Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for December, 2008

Dr. Atomic

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

December 28, 2008

On July 15, 1945, as the first atomic bomb in history seared the desert sky, Robert Oppenheimer thought: “I am become Death: the destroyer of worlds.”

The line comes from the Bhagavad-Gita, and it’s included in the libretto of Dr. Atomic, a phenomenal opera about Oppenheimer and the invention of the bomb. I saw Dr. Atomic in Halifax, at one of several Empire theatres in the province that offer high-definition broadcasts of Metropolitan Opera productions. Next month, Empire and the Met will offer operas by Puccini, Berlioz and Gluck. The schedule is at Seeing grand opera live, on the big screen, with superb sound, is a glorious experience – and it’s the only way most of us can ever really see it.

Opera, says John Adams, the composer of Dr. Atomic, has “a curious ability to handle life’s biggest themes in a way no other art form can approximate” – and his theme here is the towering story of the twentieth century. Dr. Atomic evokes Faust, or Genesis, or Prometheus – legends of creation and destruction, of pride and aspiration and the mortal perils of the quest for knowledge, stories that question the very essence of human experience.

But this story is not ancient myth or drama. This is history. In outline, we all know the story – the brilliant scientists, led by Oppenheimer, sequestered in the deserts of New Mexico, working furiously to build an atomic bomb before the Nazis and the Japanese. In less than a month after their first successful test, atomic blasts vaporized Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Those explosions brought an end to World War II, and a beginning to an era of terror which persists to this day. Before Hiroshima, wars took place on well-defined battlefields, often far across the seas. After the bomb, Armageddon lurked behind every headline, and any city might be the next Hiroshima. As a child in the Cold War, I went to sleep dreading a brilliant white flash in the middle of the night that would be the last thing I would ever see.

In Dr. Atomic, Oppenheimer is sung by Gerald Finley. The central figure in the opera, Oppenheimer was a dazzling intellect – a top-rank theoretical physicist, a brilliant administrator, a linguist and a keen lover of poetry who learned Sanskrit in order to read the Bhagavad-Gita in the original. Peter Sellars’ libretto for Dr. Atomic is built from government documents, testimony and internal communications within the Manhattan Project – but also from the poets that Oppenheimer loved, notably Baudelaire, Donne and Muriel Ruykeyser.

The atomic scientists were well aware that the new weapon would cause almost unimaginable destruction and suffering, and they wrestled with that knowledge even as they pressed onward with the project. Oppenheimer himself was deeply troubled by the moral implications of the work that so consumed him, and the opera’s first act concludes with Finley’s passionate delivery of an aria based on Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV:
Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend…

The blast in the desert permanently changed the human relationship to the world. For the first time, humans were manipulating the very fabric of reality, transforming matter into energy, releasing powers far beyond their own comprehension. Oppenheimer’s scientists worried that an atomic blast might set off a chain reaction that would in a flash consume the planet’s atmosphere.

I am become Death.

Before the Manhattan Project, humans believed the world was beyond our power to harm. The fish and the forests would always regenerate. The atmosphere and the oceans were so vast that our effluents could not really damage them. After the bomb, that illusion was impossible. We went on to find many ways to endanger ourselves and the planet – poisonous chemicals, genetic engineering, greenhouse gases. The bomb opened Pandora’s box, and changed the terms of human life forever.

“In some sort of crude sense, which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish,” Oppenheimer once said, “the physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” Yes, and so have we all. Doctor Atomic delineates nothing less than a second Fall, from a second Eden. It’s a mighty achievement, an unforgettable revelation. A grand opera, in every sense of the term.

– 30 –

‘Tis the Season…

Sunday, December 21st, 2008

December 21, 2008

I wish you a Merry Christmas. And a Happy New Year. I really do.

But what would make Chistmas merry, and New Year’s happy? Good question. Two-thirds of Americans apparently dread the holiday season, because it will simply add more stuff to their lives. Christmas gifts have become the social equivalent of anti-matter. Far from delighting the recipients, Christmas gifts depress them.

I stumbled across this information in Bill McKibben’s provocative book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. In it, McKibben asks a simple question: “Is more better?” Do objects and possessions really make us happy? If not, then why pursue “economic growth,” which really means the creation of still more objects and possessions?

These are heretical questions – particularly to economists, whose odd semi-science rests on the assumption that we can tell what makes you happy (or “maximizes utility,” in econo-speak) by looking at how you spend your money. Economics assumes that people are rational and make rational choices. If you’re buying a leaf blower, then, presumably you’ve judged that of all the things you could possibly be doing at this moment, buying a leaf blower is the most satisfying.

