Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for November, 2008

How to Save the Auto Industry

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

November 30, 2008

Here they come again – corporations chanting their familiar mantra of economic blackmail. After decades of irresponsible, stupid and sometimes criminal behaviour, the North American auto companies are beseeching taxpayers to rescue them. If we don’t open the financial faucet, plants will close, jobs will vanish, the sky will fall. Give generously! Give now!

Why? This has always been a rogue industry, especially General Motors. In 1949, GM, Standard Oil of California and Firestone were convicted of criminal conspiracy for buying and dismantling numerous inner-city electric rail systems, forcing commuters into automobiles and busses. From 1923 to 1986, a consortium that included GM conspired to market a toxic and unnecessary gasoline additive called tetraethyl lead, on which GM held the patent. By 1986, the US Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 5000 Americans were dying every year of heart disease due to the effects of lead.

By then the oil shocks of the 1970s had revealed that the era of cheap oil was ending, and anyone with the intelligence of a squirrel was taking action to hedge against the next oil shock. People insulated their houses, installed alternate sources of heat, took the bus and turned down the lights. Denmark closed its roads on Sundays, and then reinvented itself as the world capital of wind power. The Japanese created magnificent small cars. And the US government instituted a measure called CAFE, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard, designed to cut exhaust emissions while doubling fuel efficiency.

Detroit’s reaction? GM built a fleet of 1100 fully-functional electric cars in the 1990s – but it then recalled and destroyed them. It abandoned the small-car market to the import brands. Instead, noting the relatively lenient CAFE standards for light trucks, the Big Three concentrated on building poorly-engineered, highly-profitable “sport-utility vehicles,” obese gas-swilling cars that could qualify as trucks.

Then the oil price zoomed. The demand for big dumb vehicles crashed. And now these leering boobies want us to save them from the predictable consequences of their own folly.

Sure, boys. But on our terms, not yours. In truth, this is a magnificent opportunity.

The Canadian and US governments should buy a big slice of these companies – but require that they leap-frog the international competition by radically redesigning the automobile. We can serve the industry, the consumer and the environment at once by transforming the automobile into a totally-recyclable “product-of-service.”

Whuzzat?

A product-of-service is an alternative to the illusion of “ownership.” We are all transients on the planet; in truth, we own nothing. What we really buy are services, not products – not an automobile, for instance, but the convenient mobility that an automobile provides.

But one can use a car without owning it. We can just lease our cars directly from the manufacturers – but with a requirement that they take the car back at the end of its useful life and recycle every part of it. And the lease could include all the costs of the car.

Think how different the car would be, if the manufacturer was fully responsible for it, and knew it would eventually be coming back. Cars would be assembled with a view to being disassembled. The manufacturers would strive to make durable vehicles, with components that could easily be recycled or re-used. They would become fanatical about servicing cars and cutting their costs of operation – including the costs of their emissions. Consumers would never be ambushed by unexpected repairs. Insurance coverage could be tied to mileage. It would all be in the lease.

With its gluttonous appetite for resources and its toxic wastes, the automobile is the very emblem of our false relationship with the planet – but it could become the first major example of economic sanity and environmental sustainability. This is a unique opportunity. The auto industry is on life support. It’s in no position to bargain. Public investment could keep all those employees at work and ensure the survival of the industry – but in return, the industry should be required to devote itself, for once, to the well-being of workers, consumers, and the planet.

– 30 –

The Genuine Progress Index – At Last!

Thursday, November 27th, 2008

November 23, 2008

Here’s a choice for you.

Suppose I offered you an opportunity to double your income, while your expenses went up only by 80%. In your new situation, however, you would have no access to the voluntary services provided by charities and service clubs, or by friends and family. Divorce would be three times more common. The quality of your air and water would be worse. The crime rate and the addiction rate would be far higher, while access to recreational and cultural services would be much lower.

Would you be better off?

Almost every economist and every government agency on the planet would say Yes — you’re earning more and spending more, and that makes you richer. I would say No — what you’ve lost in health, security and informal social support is worth far more than your modest financial gain. And that’s the difference between the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the Genuine Progress Index (GPI).

As the Faithful Reader knows, the GDP simply measures the dollar value of the goods and services exchanged in an economy. Bad things — like crime, pollution and divorce — make it rise, while a clean environment and unpaid services literally don’t count.

