – the “throughput” of productivity, to use James Gustave Speth’s term for the sheer quantity of natural stuff processed by the economy and dumped back into the ecosphere – was too voluminous to be sustained by fragile natural systems. The environmentalists’ word “sustainability” applies more broadly. The collateralized debt obligations, the oil use, the spread of WMDs, the military pretensions of empire, all are “unsustainable” and crashing at once. Taken together, the crises add up to a new era of limits, which now are pressing in on all sides to correct overreaching.

All the crises (but especially those that are endangering the ecosphere) involve theft by the living from their posterity. It’s often said that revolutions, like the god Saturn, devour their children. We are committing a slow motion, cross-generational equivalent of this offence. My generation, the baby boomers – ominously nicknamed “the boomers” – has been cannibalizing the future to provision the present. Though we are not killing our children directly, we are spending their money, eating their food, cutting down their cherry orchards. Intergenerational justice has been a subject more fit for academic seminars than for newspaper headlines. The question has been what harm are we doing to generations yet unborn? But the time frame has been shortened and the malign transactions are now occurring between generations still alive. The dollars we have spent are coming directly out of our children’s paychecks. The oil we burn is being drawn down from their reserves. The nuclear weapons we cling to for a dubious “security” will burn down their cities. The atmosphere we are heating up will scorch their fields and drown their shorelines. A “new era of responsibility” must above all mean responsibility to them. If it is true that all the crises are part of this larger crisis, then the economic crisis may simply be the means by which the larger adjustment is being set in motion, in effect dictating a forced march into the sustainable world.

All the crises are characterized by double standards, which everywhere block the way to solutions. One group of nations, led by the United States, lays claim to the lion’s share of the world’s wealth, to an exclusive right to possess nuclear weapons, to a disproportionate right to pollute the environment and even to a dominant position in world councils, while everyone else is expected to accept second-class status. But since solutions to all the crises must be global to succeed, and global agreement can only be based on equity, the path to success is cut off.

Finally, all the crises display one more common feature: all have been based on the wholesale manufacture of delusions. The operative word here is “bubble.” A bubble, in the stock market or anywhere, is a real-world construct based on fantasies. When the fantasy collapses, the construct collapses and people are hurt. Disillusion and tangible harm go together; as imaginary wealth and power evaporate, so does real wealth and power. The equity exposed as worthless was always phony, but real people really lose their jobs. The weapons of mass destruction in the invaded country were fictitious, but the war and the dying are actual. The “safety” provided by nuclear arms is waning, if it ever existed, but the holocaust, when it comes, though fantastical, will be no fantasy. The “limits on growth” were denied, but the oil reserves didn’t get the message. The “uncertainty” about global warming – cooked up by political hacks and backed by self-interested energy companies – is fake, but the Arctic ice is melting anyway.

A new stance toward reality

One day, someone will undertake a comprehensive study of how all these bubbles grew and why they were inflated at the same time. It will be a story of a crisis of integrity of the institutions at the apex of American life. It will recount how the largest government, business, military and media organizations, as if obedient to a single command, began to tell lies to themselves and others in pursuit of or subservience to wealth and power. Individual deceivers must arrange their untruths by themselves, by flat-out conscious lying, self-deception or a combination of the two. Huge bureaucracies have wider options. Banks, hedge funds, ratings agencies, regulatory agencies, intelligence services, the White House, the Pentagon and mainstream news organizations can grind inconvenient truths to dust, layer by bureaucratic layer, until the convenient lies that had been wanted all along are presented to the satisfied money or war-hungry decision makers at the top. The study of these operations will be a story of groupthink; of basic facts relegated to footnotes; of wishes tweaked into facts; of deepening secrecy; of complex models, mathematical or ideological, used to supplant, not illumine, reality; of new offices created to draw false new conclusions from old facts; of threat inflation; of the sinking careers of truth-tellers and the rising careers of truth-twisters.

It would be interesting, for instance, to compare the creation of the illusions of the real estate bubble with the creation of the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. In both cases, contrary facts were readily available at the base of the system, but were filtered out as the reports went up the chain. For a somewhat contrasting, top-down model, the White House method for suppressing the truth about global warming within government agencies is instructive. In that case, the science was duly gathered, but often squelched at the last minute by political appointees editing the reports.

A concluding chapter of the study will note that the rudiments of a new stance toward reality began to be articulated. Its motto can be the famous comment a senior Bush adviser made to writer Ronald Suskind, whom he belittled as belonging to the “reality-based community,” which, the adviser said, believed that “solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” But that was no longer true, for “we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Over at the American International Group, the recipient of $152.5 billion in federal bailout funds, then-chief Maurice Greenberg was saying much the same thing in happier days: “This is never going to get any better than it is today. We’re so big, we’re never going to swim against the tide. We are the tide.” In short, the relationship between observation and action had been reversed. Reality was not the field of operation in which you acted and whose limits you must respect; it was, like a play or movie, a scenario to be penned by human authors. Fact had to adjust to ideology, not the other way around.

