Archive for July, 2008

Alternative Energy in the Media

July 28, 2008

As the world struggles with the rising price of oil, the media is awash with optimistic stories about the efforts of scientists to discover a cheap, abundant energy source that could replace fossil fuels. The idea is seductive: human ingenuity will soon discover a way to fuel our growth-based economy, and nothing will have to change except the products we buy. We may have to swap our petroleum cars with hydrogen cars, or heat our homes with wood pellets instead of oil, but the private sector will surely find a way to keep producing all that stuff we crave.

Here are a few ideas that have been turning heads in the news:

Moon gas

NASA plans to set up a permanent base on the moon – in part to mine for Helium-3. According to science reporters, Helium-3 fusion is a very promising source of energy. Ouyang Ziyuan, the chief scientist of China’s lunar program, hopes to beat them to it:  “We will provide the most reliable report on Helium-3 to mankind! Whoever conquers the moon will benefit first!” he says.   Russian space geologist Erik Galimov frets that NASA’s moon colony will “enable the U.S. to establish its control of the global energy market 20 years from now and put the rest of the world on its knees as hydrocarbons run out.” I know, it sounds like something you’d overhear in the bar at a science fiction convention, but it’s not! These are real government scientists!

All we need to do, they say, is build a permanent settlement on the moon, discover a way to freeze He-3 for transport and invent commercial scale fusion reactors to turn it into energy, and we could be up and running in about 50 years!

You might think 50 years is a long time to wait, what with energy prices increasing exponentially every year, but there’s no need to worry, because huge advances are being made in the field of…

Pond scum

After decades of algae research, it is now possible to grow a tonne of the stuff for only $5000 – enough to extract two barrels of vegetable oil – enough to tide a typical American over for a month. The Wall Street Journal acknowledges that, if pond scum oil remains at $2500 a barrel “the price of crude oil would have to rise considerably above $130 a barrel for algae from these closed systems to be competitively priced”.

Nevertheless, pond scum coverage in the mainstream media is almost unanimously optimistic. The Edmonton Sun reports that “in the renewable energy world, the scum of ponds is being hailed as the latest, great answer to the global oil crisis and climate warming.” Australia’s The West raves that “Motorists sick of soaring petrol prices could soon be filling up on pond scum if groundbreaking Perth research succeeds!” “You know that greenish tinge the swimming pool gets when you run out of chlorine? The same one that showed up when the filter on the fish tank broke?” asks the Chicago Tribune “What if you could use that to run your car?”

Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I can afford to pay $5000 a month to meet my energy needs with pond scum, so I was delighted to see that great leaps have been made in creating biofuel from…


A British company has patented a process that can produce 400 litres of ethanol from one tonne of dry organic waste.  I did some poking around and hauled out my calculator and learned that a Canadian who drives 30 km per day will need to produce about six times more organic waste than today’s average to run a vehicle on 100% recycled rubbish.

But don’t worry, because those who are unable to generate two extra tonnes of garbage every year can always turn to…

The surplus wine and cheese of royals

Prince Charles has been widely praised in the media for converting several Jaguars, an Audi and a Range Rover to run on biofuel made from used cooking oil. He’s also had his Aston Martin adapted to run on wacky royal moonshine distilled from wine and cheese. That’s “surplus” wine, mind you – something you’re unlikely to find at any dinner party I’ve ever been to. Some environmentalists might moan that surely owning an entire fleet of personal automobiles is not “environmentally conscious” no matter what they run on, but you can’t expect royals to take the bus with the rest of us peasants.

Looking at these stories, it seems the media would have us believe the solution to fossil fuel depletion and global warming is right around the corner. All we need to do is kick back, relax, and wait to be rescued by capitalism. One day we might be called upon to trade our mini-vans for moon-gas-fusion-reactor-propelled jet cars, but until then, there is nothing we need to do, because capitalism has it all under control.

I get the distinct impression, though, that the single greatest advance in the field of alternative energy is the ability to secure research funds. One thing you can count on in this day and age is that if you have some energy-related notion, no matter how preposterous, investors are tripping over themselves to finance your business venture.

What is utterly lacking in the mainstream media is coverage of alternative thinking. We love to assume we can continue forever with our cherished model of exponential growth. We can’t bear to consider the possibility we may one day have to consume less and abandon the growth-based economy.

Nevertheless, we will one day be forced to level off – even to retreat. That basic fact is made starkly clear in this video. I don’t know if it’s “The Most Important Video You’ll Ever See”, but it’s certainly the most engaging math lecture I’ve ever seen.

Dr. Albert A. Bartlett does a fine job of proving that the crucial question facing us today is not “what new fuel technology can replace fossil fuels, now that they’re running out?” The question we must face is, “Will we change the way we think and begin to consume less on our own terms, or will we continue to assume there is no limit to the earth’s ability to sustain us – and face the unknown banquet of consequences that will inevitably result from our unchallenged assumption the earth’s bounty is limitless?”

I’m all for innovation, research and technology, but this mad dash to discover some form of energy that can replace fossil fuels is ill-conceived. Until every energy consuming home is fitted with a solar panel or a wind turbine; until every community is able, locally and organically, to produce enough food to sustain themselves, our attention and resources are being dangerously misdirected by this quest to replace fossil fuels.

Maybe one day science might discover a form of energy as cheap and abundant as oil, but it seems unlikely this will happen any time soon. So wouldn’t it be more prudent to make the best use of the technology we have already and begin to build communities that don’t need cheap and abundant energy to survive? If we can pull that off, the discovery of a replacement will be a pleasant surprise. If we can’t, and science fails to deliver, the consequences are likely to be dire.


Can the Private Sector Solve Canada’s Health Care Problems?

July 24, 2008

I found this nifty interactive research tool at the World Health Organisation website:

This gigantic statistical database allows you to assemble a table of health care standards and expenses by country, using the countries, indicators and years of your choosing. It’s pretty buggy but I’ve discovered it’s useful for winning arguments against those who advocate the privatisation of health care.

Like, for example, the number one fanboy of the American way of doing absolutely everything, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen “It’s past time the feds scrapped the Canada Health Act” Harper.

The number one argument for the health care privatisation movement in Canada is: “the private sector is more innovative, cost-effective, fiscally responsible and efficient than the public sector”. (The number one method of establishing the factuality of this theory is repeating it over and over and over again ad infinitum until even people who generally consider themselves “critical thinkers” suddenly hear it coming out their own mouths.)

But is it? Is it really? Thanks to this WHO database we can have a look at the cost-effectiveness, fiscal responsibility and efficiency of our universal health care system and the American system Harper’s Conservatives covet so hungrily, side by side.

The following statistics are from 2005, which is the most recent year for which this data appears to be available:

Government expenditure on health as a percentage of total health expenditure:
Canada: 70.2% United States 45.1%

Hospital beds per 10,000 population:
Canada: 34 United States: 32

Infant Mortality rate per 1000 population:
Canada: 5 United States: 7

Maternal Mortality per 100,000 live births:
Canada: 7 United States: 11

Per capita total (government + private) expenditure on health:
Canada: $3463 United States: $6347

Life expectancy at birth:
Canada: 81 United States: 78

I was sitting around reflecting upon how absurd it is that Americans pay more than double what Canadians pay for their health care, receive worse care, die three years sooner, and ferociously argue against universal health care using Canada as a symbol of its dangers, when something very interesting jumped out at me.

I never realised the US government pays for ANY health care, let alone 45% of total health care expenditures. I thought, due to my leftist prejudice, that the government just left sick people completely at the mercy of the private sector. So for a moment I was pretty impressed. But then math kicked in again, just as it did when I was contemplating Labour’s welfare reform plans.

70.2% of $3463 is $2431.03
45.1% of $6347 is $2862.50

What does this mean?

The US government already spends $431.47 more per capita on health care than the Canadian government.

So Americans are actually paying more through their taxes for health care, and then paying that much again (and then some) out of their own pockets, and still receiving worse care than Canadians. On top of it all they are regularly bankrupted by medical expenses.

That surprised me so much I checked it three times. Then I had my genius boyfriend check it too. Conventional wisdom doesn’t seem to question the assumption that, whatever the faults of the American health care system, at least it’s cheaper for taxpayers.

But, unless the WHO database is so buggy it’s giving me false statistical information, that’s the how it is:

Americans shoulder a heavier tax burden for health care than Canadians.

So much for the efficiency, effectiveness and fiscal responsibility of the private sector in providing health care, eh?

James Purnell: Back to the Workhouse, Peasant!

July 21, 2008

According to the mathematically challenged Andrew Woodcock of the Independent, Purnell has proposed to raise the employment rate in the UK from 75% to 80% by getting “thousands of people off benefits and into work.”

Let’s look closely at this assertion: the UK’s 74.9% employment rate translates into about 29,590,000 jobs, according to UK census data. So since I know math, I could pop out my calculator and figure out what a 5 % increase in employment would amount to, considering this fact, and it’s this: One million, nine hundred seventy five thousand, three hundred jobs. Not “thousands” of jobs, but nearly two million jobs.

Now, also according to the UK census, there are not two million jobs going. This is painfully obvious to anyone in the UK currently looking for work, like for example the 5,400 building contractors who have lost their jobs this year. In June, 655,100 vacancies were advertised, and I would bet my own cushy government job the unemployed workers on Job Seekers Allowance and the infirm, illiterate, insane or drug addicted people on Incapacity Benefits are not going to be very lucky competing with people like me for those jobs.

Anyone with a calculator and a single synaptic nerve’s worth of common sense can plainly see the private sector will not suddenly manifest these two million extra jobs out of thin air while the UK’s economic growth for next year is projected at about one percent. So let’s look at what this strategy is likely to accomplish in an economic reality where these two million extra jobs do not exist, and are not likely to be created any time soon:

1: Workers on Incapacity Benefits will be required to see doctors appointed for the specific job of assessing the unemployed and their ability to work in addition to their existing, medically legitimate doctors’ visits. Their own GPs will not be consulted, so we can assume this will be a superficial and invasive check-up by a strange doctor who is totally unfamiliar with the patient’s medical history. As it’s likely that the welfare doctor’s own livelihood will depend on meeting government-set targets for deeming sick people fit to work, we can expect he or she will be disinclined to let anyone off who is capable of so much as folding an envelope without putting out an eye. Also, since these doctor visits are medically non-essential, you can expect additional costs and strain for the NHS, but there will still be the same number of jobs available in the UK. So, we can expect additional stress and dehumanisation for the infirm and incapacitated , additional strain on health care budgets, and zero impact on joblessness.

2: Purnell also plans to incrementally crank up the pressure on unemployed workers (let’s think of them as the UK’s 5,400 newly minted out-of-work builders) in three month intervals by reducing aid and penalizing them for refusing any work proposed by private agencies, so that gradually their benefits are choked to nothing, regardless of whether or not they have found a job. Setting aside the issue of whether or not cutting a man off benefits is the same thing as creating a job out of nowhere in the middle of a recession, this picture should deeply disturb anyone who believes in human dignity. Bureaucrats will be lecturing many thousands of bankers and builders who have lost their jobs or businesses due to the current economic downturn to scrape gum off the streets in exchange for their benefits check.  (Astute observers have pointed out this amounts to forcing people to work for a fraction of the minimum wage.)  As these kinds of jobs already exist, this will not result in two million new jobs required to meet government targets – it will result in the existing paid gum-scrapers being laid off as private contractors snap up these contracts to help the government enforce their unpaid working scheme.  So, we can expect increased dehumanisation, depression and stress for people on benefits, the transformation of awful paid work into awful mandatory volunteering, and zero impact on joblessness.

3: The government will pay private, for-profit companies from the public purse for placing disabled people and skilled workers in jobs they don’t want. So we can expect a large shift of public money away from public services and into the pockets of private businesses, increased dehumanisation of the unemployed and disabled, and zero impact on joblessness.

Perhaps you are of the opinion that being forced by the government to scrape gum off the streets for minimum wage is not a complete and utter humiliation (not to mention a lamentable waste of skills) for an unemployed bricklayer or electrician who would otherwise be looking for building work. But even those who insist that any job is better than none can surely see that the minimum wage jobs these people will inevitably be stuck into by the private, for-profit placement agencies proposed by the government will be the same ones that used to be the jobs of teenagers. Didn’t we all enter the workforce via awful, humiliating, gruelling and tedious minimum wage jobs? Jobs we hated? Jobs that infused us with a passion to look for other jobs in a way no finger-wagging bureaucrat ever could? Jobs we vowed never to return to, even if it meant sleeping under a bridge?

It’s obvious that forcing job seekers and the infirm off benefits is not going to create two million new jobs. And we can reasonably assume that the private agencies contracted to find work for welfare recipients, and paid per placement, will not be placing people in the types of jobs anybody who is currently in the workforce wants to compete for. Therefore, we can reasonably conclude that a large portion of the two million government-appointed menial jobs Purnell intends to force upon out of work and infirm adults are going to be the same jobs teenagers actually want to do. So we can expect to see an increase in unemployed teenagers who are not able to enter the workforce due to direct competition with people who don’t even want those shitty jobs to begin with. But hey! At least teenagers can keep living with their parents – forever! Or at least until they qualify for Job Seekers allowance, at which point they might be able to get a foot in the door with their government-appointed, mandatory, menial gum-scraping job that is not of their choosing.

What kind of “Labour” party is this?

The Welfare Green Paper is available here.

A Typical Day in an English Workhouse

A Typical Day in an English Workhouse

How to Stick it to the Man (With a Trowel)

July 20, 2008

On Friday afternoon I went to see The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil. The jist was, due to the collapse of the Soviet Union the US embargo, Cuba woke up one morning and couldn’t get any oil. At the time, they were doing things the way the rest of us are now: monoculture farming using tractors, pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and importing tonnes of food. So they had a major food crises, as all of us who have subscribed to the “green revolution” will be when the oil taps inevitably turn off. Cuba, though, over the course of about three or four years, was able to avoid total calamity by converting almost entirely to organic methods, crop rotation, urban agriculture and local production.

This has struck a giant gong in my anarchic heart: The most subversive thing you will ever do is to pop in a vegetable garden.

By growing your own food you can simultaneously give the finger to Big Oil, GMO producers, giant supermarket chains, resource warmongers and the forces of economic globalisation. No sign-wielding, bandana-wearing, hoodie-clad angry protesters could ever accomplish the amount of significant social change as a bunch of North American suburbanites trading in their lawns for gardens.

I don’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed. All these years of frustration with a string of governments in the thrall of corporate interests, and it turns out the answer to all my anarchist yearnings has always been, literally, right under my nose. My octogenarian grandmother with her little vegetable patch is more effectively subversive in one half hour of bashing slugs with a rock than I have been in a lifetime of jaywalking and not bothering to fill out my tax returns.

As one of the Cubans in the documentary commented, “If you want political freedom, first you have to have economic freedom.” At the most fundamental level, that primarily means being able to feed ourselves without the help of Monsanto, Halliburton, Loblaws, Shell and Caterpillar. As long as we are utterly dependent on multinational corporations and international trading for our food, our governments will invariably act in the interest of multinational corporations and work toward lowering international trade barriers – instead of protecting vital ecosystems, promoting strong local economies and establishing viable energy alternatives (almost all of which, apart from nuclear power and hydrogen fuel cells, place the power quite literally in the hands of the people.)

Monsanto does not want people collecting seeds and eating organic food. Halliburton does not want to see an end to petroleum resource wars. Loblaws does not want to see produce kiosks selling locally grown food springing up in every community. Shell and Caterpillar do not want to see you out in your backyard with a hoe. These corporations ARE the food supply. They have tremendous political power as a result, and no mainstream political party in Canada, the US or the UK is likely to do anything that might cause discomfort to any of them, so it’s futile to wait for our governments to act. Oil demand is rising and oil production has leveled off and will soon begin to fall. This means the price of oil – and food – will continue to rise.

Obviously we need to get off this oil train, and the sooner the better, as it’s plain to see there is a bridge out up ahead. Matt Simmons has predicted that with a significant oil shortage, Americans will run out of food in about a week.

So if you have so much as a window box, now is the time to start growing potatoes.

Photo of the day

July 13, 2008

“I’m an American. I need to fill up my god damn truck”

July 12, 2008

By far the most reasoned and coherent anti-global warming argument I’ve ever come across:

Global Warming Debunked in 3 Minutes

The Gospel According to the neo-Cons

July 11, 2008

If an updated version of the Bible were available that reflects the values of  the George Bushes and Tony Blairs of this world, this is what the Sermon on the Mount might look like:

You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you who hear me: Demand a head for an eye. Hate your enemies, crush those who hate you, destroy those who curse you, obliterate those who disagree with you. If someone strikes you on the one cheek, not only should you strike back with extreme prejudice, you should also strike a few of their friends and neighbours – otherwise you might get your other cheek struck and that would be totally unacceptable. Never under any circumstances allow anything to be taken from you: it’s yours and you earned it. Cloak-takers and borrowers are just lazy and jealous of your success. If the meek somehow get something off you anyway, fight like hell to get it back. Do unto others whatever is necessary to force them to submit to your authority.

I think I might do a series of updates for evangelicals and charismatics.  Just need to get my hands on a Bible somehow…

If Ottawa giveth, then Ottawa can taketh away…

July 10, 2008

What happened to the free and open exchange of information when the president of a secretive conservative propaganda foundation won control of the Canadian federal government?

The Toronto Star investigates with a pretty good series of articles.

“This is the Prime Minister’s Office calling. I have the Prime Minister’s chief of staff on the line. Please hold.”

As I stood in my new, empty apartment in Ottawa a few weeks after the last election, phone in hand, it occurred to me I might want to remember this call. So, I made notes, scarcely believing the words I was recording.

Stephen Harper’s right-hand man, Ian Brodie, head of the most powerful and secretive PMO in national history, was telling me what I would be doing in the next few hours. You will issue a media release, he said, praising the Prime Minister for appointing David Emerson to cabinet. And you will immediately stop writing your blog.

But Brodie, the former Reform party organizer and University of Western Ontario professor, did not stop there. “If you want to be a f—ing independent,” he said, “then go ahead. We can arrange that.” And he was gone.

Welcome to Mr. Harper’s Ottawa.

This is a world in which a member of Parliament, sent by the people to represent them, is cowed and threatened by an unelected staffer. It’s a place where a political party can silence internal debate and, in a hasty few moments, overthrow the results of an election.

It’s where Harper MPs are told they need permission from the PMO to speak to reporters, and are expected to carry wallet cards reminding them how to avoid the media. It’s a capital in which promised free votes don’t take place, where a government elected on openness fights to restrict access to information and public servants fear for their careers if they dare speak in the public interest. Where regulators are fired for seeking to regulate and federal scientists muzzled for talking about science. Where MPs like myself and Bill Casey are expelled for speaking, and former cabinet minister Michael Chang demoted for having convictions.

~Garth Turner, ex-Conservative MP, Halton (blog)

Well, what did we expect?

Speaking of Lawsuits

July 9, 2008

If Grisham and Kafka collaborated on a novel, it would look something like this:

Suing George W. Bush

If you, like me, have absorbed your understanding of the US legal system primarily from re-runs of Law and Order, prepare to be very surprised, amused and amazed by reality.

The Immigrant Problem

July 9, 2008

Growing up in suburban Calgary I was friends with neighbourhood girls whose parents were from Trinidad, India and China. When I got older I got engaged to a guy whose parents were from Guatemala and became life-long friends with a girl from Iran. I have never thought of my friends as anything other than Canadians despite the fact their parents have funny accents.

Later, I lived in Toronto, a city with a population that is 45.7% foreign-born according to the 2006 census. I lived there during the 2002 World Cup, which was a blast. No matter who won, there was rejoicing in the streets after every game. I did not hear anyone grumbling about the multicultural nature of the city.

When I moved to Montreal I met a handful of Quebec nationalists who insisted stubborn immigrants who refuse to integrate are threatening Quebec’s cultural heritage, and once in a while I bumped into Albertans who insist that immigrants on welfare are responsible for Canada’s high taxes, or heard inflammatory mutterings from members of the Reform Party (now the Conservative Party). In my experience, though, racist outbursts are the the exception rather than the rule.

Then I immigrated to the UK. Holy smokes! Are immigrants ever ruining the country over here! I’ve never heard such a shower of spontaneous tirades as I have since moving to Cornwall. Foreigners are destroying the health service, stealing English jobs (whenever they can fit it into their busy schedule of collecting welfare checks), threatening national security and generally criming around like it’s the End of Days.

As much as I, an immigrant, enjoy being treated to an earful of venom about foreigners, I do sometimes try to bring some perspective to the conversation. I wave my arms about to draw attention to myself and say “Helloooooo! Over here!” (translation: “I’m an immigrant and I find this conversation offensive”). They look at me queerly, as if I’ve grown an extra arm in the middle of my forehead, then assure me that of course I’m not that sort of immigrant they’re talking about. They like me. Never mind that I personally stole an English job, engage in criminal behavior (magic mushrooms are a class A drug here even though they grow all around), and could go to a hospital for free if I were so inclined.

The most peculiar thing about this pervasive English attitude is that as far as I can tell there are no immigrants in Cornwall apart from myself, one Indian family and two Chinese families. I swear to God they are the only other foreigners I have seen in over a year of gadding about the South West coast. They work in two restaurants (one Chinese and one Indian) and a Chinese herbal medicine shop, so they haven’t even stolen English jobs – they made their own.

The last time I was exposed to an immigration tirade, I asked the anguished kvetcher “So tell me: Apart from myself, how many immigrants do you trip over in the course of your daily business?” He spluttered a while and finally said “Well they’re not down here, they’re upcountry. Wait’ll you see what it’s like in London”.

So I went up to London – a city diverse enough to rival Toronto. I saw many people I suspected might be immigrants until I heard their cockney accents. As I assume those who are born and raised in England are English, I was not able to ascertain by strolling through Seven Sisters whether London is rife with immigrants or not. So I went to a barbeque and asked some proper pasty-looking Londoners “so what do you think about the immigrant problem?”

The unanimous concensus among those I asked was that immigration is the lifeblood of London’s economy and culture, and the very suggestion immigrants might be causing problems was offensive in the extreme. In fact, immigrants are working in conditions English people would never tolerate, which enables English businesses to continuously lower their bottom line while increasing profits. (Granted, I asked a pack of lesbians who may represent more progressive views than the average Londoner, and as it turned out, two of them were Dutch ).

Anyway, all this has got me thinking: how ironic it is that the British, of all people, should be so indignant about masses of foreigners moving into somebody else’s country and cocking everything up. Maybe when devious hoards of immigrants turn up in Cornwall handing out blankets purposely infected with an incurable disease, or start abducting English children to indoctrinate them in their foreign ways I will concur that the locals have reasonable cause for concern.