US sets high standards

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

LAST MONTH, Barack Obama completed his first 100 days on the job as US President. During that brief period, his administration acted to reverse many of the failed and destructive policy decisions of his predecessor, George W. Bush. President Obama is giving the American people hope that positive change is possible. If only we were offered the same kind of hope in Canada.

The US president has rejected the rigid dogma of previous US leaders in moving to loosen restrictions on Cuba and offering to engage in peaceful dialogue with Iran. He has injected billions of dollars into science and overturned the Bush administration’s ban on embryonic stem-cell research in an effort to return the nation to its historical leadership role in scientific inquiry and discovery.

On the environmental front, he has appointed an outspoken advocate of ocean conservation to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, signed into law the protection of more than two million acres of wilderness and made clear his intention to combat climate change, including a willingness to force automakers to produce more fuel-efficient and less-polluting cars.

Obama’s commitment to implement the US Endangered Species Act has received far less attention. Earlier this year, the US government restored key endangered species protections that were stripped away by George Bush in the waning days of his administration. In particular, President Obama has reinstated rules that will ensure that government decisions receive independent scientific scrutiny before they are allowed to proceed. In announcing the change, President Obama stated, “With smart, sustainable policies, we can grow our economy today and preserve the environment for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren.”

The president’s support for the Endangered Species Act signals a 180-degree turn. Under George Bush, the US did just about everything in its power, including breaking the law, to eviscerate this critical piece of environmental legislation, enacted, ironically, by another right-wing republican, Richard Nixon.

President Obama’s support for the legal protection of endangered species couldn’t have come at a more pressing time. Scientists are united in their belief that the planet is in the midst of a biodiversity crisis on par with earlier mass extinction events in the Earth’s history. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, some 16,000 known plant and animal species are currently threatened with extinction.

Some scientists believe the effects of climate change alone could result in the premature extinction of 15 to 37 percent of species within our children’s lifetime.

Sadly, our own government leaders have not come close to matching President Obama’s leadership on endangered species. Canada has had legislation protecting endangered species for six years, but our government has failed to implement the law, known as the Species at Risk Act, according to a report card recently released by the David Suzuki Foundation and its allies.

The report found that only one animal, a tiny snail the size of a kernel of corn (it lives in a few hot springs in an existing protected area), has received the full conservation measures required under the Species at Risk Act. At the same time, some 550 other species, including caribou and killer whales, are wasting away in legal purgatory while the feds dilly-dally on completing and implementing recovery plans necessary to prevent their extinction.

When it comes to environmental problems, such as climate change and species extinction, the attitude of our “leaders” here in Canada seems to be that we have plenty of time before we have to act. But as our neighbours to the south are finally beginning to realize, that’s not the case. The more we delay, the more severe the problems will become and the more difficult it will be to address them. Our own survival depends on the planet’s ability to provide us with clean air, water and food. We must act now. And, yes, we can!


Obama quote:
DSF/Allies Report Card (SARA): SpeciesAtRisk_April29.pdf

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First Past The Post Mortem

by Peter Sircom Bromley

ON MAY 12, British Columbians voted against a new system of proportional representation by a majority of 61 percent to 39 percent. Yet less than half of BC’s eligible voters showed up at the polls, meaning that less than a third of BC’s electorate rejected a proposal that might have made such displays of apathy and imbalance a thing of the past.

Is voting a sacred cow?

Where were all the other voters? Some have speculated that they were more concerned about the playoff fortunes of the Vancouver Canucks than the pros and cons of some arcane government regulation. Not hard to believe – but maybe a little hard to accept, especially if you are partly to blame. Provincial elections are now permanently set to occur every four years during the spring playoff season; when questioned about this after the May 12 vote, Premier Campbell was reported to have said, “I think people are quite capable of dealing with hockey and an election.”

But this wasn’t just an election. The concurrent Referendum on Electoral Reform was about a complicated governance issue. The public required unbiased, non-partisan information in order to make an important decision. People were offered an opportunity to improve how things work.

And God knows there’s a lot to improve. While our transportation and communications systems have developed with staggering speed in the last hundred years, we continue to organize our civic affairs in a way unchanged since the days of the horse and buggy. Voting, the singular act that props up government, has remained a primitive instrument while social issues have become multi-faceted and complex. While voting is a sacred right, it also seems to have become a sacred cow.

Since World War II, more than 70 countries worldwide – including Norway, Ireland, Netherlands, Finland, Spain, Austria, New Zealand and Germany – have developed and adopted systems of proportional representation to help modernize the way they govern themselves. There was a recognition that voting systems can contribute to problems in the political system. If British Columbians have any interest in following suit, they will need a better understanding of the forces that affect social change. It might help to review some of the key events that carried us through this latest attempt at electoral reform.

Politics as usual

After two bitter BC election results in 1996 and 2001, the provincial government admitted that the first past the post voting system had some clear disadvantages, most notably that majority governments could be elected with a minority of votes. Gordon Gibson, a prominent author and former politician, was therefore appointed to find a way out of the conundrum. Gibson proposed setting up an independent body to make recommendations on electoral reform. An assembly of randomly selected citizens, two from each of the province’s 79 electoral districts, would study the issue and come up with a solution. His recommendations were adopted, and in August 2003, the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform was created.

The Assembly held public hearings every second weekend for 11 months, examined the fairness, representation and proportionality of the current voting system. They and came up with a “made in BC” single transferable vote (STV) system. Party politics were absent from the discussions and the social and geographic realities of BC were taken into account.

The Assembly’s recommendations were put before the people in a referendum on May 17, 2005. At that time, the Referendum Information Office, a branch of the Ministry of Attorney General, was responsible for informing the public about the new voting system. Although the system was complicated in certain ways, 58 percent of eligible voters and a majority in all but two of BC’s 79 ridings cast their ballots in favour of proportional representation.

The numbers, however, fell just short of the required 60 percent. Those who had actively promoted fair voting in BC were perturbed. Sixty percent is a rather high proportion considering that the 1995 Quebec referendum – which could have split up the country – only required 51 percent. In 1993, a referendum in New Zealand approved of electoral reform by a margin of just over 53 percent.

Four months later, the government of British Columbia pledged to take action on the close result in the Speech from the Throne. A throne speech is typically drafted by the premier, with the assistance of high-level ministers, deputy ministers and staff. It’s essentially a business plan, laying out a general vision along with a budget. The speech announced another referendum, acknowledging that “a solid majority” supported proportional representation. It then went on to discuss what it called a “troubling” issue: why had so many people voted to change the electoral system?

“…and yet that was not enough to pass, according to the rules this Legislature unanimously established. Your government has been clear that it does not intend to rewrite those rules after the fact, or pretend that the vote for STV succeeded when it did not.”

Interesting choice of words. Substitute the word “recognize” for “pretend” and we might see a crack forming in the stone tablets. Is there a note of defensiveness here? Were the results of the referendum making our political leaders question the rules? Were the premier and his associates concerened about the constitutionality of setting the bar too high at 60 per cent?

