The plastic prison

by Geoff Olson

In a 2007 Saturday Night Live skit, a book-selling huckster appears before a couple sitting at a kitchen table, picking through their credit card bills. “You’re not the only ones,” he tells them. “Did you know millions of Americans live with debt they cannot control? That’s why I’ve developed this unique program for managing your debt. It’s called “Don’t Buy Stuff You Cannot Afford!”

illustration: James Steidl

The couple struggles with the concept and find it too confusing, even though the book is only a page long. Apparently, this comic confusion is shared by millions in both the US and Canada. In 2007, according to Laurie Campbell, executive director of Credit Canada, the average Canadian over the age of 18 was $80,000 in debt, mortgages included. In 2004, that figure was below $70,000. Since 1990, debt loads have increased sevenfold over income in Canada.

Credit cards are the single biggest factor in all of this increase in debt. While roughly 50 percent of Canadians pay off their credit cards every month, it’s the other 50 percent, the ones who do not pay on time, who are of interest to the pound-of-flesh crowd. You could say the bulk of their profits depend on people behaving like Steve Martin’s dopey, debt-ridden Saturday Night Live character. In both Canada and the US, the avarice of the credit card industry meshes nicely with consumer ignorance. It’s a predator-prey relationship of almost Jurassic perfection.

The ignorance is understandable, given our failure as a culture to instruct our youth in personal finance. Young Canadians, who have the least familiarity with high interest rates, are also the most vulnerable to lifestyle sales pitches. Increasing numbers of them use credit cards for impulse purchases, along with groceries and other essentials. The attitude is with the credit card companies offering points, why not put everything on plastic?

Campbell describes the situation as a “tipping point.” Students are graduating with thousands of dollars of student loan debt. Unable to pay cash for both essentials and impulse buys, they’ve turned to credit cards, following their elders’ lead. In a telephone interview with Common Ground, Campbell noted that, according to figures from 2006, students are coming out of school with an average of $5,000 to $10,000 in credit card debt, on top of $30,000 in student loan debt.

“Our young people are completely uneducated when it comes to financial issues,” Campbell says. “They’re graduating from college and university with the highest debt loads that graduates have had and they’re entering the workforce at incomes they thought would be much higher. Their ability to move forward in life is completely compromised.”

Young people can’t plan their future, Campbell explains. They can’t think about getting married or starting a family or buying a home or even purchasing a car because of debt load. And once young workers start paying with plastic, all it takes is a few missed monthly payments for their credit card interest rate to rise from 18 to 24 percent, in addition to onerously large, added fees. “The ones who can least afford it seem to me to be the ones who are getting hit with these kind of charges,” Campbell says.

It sounds like a perfect storm for young consumers. They’re at risk of becoming a generation of indentured servants, working to service the God of compound interest, a mysterious being that communicates through invoices and threatening reminders.

And how many readers can say they’ve even read the contract that comes with their credit card? How many readers can even understand it, for that matter? In the 2004 PBS Frontline investigative report, The Secret History of the Credit Card, after struggling with the fine print of one such form, Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren gave up. “I’ve read my credit card agreement and I can’t figure out the terms. I teach contract law and the underlying premise of contract law is that the two parties to the contract understand what the terms are,” Warren stated.

Frontline discovered that the terms for some cards include the right of the credit card agency to reset the interest rate at any time. That includes the late payment on any unrelated loans. Stunned credit card holders in the US have discovered a late payment on a car or other purchase can result in a sudden spike in their interest rate.

A grassroots movement in the US is stumping to reign in the credit card agencies’ rates and predatory billing practices. In contrast, Canadians simply take their lumps and expect Ottawa to look out for them. Until recently, the Canadian criminal code had capped interest rates to 60 percent annually, but that was abolished in 2007 by the Tory government. The federal government had no intention of enforcing it, “so it decided there was no point in having it in the Criminal Code,” Campbell told Common Ground. The responsibility was left with the provinces to determine their own caps to interest rates and to apply their own enforcement. Today in Quebec, there is a 35 percent cap; incredibly, Ontario has no cap.

This doesn’t mean credit card rates will necessarily rise. It’s quite likely the big banks have already used their supercomputers to gauge the sweet spot on the spreadsheet where profit and consumers’ ability to pay are maximized.

Investor and financial commentator Ben Stein, a guy who expresses great fondness for credit cards, told Frontline that credit card companies hate people like him, who pay their bills off every month. “And I know that because I ran into a fellow I went to high school with on the street and he told me he worked for a credit card company. And I told him about how much I use credit cards and how I pay them off every month, and he said, “Oh, we hate you. We hate you guys. We call you deadbeats.”

Frontline examined how this bad craziness began back in the late ‘70s in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, “a modest town of 140,000 known for its cattle auctions and meat-packing industry.” Today, the little town boasts a huge post office, far bigger than its communal needs, but it serves the credit card industry’s interests just fine.

South Dakota once had a historic cap on interest rates, known as usury law. To encourage banks to make loans, the state decided to suspend the law completely. New York-based Citibank took notice. At the time, its credit card division was “haemorrhaging money” and New York’s usury laws prohibited banks from charging more than 12 percent on most consumer loans. Yet interest rates had gone up 20 percent. “And if you are lending money at 12 percent and paying 20 percent, you don’t have to be Einstein to realize you’re out of business,” Walter Wriston, then chairman of Citibank, toldFrontline. The bank saw a big opportunity in South Dakota’s elimination of the usury law, particularly with a surprisingly well-timed Supreme Court decision that said a bank could export its interest rate to other states. Other US states eliminated their usury laws and more big banks joined the gold rush.

This is why the return address on your credit card bill is often some Midwestern US locale. And the rest, as they say, is history. Or rather, the rest is usury.

Merriam Webster defines usury as an “unconscionable or exorbitant rate or amount of interest – specifically: interest in excess of a legal rate charged to a borrower for the use of money.” The key word here is legal. If the banks do it, and regulators are AWOL, then it’s not illegal or immoral by definition. It’s just sound business practice, for the lenders at least.

Yet it’s remarkable how Christians, including those on the boards of major banks, forget that scripture condemns usury in no uncertain terms. There are a half-dozen passages in the Bible damning the practice. For centuries, Christendom got the message. The church outlawed money lending for the flock, leaving it to the Jewish community. This presented a win-win situation for pious Christians, who could condemn the moneylenders even while accepting their loans.

The rise of the mercantile class during the Protestant reformation put a stake into the heart of medieval restrictions on usury, widening the scope for more lenders to join in on the fun. But condemnations of the practice continued. Lexicographer Samuel Johnson noted, “The synonym of usury is ruin.” Joseph Addison echoed his words. “A moneylender. He serves you in the present tense; he lends you in the conditional mood, keeps you in the subjunctive and ruins you in the future.”

Indebtedness, whether it is personal credit or national debt, always involves a reckoning somewhere down the line. And there is an intriguing connection of the credit card agencies’ lending practices to recent events on Wall Street. To explain this, we have to take a trip through the looking glass into the US housing market bubble.

The collapse of the financial houses of Bear Stearns was the first major indication that the US financial/speculative complex is built on sand. The US government recently “bailed out” the bottomless hole that is Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, to the tune of $250 billion. With the subsequent bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers investment bank, and Bank of America’s buy-up of brokerage house Merrill Lynch, the free market “shakeout” is turning into a rout. Mainstream economists are now speaking in words more suited to the Book of Revelation than BusinessWeek.

On his blog, Global EconoMonitor, the highly regarded New York University professor of economics Nouriel Roubini insists “this will turn out to be the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and the worst US recession in decades.”