Obama, of course, cannot wait for such a study to appear. He must batter his way out of the various bubbles and lay his hands on what is real immediately. It will not be easy. His election has done part of the job, but the mists of illusion still hover over the land. Fantasies of wealth and power, not to speak of superpower, die hard. Happy hour is more pleasant than the morning after. For bubble thinking was projected beyond the deluded institutions to national politics as a whole. The falsehoods that led to war, the fact-averse ideology that inspired the bid for empire, the investments based on fictitious ratings and the denial of the evidence of global warming – none of these grew in a vacuum. They were supported or tolerated or insufficiently discredited by the media and other organizations that inform and constitute the mainstream. The credit and debt booms were national, corporate and personal, symptoms of a nation living beyond its means at all levels. The facts of global warming, it is true, were increasingly accepted by the public, but not by the president it put in office, and there was little appetite for measures, like a gas tax, to cut back carbon emissions. As global warming intensified, the iconic American vehicle of the era was the gas devouring, pseudo-military Hummer, an imperial auto if there ever was one. The grandiose conceptions of American power found a ready audience, as reflected in election results. They linger still as troops shift, with Obama’s blessing, from the unpopular Iraq quagmire to the better accepted Afghanistan quagmire.

In short, the mainstream, like a river that jumps its bed and ravages the countryside, has overflowed the levees of reality and carried the country to disaster after disaster in every area of national life: military, economic and ecological. These depredations have paradoxically led a groggy public to yearn for the stability that Obama’s centrist cabinet choices seem to promise. But they know – Obama, who denounced the “dead zone that politics had become,” told them in the campaign – that these appointees had a hand in creating the ills they are now charged with addressing.

“Reality” has bifurcated in a manner confusing to politicians and citizens alike. On the one side is political reality, which by definition means centrist, mainstream opinion. On the other side is the reality of events, heading in quite a different direction. If Obama makes mainstream choices, he is called “pragmatic.” And it may well be so in political terms, as the poll results attest. But political pragmatism in current circumstances may be real folly, as it was on the eve of the Iraq War and in the years of the finance bubble preceding the crash. Smooth sailing down the middle of the Niagara River carries you over Niagara Falls. The danger is not that Obama’s move into the mainstream will offend a tribe called “the left” or his “base,” but that by adjusting to a centre that is out of touch, he will fail to address the crises adequately and will lose his effectiveness as president.

Jonathan Schell is the author of numerous books, including The Fate of the Earth and The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger. He is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

Big pharma breaks the law and pays up

DRUG BUST Alan Cassels

“Drastic action is essential to preserve the integrity of medical science and practice and to justify public trust.”

– Journal of the American Medical Association

You can learn a lot about the effects of drugs and the actions of drug manufacturers by peering into a courtroom. When you hear what the companies themselves have to say, in sworn testimony, about their drugs or their marketing tactics, you realize that we in the general public really only have an iceberg tip’s worth of information about any drug on the market.

You can’t deny that courts of law can get at a certain purity of truth, which emerges from the wringer of the legal system.

Exhibit A to support this argument is a major lawsuit settled last month in the US against drug giant Eli Lilly. The company was ordered to pay $1.42-billion (US) to settle criminal and civil investigations. These charges stem from the way the drug manufacturer marketed its antipsychotic drug Zyprexa, (generic name olanzapine). Lilly executives explained that the key charge centred on how Lilly was advertising Zyprexa for ailments for which it was not approved.

A company trying to license its drug will come to the regulator with a series of claims of what its drug can do. It is only those claims deemed to be supported by sufficient evidence that get approved by the FDA or Health Canada. However, while drugs are licensed only to treat certain specific conditions, our doctors are free to prescribe any drug for any patient for whatever reason they see fit, approved or not approved. The issue of “approval” is important because a company can only market its drug for “approved” uses. In other words, if your drug is approved to treat toenail fungus, the sales reps can’t go pushing the drug for erectile dysfunction. That’s against the law.

Zyprexa belongs to a relatively new class of antipsychotic drugs approved to treat people suffering from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I thought, OK, there can’t be that many schizophrenics or people with bipolar out in society so antipsychotic drugs like Zyprexa wouldn’t have much of a market. I was wrong. Lilly has sold nearly $40 billion (US) worth of Zyprexa since it was approved in 1996, making it, in fact, one of the biggest-selling drugs in the world.

Many of us had sensed there had to be something illegal about the way the drug was being marketed, but we had to wait until the court documents revealed what was actually happening.

A huge blockbuster drug, approved only for the treatment of relatively uncommon diseases, was obviously being taken by millions of people – despite its known and fearful side effects (mainly weight gain and diabetes) and its documented life-threatening severe adverse effects, (heart attacks and strokes). So why was an antipsychotic like Zyprexa so widely used?

