Ripping tales


Scene from RiP: A Remix Manifesto

Intellectual property rights is one of the most vexing issues of the digital era. People on different sides of the planet exchange music, software, images, TV shows and even entire movies over the internet. Traditional media companies are terrified; the old business model has been predicated on big media being able to control the distribution channels – CDs, DVDs, TV and so on – but digital technology and the internet have changed everything. Users are becoming more sophisticated at ripping, editing and sharing digitized content for free across the wires, using peer-to-peer software. It may not always be strictly copyright legal, but as media conglomerates are discovering at great expense, there’s little they can do to prevent this growing trend.

RiP: A Remix Manifesto, a feisty, NFB-produced documentary showing at the Whistler Film Festival December 4-7, is a call to overhaul copyright laws. As the title suggests, RiP is particularly interested in the legally grey area of remixing existing works, although director Brett Gaylor also introduces individual mom ‘n pop downloaders who have been stamped on by the heavy boot of the litigious music industry. The group includes high school kids, a Texan pastor and Jammie Thomas, the single mom ordered to pay the recording industry $222,000 for allegedly downloading 24 songs. By criminalizing its customers, the music industry has set itself up for attack and Gaylor has great fun mocking its bully-boy tactics.

RiP focuses on trendy, laptop musician Girl Talk, aka Gregg Gillis, a Pittsburgh biomedical engineer who mashes-up hundreds of samples from other artists’ works into his own distinctive compositions. The film suggests that artists have borrowed from their predecessors since time immemorial and that digital mash-ups are just an extension of that. What’s more, the cost of getting clearance for Girl Talk to perform the songs would be prohibitive. So he doesn’t, although the threat of litigation always hovers over his head. Gaylor memorably makes the point about how copyright is stifling creativity by teasing us with footage of a Girl Talk gig where everyone is clearly having a great time (including Paris Hilton), but the soundtrack is muted. He uses the same device with the song Happy Birthday – owned by Time Warner – to show how absurd copyright law can be when taken to its natural conclusion.

This is the kind of film where everyone is either a villain or hero. Metallica and the Rolling Stones come off badly as big-business recording artists, while Radiohead, which released its album direct to the web for whatever price fans wanted to pay for it, appears progressive. Star interviewee is Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford prof who came up with the ubiquitous Creative Commons licence and helped make redefining copyright laws one of the blogosphere’s causes célèbres.

Manifestos aren’t subtle things; big media is not quite as loony as it appears here. Some artists won’t warm to the message “Times are changing; get used to it,” but RiP’s campaign-style approach still pays off with an entertaining 80 minutes complete with snappy, video mash-ups and montages. Look for Rip in cinemas this spring. You can contribute to a remix of the film at


Robert Alstead maintains a blog at

This is your moment

EARTHFUTURE by Guy Dauncey

We live in exciting times. We don’t need to pray for the day when real change will start rolling. It’s rolling now so don’t pass this one up! Things may seem sleepy in Canada, but don’t kid yourself. Just because the government in Ottawa is stuck in the 1950s, it doesn’t mean the rest of us have to be.

What does it mean to wake up and join in? The answer to this question is unique to you, whether you are reading this in a café, on the bus, in the bath or over the breakfast table. I may be writing for a quarter-million Common Groundreaders, but, in reality, I’m writing for just one person – and that’s you.

Story #1. In 1995, Josep Puig, a Green Party city councillor in Barcelona, Spain, worked with the city staff to install solar hot water panels at City Hall. He then worked with local builders and the city to craft a bylaw that required all large new buildings in the city to install solar hot water. The bylaw was copied by other towns in Catalonia, then by Madrid, and in 2006 solar hot water panels were made compulsory for new and renovated buildings throughout Spain. One man, supported by good partners, kick-started Spain’s solar revolution.

Story #2. In 2002, Felix Kramer, an entrepreneur and market strategist in Palo Alto, California, founded a group called CalCars with the goal of bringing clean, advanced vehicles to market much faster than the major car companies. In September 2004, the group converted a Toyota Prius into a plug-in, hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) that could run on batteries for the first 60 to 80 miles. They then showed people what they had done. By 2007, Ford, Toyota and GM were all planning to have PHEVs on the road by 2010, and in October 2008, $1 billion was assigned to advance the development of PHEVs in the $700 billion bank bail-out. One man, supported by a group of very geeky software engineers, is changing the automobile industry globally. See

Story #3. In September 2003, Cindi Seddon, principal of Pitt River Middle School in Coquitlam, BC, decided to ditch the junk food that KFC, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut were serving in the school cafeteria, replacing it with real food for her students. She also turfed junk food out of the vending machines. She had solid support from her parent committees and staff, but the Coquitlam School Board thought otherwise and ordered the junk food back on the menu, claiming it had that authority and she did not. Cindi’s actions triggered a media storm and a public debate and, as a result, in 2007, the province banned highly processed foods and foods with large amounts of sweetener, salt, fat and calories from school cafeterias and vending machines. If Cindi had not decided enough was enough, our kids would still be eating junk food in BC schools today.

Somewhere in your unfolding life there may be a story like this that will be your story. It may begin with someone knocking on your door, asking, “Can you help us?” Or it may come from within as a quiet idea and a sprig of determination.

You don’t need to know how you’re going to achieve your idea. You can learn as you go along. You need just three things: 1) A clear image in your mind of what the end result will be. 2) The skills to pull it off, which probably include people skills and partnership-building skills. 3) The willingness to put one foot in front of the other and to keep going when you meet obstacles, seeking help and advice from your partners. If your first thought is “I don’t have the skills,” go out and get them. You won’t regret it.

Do you have a small voice, saying, “I really want to contribute to a better world, and I’ve got this idea…?”

If you do, don’t pass it up. This is your moment.

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.

Blowin’ in the wind

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

Energy underpins everything we do. Human societies have become increasingly complex, requiring ever larger-scale sources of continuous energy. Now, energy fuels not only our activities, but our economies as well. If we don’t choose our energy sources wisely, we can do more harm than good.

Non-renewable energy sources such as fossil and nuclear fuels are not sustainable and have also taught us that technological advances often come at great cost. These fuels can never be a long-term solution because they will run out. They also create emissions that pollute our air, water and soil and contribute to global warming or long-term radioactive waste problems.

Renewable energy sources will not run out and they don’t cause the same kinds of environmental problems as non-renewables. But that doesn’t mean we should adopt renewable energy carelessly. Biofuels can create problems if fuel production comes at the expense of food production. And wind power, if not properly planned and sited, can harm birds and bats (although Danish studies of 10,000 bird kills revealed that almost all died in collisions with buildings, cars and wires; only 10 were killed by windmills).

Alternative energy sources are absolutely necessary. Global warming will kill birds and bats, as well as other species, in much greater numbers than wind power. We need to believe in our ability to develop solutions. During three decades of producing the TV program The Nature of Things, we’ve often encountered difficulties filming in exotic locations. Back when we worked with film, we always took a lighting person with us. I dreaded working with one lighting guy because whenever he was faced with a demanding challenge, he’d respond, “It can’t be done.” We’d have to cajole him until we accomplished the task, but it drained the crew’s morale and wore us down. Another lighting person would respond, “Well, this is a tough one, but let’s give it a try.”

The mental attitude that underlies the way we approach any challenge is a huge part of how well we deal with it. For more than 20 years, leading scientists have warned us that the dangers of runaway global warming are so great that we cannot continue along the same path. Yet the response (usually led by the fossil-fuel industry) has been “It’s junk science” or “It’s too expensive; it’ll destroy the economy” or “It’s impossible to meet the reduction targets.” These kinds of reactions demoralize or paralyze society.

Compare those comments on the challenge of climate change with the American response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor or the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik 1. There was a sense of solidarity of purpose, to win the war or to beat the Russians to the moon. Throwing everything at winning led to all kinds of unexpected bonuses: the American economy blazed out of the Depression, while the race to the moon resulted in the Internet, 24-hour news channels, GPS and cell phones. Making a commitment to resolve a serious crisis generates opportunities and creates jobs.

Already, renewable-energy technologies are creating employment and giving economies a boost around the world. Countries like Denmark and Germany started shifting to renewable energy sources after the OPEC oil embargo in the 1970s. Today, Denmark obtains 20 percent of its energy from wind power and is aiming at 50 percent by 2020. Germany, which obtains 14 percent of its energy from wind, is the major exporter of wind technology and has created more than 82,000 jobs in the wind sector and more than 200,000 renewable-energy jobs in total. Wind power has become the country’s fastest growing job creator over the past three decades.

Even the U.S. Energy Department believes that wind power could provide one fifth of that nation’s power by 2030. Other studies have shown that wind, solar and biofuel energy could create five million US jobs by 2030.

The problem with the climate challenge is not a llack of solutions; it is a lack of will. As we saw with our lighting technicians, our attitude toward what confronts us will have a huge impact on how we achieve results.

Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at


Truce not war

Thank you very much for the article about the events that took place on December 24, 1914 [Remembering war, Geoff Olson, November 2008]. It’s a very beautiful and inspirational piece and the question of where to mark events like December 24, 1914, on the calendar is so important. I think many more people are asking this question these days. I’d rather be taking part in celebrating “Christmas Truce” day rather than romanticizing the loss of young lives to wars. Thanks again.

– Alex Rojkov


Food Matters a must-see

There are many things that I am still not sure of, but one thing I know for sure: we all live on the same common ground called Mother Earth and we all rely on the same air, water and food supply. Alarm bells have been ringing for centuries and we have refused the wake-up call to start treasuring this Earth. Now, two individuals have produced and directed an incredible documentary in their attempt to wake us up once again to the dangers that lurk within our food and what we must do about it. Please take this wake up call seriously. I encourage everyone who cares about their own health and the future of this planet to get their hands on a copy of Food Matters. Watch it, pay attention and pass it on to as many people as you can. Go to to get a copy or copies of this powerful film. Please do your part to help yourself and others take charge of their health. Doctors treat illness; wellness is our right and responsibility and the food we eat and the lifestyle we choose do matter. My deepest gratitude to James Colquhoun and Laurentine ten Bosch for their dedication and to all those who spoke so truthfully in this documentary. I will be equally dedicated in doing my part to get this information out to the world. [Common Ground published an interview with James and Laurentine in the October 2008 issue.]

– Bonnie Friesen


San Francisco artist looks to replace lost eyeball with webcam

Tanya Vlach, who lost an eye in a 2005 car accident, thinks installing a Web cam into her prosthesis would be quite a sight. A one-eyed San Francisco artist wants to replace her missing eye with a Web cam – and tech experts say it’s possible.

“I’d always given thought to using cameras to restore sight to the blind,” said Dr. William Danz, whose patient, Tanya Vlach, wants the groundbreaking device. “This is a little different, more like James Bond stuff.” Vlach, who lost her eye in a 2005 car accident, wears a realistic acrylic prosthesis, but she’s issued a challenge to engineers on her blog: build an “eye cam” for her prosthesis that can dilate with changes of light and allow her to blink to control its zoom, focus, and on/off switch.

“There have been all sorts of cyborgs in science fiction for a long time, and I’m sort of a sci-fi geek,” said Vlach, 35. “With the advancement of technology, I thought, ‘Why not?’”

The eye cam could allow her to record her entire life or even shoot a reality TV show from her eye’s perspective. Vlach said she will let inspiration strike once she has the device. “There are a lot of ideas floating around…nothing too exploitative,” said Vlach. “I don’t want to be a spy and infringe on people’s rights, and at the same time, there are amazing possibilities.” Vlach’s challenge, first reported by tech blogger Kevin Kelly, has inspired blog posts from around the world and e-mails to Vlach from dozens of eager engineers.