For the last dozen years, a little research organization called GPI Atlantic, based in St. Margaret’s Bay, has been developing a Genuine Progress Index for Nova Scotia. (Disclosure: I’ve occasionally done some writing for GPI.) The GPI assigns positive value to things like “natural capital” — a healthy environment, for example — and to unpaid work like housework and volunteer community service. Conversely, the GPI deducts the cost of undesirable things like crime, illness and pollution.

Last month, GPI Atlantic released its completed accounts, a summary of key indicators in 20 social, economic, and environmental areas. We are now among the very few jurisdictions in the world which actually know whether or not they’re moving in a desirable direction.

The good news is that, measured correctly, Nova Scotia is a wealthy province. We have a strong civil society, high rates of volunteerism, robust family relationships, high levels of home ownership, and relatively low levels of household debt, for example. The wealth that is normally uncounted makes Nova Scotia a good place to live. That’s why many tradespeople commute to Alberta rather than migrating there.

The bad news is that as our GDP rises, our real wealth often erodes. Over the past decade, for instance, Nova Scotia women have achieved more equitable pay rates, but they’re working longer hours and women do most of our volunteer work. The resulting decline in volunteerism between 1998 and 2005 “cost the province $370 million in lost voluntary services in 2005,” says GPI, “and will cost a similar amount every year that the shortfall persists.”

The decline particularly affects vulnerable groups like the elderly, the young, the disabled and the homeless. It will also harm arts and culture, after-school activities, environmental groups and churches. The result will be higher rates of crime, drug abuse and the like — which will be reflected in rising social and economic costs. The problems will be compounded by the incipient recession, since GPI Atlantic’s studies have shown that the loss of jobs and income during economic downturns also increases social unrest, illnesses and crime, especially robbery.

To avoid those ill-effects, says GPI’s Executive Director, Ron Colman, Nova Scotia should “reduce and redistribute working hours rather than laying people off.” It should also upgrade its infrastructure, and “build a more resilient and self-reliant local economy.” Yes, those actions will cost money — but inaction will cost us even more.

The same is true with environmental issues. Nova Scotia’s pioneering solid-waste program once seemed unaffordable — but it actually created jobs and businesses, and now saves Nova Scotia at least$32 million annually. By the same token, meeting the greenhouse gas reduction targets in the province’s ambitious Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act will ultimately save us more than $800 million.

If you don’t know where you’re going, said Yogi Berra, you’ll probably end up somewhere else. The Genuine Progress Index tells us where we’re going — and how fast we’re getting there. It’s a compass pointing towards a satisfying and sustainable future. Getting there is up to us.

– 30 –

Memories of War, and the Music of Peace

Sunday, November 16th, 2008

The bullet, said Johnny Mauger, went in one side of his friend’s head, but it didn’t quite come out the other. Johnny tapped his temple. The bullet made a little bulge, like a pimple, right here. His voice was soft and sad as he remembered his friend, another young kid from Cape Breton, dead in a European trench.

Johnny’s story is in The Crimson Flower of Battle, a television documentary that my friends Charlie Doucet, Scott Macmillan and I created in 1995, telling the stories of the men and women of Isle Madame during the war which had ended exactly 50 years earlier. The vets will never talk to you, their families said. Johnny absolutely refuses to talk about the war. But when I asked him, Johnny thought for a moment and then he said Yes. He and his comrades were getting old, and they needed to record their stories.

What stories they were. Boys of 16 on convoy ships, watching other ships exploding, the water burning, dying men screaming. Ships entering Liverpool after Dieppe with their scuppers running red with blood. Ace pilots telling themselves they were shooting down airplanes, not men. Slave labourers from Petit de Grat building the airport in Hong Kong.

Funny stories, too. Being captured by the Germans three times in a single day as the front line surged forward and back. Flying a plane under — that’s right, under — the Eiffel Tower. Looking beneath your tank after an air raid, and discovering a schoolmate from Arichat hiding there. Love stories, and war brides from England and Holland living quietly in Isle Madame.

I loved those people, their quietness, warmth and humility. And Johnny was right. Thirteen years later, very few survive. I remember them every November. Indeed, I remember them all the time.

On November 2, we celebrated Muriel Duckworth’s 100th birthday with a fund-raising concert for Oxfam at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in Halifax. The concert — called Stand Up! Speak Out! – began with a reception featuring 100 birthday cakes. The crowd was a virtual roll call of Nova Scotia’s movement for peace and justice.

