Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for November, 2009

The Return of the Carbon Tax

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

November 22, 2009

Lemme tell you about a carbon tax you’re gonna love. Two such taxes, actually. I tell you, kid, Stephane Dion had the right idea, but the wrong sales pitch.

The fun starts with the government giving you maybe $2000 as a carbon dividend. You like it so far? Thought so. And the government gets the money by imposing a tax on everything that emits carbon dioxide into the air. The total amount raised by the carbon tax is the same amount that’s being distributed as a dividend. So it’s a wash. The government is no better off at the end of the day.

But you’re better off, if you’ve been frugal with energy, living in a snug house with solar hot water and wood heat, travelling on public transport, eating local food. You lose a bit of your dividend in taxes on gasoline and electricity and what-not, but you get to keep a good chunk of your carbon dividend. Let’s say you pay $400 more in taxes. That money just reduces your windfall dividend. The carbon tax still leaves you $1600 ahead. You like it so far, sonny?

Fred Foulwater doesn’t.

Fred’s a carbon glutton, so he’s definitely worse off. Sure, he also gets his $2000 dividend — but he lives in a huge house in the outer suburbs, he doesn’t turn down his thermostat, and he commutes 60 km. to work in a monstrous SUV. He has a penchant for exotic tropical fruit in midwinter, and he flies a lot, so in the end he pays a lot of tax — which doesn’t exactly feel like a tax, but feels like higher prices. Let’s say Fred’s profligacy adds $3600 to his overall tax bill. So the new taxes have eaten up all of his $2000 dividend and another $1600 besides. That’s the $1600 that ended up in your pocket, buddy.

Pollute if you want. Buy junk if you like. Emit as you choose. But it’s going to cost you — and the money captured from you goes directly to your clever neighbours. As time goes by and the whole society becomes more serious about slashing emissions, the taxes and the dividend go up. Stupidity becomes more and more expensive.

Now this is simple stuff. Basic economics, kid. Raise the cost of bad behaviour. Lower the price on good behaviour. Watch things change. Why do you think cigarettes — which once cost $3 a carton — now cost $100?

That’s the first tax — easily administered, totally fair, a boon to the poor and the smart. The second one is equally simple. (It comes from the celebrated economist Jeff Rubin, who recently spoke in Halifax.) Put a hefty tax on factory emissions in the US and Canada, which will run up the price of, say, steel — but tax imported steel, too, by imposing a tariff based on the carbon emitted during its manufacture overseas.

Since North America tends to have cleaner plants, the carbon tax gives an immediate advantage to our steelmakers. And once we add the true costs of the emissions into the price of the steel, it turns out to be cheaper to make the steel where it’s going to be used. Even if the final price were identical, we still have the advantage — because we don’t have to pay, in cash and in carbon credits, to ship our steel halfway across the world.

So the jobs that used to migrate away to low-wage havens overseas start coming back. Apply the same principle to food, and food imports slow to a trickle, while local farms start making money. Our whole economy turns green and wakes up.

Environmentalists and trade unionists discover that they’re allies. They start working together. They form organizations like the Blue Green Alliance in the US — the Steelworkers, the Communications Workers, the Utility Workers and the Laborers Union on the one hand, and the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defence Fund on the other. Their slogan is Good Jobs, Clean Environment, Green Economy.

More jobs, a green economy, better air, better food. All brought to you not by magic, but by the astute application of taxes. Taxes, kid! Gotta love ‘em!

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In Dyer Straits

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

November 15, 2009

As a writer and analyst, Gwynne Dyer’s greatest strength — disregarding his formidable intelligence — is his ruthless realism, his relentlessness in pursuing a body of evidence or an argument to its inevitable conclusion, however disquieting that may be.

And his most recent book, Climate Wars (Random House, $34.99) is a disquieting volume indeed.

Most climate change books describe the impacts on the planet in geophysical terms — melting glaciers, rising sea levels, expanding deserts, more hurricanes. But the planet is not just a ball of land and water. It’s also a quilt of societies and nations that will be individually affected, with unpredictable results. Perhaps Mexicans starve and Siberians thrive, while the sea covers Holland and Bangladesh.