Unlike Vegas, what goes on in Washington and on Wall Street doesn’t stay there. In a financial version of the “Butterfly Effect,” the stroke of a hedge fund manager’s pen in New York can cause riots in Thailand. So what does this bode for Canada? Although there are still some regulatory differences between Canada and the US, particularly in the housing market, the economies of the two nations are tightly coupled. And the secret is wide open in financial circles that the entire US credit card complex, holding some $12 trillion in debt, is in danger of going down with the ship.

The credit card industry is intertwined with the subprime mortgage market. For more than half a decade, subprime loans were made to US citizens with shaky credit and marginal ability to pay. As long as the real estate market kept rising upwards, everything was fine. But the loans were ticking time bombs if the housing market went south, which it did.

Once again, avarice meshed with ignorance. The subprime vultures coached naive homeowners into believing they could have something for nothing – they could refinance by taking out home loans based on their equity and pay off their credit cards at the lower interest rate. What this did was effectively hide trillions of dollars in US credit card debt in the ruinous subprime mortgages. By refinancing bad debt as “good debt,” it hid how precarious the situation had become for millions of homeowners. From 2000 to 2007, the loans were bundled into securities and sold across the world to unsuspecting buyers, effectively making the subprime problem the world’s problem.

When you combine a $12 trillion credit card debt with the billions in subprime mortgages set to reset at higher rates over the next few years, and the trillions in funny money floating around in derivatives and other cryptic financial instruments, you don’t have a bubble. You have a black hole.

In retrospect, it’s been one hell of a ride around the black holes’ event horizon. On both sides of the border, predatory lenders whipped up the mania for household wealth formation, encouraging homeowners to think of their homes as ATM machines, or better yet, time machines set for an upscale future. Whether it was a sup prime mortgage or a more transparent loan, every other homeowner wanted in, in a bull market that appeared to have the blessing of the Federal Reserve, if not the Almighty Himself.

In an investment stampede that rivalled the Dutch tulip mania, homeowners never twigged to the original meaning of the word “mortgage.” It’s from the French for “death pledge” – a financial arrangement until you die.

But in the speculative Never-Never-Land of the last five years, who had time for scepticism? Pop culture got into the act with a whole new genre of reality television, focused on home renovation. Although these cheery, gyprock-smashing entertainments seemed to be about reaping the rewards of hard work, they always had a whiff of petty bourgeois desperation to them. The home flippers were always working fast, praying they hadn’t mistimed the sacred housing market.

Interestingly enough, not long after the debut of the home reno shows, a new kind of reality television appeared themed around high personal debt. Shows like Till Debt Do Us Part feature financial nannies who counsel couples buried in bills. The ignorance of these folks, many of them weighed under by mortgages and paying for essentials with multiple credit cards, is astonishing, but not untypical. They seem to have virtually no understanding of how compound interest works. They are part of the 50 percent the banks love – the sheep that can be calmly fleeced with usurious rates and exorbitant late payment fees.

Financial advisor Robert Manning, author of Credit Card Nation, put it succinctly in an interview with CBC Radio’s The Current: “The best client used to be someone who could pay off their debts. Today, the best client is someone who can never pay off their debts.”

For the lenders, debt is the gift that keeps on giving. In fact, the same practice that is applied to credit card borrowers has been applied, on a larger scale and with even greater opacity, to loans made by the IMF and World Bank to Third World nations.

Beginning back in the ‘70s, Arab sheiks found themselves flush with credit from OPEC’s oil deals. They had literally more money than they knew what to do with and they invested billions of it in US banks. The bankers now had a problem. To whom could they lend this windfall, and make money themselves? They looked around and saw an opportunity for huge mega projects in the Third World: dams, pipelines and all the big-money infrastructure associated with capitalism’s good life.

The fact that some of the lendees were corrupt dictators, who pocketed significant chunks of money for themselves and their cronies, was outside the banks’ interests. All they wanted was the money back at some point, with interest. So began the great Third World debt crisis, across Latin America, Africa and Asia, with successive governments unable to even service the interest on their interest. This necessitated further rounds of loan arrangements, and often the gutting of social services, along with the privatization of state industries. As Joseph Stiglitz revealed after his tenure as World Bank vice president and chief economist, this miserly misery-creation was simply business as usual for the global loan sharks.

In any case, once you know that the odds are stacked in favour of the house, your attitude to plastic changes. Credit cards aren’t just useful in today’s highly connected world; it’s almost impossible to get by without them. If you make your payments on time, and don’t spend beyond your means, they offer no great risk. But if you fall behind, which is damnably easy to do, you are no longer a “deadbeat” to the credit card industry. You are Argentina, Bolivia or Thailand.

In the end, Henry David Thoreau’s thoughts on debt still apply today: “That man is richest whose pleasures are cheapest.”

www.geoffolson.com

Do the candidates have us covered?

DRUG BUST Alan Cassels

Wanna talk pharmaceutical politics? Then ask yourself these two questions: If a new drug is marketed in Canada, does that mean the government should pay for it? And further, if your doctor prescribes a drug that is deemed essential, should you have to pay for it yourself?

If you’re like me, the answer to the first question is “Of course not.” There are lots of drugs on the market, many of which either do very little to improve the quality of your life or may even be harmful. We shouldn’t expect the public purse to pay for these frivolous drugs, especially when there are already so many other urgent demands for our precious health care bucks. The answer to the second question is the same: “Of course not.” In Canada, we don’t pay out of our pockets for essential health services like doctor or hospital visits so why would we expect to have to pay for an essential drug?

By the time you read this, we’ll be in the final sprint for the election finish line. Even though there have been enough mini-scandals, resignations and apologies to keep a hungry media at bay over the last month, and we have heard a lot about what governments would do about crime, infrastructure and childcare, we’ve heard barely a word about health care. Certainly, almost nothing about the biggest elephant in the room – Canada’s pharmaceuticals budget.

Yet this crazy election season is the most appropriate time to be asking, "How well do Canadian governments, both provincial and federal, provide drug coverage to our populations?” Sadly, we are a pathetic country on that front. A recently released report said that among developed countries, Canada is almost last in terms of its level of public coverage of pharmaceuticals.

It seems that for every dollar that goes towards pharmaceuticals in Canada, about 45 cents come from the government; about 35 cents come from your private insurance plan that you would have as part of your employment if you are lucky (even though you are ultimately paying for it because that money comes off your pay cheque one way or another); and the final 20 cents come out of your pocket. The report stated that we scored a dismal seventeenth out of 18 countries, in terms of public drug spending. In contrast, the UK spend on drugs is more than 80 percent from the public purse.

This is a real shame and obviously an election issue that should have huge prominence, given the fact that, in 2007, spending on drugs in Canada reached $27 billion, a figure that represents almost 17 percent of total health care spending. According to the Canadian Institutes of Health Information, after hospitals, drugs account for the largest share of major health expenditures.

It is criminal if Canadians are doing without life-saving drugs because they can’t afford them (though I’m not convinced this is much of an issue). Suffice to say this study provides some evidence that Canadian politicians lack the political will to enact strong, national legislation to pay for our drug costs.

This is certainly not the vision Tommy Douglas had when he established public health care in Canada. Even the Romanow Commission, which is one of the most extensive examinations of Canada’s health care system ever undertaken, recommended a national, catastrophic pharmacare program.

Have we seen anything in the last five years? Nada.

The second important statistic to emerge from this study, which also slams Canada as miserly and misdirected on drugs, is a dismal score of sixteenth out of 18 countries, in terms of access to new drug treatments. While that may strike most people as pathetic, I’m a lot more understanding about this one. When you consider the dismal batch of drugs coming onto the market that are deemed “new” and which arrive on the scene with massively inflated prices compared to existing treatments, you’re not really missing much.