The answer is what we call “off-label promotion.” According to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, Lilly said it promoted Zyprexa for elderly people in the treatment of dementia, which is a use strictly not approved by Health Canada or the US Food and Drug Administration. The US attorney handling the case told a press conference, “Lilly completely ignored the law,” making “hundred of millions of dollars” from illegally promoting Zyprexa.

Here’s the main kicker: not only is the drug not approved to treat dementia in the elderly, but Health Canada has said that prescribing this drug to elderly people is something that should emphatically not be done due to the risk of strokes. Yet if you were to wander the halls of the average seniors home in Canada, you’d find as many as a quarter of the residents taking these drugs.

Exhibit B in my argument that the law courts are great places to look to expand our knowledge about drugs is the drug Neurontin (gabapentin). This drug will go down in the history books as being off the scale in terms of its off-label promotion. Neurontin was approved in the mid-1990s as an “add-on” therapy for what they call “partial complex seizures.” A small market, right? I mean, how many people suffer seizures and would therefore need drugs like Neurontin? Seems like a lot. By 2004, nearly $3 billion worth of the drug was being sold.

David Franklin, a whistleblower from Parke-Davis (later bought out by Pfizer, which marketed the drug), set the wheels in motion for a huge lawsuit that followed. The result was public access to some of the most complete court documents ever assembled around the aggressive, off-label marketing of a drug. In the passage below, Franklin relates what a Parke-Davis executive said to him and his fellow sales people:

“I want you out there every day selling Neurontin… We all know Neurontin’s not growing for adjunctive therapy, besides that’s not where the money is. Pain management, now that’s money. Monotherapy [for epilepsy], that’s money… We can’t wait for [physicians] to ask, we need [to] get out there and tell them up front. Dinner programs, CME [continuing medical education] programs, consultantships all work great but don’t forget the one-on-one. That’s where we need to be, holding their hand and whispering in their ear, Neurontin for pain, Neurontin for monotherapy, Neurontin for bipolar, Neurontin for everything. I don’t want to see a single patient coming off Neurontin before they’ve been up to at least 4800 mg/day. I don’t want to hear that safety crap either, have you tried Neurontin, every one of you should take one just to see there is nothing, it’s a great drug.” (From The Neurontin Legacy: Marketing through Misinformation and Manipulation by C. Seth Landefeld, M.D. and Michael A. Steinman, M.D., published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Jan. 9, 2009.)

It would become the mother of all court actions against illegal marketing by a company; the payouts were almost a billion dollars, at that time the biggest legal action ever taken against a drug company. The court documents reveal the whole gamut of tricks used to manipulate information: suppressing publications, training and using local doctors to serve as paid speakers for the drug, cultivating “thought leaders,” influencing academics with research grants, appointing people to “advisory boards” that worked to launder payments to physicians and lots and lots of “unrestricted educational grants” to do what was needed to sell this drug.

In an article in December’s New England Journal of Medicine, it was noted that the marketing of Neurontin was based on “the systematic use of deception and misinformation to create a biased evidence base and manipulate physicians’ beliefs and prescribing behaviours.”

The 8,000 pages of corporate documents now in the public domain reveal the tactics used by a company to create a multibillion-dollar blockbuster out of a drug that should have gone nowhere. These documents are available in a searchable digital library at the University of California in San Francisco. (www.dida.library.ucsf.edu). The class-action suit which followed also generated detailed testimony, searchable through the US Federal Judiciary’s Public Access to Court Electronic Records Service Center.

How much off-label prescribing happens? About 20 percent of drugs in the US are written to treat a condition for which the drug was not approved, according to a 2006 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

What’s a patient to do in all of this? For starters, ask your doctor, “Is this drug you are about to prescribe me actually “approved” for the condition or disease for which I would take it? It might be best to first try the proven, standard and “approved” therapies.”

Clearly, we shouldn’t have to wait for the courts to tell us what is happening behind the scenes about how drugs are being used. Better research and regulation on how drugs are actually being used in the market (and what kinds of effects they have) are needed.

In Canada, a group of academics and health policymakers have been trying for several years to make the case that Canada needed better ways to research and assess the safety and effectiveness of drugs as they are used in the “real world.” In mid-January, Canada’s new Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced that the government was committing $32 million over four years to create a research network to “enhance national capacity for research on the safety and effectiveness of drugs used by Canadians.” This is about the best news on the drug safety front we’ve seen in a long time.

We shouldn’t have to rely on the courts to provide independent, unbiased evidence to help answer important questions about the drugs we take every day. Publicly funded research that is free from pharmaceutical industry influences will help a lot. The new $32 million is hardly what you’d calldrastic action on the drug safety front, seeing as this represents about 1/1,000th of Canada’s annual drug bill, but it could be a step in the right direction. There is no doubt that the time has come to start creating systems to ensure safe and effective use of drugs in Canada.