Buying stuff makes you happy. The more stuff you can buy, the happier you’ll be. That’s the fundamental assumption of economics.

But it’s not so in the real world. In 1991, McKibben reports, “the average American family owned twice as many cars, drove two and a half times as far, used twenty-one times as much plastic, and traveled twenty-five times farther by air than did the average family in 1951.” The economy had tripled since 1950, and the size of new houses had doubled since 1970.

So those families were two or three times as happy, right?

Wrong. The proportion of Americans who say they are happy has slipped steadily since about 1950. In all the industrialized countries, increasing prosperity has been accompanied by decreasing happiness. Japan and the UK have seen huge increases in per capita incomes, but no increases in happiness. The New York Times reports that people born in the world’s wealthiest countries after 1955 are “three times as likely as their grandparents to have had a serious bout of depression.” Between 1955 and 1988, British national income rose sharply – and so did rates of crime and divorce.

And we have so much junk that a whole new industry has arisen to take care of it. One of the fastest-growing businesses in North America is self-storage.

Another whole series of studies has come at this question backwards, asking people to describe the factors that contribute to a high quality of life. About 70% give great weight to such intangibles as family life, equality, recreational opportunities, job satisfaction. The best predictors of happiness include robust health and a good marriage. Money and possessions rank very low.

So how did we get mesmerized by the notion that happiness comes from steadily rising incomes and a steadily expanding economy?

Because it’s true – but only to a point. Money and possessions do bring happiness – but (says the research) only up to about $10,000 per capita. That’s $40,000 a year for a couple with two kids, enough to provide decent shelter, an adequate diet, all the basic amenities of life. Beyond $10,000 per capita there’s no reliable correlation between money and happiness.

But our perceptions haven’t caught up with reality. We’ve become rich, but we behave as though we were still as poor as the novelist Hugh MacLennan, growing up in Glace Bay during World War I. One of his most beautiful stories, “An Orange from Portugal,” conveys his joy and wonder at the sight of a single fresh orange at Christmas.

We need a new way to celebrate Christmas, a fresh tradition that recognizes the deeper needs of affluent people. We don’t need more stuff. We need time with beloved people, silence for spiritual reflection, engagement with art, connection with nature.

I wish you a Merry Christmas. And a Happy New Year. And the wisdom to seek happiness not in the malls and the big-box stores, but in places where it can actually be found.

– 30 –

Green Wheels: Car-sharing Comes to Halifax

Monday, December 15th, 2008

December 14, 2008

“People ask me if I don’t feel worried about starting a business just at the beginning of a recession,” says Pam Cooley. “I tell them No, because I think this business is really going to help people get through the recession, so I think it’s going to do very well.”

Pam is president and co-owner of CarShareHFX, which opened up in Halifax earlier this month. The other owner is general manager Peter Zimmer. In essence, their service gives you the use of a car whenever you need one – but without the cost and hassle of owning one. More than 40,000 Canadians already belong to car-sharing services, and the number is growing rapidly.

Small wonder. On average, North Americans spend 19% of their incomes on their cars. As our belts tighten, more and more people are reducing their use of cars – living near their work, telecommuting, car-pooling, using public transit, cycling and walking. But for toting groceries or visiting the suburbs, cars remain almost indispensable.

Enter the car-sharing programs. With CarShareHFX, members pay a flat annual fee – about $250 – and an hourly rental ($10 an hour to use a car in peak periods, $3 in the small hours of the night). That’s it. The fees cover everything – gas, insurance, maintenance, even a MacPass for crossing the bridges – and are charged monthly to your credit card.

The cars – Hondas, Kias and Toyotas, including the hybrid Prius – all have automatic transmissions, air conditioning, child seat anchors, stereo systems, an emergency kit and 24/7 roadside assistance. As CarShareHFX grows, Pam and Peter hope to add bio-fuelled vehicles, prestige cars and sports cars as well as workhorses cargo vans and pickups.

To use the service, the member reserves the car online or by telephone. Cars are located in seven central locations now – six on the peninsula of Halifax, one in downtown Dartmouth, with more to come as membership grows. At the appointed time, the member goes to the shared car and places a little electronic “fob” over a transceiver inside the car window. The door unlocks. The ignition key is inside, tied on a lanyard so it won’t be accidentally taken away. Vroom. Go.