Let me explain: the study looked at a comparison of 36 new drugs evaluated for public drug plan reimbursement by all developed countries. Canada’s Common Drug Review (CDR) the federal body which decides, based on an assessment of the drug’s safety, effectiveness and cost (and makes recommendations whether a new drug deserves public coverage), recommended only 61 percent of drugs for public drug plan reimbursement. Apparently, this is a lot less than the averages of the European Union (EU: 91 percent) and the US at 88 percent.

Most people are thankful that the government does its part to pay for pharmaceuticals. And yet, whether you get access to “new” drug treatments, Canada is apparently not a good place to live. The study was produced by a Toronto health consulting firm and paid for by Rx&D, the association of Canada’s brand name drug companies, with the claim that it is the first comprehensive study of its kind evaluating Canada’s access to new drug therapies.

LetÅñs talk about the access issue because the drug companies and their surrogate patient groups are always screaming blue murder about the lack of access to new drugs in Canada. We’ve got a situation in which about half the ?new” drugs recently approved for sale in Canada – drugs for HIV, cancer, heart disease – aren’t recommended for coverage. The Common Drug Review, a serious contender in establishing proof of evidence when it comes to making decisions about coverage, apparently issued 78 recommendations between 2003 to the end of 2007, giving a positive recommendation only 46 percent of the time.

Even though this study apparently demonstrates that Canada is not keeping pace with other countries, in terms of new drug coverage, it is the lack of public funding overall that I think is the most serious issue.

Where do the various political parties weigh-in on this issue?

We know, for example, that the NDP supports a National Pharmaceutical Program. On his website, Jack Layton says that he “…hears about the prescription problem in every single province he visits.” He knows the numbers too; he’s aware that between 1992 and 2002, household spending on prescription drugs jumped by more than 70 percent, while over the same period, spending on food, clothing and shelter increased by only 11 percent.

Layton decries the fact that almost 20 percent of Canadians do not have adequate drug coverage and God forbid, if they find themselves in a situation where they cannot afford the medication they need, they would be ?…forced to choose between medications or mortgage payments.

What Mr. Layton doesn’t say is that many of those drugs that Canadians are paying for may not actually be worth the money demanded at the pharmacy counter, when you know what kind of health outcome they will deliver. However, he’s not adverse to a bit of fear mongering when it comes to putting demands on the government. He says access to medication should be based on need. ?Canadians want to know that if they get sick and can’t afford the drugs they need to survive, the federal government will step in to help.” I have to give some credit to the NDP when they say that if they were paying for drugs, they’d at least look at “essential” medicines and ensure that those Canadians who carry a heavy burden of paying for drugs would get some help.

Where do the Liberals stand?

It’s hard to say, but, like a lot of issues, the Liberals are stealing the best parts from the NDP. Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion promised a ?national program to fund high-cost drug treatments for people who suffer from serious and chronic illnesses – a program aimed at extending coverage to provinces in Atlantic Canada that don’t have provincial drug plans.” Dion said the Libs would spend $900 million over four years and ?ensure people in all provinces can afford expensive drugs like kidney cancer treatments that can run as much as $7,000 per month.”

How about the Conservatives? Let’s start by saying that many drug lobbyists are deeply connected with the governing Conservatives. In an article in theNational Post on May 6 of this year, it was revealed that two high profile Conservatives were mired in the muck around the drug companies’ efforts to restrict the availability of generic drugs. Then there was the stinky business about a former communications director for Stephen Harper, who became a lobbyist for the company that owned the vaccine for cervical cancer for which the Conservatives allocated $300 million.

There’s no doubt that the brand name drug industry is one of the most powerful in Canada, and if anyone is keeping drugs out of the hands of Canadians (due to their high prices), it is those folks.

Let me add one final bit. There is a Conservative I’d vote for if he was running in my riding. Terence Young, who is running for the Conservatives in Oakville, is one of Canada’s staunchest supporters of weapons-grade drug safety legislation. He’s spoken publicly in favour of strong legislation supporting the recommendations of the Romanow Commission, especially the one about establishing a new Drug Agency for Canada to ensure Canadians are safer when using prescription drugs.

Alan Cassels is a drug policy researcher at the University of Victoria. He was recently interviewed on CBC Radio’s White Coat, Black Art on the subject of public funding of pharmaceuticals in Canada. You can catch this program at www.cbc.ca/whitecoat.
cassels@uivic.ca

Give me some truth

by Joseph Roberts

I’m sick and tired of hearing things

From uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocrites

All I want is the truth

Just gimme some truth

I’ve had enough of reading things

By neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians

All I want is the truth

Just gimme some truth.

– from Gimme Some Truth by John Lennon

I am not happy with this federal election and the way it is being reported. Unimportant, nauseating details are cited while important matters – the politicians’ essential character, whether or not they are telling the truth and what they really stand for – get little coverage. These politicians are asking us to trust them with our vote and the power to govern Canada, so, yes, it is important that we know who they are so we can judge for ourselves whether or not they are worthy.

Many party leaders have made themselves available to share who they are as people and politicians. We had the good fortune to interview Stéphane Dion, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, for Common Ground’s May 2008 edition. We also gladly published an interview with Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) in our June edition. We wanted our readers to have a chance to hear from these politicians directly about who they are and what they stand for. (Read their candid interviews on our website at www.commonground.ca Click on “Archive” at the top of our homepage, then click on the monthly edition and follow to the interviews.)

We had hoped to interview all the leaders of a Canadian political party prior to October 19, 2009, our official election day as prescribed in the Canada Elections Act, passed by the current government through Bill C-16, which had its first reading on May 30, 2006. Instead, we are now heading to the polls on October 14, 2008, a full year earlier.

There would have been ample time to interview Elizabeth May, leader of the national Green Party, Bloc Quebecois’ Gilles Duceppe BQ, and, of course, Stephen Harper, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC). Only one of the aforementioned refused to be interviewed. After a number of emails and phone calls, we were still denied the opportunity to interview Mr. Harper. We would have settled for a candid interview with a next in command, such as David Emerson, who was voted in as Liberal MP, but jumped over to the CPC before parliament even had a chance to sit. Emerson decided not to run again for MP and instead settled for co-directing the CPC campaign across Canada.

The voters here in the riding of Vancouver / Kingsway, where our office is located, still feel ripped off by his disregard for their votes and his refusal to stand in a by-election as a Conservative in order to honour the wishes of the people. We would have appreciated the opportunity to ask him a few questions, but it seems Conservative MPs are trained to not talk to media unless they are reading from the party script – coverage you can readily get from mainstream media. So with the snap election called, we ran out of months to interview those remaining leaders who were willing to go public inCommon Ground. My apologies to those leaders we would have interviewed. We believed the official election date would have been honoured, in which case each of you would have had your month to let our one-quarter million readers know who you as a person, why you got into politics and what your vision is for Canada.

As a replacement for an interview with Prime Minister Stephen Harper or his next in command, please find below portions of a speech by the Honourable Danny Williams, Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. Premier Williams spoke his mind about Stephen Harper at the St. John’s Board of Trade on September 10, 2008.

“While I am on the topic of our federal government, allow me a few words on the federal election and the very dire consequences that could face us should Stephen Harper and his right-wing Conservative-Reform Party form a majority government in the coming weeks.