There is no use waiting until the courts have their say.

Alan Cassels is a drug policy researcher at the University of Victoria.

He uncovers the world of cancer screening in a two-part radio documentary, You are Pre-Diseased, airing on CBC IDEAS at 9:05 pm, February 12 and 19. Mark your calendars.

cassels@uivic.ca

Fair voting in BC

The Citizens’ Assembly worked it out in 2004.
We can make it happen in 2009

by Nick Loenen

On May 12, 2009, British Columbians will take to the polls to vote for BC’s next premier. They will also vote to replace the current “first-past-the-post” voting system with a proportional voting system known as the BC single transferable vote (BC-STV), which was almost unanimously recommended by the BC Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. This will give British Columbians:

1) Fair election results.
2) Effective local representation.
3) Greater voter choice.

You can help. Learn more at:

www.stv.ca 
www.citizensassembly.bc.ca/

The Citizens’ Assembly at the Wosk Centre for Dialogue

On October 24, 2004, after nearly one year of discussion and deliberation, the Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform voted to recommend replacing BC’s current voting system, known as “first-past-the-post,” with a single transferable vote system adapted to our province’s needs. It is called BC-STV. The randomly selected 161 members of the Assembly, consisting of one woman and one man from each constituency, supported the recommendation almost unanimously.

The historic vote followed three hours of final discussions. At the end of that debate, Vaughn Palmer, Vancouver Sun’s senior political columnist, turned to Les Leyne, his counterpart at Victoria’s Times Colonist and asked, “Les, have we ever seen a political debate of such high calibre conducted with so much civility and goodwill?”

That was a fine tribute to the ordinary British Columbians who made up the Assembly, their work and their public mindedness, but it is also a shameful indictment of the legislature, the political parties and our political culture. Civility and goodwill? Why can our governing institutions not be more like the Citizens Assembly? Is that not what Canadians want?

The Assembly recommended a preferential ballot. Instead of voters selecting one of many candidates, voters rank any number of candidates. Voters don’t vote many times. Each voter gets just one vote. Think of it as one dollar’s worth, but the dollar might be spread around in support of more than one candidate, based on how the voter ranks the candidates. That is the essence of the preferential ballot.

What does a preferential ballot do for politics? It has a civilizing influence. Two real, live examples: I was a candidate in the 1993 federal election. The party nomination meeting was contested by five and conducted by preferential ballot. It was clear from the start that no one would win on the first count. The winning candidate would need second and third place support from members whose first loyalty was with a competitor. Is that conducive to negative, personal attacks? Of course not. I was constructive and found common ground with some of the other candidates and their supporters and hence won the nomination.

Some years ago, the then president of the Richmond non-partisan association phoned to say that prior to an upcoming nomination meeting to fill one slot for a by-election, membership numbers had suddenly swelled from the normal 300 to 400 to nearly 3,000.

Three competing blocks of instant voters were determined to get the nomination. I advised the president to go with a preferential ballot. They did and not one of those three big camps won. Those large groups competed with each, but a fourth candidate had built bridges to all three of the big groups and won on the fourth count.

First-past-the-post, our current voting system, is a winner-take-all system. Only one candidate can win. Only one party can win; all others are losers. In our system, there is no constructive role for losers. Politicians win by attacking and diminishing others. Canadians don’t like attack ads, but under first-past-the-post, that is how it is done.

Legendary BC premier WAC Bennett often said, “Politics is war by another name.” Winston Churchill said, “The difference between war and politics is this: In war you get killed but once; in politics, often.” Must it be thus? No. Politics is not war and should not be conducted as if it were.

A preferential ballot rewards constructive behaviour; you win by building bridges, by reaching out. It promotes the politics of inclusion, cooperation and consultation. It does not thrive on conflict; it thrives on conflict resolution.

You want the legislature and parliament to be more like the Citizens Assembly? Change to BC-STV. Are you offended by the recent events in Ottawa, a politics that thrives on placing party interest ahead of the public interest? Change to BC-STV.

Today, faced with unprecedented public policy challenges and the need to rescue an economy destroyed by excessive self-interest, we need politics that are constructive, a system that rewards politicians for placing the common good ahead of partisan interests. We need the Citizens Assembly’s recommendation – BC-STV.

Electoral reform will not solve all our problems, but no parliamentary reform or lasting democratic reform will take root until we have a voting system that rewards those who place the common good ahead of partisan advantage.

Electoral reform is not sufficient, but it is a necessary condition for all other reforms. It must be thus. Why? Politics are about power and the voting system allocates power. Under a changed voting system, political power is dispersed and shared political behaviour becomes more civilized.

Changing the rules by which political power is allocated is the first and highest priority.