Whatever the reason, a clear preference for politics-as-usual could be surmised when the throne speech went on to say how public education would be improved in preparation for the next referendum: “Equal funding will be provided to support active information campaigns for supporters and detractors of each model.” According to sources at the premier’s office, the idea was “to stimulate debate.” Evidently, many other politicians agreed. In due course, the idea to fund “active information campaigns” was tabled, passed unanimously by the Legislative Assembly and enshrined in Section 4 of the Electoral Reform Referendum Act.

Let the games begin

What happened next represented a sharp shift in approach, one that distinguishes the 2009 referendum from the first one. Whereas the neutral Referendum Information Office handled the task of public education in 2005, two opposing advocacy groups – British Columbians for BC-STV, and the NO-STV Campaign Society – would now each be given $500,000 to run what the government called “information campaigns,” supposedly to complement the work of the Referendum Information Office which also received $500,000. The two groups – now with clearly defined partisan roles – were expected to come up with their own campaign strategies. In other words, public debate would be played out like a kind of sporting event. The task of education would be combined with the tactics of winning.

Some of those who volunteered with British Columbians for BC-STV were alumni of the Citizens’ Assembly. For them, it must have appeared that months of non-partisan work would be subsumed by the very political machinations everyone had managed to avoid earlier.

For the few who volunteered with NO-STV, things were looking up. NO-STV was an updated version of KNOW-STV, a group that opposed the single transferable vote in the 2005 referendum. KNOW-STV was a bit of a rag-tag group in 2005. Revitalized, and with $500,000 to play with, NO-STV had experienced leadership. The organization would continue to be led by Bill Tieleman, a skilled political strategist, communications professional, and former communications director in the BC premier’s office.

As the referendum campaign lurched into gear, it looked like the pro STV team might coast to an easy win. In mid-March 2009, Angus Reid conducted an online poll indicating that 65 percent of British Columbians, especially younger voters, supported proportional representation. There was a sour note in the festive news, however. The same poll revealed that only 44 percent of British Columbians were aware of the referendum.

Meanwhile, game plans on both sides were being developed, reworked and implemented on the fly. And the plans were very different. It seemed that BC-STV organizers were not clear on the concept of social marketing, a discipline that uses methods similar to advertising but which, out of necessity, focuses on unbiased, clear information. Social marketing audiences just need the facts. So it might not have been a good idea for the BC-STV campaign to use a cartoon super hero theme that trivialized the rather sober issue of social reform. Their slogan may also have been ill advised. “Power up your vote” skewed the concept of proportional representation, a system that simply makes all votes count; it doesn’t give voters special super-hero powers.

For its part, NO-STV presented its case against the single transferable vote in straightforward terms. Its website featured a banner with smiling, ordinary people. However, its message played on fear and ignorance. One of its main arguments was that the new system would be too complicated. It made a highly misleading comment about how votes would be unaccountable, saying, “You may never know where your vote went.” To emphasize its point, NO-STV cleverly presented a rather amateurish video produced by the Citizens’ Assembly. The information in the video was good; presentation was not. Point scored by the no side. Perhaps NO-STV’s most effective strategy was to use television and large print advertising just days before the referendum. Their slogan “don’t take a chance with British Columbia’s future” sowed seeds of doubt but conveyed nothing of substance.

It was left to the Referendum Information Office to provide information in a way that would allow people to make an informed decision. It placed a few newspaper ads and had a website. The website provided a quick comparison of the existing and proposed voting systems and had links to the Electoral Reform Referendum Act and to the BC-STV and NO-STV campaigns. Perhaps they thought that was enough. Was there more? Not sure. One thing is for certain: the Information Office had a low profile.

A non-partisan issue

In the final analysis, achieving electoral reform in BC – or anywhere for that matter – is as much about the way the issue is perceived and handled as it is about the issue itself. And bringing change to government seems to require an extra, and perhaps unnecessary, level of effort and debate. Other kinds of social change, such as the replacement of typewriters by desktop computers, happen all the time. People adjust. What’s so precious about a voting system?

New Zealand’s experience with proportional representation was no less difficult than ours. It had similar numbers and was hotly contested, but unlike BC, New Zealand had a two-step referendum: one in 1992 and one in 1993. The first allowed voters to decide if they wanted a change and, if so, which type of proportional representation they would prefer. A year later, the second referendum allowed voters to decide between their old first-past-the-post system and the new system chosen in the first referendum. Turnout for the first referendum was just over 50 percent, but the result was 84 percent in favour.

The second referendum brought in proportional representation with just 53.4 percent of the vote, a plurality of five percentage points less than that achieved in BC’s first referendum. New Zealand also had special interest groups campaigning for and against reform. However, voters were treated to a massive non-partisan government-run information campaign. The difference between success and failure seems to have been a lower bar and a higher level of education.

In BC’s case, one million dollars divided between two partisan groups could have been better spent by the neutral, and experienced, Referendum Information Office. If we are to grant free speech to special interest groups, then voters at least need to be literate about the subject at hand. According to Dennis Pilon, a political science professor at the University of Victoria, the quality of information delivered to the public was not only poor, but there also wasn’t enough of it. A damning enough assessment in itself. But there was also a basic lack of understanding of process set in motion by the premier’s office, followed without question through the Legislature and followed with resignation by those who supported positive change. After all the expense, time and effort put into the work of the Citizens’ Assembly, the rug was pulled out and the issue divided into opposing camps. The referendum was run like a contest rather than an educational process.

And to some, it seemed unacceptable that, in order to win, the yes side required 60 percent of the vote. In a postmortem letter to his fellow campaign workers, BC-STV organizer James Douglas Roy wrote that his group “played by the unfair, blatantly self-serving and illegitimate rules set down by the same political establishment that benefits from the current electoral system.”

Social reform is, and always will be, a non-partisan issue. It can be dramatic, especially if there are extremes of opinion involved, but it has to be handled dispassionately and with respect for due process. Differences of opinion can’t be left to the tactical skill of one side or another. If there are legitimate reasons to doubt the value of the single transferable vote, and if the Citizens’ Assembly’s recommendations need a fresh perspective, then revisit the issue and broaden the scope of the debate.

Proportional representation is not a new idea. It has been around for more than a century and since the Second World War has come to dominate European politics. It’s not perfect, but it can be fine-tuned as it is put into practice – an important point to remember. And it is certainly more democratic and inclusive than a voting system based on good guy/bad guy, winner-take-all values.

Partisan contests are fun if you’re a hockey fan. Definitely not fun if you’re serious a voter.

Peter Sircom Bromley has worked as a journalist, designer, writer and art director. He also fulfilled the role of communications consultant with the non-profit sector for 10 years and served on several boards, including the Sierra Club of BC and the Stanley Park Ecology Society.

Meditation as healing technology

by Andrew Vidich, PhD

THREE DECADES ago, when I began my meditation practice, I was often viewed as someone out of the mainstream and/or belonging to an Eastern cult. Today, with more than 200 studies having been done on the practice of meditation and its connection between spirituality and health, the tables have turned almost 180 degrees. Wherever I go, people are practising meditation as a means to improving their health and overall well-being.

Right now, we are in the midst of a global shift in consciousness that recognizes the healing power of consciousness itself. To achieve maximum health and happiness, we need to reconnect to the source of our being, or consciousness, which is responsible for the health of the body, mind and spirit. Instead of feeling connected and sustained by this source, as long as we remain disconnected, we more often than not feel spiritually adrift and bankrupt and the result is a plethora of spiritual ailments, including depression, anxiety, fear, doubt, hurry and worry, agitation and restlessness – all symptoms of our real dis-ease, which is spiritual emptiness.

The fundamental illness we all suffer from is a severe case of mistaken identity. We have forgotten who we are and we have become completely identified with our body and mind. Meditation is the process of reconnecting to the greater consciousness within, which is our true identity. This process of reconnection is characterized by distinct healing properties: It liberates the mind from habituated, reactive, conditioned thinking. It brings us fully and completely into the living present – moment-to-moment awareness. It moves us from selfishness to selflessness and from me and mine to thee and thine. It reconnects us with higher vibratory energies and expanded consciousness, sometimes called unity consciousness.

Why is meditation effective? Because as we proceed on the spiritual journey, we are increasingly able to subdue and eventually control our desires. What then arises is an increasing ability to consciously control our thoughts. We have little idea about what is going on in the thought processes of our mind. In fact, brain researchers say we have over 60,000 thoughts per day. Most of these thoughts are largely unconscious, below the level of our awareness. Our minds are like an overgrown jungle with wild animals prowling all around.

On an even subtler level of thought, Buddhists call the uncontrolled mind-stream “the five unskillful states of mind,” namely: 1) Fear and worry. 2) Restlessness and agitation. 3) Doubt and uncertainty. 4) Depression and disappointment. 5) Anger and resentment. If we examine our lives honestly, we see how familiar these unskilled states of mind are. We have become so habituated to “unthinkingly” thinking these thoughts that, over time, they cannot help but spill over to influence our words and actions. We have become so identified with these thoughts that we think we are them. We fail to realize that we have a choice in how we think and feel.

Meditation shines the light of awareness into the jungle of our thoughts. When light shines in the darkness, the darkness disappears. All the wild animals run for cover, not wanting to be discovered. The light of awareness dissolves these uncontrolled states. The more we come into contact with the self-luminous presence within, the more awareness we bring into our being. Each meditation sitting, if done with full attention and sincere intention, can potentially open the floodgates of inner luminosity, bringing greater clarity, insight and peace. Wherever the sun of divinity shines, the darkness of desire is dispelled.

Not only is the practice of meditation a powerful tool in cultivating a deep inner connection with our spirit, it makes us more emphatic and caring, alleviates stress, decreases cholesterol and heart disease and increases our overall health. Meditation has proven to be a powerful tool in treating a variety of chronic and acute diseases.

Even more importantly, from a spiritual point of view, meditation is the key to our becoming more conscious and compassionate beings, filled with abiding states of joy and happiness. It is not an overstatement to say that meditation is rapidly becoming the 21st century “technology” for palliative and clinical care and one of the most powerful tools for personal transformation.

Dr. Andrew Vidich is the author of Light Upon Light: Five Master Paths to Awakening the Mindful Self. He is also an editor, international speaker and educator who lectures and presents experiential workshops globally.

Free seminar, July 1, 7pm: Dr. Vidich presents “Discover the Source: Finding True Peace, Joy and Inner Wisdom Through Meditation,” hosted by Science of Spirituality Eco-Centre, 11011 Shell Rd, (at Steveston Hwy) Richmond. For information, call Linda: 604-985-5840.

The muse and the third man

Survivors of near-death experiences attest to a mysterious helping presence. Is it mysticism or science?

by Geoff Olson

IN THE LATE seventh century BC, the Greek poet Hesiod was tending his flock of sheep on the slopes of Helicon, a mountain in central Greece when the Muses came upon him. They “breathed into me a divine voice,” he wrote in his Theogony, and taught him a glorious song. “They have made Helicon, the great, God-haunted mountain, their domain.”

To some classicists, Hesiod’s words were more than stylistic devices – he was describing what, to him, was a real experience. The Muses, the Greek gods of arts and literature, were said to have the power to “inspire” – a word meaning, literally, “a God within.”

In today’s world, the Muses have been downsized to “the muse,” a wan, poetic expression for creative inspiration. It’s now just a turn of phrase, a cliché, although some artists and writers have confessed to having the spooky feeling that they are the vessels, rather than the executors, of their best work.

However, there is another muse-like phenomenon that persists into the modern age, although it’s connected more to issues of survival than self-expression. Pilots, mountaineers and “extreme athletes” are said to have encountered this mysterious presence in moments of great danger or at the brink of death. The presence, often perceived of as a voice, offers assurance and also counsels persistence in the face of overwhelming odds.

In her 2008 book Explorers of the Infinite, British Columbian author Maria Coffey investigated what she refers to as “the secret spiritual lives” of extreme athletes and adventurers. “All the extreme adventurers in my book spoke of a ‘sixth sense’ that comes from being keenly attuned to the environment they are moving through,” she writes.

A legendary account of spectral guidance was supplied by Ernest Shackleton, after his 1914-1917 Endurance Expedition across Antarctica to the South Pole. The problems began when Shackleton’s ship became trapped in pack ice, only a few days after the first sighting of the continent of Antarctica. The ship drifted with the floe for several days and then sat frozen in place throughout the dark Antarctic winter. Shackleton ordered his men to abandon the ship. A harrowing encounter with the elements ended with a 36-hour trek, with only a stretch of rope and ice axe to assist them. It was an incredible feat of endurance, one that amazes mountaineers to this day, Coffey notes.

“I know that during that long and racking march,” Shackleton wrote, “it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.” Shackleton had the unmistakable sense of being guided by an unseen presence. His story supplied the inspiration for a passage from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

Who is the third who walks always beside you? 
When I count, there are only you and I together 
But when I look ahead up the white road 
There is always another one walking beside you 
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, 
hooded I do not know whether a man or a woman – 
But who is that on the other side of you?

Hence the term, the “Third Man factor,” after Eliot’s poem. In his 2009 book of the same name, author John Geiger says he’s tracked down 110 stories of people in states of extreme danger, or near death, who felt they received guidance from a sensed presence, including a survivor of the World Trade Centre collapse, who received instruction from a spectral voice on how to escape with his life intact.

Geiger writes of climber James Sevigny, who experienced the phenomenon after an avalanche swept him a distance of 600 feet and left him with a broken back, scapula and arm and shattered facial bones. He awoke to find his climbing companion dead beside him, at which point he lost hope and decided to join him. But a presence encouraged him to persevere and offered him help. Whatever it was, this presence accompanied him all the way to the base camp, where he received medical attention.

While researching her book, Coffey uncovered a similar pattern of stories. She learned that many extreme athletes have experienced life-changing spiritual experiences along with the difficulty of sharing them with friends and family. Yet surprisingly, a few of the people profiled in her book welcomed these extreme states of mind and have even since put themselves in mortal danger to access them again.