The Women of We’koqma’q opened the show with drumming and singing. They were followed by the Truro Youth Singers, the Aeolian Singers, the Gaia Singers, the Raging Grannies and Four the Moment. The show included Muriel’s own words about peace and justice, about opera, about marriage and children. We heard a moving tribute to Muriel’s husband, the late Jack Duckworth. The afternoon concluded with a song written for Muriel by Rose Vaughan and Cheryl Gaudet.

The concert reflected Muriel’s lifelong opposition to every form of injustice — racism, sexism, poverty, disease, exploitation of all kinds. But no cause is nearer to her heart than peace. She and Jack Duckworth were pacifists during World War II, which demanded great courage, and she has been a passionate, tireless peace activist all her life.

As the Faithful Reader knows, every Christmas Marjorie and I give minor gifts to the people we love, and a larger gift to a worthwhile charity. This year, in Muriel’s honour, we’ll give that contribution to Oxfam’s Jack and Muriel Duckworth Fund for Active Global Citizenship.

The days after the concert rightly belonged to the veterans. But I kept feeling an imbalance in the remembrances, a ghostly absence in the documentaries and newspaper stories and silences. I wanted people like Muriel Duckworth at the cenotaphs, to remind us that even a just war represents a tragic human failure — and that in most wars, the nobility of the soldiers greatly outstrips the nobility of the cause. There are soldiers on both sides, after all.

I remember December 31, 1999, watching on television as the new millennium arrived in a wave that rolled clear around the globe. From every nation, in every language, in song and speech and poem, when the human race declared its most profound wish for the new millennium, we spoke — we, the people of the earth — with a single voice. What we want, we said, is peace.

That wish should be part of our remembrances. We best honour the ones we lost to war when we dedicate ourselves to peace. Then, and only then, we can tell our veterans this: You did not suffer in vain.

– 30 –

Silver Donald Cameron’s interview with Stephen Clare is now running on www.haligonia.ca

President Obama and the Rainbow Family

Sunday, November 9th, 2008

November 9, 2008

Sometimes we’re ambushed by our own emotions.

I had no idea how deeply and personally I cared about the election of Barack Obama until I found myself weeping on election night. I don’t believe that I allowed myself to hope for so much. But a huge weight lifted off me – a weight I hadn’t even known was there. This is a personal moment of liberation, and to understand it, you have to know something about my rainbow family.

Every week I write about things I care strongly about – but I never write about my children. For one thing, they didn’t choose to have a writer for a father, and they are entitled to privacy. But just once, after Obama’s astonishing triumph, I need to talk about them.

I have four sons and a daughter, and the five of them have four nationalities. They are all Canadian, but by birth, one son is American, another is Danish, and my daughter is British. They live all over the place – the West Coast, the Prairies, Ontario, the United States.

Two of my sons are adopted. The wee Dane was five months old when we met. I was courting his mother, and we used to say that all three got married together. The other adopted son is black, born in Halifax to an inter-racial teenage couple. He was nine months old when he joined my earlier family, more than 40 years ago. His partner is a white woman, but he has two adopted black children.

One of my white sons married a proud and lovely Jamaican woman, and their union gave me a delightful grandson, now 19. The colour of Barack Obama’s skin reminds me of my grandson’s, and my son’s. My daughter-in-law is more the colour of Michelle Obama, and her excitement and joy at Obama’s candidacy was inspiring.

Another white son married an enchanting Peruvian woman of Inca, Spanish and Chinese ancestry. Her parents cherish their “gringo” son-in-law, and consider us “co-parents” through the marriage of our children — a marvellous Latin American concept. That marriage has given me an adorable olive-skinned grandson.

This rainbow family – Danish, French, Irish and Scottish, with a generous component of African and vivid highlights of native, Hispanic and Asian – this Canadian rainbow family did not come about by accident. My first wife and I were not freedom riders and civil disobedients, but we lived in California in the 1960s; we were of that generation and we shared its dreams.

Later, as students in England, we became close to an Afro-American couple from Arizona, and talked for long hours with them about the gap between our races, and how our generation might close it. Those talks gave us courage to adopt a heart-melting boy who had been born into that gap – and we did it as much for our own sakes as for his. We wanted another child, but we also wanted our white children innoculated against racism by growing up with a much-loved brother from another place in the human spectrum.

But my children and grandchildren cannot be equal while there are still places that some can go and others cannot, ambitions that some can achieve and others cannot, filters that cast aside people of colour just because they are people of colour. The unidentified weight on my shoulders is the weight of racism, and Obama’s triumph liberates me, too, by affirming that there is no weight that cannot be lifted, no moat that cannot be crossed, no door so heavy that it cannot be prised open with skill and dedication and love.