Their people won’t go quietly. Dyer — who spoke last week at Dalhousie University’s new College of Sustainability — is an expert on war, and his departure point is his realization that the first major effect of climate change will be “an acute and permanent crisis of food supply.” Countries that can’t feed their people “are unlikely to be ‘reasonable’ about it.” Northern European countries, for instance, may have enough food for themselves, but nothing to share. If the starving countries of southern Europe and Africa have nuclear weapons, the outlook is grim.

Military planners everywhere are already reviewing such scenarios, says Dyer, having visited leading international scientists, soldiers, bureaucrats, scholars and politicians. The experience produced some sobering conclusions. First, only fools and rascals doubt that global heating is a reality — and it’s happening much faster than expected. If we don’t eliminate global emissions of carbon dioxide by 2050, the last half of this century will be almost unimaginable chaos.

Will we meet that ambitious target for 2050? Not likely, Dyer says. To do it, we’d have to be cutting emissions by 4% annually right now, but in fact emissions are increasing by 3% a year. The only way to hold temperatures down while emissions rise (thus preventing “runaway warming” that’s entirely beyond human control) is through “geo-engineering” — seeding the sea with iron to encourage plankton growth, seeding the clouds with mist or the stratosphere with hydrogen sulphide, to make them more reflective.

But geo-engineering is fraught with “moral hazard,” the risk that people will believe that geo-engineering is an alternative to slashing emissions. It’s not. Geo-engineering, Dyer argues, is just an umbrella to shield us from sunburn while we enable the earth to re-build its natural defences. It merely buys us time.

And we need time, because the greatest risk is a major failure of politics. We have wasted twenty remarkable years of relative international tranquillity. With luck, we may have twenty more. After that, Dyer believes, huge climate disasters could produce failed states, mass migrations of starving people, and vicious wars, both civil and international.

The catastrophic casualty in those wars will be the very possibility of global co-operation which is the only way to bring down emissions and contain global heating. That possibility dies in a world where India and Pakistan nuke it out over the feeble trickles remaining in their shared rivers, where Britain and Japan hunch behind nuclear shields, where an automated killing wall along the US-Mexican border provokes an internal insurrection from Hispanic Americans.

In this nightmare world of blood, radiation, disease, starvation and chaos — ungovernable, seething with demagogues and fuhrers and apocalyptic prophets — human beings will never agree on anything, ever. Their failure potentially leads to runaway global warming and a world as toxic as Venus.

But Gwynne Dyer is not fundamentally a prophet of doom. He believes that the risks are huge and real, and that our odds of sneaking through the environmental mine-fields are not good. But he notes that human beings have made great social progress over the past two centuries — democracy, education, the welfare state. He has watched humanity get through its “mid-term exam,” avoiding the risk of destroying civilization through nuclear war. The final exam is about our ability to salvage our world by exercising the adult virtues of self-restraint and co-operation.

We have, he thinks, “at least some chance of passing it. And how interesting the long future that stretches out beyond it will be, if we do pass.”

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Down on the Farm

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

November 8, 2009

“Given that food is as important to our well-being as health care and education,” says Jennifer Scott, “it is curious that farmers are finding it so difficult to squeeze out a living from farming, while people in the other two sectors generally have salaries, benefits, vacation time, and pension plans.”

Never thought of it quite that way, but I should. We all should. People without medical care and education are in a sorry state, agreed. But people without food are dead.

Jennifer Scott, an agricultural economist and consultant, spoke at the first Nova Scotia Food Summit in Wolfville in mid-October. A part-owner of a farm herself, she had co-authored a 2008 GPI Atlantic report on the economic viability of farms and farm communities. The news was grim.

In four of the previous six years, Nova Scotia farmers had been operating at a loss, earning less from their products than it cost to produce them, trapped in a vise-like squeeze between high costs and low prices. Between 1971 and 2006 — except in supply-managed sectors like dairy and poultry — farm expenses went up by 13%, while farm incomes went down by 91%.

Why? A few consolidated corporations control farm “inputs” like fertilizer and seed, and another tight club of grocery corporations controls the retail sector. Between 1986 and 2006, the prices of farm products declined 15% in comparison to farm inputs, and 24% in comparison to grocery store prices. The farm suppliers and the food stores were carving themselves a much bigger slice of the pie. The farmers were getting shafted — along with the consumers.

Our farmers are also hammered by free trade and international industrial agriculture. Vast irrigated acreages soaked in fertilizer and pesticides, harvested by automated machinery. Cattle feedlots the size of small counties. Greenhouses and chicken prisons as big as farms used to be. Economies of scale. Grow the stuff in California, Chile, China, wherever it’s cheap. Load containers. Despatch ships. Reap profits.

So this province, which once had four million acres under cultivation, now has only one million. Eighty-five years ago there were nearly 50,000 farms here. Today there are fewer than 4000. Nova Scotias wolf down 100,000 beef cattle a year, and 95,000 of them are imported. A century ago we were exporters of beef.

Well, too bad for the farmers — but why should you and I care?

That’s what the Food Summit was all about, bringing together every interest group in the food system, starting with farmers. Agriculture already contributes enormously to our prosperity — over $460 million in direct spending, of which 92.5% remains within the province. Farming sustains more than 10,000 jobs in towns like Truro, Oxford, Antigonish.

The spiritual and social contribution of farming is even greater. Farming is the bridge between the city and the wilderness, the perpetual link between every human being and the natural world. It is fundamentally a co-operative venture, sustaining small towns and bringing people together to produce utterly essential products.

But perhaps the most important contribution of farming is security.

The industrial food system is absurdly unsustainable, and its lunacies place all Nova Scotians at risk. Our food, says heritage seed guru Tom Stearns, is “marinated in oil.” The fertilizers and pesticides all derive from oil. Irrigation relies on oil. Diesel delivers the products. It’s all balanced on a knife-edge, totally reliant on cheap oil. When the oil price touched $147 a barrel, the whole fantasy apparatus faltered. At $300 a barrel, or $500, it will stop.

And then what?

At that point, said Dr. Ralph Martin of the NS Agricultural College, prices will soar, and local farms will prosper — but our job is to keep them alive till that happens. That’s why the people at the Food Summit were eager to hear about the expansion of farmers’ markets, about community-supported agriculture, local-food restaurants, local food in schools and hospitals, and other ways of connecting farmers directly with consumers. One quite poignant objective is simply to increase public respect for farmers.

The Summit ended up calling for a Food Council, to pursue these ideas, and to advocate for a food system much more deeply committed to local production and distribution. Good idea. And not a moment too soon.

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Talkin’ with TED

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

November 1, 2009

I once thought that television would be the greatest educational tool ever created. Quaint, eh? But the Internet could be different. And nothing makes me more hopeful than the TED Talks.

TED stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design,” and began in 1984 as a conference on those three themes. It now covers the whole world of ideas science, the arts, politics, education, culture, business, global issues, technology and development.

“We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world,” declares the TED web site ( www.ted.com). “So we’re building here a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.”

Membership has its price — $6000 a year, which includes attendance at its annual conference. (The conference alone used to cost $4400, and it was by invitation only.) The speakers are a Who’s Who of movers and shakers James Watson (who discovered DNA), Bill Clinton, Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, the Google guys, chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall, Billy Graham, novelist Isabel Allende, Al Gore, and dozens more. Scientists, inventors, political analysts, architects, peacemakers, authors, engineers, you name it, more than five hundred in all. Among the Canadian contributors is the current CBC’s Massey Lecturer, Wade Davis. The only Nova Scotian I identified was Natalie MacMaster, who spoke eloquently through her fiddle.

TED Talks are capped at 18 minutes, and more than 500 have now been posted on the Web. Among other things, they’re a free video library of the world’s great masters of the art of public speaking people like the astonishing Tony Robbins, who appeared in Halifax a few months ago. Robbins’ presentations often include teaching participants to firewalk, trotting barefoot across a bed of burning charcoal. He calls himself a “peak performance coach,” and is said to earn $30 million a year at it.

