Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for October, 2008

A World Without People

Monday, October 27th, 2008

October 26, 2008

What would happen if human beings suddenly evaporated, vanishing off the face of the earth in the blink of an eye?

That’s the question posed by a fascinating, disturbing documentary film called Aftermath: Population Zero, created by Cream Productions of Toronto and recently broadcast on Global. The DVD is available from National Geographic, whose channel broadcast the show last March.

The show postulates that, on a pleasant June morning, people simply vanish instanteously, like a bubble bursting. Poof! Cars have no drivers, planes have no pilots, ships no crews, power plants no operators. All over the earth, vehicles crash, burn and sink. Coal-fired generating plants run out of coal, and within 85 minutes the only functioning power plants are nuclear.

Starving pets soon escape their owners’ homes and forage for food. Within a week, big dogs devour all the small ones. Zoo animals pass through useless electric fences. Tigers and elephants roam the streets.

Water pumps fail. Sewage floods the streets. Dogs and tigers fan out into the country, dining on un-milked dead dairy cows. Beef cattle survive nicely. Mice invade the supermarkets, and their population explodes until the cats find them. Raccoons, squirrels and skunks move into abandoned houses and nest in the furniture.

As winter approaches, the zoo animals move south. Billions of cockroaches die in the unheated buildings. As the years pass, house roofs fall in, and trees root in living rooms. The glass drops off the skyscrapers, and birds breed on the desks. Grass grows over the cracked roads. Repeated hurricanes wipe all the buildings off the east coast. Cars rust and vanish. Concrete fails, and buildings collapse. Ships become reefs.

As the centuries pass, fish stocks are replenished in the ocean, forests cover the cities, birds fly freely in the clear skies, wolves return to Europe. Dams fail, and the Colorado River again reaches the ocean, while the fields it once irrigated revert to desert. The Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower fall. After 25,000 years – a geological eye-blink – the glaciers of a new Ice Age rumble down from the Arctic, grinding away all traces of human life, save for a few artifacts on the airless, eternal surface of the moon.

This has been a thought experiment, says the narrator, to see how the earth would do without us. Clearly, it would not miss us. But we cannot do without the earth.

Of all the startling images in this remarkable film, the ones that haunt me most are the nuclear power plants. Nuclear plants contain whole buildings full of spent fuel rods, which remain highly radioactive for centuries and are stored in swimming pools cooled by running water. This is nuclear garbage, and we have no idea what to do with it. We have dumped some in the oceans, and the nuclear industry has proposed various solutions, like dropping it into deep mines in stable rock formations, or fastening it into rockets and firing it into the sun. But most of it remains on-site.

The great irony is that we can’t dispose of nuclear debris because nobody wants it nearby – and so millions live with it nearby, at the local power plant. It’s safe enough until the water stops, as it does in Aftermath. Then the fuel turns the remaining water to steam. The storage buildings explode, creating a wave of nuclear disasters belching radioactive clouds and deadly rains.

The episode neatly shows exactly why nuclear power cannot be economic. Nuclear cost estimates never include the price of cleaning up the garbage, because nobody knows how to do that, or what it would cost. So the lifetime cost of nuclear power can never be known. What we do know is that nuclear power is not cheap because it’s not safe – and we have no way to make it so.

In Aftermath, plants and animals die of radiation, but ultimately the earth shrugs this off, too. Within a year or two, the radioactivity is dissipated, and life starts to re-colonize the hot zones. Which reminds us – or ought to – that environmentalism is not about saving the planet. The earth doesn’t need us. Environmentalism about saving our own habitat. It’s about saving ourselves.

– 30 –

Insulating Our Wallets

Monday, October 27th, 2008

October 19, 2008

Last summer, as the price of oil zinged up towards $150 a barrel, I was furious. Not with the speculators, who have since (predictably) had their come-uppance. Not with governments, which were no more dozy than usual. Not with the oil companies, which were simply being what they are. You can’t blame a jackal for being a jackal.

No: I was furious with myself. I knew perfectly well that the price of oil was, sooner or later, going to the moon. (It is, too – don’t be fooled by its present plunge to a mere $75 or so.) I remember the twin oil shocks of the 1970s, and – like the Danes, who took the hint and made themselves into world leaders in renewable energy – I had taken steps to ensure that another oil shock couldn’t ambush me.

Then events had forced a drastic change on me, leaving me right in the bomb-sights of the oil jackals – and I hadn’t adapted. Why do I ignore what I know?