In her book, Coffey tells of an experienced ice climber, Clay Hunting, whose climbing companion fell 150 feet, along with tons of ice. With his companion seriously injured, Hunting had to hike many miles through a canyon for help. “The strangest thing was when I was hiking out I had a small, blue light in front of me the whole time. It wasn’t my headlamp. It was a blue light. It led me out. I don’t know what it was but there was no way I could have got out as fast as I did without its help. Every so often, I would stop and turn off my headlight and look for that blue light. It might be a bit higher up or lower, or to the left or right and I would follow it.” Without the blue light to guide him, Hunting is sure his friend would have died.

Coffey believes these bizarre experiences are often mediated through three conditions: fear, suffering and focus. Fear is something all extreme athletes must confront, at one time or another. Suffering comes with the territory. Focus means prolonged attention on a single task.

It’s no accident that desert-bound mystics, shamans in training and yuppies on vision quests have employed some or all of these factors to access obscure corners of the soul. The act of focus, which sweeps away mundane, day-to-day thoughts, seems to anchor the seeker in the present, while suffering and fear alter one’s physiological and neurochemical states. This combination of psychic conditions appears to open a window into archetypal realms of experience.

In the 22nd hour of his trans-Atlantic flight, fighting to stay awake, Charles Lindbergh suddenly perceived spectral forms in the cabin that encouraged him to stay awake, offering navigation help. They stayed with him until he reached the Irish coast, Lindbergh claimed.

He later wrote of his experience: “The fuselage behind me becomes filled with ghostly presences; vaguely outlined forms, transparent, moving, riding weightless with me in the plane. I feel no surprise at their coming. There’s no suddenness to their appearance. Without turning my head, I can see them as clearly as though in my normal vision. These visions were emanations from the experience of ages, inhabitants of a universe closed to mortal men.”

Of course, it may not be such a surprise to see strange things after 22 hours without sleep. Scientists have long known that sleep deprivation can crowbar the dreaming mind into waking consciousness.

Pilot Dick Rutan completed the first nonstop flight around the world in 1986. In 1979, during an extended flight in an experimental plane, an elf appeared on one of the wings. The elf communicated that Rutan had fallen asleep and crashed into a mountain, and could now relax. A spacecraft with “little gray men” pulled alongside, while airplanes in his wake were looping about in dogfights. All this was accompanied by “beautiful, loud organ music.”

“I don’t believe in any spiritual crap,” Rutan told Coffey. But he did note that he had been in the air for the same length of time as Charles Lindbergh on his epic voyage.

In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a stressed-out Ebenezer Scrooge dismisses the ghost of his former colleague, Joseph Marley, as a “piece of undigested potato.” Dickens was drawing a link between biochemistry and boundary experiences, while gently mocking his central character’s reductionism. But, of course, we’re not talking about fictional dreams; we’re talking about the experiences that happen to real people. But how “real” are their experiences, scientifically speaking?

Coffey quotes climber Carlos Carsolio, a Mexican climber who told her how he was guided through a terrible storm down K2, the world’s second highest peak, with the help of the “spirits of the mountains and the ghost of a climber who had perished on its slopes.” In seeking his “moments of extended reality,” Carsolio has scaled 14 of the world’s tallest mountains without oxygen. So are we talking about hallucinations resulting from oxygen-starved brains? Is the muse turbocharged by hypoxia?

It’s no accident that “God-haunted” mountains have been implicated so often in mystical experiences, the author learned. The leaders of the three great monotheistic religions – Moses, Jesus and Mohammed – all had revelations on mountaintops. Prolonged exposure to high altitudes is linked to prefrontal lobe dysfunctions. The author speculates that the endorphins released by strenuous climbs might lower the threshold for temporal lobe epilepsy, “which might in turn evoke such experiences.”

Above 18,000 feet, thought perception and function become increasingly impaired, and above 28,000 feet, hallucinations are common, according to tests conducted on Himalayan climbers by British doctors Michael Ward and Jim Milledge.

Canadian neuroscientist Michael Persinger is famous for his brain studies using a modified football helmet, in which electrodes stimulate the brain’s temporal lobes. When both the right and left hemispheres are stimulated, Persinger’s subjects often report an unnerving “sense of presence.” To Persinger, these reports imply that, under certain conditions of neural excitation, the dominant hemisphere – where the sense of self and language is located – can interpret activity in the normally “quiet” hemisphere as the presence of another self. (In right-handed people, the left hemisphere is dominant; the opposite is true for left-handed people.)

Persinger’s studies give some indirect support to the ideas of Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes. In 1977, Jaynes made a splash with his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. The unwieldy tome belied a revolutionary thesis: that our modern form of consciousness is only a few thousand years old. In prehistoric times, people perceived the voices generated by the non-dominant hemisphere as the voices of the gods, Jaynes insisted. They were often directed by this “inner voice” to go about their daily tasks.

Is the Third Man factor the evolutionary hangover of this bicameral mind – a sort of vermiform appendix of consciousness? Is this the source of the muse of Hesiod, whose voice had faded even by the Greek poet’s time?

Yet vocal hallucinations aren’t all that uncommon in the modern age: A whopping 10 percent of people claim to hear voices in their lifetime and most of these experiences aren’t psychotic. Nor should we forget the common phenomenon of “imaginary friends” of young children, and, of course, the mocking voices of paranoid schizophrenics. The muse may not be as far away in time or space as we think.

The ideas of Persinger and Jaynes also link to the mysterious phenomenon of what Stanford psychologist Ernest Hilgard called “the hidden observer.” In his experiments with hypnotized subjects, Hilgard determined there was some aspect of the self that remained independent of the hypnotic state. It seemed to have a greater level of awareness than normal waking consciousness. Is the muse no further than our non-dominant cerebral hemisphere, or some other part of the brain?

Coffey herself remains agnostic about the scientific versus spiritual interpretation of such altered states of consciousness, or even if the two are mutually exclusive. She cites British scientist Rupert Sheldrake and his suggestion that memories can exist outside the nervous system in a “morphic field” of extended consciousness. In this view, the brain is the hardware that accesses a non-local software within the morphic field, and would account for psychic experiences in which people access information they couldn’t otherwise know.

During a recent appearance in North Vancouver, I asked Coffey if the people profiled in her book could make a distinction between a straightforward hallucination and visionary experiences of greater spiritual authority. “A lot of scientists I talked to argued it’s all hypoxia, and maybe it is,” she responded, adding that we should pay attention to what the experiencers themselves think. For example, Carsolio knew the exact moment that his climbing partner had died on another part of the mountain and felt her spirit guide him to safety. “For him, it’s not just about lack of oxygen, it’s that zone between life and death, when you’re very, very close to death; the magical moment when he could break through into something else, where he felt he could access some other level of consciousness and speak with the dead,” Coffee writes.

Coffey has very good reason to doubt materialistic explanations for all such experiences; she has had her own tragic encounter with the unexplained. In fact, it became the inspiration for her book. Twenty years ago while her husband was away on his last expedition, attempting Everest’s then unclimbed Northeast Ridge, Coffey took a rock-climbing course with some of their friends. While sharing a room in a hostel one night, as she dreamed she was “running down a village street, wailing and distraught,” her friends recalled her sitting upright in bed and crying out, “Joe’s dead!” She later learned that her dream had occurred only hours after her husband was last seen on Everest.

There was also the moment, days after his death, when she sensed her husband’s presence during a car trip with a friend. While she said nothing about it when it happened, the friend later told her she had experienced the uncanny feeling of Joe’s presence at the exact same time.

The common stories of premonitions of death in the mountaineering community, and the sudden awareness of the loss of a friend or relative, supply some of the most striking anecdotes in Coffey’s book. The skeptical appeal to “coincidence” or “subconscious cuing” seems laughably insufficient in these instances.

For some, stories about the “Third Man” or the “muse” will forever remain superstitious mumbo-jumbo, or at best, REM sleep gone wild. For others, these experiences are part of some spiritual commonwealth, in which the veil between the living and dead momentarily lifts.

Those seeking a rapprochement between science and spirituality believe there may be an explanation in “morphic fields,” in which observer and observed are joined in a vast ontological drama, which science has yet to decode. For others, like this writer, it all makes for a fascinating mystery.

Thank you Arthur Erickson

by Bruce Bingham

ON MAY 20, 2009, we lost a great friend with the passing of Arthur Erickson. He will be missed not only in Vancouver, but also throughout the rest of Canada and the world village where he sailed on the high seas of life’s creative flow to bring back gifts of time, space, form and humanity. This incredible man saw always that we are never separate from nature, but that we are part of nature herself.

Always the gracious diplomat with a ready laugh, wide grin and sparkle in his eye, he saw the best in each of us and when it displeased him to see the ignorant actions of those less disposed to grace, he stood his ground without concession. At all times, he was a hard, hard worker and he would never compromise his standards of excellence. He knew all was possible. He knew you could do it. He always admonished others to just try, take the next step, reach for what you know and see beyond expected limits. He knew that everyone had the same potential and with generous humility, he gave his full support to others to dream, to become and to realize their highest aspirations.

The foundation for his immense success was his family and the many dear friends he made along the way. His father was a war hero who lost both legs at the battle of Amiens, but survived WW1 to be decorated by King George V at Buckingham Palace. He returned to Canada where he married Arthur’s beloved mother Moppy. The family, including Arthur’s brother who is a writer, lived on Vancouver’s West Side.

Arthur Erickson at home 
Photo by Robert Kenney
July 15, 2007. Courtesy of the 
Arthur Erickson Conservancy

Design achievements
(partial list)

  • Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC
  • Museum of Anthropology, UBC
  • Provincial Law Courts, Vancouver
  • Pavillion, International Trade Fair, Tokyo
  • Canadian Chancery, Washington, D.C.
  • Etisalat Tower, Dubai
  • California Plaza, Los Angeles
  • Waterfall Building, Vancouver
  • RCMP Heritage Centre, Regina
  • The Erickson, Vancouver

For a complete list of awards,

Poppy Erickson’s strength of character, fierce determination, self sufficiency and love instilled in Arthur and Don a marked self-reliance, confidence and highly developed social conscience that set them apart. From a young age, they both possessed a sense of self-awareness. Their beloved mother recognized she had two beautiful and exceptional kids and nurtured their aesthetic virtuosity and self-confidence. The boys grew up knowing they could reach for the best and achieve their dreams, held tightly by values of family, community and the sacredness of life.

Even in today’s changing social landscape, the Ericksons’ deep family bond extends across three living generations. They still share Sunday dinner together and Arthur was always present unless the busy pace of his work designing extraordinarily beautiful buildings – for people to live, work and grow in – and extensive travels prohibited him. When he returned home to Vancouver, however, he always remembered to bring back gifts for his beloved niece, nephews and their parents – gifts from afar that were fun, exotic and beautiful.

As they grew up, Arthur was a constant inspiration to the little ones in his family. He loved their individual natures and helped direct them to seek their own rewarding and fulfilling lives. He taught them to ski, to draw, observe and to play. He was a joy to them and they to him. They too went on to become creative professionals in architecture, interior design and writing.

The other foundation for Arthur’s genius was rooted in the way he saw the world in all its glory and beauty, inspired by nature’s spirit and grand design. He was gifted as a painter with an instinctive sense of form, colour, texture and nature. Undeniably, the natural beauty of Vancouver keyed him to an appreciation of the mountains, forests and seas and he was encouraged by personal friends who were cultural lions, including Lawren Harris, Jack Shadbolt, Gordon Smith and Bill Reid.

Arthur had the innate ability to connect directly to the voice and forms of Spirit’s intelligence. He saw the connections, the momentary signs, glints and signals that connected all the dots and made the landscape of the world whole, visceral and inspired. Nature reached out to him in special and intimate ways and he never failed to grasp its climate and terrain.

His cottage home on Vancouver’s West Side, with its secluded gardens is the quintessence of Arthur. Even a pair of wild Mallards – there are three generations of them now – felt his love and appreciation of life and nature’s genius and have returned annually to his cottage in the urban wilderness of Vancouver adding, along with the frogs, to the natural and harmonious surroundings.

Arthur loved life and its natural beauty immensely and inspired by that beauty, he shared his joy and happiness with others. He lifted up his friends. He brought out their individual greatness and inspired them to know and express much more of their own intelligence. He embraced happiness and extended it to others of all ranks and stations of life without prejudice, whether it was lifelong friends, new and younger friends or prime ministers, kings and princesses. They all received his honesty and respect equally, dispensed with humility, good humour and wisdom. He was a gentleman.

Arthur was a great Canadian light to the world. He represents the best of us as a nation and as a people. He encompassed our great country’s values of social conscience, dignity for all and wide and visceral love of nature’s grandeur, imbued with sophisticated, cultural acumen. Those who know, say he is the greatest Canadian architect of the 20th century. He stood firmly against the worst of humanity’s inclinations. Ever ready to put his name and reputation to a worthy cause, he spoke candidly. He saw hypocrisy and deplored its fine garments. He worked to preserve our neighbourhoods and aesthetic values. His call to do what is right is a trait he shares with his family members.

Arthur’s inspired architecture brought forth a new understanding of how we and our dwelling places must be one with our surroundings. His design genius, including roof gardens, works to preserve nature. He created and established the design concepts for dwelling places that are the physical stage from which the young going forward into the world today can draw connectedness, inspiration and understanding from our bond with nature, rather than imagining we are separate from it.

This singular, brilliant insight – how we all reside in form and nature – will serve to save us.

The Great Spirit did a grand job of creating Arthur; we thank you Arthur for your love and your gifts.

Bruce Bingham is a friend of the Erickson family. He has worked at the leading edge of new industries in BC for many years and has made significant contributions to the protection of the environment, justice and human rights.

Healthcare thrives on conflicts of interest – Corrupt medical research only the tip of the iceberg

DRUG BUST Alan Cassels

WE TRUST strongly in our medical system because, metaphorically speaking, we largely don’t mix church and state. For the most part, the medical care we receive from our hospitals and doctors is supported by public funds and delivered on the basis of human goodness, charity and justice. Examples that show how strenuous we are in ensuring that commerce doesn’t taint our medical care include:

  • We don’t let doctors sell drugs; pharmacists do that.
  • We don’t let drug companies run medical schools; universities do that.
  • We don’t let drug manufacturers write prescribing guidelines for physicians; independent experts do that.
  • And we don’t let people selling drugs or medical devices write medical journal articles; academic physicians do that.

Or, at least, that’s what I thought.

April was a particularly hard month for rude awakenings. Cracks in the crumbling edifice between commerce and medicine were revealed and new research unveiled gross, sometimes shocking, levels of conflicts of interest in our medical system. We are finding evidence of academic doctors selling themselves to the highest bidders, medical journals allowing themselves to be prostituted by drug companies and medical schools allowing doctors in residence to be bribed with drug company trinkets. I would argue that of all the factors threatening to undermine our trust in medicine, financial conflicts of interest top the list.

Don’t believe me? Then believe the data: In April, four separate research studies published in four diverse areas showed the widespread and rampant nature of conflicts of interest in medicine. One derives from the world of cancer research. One is from psychiatry. One is from medical education and the last is from the world of medical journals. As you absorb these examples, try to decide for yourself if we are doing enough as a society to eliminate the conflicts of interest infecting medicine.

What do I mean by conflict of interest? Wikipedia generally defines it as “any situation in which an individual or corporation (either private or governmental) is in a position to exploit a professional or official capacity in some way for their personal or corporate benefit.”

One study from the cancer world examined the frequency and impact of conflicts of interest as they related to high-impact, published, clinical cancer research. It basically asked the question: “Are researchers who publish in cancer journals conflicted?” (For instance, do they own shares or have stock in or otherwise benefit financially from their association with a drug manufacturer or do they work for the drug company whose drug they are studying?) The reviewers looked at cancer research published in eight major journals in 2006 to see if conflicts of interest were reported and, if so, who funded the research? They also wanted to discern if there is a real association between the research funders and what the research concludes (i.e. do the industry-sponsored researchers have more positive things to say about their sponsor’s drug than the researchers not on industry’s payroll?)

Their results? Out of 1,534 original oncology studies, almost a third (29 percent) of the researchers had a conflict of interest, including industry funding, yet only 17 percent declared they had received such funding. Studies paid for by industry funding were twice as likely to focus on treatments (as opposed to other aspects of cancer care) and randomized trials that assessed survival were more likely to report positive survival outcomes when there was an obvious conflict of interest. In other words, the drug is shown to “work” better if there is company money involved.

The authors concluded there are indeed conflicts of interest in the clinical cancer research published in high-impact journals; often, those conflicts are not disclosed and the conflicts result in a more positive spin being put on the results of the trial.

The next example comes from the world of mental illness. A report by Boston researchers found that 90 percent of the authors of three American Psychiatric Association (APA) clinical practice guidelines in psychiatry had financial ties to companies that manufacture drugs mentioned in those guidelines. Worse yet, the authors had financial connections, including owning equity in the companies that made the recommended medications, being a consultant or corporate board member, or receiving honoraria. None of these conflicts were disclosed in the guideline.

Translation: The academics who wrote the major guidelines for American physicians on treating serious mental illness – schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression – were basically all funded by the drug companies. If you thought only well meaning psychiatrists, interested in the welfare of patients, provided the guidelines, you’d be wrong. The picture looks even darker when you narrow in on the conflicts of interest of the authors of the guidelines for only bipolar disorder and schizophrenia: Here, 100 percent of the authors had such conflicts. Most people would consider these findings very worrisome, including Tufts University professor Sheldon Krimsky, one of the co-authors of this report. Tufts published a 2006 study examining conflicts of interest of the creators of psychiatry’s “Bible,” the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

In a telephone interview with Krimsky from his office in Boston, he told me we should be worried about conflicts of interest because they can lead to a “distortion of the scientific record” and that industry-funded activities may lead to an “interpretation of the science in a direction that may not be defensible.”

While he’d like to see these guidelines do a much better job of disclosing conflicts of interests among the authors, such disclosure is only an intermediate step towards erecting a solid firewall between drug companies and guidelines for physicians. “The innovators must be separate from the evaluators,” he notes. That’s right, a separation of church and state.

No doubt guideline committees, such as those sponsored by the APA, need to come clean about their financial conflicts, but they must go further to avoid them in the first place. At the very least, groups like the APA should admit they’ve got a huge potential PR liability on their hands, and if they don’t prevent drug companies from putting their own people on guideline committees, the APA shouldn’t be surprised when our doctors scorn or ignore their guidance.

What about smaller things than prescribing guidelines? What about trinkets – do they influence what our physicians think about drug companies? A recent study conducted in two medical schools in the US found that exposure to even small pharmaceutical items affected a doctor’s treatment preferences.

You might find this hard to believe. Most physicians I know scorn the idea that they could be “bought” with trinkets. (We’re talking drug company pens, free drug samples and other logo-laden paraphernalia.) Most physicians are adamant that these small, promotional items are unlikely to influence prescribing behaviour. Yet, in this study, the researchers measured whether exposure to these items result in doctors looking more favourably on drug companies and whether or not the medical schools with more restrictive policies towards pharmaceutical marketing produce doctors with different attitudes.

Researchers conducted a randomized, controlled experiment with more than 300 senior level medical students at two US medical schools. One of the schools (University of Miami) allowed the students to be exposed to small, branded promotional items for the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor (atorvastatin). The control group was comprised of students at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine where restrictive policies are in place to limit pharmaceutical marketing.

What did they find? The Miami students exposed to the Lipitor swag were obviously more enamoured with the drug compared to the control group in Pennsylvania. On a “skepticism” scale, the Miami students held more favourable attitudes toward pharmaceutical marketing compared with the other group of students where the opposite effect was observed. Basically, those students not marinating in drug company promotion were less swayed by promotional items related to the drug.

The authors concluded “subtle exposure to small, pharmaceutical, promotional items influences implicit attitudes toward marketed products among medical students.”

A study published in April by Sergio Sismondo at Queens University in Kingston looked at the relationship between drug companies and medical journals and asked, “Are medical researchers and medical journals too close to the pharmaceutical industry for comfort – or patient safety?”

We’ve all heard of the phenomenon of “ghostwriting” where big, important names in medical academia are asked to put their names to papers written by others (often drug company hacks). But Sismondo pushes the concept a bit further referring to the “ghost management” of pharmaceutical research and publication where cradle-to-grave medical publishing is “managed” every step of the way by pharma funders. He notes there has always been a problem with plagiarism and the misallocation of credit (like the prof who puts his own name on the hard work of his graduate students), but those scenarios are only the tip of the iceberg.