First, let me remind you that Stephen Harper as Opposition Leader, together with the Conservative Newfoundland and Labrador MPs, voted against the Government Bill that gave us the two billion dollar Atlantic Accord cheque. ‘Trust us; we know what we’re doing,’ they said at the time. Thank goodness we didn’t take them at their word back then. On top of that, we now have the 10 billion dollar broken promise on the removal of non-renewable resource revenue from the equalization formula. This promise was made in the past two elections in writing, in their campaign platform and in subsequent letters. And let’s face it folks – regardless of our recent financial well-being, that 10 billion dollars would have made a huge difference to the bottom line of our province.

But now, all of a sudden, because we have finally achieved some self-sufficiency, we should forget the promise. Or so say Conservative candidates. After all, God forbid Newfoundland and Labrador get what is rightfully theirs as partners in Canada. We have put up with that attitude in this province for 55 years and look where that has gotten us in the past.

Stephen Harper’s own campaign literature proclaimed, ‘There is no greater fraud than a promise not kept.’ He used these words as he successfully attempted to woo voters from this province to not vote for the opposing party.

Naively, we trusted him. He rewarded that trust with a broken promise. According to his own brochure – he is a fraud.

I think you all know my views on this issue and I firmly believe that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians at home and abroad still feel the same cold, sharp sting of betrayal at the hands of our country’s leader.

Other commitments were also made by Stephen Harper that were not kept – 5-Wing Goose Bay; custodial management; a Lower Churchill guarantee and numerous others.

We all know that these promises are sadly not worth the paper they were written on and the bond of his word is meaningless.

The raising of rates at Marine Atlantic in times of high gas prices, poor service and inaction on badly needed vessels is another example of their attitude to isolate the island, which creates more economic hardship on small rural businesses.

If Harper is prepared to slash program spending with large surpluses and break his written word as the leader of a minority government, the future for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, and indeed all Canadians, will be very bleak under a Conservative majority.

Do not let Stephen Harper turn your focus onto a green shift in his attempt to turn your focus away from the Conservative’s blue shaft.

His list of broken and unfulfilled promises portrays a lack of integrity in his character and shows us he cannot be trusted.

This is a federal government willing to not only break their own promises, but they go so far as to break their own laws and call an election even though they mandated fixed election dates.

There is nothing Harper will not do to win a majority government.

This is a party who purportedly offered a terminally ill MP a life insurance policy to get his vote. How low can you go?

This is a man who wants an election before losing by-elections that were to have taken place this month.

A man who wants an election before the economy declines any further due to fiscal mismanagement.

He wants an election before findings are released on various ethical breaches against his government.

It is so critically important that the people of Newfoundland and Labrador let Stephen Harper know that his treatment, his attitude, his indifference to this province is not acceptable.

When I met with him to offer a compromise, he told me face-to-face that he does not need the people of this province to win an election. So, let’s let him know that we don’t need him either.

His own candidates and MPs admit that the promise was broken, but we should forgive and forget. Well folks, forgiveness may be a virtue; but forgetting is just plain foolhardy.

In the very words of Stephen Harper’s own candidate in St. John’s East just a year ago, ‘Given his handling of equalization, who can trust the Prime Minister anyway?’

Here in Newfoundland and Labrador, we need to ask ourselves is it ok for the man occupying the highest office in our country to treat a province in this federation with such distain?

We should show him we don’t put up with that in Newfoundland and Labrador anymore.

Vote anything but conservative.

Even his own candidates say they don't trust him. So why should you?

How does it make us feel when the Prime Minister of Canada invites backbencher Newfoundland and Labrador MP Fabian Manning into the front bench in the House of Commons to smile and laugh along with him, as he openly mocks this province upon delivering the best budget in its history?

It was a betrayal that was felt deeply across this province as another MP put Ottawa ahead of province.

Stephen Harper’s ideology has been cleverly hidden and implemented quietly as much as possible in the past four years.

And the only reason we have not seen his full plan for Canada implemented is because he had a minority government to keep him in check.

I can only say this, and I say it with all sincerity and genuine concern for our great country: A majority government for Stephen Harper would be one of the most negative political events in Canadian history.

Even without a majority, he has cut funding for minorities.

Cut funding for literacy.

Cut funding to students.

To volunteers.

To museums.

To arts and culture groups right across the country.

His government cut funding to women’s groups.

In fact, his government actually went so far as to remove the federal mandate to advance equality for women.

This all happened under a minority government. What in heaven’s name will happen if he gets his majority government?

And make no mistake – you won’t hear Stephen Harper admit he may win a majority government because he is terrified that people might stop and actually start to think about the consequences.

Well, I beg you all today. Stop. Think. And decide if that is what this country deserves?

When we vote, I would rather that we stand on the solid ground of principles than on the shaky ground of broken promises.

If you believe the country deserves better, you know what to do. It is as easy as ABC.”

(For more information, visit www.anythingbutconservative.ca)

Abandoned voters in David Emerson’s riding have followed suit and launched the West Coast version of Anything But Conservative (ABC).

It has been difficult for me to write this month’s editorial. The incessant, fear-inciting crap on TV, and in other sources of mass media, has a corrosive effect and as much as I might wish, I am not immune to the toxicity of this onslaught of propaganda. But I had to pay attention and respond to these issues. As Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing.”

 

So what is weighing heavily on my heart? This 12-month too early, unwanted Canadian federal election, the third in four years. It is especially galling as the new Prime Minister passed Bill 16, thereby creating a fixed election date that would no longer be at the whim of an opportunistic PM. Well, parliament may have passed the law, but Stephen Harper, unable to blame the election on a NPD or Liberal non-confidence vote, decided himself that he lacked confidence in the government. He told the Governor General to dissolve parliament and called a snap election.

There are many speculations as to why Harper leaped for an election at this time. A few educated guesses follow, and we can only guess because he was unavailable for comment. 1) The polls show that the Conservatives are ahead – hey, it’s an opportunity. 2) With Barack Obama looking like a winner in the US presidential race, Stephen Harper’s pro Bush, Oil and War would be awkward for Conservatives up North. 3) Remember when the RCMP raided the CPC headquarters for inappropriate election expenses? The CPC now has its own scandal brewing as the “In/Out” election kickback scheme, which could have the same damaging effect on Conservative re-electablity as the Gomery Inquiry had for the Liberals. In the last election, Canada voted to “kick the bums out” because of what was seen as cronyism and corruption while the CPC accusers stood pure as the driven snow. Harper did not want to wait for the results of his party’s own RCMP investigation before the next election. 4) There were a number of by-elections slated for this month that may have not left the CPC in a popular light. 5) The subprime and Wall Street “bail out” / give-away / taxpayer rip-off economic crisis brewing in the USA would certainly stink up the Canadian economy and not look pretty for an election if it was held on the designated, lawful date in 2009. Harper is too greedy for power and is too afraid of what the CPC might lose to wait for the celebrated National Election Day. Except for Harper and his handlers, this is the election nobody wanted. Given the way Harper has acted as if he had a majority with the minority, we should all be concerned with what he would he do if he snatched a majority.

 

Going south on the bailout

I write this as the US congress staggers to comprehend the real issues behind the $700 billion protection rack, AKA bail out for Wall Street and the banks. On September 29, I was delighted to see Congress vote against the mugging of America and say no! The taxpayers ought not to be rushed into generations of debt because a former Wall Street CEO was appointed by Bush a few months back to sell their latest con to congress. The same level of thinking (and ethics) that created the problem is not the same level of thinking (or ethics) needed to create the solution. In fact, we need different people with higher morals and a dedication to the American taxpayers to figure out a real solution that helps homeowners and Main Street. They are certainly not the same people who created the chaos in the first place. The markets will correct themselves, as painful as it will be to the money trust and the bank cartel, AKA the Federal Reserve. The Fed, whose members are very big private banks joined at the hip with the federal government, makes it look like they care about taxpayers. For more background go online and read G. Edward Griffin’s A Second Look at the Federal Reserve.