Mobile computing expert Roy Want told the Daily News the technology exists. “It is possible to build a wireless camera with the dimensions of the eyeball,” said Want, a senior principal engineer at Intel. “You can find spy cams or nanny cams designed to fit into inconspicuous places in the home.”

Want said the camera, which would be encased in Vlach’s prosthesis to avoid moisture, could link wirelessly to a smart phone. The smart phone could send power to the camera wirelessly and relay the camera’s video feed by cell phone network to another person, a TV studio or a computer.

In a world where eye cams are common, they might serve as a kind of computerized backup to people’s memories, Want said. “You’d never need to forget anything again,” he said. “You’d never lose anything. You could ask it, ‘Where was the last time I saw my keys?’”

– Joe Gould, Daily News writer


Gates and MacKay statements disingenuous

Neither Defence Minister Peter MacKay nor U. S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates were straightforward or candid in their statements regarding Friday’s daylong meeting of defence ministers from the U.S., Britain, Holland, Australia, Estonia, Denmark and Romania.

MacKay called upon NATO countries he considers slackers because they have placed caveats on their forces that prevent them from being deployed in combat areas to remove them. He knows their decisions are based on public opinion just as was his government’s decision to be out of combat in 2011.  Why would Germany, Italy and France alter their positions because of Obama when he says we won’t?

Gates must consider the media to be naive (another meaning of disingenuous) in saying “that despite the violence, coalition forces remain in control of the country.” and that “the Taliban do not hold any land”.

A year ago the Senlis Council reported “Taliban in Control of 54 Percent of Afghanistan”. Conditions have worsened since then when it was concluded that “The Taliban are the de facto governing authority in significant portions of territory in the south and east, and are starting to control parts of the local economy and key infrastructure such as roads and energy supply.”

An Aug. 6, 2008 (AP) article stated, “ Sometimes villagers go to the Taliban because their courts move faster and appear less corrupt, experts said. But at other times, in Taliban strongholds, people are afraid to turn anywhere else.”

Gates is down playing Taliban strength because in his words “The most important objective for us for 2009 in Afghanistan is a successful election,” Mr. Gates said. “One of the things we talked about his morning was trying to surge as many forces as we can prior to the election, to try and provide a secure environment for the election.”

“Many politicians and party leaders of the country are concerned by the fact that the instability in Afghanistan will negatively affect the election process. The experts say that holding elections in the country is impossible under the situation, when the security is not ensured, and serious measures are not undertaken with regards to the opposition, who speak against the power.”

The election is proceeding. Gates aim is for it to be seen as a being successful. Whether his “spin” that the Taliban is weaker than it is will be an assist is yet to be determined.

– Joe Hueglin, former PC MP, 
Niagara Falls,


Is Pristine Power exec misleading public?

Harvie Campbell, an industry insider with Pristine Power, wrote in a Vancouver Sun guest editorial Nov. 21 that BC buys expensive peaking power at spot market prices, which is not true. We buy coal and nuclear power from Alberta and Washington when it is cheap at night and resell it to California the next day, during peak demand, when we can make an average 500% profit in less than 24 hours.

He uses numerous statements to justify privatizing of BC Hydro. We have been making as much as $500 million a year reselling imported power. The position Harvie takes is based on the same lie that BC Energy Minister Richard Neufeld keeps repeating to convince us we MUST develop private power.

When we check the figures we find these people are wrong. While coal and nuclear are dirty and unsustainable, they are not uneconomical as Harvie Campbell and the BC government are claiming.

It must be repeated of course that the BC Liberals passed legislation to put BC Hydro out of business regarding new power projects, now bein built by private concerns at much higher prices. Accenture, BCTC, Powerex, and the private power projects are all designed to move BC Hydro to privatization.

When the governor of California was here recently it was to buy our power, not for some insignificant but high profile hydrogen highway. PG&E spent $16 million alone, planning how to move more BC power to California.

– A.B. Hansen,
Vancouver, BC

From scarcity to abundance

by Geoff Olson

Many of us consider philosophy to be a specialized field of study, with little real-world application. Yet we’re all philosophers of one kind or another. We all have our own ideas about love, freedom and the meaning of life – or its non-meaning. These ideas, though not always articulated, often guide our lives to a surprising degree.

Just as fish don’t have any notion of the medium they swim in, one particular belief system so thoroughly pervades our culture that most of us would be hard-pressed to identify it as a philosophy at all. This is the notion that life is defined by a competition for dwindling resources. The philosophy of scarcity has dominated cultural life in the West – and academia, business, government, the military and beyond – for the past few hundred years and pervades everything from PBS nature documentaries to reality television shows like The Apprentice and the Survivor series. Its essence is summed up by hard-nosed realists and their dictum “There is no free lunch.”

As a philosophy, scarcity is given substance by real-world examples. Oil, water, food, money: all appear to be in perennially short supply, as expressed by the recent meme, “peak everything.” Famine, drought and wars over territory make scarcity seem the norm for the planet, rather than the exception. But how much is our perception of scarcity driven by a cultural consensus that it is fundamental to existence? There is a real world out there, a world that often fails to deliver us the goods, but there’s no denying that our relationship to it is conditioned by our beliefs and interpretations.

For some time now, a different idea has been brewing in popular culture: the philosophy of non-scarcity, or abundance. The exploration of this idea, however, has been mostly limited to extropians and science fiction writers and ignored by academia. “Abundance” has been a word relegated to evangelical and new age groups.

In his blog, Wired editor Chris Anderson noted this absence from academic dialogue: “My college textbook, Gregory Mankiw’s otherwise excellent Principles of Economics, doesn’t mention the word abundance. And for good reason: if you let the scarcity term in most economic equations go to nothing, you get all sorts of divide-by-zero problems. They basically blow up.”

One of the greatest shifts in human thinking came with the discovery that the world was not flat, but round. This implied that the finite globe could be circumnavigated and its territories mapped and conquered. In the early 1600s, Queen Elizabeth founded the East India Company, a mammoth trading monopoly that was given charter rights to create proprietary colonies anywhere on Earth. The East India Company was both the Halliburton and Blackwater of its time. It mapped out and mopped up the resources of distant lands, while encouraging the inhabitants to become pious, proto-Britons, or at least compliant widgets in its worldwide labour machine.

Lieutenant Fletcher Prouty, author of The Secret Team, notes how the East India Company founded Haileybury College in England to “train its young employees in business, the military arts, and the special skills of religious missionaries. By 1800, it became necessary to initiate the task of making an Earth inventory, that is, to find out what was out there in the way of natural resources, population, land, and other tangible assets.”

The first man put in charge of this vital census was Robert Malthus, head of the department of economics at Haileybury College. He is remembered today as the prophet of scarcity, author of the enormously influential 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population. In this treatise, he proposed, “Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetic ratio.”

In other words, unchecked population growth always exceeds the growth of means of subsistence. In modern parlance, we call it the “carrying capacity of the environment.” The actual population growth is held in place by “positive checks” – starvation, disease and other disasters – and “preventive checks” – postponement of marriage, contraception and other practices that reduce the birth rate.

A certain young naturalist, having recently returned to England from the Galapagos Islands, had an ah-ha moment when he came across Malthus’ essay. Surely, constraints on population acted as the driver of animal adaptation through a “survival of the fittest.” Charles Darwin introduced his revolutionary theory of evolution through natural selection with the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species.

Both Malthus and Darwin have received a bad rap over time. But the problem wasn’t so much with the signal as the reception. Malthusians and Darwinists didn’t just seize on the new thinking to justify the status quo; they found entirely new ways to rationalize brutality. The monstrous legacy of eugenics in the US and Germany, along with the pseudoscientific justifications for racial desegregation and the sterilization of “mental defectives” – to say nothing of the “ethnic cleansing” – owe much to self-serving interpretations of Malthusian/Darwinian ideas. And, of course, there’s the perpetual idea that the wealthy and powerful owe nothing to the weak and powerless, which was now given moral authority by supposedly ironclad laws of nature.

The “white man’s burden” and other paternalistic notions about bringing freedom and democracy to indigenous people also owe plenty to this nineteenth-century meme.

Malthus, the first demographer for transnational interests, mapped the world’s resource base. The British Empire did the rest. In a remarkably transparent speech to parliament in 1914, Winston Churchill said, “We are not a young people with innocent record and a scanty inheritance. We have engrossed to ourselves an altogether disproportionate share of wealth and traffic of the world. We have all we want in territory, and our claim to be left in the unmolested enjoyment of vast and splendid possessions, mainly acquired by violence, largely maintained by force, often seems less reasonable to others than to us.”

The idea that might makes right, and its justification through scarcity, still persists today. There’s an enduring current of thought in western culture that we, as individuals, nations or species, adapt and improve through making others lose. Even though evolutionary biology has come to see cooperation as important as competition, the social sciences have yet to catch up. Classical economics still persists in the notion that human beings are “rational utility maximizers,” isolated agents that are driven by nothing more than self-interest. Modelling more subtle forms of behaviour, such as the altruism within families and communities, would simply make the numbers blow up.

One thinker who saw through this self-serving cant was Richard Buckminster Fuller, best known for his contributions to mathematics and architecture, including his “geodesic dome.” With his elfin stature and coke-bottle-thick, black glasses, the Bostonian became an instantly recognizable icon for intellectual adventurism in the sixties. He wore many hats, including that of poet, urban critic, social scientist and global planner. (A decade after his death, an enclosed molecule was discovered that actually follows the “synergistic” geometry Fuller believed would be found on all levels of nature once researchers began to look for it. In his honour, the molecule was named buckminsterfullerene, or “bucky ball.”)

While Fuller believed that properly applied design science could free all human beings on the planet from poverty and ignorance, “advantaging all without disadvantaging any,” he noted that the correct application of these sciences was perpetually held back by “ignorance, fear, and zoning laws.”

Born into a very wealthy Boston family, Fuller had a unique insight into the Malthusian mindset of the ruling class. In the biography, Bucky: A Guided Tour, author Hugh Kenner explained how a “rich uncle did Bucky the favour of taking him aside to explain in Boston’s terms how the world was.” The unpleasant, but unassailable, truth was this: there wasn’t enough to go round for everyone. “This had apparently been proven mathematically, three generations early, when the statistician Thomas Malthus demonstrated exactly how population tended to outstrip resources.”

The balding Brahmins of Boston, like the elite class elsewhere, “had outgrown the era of the Golden Rule, the formulation of a less crowded world.” As Bucky’s uncle explained, “The possessions of the haves were now founded on the destitution of the have?nots, and despite Sunday?school pieties serviceable to placate women, that was henceforth the unalterable state of things.”

In Kenner’s retelling, the rich uncle told the young lad that it was necessary for a rich man “to cultivate enough of the red tooth and the unsheathed claw to ensure that he and his loved ones should be haves. This was not nice, and he need not distress the innocent by talking of it, but there was really no choice.”

It had been established that a man’s chance of passing his life in any comfort was about one in 100. “It is not you or the other fellow,” the uncle explained; “It is you or one hundred others.” To prosper in the Fuller way with a family of five, he would have to slit the throats – genteelly, of course – of 500 others. “So, do it as neatly and cleanly and politely as you know how, and as your conscience will allow.”

By imagining historical necessity and biological destiny were one and the same, Fuller’s relatives had discovered that human evolution had peaked, by good fortune, with themselves. Bucky ended up rejecting their Scrooge-on-steroids reasoning, believing it to be based on nineteenth-century, closed system thinking.

The architect and mathematician believed the world is rung by what he called, “lawyer assisted capitalism.” The original sin of LAWCAP was to believe that the struggle for finite resources condemned the majority of the world’s inhabitants to misery, while providing wealth and comfort to only the most cunning and predatory. Wrong, said Fuller. Since the end of the eighteenth century, technology has “emphemeralized,” increasing the energy yield of resources while simultaneously discovering new resources.

With late Victorian industrialization, steam power supplied work “for free,” beyond human or horsepower and factories could be kept going throughout the night. Malthus foresaw none of this – how could he? – nor could he have predicted the scientific discoveries of the twentieth century, which created entirely new markets and middle class wealth, along with increasingly sophisticated weapons of destruction.

Fuller insisted that population does not increase steadily, but actually levels off when design science extends to all its members. In fact, demographic studies have consistently demonstrated that one of the most significant factors in reducing national birth rates is the education of women.

As American philosopher Robert Anton Wilson once observed, “Known resources are not given by nature; they depend on the analytical capacities of the human mind. We can never know how many resources can be obtained from a cubic foot of the universe: all we know is how much we have found thus far, at a given date. You can starve in the middle of a field of wheat if your mind hasn’t identified wheat as edible. Real Wealth results from Real Knowledge, which is increasing faster all the time.”

So what does the economics of abundance actually look like? We’ll take a look at this next month.

The gift of sight

by Heather Wardle


In a small corner of a district hospital in Tibet, 12-year-old Datso sat crying. She was blind from bilateral cataracts, the clouding of the eye’s natural lens. Datso’s short life had been miserable and lonely. “I am blind and don’t deserve any friends,” she sobbed. “I am not capable of doing anything but sitting in my home with my grandparents all the time. Nobody is willing to play with me. I can’t see now and I am afraid that I won’t see ever again in my life.”

Thanks to the kindness of strangers in Canada, Datso received sight-restoring cataract surgery at a Seva Canada-sponsored eye camp in Tibet. Seva Canada is an international, non-governmental organization in Vancouver whose mission is the elimination of preventable and treatable blindness.

In Sanskrit, seva means “service” or “compassion in action.” For more than 26 years, Seva has been helping poor countries help themselves by creating sustainable eye care systems. Seva now works in seven countries – Tibet, Nepal, India, Tanzania, Guatemala, Cambodia and Egypt – training local eye-care specialists.

Datso is one of 314 million people worldwide with serious vision impairment. Of these, 45 million are blind and 124 million have low vision. Yet 75 percent of this blindness is either preventable or treatable. Often, a 15-minute cataract surgery that costs only $50 will restore sight and completely transform someone’s life.

Drew Luyall, SEVAs youngest donor

After her two eye surgeries, Datso was a changed girl. She was free to lead a normal life, see her loved ones, play with friends, go to school and be happy. “I feel like doing everything now,” she said laughing, “but first of all, I need to see my one-month-old brother at home!”

One kind Canadian who has given many gifts of sight is a remarkable 10-year-old boy named Drew Lyall from Kimberley, BC. Drew first heard about Seva Canada’s sight restoration and blindness prevention work in 2006 when he saw a Seva multimedia show in Kimberley. Since then, Drew has raised more than $1,500 for Seva Canada to fund eye surgeries and training in Asia and Africa.

To raise money, Drew has collected thousands of cans and bottles for recycling, often dragging them on his toboggan through the winter snows. Now that his local bottle depot has burned down, Drew is fundraising through local craft fairs and school talks. Drew has a heart of gold. He is full of compassion for those who are blind and he is tireless in his fundraising efforts. He’s paid for a Tibetan eye surgeon to get specialist training in Nepal, funded sight restoration for a child in Tanzania and introduced Seva to many people.

Dr. Lloyd Axworthy, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, is an Honourable Patron of Seva Canada. “During the last 26 years, Seva has helped to restore the sight of many thousands of people who suffer needlessly from blindness that is both preventable and treatable,” says Dr. Axworthy. “I am exceptionally proud to be associated with the work of Seva Canada.”

Heather Wardle is the development director of Seva Canada Society.

Saving sight on the roof of the world

Tibetan eye camps are miraculous events. Hundreds of blind patients are brought by their families, sometimes travelling for days. They are led-in blind and after a 15-minute surgery costing about $50 can see again.

Tibet has one of the highest rates of blindness in the world, primarily caused by cataracts. Seva Canada is the leading eye-care provider in Tibet, responsible for two-thirds of the cataract surgeries.

“Cataract surgery in adults is just wonderful. It’s the best bang for your buck operation in the world,” says ophthalmologist and Seva board member Dr. Peter Nash.

Mobile eye camps provide a way to reach the blind in remote areas. Each year, Seva runs as many as 25 eye camps, costing around $12,500 each. Each camp screens hundreds of people of all ages and performs up to 400 sight-restoring cataract surgeries.

Dekyi, a blind woman with six children to care for, received the gift of sight in October at a Seva eye camp in Chamdo. “For the first time in my life, I am happy,” she told the doctors. “Please tell all the people at Seva. They are the ones who have helped me end my bad karma and bring a glimpse of light to my life!”

This holiday season, choose to give the gift of sight. or call 604-713-6622 for information and to request a copy of Seva’s Gift of Sight catalogue, an alternative giving guide. You can give the gift of sight on behalf of family members, friends and business associates. With each gift, Seva will send a card describing your gift to the person you wish to honour.


Believe it or not

WRITING ON THE WALL by Joseph Roberts

Welcome to the December issue of Common Ground. In this last month of 2008, we look to 2009 with renewed hope for the change that we believe will come.

The great news is that we don’t have to worry about Sarah Pallin ruling the empire to the south, given that Barack Obama seized the day. Like many others, I cried when I saw Obama delivering his speech at the park in Chicago. As the TV cameras panned the audience, both young and old alike had tears in their eyes. And the very eldest wept as they had seen the times when their forefathers were slaves, and they, themselves, had had to drink from a different water fountain than white folks, and forced to sit at the back of the bus. Maybe Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King were watching through the eyes of those elders who are still alive to see the dream come true. Hallelujah!

Although we were hustled along into a federal election a year ahead of schedule, the offending party did not win the coveted, supreme prize of a majority. Former president Bill Clinton spoke at a recent BCBC talk in Vancouver. At the same function, Stockwell Day joked after dinner that the CPC now had a more “muscular minority.” Well, as we are all aware, Bill’s muscular minority got him into lots of trouble with Monica.

In Vancouver, we also saw two provincial by-elections vote for change. Then, to the amazement of many Vancouverites, Vision Vancouver vanquished the prior, ruling civic NPA party, taking the mayor’s seat and all other positions, leaving the NPA with only one seat on city council. During mayor-elect Gregor Robertson’s acceptance speech at the Vancouver Hotel, he made promises for change.

We are the change we have been waiting for; now is the time. And as Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

This edition launches a new column titled Independent Media, which will link the important information media issues, such as internet neutrality, keeping media honest, and protecting the freedom of those who do not own huge media empires so they too have their voices heard. We welcome Steve Anderson, organizer of Media Democracy Day at the VPL, an event well worth your participation if you missed it this year.

It seems many among us voted for change and are ready to act to create a more humane and civil society. So why is it that many others misunderstand or fear change? It is partially because we have different beliefs. So why are beliefs so hard to change, and why do governments, corporations and religions invest so much money and effort to imprint and defend their chosen beliefs? Because, to a large degree, beliefs run people’s lives. We get identified with our beliefs. People feel their existence depends on this identity and when their cherished beliefs appear to be threatened, they defend them as if their ego’s survival depended on it. Beliefs become engrained, passed on from generation to generation, or more lately from TV to video games to Facebook. These fossilized thought programs fundamentally stop people from questioning. Thus, they defend their belief systems with the full force of their survival instinct. Useful if you want to start a war and needs lots of soldiers.

This can be gold to the small but powerful group of leaders who want to rule the world’s resources or economy, especially if they monopolize most of the mass media. When people are threatened, the fight or flight response kicks in. Whether the terror is real or imagined, the physical response is the same: the heartbeat goes up, cortisone increases and the mind focuses on the perceived threat. This phenomena is aptly captured by Mark Twain’s quote: “I have been through some terrible things in my life…some of which actually happened.”

People react if they believe a threat is real. They stop looking at all the options; they don’t check the accuracy of the statements and they hunker down into their mental bunkers to fight or weather the storm, (or hurricane, as in the disaster in New Orleans), believing help will come soon.

Smart and powerful people manufacture belief in terror and derive consent to a “there-is-no-other-choice” solution, which always robs people of their money, rights, resources or property.

It is not much different today as it was in the Dark Ages, the Industrial Revolution, numerous hot or cold wars, dropping the big one, YK2, WMD or the current economic terror. If Henny Penny believes the sky is falling, Henny Penny’s eggs can be stolen.

In other words, we are lied to in order to believe a lie so that those who lie can benefit from their fraud. And they need us, the middle class and the huddled masses, to buy into their con because they need us for cannon fodder.

Another way of describing this relationship was coined by Dr. John Gofman, the scientist who isolated the first gram of plutonium. Gofman worked on the Manhattan Project along with Albert Einstein and others to develop the first atomic bomb. People like Einstein had agreed to develop the bomb because they were promised it would not be used on people, but rather exploded off-shore as a demonstration to the Japanese to induce their surrender. The agreement was with president Roosevelt, who died in office and Harry Truman took over and immediately signed the directive to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These eminent scientist, some of them pacifists, were taken advantage of by powerful forces that lied because they wanted to use the discovery for their geo-political purposes.

The scientists were played the same way the public gets played. Gofman noted there are two classes of people. There is no longer the left or the right, nor the north or the south, but rather the screwers and the screwees. Truman worked for those moneyed interests who wanted to show those pesky Russians (remember the same ones who were our allies to defeat Hitler) who were running the world. So they demonstrated US might by desecrating not just one but two cities in Japan. The victors wrote the history books and conveniently rearranged the facts and left out what they did not want us peasants to know. Because part of their game is to keep us believing that they would never do bad things to good people. And that they would always tell us the truth about who the good guys and bad guys are. Who the invaders and the liberartors are. Who the saviours and the sinners are. The game unfortunately goes on until their lies are no longer believable, which requires a fair amount of delving into what is really going on.

Hopefully as the curtains close on 2008, we can see the light returning after the solstice at the end of this tunnel vision.

So it is with great hope that our dreams for change and for fairness, compassion and justice will actually happen.

Raising a village, one cup at a time

by John M. Darch

For more than three decades, I have been involved with numerous natural resource projects in North America, Africa and Asia, meeting many interesting (and sometimes unsavoury) people. None, however, compare with the intriguing and friendly Thais. Like most Western entrepreneurs in Thailand, I was mostly involved with the established business society. It was not until 2006 when my Thai friend Ponprapa Bunmusik introduced me to the Akha hill tribe people of Doi Chaang near Chiang Rai and I spent time with them that I began to understand their struggle for dignity and their desire to be more than a tourist attraction.

Their story seemed incredulous: a hill tribe living in Doi Chaang Village (primarily of Akha heritage) had, through sheer determination and dedication, created a viable business cultivating an outstanding quality coffee. I was surprised that coffee was even grown in Thailand, never mind that it was being achieved with no government assistance or donations.

I learned that the villagers wanted to expand their business internationally and my friend wondered if I would be interested in another Thai business venture. I agreed to meet them out of politeness and was introduced to Khun Wicha Promyong, the man responsible for leading the Akha tribe in their quest to be self-sufficient. Wicha, a former world-travelled entrepreneur, comes from southern Thailand and having enjoyed the privileges of education, healthcare and wealth, he gave all of it up more than 30 years ago to live and travel with Thailand’s hill tribes. His home is now with “his people,” the Akha hill tribe in Doi Chaang village and his “mission” is to help them have dignity and to become self-sustaining.

L to R: Brother Wicha, Doi Chaang village leader Piko Saedoo, John M. Darch

When we met in Bangkok, Wicha explained how the many hill tribes originally migrated from southwestern China, eventually settling in scattered, isolated communities in the mountainous regions of Laos, Vietnam and Northern Thailand. Apparently, at one time, the hill tribes of Northern Thailand sustained themselves through slash and burn horticulture, but the increased population of the last century depleted the land and many of the hill tribes resorted to cultivating opium for survival.

Rich in culture and tradition, shrouded in myth and legend, the Akha people have no official written language, but maintain a detailed, oral history and live life according to the “Akha Way,” a spiritual, moral and social philosophy that governs behaviour and emphasizes strong ties to land and family. Yet, of all the hill tribes, few were as downtrodden, shunned or as impoverished as the Akha people.

Traditional handcrafted Akha Silver Headdress for ceremonial occasions such as marriage and harvest.

Arriving at Doi Chaang village (literal translation: Elephant Mountain), I was expecting the familiar destitute village that had become the symbol of the typical hill tribe community. However, here was an energetic farming community, complete with rudimentary electricity, running water, a school and a medical clinic. Some 20 years ago, in the hope of steering hill tribes away from cultivating opium, His Majesty the King of Thailand directed the farmers be given coffee plants. Sadly, because the farmers were acting independently and were inexperienced in business practice, their lives barely improved. To sell his beans, each farmer had to transport them some 70 kilometres to Chiang Rai, the nearest city, where the international coffee dealers kept the farmers divided and paid them minimal prices. In frustration, the Akha villagers turned to Wicha, who lived in Chiang Rai, for help. As a first step, Wicha encouraged all the Doi Chaang farmers to become a co-operative, thereby making it impossible for the coffee dealers to play one family against another. His next focus was educating the farmers in the importance of quality and productivity. In just over six years, this once small, isolated, poor village was transformed.

In my meeting with Wicha, he pointed out where clear-cut sections from past farming practice are now being reforested with a variety of trees, bushes and plants. The reforestation supports the production of various crops, which not only provide food, but are also sold to help support and diversify the village’s economy. This cultivation method maintains soil quality, as the canopy protects against the sun and the rain and eliminates the need for continuous weeding and the use of harmful chemicals. The result is rich, fertile soil that sustains diverse crop production for present and future generations.

I couldn’t help but feel somewhat guilty. My own business ventures have been in natural resource development where the resources are eventually depleted, projects with a finite life that has inevitable consequences for employees and their families. I was now presented with a business that could expand without depleting resources or exploiting workers and their families. So what did the people want with me? Wicha didn’t ask me for money and I didn’t offer. Instead, he wanted a business relationship for his people. As I learned, Doi Chaang’s success was such that production had exceeded demand in Thailand, and Wicha, forever the visionary, wanted me to introduce their coffee to the North American market. There were two conditions: to ensure the villagers’ self-esteem, their coffee had to be sold under the name Doi Chaang (Elephant Mountain) and the label had to bear the words “single-origin.”

It is important to understand that these people do not want charity, but a fair price for their coffee. The Akha farmers told me they want people to buy their coffee for the “quality,” not out of sympathy, as beyond improving their lifestyle; the most important thing to these people is respect and recognition of their achievements.

Wicha told me that international investors and coffee buyers constantly approach these people, looking to invest and control their coffee production. Their intent is to blend the beans with other coffees and market them under a different name because “Doi Chaang” sounds too ethnic. The potential buyers argue that they must have control and that it would be too expensive and difficult to market internationally a single-origin, Arabica coffee from Thailand, essentially unknown outside Asia.

I was captivated and immediately contacted Wayne Fallis, a colleague in Canada with extensive experience in food exporting and importing. I convinced him that I had found a project that would offer more than a financial return. We then sought the opinion of Calgary-based, Shawn MacDonald, well known for his extensive knowledge of coffee. MacDonald not only confirmed that Doi Chaang Coffee was a “world class” coffee, but he agreed to join our venture as Roast Master and vice-president of operations. And so we began what is probably a unique business arrangement in the coffee world. The farmers maintain total ownership and control of their own Thai company and domestic sales. In addition, they would also have a “carried” 50 percent interest in the Vancouver and Calgary based Canadian company, Doi Chaang Coffee Company, created to roast and distribute Doi Chaang coffee in North America. My colleague and I agreed to personally provide 100 percent of the finance required for all aspects of the Canadian operation leaving the hill tribe to focus on production, quality control and expansion.

This structure provides the hill tribe people with a no-lose business arrangement. We buy the green beans from the farmers, for cash, at a price in excess of the recommended price, which gives them an immediate profit and the ability to continue their coffee production. And because of the ownership in Doi Chaang Coffee Company, they also receive 50 percent of the Canadian company’s profits without any cost to them.

I am proud of how the Akha farmers use their coffee revenues to improve the standard of living for their community and the quality of their coffee. Having been isolated and impoverished for so long, they are now recognized and praised for their achievements, held up by Thailand officials as a “role model” for other hill tribe communities. In 2007, the farmers demonstrated their commitment to their community by building the Doi Chaang Coffee Academy, at their own expense. All hill tribe farmers may attend at no cost to learn about co-operative business practices, diverse crop production, quality control and sustainable agriculture. The farmers are also taught personal money management skills and the importance of education and healthcare. The ultimate goal is for the hill tribes to be accepted and welcomed as productive, contributing members of Thai society.

I am determined to make Doi Chaang Coffee a success in North America because I strongly believe that this is an alternative and viable way of doing business with the coffee farmers. I believe in the Akha hill tribe’s courage to persevere and I believe in their determination to better themselves and take control of their own future. I believe in their children, their community, their potential and their ability to sustain and grow their own business without any negative impact on their culture, community or environment.

John Darch is the chairman of Doi Chaang Coffee in



Life as I know it will never be the same. My heart has been broken open and filled up with new love. I’m the elated father of a sweet baby girl. I’ve lost track of time and the outside world, and I’m happier for it. This whole experience continues to confirm that magic is real and exists in our lives.

I think being a parent is making me become more patient and compassionate. I’ve starting seeing each person as someone’s precious little one. I find myself staring at strangers, wondering what their life has been like, who their parents were, and what their relationship was/is like. I was having a coffee with my friend last week and he said, “You know that feeling that you’re having? Can you imagine if everyone had a baby at the same time? There wouldn’t be anybody left to fight a war, they’d all be loving their new babies and excited for the other people going through the same thing.”

My wife told me an interesting anecdote that my mom had told her. It was something along the lines that people who are parents are far less likely to become the perpetrator of a violent crime. I can’t throw any fancy stats to verify that comment, but those who share the feelings that are coming to me these days probably agree that once you make a life it would be a lot harder to take one.

Making a baby isn’t an option for everybody but there are plenty of children to adopt or connect with. In my love drunkenness I’m still lucid enough to concede that maybe parenting for peace might not work. However the extremely strong connection that a new parent feels could be something to draw on. We lack connection in modern cultures; we’re really plugged-in but rarely meaningfully joined to anything life affirming. Make a choice to bond and grow with your baby whatever that looks like for you.

I remember, at some point in the process, the rush I got when I committed to making a life-long choice, the very first truly all-in moment in my thirty years. The old cliché that every parent tells people, that having their child was the best thing they ever did, is true. I know that whatever may come in life I am a success and I’ve found a purpose greater than myself.

The Fall
Style Wars
Fela: Music is the Weapon

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

Raw revolution

NUTRISPEAK by Vesanto Melina

The raw foods movement is making headlines. Why? Reasons include awareness about the environmental impacts of our food choices, interest in going organic and the desire to eat lower on the food chain. And across North America, people are viewing their expanding waistlines with horror. Centring one’s diet on raw plant foods offers a mighty appealing solution.

Why is this a solution? One reason is that some of us consumers have trouble being moderate. For example, if there’s a bottle of wine or a case of beer handy, we’ll chug-a-lug or sip our way through the whole thing. To save ourselves, we join AA, where there’s a clear line. No alcohol at all. Period. Similarly, if we have cigarettes around, we can’t resist smoking. Our only way out is to quit, with no cigarettes in the house.

When it comes to food, we can’t stop ourselves from eating the whole loaf of fresh bread, chocolate cake, bucket of chicken or bag of chips. Yet, if we want to quit, how do we manage? We can’t enrol our higher power in helping us to abstain entirely from food. We must eat something!

Raw food to the rescue. It allows us to draw a clear line. Bread, butter, cake, fried chicken and chips all are on the other side of the line, where we don’t go. Yet we have plenty to eat.

At first glance, this looks far too radical. But doesn’t giving up alcohol seem radical to a boozer? It seems that the person’s entire social life will vanish and there will be no way to relax. But after taking the leap, new horizons open: one discovers non-drinking friends and finds excellent ways to reduce stress.

With raw foods, what are our choices? We head for the market’s colourful produce section. We load our cart with every type of fruit and explore all the veggies that can be eaten uncooked. Then we veer over to the nuts and seeds department.

If a raw, or mainly raw, approach interests you, several opportunities for information are available this month: a Raw Food Revolution event takes place in Vancouver on November 20 with my delightful co-author Cherie Soria. This is one fit, slim, vibrant woman and does she know how to tantalize our senses with amazing food! On Saturday November 22, Cherie offers a FUNdamentals of Raw Nutrition Intensive course. (Location: Langley, 40 minutes east of Vancouver’s city hall, plus you’ll see the WindSong Cohousing Community, an architectural achievement.)

I had the pleasure of taking courses at Cherie’s school in Fort Bragg, California, midway between San Francisco and the California-Oregon border (check out These courses changed my relationship with food. Novices and experts from Washington DC, Tokyo and from across America and Europe flock to this school. Some train as raw chefs. Others learn new ways of eating for disease prevention or weight loss. We are fortunate to have this master chef here.

Also in Vancouver, on the evening of Wednesday November 12, two colleagues from Cherie’s school, Karin and Rick Dina, present an Introduction to Raw Food Nutrition. On the following weekend (November 15-16), they present the Science of Raw Food Nutrition – it has had rave reviews – in Langley.

Raw doesn’t have to mean chilly. Here are a few tips that help raw enthusiasts through colder months. We can start our day with muesli or a crunchy buckwheat granola or cinnamon oatmeal, adding fruit and warm almond milk. We might choose sprouted grain bread (See recipes in our newRaw Food Revolution Diet, also titled Raw Revolution Diet.) In smoothies and blended soups, we can use warm or hot water. We can wash or soak our produce in warm or hot water for a few minutes. We begin our meal with a cup of warm miso soup or ginger tea. We snack on almond butter with apples or bananas. And for some, it works best to combine a mainly raw diet with baked or steamed root vegetables or hearty bean and lentil soups.

Vesanto Melina is a registered dietitian ( For further details about these and other raw events, visit or call 778-737-8852.