Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for May, 2009

Voting for Clarity and Sanity

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

May 17, 2009
The biggest single advance that Nova Scotians could gain from this election might be the adoption of the Genuine Progress Index as the province’s core measure of success.

In theory, this should be simple. The GPI (www.gpiatlantic.org) is all about our progress towards a society which cares for people and the environment — and in 2007, the province adopted the Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act, a deeply sane piece of legislation entirely in tune with the GPI. The EGSPA commits the province to fully integrate environmental sustainability and economic prosperity. Its two primary goals are to ensure that Nova Scotia has one of the cleanest and most sustainable environments in the world by 2020, and also that the province’s economic performance is equal to or above the Canadian average by 2020.

Bravo. And that Act grew out of the 2006 Opportunities for Sustainable Prosperity development strategy, which recognized — as does the GPI — that the our future well-being depends on the way we steward five forms of capital: financial capital, social capital, environmental capital, built capital and human capital.

All this happy talk is endorsed by all three political parties. As Ron Colman, Executive Director of GPI Atlantic, likes to say, these ideas represent consensus values.

“No politician argues in favour of more pollution, more poverty, more family breakdown, more obesity,” Colman says. “Rodney MacDonald doesn’t stand up and say, ‘Vote for me and I promise you the air quality will be worse.’ Darrell Dexter doesn’t say, ‘Vote for me and crime will be worse.’ We all know that certain things are good and others are bad, and we pretty much agree on what those things are.”

So what’s the problem?

The problem is the addiction of politicians to the notion of ”economic growth,” which is code for a rising Gross Domestic Product — even though the Gross Domestic Product ignores the things that the EGSPA says we care about.

Electrical engineers use a measure called the signal-to-noise ratio, which compares the level of a desired signal –speech, for instance — to the level of background noise. If it’s hard to make sense of the speech because of the static, the signal-to-noise ratio is poor.

The GPI filters out the static, and makes sense of the conversation. The GDP simply measures economic noise.

Anything that makes money change hands increases GDP. If we declared war on New Brunswick, or made divorce mandatory, or encouraged terrorist attacks in Malagash and Antigonish, all of that would make the economy “grow” again. .

Silly? Sure. But primitive tools like the GDP prevent us from measuring our progress towards the goals we all agree on, and thus prevent us from developing intelligent policies in a timely way. Using the GDP for policy purposes is like getting on the scales to measure your collar size. You’ll get a number, certainly, but the number won’t be useful.

For example, the GDP took the constantly-rising levels of groundfish catches in the 1980s to mean that the fishery was doing fine — just before it collapsed. The GPI would have asked whether we were leaving enough fish in the sea as natural capital to sustain such catches. Quite clearly, we were not.

Today, the GDP reports that farm cash receipts have grown. So farmers are doing well? No: GPI Atlantic reports that the cost of farming has grown even more. Nova Scotia farmers are losing money, farms are vanishing, and our food supply is increasingly insecure. That’s the signal, but it’s lost in the noise of the GDP, so it’s inaudible to the public and the politicians.

GPI studies reveal that unemployment generates crime, stress and family breakdown. Please applaud Stanfield’s in Truro and Composites Atlantic in Lunenburg, who are meeting this recession by reducing working hours rather than laying off workers. That prevents a great deal of human misery — all of which would have registered as positive for the GDP.

During this election, an informal alliance of environmental and other non-government groups will be pushing all the parties to adopt the GPI as Nova Scotia’s yardstick for progress. The initiative deserves everyone’s support. When the candidate tells you she’s going to get the economy growing, ask her how she’ll measure success. If she doesn’t know the answer, tell her. These are our leaders. Make them follow us.

– 30 —

The Sea at the Centre of the World

Monday, May 11th, 2009

May 10, 2009

“Here’s something you might enjoy,” said Marjorie, passing me a book. “I found it at Value Village.”

Southern Winds: Escaping to the Heart of the Mediterranean, by Sebastian Smith. Published by Penguin in 2004. Never heard of the book, never heard of the author. But it turned out to be one of the most literate and original sailing books I’ve ever read.

Southern Winds records a cruise from Provence to Sicily, Tunisia, Greece and back to Gibraltar in a fiberglass version of a 26-foot Scandinavian Folkboat. It’s a bewitching cruise over legendary sea-routes. The Mediterranean — “the sea at the centre of the world” — is the beginning of all Western voyaging, the sea where Phoenicians and Greeks learned to navigate the unruly waters and ride the shifting winds on their errands of exploration, trade and war. This wine-dark sea, as Homer called it, gave us the founding voyage of Western culture, the long homecoming of Odysseus to the little Greek island of Ithaka.

Smith and his partner Adele are both congenital travellers of pan-European origins and no fixed address. Smith was born in Spain, but spent his youth rambling with his father all over Europe and America. His family has been “in movement for a century from Russia to Germany, from Germany to anywhere but Germany, from one ocean of America to the other, from Europe to America and back again.”

Like all good sailing writers, Smith writes only enough about the actual sailing to give us a sense of voyaging but his descriptions are vivid. Sailing east from Sicily to Ithaka while hordes of birds are migrating north overhead, the little boat runs into a thunderstorm.