Many great thinkers are writing about this cash-for-trash hustle. In his article, US taxpayers are being enrolled in an economic chain gang, posted at www.telgraph.co.uk on September 25, Jeff Randall quotes Thomas Jefferson: “To preserve their [the people’s] independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt. We must make our selection between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude… Banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies.”

According to Randall, “having failed to deliver victory in the War on Terror, President Bush is hoping for better luck in the War on Error…Toxic rubbish will not be made to disappear by Mr. Paulson’s [Henry M. Paulson, Jr. is Secretary of the Treasury] proposals. All that will be different is ownership. It will be like removing nuclear waste from a failing business and parking it in a government building. The risk moves from private to public… Mr Paulson’s sales pitch is essentially: ‘American capitalism, I love you! But we only have 14 hours to save the Earth!’… Which brings us back to Jefferson. Two hundred years ago, he demanded: ‘The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people to whom it properly belongs.’ Twas ever thus.”

Writer Mike Whitney nails it in his article Trouble in Banktopia posted at www.informationclearinghouse.info/article20883.htm on September 27: “The Fed’s rotating loans are just a way to perpetuate the myth that the banks aren’t flat-lining already, Bernanke [Ben Bernanke is Chairman of the Board of Governors of the US Federal Reserve] has tied strings to the various body parts and jerks them every so often to make it look like they’re alive. But the Wall Street model is broken and the bailout is pointless… The bailout has galvanized grassroots movements which have flooded congressional faxes and phone lines. Callers are overwhelmingly opposed to any bailout for banks that are buckling under their own toxic mortgaged-backed assets. One analyst said that the calls to Congress are 50 percent ‘No’ and 50 percent ‘Hell, no.’ There is virtually no popular support for the bill” (the 700 billion bailout bill)… Surely, the cure for hyperbolic credit excesses and reckless behaviour cannot be more of the same… The worthless assets must be written-down, insolvent banks must be allowed to go bust, and the crooks and criminals who engineered this financial blitz on the nation’s coffers must be held to account.”

I could not say it any better myself.

A grassroots middle America pressured their congress to do the right thing and defeat the dastardly bill. A big thank you to those who had the courage to vote against the 700 Billion Dollar Bailout hidden within the patriotic sounding Bill title: To amend the Internal Revenue code of 1986 to provide earnings assistance and tax relief to members of the uniformed services, volunteer firefighters, and Peace Corps volunteer, and for other purposes.

The vote went as follows:

Democrats: Yes: 140, No: 95, 1 NV

Republicans: Yes: 65, No: 133, 1 NV

President: no vote NV

Totals: Yes: 205, No: 228 with 2 NV

From http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2008/roll674.xml See the website for the final vote results and how each member voted. Bush's bank bailout went back to the drawing board. After putting more lipstick on the pig, tweaking a few changes, and voting it through Senate, they then sent it back to Congress which caved in and passed the bill. Most economist say the bail out won't do much. But where does all that taxpayer's money go, likely to the same kind of people who did the S&L scam.

 

Access denied

On May 2, 2008, CBC News published the piece entitled Tories kill access to information database. The following has been excerpted from that report: “The federal Conservatives have quietly killed an access to information registry used by journalists, experts and the public that users say helped hold the government accountable. The Coordination of Access to Information Requests System, or CAIRS, is an electronic list of nearly every access to information request filed to federal departments and agencies.

Originally created in 1989, it was used as an internal tool to keep track of requests and co-ordinate the government’s response between agencies to potentially sensitive information released. “It was really a tool designed to make government more open,” said CBC investigative journalist David McKie. Public Works, which operates the database, spent $166,000 improving it in 2001. Federal officials in 2003 had been working on a publicly accessible online version.

 

Fixed elections date

Bill C-16, an Act to amend the Canada Elections Act, was introduced in the House of Commons and received first reading on May 30, 2006. The bill amends the Canada Elections Act to bring in fixed election dates at the federal level in Canada. It provides that, subject to an earlier dissolution of Parliament, a general election must be held on the third Monday in October in the fourth calendar year following polling day for the last general election, with the first general election after the bill comes into force to be held on Monday, October 19, 2009.

The issue of fixed election dates – or elections at fixed intervals – has been discussed at some length and acquired certain popularity in recent years. Fixed election dates are part of a general package of measures designed, it is argued, to make Parliament more accountable and democratic. Part of the reason that many people have embraced this issue is that it is seen as a way of counteracting the pervasive cynicism that exists towards politics and politicians.

 

So here’s to living in interesting times. And please do your own research and go vote. This looks like the most important election in Canada’s short history. It may decide whether or not we continue to have a country or become a toss-away colony of the Empire.

Sample a Taste of Health

NUTRISPEAK by Vesanto Melina

Vancouver’s healthy food festival, Taste of Health, has become a welcome September tradition. It’s a fun, inexpensive way for families to spend a day or weekend. It’s also a great way for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike to sample healthy foods and discover how small, dietary changes will impact climate change.

Earthsave Canada’s 10th annual food festival includes cooking demonstrations, seminars and a veggie food court. Visitors can hear informative lectures, ask questions of food experts, attend demos, sample tasty foods and browse the book fair.

Speakers include cattle rancher turned vegan activist Howard Lyman (www.madcowboy.com); David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University; Brenda Davis, RD, a dietitian and my co-author (www.brendadavisrd.com) and I’ll be there too so please come by and say hello.

The following authors will give cooking demonstrations: Rose Vasile (www.rawrose.com), Victoria Laine (www.healthbychocolatebook.com), Dreena Burton (www.everydayvegan.com) and Nyala’s restaurateur Assefa Kebede (www.nyala.com).

Here are summaries of my and Brenda Davis’ presentations:

Rx for Healthy Eating
Vesanto Melina

Did your medical doctor give you a prescription for healthy eating? Would you like to live an extra 10 vibrant years? Can food be good for you and also be delicious and easy to prepare? How do you cope when some of your dear ones are vegetarian, vegan or eat raw foods while others can’t imagine a meal without meat? In this presentation, you’ll learn simple tips for preparing meals and snacks throughout the day. You’ll learn to keep your blood sugar level and your energy high. You’ll get ideas for feeding children, grandchildren and spouses food that will tickle their fancies and tingle their taste buds. You’ll discover how to fare well at restaurants and while travelling.

The Raw Revolution Diet
Vesanto Melina

A trend that is sweeping North America is the raw foods movement. Some people are motivated to go raw by a concern about bulging waistlines, others by the abundance of protective antioxidants and phytochemicals in raw plant foods. Are raw diets nutritionally adequate? If so, what does a day’s intake look like? How do we create a raw menu that meets recommended intakes for protein, calcium, iron, zinc, vitamins B12 and D? Is it okay to be partly raw, rather than 100 percent? Can a raw diet be the basis for a successful weight loss plan?

Cutting Edge Vegetarian Nutrition 
Brenda Davis

There is no more powerful tool than your own example of great health. While there is overwhelming evidence that a vegetarian or near-vegetarian diet is as healthy as you can get, plant-based diets are not foolproof. This presentation will guide you through common concerns and questions about plant-based diets and provide you with authoritative answers and detailed information on protein, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and essential fatty acids. Learn about the far-reaching benefits of a vegetarian diet.