The question is can we change the voting system? Yes, we can. In 2005, British Columbians came within a whisker. This time, the movement for electoral reform is better organized with more feet on the ground and voters are more knowledgeable. Building on that solid majority of 58 percent who supported the Assembly’s recommendation last time, people will be invited to join that majority, and perhaps, perversely, but best of all, recent events in Ottawa have angered Canadians who know we deserve better.

It can be done, but it is up to ordinary British Columbians. On this issue, political leaders will follow only if the people lead. Without you, it will not happen.

We have just one last chance on May 12 and I ask you to make a commitment.

Let each of us resolve, and all of us together resolve, to commit our energies and our resources for the next few months to this great undertaking that was born in the Citizens Assembly among the people’s representatives. This is an undertaking that transcends all of us. It is an undertaking to make politics more civilized and to rekindle the promise of democracy for our province and for our nation.

Can we do it? Yes, we can!

 

Nick Loenen, a former Richmond councillor and MLA, has written extensively on voting system reform and can be reached at nick.loenen@stv.ca To learn more and to get involved, visit www.stv.ca


The Single Transferable Vote (STV)

Proportional representation by the single transferable vote (STV) method rests on the assumption that voters can choose between candidates rather than parties. Voters rank candidates in order of preference by numbering the candidates on the ballot. The ballots are then counted in a way that insures the candidates with the highest preferences are elected.

The principle is straightforward:—that a variety of minority and majority opinions are represented in government. A candidate needs a certain number of votes to be elected, and this quota can vary according to the particular STV system used.

Source: Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform

The magic of music

A surgeon struck by lightning and a dancing parrot hold clues to music’s profound effects

by Geoff Olson

Film producer Mark Johnson was on his way to work one day when he heard two monks playing music in a New York subway. One played a nylon guitar and the other was singing in a language the producer didn’t understand. In a recent PBS interview with Bill Moyers, Johnson recalled that a few hundred people had gathered around, spellbound by these robed figures. He said he was struck how all of these strangers, all travelling their separate ways, had been brought together by music.

Some time later, Johnson was walking in the streets of Santa Monica when he heard a musician playing a song on the street. He was so moved by his performance that he approached the singer, Roger Ridley, and asked if he could return with some recording equipment and some cameras. He told Roger that he would love to take this song around the world and add other musicians to it.

Johnson says he isn’t sure if he chose Ben E. King’s classic ballad, Stand By Me, or if it chose him. Travelling around the world with Ridley’s bare-bones vocal performance of the song, he enlisted others to contribute, from blues singers in post-Katrina New Orleans, to a South African choir, to a Moscow chamber group. Adding their multiple layers of instruments and vocals, Johnson built the voice of one unknown street musician into a polyrhythmic hymn of shared humanity. Johnson’s 10-year musical adventure is portrayed in his documentary Playing for Change: Peace Through Music.

The universal language of Homo sapiens was, is, and forever will be, music. As a species, we are moved both emotionally and physically by the sounds we make. Somehow, pressure waves in the air, no more substantial than the flutter of a hummingbird’s wings, can elicit anything from tears to tapping feet. The word “enchantment,” derived from the Latin incantare, means to chant or sing a spell. This archaic word connects beauty and the supernatural with song – the earliest and most persistent form of magic.

In his book, This Is Your Brain on Music (2006), cognitive psychologist and record producer Daniel J. Levitin alludes to a kind of Sardinian a cappella music, in which if the four male voices are perfectly balanced, a fifth female voice is conjured in the listener’s mind. The Sardinians explain this voice as the Virgin Mary. And while there are other secular explanations available for this phenomenon, should we be concerned that analyzing music scientifically may detract from the aesthetic appreciation of it? The Ancient Greeks didn’t think so. Pythagoras and his followers drew no great distinction between science and art, or between music and mathematics. They believed the mathematical regularity of chord sequences was a key to the structure of the universe itself: a “music of the spheres,” in which harmony united everything from planetary movements to birdsong.

Modern-day scientists, however, aren’t much more definitive than the Pythagoreans when it comes to understanding music and the mind. “The thrills, chills and tears we experience from listening to music are the result of having our expectations artfully manipulated by a skilled composer and the musicians who interpret that music,” writes Daniel Levitin. But this is trivially true, offering no real explanation for how emotions can be conjured by a sequence of notes. The nineteenth century composer Mendelssohn was a bit more helpful with his claim that music has “not thoughts that are too vague to be put into words, but too precise.”

Aldous Huxley echoed the composer’s ideas about music. In the early 1930s, the British writer was on holiday in the Mediterranean. On a moonless June night “alive with stars,” he groped about in his dark guesthouse for a record to play. He put on the introduction to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, theBenedictus. Later, in his book Music at Night, Huxley wrote the following: “The Benedictus. Blessed and blessing, his music is in some sort the equivalent of the night, of the deep and living darkness, into which, now in a single jet, now in a fine interweaving of melodies, now in pulsing and almost solid clots of harmonious sound, it pours itself… like time, like the rising and falling trajectories of a life.”

What was Beethoven trying to say in the symphonic language of theBenedictus? Huxley felt it was the composer’s idea of “a certain blessedness lying at the heart of things.” This was something Beethoven could only communicate nonverbally, through composition.

Describing any kind of music is like trying to describe a watercolour to a blind man. As the playwright Tom Stoppard once said of music critics, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Not surprisingly, with something so fugitive in meaning, but so personally meaningful, scientists have had difficulty in explaining the origins of music. Finding an “evolutionary purpose” for musical talent remains a guessing game.

The granddaddy of evolutionary thought, Charles Darwin, thought that music was a kind of showing off to the opposite sex, the auditory equivalent of a peacock’s tail. Echoing Darwin, Levitin argues that music is something that male humans developed as a way to demonstrate reproductive fitness. (Rock n’ roll, anyone?) To Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, music is “auditory cheesecake,” the by-product of our species’ freakishly large brains. Just as algebra or chess were never survival skills sharpened by natural selection, music is a complex human faculty that exercises other more functional faculties. We do it because it’s fun – and it’s fun because it builds neural pathways that are shared with more survival-based skills, like rhythmic movement. But it’s still an accidental gift.

Ian Cross, director of the Cambridge faculty’s Centre for Music and Science, rejects Pinker’s explanation as reductionistic and wrong. In an interview forThe Guardian’s “Science Weekly” podcast, Cross points out that we don’t merely engage with music solely by listening, but that it’s also “active and interactive, and something you do, that is embedded in complex, active behaviours.”

Karaoke, raves and Baptist church choirs are all about music as total involvement. In many non-western cultures, there is little distinction between music and dance. For Cross, the evolutionary purpose of music is communal; it fosters social cohesion as a replacement for grooming, a social activity enjoyed by primates.

“Music seems to be extremely good, extremely useful for managing situations of social uncertainty,” says Cross, “and it’s evolutionarily functional in promoting and sustaining a capacity for sociality.”

It shouldn’t be surprising that we share an enjoyment of music with other social animals. This is where Snowball the parrot comes in. If you haven’t seen him in action yet, check out this white cockatoo’s performances on YouTube, where he bops along to his favourite songs, Everybody (Backstreet’s Back) by Backstreet Boys and Stevie Nicks’ Edge of Seventeen. On the latter song, the screeching Snowball shakes his head back and forth, kicks his legs out, and at one point, appears to tap one claw on the downbeat.

Aniruddh Patel, a senior fellow at the Neurosciences Institute in California, received a link to Snowball from a friend and decided to test if the cockatoo was really dancing. He got in touch with Snowball’s owner, Irena Shulz, asking if she would help him study the parrot. Patel sent her CDs of the bird’s favourite Backstreet Boys track at different tempos and had her videotape his routines. He then graphed Snowball’s moments against the varying beats. Patel discovered that the frequent moments that Snowball locked onto the beat weren’t by chance. They demonstrated sensitivity to rhythm and an ability to synchronize to it.

Snowball’s paradigm-busting performances appear to hinge on those skill sets shared by parrots and human beings alike: vocal learning and imitation. Like us, parrots are highly social animals with brains wired to interpret sounds and coordinate the complex movements of vocal organs to reproduce them. Perhaps we have more in common with the avian world than we think. In Kerala, India, the chants of Brahmin priests mystify experts. They bear no resemblance to any known language or music, but rather to patterns found only in bird song. Some believe these chants are part of an oral tradition that may predate language, going back beyond the first Indo-European peoples.

Whatever our evolutionary or neurological fellowship with birdbrains, it’s impossible to witness Snowball’s YouTube performances without recognizing his sheer joy. He’s obviously enchanted with the music and his own dancing. Similarly, human performers and their audience can fuse into one body of rhythmic celebration, as anyone knows who’s been to a particularly memorable rock concert or rave. Music can capture the attention in an “eternal present” that is comparable to sexual ecstasy or mystical states.

This timeless dimension of music was poignantly reflected in Prisoner of Consciousness, a BBC documentary about a brain-damaged musicologist studied by neurologist Oliver Sacks. The patient, Clive Wearing, was stricken with a severe brain inflammation that left him with a memory span of only a few seconds. Without a recognizable past, and unable to imagine a future, Wearing once told his wife his purgatorial life was “like “being dead.” Although he can never remember her, each time he sees her he is thrilled.

Asked to play a Bach prelude, Wearing initially says he doesn’t know any, but he still summons one up when he is at the piano. By way of explanation, Sacks suggests that musical recall is not quite like another kind of memory: “Remembering music is not, in the usual sense, remembering at all… Listening to it, or playing it, is entirely in the present.”

In his most recent book, Musicophilia, Sacks notes the well-known health benefits of music, for both the healthy and the sick. It is a remarkable thing that, even in the worst cases of dementia, “there is still a self to be called upon, even if music, and only music, can do the calling.”