Most people, says Pam, find that they spend about as much on their car-sharing membership as they used to spend on their car insurance alone. Using a car only when they really need one, they drive far fewer miles in a year – and the one car, with its one parking place, can serve about 20 drivers. The effect on congestion, parking and emissions can be spectacular. CommunAuto, Montreal’s car-share service – the first one in North America – reckons that 250 cars in its fleet take 3500 cars off the road..

In fact, car-sharing has become so mainstream that green property developers in cities like Ottawa are including car-share memberships in the amenities of their condos, and providing space for car-share vehicles to park right inside the building. Some foresee a day when the developer’s obligation to provide parking will be sharply reduced for buildings which incorporate car-sharing in their design.

Car-sharing also has significant advantages for businesses of all sizes. For larger companies, it preserves the organization’s capital while giving employees guaranteed access to a fleet of vehicles, with every trip logged and tracked in detail. Home businesses can also husband their capital while impressing their clients by arriving at meetings in a sparkling new car.

Capital Health and the Nova Scotia Community College are already members of CarShareHFX. The province is also interested, and for the government which passed the Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act, car-sharing should be a no-brainer. Likewise with the Halifax Regional Municipality. In Philadelphia, says Pam Cooley, 55,000 people car-share – and the biggest member is the city.

But the concept will work far beyond the big city – as it does, for instance, in Nelson, BC, pop. 9300.

“Eventually, we’d also like to provide the service in smaller Maritime towns, and even in rural areas,” says Peter Zimmer. It’s quite feasible, says Pam Cooley. The key factors are simply “enthusiasm and demand.”

Nurture the planet and save money, too. Does it get much better than that?

– 30 –

The Vanishing Prime Minister

Sunday, December 7th, 2008

December 7, 2008

I fear it’s all my fault. Six weeks ago, on October 18, just two days before the federal election, I made some innocent observations about the probable results.

“Consider the results of recent polls,” I wrote, “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…. 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.”

I didn’t know that the opposition leaders read this column so carefully. And now look what I’ve done – pulled the rug from under the government, turned up the heat on the Governor-General, and detonated a constitutional crisis.


What I didn’t predict, of course, was that the Prime Minister would precipitate the new era by popping his own head into the mouth of a lion and daring it to chew – an action rooted in his own cold cleverness and his appalling lack of judgment. (If he had had his way, remember, our soldiers would be fighting in Iraq and Maher Arar would still be in a black hole in Damascus.) This self-inflicted crisis could be a career-terminating move. His main appeal to his party was that he could win. Without that aura, he’s gone.

The government has gained a few weeks of life by persuading the Governor-General to prorogue Parliament – the first-ever use of prorogation as a survival technique. The Prime Minister presumably hopes that the opposition coalition will implode between now and late January – aided, no doubt, by late-night offers of Cabinet posts and Senate seats to any wavering Liberals. Shades of Stronach.

Meanwhile, the Harperites will try to whip up the Canadian public to smite Stephane Dion for trying to do exactly what Harper tried to do in 2004, and Stockwell Day in 2000 – join with the dreaded socialists and the separatists to take power without an election. And if his government is nevertheless defeated in January, Harper might even try to persuade the Governor-General to call another election.

In politics, six weeks is forever, and Harper could yet wriggle through. With a leadership contest underway, the Liberals are ill-positioned to govern, and the cracks in the glue that binds the coalition are easy enough to see.

Still, if the coalition parties can stay focussed on what they share, they may well be able to stick-handle their way to power, and they might make a respectable government. They have powerful incentives to make their partnership work, and substantial common interests in areas like the economy and the environment.

The arrangement is risky for the NDP, which will have to tolerate policies it fundamentally detests, like corporate tax cuts and the Afghanistan mission. But the NDP may be surrounded by what Pogo the peerless possum once called “insurmountable opportunities.”

The NDP’s political achievements – which include policies like pension reform, tax reform and medicare – have always come from controlling the oxygen supply of Liberal minority governments. The trap is that if the policies work, the Liberals get the credit and the NDP gets trampled in the subsequent stampede to majority government.

But a coalition could be different. The NDP would have its own ministers within the cabinet. If those ministers were deft and nimble, they could make a real difference – and also capture the credit for their achievements.

Not the least of their achievements would be ridding us of Stephen Harper.

“You know,” said a friend last week, “I’m beginning to loathe this guy almost as much as Mulroney.”

Hold on now, buddy. That’s a big claim. I admit that Harper has united both the right and the left, strained the fabric of the nation and single-handedly rendered the population bilious and apoplectic. But challenge Mulroney? Buddy, that’s a big, big claim.

– 30 –