Defeating Diabetes – lessons from the Marshall Islands
Brenda Davis

Type 2 diabetes is sweeping North America. Once primarily a disease affecting people over age 45, it is now common among young adults and increasing numbers of teens and children. Though often believed to follow a downhill spiral, research demonstrates that the disease is highly treatable and, in some cases, completely reversible. The author of the bestsellerDefeating Diabetes will guide you through the reversal diet and lifestyle and provide tools to improve, and possibly defeat, your disease. Brenda Davis brings her experience of working on diabetes reversal in the Marshall Islands, where nearly half of those over 35 years of age are affected. Her story is riveting and inspiring. Don’t miss this presentation.

 

Vesanto Melina is a dietitian and author based in Langley, BC. Call 604-882-6782 for a personal consultation or visit www.nutrispeak.com Also see www.healthyschoolfood.org to get a year’s worth of daily Wakeup Wellness Messages for a $50 donation.


TASTE OF HEALTH
10th Anniversary Sept. 26-28
Croatian Cultural Centre 
3250 Commercial Drive @ 16th Ave.
10th Anniversary Gala: Fri. Sept. 26, 6-9 pm 
Sat. & Sun.: 10:30 am – 6 pm 
Admission: $7/daily (children under 12 free). Free with Earthsave membership 
Info: 604-731-5885, www.earthsave.ca

Seeds – the future of food

ON THE GARDEN PATH by Carolyn Herriot

Since the dawn of agriculture, edible plants that thrive in the bioregion in which they grow have been domesticated through plant breeding. Traditionally, local farmers were the stewards of these seeds, passing them on from harvest to harvest. Knowledge garnered over 10,000 years meant farmers were well qualified to select seeds of plants with the most desirable traits, such as high yield, drought tolerance and disease resistance. These “landrace” varieties were passed on from one generation to the next. At the dawn of the 21st century, the situation looks radically different.

Ninety-eight percent of the world’s food seed sales are now in the hands of six corporations: Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Mitsui, Aventis and Dow. While Monsanto is not in the business of feeding the world, it conducts most of its research in a living laboratory – farmers’ fields throughout the world. This corporation’s business is the genetic modification of seeds, which have to be sold in a package just like their pesticide products, such as Roundup. In order to control these GMOs, Monsanto has patented its seeds and, even more alarmingly, is now trying to sterilize them through proposed terminator technology. Monsanto’s objective is seemingly to control the way the world feeds itself, but it appears that its methods are not sustainable on many fronts. We are now seeing the impact of mass quantities of food being flown around the world, while people working the fields go hungry and the planet warms up. Cheap food is costing the Earth!

Our ancestors recognized food as the staff of life; without seeds there is no agriculture to grow food, and without agriculture, there is no civilization. It’s incredible that across the planet people have become so disconnected to the source of their food, the very essence of their survival.

How can we accept that we are feeding the world with food grown in the absence of nature? There’s no place for wildlife on hundreds of acres of monocultured crops. There’s no habitat, food or water for the birds, bees and butterflies. What happens to the fragile soil-food web of life when the soil is dosed with Roundup? It’s time to reconnect with nature by finding a place for Her in the food production cycle.

Plants are dependent for their nutritional content on the soil in which they grow. Fertile soil is alive with organic matter, which feeds the myriad organisms that dwell within it. What kind of food is being grown through industrialized food production? Is it real food that nourishes us? We are now seeing the consequences of eating food grown in depleted soils, or no soil at all (as with hydroponics): neurological problems such as dementia in the elderly and attention deficit disorder in youth.

When fed empty calories, we always feel hungry. When we eat too much, we create Type 11 diabetes in children and obesity throughout the populations of developed and developing nations. Our healthcare systems will soon be bankrupt through the necessity of caring for a society of undernourished people.

Perhaps it’s time for a resurgence of the ‘60s hippies’ “back to the land” movement. Perhaps if we grow real food where we live, we will reconnect with nature. Perhaps all we need to do is go back to the garden to remember how to feed ourselves and future generations. But we need the seeds to do that.

Around the world, many small groups of seed savers are actively working to safeguard global food security by preserving the genetic diversity of plants. Our capacity to feed ourselves in the future depends on defending our global, agricultural heritage today. Grassroots organizations are saving the seeds in a living laboratory by growing heritage varieties of food plants whose seeds have not been genetically altered or hybridized in the interests of large scale industrialized food production. (See sidebar.)

Carolyn Herriot is author of A Year on the Garden Path: A 52-Week Organic Gardening Guide. She grows her certified organic “Seeds of Victoria” at The Garden Path Centre where she blogs The New Victory Garden online.

 

Grassroots Seed Savers

Salt Spring Seed Sanctuary

Seeds of Diversity Canada Resource List 

Seed Savers Exchange USA

The Heritage Seed Library – UK

Digger’s Club – Australia

The light of the world

THE POWER OF NOW by Eckhart Tolle

When you are fully present and people around you manifest unconscious behavior, you won’t feel the need to react to it, so you don’t give it any reality. Your peace is so vast and deep that anything that is not peace disappears into it as if it had never existed. This breaks the karmic cycle of action and reaction. Animals, trees and owers will feel your peace and respond to it.

You teach through being, through demonstrating the peace of God. You become the “light of the world,” an emanation of pure consciousness and so you eliminate suffering on the level of cause. You eliminate unconsciousness from the world.

This doesn’t mean that you may not also teach through doing – for example, by pointing out how to dis-identify from the mind, recognize unconscious patterns within oneself and so on. But who you are is always a more vital teaching and a more powerful transformer of the world than what you say and more essential even than what you do.

Furthermore, to recognize the primacy of Being and thus work on the level of cause does not exclude the possibility that your compassion may simultaneously manifest on the level of doing, and in effect, by alleviating suffering whenever you come across it. When a hungry person asks you for bread and you have some, you will give it. But as you give the bread, even though your interaction may only be very brief, what really matters is this moment of shared Being, of which the bread is only a symbol. A deep healing takes place within it. In that moment, there is no giver, no receiver.

But there shouldn’t be any hunger and starvation in the €rst place. How can we create a better world without tackling evils such as hunger and violence €rst?

All evils are the effect of unconsciousness. You can alleviate the effects of unconsciousness, but you cannot eliminate them unless you eliminate their cause. True change happens within, not without.

If you feel called upon to alleviate suffering in the world, that is a very noble thing to do, but remember not to focus exclusively on the outer. Otherwise, you will encounter frustration and despair. Without a profound change in human consciousness, the world’s suffering is a bottomless pit. So don’t let your compassion become one-sided.

Empathy with someone else’s pain or lack and a desire to help must be balanced with a deeper realization of the eternal nature of all life and the ultimate illusion of all pain. Then let your peace ow into whatever you do and you will be working on the levels of effect and cause simultaneously.

This also applies if you are supporting a movement designed to stop deeply unconscious humans from destroying themselves, each other and the planet, or from continuing to inict dreadful suffering on other sentient beings. Remember; just as you cannot €ght the darkness, so you cannot €ght unconsciousness. If you try to do so, the polar opposites will become strengthened and more deeply entrenched. You will become identi€ed with one of the polarities; you will create an “enemy” and so be drawn into unconsciousness yourself.

Raise awareness by disseminating information, or, at the very least, practise passive resistance. But make sure that you carry no resistance within, no hatred, no negativity. “Love your enemies,” Jesus said, which, of course, means have no enemies.

Once you get involved in working on the level of effect, it is all too easy to lose yourself in it. Stay alert and very, very present. The causal level must remain your primary focus, the teaching of enlightenment your main purpose and peace your most precious gift to the world.

 

 

Adapted from The Power of Now, copyright 1999 by Eckhart Tolle. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA, 800-972-6657 (ext. 52). Visit www.eckharttolle.com.