Here’s the story. In 1983, my family and I re-built an 1890s house on the waterfront in our Cape Breton village. We knew then that although oil prices had fallen from their peaks, the supply of oil was (and is) finite. If demand rises sharply and supplies decline, prices will soar. So we meticulously insulated the house, and arranged to heat it with wood.

We stuffed fiberglass batts in the walls, then added a vapour barrier and rigid foam insulation behind the gyproc. We lowered the 9-foot upstairs ceilings enough to allow R40 insulation in the roof. We replaced all 27 windows with new double-glazed ones. I built thick, heavily-insulated front and rear doors. We installed a heat-circulating fireplace and a combination wood/oil furnace, and a huge wood-storage area in the basement. When we were done, the house needed far less heat than it once did – and, if necessary, we could provide that heat by burning wood. (There’s a link to a video tour of the house on my web site, www.silverdonaldcameron.ca.)

I lived 22 years in that house before health concerns and other issues induced me to move. And now that well-insulated, beautifully-upgraded house is for sale, while Marjorie and I find ourselves in a leaky 1937 house with 13 single-glazed windows, spotty insulation and a complete reliance on oil heat. When I got the oil company’s $5500 estimate for the cost of next winter’s fuel, I nearly fainted. I have actually bought houses for less money than than that.

Happily, the federal and provincial governments have an EcoEnergy grant program which provides up to $6500 in assistance for appropriate upgrades. We called up Clean Nova Scotia and got an energy-efficiency evaluation.
Our greatest heat loss was through the uninsulated walls. Next was air leakage, and third was the old windows. The wall insulation is eligible for a substantial grant and the air-sealing for a modest one, but the grant for window replacement – which is really expensive – is insignificant. The government program also provides a modest incentive for efficient wood-burning appliances.

So we won’t do windows – but the wall insulation should cut the cost of heating by nearly half, and that saving combined with the grant will cover much of the cost. That’s a no-brainer.

Air-sealing will include blocking off and insulating our “raccoon hotel,” a crawl-space gap big enough to admit the local wildlife as well as the bone-chilling winds. Another no-brainer, with or without grant support. Finally, an air-tight fireplace insert blocks the heat loss through the chimney, attracts a small grant, and gives us an alternative source of heat. Count me in.

OPEC, Alberta, eat your hearts out. Since we made these decisions, mind you, the oil price has halved – which means the payback time for these improvements will be twice as long. You know what? I don’t care. The improvements are good for the planet – and when oil prices next take flight, I’ll sleep comfortably.

Almost as comfortably as the new owner of our old house, whoever that lucky dog turns out to be.

– 30 –

Canada’s Political Kaleidoscope

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

October 12, 2008

It’s Saturday, and Election Day is Tuesday. The markets are making like ski jumpers, taking oil prices and the loonie down with stocks, and roiling the electorate as well. The election results are anyone’s guess.

But beneath today’s campaign, some long-term changes are afoot. For example, an insistent theme among the pundits has been the fragmentation of the left, and the advantage it gives to the united right led by Stephen Harper. The left, we’re told, will inevitably unite, as the right did, undergoing the political equivalent of a corporate merger aimed at regaining market share.

I’m not so sure.

Three of the four parties to the left of the Harperites are built around a strong set of principles. New Democrats are dedicated social democrats, the Greens are channelling the planet, and the Bloc Quebecois wants a sovereign Quebec. Furthermore, the NDP and the Greens have gained significantly in this campaign, and the Bloc’s support, though fluctuating, has remained substantial. Why would any of these parties throw in the towel?

That leaves the Liberals, innocent of principles, tacking to port or starboard in response to the shifting winds. In fairness, many Liberals would argue that a stable government for a country as large, fractious and varied as Canada must be a pragmatic coalition that eschews rigid principles. For the past century, that devout opportunism has been a winning strategy – but its day may be over.

The Liberals today find themselves led by an admirable Green-hearted man whose signature policy is a complicated tax measure that demands explication in a language still foreign to him, as the famous ATV interview clearly showed. Indeed, whenever he speaks, Dion infuriates the grumbling minority in English Canada who consider that the Quebec tail has been wagging the Canadian dog for decades. And the author of the Clarity Act is not even very popular in Quebec.

So, despite a brief blip of recent enthusiasm, the Liberals never gained much traction. The party has also been badly weakened by the Martin-Chretien wars, and by the out-migration of all its heavy hitters – Manley, Rock, Tobin, Copps, Graham, McKenna. Its surviving MPs are likely to be in a mutinous mood after the election. Without the discipline of power or the prospect of power, this is not a party with any great internal cohesion.