“Heavy, round, cold drops of rain fell, but the sea was smooth as if the waves had been cowed, and Shamaal heeled, running fast in the gathering wind. What a night: unfit for small boats and even more so for the small birds. From the north-east blew that cold, bullying wind, not at all what they or we wanted. Lightning wove through the sky and thunder gunned from moonburnt clouds.”

Sharp and elegant. But what really captivates Smith is the people he meets, and the ancient world they inhabit. The Corsican fisherman who could pass for the wind god Aeolus. The Bedouins who guide the travellers during a five-day trek in the Sahara. The 70 people who live on the Greek island of Iraklia, and whose deeply-patterned life resembles “a very slow-moving play, already deep into what was a record-breaking run of nobody knew how many seasons.” All this against a sun-baked backdrop of ruined temples, fallen columns, sunken marketplaces.

And the winds, the winds! The travellers are held in Iraklia for 12 days by an early-arriving meltemi, the fierce north wind of the Aegean Sea. The winds that rule the Mediterranean have been exploited and feared for millennia — the northerly mistral and tramontana; the easterly levanter; the westerly zephyros and gregale; the southerly ghibli and sirocco. Some of the names, indeed, survive from the time of Odysseus, and are inscribed on the Tower of Winds in Athens.

This tower, built in the first century BC, “has eight marble walls, each depicting a wind personified as a winged god.” It was a centre of learning, its roof used for celestial observation, its walls sporting sun-dials and a water-driven clock. Its eight directions are precisely correct, though the tower was erected 1000 years before the advent of the magnetic compass. The descendant of that tower is the “wind rose,” the forerunner of the compass rose that appears on every nautical chart to this day.

Smith loves and reveres the winds, and perhaps it was the wind which blew his book to me. It has apparently never been published in America, but only in England. (A few copies are available on Abebooks.com.) But cruising sailors are demonic readers, and almost every marina and yacht club boasts a swap shelf where sailors can exchange books. I like to think that this book crossed the Atlantic under sail and was swapped around the waterfront before washing up at Value Village and coming home to me. I’m grateful to Aeolus (and Marjorie) for the gift.

– 30 —

The Trajectory of Christian Hamuli

Monday, May 11th, 2009

May 3, 2009

In 1990, when Christian Hamuli was eighteen years old, government commandos attacked the University of Lubumbashi, where he was studying to be an engineer like his uncle. Lubumbashi is the second-largest city in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was then ruled by the notorious Joseph Mobutu. Supported by the United States because he opposed communism, the tyrannical Mobutu ruled for 32 bloody years.

But he was afraid of ideas, and therefore of students and teachers.

“Mobutu was actually obsessed with university students,” Christian explains. “ Universities have free speech, and they have young people that learn new things and start seeing flaws in the system. Then they rebel. So that is dangerous to someone like Mobutu.”

Christian survived the attack, and later returned to his studies.Three years later, however, his family was attacked, and his only brother just 15 years old was executed with a bullet to his forehead.

“That’s when I said no, this country is doomed,” he says. “And I left.”

He made his way to Kenya, where he survived for a year and a half. A sympathetic Canadian suggested he move to Uganda because it would be easier to claim refugee status from a country that, unlike Kenya, borders on Congo. In Uganda, supporting himself as a French teacher, he applied as a refugee student, but no Canadian engineering school would accept him. A friendly Canadian official suggested that he apply as an immigrant worker.

“God bless that visa officer,” says Christian. He got the visa and landed in Edmonton. He was entitled to a year of public support, but after a month he had learned to write a resume, and he got a job working in a laundry from 8:30 to 5:00 AM.

“After six months I said No, this is going to kill me intellectually. I told my manager I wanted to go back to school.” The manager promoted him and moved him to the day shift but after a year Christian still wanted to go back to school. He got a student loan and enrolled in Grant MacEwen College in a university transfer program. He had been out of school for eight years.

He kept working Sundays at the laundry, putting in 10-hour shifts which made it hard to stay awake Monday in class. But he completed first-year engineering and transferred to the University of Alberta. His African mind-set had induced him to study civil engineering, which is desperately needed in Africa but a fellow student suggested he think more about his future in Canada. So Christian switched to petroleum engineering.

Because he had taken out a student loan, he had been eligible for a Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation bursary and because he was also studying a petroleum-related subject, he was eligible for a $3000 scholarship funded by the World Petroleum Council to commemorate a WPC Congress held in Calgary in 2000. The Foundation administers the program in partnership with 49 post-secondary institutions, and the scholarships are conferred by automation rather than by application. The Foundation sends to the institutions a list of bursary recipients who are studying in the target disciplines. The institutions send back the grades of the students. The top 200 get scholarships.

Christian got his notification in the mail. “It was like an angel came up with this!” he says. He quit his job, focussed on his studies, and graduated in 2005. He was invited to address an industry conference in Montreal, where he met “a man of great spirit” named David Boone, an important oilman who subsequently guided the young graduate to his present position with the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board.

Christian Hamuli sits in the lobby of the EUB headquarters building in Calgary, smiling and talking about how he loves his job.He recently married and bought a house. He has just returned from his first visit in 15 years to his parents in Congo, and he is saddened by the state of his native country. He hopes to do something for Congo some day. But he is living in the here and now. He hopes soon to start a family, and, he says gratefully, “I wouldn’t want to be in any other country than Canada.”

– 30 –

Silver Donald Cameron is writing a book on the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation.