From breakdown to breakthrough

The legacy of “Occupy Everywhere”

by Geoff Olson

At the time of this writing, Occupy Vancouver’s tent camp is no more. Across North America, the remaining occupations are under siege from law enforcement and negative press, to say nothing of harsh weather. Is the global flareup from October 15 just a historical flash in the pan, and its tagline, “We Are the 99 Percent” destined to become a forgettable political cliché? Or is there something necessary and new animating the “Occupy Everywhere” movement that will take on new forms in the future?

On a chilly early November day, one of the Occupy Vancouver organizers described how he joined the movement. “I used to be one of the one percent and made a lot of money,” said Suresh Fernando. “I was stockbroker at Scotia Macleod, lived at Wall Center, drove a beamer, all that kind of fancy stuff. I was never happy.” He says he went through a “spiritual transformation” over the past few years, a change that took him to the grounds of the Vancouver Art Gallery on October 15, the day of global solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. Fernando has been on and off the site ever since.

“You know, the financial industry is predicated on the stupidity of the general public, so I’m here as someone who deeply understands the other side of the fence,” he says with animation. A common theme among occupiers is that financial institutions and other big organizations have grown outside the reach of representative democracy. The voting citizen has become an isolated atom of consumption, squeezed for profit and bled by debt.

The corporate state is comparable to a cruise ship with a disintegrating hull. The crew is trying half-heartedly to plug the leaks, while the officers are pulling boards from steerage to redecorate the ballroom. Off in the distance, we can see the lights of small vessels picking up people thrown from the ship. I will argue below that the occupations have performed, in part, like rescue vessels – jury-rigged rafts bound together with determination and awareness.

Leopold Kohr wouldn’t have been surprised by the outcry against the big, lawless institutions of today. Born in Salzburg Austria in 1909, Kohr was something of the Rodney Dangerfield of economists – a guy who “couldn’t get no respect.” He died in 1994, but his central thesis lives on, summed up in his 1957 book The Breakdown of Nations, in which he wrote, “Wherever something is wrong, something is too big.”

Anticipating E. F. Schumacher’s sixties manifesto, Small is Beautiful and anthropologist Joseph Tainter’s scholarly work on cultural collapse in the late eighties, Kohr held that endless growth is unsustainable in all complex systems, from organisms to organizations. As any institution grows, the distance increases between those at the base of the pyramid and those at the top. As democratic participation weakens, power gravitates to a shrinking minority who use it to enrich themselves at the expense of the many.

The “1 percent” is no more of a historical quirk than the Gilded Age of late nineteenth century America. To Kohr, elite-level corruption is a repeating motif that heralds the breakdown of great powers in their cancerous, terminal stages. The phenomenon predates the Ancient Romans, whose anti-Republican elite distracted restless citizens with gladiatorial spectacles, while pouring huge resources into defending an overextended empire that was being hollowed out from within.

Kohr wrote his historical survey of failed giant states in 1951, in the glow of post-war recovery. It found a publisher six years later, just prior to the starry optimism of the space age. His thesis on the crisis of size was seriously out of step with the times. Wasn’t it the sheer scale of US military might that saved Europe from Hitler? And weren’t supranational bodies like the UN ushering in an era of global harmony? Weren’t the Sputnik and Mercury programs only possible through the massive expenditures of the two remaining superpowers, the US and the USSR?

Surveying the historical record, Kohr refused to believe the post-war rebuilding boom could be extended indefinitely into the future. Endless growth is not the answer, he argued. It is the very essence of the problem.

It’s not ideology that is at the heart of history’s train wreck of failed states, Kohr insisted. Great civilizations with widely varying belief systems and political structure – from the Maya to the Spanish Empire to the USSR to Nazi Germany – have all engaged in mass exterminations of their own subjects before ending in ruins. The only characteristic these empires shared was their overwhelming size, which precluded any significant involvement of citizens in affairs of state. “While every kind of small state, whether republic or monarchy, is thus by nature democratic, every kind of large state is by nature undemocratic,” Kohr wrote.

 

Our politicians and pundits genuflect before economic “growth” as a good in and of itself. Yet many of the most 

pressing global problems – increasing wealth disparities, big bank Ponzi schemes, Third World debt, wars for profit, petrodollar-backed resource depletion, nuclear power disasters, monoculture GMO crops, ecological destruction, the fall of personal privacy and the rise of public surveillance – trace back to bloated institutions that are artificially propped up by the mesh of monopoly capitalism. These organizations are dominated by a small class of technocrats, plutocrats and political leaders who live in a bubble of privilege and career-adaptive blindness. In this global network of interlocked corporate directorships and multinational cross-ownership, democratic oversight is possible only in theory, but rarely in practice.