Sometimes, music acts like a force or a personality, in and of itself. In his book, Sacks profiles 42-year-old Tony Cicoria, a surgeon who was hit by lightning. While Cicoria was resuscitated and made a full recovery, this rock music fan was subsequently seized with an unaccountable and newfound interest in classical piano music. He sought out CDs and then a piano, teaching himself to play. Within three months, his mind was overwhelmed with music that seemed to come out of nowhere. Ten years after his electrifying encounter, Cicoria is still as obsessed with classical music, but uninterested in using the new brain-scanning technologies to understand his condition. He insists it is a “lucky strike” and that the music in his head is “a blessing … not to be questioned.”

The link between music and emotions is difficult to quantify. Neurologist Manfred Clynes is one of the very few scientists to have studied the “touching” aspects of music. In addition to having more than 40 patents credited to his name, the Vienna-born neurologist is also a concert pianist who has recorded superb versions of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

In a bizarre series of experiments, the inventive Clynes asked subjects to apply finger pressure on a button to express emotions. The subjects consistently displayed the same gradients of force for different emotions. Anger, for example, is a short, sharp stab on the button. Joy is a soft pressure with a quick release. When Clynes plotted out these gradients and played them back electronically, the results were astounding. The simple tones “sounded” joyous, angry or grieving.

Clynes then tried the same experiment in reverse. Subjects were taught the different pressure gestures corresponding to emotional states, without being told what they meant. Most were able to correctly match them later with their corresponding emotional states. In one of Clynes’ experiments, aborigines in Central Australia were able to correctly identify the specific emotional quality of sounds derived from the touch of white, urban Americans. A Wikipedia article about Clynes suggests he has hit upon music’s Rosetta Stone, discovering the “biologically fixed, universal, primary dynamic forms that determine expressions of emotion that give rise to much of the experience within human societies.”

Clynes’ musical research is revolutionary and Sacks’ medical prose lyrical, but other scientific literature on music and the mind seems to fall short. I’m left with the impression of a group of blind men in white coats, feeling an elephant with their hands, each giving a tactile report on a different body part – tail, ears and legs – but never getting a fix on the complete beast. There is “explaining” and then there is “explaining away.”

In his study of college singers at the University of California, psychologist Robert Beck found that singing boosts compounds that create a sense of happiness and well being. Singing produces immunoglobulin A, a hormone that counters the stress hormone cortisol. But since every mood appears to have an associated neurochemical, and everyone knows music makes us feel good, is this any more than a peer-reviewed tautology? To give another example, do any of us seriously think our understanding of “love” is fully contained by the description of it as “endogenous production of endorphins?”

The problem comes down to two separate domains: language and music. Although they are connected through song, there is still a divide, according to Aldous Huxley. “Music says things about the world, but in specifically musical terms. Any attempt to reproduce these musical statements in our own words is necessarily doomed to failure. We cannot isolate the truth contained in a piece of music, for it is a beauty-truth and inseparable from its partner. Only music, and only Beethoven’s music, and only this particular music of Beethoven, can tell us with any precision what Beethoven’s conception of the blessedness at the heart of things actually was.”

Philosopher Alan Watts insisted that music refers to nothing other than itself. He believed that music is so engaging and powerful precisely because life, and the cosmos it’s embedded in, is a dynamical pattern of waveforms – exactly what music is. In The Tao of Philosophy, Watts notes that the point of a musical composition isn’t the finish, as in a footrace or the solution to an equation. If it were, he says, “People would go to the concert just to hear one crashing chord.” The same applies to dancing. “You don’t aim at a particular spot in the room where you should arrive. The whole point of dancing is the dance.”

Yet, early in life, we are tricked into the belief that life is a race, Watts says, with a string of goodies strung along from primary school to the world of adult employment, benchmarks for status and success. This process can end with the struggling wage slave “in some racket… selling insurance.” We may finally reach a place of social standing and economic security, but we feel vaguely cheated. And we were.

According to Watts, “We have simply cheated ourselves the whole way down the line. We thought of life by analogy – as a journey or pilgrimage – which had a serious purpose at the end. And the thing was, to get to that end, success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead. But we missed the whole point all the way along. It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing… or to dance while the music was being played.”

If he could put it into words, Snowball the parrot would surely agree with Watts, Huxley and Mendelssohn. Music isn’t so much a problem to be solved as a mystery to be lived.

www.geoffolson.com

Light for a dark season

THIRTY SOMETHING by Ishi Dinim

This time last year I was in mourning and now I’m celebrating. I feel so thankful for the life I have and for the people with whom I have been blessed to share it with. Am I naïve to be so positive?

Six months ago, everything was about going green, electing Obama and a bright future. Now I’m told that the next great depression looms on the horizon, our government is in shambles and no one cares about the environment anymore because we’ve got terrorists again. I try to grasp how all the news will actually affect my life; it seems like a comedy skit that’s gone from parody to reality.