A more serious problem in medical publishing is the pharmaceutical industry using “willing participants” in the form of researchers seeking fame, glory and money associated with huge, multimillion-dollar studies. These people, known in the marketing world as KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders), are luminaries who put their names to the body of academic published research and serve as speakers and de facto promoters of the company’s products. They put their names to studies that are published according to the objectives of the funders (usually the drug companies). The published studies are then reprinted and distributed to the offices of physicians and anyone else who influences drug formularies.

As Sismondo says, “Those articles may look like independent confirmation of the reps’ pitches [and] plagiarizing KOLs lend their good names to the pitches.”

If you were to ask me if conflicts of interest are a problem in medicine, I’d say, “Ask the data and then decide for yourself.”

Alan Cassels is a drug policy researcher at the University of Victoria and the co-author of the bestselling Selling Sickness. He does not work for the pharmaceutical industry.

Giving peace a chance

Recorded June 1st, 1969 – 40th Anniversary

by Donald Tarlton, concert promoter, Montreal



PEOPLE GOT into the bed-in for dozens of reasons. I got in because I was a concert promoter and I knew all the rock writers. One of them, Dean Jones of the Montreal Star, called me up and said, “You’re not going to believe what’s going down. John Lennon is at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. Come on down! Now!”


FROM THE very first moment John and I saw each other, we knew something was about to happen – something big. We just didn’t know how big. John said about our meeting: “It was bigger than both of us.” That was the feeling we both had. When John and I sang Give Peace A Chance from our bed-In in Montreal, we had no idea the song would become an anthem not only for our time, but for generations to come.

It went around the world and made other songwriters realize that you can convey political messages with songs. Millions of people got together and sang the song in different parts of the world at different times. The song connected us and made us realize that we were a power strong enough to change the world. Little did we know that that’s when we, John and I, really made our beds for life.

I still remember the beautiful full moon that John and I kept looking at from the bed, after everybody went home. Did anybody think that a man and a woman, a man from Liverpool and a woman from Tokyo, would do something crazy like that together to change the world? Maybe it was written already on a stone on the moon or something. At the time, we were laughed at and put down, in a major way, by the whole world. Now all of us are standing at the threshold of a beautiful new age that we worked hard for. It’s not in our hands yet, but we know we will make it happen. Let’s make the best of it and have fun. I think John would have been very pleased too.

Imagine peace
War is over, if you want it. 
I love you! 
Yoko, NYC 2009

I said, “Well, there must be a million people there, I’ll never get in.” She said: “No, everything’s fine. Your name’s been left at the door.” It indeed was and I got up to the 17th floor. I couldn’t believe it. I remember coming in the door, and Dean, you know, introduced me to John and Yoko as “our local concert impresario.” I was a little timid about the whole thing for the first while, because it seemed like a bit of an intrusion, like I really shouldn’t be there. It was a pretty spectacular situation and I looked around and said to myself, “This is surreal. This is some moment.” I closed my eyes and brought up the image of the debonair man in the suit who had made the girls scream on the Ed Sullivan Show, the man I had first seen on stage at the Montreal Forum five years earlier. And I opened my eyes and there he is, lying in a bed in front of me, the same man, but everything about him is different. He’s not singing songs; instead, he and his wife are patiently putting out one message, interview after interview. They stayed on target: “We’re killing the life on this planet, and the responsibility to stop it lies in each and every one of us. Inaction is not an option.”

Most of the time I understand we are all such little insignificant beings in the universe. But there was something much bigger than our normal life happening in that room. Being there that night gave you a feeling that you were in a special place, where people who the times had singled out were saying things that needed to be said.

It was just the luck of the draw that I ended up on the recording of Give Peace a Chance. There’s been a lot of wonderful things that I’ve participated in over 40-odd years of working with some of the biggest stars in the world, but nothing will ever rival that moment. How could it? I saw some of the writing process behind the song, saw how focused it was. They thought, “Why fool around with more words than necessary here? We’ve got a message; give them the message.” I mean, it’s the simplest song in the world. When I was listening to it in the playbacks, I said, “How can they ever release this? It’s not a song, it’s just a chant.” But boy, was I wrong.

Anyone who’s been in a studio recording session knows there’s nothing more boring than sitting for three weeks doing 2,700 takes on two lines. But this recording was different. I mean, everyone had an instrument of some sort. The Hare Krishna people were chanting and the people in the room passed around a tambourine, but most of it was hand-clapping, or you grabbed something – a couple of people had books, banging them together like cymbals. People were kicking the open sliding door to the next room for that big bass beat. Everything was really cooking. It was a very spiritual moment. And they just kept going and going; it went on and on, take after take, until John was satisfied.

It will never go down as one of his greatest songs, but it’ll go down as the greatest message a song ever gave the world – a message that has been understood and chanted by crowds all around the world. Why is the song still relevant? Well, can you think of a more relevant message in today’s world? Turn on your television sets, listen to your radio. Watch what’s happening around this world. Be horrified. Recoil. Ask yourself how this could have gone so wrong. So if you ask me if the message “give peace a chance” is relevant, it matters more today than it did when John and Yoko sent the original message to the world. We have to say to ourselves: It was a great message then. It could be a greater message today. It’s simple: Think of peace and of peace only.

Some nations have an atomic bomb; some nations have all the armaments in the world. John Lennon had his guitar, his voice, his soul and his spirit. We need more like him.

Excerpted from compiled by Joan Athey. Photography by Gerry Deiter. Edited by Paul McGrath. (John Wiley & Sons Canada Ltd.)


Joan Athey and Gerry Deiter (1934-2005)

Almost out of hibernation


AT THE TIME of writing, I’ve spent the last five days nursing a mean flu. Probably lost about 10 pounds and who knows how many hours of sleep? It’s funny how humbling life can be. I was scared to touch my family for fear of infecting them.

Lately, I’ve been having these wonderful staring contests with my daughter. I’m not sure exactly what she’s communicating, but there is definitely great wisdom behind those eyes and I’m convinced that I’m starting to learn how to speak baby.

I’ve been lying awake at night drenched in sweat, shivering, my mind racing. I wonder why things are the way they are. My world here in Vancouver seems perfect, even with all the contradictions of this place. I get stuck thinking about the world’s problems and don’t see many solutions. I like to believe that I’m a good problem solver. I try to escape my small-amount ideas and think of something new. When I ask myself, “Why do people hurt other people?” I’m baffled and can only shake my head. So I distract myself, filling my time with inconsequential activity.

If this seems a bit all over the place, it is. I can barely focus on anything except for the pain in my body and the high fever; it’s like trying to form an idea in a pot of boiling water. I called around and asked people to help inspire me.

My friend Dave told me I should write about how we’re all living so close together yet we’re mostly isolated. There is a naïve first world independence that says we don’t need anybody else, just more money, and we’ll be okay. How do we show that we care for others? Starting with our family and then rippling out. Are we consciously doing our best to let people know we’re there for them? People get drunk and hug each other about hockey wins, but don’t have the time for a homeless person.

