Transcend judgement

UNIVERSE WITHIN by Gwen Randall-Young

Nothing is more precious than peace. Peace is the most basic starting point for the advancement of humankind.

– Daisaku Ikeda

A ubiquitous quality among humans is the tendency to judge others, regardless of age, culture or geographical region. Of course, this is the work of ego. Interestingly, the judgment of others is always relative to the one doing the judging. That is, others are judged to the extent that they differ from the one judging.

The vegetarian may judge the meat-eater, who in turn judges the vegetarian. The abstainer judges the drinker for his indulgence, while the drinker judges the abstainer for his unwillingness to indulge. The person of faith judges the non-believer, while the non-believer judges the faithful. Such examples are endless whether we are looking at inter-personal relationships or more global perspectives.

Significantly, the one judging always believes he or she knows the way things ought to be. This “truth” becomes the standard against which others are judged. Those judging feel justified in their criticisms due to their conviction that their beliefs are the right ones.

It is no wonder there is so much conflict amongst individuals, groups and countries. Whenever there are two sides with differing viewpoints and both believe they are right, conflict is inevitable. This is the essence of polarity and it is the way in which ego keeps us stuck in its old, primitive ways.

As we evolve individually and as a species, we come to see that differing perspectives are the norm and that no one’s “truth” is more true than another’s. We come to respect the viewpoints of others and see they are as valid for them as our views are for us.

We cease telling others they are wrong and insisting we are right. This opens the way for genuine dialogue and understanding. We seek to understand one another rather than fighting each other.

Once there is understanding, it is possible to work together to find or create solutions. This leads to cooperation and collaboration rather than crisis and conflict. This seems so simple and self-evident, yet it remains the exception rather than the rule in human interactions. If we understand the concept, why is it so difficult to live it?

The desire for peaceful, harmonious relationships and way of living is the natural inclination of the soul. When the soul looks at others, it sees that which is common to all. It sees with love and compassion and desires that no harm come to anyone. Soul sees that we truly are all the same; it is only the packaging that is different and that sometimes confuses us.

Ego, on the other hand, is much like the two-year-old who can only see what it wants and has no ability to perceive a situation from the perspective of another. It keeps re-iterating its own position over and over again, growing increasingly frustrated at not getting its way. It wants only for the other to adopt its own viewpoint and give it what it wants.

In such a situation, there is but one criterion that determines the outcome. The one with the most power wins out. However, being most powerful does not mean your outcome is the best for all involved or serves the highest good. Outcomes based on power create resentment and often an escalation of power on the other side.

So on the one hand we have ego that champions its own perspective and belief in its “rightness,” ultimately resorting to power to get its way, and then we have soul, which views differences with compassion and understanding, seeking wisdom as a guide to peaceful resolutions and harmonious outcomes.

As always, the choice is ours. We can continue unconsciously allowing ego to chart our path and colour our lives or we can step up to soul awareness, carrying ourselves and others to a higher level of being human.

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

Latest Palme winner a class act

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

Scene from The Class

Opening this month, Laurent Cantet’s French language feature The Class (Entre Les Murs) won the Palme d’Or, the top prize, at the Cannes Film Festival this past summer. The film is based on teacher François Bégaudeau’s 2006 novel about his experiences at a junior high school in a tough Paris neighbourhood and stars the author himself as maverick French-language teacher François Marin.

Palme d’Or winners typically have a strong socio-political commentary, although treatments vary widely, including Michael Moore’s documentaryFahrenheit 9/11 (2004) with its entertaining invective and the aching, angst-ridden existentialism of the Dardenne brothers, two-time winners withRosetta (1999) and L’Enfant (2005).

While The Class falls more into the latter category, it has a straightforward, lighter touch than other moody works of the Belgian auteurs. Considering the potential for tragedy and strife in its study of a class of 13-15-year-olds from deprived, multicultural Paris, it’s surprisingly lively with its verbal sparring matches between the teacher and his troublesome pupils.

All the action takes place within the school and mostly within the classroom itself. Although it’s a fictional piece, there’s a documentary realism to it; think handheld, fly-on-the-wall shots and a flood of dialogue. You would be forgiven for initially thinking that you are following a slick TV crew on an assignment rather than watching a work of fiction.

The film was loosely scripted, with students improvising dialogue. Three high-definition cameras captured the action and you’d never guess from the quality of the performances that the 24 teen actors were drawn from a tiny pool of 50 students from inner-city Parisian schools.

The narrative structure is necessarily loose – a teacher arrives and starts teaching – but it draws you in and then hooks you with a dramatic plot twist towards the end. François pushes, goads, encourages and teases his students and allows them to dish it back. This works most of the time and even his most difficult students, like the surly Malian Souleymane, start responding to his approach. As long as he can maintain the delicate balancing act of disciplined decorousness with free-flowing interaction, he appears to get results, stimulating discussion and interaction.

But it’s never easy and as external strains begin to take their toll, his methods are questioned in the staff common room. Ultimately, he crosses a line that undermines his authority with his students. Unlike some more gooey films of this genre, the story remains credible to the end, but it is the subtle changes in the way power is wielded between the four walls that makes this such an interesting film.