Now consider the results of recent polls, which show the Harper crowd at about 35%, the Liberals near 25%, the NDP around 20%, the Greens at 12% or so, and the Bloc somewhere under 10%. Do the math. If those percentages were reflected in seats, then any two of the first three would have enough support to challenge the Conservatives, and to ask the Governor-General for an opportunity to form a government. They could then do what Harper has done, namely to attract just enough support from a third party to survive the inevitable votes of confidence.

That won’t happen soon. But the numbers underline the point that Canada is a centre-left country which is now being steered by a right-wing minority. That’s an unstable situation. And the centre-left parties don’t have to merge in order to rule. They only need to learn the tricks of coalitions and voting alliances, like politicians in other multi-party legislatures like those of Germany, Ireland, Italy, France and Israel.

The party which seems at risk is the Liberal Party. Its only real raison d’etre was to put a roof over an improbable alliance of interest groups, and that alliance has fallen apart. Its once-solid base in Quebec has vanished, as has its once-reliable strength among women and immigrants. Its weakness could easily accelerate into collapse.

For that matter, the Harper Conservatives remain an uneasy marriage of former Progressive Conservatives and Western true-believers held together largely by the unfamiliar experience of power. When the party loses power and Harper moves on – which will eventually happen – will the Conservative Party also unravel, as it did after Brian
Mulroney?

In terms of seats, the next Parliament may well resemble the last one. Beneath the surface, though, strong currents are running. Politically, this election looks like a watershed – the true end of the last century, and the real beginning of the new one.

– 30 –

Two Women

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

October 5, 2008

“When you’re going door to door, it’s amazing what people will tell you,” says Megan Leslie. “I was at this house the other day, and when the man recognized me, he said, ‘I lost my job, I’m losing my house, I have to declare bankruptcy, and I don’t know what to do.’ And it really shook me how much trust this person had in me, to tell me that.

“You know, this is the privilege of being a candidate. People look to you to change things and make things better for them – even as a candidate.”

The man chose the right candidate to talk to. Personable and astute, Megan Leslie is a tireless anti-poverty advocate, deeply concerned with affordable housing and fair energy pricing. A dedicated environmentalist, she has a law degree and works with Dalhousie Legal Aid. Campaigning for the NDP nomination in Halifax against two strong and articulate competitors, she won by delivering a passionate speech to more than 600 party members.

Her opponents can only envy that enthusiasm. The Liberals quickly acclaimed a candidate just before the nomination deadline, while the Tories were forced to appoint a candidate not once, but twice. Meanwhile, Megan Leslie’s campaign workers include both of her competitors, five MLAs whose ridings fall within the Halifax federal constituency, and her revered predecessor, Alexa McDonough.

That kind of firepower ought to carry Alexa’s former seat decisively. Still, as Alexa firmly declares, the riding belongs not to the NDP, but to to the people of Halifax, and their support has to be earned anew every time.

I believe that good citizens should not only vote, but should actively support the candidates of their their choice. Since I’m voting in Halifax this time, I’ll contribute both cash and effort to Megan’s campaign, and hope to attend her victory party.

And though I can’t vote in Central Nova, I’m also contributing to Elizabeth May’s campaign.

A new web site, www.VoteEnvironment.ca, contends that environmentalists should vote strategically, supporting the environmentally-responsible candidate most likely to defeat the local Tory. In Halifax: Megan Leslie, NDP. In West Nova: Robert Thibault, Liberal. In Central Nova: Elizabeth May, the Green leader.

It’s an appealing idea, but that’s not what I’m up to. I just think that Elizabeth May is an extraordinary woman, one of the most powerful voices for environmental sanity that we’ve ever had, and I think that Canada would benefit from having her in Parliament.

I met Elizabeth in the 1970s, when we were both in the coalition of determined Cape Bretoners who successfully opposed the insecticide spraying in the island’s forests. She was a shy young woman of 21 when the battle began. She emerged as an indefatigable, politicized environmentalist. In a later attempt to prevent Scott Paper from herbicide spraying, she and her family lost their home and 70 acres of land in a lawsuit – but the suit delayed the spraying long enough to prevent the use of 2,4,5-T. That’s commitment.

After law school, Elizabeth served as an adviser to former Environment Minister Tom Macmillan. She was instrumental in creating several new national parks and was in negotiating the Montreal Protocol on the ozone layer. She later worked for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and spent 17 years as Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada. She’s written five books, and she has a basket of awards and honorary degrees.

In Canada, unlike Europe, the Greens have never been part of the political mainstream. Sweeping cultural currents are rapidly changing that – as is Elizabeth May’s performance as leader. Since she took over, her party has steadily risen in the polls. In a 2006 Ontario by-election, Elizabeth captured second place, with 26% of the vote.

The strongest evidence of her stature is the uproar that arose when she was barred from the leadership debates. Agreed, the Greens have never elected a member – but by any other standard they are now a significant national party. The public roared, the establishment caved, and Elizabeth entered the debates.

These two women are like a waft of springtime. They’re a powerful antidote to cynicism. A province which can generate such candidates should feel proud of itself – and prouder still if it sends them on to Ottawa.

– 30 –

Facebook and Other Mysteries

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

September 28, 2008

Tommy is bored. Cindy updated her profile. John “thinks this week rocks already.” Thelma went from “being single” to “in a relationship.” Edith bought Oscar for $486 on “Hotties for Sale.” Heinrich “bought a leather whip in Blood Lust.”

If this stream of odd snippets sounds familiar to you, you’re probably one of the 100 million-plus people with accounts on Facebook. Such social-networking sites are the hottest thing on the Web right now. I’m on Facebook along with everyone else. But I really don’t understand the phenomenon.

The social-networking sites out there include MySpace, of course, and Tumblr and sites like deli.cio.us, where you can share bookmarks, and Digg, which allows you to share and rank web content. LinkedIn is a networking site for professionals, and I’m there too, sharing my credentials, ready to network with peers and engage with potential clients.

I’m not on Yammer, though, or on its non-commercial ancestor Twitter, a site that allows its users to send and read little tiny messages called “tweets” no more than 140 characters all day long. Tweets are constant answers to the question, “What are you doing now?”

Well, um, I’m on the bus. I’m scratching myself privately. I’m going for coffee. I flatulated rowdily.

Twitter has more than 100 clones, all of them gushing constant twaddle. Come on, guys, who cares? Yeah, I may want to know what you’re doing if we’re both supposed to be at a meeting, and you’re running late. But isn’t that what the phone is for? What is the point of this torrent of narcissistic nonsense?

I don’t know that there is any point, in the ordinary sense. I got onto Facebook because I asked a beloved teenage niece why people were urging me to join Facebook, and she went over to the computer and led me through the process. Because of that, I was able to follow her progress as she toured Europe with a friend, and she was able to broadcast her experiences, regularly, to friends all over the world.

Pretty cool. And that’s a great benefit of Facebook. It gives me a peek into the world of my children and grandchildren and my 27 nieces and nephews, who are doing all kinds of interesting things all over the country. It provides a link to my friends and neighbours in Isle Madame when I’m not there.

Nevertheless, I’m wary. If knowledge is power, privacy is freedom. And so when I recently found myself in a breakout group at a conference of undergraduates led by a stubble-bearded social-networking oracle named Eli Singer, I had a few questions. Like, why do people want to tell the world that they were blind drunk or hopelessly stoned last night? Why would you post your photo albums, your videos, your opinions about art and politics and religion, your cell phone number, and even provide directions for guests to get to your house party?

An astute McGill undergraduate named Johnson Fung had some interesting observations. In earlier periods, he said, people found their identities in the relationships with family, community, church, profession and other social groups. In a fluid postmodern world, the importance of those groupings has faded, and the roots of identity have become mysterious. Facebook and its ilk allow people to forge and shape their identities as an act of will, with reference to a community of electronic peers.

Fascinating. But do people realize that they really can’t remove themselves from Facebook or withdraw information they’ve posted on it? Once it’s posted, Facebook owns it.

Eli Singer, a hoary old relic of 31, had some horror stories of his own. He reminded the group that most recruiters and employers today will routinely check out a potential employee’s Facebook page, and silently reject stoners and party animals. A student remarked that elite graduate schools do the same thing. Eli recounted the tale of the Saugeen Stripper who, in a moment of lighthearted lunacy, peeled for the boys in a University of Western Ontario residence while the cameras were rolling. The footage became one of the most-watched videos in cyberspace, and though the girl had done nothing illegal, the publicity forced her to leave school.

“Control your information,” Eli counselled. “You have to manage the screens of your life, the way you present yourself online.” Remember, he said, Facebook forgets nothing. Google forgets nothing it keeps copies of every single email. Own your own domain. Blog on your own site. Turn your Facebook privacy settings up to the max. If you don’t want something known, don’t release it.

But in the cyberworld, there’s really no escape. There’s even a social networking site for the dead. Truly. Where did you think your Facebook information would go when you die? You’re not going to heaven, you’re going to Footnote.com. Electronic immortality. Who knew?

– 30 –

Missing Ernestina

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

September 14, 2008


The motorsailer Queen Charlotte was forced into New Bedford, Massachusetts by engine problems, but truly, the crew could hardly be sorry. New Bedford is a splendidly salty town — the headquarters of the New England whaling fleet, the town where Herman Melville shipped out on the voyage that inspired his masterpiece Moby Dick, the place where a jocular whaling captain gave an abandoned oyster smack to Joshua Slocum, who rebuilt it here and then sailed it alone around the world.

New Bedford is also home to C.E. Beckman Co., the oldest family-owned business and the oldest chandler in America, now being managed by the seventh generation of Beckmans in the ultra-historic building it has occupied since 1790. Needing a new starter for Queen Charlotte’s Perkins diesel, the crew repaired to Beckman’s, where a droll marine-electric parts manager supplied a perfectly satisfactory General Motors starter for about 10% of what the Perkins distributor was quoting.

While the skipper installed the starter, the others explored New Bedford, starting with the city block occupied by Beckman’s, a ramshackle treasure-house of antique and modern nautical gear. We passed the Seaman’s Bethel, where Melville’s whalers attended services, and then crossed the street to the Whaling Museum.

The museum includes the entire skeleton of a 45-ton sperm whale, and a full-sized replica of a whaling ship’s fo’c'sl. Here are the ship models, and there are all the tools of the trade — harpoons, flensing knives, tryworks. The Museum boasts a fabulous collection of scrimshaw — intricate works of art created by sailors on bone, baleen and ivory, including knife and razor handles, picture frames, jewel boxes, spools and much more.

The most stunning exhibit is the largest ship model in the world — a complete half-sized replica of a real whaling bark named the Lagoda, 89 feet long, built in 1915-16 for the owner’s daughter, Emily Bourne, in memory of her father. The vessel is housed in a lofty exhibit hall also built by Ms. Bourne, and it is complete in every detail — the catted anchors, the light whaleboats hanging in davits, the clouds of sail, the rope-driven steering gear and much else.

Whaling is New Bedford’s heroic myth — puny men pitting themselves against the monsters of the deep — and its images and assumptions ring somewhat strangely in a world in which whales cling to survival, while human enterprise has become the most powerful force in the world. It seems odd, too, that so many of the leading figures in this furious world of blood, death and blubber should have been Quakers, who are identified in our day with peace and non-violence and who even then made New Bedford a haven for escaped slaves, a terminus of the Underground Railway.

The ship I really wanted to see in New Bedford had nothing to do with whaling — and it wasn’t in port, either. Built in 1894, the schooner Effie M. Morrissey was named for the sister of her skipper, Clayton Morrissey. Although the Morrisseys lived in Gloucester, they came from Lower East Pubnico, where Cap’n Clayt was born. He became famous as skipper of the Gloucester schooner Henry Ford, which in 1922 unsuccessfully challenged the Bluenose for the International Fishermen’s Cup.

In 1926, after 32 years of fishing and freighting, the Effie M. Morrissey was sold to Captain Bob Bartlett, the Newfoundland master who had carried Admiral Robert E. Peary to the North Pole in 1909. Barlett refitted the ship for the Arctic ice, and skippered her on 20 voyages of northern exploration sponsored by organizations like the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution. She once reached within 600 miles of the Pole, and newsreels made the ship and her skipper world-famous.

During World War II, the Morrissey served as a supply vessel for US Arctic bases and for the Soviet port of Murmansk. After Bartlett’s death in 1946, she was sold to the Cape Verde Islands, and re-named Ernestina. For the next 30 years, she sailed as a packet boat between Cape Verde and New England, maintaining a link originally established by the whalers, who frequently picked up crew in the Cape Verdes. She was the last sailing ship in regular service to carry immigrants to the United States.

In 1975, she was presented to the United States as a gift by the new Republic of Cape Verde. She now belongs to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts — and when I was in New Bedford, she was in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, receiving a $4 million refit. I was sorry to miss her, but I was delighted to know that she’ll be strong and hardy again, at the age of 114.

She is an international treasure, this stout-hearted wooden ship, born in the nineteenth century and still serving in the twenty-first. Going aboard her remains one of the greatest pleasures I’ve never had.

– 30 –