Loving from soul

UNIVERSE WITHIN by Gwen Randall-Young

Love begins at home and it is not how much we do, but how much love we put in that action.

– Mother Teresa

Love is a very pure form of energy but when filtered through the prism of ego, it can become distorted and even contaminated. While great harm has been done in the name of love, it had nothing to do with love.

Love is the ultimate energy of the universe. It is like a sun that always shines and we can choose to bask in it or we can go inward to a place of darkness and shadows. When ego chooses darkness, it blames others for lack of love, which is like going into a windowless basement on a sunny day and complaining of the lack of light.

In relationships, what we call love might well be lust, neediness or dependency coupled with affection, rather than a high form of unconditional love, characterized by acceptance, compassion, forgiveness and a sense of the eternal.

For ego, love is very different than the love soul knows. Ego gives itself broad powers when it loves, including unlimited expectations, a need to control, manipulation and withdrawal of love when its needs are not met.

What this looks like in practical terms is the partner who holds the other responsible for his/her happiness. He really wants to play golf, but instead of wanting him to be happy, she pouts, gives him the silent treatment or otherwise makes him feel guilty. He either stays home and is miserable and resentful or goes anyway, carrying guilt along with his clubs. Neither one of them ends up happy.

She signs up for a yoga class because she needs to de-stress and the time to herself will feel good. Rather than encouraging her to tune into her needs and validating the importance of self-care, he is resentful because he thinks she should be home with him in the evenings. She goes to class but can’t really relax because she keeps thinking of the grumpy greeting she will get later.

Ego often twists and distorts love in the realm of parenting as well. If ego gets caught up in feeling the child is a reflection of the parent, the child is not free to be his or her natural self. Ego sees a child as a blank canvas upon which to create the image it would like to see. What emerges is a constant power struggle between ego’s will to shape the child and the child’s tendency towards individuation and creative evolution. Sadly, the child often gives up the fight because the child’s ego cannot tolerate withdrawal of love. The child, therefore, lives a life that is not his or her own.

Another compulsion of ego is to have the child meet its emotional needs. This can manifest as hurt feelings when the toddler wants Mommy to read the story, not Daddy. Later, it shows up as resentment when the teen would rather go out with friends than spend time with Mom. Regardless of age, the child feels the parent’s displeasure and feels guilty for not pleasing the parent. This is the beginning of the pattern of living life according to what others think, rather than expressing one’s authentic self.

Clearly, for ego love is as much, if not more, about meeting ego’s needs as it is about fulfilling the needs of the other. Ego will even go so far as to say, “If you loved me, you would do things my way.”

When we connect with our higher soul selves and see the souls of others, the quality and experience of love becomes quite different. To love another is to want what is in their highest good. It is to treasure the fact that our two souls have connected in this lifetime and to honour that connection. It is to realize the primacy of that connection and to see that the particular roles we play – husband/wife, child/parent – are secondary. We must not get so caught up in the ego drama that we forget each soul has its own journey, which we are blessed to share, support and respect.

 

Gwen Randall-Young is a psychotherapist in private practice and author ofGrowing Into Soul: The Next Step in Human Evolution. For articles and information about her books and “Deep Powerful Change” personal growth/hypnosis CDs, visit www.gwen.ca

Let me share a secret

documentary screenings at the Vancouver Internationlal Film Festival

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

cene from Lie of the Land

Among the 100 or so documentaries at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival (September 25-October 10) is the first-rate Secrecy. The film looks at how, under the auspices of national security, US state secrecy has expanded to the point where it has undermined the democratic process and is hollowing out constitutional freedoms.

Marshalling a high-calibre line-up of interviewees from myriad backgrounds, including government, military, CIA and academia, Peter Galison and Rob Moss tackle this multi-headed and opaque subject with equanimity and balance. Poignant interviews with relatives from a landmark case that occurred over a half-century ago place state secrecy within its historical context, with commentators explaining why the “need-to-know” system of the Cold War is less secure today than an open system where information is more freely distributed. The intelligence failure of 9/11, where compartmentalized intelligence services couldn’t see the full picture, is contrasted with the breakthrough that followed the Unabomber’s screeds being published in the media. Information is power, but which information should be shared and with whom? And who should decide what should be kept secret?

Former CIA chief in Jerusalem, Melissa Boyle Mahle, icily suggests that secrecy is needed to shield people from things they wouldn’t normally condone. In contrast, we have Lieutenant Commander Charles Swift’s account of how his defence of Osama Bin Ladin’s driver led him to challenge the legitimacy of Bush’s military tribunals. Swift’s chronicle offers some much needed hope for the necessary checks and balances of the executive’s excessive use of the State’s secret card.

Apology of an Economic Hitman is thematically similar, although less effective. At the centre of the film is the self-titled “economic hitman” John Perkins, who claims his job was to advance US economic interests in Ecuador through bribery and extortion. The thrust of Stelios Kouloglou’s documentary rings true: the US got what it wanted by yoking South American countries with insurmountable debt burdens, and when economics failed, covert CIA operations came into play. Unfortunately, the film is undermined by over-sensationalized film noir recreations and thinly substantiated accusations.

In The Lie of the Land, British director Molly Dineen paints a raw, warts’n’all view of conditions for small and struggling English livestock farmers. It’s not pretty. Farming in Britain has been left reeling after a succession of crises – diseases like “mad cow” and “foot and mouth” and “bird flu” – and for those farmers who have not cashed in their land for property, financial pressures have created a tough, new reality. Two of Dineen’s subjects are shown routinely shooting new calves because there is no market for them. “We were not brought up to shoot healthy animals,” one farmer says unhappily. The farmers blame government and poorly regulated factory farms. The ban imposed on fox hunting with hounds is seen as another attack on “traditional,” rural life. True perhaps, but there’s no comment in the film from anyone who might challenge this one-sided picture.

In Addicted to Plastic: The Rise and Demise of a Modern Miracle, Ian Connacher goes in search of plastic and finds it everywhere: sucked into an oceanic vortex, in a seagull’s gullet, festering in Indian landfills and strewn across Hawaiian beaches. In spite of dire conclusions about how we are poisoning ourselves and our planet, this first-person, fun videolog offers encouraging examples of how entrepreneurs are recycling the plastic mountain. The doc flits quickly through its subject matter, so if you’re wondering, for example, how safe compost made purely from garbage waste is you’ll have to do your own research.

Finally, among the fiction films on my must-see list is Mike Leigh’s latestHappy-Go-Lucky, which was praised on its UK release as a wonderfully optimistic character study of a young, London teacher. More next month.

 

 

Robert Alstead made the Vancouver-set bicycle documentary You Never Bike Alone, available on DVD at www.youneverbikealone.com

Celebrate a green future

EARTHFUTURE by Guy Dauncey

During August, while most West Coast brains were being gently addled by the sun, beatified by BC bud or transfixed by the Olympics, a heavy-duty development pushed its way into the minds of those of us still working away on the small matter of global warming.

Professor Bob Watson, the UK government’s top climate scientist and former head of the IPCC, said that we should take active steps to prepare for dangerous climate change of perhaps +4ºC because we don’t know, in detail, how to limit the damage to a rise of 2ºC and we should therefore be prepared to adapt to +4ºC.