I’m no economic sage, but these recent bailout plans seem a little odd under the current system. It is a free-market Darwinist philosophy when times are good for the big boys. But when times get bad, we hand them a socialist taxpayer-paid bandage. Go figure. Well, the fact that there is a president who plays basketball is something to be thankful for. In the New Year, I imagine we’ll be reading about people in the White House shooting jumpers in their friends’ faces instead of shotguns.

I hope there’ll be news that I actually want to hear about: how the concentrated efforts of conscientious, generous humans are widespread and making the world a distinctly better place.

These days, I’m humbled by Mother Nature’s abundant delivery of snow and the way its gentle force makes us slow ourselves and ponder the world inside and out. In all the cultural stir at this time of year, remember what we’ve already got, love the people you’re around and be kind and gentle with yourself.

Quote
I think it’s realistic to have hope. One can be a perverse idealist and say the easiest thing: ‘I despair. The world’s no good.’ That’s a perverse idealist. It’s practical to hope because the hope is for us to survive as a human species. That’s very realistic. – Studs Terkel

Film/Series
The Visitor
The Wire 
(All five seasons)
Hamlet 2
WALL-E

Web
www.stv.ca
www.dublab.com

Ishi graduated from Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in 2001, with a BFA. He makes films, collects cacti, and ponders many things. Currently he is doing what he can for himself, his family and the planet. contact:ishi@yahoo.ca

Hijacking the information highway

INDEPENDENT MEDIA by Steve Anderson

Perhaps more than anything else, the open Internet allows us to envision and actually produce a more democratic media system. But the open Internet is under threat by the very companies that bring it into our homes and workplaces: the Internet Service Providers (ISPs). These big telecommunication companies want to become the gatekeepers of the Internet, charging hefty fees to reach large audiences as they do with other mediums.

Big telecom companies are trying to do away with the governing guidelines of the Internet – known as net neutrality or common carriage – which require that Internet service providers not discriminate, including speeding up or slowing down Web content, based on its source, ownership or destination. Net neutrality protects our ability to direct our own online activities and also maintains a level playing field for online innovation and social change.

The activity of limiting, or slowing access to specific content and services, is referred to as “traffic shaping” or “throttling” and it fundamentally changes how the Internet works. According to Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law, ISPs already have a “history of blocking access to contentious content (Telus), limiting bandwidth for alternative content delivery channels (Rogers) and raising the prospect of levying fees for priority content delivery (Bell).”

The importance of net neutrality was made clear when Bell Canada’s traffic “throttling” began limiting users’ ability to view the CBC’s hit show Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister. Some users claimed it took more than a day to download the show. In addition to manipulating its own customers’ use of the Internet, Bell also “shapes” traffic passing through its network from independent ISPs like Teksavvy Solutions, thereby also limiting one of its few competitors in offering open access to the Internet.

The Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP) stood up for independent ISPs by sending a formal request to the CRTC, urging them to order Bell to cease and desist from throttling its competitors’ Internet service. Unfortunately, on November 20, the CRTC ruled that Bell could continue to throttle independent ISPs who interconnect with its network. The CRTC’s ruling acts to limit competing ISPs from offering differential services, like providing access to the open Internet.

The battle continues; the CRTC recently announced a new public hearing on the wider issue of traffic shaping (“throttling”). Many of the anti-consumer aspects of the Bell/CAIP decision could be reversed if the traffic shaping hearing comes down in the public’s favour.

When social entrepreneurs and public interest organizations in Vancouver aimed to create an innovative online news organization (The Tyee) in the most concentrated media market in North America, they didn’t have to ask for ISP permission. Likewise, when the new Toronto-based, global, independent news organization, theREALnews, wanted to experiment with real-time online debate formats, it did not need to pay expensive distribution costs; it just began streaming its content. Similarly, when Rabble.ca wanted to create its own online national TV station, it didn’t need to pay exorbitant fees for a TV station; it just innovated by using the online tools available. These projects would not exist if the Internet were not an open medium. What’s worse, the next TyeetheREALnews or Rabble.ca won’t exist if we don’t have an open, neutral network. When we lose the open Internet, we lose the freedom to innovate.

Let’s be clear; this is not a battle between big ISPs and CAIP. This is not a battle between big ISPs and Google. This is not just a battle between big ISPs and their own customers. This is a battle between a handful of big telecom companies on one side and online innovation, free speech, small business, independent media, artists and civil society on the other. It’s a handful of big telecom companies against the rest of Canada.

The question is who will control Canada’s digital soul? More about this issue at www.saveournet.ca

Steve Anderson is the national coordinator for the Campaign for Democratic Media. He contributed to Censored 2008 and Battleground: The Media, and has written for The TyeeToronto Star, Epoch Times and Adbusters. Reach him at: 
steve@democraticmedia.ca
www.FacebookSteve.com
www.SteveOnTwitter.com