Also out this month is Steven Soderbergh’s two-part biopic Che (30), starring Benicio del Toro as iconic Ernesto “Che” Guevara. In part one, The Argentine, he sets sail for Cuba in 1956 with Fidel Castro and 80 rebels to overthrow the corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. The film follows Che’s rise from doctor to commander to revolutionary hero.

Part 2, Guerilla, starts at the height of Che’s fame following the Cuban Revolution. He emerges incognito in Bolivia leading a small group of Cuban comrades and Bolivian recruits in the great Latin American Revolution. However, for all the will in the world, his campaign is doomed. The almost five- hour-long film has been praised for Benicio del Toro’s performance, although critics are still arguing over whether Soderbergh’s portrait of Che is too dispassionate and uncritical.

Finally, the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival will show a string of movies and multimedia presentations on the theme of climbing and outdoor pursuits (February 20-28) at the Centennial Theatre in Lonsdale and Pacific Cinematheque. Details at www.vimff.org

 

Robert Alstead maintains a blog at www.2020Vancouver.com

The bubble bursts

EARTHFUTURE by Guy Dauncey

What are we to make of the world financial crisis? Some analysts are comparing it to the Crash of 1929, which triggered The Great Depression of the 1930s. Almost without exception, they assume it to be a bad thing. Pension funds are evaporating into thin air, people are losing their jobs and businesses are failing. If we picture the economy as a speeding vehicle carrying people to growth and prosperity, and the vehicle suddenly goes into a ditch, then, yes, clearly it’s a bad thing.

But what if the vehicle was accelerating down a road that led over a cliff? Might we not say, “Wow! That was a close one,” and be amazed that fortune should smile on us? The metaphor is not far-fetched, for our economy is rushing to disaster of an ecological kind – and when Nature’s ecosystems collapse, we all collapse.

Our economy is a bundle of activities through which we take Nature’s resources, add intelligence and use them to add comfort and pleasure to our lives. It is like a bubble that sucks in the real world of trees, fish, animals, plants, minerals, fossil fuels, land, water and topsoil and rolls on regardless, without accounting for what it leaves behind. The bubble can roll right over a beautiful ancient forest and grow fat on its fibre, declaring it “a good thing” in its annual accounts.

If the trees do not speak or explain their value in terms the bubble can understand, it is as if they have no existence. Humans who love the trees for what they are may organize to protect them, and sometimes they may win, causing parks and wilderness areas to be created, but apart from that the bubble rolls on consuming everything it touches.

And if the bubble discovers an amazing source of energy called fossil fuels, which allows it to move faster and more furiously, is this not a good thing? And if a group of people begins warning that fossil fuels leave a dangerous residue in the sky that traps the sun’s heat and if this is allowed to continue that all human existence will grind to a halt, will this not cause the drivers of the bubble to ask if they should stop? No – for they prefer voices that tell them not to worry, that the fears are probably a scam dreamed up by people who never liked the bubble anyway.

And if the drivers of the bubble are told that they really must stop because they are chewing up so much of Nature that if everyone lived the way people do in Vancouver, we would need three more entire planets to support us, would that cause the bubble to pause, and stop? No, for the bubble is guided by its own internal messages of growth, profit and gain and all other messages are simply programmed out.

When this bubble crashes, should we not then give thanks for the blessings of a fortunate accident? The mortgage funds tumble over the derivatives and hedge funds and the bubble’s financial hyperdrive lands on its knees while the regulators, who were supposed to prevent such a crash, were reciting their mantras in the “Temple of Economic Growth,” chanting, “Do not regulate. Let the market decide. The market knows best.”

This crash, then, while it is cruel and troubling for individuals and their families, may be the best thing that could have happened to our civilization. It gives us a chance to step out of the bubble and turn in a new direction towards ecological sustainability, to change the economy’s ruling principles so that Nature is never again left out of the picture.

It gives us a chance to invest the billions that will flow in economic stimulus packages in measures that will unhook our dependency on fossil fuels; make our homes and buildings more efficient; develop transit, high-speed trains, cycle routes and renewable energy; and restore our forests, grasslands and farmlands. It gives us a chance to breathe and move towards a different future.

Guy Dauncey is the author of nine books, including After the Crash: The Emergence of the Rainbow Economy. He is president of the BC Sustainable Energy Association. 
www.earthfuture.com
www.guydauncey.com

All hands on deck

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making democracy healthy

WRITING ON THE WALL by Joseph Roberts

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

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

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

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

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

by Milt Bowling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The spirit of love

by Deepak Chopra

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

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

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

Love is spirit. Spirit is the self.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama and the return of the real

by Jonathan Schell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new stance toward reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big pharma breaks the law and pays up

DRUG BUST Alan Cassels

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

– Journal of the American Medical Association

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cassels@uivic.ca

Fair voting in BC

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

by Nick Loenen

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

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

You can help. Learn more at:

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

The Citizens’ Assembly at the Wosk Centre for Dialogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can we do it? Yes, we can!

 

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


The Single Transferable Vote (STV)

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

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

Source: Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform