Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for June, 2008

Guns along the Northwest Passage

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

“Thanks to global warming, the Arctic icecap is rapidly melting, opening up access to massive natural resources and creating shipping shortcuts that could save billions of dollars a year. But there are currently no clear rules governing this economically and strategically vital region. Unless Washington leads the way towards a multilateral diplomatic solution, the Arctic could descend into armed conflict.”

That’s the summary of a recent paper in Foreign Affairs, published by the US Council on Foreign Relations. Written by retired US Coast Guard officer Scott Borgerson, it was sent to me by an American friend who wanted my opinion. That summary made me blink.

Borgerson argues that global warming means that the fabled Northwest Passage will soon be ice-free in summer and, with icebreakers, navigable year-round. The melt will continue even if we stop greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow. Furthermore, the Arctic is rich in resources. The Russian offshore alone may contain oil reserves twice as large as Saudi Arabia’s.

Five nations border the Arctic – Russia, the US, Norway, Denmark and Canada. There is no established agreement about where Arctic boundaries lie, as witness our contretemps with Denmark over tiny Hans Island. Do we really care about that minute pile of rock? No – but we do care about the adjacent seabed resources.

No legal framework determines who owns such resources, because they were always thought inaccessible. But now the rush is on. Russia has claimed 460,000 square miles of Arctic waters, has taken to flying strategic bombers over the Arctic, and recently planted a Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole.

And are the waters of the Arctic archipelago, including the Northwest Passage, international waters open to the shipping of all nations – or territorial waterways belonging to Canada? Canadians assume that Canada owns all that territory, including considerable parts of the ocean – but the US and the European Union disagree. The point is not academic. A navigable Northwest Passage would cut 2000 nautical miles off a voyage from Seattle to Rotterdam and would shave about $3.5 million from its cost. And hundreds of ice-class ships are coming into service.

Borgerson aims to wake up the US, which has never ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and thus cannot formally assert its Arctic rights. Worse, says Borgerson, although the US navy is larger than the world’s next 17 navies combined, it has only one usable icebreaker. Russia has 18. Canada plans to build up to eight new icebreakers, and is installing a satellite surveillance system. If possession is nine-tenths of the law, the US is in trouble.

Overall, says Borgerson, “the combination of new shipping routes, trillions of dollars in possible oil and gas resources, and a poorly defined picture of state ownership makes a toxic brew.” The US should ratify UNCLOS, build icebreakers and strike a deal with Canada to create an Arctic seaway management commission comparable to the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation. And it should lead the way to peace by convening a conference of Arctic nations to create “an overarching treaty that guarantees an orderly and collective approach to extracting the region’s wealth.”

It all sounds good – but that’s not how the US normally behaves. The notion that the US is needed to keep the peace between Canada and Denmark is deeply amusing, though the Russians are no joke. When it comes to national security and oil-supply issues, however, the US is generally the problem, not the solution. If the US wants unimpeded access to the Northwest Passage, it will declare that it is bringing peace and democracy to the Inuit, and it will send the navy, not the negotiators.

Borgerson’s argument is a good one – but he’s got the wrong country. Canada has the most to lose in the Arctic, and – as in the Cold War – it is sandwiched between the world’s most formidable military powers. It would be folly for Canada – or Norway, or Denmark – to take up arms in the Arctic. Instead, Canada should combine with the Scandinavians to initiate a comprehensive Arctic treaty conference, inviting the Russians and the Americans to participate.

Canada could offer to internationalize the Northwest Passage and manage it collectively – in return for a declaration that the Arctic archipelago itself is Canadian. We should also note that nature may not consent to be managed, that the consequences of the Arctic melt are unpredictable, and that the Arctic nations should insist that any new cache of fossil fuels be rationed, not squandered. Our reckless use of fossil fuels got us into this mess. If the new resources will only get us in deeper, their rapid exploitation should be resisted.

The Arctic could be our last chance, as a species, to act with intelligence. Canada can play a key role. It’s a rare opportunity. Let’s seize it.

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Champion MacTavish!

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

“I hate it when this happens,” said Darren McKinnon. “I mean, it’s wonderful, and we’re all very happy – but in some ways this is the worst thing that can happen. Owners think it’s normal, and they expect it to happen again – and then they get upset and disappointed when it doesn’t.”

It was Saturday, February 9, at the Halifax Kennel Club Show at Exhibition Park. Talisker Sea Dog MacTavish – our 21-month-old Shetland Sheepdog – had just cantered through the show ring hauling in ribbons. To be a champion, a dog needs 10 points, and MacTavish – in his first day at his first real dog show – had won four points, a dazzling start to a puppy’s show career.

And Darren, who has been showing dogs for most of his 40-odd years, was cautioning us not to think this was normal. We shouldn’t expect MacTavish to do it again.

So the next day, MacTavish did it again. In his first two appearances in the show ring, he accumulated eight points. Just two more points, and he’d be a champion. But the next time out – in a cavernous, bitterly-cold arena in Truro, at the end of March – he won no points at all. When we took him last weekend to the South Shore Kennel Club’s annual show in Lunenburg, we were still seeking the elusive two points,

Dog shows are a perfect example of order within chaos. The Lunenburg rink was clogged with dogs, and dog voices filled the air – baying, woofing, howling, yipping. Shows may have 150 breeds or more – some in their kennels, some walking or standing with their owners or handlers, some in the ring. Sleek Salukis, big blocky Bouviers, peppy Papillons, terrible terrific terriers, bandy-legged bulldogs and bonny bad-ass beagles.

Primped and powdered and perfumed, clusters of dogs journey to the judging rings and strut their stuff, scampering in circles with their handlers. They stand on tables while the judges poke and prod and peer into their ears and other orifices, appraise their bearings, bones and briskets, contemplate their coats and assess their testicles.

Then the judges hand out ribbons and rosettes. Everyone applauds. The dogs go offstage, and a new crowd enters the ring.

This is “conformation” competition. The judges are determining how closely the dog conforms to a published “breed standard,” which describes the ideal example of that breed. The Shetland Sheepdog, or “Sheltie,” should stand between 13 and 16 inches at the shoulder, should have a long, heavy double coat, should have a black nose, a flat head and a well-rounded muzzle. The ears should be small and three-fourths erect, with the tips breaking forward. A Sheltie may be reserved, but not fearful; self-confident, but not aggressive. And much more.

Each of these points is, literally, a judgment call, and the dog which wins with one judge (in Halifax, say) may fall flat with another judge (in Truro.) So what about Lunenburg?

MacTavish comes from the Talisker kennel in Middle Sackville, owned by Sharon Ayers, and in the show ring he’s normally handled by Emily DeLong, Sharon’s associate. I don’t know how to show a dog, and neither does Marjorie. Last weekend, however, Sharon was in New York and Ontario, showing her great champion, Lily – who has now been rated “Best in Show” no fewer than 23 times, tying the Canadian record for Shelties.

On Saturday, with Sharon absent, Emily and MacTavish were both on edge, and they were skunked again. Worse, all of us realized that MacTavish’s heart really was not in the game, though he gallantly did what was asked of him, as he always does.

Driving home, with MacTavish lying exhausted on the back seat, Marjorie said what we all had been feeling. Was there any point in making our beloved dog suffer in the show ring, if that really wasn’t what he liked? Let’s just not do this any more. We didn’t buy him to show. I love his quick, bright mind, and I’d much rather do obedience with him anyway.

We had promised to take him back to the show the next day. But after that, his show career would be over.

On Sunday, however, MacTavish was himself again – sassy and alert, ready to take on the world, infecting Emily with his buoyancy. He was up against some beautiful Shelties, but when judge Jack Ireland – a distinguished man, and clearly a perceptive one – pointed his finger at the Best of Winners, he was pointing at MacTavish.

Two points. Champion!

“There, he’s done it,” said another Sheltie fancier, as Emily led MacTavish off for his official championship photograph. “Now he can go do what he really likes – which is sailing, isn’t it?”

Champion Talisker Sea Dog MacTavish! With an emphasis on the “sea dog,” if you please.

The Republic of Childhood

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

“What’s our waitress’ name?” I asked.

“Mary Jane,” said Marjorie.

“What’s your name? Mary Jane,” I chanted. “Where d’you live? Down the lane. What d’you eat? Pigs’ feet. What d’you drink? Black ink — “

“What?” cried Marjorie, flummoxed.

“What’s your number? Cucumber.” I laughed. “You don’t want to know how far back in the previous century I last said that rhyme.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know. A children’s rhyme.” I thought for a moment. “I think it’s a skipping rhyme.” I started it again, emphasizing the rhythm.. “What’s your NAME? Mary JANE. Where d’you LIVE? Down the LANE. Yeah. Do kids still have skipping rhymes, I wonder? ”

“I never see girls skipping,” Marjorie said. “I don’t see kids playing hopscotch, either.”

“Right. Or conkers, with big old chestnuts. Or marbles. Almost the only game we played when I was a kid that still seems to be played is street hockey. There’s a whole kids’ culture that’s almost completely lost.”

Years ago, my friend Lloyd Bourinot asked me, “What ever happened to peggy?” I assumed he was talking about a woman – but in fact he was talking about a childrens’ game, played by batting a short piece of broomstick with another longer piece. The short piece, sharpened at both ends to make it fly better, was the “peggy” or “piggy.” In Isle Madame, almost everyone my age remembered the game very fondly – but it had disappeared completely, except for the occasional sentimental match played when some of its middle-aged aficionados got together at reunions.

I wrote a radio drama called “What Ever Happened to Peggy?” The play was about the game – and also about a woman named Peggy. It later became “Peggy,” a Gemini-nominated half-hour TV drama. While I was writing the radio play, I asked my friend George Jordan to mention the game on-air during CBC Radio’s rolling-home show, and ask whether anyone else had ever heard of it.

George’s phone rang off the wall. People knew the game as peacock, kippy, and tiddly. Listeners reported having played it as far away as Toronto, Saskatchewan and Scotland. In New England it was known as “one-a-cat.” One listener reported that such a game was also played in Pakistan.

Everyone thought this game was local, but it had been played all over the world – and there’s something miraculous about that. How did a game like that travel around the globe? Evidently there was – perhaps there still is – a kind of international republic of childhood, with its own rules, its own forms of heroism, its own folkways, its own recreations.

Or maybe it’s just that there are only so many simple toys – a bat, a ball, a swing, a teeter-totter – and that, given the same toys, kids the world over will invent the same games.

So what did happen to peggy? And to Red Rover, and British Bulldog, and Kick the Can, and Anti-Anti-I-Over, and even Hide-and-Seek?

Part of what happened, surely, was television. In a year, we are told, the average child spends 900 hours in school and nearly 1,023 hours in front of a TV. That’s close to three hours a day, seven days a week. A kid who watches that much TV – and spends additional hours at a computer – hardly has time for anything else.

I also blame the corporatization and commodification of play, and of sports in general. In my day, sonny, kids who wanted to play hockey found a frozen pond, established a makeshift goal with a couple of rocks, laced up their leather skates and played. It was a rare kid who had any more equipment than a pair of gloves, some primitive shin-pads, and maybe a Maple Leafs sweater.

Today, childrens’ hockey is a scale-model imitation of the NHL – indoor rinks, organized leagues, complete suits of equipment, even hockey cards showing mean-looking 12-year-olds in full regalia. All this organization certainly has benefits – we would have loved the equipment, and the opportunity to play during thawing weather – but the game is firmly in the hands of adults, and its participants are a corporate market. It’s no longer part of the independent republic of childhood.

Finally, and most sadly, I suspect we’re over-protecting our children. We may complain that they watch too much television – but if we were honest, might we admit that we’d rather have them at home in front of the box than out chasing around the neighbourhood, trespassing on the neighbours’ property, climbing trees, playing with fire and batting pointed sticks at one another?

The kids didn’t get rid of the republic of childhood, and replace it with this elaborately-regulated playpen. Adults did. Will the new, safe arrangement yield outward-looking, risk-taking, self-confident kids? I doubt it. And that’s an enormous loss.

– 30 –

Beyond Brain-Dead Accounting

Sunday, June 1st, 2008

My submission to the Voluntary Planning hearings on natural resource policy came down to just 10 words.

Go beyond brain-dead accounting. Use the Genuine Progress Index.

Nova Scotia Voluntary Planning is holding consultations on a long-term natural resources strategy for the province, looking particularly at forests, minerals, parks and biodiversity. Clearly, something big is afoot. Meetings have already been held in Pugwash, Parrsboro, Blockhouse, Port Hawkesbury, Middleton, Tusket, Dartmouth, Inverness, Saulnierville, Middle Musquodoboit, St. Ann’s, Debert, New Minas, Shelburne, Cheticamp, Windsor, and St. Peters.

Further meetings will be held in Sherbrooke, Sheet Harbour, Weymouth, Membertou, Yarmouth, Halifax, Liverpool, Stellarton, and Antigonish. There will be three meetings in French. It’s also possible to submit written comments. Details are at http://vp.gov.ns.ca/projects/resources

These consultations may shape the government’s natural resources strategy for years to come. But alarmed conservationists reported that the early meetings were packed with industry representatives demanding that the province reduce the number of protected areas, support clear-cutting and herbicide spraying, relax its regulations on mining and, specifically, abolish the moratorium on uranium exploration and mining.

Ye gods. But if nobody else is heard, those voices will control the discussion. So I trotted off to St. Peters with my ten-word recommendation.

Go beyond brain-dead accounting, I said. Use the Genuine Progress Index.

Every economic activity has costs as well as benefits. Brain-dead accounting overlooks the most important costs, and overstates the benefits. For example, it sees a forest only as potential pulp and lumber. The only costs are the cost of labour and equipment to cut it down. The benefits are employment and profit.

But a living forest is a natural community which confers all kinds of other benefits. It inhales greenhouse gasses like CO2, and exhales oxygen. It provides habitat for life forms which enrich the soil and pollinate our crops. A forest absorbs rainwater, filters it, and regulates its release into the streams. It prevents soil erosion, attracts visitors, provides us with recreational activities like hunting, fishing and hiking.

To the forest industry — indeed, to the industrial economy generally — such benefits literally count for nothing.

A natural forest also produces more and better wood than a clearcut one. Windhorse Farm, in Lunenburg County, has been logged selectively and sustainably since 1840. No pesticides, no clearcuts. Its rich, mature Acadian forest has produced more lumber than would have been produced by clear-cutting and re-growing and the site contains as much standing timber today as in 1840.

GPI studies have also found that forestry jobs per unit of wood cut have steadily declined with the growth of industrial forestry. Sustainable forestry produces far more jobs than clear-cutting.

The 170-year experiment at Windhorse Farms simply ends the debate on clear-cutting, which really amounts to mining and destroying the forest, just as we mined and destroyed the cod fishery. If clear-cutting destroys the other benefits of a forest, and doesn’t even produce as much wood as selective logging, it simply can’t be permitted.

Uranium mining and nuclear power are even worse. Uranium mine tailings are viciously toxic, and they persist for generations. Nuclear power plants are so dangerous that they can’t get liability insurance at any price — so they are insured by government. That’s you and me, buddy. Wastes from nuclear plants have to be securely stored for centuries, perhaps millennia. Nobody knows how to do that, and the costs, though real, are simply incalculable — so they aren’t calculated. They’re ignored.

That’s brain-dead accounting, the kind of accounting that goes into calculations of the Gross Domestic Product. It’s the normal basis for economic decision-making, and it’s hideously wrong. If we had kept the ecological books properly in the first place, we wouldn’t be facing environmental catastrophe today.

The essence of the Genuine Progress Index, by contrast, is “full-cost accounting,” which recognizes the value of such natural capital as standing forests, healthy populations, productive soils and waterways — and the cost of destroying such assets. Over the past decade, GPI Atlantic (www.gpiatlantic.org) has been publishing realistic accounts for Nova Scotia, using our province as a test-bed for techniques to be applied globally.

The GPI is a fabulous gift to Nova Scotia. Nobody else has it. It covers almost every sphere of human activity, and it’s almost complete. It should be the foundation of any discussion of natural resource strategies in this province.

We can choose to ignore the GPI and the environmental crisis, fouling the earth with toxins and consuming the natural wealth that belongs to our descendants. But the St. Peters crowd, which included several forest workers, was largely on the GPI wavelength. It wanted to develop sustainable lifestyles, and agreed that a top priority should be the restoration of our depleted forests.

The death of brain-dead economics and the birth of genuine progress. It’s a vision as beautiful as sunrise.

– 30 –