What does +4ºC mean? Here’s Mark Lynas, the British author who wroteSix Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, which spells out the full, grim prospects for each degree of temperature rise, courtesy our use of fossil fuels:

“By the time global temperatures reach four degrees, much of humanity will be short of water for drinking and irrigation; glaciers in the Andes and Himalayas, which feed river systems on which tens of millions depend, will have melted and their rivers will be seasonally running dry. Whole weather systems like the Asian monsoon (which supports 2 billion people) may alter irrevocably. Deserts will have spread into Mediterranean Europe, across most of southern Africa and the western half of the United States. Higher northern latitudes will be plagued with regular flooding. Heat waves of unimaginable ferocity will sear continental landscapes; the UK would face the kind of summer temperatures found in northern Morocco today. The planet would be in the throes of a mass extinction of natural life approaching in magnitude that at the end of the Cretaceous period, 65m years ago, when more than half of global biodiversity was wiped out.” (The Guardian, August 7)

Four degrees would also trigger the death of the Amazon rainforest, the melting of the Arctic permafrost and, according to Lynas, “…Greenland melting so rapidly that sea level rise by the end of the century will be measured in metres, not centimetres.”

I hardly need to tell you – this is not a place we want to be.

Also in August, and very much to the point, a powerful coalition of 25 British NGOs launched the new website www.onehundredmonths.org, wherein they say, “We have 100 months to save the planet. When the clock stops ticking, we could be beyond the climate’s ‘tipping point,’ the point of no return.” By the time you read this, the clock will say 99 months.

And back in May, a major, international coalition of 62 NGOs launched the new website www.350.org, where they posted the following: “350 is the red line for human beings, the most important number on the planet. The most recent science tells us that unless we can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, we will cause huge and irreversible damage to the Earth.” The website is up in 10 languages and has been gathering worldwide attention.

To put this in context, the current level of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere is 385 parts per million, and until recently, there had been a general consensus that 450 was the level we had to do our darndest to avoid to prevent the Earth’s temperature from rising by more than 2ºC. While 350 parts per million of CO2 is lower than today’s level, with every litre of gas, tonne of coal and gigajoule of gas it burns and every hamburger it eats, the world is adding, not subtracting, to the burden of CO2.

What are you feeling now? Let me guess:

• You want to bury your head in a pillow and weep for the sheer hopelessness of it all.

• You are even angrier at the oil, coal and auto industries and the politicians who simper around them.

• There’s no such problem, and even if there was, nuclear power or clean coal could solve it.

• If only more people would share your determination, we could change the way we live, roll out the solutions, cool the planet and create the future we dream of.

If everyone reacted with the final response, we wouldn’t have a problem. We’d have the same gutsy determination that the British, Canadians and Americans had during World War II when there was no bloody way our parents and grandparents were going to allow Hitler and the Japanese to march all over us.

I have two strategies that I believe will inspire people to act on our planetary emergency. The first is designed to mobilize very pragmatic fear. It is to require, by government decree, that every town, city and region must study the impacts of not taking action on climate change and the looming “peak oil” crisis over the next 100 years, to cost them out and to publicize the results.

What will it cost to deal with temperatures rising by up to five degrees, heat waves, crop failures, no more winter snow, Lyme disease, West Nile virus and hurricane-strength storms in winter? How about the need to build a three-meter-high sea wall around Richmond, Delta, Ladner, Vancouver’s waterfront (including the new conference centre, which sits on the sea) and the Fraser River all the way to Chilliwack? The cost would be in the multi-billions of dollars, quickly dispelling any idea that we can’t afford to tackle climate change now because it might hurt the economy.

The second is designed around hope; it is for all of us climate activists, having put the negative news firmly in people’s minds, to get off the doom and gloom bandwagon and paint a picture of a green, sustainable future that is so enticing and so heart-yearningly rich in music, art, community, fulfillment and green technology that people will want to celebrate it immediately. To use the World War II analogy again, with apologies for those to whom it is ancient history, we need the green, future equivalent of Dame Vera Lynn singing: “There’ll be blue birds over/The white cliffs of Dover/Tomorrow, just you wait and see.” (Hear it atwww.tinyurl.com/6kz3vo)

I know that a green, sustainable future is within our reach. I know that we can travel, heat our buildings, farm our land and generate electricity without fossil fuels and live in a totally civilized manner, with more community, more democracy, more local greenery, and without poverty or homelessness. I know that this and so much more is possible, not just in my head, where I’ve got all the analysis and numbers to prove it (except the stats for flying), but also in my heart, because I believe so deeply in our human possibility.

The emphatic message is “Don’t give up.” Don’t hang with the cynics, the angry-hearted, the whiners, the blamers, the negative minded. Hang with those who believe in love, hope and beauty and then work with them to make this a reality. This is our planet. This is our time. This is our call to action.

 

Guy Dauncey is president of the BC Sustainable Energy Association, editor of EcoNews and author of Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change and other titles. He lives in Victoria. www.earthfuture.com

True north strong and free

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

Are Canadian politicians finally paying serious attention to the environment? Recent events give us reason for optimism. On August 1, we wrote about the federal Sustainable Development Act and how all the political parties put aside their differences to support this important, new law. We’ve also seen a lot of progress lately on the part of some provincial governments regarding global warming. The Ontario government’s recent commitment to protect 50 percent of its intact boreal forest offers further hope that governments are getting serious about protecting the planet.

On July 14, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty committed to preserving 225,000 sq km of northern boreal forest, under the province’s Far North Planning Initiative. That’s an area one and a half times the size of the Maritime Provinces! It’s a significant commitment and it’s something more than 1,500 of the world’s scientists had asked for, including us.

The boreal forest stretches across the northern part of Canada, covering 35 percent of the country’s total land mass. It represents about one third of the world’s circumpolar boreal system and one quarter of all intact forests remaining on the planet. The region supports three billion migratory songbirds and more than 200 species of animals, including dozens of threatened or endangered species such as woodland caribou, grizzly and polar bears, wolverine, lynx and white pelican.

Ontario’s northern boreal region makes up 43 percent of the province’s land mass. Under the plan, half of this massive region would be protected in an interconnected network of conservation lands.

The announcement is significant not just in terms of conservation but also because it marks the first time a government in Canada has explicitly recognized the role that nature conservation must play in combating global warming. The boreal’s forests and peatlands absorb and store massive amounts of carbon, making them a hedge against global warming caused by emissions from human activity. Scientists estimate that Ontario’s northern boreal alone absorbs 12.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

It’s difficult to describe the global significance of Canada’s boreal forest. It’s one of the last places on earth where human activity hasn’t yet upset critical predator-prey relationships, natural fire regimes and hydrological cycles. And economists conservatively estimate that the ecosystem services provided by the boreal, such as water filtration, pollination, and carbon storage, have 2.5 times the economic value of market resources extracted each year, such as oil, minerals and timber.

As significant as the Ontario government’s announcement is, we have to be cautious in our optimism. For one thing, we don’t know if protecting 50 percent will be enough to conserve the region’s biodiversity. And we have yet to learn what areas will be put off-limits to development. Fortunately, the government has committed to working with First Nations in the region to develop comprehensive land-use plans.

We must also ensure that the government doesn’t use its announcement to protect the sparsely populated and largely unthreatened northern boreal as justification for further expansion of industrial development in the southern boreal, which is far more attractive to industries such as forestry and mining.

The areas not slated for protection under this plan – in both the northern and southern boreal – must be managed in a sustainable way based on sound scientific principles. And the government should reverse its recent decision to give the forest industry a one-year exemption from new habitat-protection regulations under the province’s Endangered Species Act.

Still, with this announcement, Ontario has taken an important and courageous step, one that we hope other provinces will follow. For example, Quebec has protected less than five percent of its own boreal forest, and although it has plans to increase this, it has yet to make a commitment as visionary as Ontario’s.

The recent attention governments have been paying to the environment is a positive sign. But successful conservation efforts can’t be limited to aspirational goals announced at news conferences. We all have a responsibility to make sure governments live up to their commitments.

 

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