Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for May, 2008

The Federation of the World

Sunday, May 25th, 2008

When commentators and reporters describe people like me as “anti-globalization,” I get annoyed.

“Globalization” in its true sense is not a set of policies or institutional initiatives. It is simply a fact. How can one oppose the movement of the air, sushi, the circulation of the oceans, the Internet, the migration of birds, the world-wide circulation of ideas? The world has become very small, and each of us is connected to all of it.

What I do oppose – what millions like me oppose – is a global conspiracy of institutions which give priority to money over human beings. I oppose a “harmonization” of trade rules and regulations which means that commerce trumps working conditions, health-care and the environment. I oppose a system which empowers unelected officials, meeting in secret and accountable to no one, to determine the conditions under which you and I will live our lives.

But I am entirely in favour of bringing democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq, if that is what their people want.(Did anyone think to ask them?) I am even more in favour of bringing democracy to the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the G8, and the people of North America.

One of the great oddities of economic globalization – which really amounts to economic and social homogenization – is that so many of its enthusiasts have little concept of the rich complexity and variety of the world as it is. “Globalization” seems to be driven by people as ignorant as George W. Bush, who had travelled outside the United States only once before he became president.

And I am struck by the fact that the “anti-globalization” forces are so often led by people who really do know the larger world – people who have travelled widely, and have often lived abroad as teachers, journalists, health-care workers and students.

The barons of industry and their servants in government have created global organizations to serve their interests. The rest of us don’t have such resources. So we create small organizations to fight on a local scale – issue by issue, event by event, town by town. Paul Hawken recently estimated that the world’s people have created nearly two million organizations actively engaged with environmental and social justice issues. But we don’t have a commanding voice on the world stage.

That may be about to change. Last year, an international coalition of civil society organizations and prominent individuals launched a campaign to establish a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly. The UN General Assembly provides a forum only for the national governments of the world. The UNPA, by contrast, would be a place where the world’s people could be directly represented. It would begin – like the European parliament – as a consultative body made up of parliamentarians from around the world. It could evolve – again, like the European parliament – into a directly-elected World Parliament with gradually-increasing powers and authority.

Among the Canadians calling for a UN Parliamentary Assembly are Lloyd Axworthy, Flora MacDonald, Romeo Dallaire, Elizabeth May, Lois Wilson, Warren Allmand, Allan Blakeney and Douglas Roche. You could hardly find a more distinguished group of internationally-minded Canadians – two foreign ministers and a solicitor-general, our most revered soldier, a former president of the World Council of Churches, an ambassador for disarmament, the leader of the Greens.

The appeal has been endorsed by the Liberal International, the Socialist International and the Global Greens. It’s been signed by parliamentarians from 113 countries, by 108 civil society organizations, and by a growing number of eminent individuals like Boutros Boutros-Ghali. You can see the list – and sign up yourself – at www.unpacampaign.org.

The idea is gaining some traction. Last July, our own House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development called on Canada’s Parliament to “give favourable consideration to the establishment of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly,” noting that Canada could be the first nation to endorse the proposal.

It’s time. We all breathe the same altered air, sail the same rising seas, drink the water that falls from the moving clouds. Emissions from Nova Scotian smokestacks and tailpipes compromise the polar bear’s habitat, cause emphysema in Moscow and drown the island nations of the Pacific. We need political connections to match our natural connections.

In 1835, in a prophetic poem called “Locksley Hall,” Lord Tennyson foresaw commercial air travel, and aerial battles between the “airy navies” of the nations raining down a “ghastly dew” of bombs. All of that has come to pass. But Tennyson also imagined a day when
…the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.

The federation of the world – Tennyson’s dream – has not come to pass. But if we are to survive, it must. A parliamentary assembly of the peoples of the world would be a huge step forward.

– 30 –

Greening a Government

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

“Here’s a statistic that shocked me,” says Environment Minister Mark Parent. “I was at a meeting in Brazil, and I learned that Brazil has about 4000 kilometers of coastline. Nova Scotia has about 10,000 kilometers – 12,000 if you include the Bras d’Or Lakes. We have three times as much coastline as Brazil.”

That startled me, too. I knew that our intricate filigree of a coastline was pretty extensive, but 12,000 km. is huge – three times the distance between the east and west coasts of Canada.

I wanted to talk with the Minister about protecting that gorgeous, complex coastline, which may be vulnerable precisely because there is so much of it. We don’t think to guard something so abundant, any more than we think about declaring spruce trees an endangered species.

But there is a danger, all the same. The Maritimes have almost the only remaining large stretches of wild coast in eastern North America, and development is steadily nibbling away at it.

Mark Parent is the minister responsible for protecting and extending Nova Scotia’s wilderness areas. The government has announced its intention to have 12% of the province’s land mass under protection by 2015. That objective is enshrined in the ambitious Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act, known to its friends as “EGSPA.”

The government seems to be quite serious about this. Last summer, the province created the Blandford Nature Reserve in Lunenburg County, and also acquired 10,000 hectares of high-value forest land in southwest Nova Scotia from Bowater Mersey Paper. Last fall, it established the 1350-ha. Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Area adjacent to the Bayers Lake Industrial Park in Halifax. That swath of land is three times the size of Vancouver’s Stanley Park and more than 20 times as large as our own Point Pleasant Park. It contains 18 lakes, more than 50 wetlands, old-growth pine forests, mainland moose and 150 species of birds.

This is a stunning gift to the future – and the province recently nominated an area ten times larger for protection. The 14,000 ha. Ship Harbour Long Lake tract behind the Eastern Shore is one of the last large roadless areas on the Nova Scotia mainland, with river corridors, old-growth forests, plenty of wildlife and more than 50 lakes. Public consultations are going on now – to participate, visit http://www.gov.ns.ca/nse/protectedareas/ – but the tract is expected to be protected by the autumn.

One problem with land conservation in Nova Scotia, the Minister notes, is that we have so little Crown land. Assembling land for protection thus requires much patient negotiation and accommodation with private landowners. About 70% of our land mass is privately owned. On the coast, that figure rises to 95%.

So what about shorelines? Seventy percent of Nova Scotia’s population lives along the shore, in 360 coastal communities, and 14% of the province’s jobs rely on coastal activity. Nobody in the province lives more than 65 km. from the sea. All Nova Scotians, essentially, are people of the coast.

Mark Parent agrees. Nova Scotia, he says, “is defined by its coastline.” But aside from snippets of shoreline within protected areas, he has no mandate to deal with shorelines. The government’s proposed coastal management plan is being developed under the leadership of the Department of Fisheries.

Say that again? Fisheries departments are generally focussed on enhancing the fishery, not on preserving the environment. Similarly, as I found when I was researching the Zenn car, the Department of Transportation assesses electric vehicles on the basis of highway safety. Nothing requires that they consider environmental benefits.

“I know,” nods the Minister. “I get a lot of stuff coming to me that belongs to other ministries like Transportation – bike paths, speed limits and so on. My department will participate in the coastal management plan, but what we really need is a culture shift so that all departments appreciate the environmental aspects of their activities.

“It’s actually a horizontal challenge in a vertical structure. Government departments stand beside each other like silos – but environmental issues are global, they don’t respect departmental boundaries or any other boundaries. The environment cuts across everything. You can’t care for the economy without caring for the environment.”

This is the “huge challenge and opportunity” that prompted the Premier to propose EGSPA and other innovations like the Green Deputies, a forum of deputy ministers who meet regularly to discuss environmental questions across departmental lines.

So the Department of Environment must not only manage its own programs, but also influence the entire agenda of the government — ?

The Minister smiles. He is actually two ministers in one – a minister of the Crown, and also a minister of the Baptist church..

“Yes,” he says. “Our role is to be the leaven that leaventh the lump.”

– 30 —

Silver Donald Cameron’s books, including The Living Beach, are available at www.capebretonbooks.com

Zenn and the Art of Green Driving

Sunday, May 11th, 2008

Rick Mercer is bombing around the streets of St. Jerome, Quebec in a jaunty little hatchback, making driving sounds: Rrrrmmm! Brrrrr….! He finds it unsettling, eerie, to drive a car that doesn’t make any noise at all, that operates in silence. As his passenger, Ian Clifford, remarks, driving down the street on a summer day with the windows open, you can listen to the birds singing.

This is the Zenn car. “Zenn” stands for Zero Emissions, No Noise. It’s an electric car – clean, quiet, compact, cheap. The wave of the future. A real weapon against global warming.

“Remind me again, what did John Baird say the first time he took this for a test spin, the Environment Minister?” asks Mercer. Clifford laughs and shakes his head.

“John hasn’t been in one.”

“Ah, hasn’t been in one!” cries Mercer. “And the Minister of Transport?”

“Ditto,” says Clifford.

You can watch this revealing dialogue on YouTube. As The Economist recently noted, Canada is a world leader in manufacturing electric cars – and Canadian governments seem intent on throwing our lead away.

The Zenn is a Low Speed Vehicle (LSV) built in St. Jerome for a Toronto-based company headed by Ian Clifford – a graduate, incidentally, of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. An LSV is designed to operate on roads with speed limits of 50km/h. It can carry two passengers and a week’s worth of groceries – in Mercer’s case, 20 cases of beer and one box of cereal. It travels up to 80 km on a “tank” of electricity, which costs 32 cents. When it’s “empty,” you plug it into the wall and let it recharge, just like a cell phone. A full recharge takes about four hours.

You won’t be the terror of the freeways in this little bucket, but that’s not what it’s for. It’s an urban vehicle, and it could make a remarkable impact on urban congestion and air quality. You could drive it all day on city errands and never run out of power. Plug it in at night and it’s fully-charged in the morning. It costs about a penny a mile to operate – about one-tenth of the cost of a normal car. In the US, where they are approved for use in 44 states, Zenns sell for about $16,000.

So why can’t I buy one?

Transport Canada is doubtful about the safety of LSVs, arguing that they would come off badly in a collision with a dump truck or a Hummer. Perhaps – but so would a motor scooter or a bicycle, both of which operate now on Canadian roads. In the US, where 45,000 LSVs are already operating, these micro-cars have had a zero death rate.

Rationally, it would be far better to ban the Hummer than the Zenn. After all, urban air pollution, mainly from vehicles, kills at least 5900 Canadians every year. The figure comes from Environment Canada – John Baird’s department. But those slow, terrible, gasping deaths leave no gore on the asphalt – so somehow they don’t count.

One could argue – people do – that in a province with electricity as dirty as Nova Scotia’s, an electric car simply pushes the pollution farther upstream. The car doesn’t pollute, but the power plant does. That’s true, but the Zenn is still a vast improvement. One expert calculates that the average vehicle emits 0.23 kg of CO2 per kilometer. A Hummer emits almost twice as much (0.4) and a Prius less than half (0.1). Even in Nova Scotia, the net emission from a Zenn would be .07 – 30% less than a Prius.

Transport Canada wants LSVs restricted to “controlled areas” like golf clubs, campuses, parks and military bases. Happily, that decision isn’t entirely up to them, because the provinces decide for themselves which vehicles can use provincial roads. One province, British Columbia, has already approved LSVs. Manitoba intends to. Nova Scotia could follow suit.

Will it? And if so, when?

Mike Balsom, an engineer with the Department of Transportation, says that the Zenn is one of several creative and surprising “emerging vehicles” – the TRX, the Dynasty Electric Car, the CanAm Spyder and others. The government is just developing a system for evaluating such novelties, which challenge the existing definition of a motor vehicle. And yes, the intense public interest in the Zenn “will force all jurisdictions to address the emergence of new vehicle technologies.” Including Nova Scotia.

So when will we see the Zenn in Halifax? Mike Balsom smiles. He is an engineer, not a prophet. Even if the car were approved tomorrow, the process would still take eight to 12 months. The earliest we could hope for would be early 2009.

Okay. I’ll settle for that. But let’s get cracking. The future is here already.

– 30–

Anticipating Iolanthe

Sunday, May 4th, 2008

I could not have been much more than ten when my father took me by the hand and led me into the wicked, winsome world of Gilbert and Sullivan – a world I still find magical beyond the dreams of Disney.

A high school not far from our home had developed the tradition of producing one of the Savoy Operas every spring. The Mikado, HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance. Every spring my father would take me to encounter the likes of Dick Deadeye, Little Buttercup, the Lord High Executioner and the Lord High Everything Else, and I loved every bit of it – the rippling music, the cockeyed, surreal plots, the sparkling wit of the dialogue. We didn’t see Iolanthe, which will be presented in Halifax next weekend. I can’t wait.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s characters may have been my introduction to irony, with their ridiculous bursts of bravado and sentimentality delivered without a flicker of self-awareness. And for a boy already in love with language, nothing could be more delicious than the wild, brain-twisting, mouth-warping “patter songs” which are among the operettas’ signature pieces. Sing this, very fast:

You get a good spadesman to plant a small tradesman (first take off his boots with a boot-tree),
And his legs will take root, and his fingers will shoot, and they’ll blossom and bud like a fruit-tree –
From the greengrocer tree you get grapes and green pea, cauliflower, pineapple, and cranberries,
While the pastrycook plant cherry brandy will grant, apple puffs, and three corners, and Banburys –

And of course all of this goofiness and artifice and drollery is constantly puncturing the pretensions of the rich, the pompous, the snobbish and the stupid – who, in these operettas, are often the same person.

The rapier humour retains its timeliness. One of my favourite Gilbert and Sullivan characters is Sir Joseph Porter, a lad who rose through the ranks of the legal profession until “I grew so rich that I was sent/By pocket borough into Parliament.” A pocket borough was a form of Parliamentary rot – a tiny constituency so dominated by a single landowner, usually a lord, that he could simply appoint the MP.

Once “elected,” Sir Joseph boasts,

I always voted at my party’s call,
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.

It would be a rare MP or MLA, I suspect, who could read that couplet without at least a small wince. But party solidarity has its rewards:

I thought so little, they rewarded me
By making me the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee!

Parse that out. After “winning” a safe seat, I slavishly followed the party line, and I was rewarded with a plummy appointment for which I was, umm, indifferently qualified. That probably describes half of Canada’s judges, most of its senators, and an inconceivable number of Commissioners and Inspectors and Chairmen of This and That.

Before their partnership began, William Schwenck Gilbert was a well established wit, poet and playwright. Arthur Sullivan was a brilliant young composer of concerti, oratorios, and symphonies — not to mention “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” one of the hymns I grew up with. The two had worked together once, in 1871, before producer Richard D’Oyly Carte asked them in 1874 for a short comic opera to fill out a program at his theatre.

The result was Trial By Jury, and it was a hit. The first of their 14 operettas, it turns on a young woman’s suit for breach of promise of marriage. The defendant contends that because he is so worthless, she shouldn’t get much by way of damages. The plaintiff argues that because she loves the defendant ardently, she should get a generous settlement. The judge solves the problem by marrying the plaintiff himself. This is light-footed Victorian theatre of the absurd.

The law and the peerage were favourite targets for Gilbert and Sullivan – and they are targets again in Iolanthe (1882), a story about true lovers, one the child of a fairy, kept apart by secret origins and legal lunacy. Through a mix of comic invention and word-play, it all works out in the end. Gilbert’s genius, says one of his critics, “is to fuse opposites with an imperceptible sleight of hand, to blend the surreal with the real, and the caricature with the natural.”

I haven’t seen Iolanthe yet – but I’ll see it on Friday at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in a production by the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Nova Scotia. I wish I could invite my father.

– 30 –