I’ve heard that our generation is not involved in volunteerism anymore and that there isn’t time or motivation for activism. I know this isn’t entirely true, but it’s frightening to ponder if it is. On a brighter note, I called my sister Maili and she said I should write about all the blossoms and flowers and chances to bare our arms. She said I should write about the birds and the bees. Then I laughed. Maybe that means I’m getting better


Quit worrying about your health. It’ll go away. – Robert Orben

The average, healthy, well-adjusted adult gets up at seven-thirty in the morning feeling just plain terrible. – Jean Kerr

Be silent as to services you have rendered, but speak of favours you have received. – Seneca

Ishi graduated from Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in 2001, with a BFA major in photography. He makes films, collects cacti and ponders many things. Currently, he is doing what he can for himself and the

Waiting to hear echoes back…

Social media, social change


SOCIAL MEDIA tools like Facebook and Twitter are all the rage these days. We often hear about the incredible potential of social media or, conversely, their lack of relevance, compared to traditional media. But what exactly are social media?

Social media are the web-based tools, applications, spaces and practices that people use to interact with each other and share information online. For example, social networks like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace provide online tools that can be used for sharing media and engaging in online conversations while also providing users with online, personal space that forms a repository of shared media and social interactions.

Social media are more participatory than most traditional (offline) media. With a traditional medium like television, audience members are passive participants, consuming content that has been produced by others. In stark contrast, online social media represent something of a return to a pre-print oral culture – more of an ongoing dialogue than a form of production and consumption – in the form of commentary, anecdotes and shared stories (in various forms).

Through social media, the means of communication and producing social meaning, narratives and values have been returned to what Dan Gillmor calls “the people formally known as the audience.” Canada has a remarkably vibrant social media community. According to Michael Geist, we have the second highest per capita usage of Facebook in the world. Our cities are also stacked with revered social media innovators and well-followed media and technology commentators, many of whom reach thousands of people with the mere stroke of a key.

Most importantly, the use of social media enables the large portion of society that has access to its tools to connect with endless numbers of people, and in real time. Social media facilitate the mobilization of people who are able to unite under common fronts via their cell phone or computer. The remarkable movement for fair copyright legislation in Canada – the result of an uprising of concerned Internet users – is testament to its power. The 1.5 million American citizens that lobbied politicians in 2007, demanding an open Internet, is another example of how these tools can be used to mobilize for social change.

The use of social media is also enabling a plethora of offline meet-ups, collaborations and events. Many of these offline activities are, in part, inspired by and infused with the collaborative practices and values associated with social media. “Unconferences,” for instance, are a new form of radically democratic conferences inspired by open-source software development processes.

Many conferences revolving around technology or media issues are now set up as unconferences where participants direct the conference through a combination of online chat/wiki technologies and face-to-face interactions. BarCamp, for example, is a series of technology-focused unconferences which, as explained on the BarCamp website, are formatted as an “ad-hoc gathering born from the desire for people to share and learn in an open environment.” (

These unconferences take an element of online social media practices, like distributed decision-making, and apply it to offline activities. BarCamp co-founder Ryan King “figured there was much more expertise in the audience than there possibly could be onstage.” New media commentator Kate Milberry notes, “If users actualize values of cooperation, collaboration, voluntarism, sharing and trust in their social interactions online, this surely has implications for social engagement offline.”

Social media are key tools for social change, reinvigorating local communities and opening up government. For example, this year, a new set of autonomous local conferences called ChangeCamp are underway where citizens and government workers gather to address the question “How do we re-imagine government and citizenship in the age of participation?”

There are many valid concerns about Internet usage, the digital divide and the social surveillance undertaken by the owners of commercial social media platforms. But with current economic, political and ecological challenges in mind, the social experiments enabled by social media are more than necessary and potentially critical to finding our way through these challenges.

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:

Exploring food and nutrition

NUTRISPEAK by Vesanto Melina

WHILE WE can certainly find some pretty absurd stuff on the Internet, I marvel at the ease with which we can now find facts that, in past decades, would have taken months of searching. The following websites are rich in information:

For accurate information about vitamins and minerals, visit the Linus Pauling Institute’s Micronutrient Information Center at

If you’re curious about how much calcium is in a cup of kale or wonder about any other nutrient in any other food, search through the USDA National Nutrient Database. Just type in the name of the food and away you go.

For events, history, travel, articles or news, check out the website of the International Vegetarian Union at

For other travel directories related to food and B&Bs, etc., visit and

You will find excellent nutrition articles at

The Vegetarian Resource Group is an online magazine offering carefully researched information:

Stay current about various topics by signing up for Google Alerts. You can sign up to receive info via email about the topic of veganism, for example, or any topic you choose.

The website of my Kelowna-based co-author Brenda Davis offers resources, articles and recipes:

My website (with thanks to Cam Doré) is Under “articles,” you can find a few of my previous Common Ground columns.

BC groups and events

The following local groups host events and dine-outs and serve healthy food. They also offer presentations, volunteer opportunities, regular newsletters and an opportunity to socialize:

EarthSave BC: or 604-731-5885 (Vancouver office).

The Vancouver Island Vegetarian Association in Victoria: or 250-380-6383. For information about raw events, call 250-721-0268.

Raw BC is a lively group that extends far beyond Vancouver: or 778-737-8852.

Farther afield

If you’re more the travelling type, you might enjoy the Summerfest event that runs from July 8 to12 at the Conference Center at Pitt-Johnstown on the University of Pittsburgh campus at Johnstown, PA.

Books and DVDs

For those who prefer to explore topics through books or DVDs, the library systems are impressive in the way they stay up-to-date. A search for the word “vegetarian” in the Vancouver Public Library catalogue ( ) shows between 579 and 872 items, depending on how you set up your search. It’s fun to visit the main branch and see the rows of cookbooks and nutrition books on file. They also have 94 vegan items and 69 titles under the subject of raw foods.

The Greater Victoria Public Library is a close second, with 437 titles when you type in the word “vegetarian.”

At the Fraser Valley Regional Library, which serves the valley as far as Boston Bar, a search using the word “vegetarian” offers 221 items, including 12 DVDs. With the word “vegan,” you’ll find 39 books and DVDs and if you search for “raw food,” you can browse through 17 items.

All of these libraries include our nutrition classics Becoming Vegetarian, Becoming Vegan (with Brenda Davis), Raising Vegetarian Children (with Jo Stepaniak), the Food Allergy Survival Guide and the new Raw Food Revolution Diet. You’ll also find the elusive and much loved Cooking Vegetarian, co-authored with the excellent chef Joseph Forest.

As an aside, websites related to the May 12 referendum include and Tuesday May 12 is your chance to vote for a better democratic system and to support the BC Citizen’s Assembly’s recommendation on electoral reform.

Vesanto Melina is a dietitian and author based in Langley, BC. After being in writer’s hibernation for the last six months, she resumes offering consultations in mid-May. 604-882-6782.

Raw Food 
Revolution Diet

Friday June 5, 5-9 PM
Vesanto Melina offers a presentation on the Raw Food Revolution Diet. Saanich Fairgrounds near Victoria on Vancouver Island. For more information, email Jennifer and Joslynn at