Our family, like others, has known failure, sadness and loss. But we have loved and honoured the whole spectrum of humanity, and I am helplessly grateful for the experience. Our rainbow family prefigures a brighter, better world, a world we ardently wish to inhabit, a world in which everyone on earth is a part of a single, vast rainbow which is the human family.

When a black man can be President, that world I want for my kids seems immeasurably closer. And that’s why I wept on election night.

– 30 –

In Herald Square

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

November 2, 2008

In Herald Square, the air is thick with sound. Yellow taxis hoot, sirens wail, engines rumble. Thumping music spills from the open windows of passing cars. Street vendors shout: Buy bottled water! Shish kebabs! Silk scarves! Hot dogs! Bus tours, T-shirts, jewellry! A grey-bearded black man plays the trumpet beside an iron fence. Blue smoke from the barbecue carts drifts through the air, challenging the watery sunlight. Rivers of people flow over the crosswalks, shouting, arguing, bellowing into cell phones, gesticulating, laughing, snapping digital photos, eating, smoking, fiddling with the earbuds of their iPods.

It’s the last Sunday in October, but the leaves are green, the air is warm, and some of the people crowding the sidewalks wear shorts and T-shirts. Pigeons, self-possessed as policemen, peck at food scraps between the metal chairs. Here’s a table of young Asians, there’s a table of young black tour guides. A ragged old man shuffles along, clutching a greasy backpack of sad small treasures. Here comes a Muslim couple, he in a suit, she in a head scarf. Crossing in front of them are a couple of Orthodox Jews, bearded, black-suited, topped by broad black hats. What languages am I hearing? Yiddish, Farsi, Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, Urdu?

“It’s overwhelming,” says Marjorie. She’s never really been to Manhattan before, and the sheer energy of the place astounds her. With a few hours to spare before our plane to Halifax, we’ve taken the train from JFK airport into Penn Station. There’s Madison Square Garden. That’s the Empire State Building. Images from television, vivified by sounds, smells and sunlight. It’s electrifying. I once spent a lot of time here, and I love it. There are lots of other cities, but there’s only one New York.

We go into a tacky T-shirt shop. The olive-skinned proprietor wears baggy pants, a smock, a full grey beard, a skull-cap. A Turk? A Kurd? An Afghan? I can’t guess, and I don’t ask. He has six or eight Obama T-shirts, but nothing showing McCain. Why not? He shrugs. Can’t get them. If he could, he’d sell them.

McCain is missing, but Obama surrounds us. Change we can believe in! Change we need! A black guy with a tiny curbside table is selling Obama publicity materials – bumper stickers, lapel buttons, window signs, ribbons. Amazing. Where I come from, you don’t buy that stuff. Politicians give it away.

We buy some quesedillas in a Latin-American cafe. After we eat, Marjorie goes into Macy’s, the original store, six floors of temptation fronting on the square. I settle down on a chair under the trees with a mocha coffee. At the next table, a young Indian woman taps intently on her laptop. A couple of bald, tattooed young men are playing chess.

It occurs to me that this is Barack Obama’s America, this humming multicultural bazaar, and it’s evidently thrilled at the prospect of an Obama presidency. If Obama walked through Herald Square – brown, hip, lean, cool – he’d fit right in. If John McCain walked through it, he’d look like a time-traveller.

If Obama wins – and, given that the last two presidential elections were stolen, I wouldn’t be overconfident about that – he’ll be the first world leader who truly inhabits the 21st century. He’s out-pointing McCain because he’s a better thinker, a better speaker, a more stylish media presence – and he’s a full generation younger. He’s outspending McCain not because he’s wealthy – he’s not – but because he and his supporters are masters of cyber-organizing and online fundraising. McCain, on the other hand, really is wealthy. He thinks he owns 13 homes – he can’t really remember – and he has a net worth of $100 million. But he can’t find the “enter” key on a computer. Won’t do. Not in 2008.

Like Jack Kennedy, Barack Obama represents an intergenerational power shift, and a new suite of values. After facing the race issue head-on with a brilliant speech last March, Obama has campaigned as though race didn’t matter. To his generation, it doesn’t. They revel in diversity, change, creativity, communication. Here they are in Herald Square, people of the rainbow, cyber-folk in a flickering world, and the future belongs to them.

– 30 –