As journalist Bill Moyers observed in a recent speech, people “are occupying Wall Street because Wall Street has occupied the country.” Wall Street has also occupied the world. The investment banks spread their toxic, securitized assets from Newark to Norway, in a cynical plan to maximize profits by watering down the risk among unknowing players, initiating a global economic crisis in the process. In 2002, the globe-girdling investment bank Goldman Sachs colluded in a secret deal with Greek government that concealed the nation’s swollen budget deficit for years, leading to crisis in the Eurozone when the real numbers were revealed. Sachs’ manipulation of the commodity futures market has also led to spikes in the cost of staples across the world, resulting in mass hunger and food riots in the developing nations, from Peru to Zimbabwe.

The worldwide trade derivatives market is now estimated at 791 trillion dollars, 20 times greater than the GDP of the entire planet. The problem of overgrowth is not limited to the financial sector’s fictions, of course. The US maintains 860 military bases across the world to ensure the security of the petrodollar. Presiding over this is a swollen, unmanageable defense department, a sinkhole into which literally trillions of dollars have disappeared, unaccounted for by Congressional oversight.

Gargantuan corporations like Walmart and Google now dwarf entire nations in economic scale. Kohr warned that when a civilization “grows cracks in its later stages, it was not because of its social shortcomings but because of its infection with large-scale organisms such as monopolies or unsurveyably huge market areas which, far from being responsible for economic progress, seem to be its principal obstacle.”

Anticipating George H. Bush’s talk of a “New World Order,” the Austrian professor predicted a global network of international control, but was not optimistic of its outcome. “After a period of dazzling vitality, it will spend itself. There will be no war to bring about its end. It will not explode. Like the ageing colossi of the stellar universe, it will gradually collapse internally, leaving as its principal contribution to posterity its fragments, the little states, until the consolidation process of big-power development starts all over again,” he wrote in The Breakdown of Nations.”

On October 15, millions of people hit the streets, from Santiago to San Francisco, in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. The horizontally organized, leaderless occupations are informed by the kind of networked, open-source collaboration that is found on the Internet. Within weeks of the global protests, street people were wandering into the camps to take advantage of the ground security, free food and supplies. Organizers discovered they weren’t just protesting big banks; they were trying to figure out how to sustain themselves and others for an indefinite period. The homeless were free to join in the committees and general assemblies, giving everyone a chance to get to know, and possibly grow, with others in their midst.

Writing on Salon.com, Glenn Greenwald observes that the Occupy movement “is not devoted to voicing grievances as much as it is finding a model to solve them.” Writer Marina Sitrin, who is researching global mass movements from Spain to Egypt, insists the Occupy movement’s assemblies offer a “radical, if not revolutionary, way of organizing. When we’re in our neighbourhoods and come together and relate in that way, it’s more like alternative governance,” she told Russian Television. In the last few weeks, the protests seemed to be as much about social transformation as protest against big banks. As one anonymous commentator on the Internet asked, “Why demand change [of Wall Street] when people can, collectively, make it obsolete?”

Here’s the big question. Is it possible the occupations were the rough drafts of a parallel civic society, decentralized but global? If, as Kohr insisted, the overgrowth of states and institutions invariably leads to a collapse, is the Occupy movement offering us a rough sketch of more humane, people-scaled way of life, in spite of all its unavoidable flaws and faux pas?

“We have accomplished so much,” enthused a woman at Occupy Vancouver, identifying herself as Kiki. “We need to prove to the world that we can take care of each other. That we don’t need the government breathing down our neck… so what we’ve basically done is build an alternative community here that provides all the same social services to people that they should be getting in Vancouver but they actually aren’t getting… we want to show people it works, and we’re actually accomplishing it.”

It’s a big claim that is easy to make in the first, flushed weeks of a newly minted movement. But this kind of enthusiasm is not without intellectual foundation. At Solari.com, Catherine Austin Fitts points out the multiplier effect of providing goods and services to the community by the community. Fitts, formerly assistant Secretary of Housing in the first Bush administration, insists that “lending circles” and other ground-up, microeconomic operations result in the circulation of wealth abundance, in the inverse of the Walmart wealth extraction model for communities.

Fitts believes the present debt-fuelled political economy is far too big to be defeated outright; it can only be “starved.” This can be accomplished by finding alternative, smaller-scale models for living, and reengineering money to serve public assets over private hoarding.

I don’t want to romanticize the Occupy movement and its members – or its embers, smoldering after judicial writs and police crackdowns. There is nothing romantic about camping out in near-zero temperatures or figuring out the next move with authorities while dealing with group dynamics and contending egos. For the movement’s foot soldiers, juggling the day-to-day problems of ground security and sanitation has been part of their tour of duty, as they offer up a vision of a parallel civil society that looks more wonky than wonkish. Their unexpected fusion of pragmatism and idealism is still completely beyond news outlets, which cannot see the forest for the tents.

Speaking of tents, we’d do well to remember there have been tent cities in major cities across the US at least since the crash of 2008 that have nothing to do with the Occupy movement. They are inhabited, in part, by scared and scarred former members of the middle class, many who have lost their homes and livelihoods to a subprime mortgage or a hospital bill. We may get the kind of occupations we deserve, depending on our willingness to confront the reality of a transnational situation that stretches from New York’s Zuccotti Park to Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Big is looking unstable these days. Big multinationals fixate on maximizing quarterly profits, with the social and ecological costs of resource extraction ignored as “externalities.” Big finance continues to measure economic progress by false metrics like the GDP, which counts a heart attack or oil spill as an economic plus. Big media swoons over a volatile stock market while amusing news-consumers to death with celebrity piffle. Big government signs off on wars for profit and private security/surveillance programs, while carving up the public sector for business interests. Perhaps its time to stop genuflecting before big and remind ourselves of the virtues of the small. That can start by supporting local networks of interdependence, whichever form they take, from workers’ cooperatives to farmers markets to credit unions to inventive new forms of public assembly.

On a cold weekday night in November, I stood on a street corner surveying a landscape of tents and tarps at Occupy Vancouver. “How are you doing in this cold?” I asked a grizzled fellow in a chair on the perimeter of the Vancouver Art Gallery grounds. “Just fine, “ he replied with a smile. “ The warmth of the beautiful people here is all I need.”

Occupy London recently staged an occupation of an abandoned UBS bank in Hackney, turning a storefront reminder of the global economic crisis into a “Bank of Ideas,” which they intend to use for teach-ins and other social events. For his part, Suresh Fernando believes the Occupy movement will continue to evolve. “ I look at this as setting up a community and mutual support and infrastructure… and transporting it somewhere else and setting up a parallel process.” The Occupy movement doesn’t have to be a fixed point in time and space, he insists.

Fernando hopes the larger public will learn to appreciate the Occupy movement as a social template rather than a slacktivist temper tantrum. The Occupy meme has been beta-tested in cities across the world, and although the movement is being hammered by violent police crackdowns in Oakland, Berkeley, New York, Denver and elsewhere, you can’t arrest an idea.

“The importance is about human beings using technology to reconnect in the real world to discuss building a better one,” says Fernando. “It’s in the physicality of this, being actually able to shake hands and being here, that’s what’s different. And that’s important from a human relationship standpoint.”

Somewhere, the spirit of forgotten Leopold Kohr is nodding in agreement. To reverse his dictum about size, whenever something is right, something is human-scale.

www.geoffolson.com

musician photo © Richard Gunion
demonstrators photo by Geoff Olson

Surviving Progress

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

We have thrived, but can we survive?

One of the main criticisms levelled at the Occupy movement has been that it is unclear what it is about. Critics have pointed to a plethora of issues – corporate greed, government debt, indigenous rights, unemployment, homelessness, ecological destruction, GMOs, climate change, and more – that seemed to be jostling for peoples’ attention. Of course, many or all of these issues are interconnected, although it seems we are still struggling to find the wherewithal to express just how.

Surviving Progress, a new documentary by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks, launching at the Rio Theatre December 2-8, does a pretty good job of just that. The film was actually made before the Occupy movement exploded onto the scene in North America. But it echoes many of the same ideas and concerns raised by Occupiers, in a series of thought-provoking interviews with leading thinkers placed within the context of the big picture of human evolution, from the primitive ape of the Ice Age to the intellectual ape of the Technology Age.

One of the key interviewees and inspiration for the film is Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress (2005), upon which the film is based. Wright suggests that, while progress generally brings improvement, sometimes it can lead to what he calls a “progress trap.” For example, when primitive man became too successful at hunting mammoths, his food supply became extinct.

This ecological theme tracks right through Surviving Progress. “Earth is finite”, we cannot overspend its “natural capital,” we are reminded by the likes of Margaret Atwood, David Suzuki, Jane Goodall, and some slick CGI sequences and flyovers depicting disappearing natural landscapes.

Yet there is a rapidly growing population around the world wanting access to the “bonanza” of resources and material wealth, as is conveyed in a tense visit to a saw mill at the edge of a Brazilian rainforest and a road trip with a convoy of Chinese nouveau riche drivers.

As Michael Hudson, former balance-of-payments economist for the Chase Manhattan Bank explains, our financial system is designed for the short-term gain of a self-governing financial class, at the expense of whole nations that are burdened with debt, poverty and ecological devastation: “They’re cutting down the rainforest, they’re emptying out the economy, they’re turning it into a hole in a ground – to repay the bankers,” he says.

Familiar territory perhaps, but the documentary is more contemplative than alarming with its soothing, minimalist soundtrack and deft editing that reinforces the idea of humanity’s interconnectedness. While there’s no denying the danger of impending ecological collapse due to humanity’s voracious expansion, the film suggests that survival is possible by transcending the “ancestral” or “reflexive” mind of our primitive hunter selves and acting together to fix the system. “We are running 21st century software – our knowledge – on hardware that hasn’t been upgraded for 50,000 years,” says Wright.

Stephen Hawking’s suggestion of interplanetary colonization and geneticist Craig Venter’s rather frightening proposition that we “write software for life… redesigning for our own survival” offer a glimpse of potential technological solutions (funded by multi-national corporations). However, the film seems to side with Jim Thomas, author of the The New Biomassters, who dismisses out of hand synthetic biology as “a progress trap par excellence.” “The microbes are going to end up laughing at them,” he says.

Ultimately, as Vaclav Smil, population scientist and author of Global Catastrophes and Trends, puts it in an irrepressible monologue, the main solution, the one that people don’t want to talk about, is not a new one: “We have to use less.” Surviving Progress is the kind of good-looking and palatable package that may help sink that elementary idea a bit deeper into our ape brains.

Robert Alstead writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.

Occupation and the co-op connection

Beyond the camps

by John Restakis

As the co-op movement in Canada gears up for celebration of the UN International Year of Co-operatives in 2012, a very different movement has burst upon the scene, taking shape and occupying plazas, parks and other urban spaces in over 2,000 cities around the world. The Occupy movement, sparked with little more than a hope and a prayer in the streets of New York, flared into a global phenomenon and gave voice to a profound sense of rage and resentment at an economic system that betrays the vast majority by enriching an ever shrinking and entitled elite. For the first time in generations, the grievances of the 99% were being voiced in terms of class and inequality and people heard what was said and knew it was true. The wonder is that it has taken so long.

Across Canada and the US, the tent camps sprouted like mushrooms. And at sites like Occupy Vancouver, the camps took on a life of their own as the media shifted attention from the grievances propelling the movement to a focus on the camps themselves. Soon, the camps became a divisive wedge that opened a gulf between the Occupiers and a growing portion of the public that had, until then, been sympathetic. Events then played out like a script. First came the ultimatums and injunctions, then came the defiant calls to resist and then came the police. We had seen this film before.

But the predictions of the movement’s demise were premature. The questions and the anger that gave rise to Occupy aren’t going away anytime soon. Secondly, the crackdown on the tent camps across the US and Canada was inevitable and the movement would sooner or later have to figure out what to do after the camps. The preoccupation with the tent camps that had come to symbolize the movement was a near fatal distraction. The main message, unclear and unfocussed at the best of times, was buried beneath the struggle to defend the camps and fend off the media attacks that focused obsessively on camp conditions, drug use and an increasing collection of homeless. Following the decamping, a space has opened up allowing the movement to reflect on its experience and to plot a strategy that will serve its purposes for the long term.

But the question is what are its purposes? Aside from the most generalized of slogans, no one could yet say what particular demands the movement has. And this has been one of the main criticisms of Occupy from friends and foes alike. Which seemed just fine with many of the Occupiers. The vagueness and diffuseness of their demands seemed in keeping with a sense that specificity or a platform would narrow what was essentially a moral cause to a set of issues that could then be attacked or discredited. Those fears are, of course, well founded, as evidenced by a recently leaked document outlining a fully developed PR campaign for the Bankers Association of America to discredit the movement. But this will happen regardless.

Another cause for the absence of focus is that a platform entailed a level of organization and cohesion not yet possible in such a grassroots and localized movement. The speed and spontaneity of the action didn’t allow the time necessary to develop and hone an organizing message. Nonetheless, one proposal to emerge was support for the campaign to get people to transfer their money from banks to credit unions.

Occupy is at a crossroads. With the demise of the camps, the movement has entered a stage that calls for a shift from the tactics of opposition to those of proposition. Those who support Occupy need to know which alternatives the movement is proposing. If not the status quo, then what? How do we realize a system that is fundamentally different? What kind of organization will allow Occupy to mobilize the power and the ideas it needs to move it forward? These are the questions that have to be grappled with.

And this is where the co-op movement comes in.

At first sight, the bank transfer campaign seemed to provide a welcome bridge between two very different political and cultural realities. On the one hand we have an Occupy movement that is young, anarchic, angry, energized, individualistic, inclusive, irreverent and deeply suspicious of leadership. The co-op movement seems like the polar opposite. It is mostly middle-aged, highly structured, very white, cautious and polite to the point of painfulness. Across such a cultural divide, what could these two movements have to offer each other? The answer, as made plain by the bank transfer campaign, is plenty.

The Occupy movement has to propose answers to the mess we are in. Not to do so merely raises the suspicion that, in fact, it has no solutions. And on this crucial point, the co-op movement is invaluable. It has the keys to a real alternative. Despite its more staid and cautious character, the co-op movement represents an economic and social model that actually embodies the values that the Occupy movement cares so deeply about. The proposal to shift money from banks to credit unions was a stroke of genius. It gave people something concrete they could do. It raised public awareness by focusing attention on a financial model that was democratic and accountable and a real alternative to the banks. Unlike the tent occupations, it was an action that everyone could be part of. Best of all, the tactic had the potential to really worry the banks.

But that’s just a start. The Occupy movement could point to the ways in which economic democracy is not only more just than capitalism, but also more viable. Co-operatives routinely outperform capitalist firms. Occupy could show that the survival rate of co-ops is double that of conventional businesses. It could highlight how credit unions, by responding to the actual needs of their members, didn’t engage in the fraudulent financial speculations that bankrupted the economy. Credit unions came through the financial crisis even stronger than before and had no need of massive public bailouts. Co-ops reduce inequality.

On a global level, the movement could point to how fair trade, based on the return of profits to small producers through their co-ops, represents an entirely different logic for international trade that isn’t based on the extraction of profit by exploiting the weak. And at a time of global economic recession, the experience of the recovered factory co-ops of Argentina, Uruguay and elsewhere shows how workers and the communities in which they live can take back control of shuttered factories and provide a living for workers and their families. And there is much, much more. With an effective research and communications strategy, Occupy Vancouver could be issuing media releases on these issues every day.

For its part, Occupy has shown the degree to which people are fed up and very pissed off. The language of Occupy captures the moral outrage that lies at the heart of the movement. It is an outrage that the co-op movement needs to recognize and to respond to, in its own right. Not to do so is to signal that the co-op movement is no longer relevant, or even worse, indifferent to the issues raised so powerfully by Occupy. To Occupy’s energy, the co-op movement can contribute solidarity and a framework for change. The two movements are like the two parts of a single equation. Both movements share a commitment to a world in which money doesn’t rule. Both aim to humanize our economy by making economics serve the well being of society and not the other way round.

What is needed here is an understanding that we don’t need to start from square one. That others before us have been where the protesters of the Occupy movement are today. The struggle against corporate greed and social injustice is not new. What is new is that we have the experience of 170 years of co-operation to see that the tenets of democracy can be applied to economics just as in politics and that they work. It is this heritage of economic democracy that is invaluable to the movement that so ardently seeks an alternative to the status quo.

The Occupy movement and the Co-op movement need to start a dialogue. There must be a conversation about how the present capitalist system can be challenged and ultimately transformed, by democratizing our economies. The Occupy movement needs to grapple with what the alternative to the present system might actually look like, be able to point to examples and be lucid in articulating a new economic model that embodies its values. And at this point in its life, Occupy needs a strategy and a structure on a scale to match its ambition. It needs leadership. In this, it can learn not only from the experience of democratic decision making in the co-op movement, but also from the experience of other movements that learned how to develop leadership and articulate demands without compromising their values. The Civil Rights movement that has served as such an inspiration for Occupy is a good example. And if the Tea Party “movement” can launch a mass march on Washington to protect the privileges of America’s 1%, could the Occupy movement do the same for the 99%?

For its part, the co-op movement has some soul searching to do. It should look carefully at what the Occupy movement has accomplished in so short a time and why. It should understand that the discontent with our present economic system is deep and wide and that the protesters have unearthed a reservoir of public feeling that is profound. And it should ask itself why, with all its resources and experience, it is not in the vanguard of such a movement.

On November 17, I was in Manhattan to witness the Day of Action called to celebrate two months of occupation in New York and to protest the violent eviction of occupiers from Zuccotti Park. Despite the vitriolic press, ridicule and ambivalence that many had felt about the tent camp, the response was powerful. As dusk came, so did New Yorkers, in the thousands. Filing down the streets and emerging from the subways, flag bearing crowds made their way to Foley Square to hear the stories of anguish and resistance told by ordinary people that had been screwed by the American Dream. At its peak, well over 20,000 strong had gathered to show their support and solidarity. And they were not just the young. It was parents and grandparents and teachers and construction workers. They were Black and Latino and Asian and living testament to the human tapestry that is America. And in that gathering dusk, as the throng began to push against the police barriers and make its way down Broadway, it felt like something had shifted, that the opening overture of the Occupy movement had been sounded and that the substance of the music was still to come.

2012 is the International Year of Co-operatives. With over one billion co-op members in 127 countries, there is much for the co-op movement to celebrate and so many successes to point to. In Canada alone, over 9,000 co-ops have more than 10 million members. Globally, co-ops and credit unions provide livelihoods to more people than all the multinationals combined. From the Vancitys and MECs of the world to the fair trade co-ops of Africa and the worker co-ops of Latin America, the co-op movement has continued to build a vision of economic democracy and social equity that was once dismissed as utopian. It has flourished and it has lessons worth learning. The co-op movement can tap into and help to articulate and give direction to the deep discontent and longing for a better future that now animates the Occupiers and their supporters around the globe. There has rarely been a better time..

For further information on the co-op movement and the UN International Year of Co-operatives in 2012, visit www.ica.coop, www.coopscanada.coop, www.bcca.coop

John Restakis is executive director of the BC Co-operative Association and author of Humanizing the Economy – Co-operatives in the Age of Capital.

Health Canada whistleblower loses job over revealing health risks

by Lyndsie Bourgon

Dr. Shiv Chopra is tireless. Speaking from his home in Ottawa, Chopra describes how he and his Health Canada colleagues were consistently harassed, reprimanded and eventually dismissed for whistleblowing on issues involving public health and food safety between 1988 and 2004.

“It’s not just our right, it’s our obligation to blow the whistle,” he says. “This is a matter of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and these freedoms are on behalf of the public, for the public.” In 1998, Chopra, Dr. Margaret Haydon and Dr. Gérard Lambert, scientists working for Health Canada, testified before the Senate, raising concerns about the controversial bovine growth hormone (rBGH) developed and manufactured (at that time) by multinational food corporation Monsanto. The drug was designed to promote milk production in dairy cattle, and testimony from the scientists led to a ban of the drug in Canada. And they didn’t stop there. Later, the group warned against carbadox, a drug that promotes growth in pigs. In 2003, before mad cow disease grabbed headlines, Chopra and Haydon called for a total ban on including animal parts in the feed of other animals. In 2001, Haydon publicly argued that a ban on beef from Brazil was focused more on politics than public health.

The scientists say that, during this time, they experienced pressure from the highest levels of bureaucracy and that this was at the behest of large corporations. Over six years, Chopra, Haydon and Lambert were reprimanded, muzzled and eventually dismissed in 2004 for insubordination.

“By dismissing us from our jobs, the government is trying to scare other public service employees so nobody else will speak out about any illegal things being done in the workplace,” says Haydon. “Since our dismissal, they have legislated new rules under the Public Service Accountability Act, administered by the Public Sector Integrity Commission, which provide no protection to whistleblowers. More than 10 years ago, we were sent to the then-new Public Service Integrity Office, which dismissed our complaint without conducting a duly proper investigation. Ten years later, we are still waiting for a proper investigation ordered by the Federal Court.”

In August 2011, the scientists’ complaints were considered at the Public Service Labour Relations Board. In a 208-page report, the Board ruled against seven of the eight grievances filed by the scientists. In one case, they agreed that Lambert was wrongly dismissed, but Chopra and Haydon remain fighting for their jobs. Chopra, Haydon and Lambert exemplify why whistleblowers should be lauded and protected. By risking their careers to keep Canadian food safe, they’ve led the way in protecting the public good.

Lyndsie Bourgon is a freelance writer in Toronto (lyndsiebourgon.com). This article originally appeared in a publication by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (cjfe.org). Reprinted with permission in Common Ground.

 


Dr. Chopra wins Integrity Award

Dr. Shiv Chopra – along with Dr. Margaret Haydon and Dr. Gérard Lambert – is a recipient of the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE’s) 2011 Integrity Award. This new award highlights the need to protect those who speak out in the public interest and reflects the commitment shown by these Canadian scientists when they informed the Canadian public about specific health dangers inherent in food production in the face of great pressure to remain silent.

“This award highlights a critical element in the struggle for free expression,” says Arnold Amber, CJFE president. “It recognizes that those who speak out against wrongdoing in the public or private sectors do so at tremendous risk, both personally and professionally.” The three scientists being presented with the inaugural Integrity Award are regarded as heroes around the world, particularly for raising concerns regarding Monsanto’s bovine grown hormone (rBGH), a drug designed to boost the milk production of dairy cattle.

These revelations triggered international headlines and resulted in rBGH being banned in Canada and most other developed countries, but also led to the three scientists being reprimanded, ordered to be silent and eventually dismissed from Health Canada. CJFE confers its Integrity Award on Canadians who act in the public interest, without thought of personal gain when they speak out about dangerous, unethical or illegal practices they learned of or experienced in the course of doing their jobs. The award highlights the right of all Canadians to take action in the public interest and their right to freedom of expression in doing so.

Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) champions the free expression rights of journalists and media workers around the world. In Canada, it monitors, defends and promotes free expression and access to information. It encourages and supports individuals and groups to be vigilant in the protection of their own and others’ free expression rights. They are active participants and builders of the global free expression community. (www.cjfe.org)

Eye exams & cheat-sheets

 

DRUG BUST by Alan Cassels

As someone who sees himself as acutely sensitive to potentially unnecessary medical treatment, it was only when I sat in front of a health professional that I realized a startling and embarrassing truth: it is extremely tough to practise what you preach.

I recognize I might not be an ordinary patient. For the book I’m writing on medical screening tests, I have interviewed experts, pored over guidelines created by dependable and authoritative bodies such as the United States Preventative Services Task Force and spoken to many patients.

This research has led me to an irrefutable conclusion: most people are naked in the medical screening marketplace. A dilemma, yes, but it also makes the raison d’être of my book clear. Consumers need to do their research and be armed with some vital questions when facing an offer of medical screening. Ignorance and screening tests can be a deadly combination so you must face such tests with your eyes wide open.

Speaking of eyes, I was recently at an optometry clinic having a routine eye exam. It was the standard optometrist stuff, with various rows of letters flashed up on the wall and me trying to prove to the optometrist that my eyesight hadn’t deteriorated since my last visit. So far so good.

But then he pulled out a tool, about as big as a telephone handset. It set my Spidey senses alight; was I was about to walk the gangplank of a screening test? Trevor, the optometrist, was reassuring. He was going to use a tool I later learned is called a non-contact tonometer to shoot a puff of air into my eyes. Our conversation went something like this:

“What’s that for? Are you doing a screening test on me?”

“Yes, it’s a screening test. It makes a little puff of air against your cornea and measures the pressure of the fluid cycling inside the eye.”

“So why do you need to know the pressure inside my eyeballs?”

“It’s just a little test to see whether the fluid in your eyeball pressure is normal or not. High pressure can lead to glaucoma, which can lead to blindness.”

“Whoa… Are you telling me you’re gonna test my eyes with something that might tell me I’ve got a chance of being blind in the future? What if my eye pressure is high?”

“Then we’d talk about what it could potentially mean and we’d do a few other diagnostic tests. Other things could cause raised pressure in your eye so we’d do more tests to rule out those things. We’d also check out the visual field. If glaucoma damage was happening, you’re going to find it symptomatically in the visual field.”

“So this is just the first slice, right, this screening test?”

“Yeah. By the way, why are you asking so many questions?”

I told him about my research and the subject of the book. I told him I know of many people hurt by simple ‘screening’ tests. People need to ask the right questions and I ashamedly admitted it’s hard to think of the right questions when you’re on the spot like this.

“It’s a pretty simple test, just a puff of air into each eyeball,” he said reassuringly.

I was definitely stalling for time, scratching my brain for more questions and eventually doing what most people do when offered a medical screening test. I gave in. He shot a puff of air in each eyeball. “Your pressure is normal,” he said and then carried on with the rest of my eye exam. Whew! ‘Normal.’ I like being normal. But what if I wasn’t?

What a piercing moment of self-realization. I was thinking about all the stories I’d heard of people getting PSA tests or mammograms, with absolutely no inkling of what they were getting into. Those tests are also simple, but when abnormal test results come back, patients are often flung headfirst into life-altering dilemmas.

But Alan, chill. It was just a puff of air to the eyes. Yet the feeling I was doing things back-assward remained. How stupid is that? Agree to the test then do your own research? Wrong, wrong, wrong.

After the eye exam, I started researching tonometry and found, not surprisingly, it wasn’t a slam-dunk. One study said finding and treating ocular hypertension reduces the risk of developing glaucoma compared with a control group. Others said there wasn’t much evidence to support it as a screening tool. Like most screening tests, a strong whiff of uncertainty hung in the air.

My conclusion was absolute: I need a cheat-sheet for the next time someone offers me a screening test, something that cuts to the basics. So here are six simple questions anyone facing a screening test should be asking. (The answers provided here are specific to the eyeball pressure test.)

1. Is this screening test recommended by a quality, independent body such as the United States Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF)?

While the USPSTF said the tonometry tests can find increased intraocular pressure (IOP), it also said the jury is still out on the evidence. Earlier detection of high eyeball pressure is not definitive in reducing the possibility you will have vision related problems in the future.

2. Can anything be done if the test does find high eyeball pressure? (Or whichever condition the test is designed to find.)

Yes, they can do other diagnostic tests to see if there is damage to the optic nerve and they can prescribe drugs, usually eye drops. This does not imply all patients with borderline or elevated eye pressure should receive medication. Higher than normal eyeball pressure is only a “risk factor” for glaucoma and many people with higher pressures never develop glaucoma. In fact, 25 to 50 percent of people with glaucoma have normal eye pressure.

3. How prevalent is the disease in question in people like me? In this case, how likely is it that someone my age is heading for glaucoma?

According to the World Glaucoma Association, glaucoma is the second most common cause of blindness worldwide but only about seven percent of all patients with glaucoma are younger than 55 years. The biggest risk factor is being old.

4. Is the test accurate?

There is uncertainty over the accuracy of tonometry because intraocular pressure changes throughout the day and the test can’t account for differences in thickness and curvature of the cornea. Operator error can always come into play. One study said the method of non-contact tonometry has a sensitivity of 22.1 percent and specificity of 78.6 percent. Sensitivity is the percentage of screened people who have the condition and are correctly identified as such. Specificity refers to the percentage of screened people who don’t have the condition and the test tells them they don’t have it.

5. Who is pushing the test and why?

Groups like the Glaucoma Foundation and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind recommend routine eye pressure checks. Drug companies that make eye drops and tonometer manufacturers would obviously like to promote this screening as much as possible. Tonometer makers promote things like World Glaucoma Day by offering free screening events and such events showcase their products. The drug maker Pfizer funds a campaign called All Eyes on Glaucoma, which recommends regular tonometry screening. Pfizer sells latanoprost or Xalatan, eye drops designed to reduce eyeball pressure.

6. If I have a positive test, what does the downstream medical treatment look like?

Not everyone who has higher than normal eyeball pressure needs eye drops. The drops can be expensive and the rules for when you should take them can be confusing. Side effects of the drugs include changes in eye colour, stinging, blurred vision, eye redness, itching and burning.

Facing an upcoming screening test? Write down these six questions on a piece of paper and stick them in your wallet. These eye exams seem simple, but not every medical screening test is as simple as a puff to the eye. It’s a good reminder you need to go into screening with your eyes wide open.

Alan Cassels is a drug policy researcher at the University of Victoria and the author of the forthcoming book Seeking Sickness, which focuses on the world of medical screening. Read more of what he’s writing about atwww.alancassels.com

No such thing as “overweight”

by Allan Lawry

Have you ever stepped off the bathroom scales and said, “Wow, how did I gain that much?” or “I didn’t think I had lost that much weight.” Chances are you may have experienced both situations, but did you ever wonder what kind of weight it was? When you gain or lose weight, it will be one or more of three body weights: bone, muscle or fat. Known as our body composition, these weights can and do change during our lives when we are: 1) sedentary; we can gain fat and lose muscle. 2) exercising; we can lose fat and gain muscle or bone. 3) dieting; it can cause muscle loss and fat gain. 4) taking bisphosphonates; (drugs for “osteoporosis”). Intake over four years can cause bone loss.

The problem with all these situations is they cannot be measured or detected by the scales, BMI (Body Mass Index) or height /weight charts. These charts are based only on your total weight, not the bone, muscle or fat that can change inside your body and which can only be measured accurately by a DEXA X-ray body composition scanner.

Bone is given a density score called a T-score. Muscle is measured as part of your Lean G score, and fat is measured as a percentage of your overall weight. The new goal of weight control is for you to be in the recommended ranges for each category. If you achieve these goals, you have what is now called a “healthy weight.” For example, here are the scan results of a female, with a healthy weight, who came to see me in 2007.

T-Score; 1.6
Lean G; 32,000 g.
Fat; 33%

One year earlier, she was diagnosed as being “overweight” by her MD who was using the BMI charts. She felt hesitant about the diagnosis and was shocked when the doctor recommended the weight loss drug, orlistat, a fat blocker that offers minimal results with nasty side effects. My client was relieved about the new way to diagnose weight conditions and felt fine with her body image. Since that initial scan, she has gone on to lose 10 pounds of fat and gain four pounds of muscle while maintaining her bone density. These results keep her in a good range and are based on science, not on recommendations by the medical, pharmaceutical or weight loss business.

This is important because the only weight you may want or need to lose is fat weight, not muscle or bone, which is healthy vital tissue, no matter how much you have in your body. Be aware of any program or products that promote weight loss. You must know what kind of weight you need to gain or lose. I have seen people lose muscle and bone while gaining fat on many of these types of programs. Because everyone is unique, you will benefit from a program based on your personal needs and goals.

Armed with this knowledge, you begin to realize there is no such thing as overweight, underweight or ideal weight. Terms such as weight loss, losing weight and gaining weight lose their meaning and are replaced with a new awareness about your body and how you can take care of it. You can take control of your weight with knowledge, assertiveness and a good plan of action.

Allan Lawry is a lifestyle and fitness coach in Vancouver. For more info on the Healthy Weight Program, contact 604-220-7188, info@alfitness.ca