Much of what Robbins says consists of truisms, standard motivational exhortations about focussing on your goals, harnessing your emotions and so on but truisms are truisms because they contain a good deal of truth. Robbins’ TED Talk is absolutely compelling because he believes in his message so profoundly and has such an astonishing capacity to engage the audience. At one point he lists the typical excuses people give for failure. Didn’t have… the time, the money, the resources… Didn’t have…

“…the Supreme Court!” calls a voice from the audience. The camera swings around to reveal an impishly-grinning Al Gore. Robbins who is six-foot-seven bounces off the stage, high-fives Gore, bounces back up and cheerfully responds that in his opinion, if Gore had presented himself to the electorate with the passion and clarity he showed in An Inconvenient Truth, the election would never have gone to the Supreme Court in the first place.

The array of TED presenters is astonishing. Recently, roboticist David Hanson showed TED audiences the prototype of an “empathetic robot,”with leading-edge latex skin, tiny cameras in its eyes, sophisticated algorithms in its silicon brain, and a complex set of motors that mimic the muscles in a human face. The result is a realistic-looking “Einstein” that follows your face, frowns when you frown and smiles back when you smile.

At the other end of the spectrum is William Kamkwamba, a young Malawian who, at 14, read a library book that explained how electricity can be generated. Scavenging a car fan and a bicycle generator, he built a rudimentary wind-generator that produced enough electricity to power four light bulbs and two radios — the first electricity his family had ever had.

Among the all-time favourites among the TED speakers is British educator Sir Ken Robinson, very entertainingly making the case that creativity is our most valuable human quality and that our schools systematically mash creativity out of children. Almost all kids are endlessly creative, bold, imaginative and fearless, but such qualities rarely survive exposure to the educational system.

Robinson illustrates his point by describing a young girl concentrating ferociously on a picture she was creating. What, a teacher asked, was she drawing?

“A picture of God,” said the girl.

“But nobody knows what God looks like,” said the teacher.

“They will in a minute,” replied the girl.

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The Soul of the Celts

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

October 25, 2009

When Marjorie’s sister Zoe and her husband Garney proposed to visit from BC, we suggested the week of Celtic Colours, with three concerts, lots of visiting and a tour through the blazing woodlands of the Cabot Trail.

Oddly enough, the concert in D’Escousse began with two BC teenagers, Qristina and Quinn Bachand, students of “the great Ashley MacIsaac.” It ended with Le Vent du Nord, a powerful, mediaeval-sounding band from Quebec. But the player whose presence accounted for the sell-out crowd was Ashley MacIsaac himself, accompanied by 13-year-old Quinn Bachand.

Cape Breton produces innumerable top-level fiddlers — but occasionally one emerges with a towering gift that continually ripens as the musician matures. People talk about them in slightly hushed tones: Dan R. MacDonald, Winston “Scotty” Fitzgerald, Angus Chisholm. Ashley MacIsaac has gone through several phases — child prodigy, rocker, punk-fiddlin’ bad boy — but at 34, with a 20-year career already behind him, he is simply phenomenal. His interpretations of standard tunes are both faithful to the tradition and effervescent with fresh nuances and riffs. With non-traditional material — like “Listen to the Mockingbird” — he plays like a man possessed.

The Irish concert in Lower River Inhabitants starred two Gaelic singers and two fiddlers from the Ould Sod, Jimmy McBride and Eamonn Mac Donncha, Martin McGinley and Maire O’Keeffe. Cape Breton was represented by Andrea Beaton, whose smooth, hard-driving style led Marjorie to dub her “The Velvet Train.” The delightful discovery was Irish harpist Laoise Kelly, who improbably steered her other-worldly instrument from plangent airs to jumping jigs and red-hot reels.

The Glendale concert, headed by Mary Jane Lamond, brought back the Irish singers, along with fiddlers Doug Lamey and the Wendy MacIsaac. This is an intimate culture; Lamey’s grandfather was the renowned Bill Lamey, and the ever-entertaining Wendy MacIsaac is Ashley’s cousin, and in mid-concert Mary Jane crooked a finger and drew an audience member up to the stage to step-dance.

One of the most attractive features of the culture — and one of the secrets of its durability — is its easy inclusiveness. Tracy Dares plays big, bright, inventive piano music, and when Wendy asked her for a set, Tracy began with a slow air by Jerry Holland, a Bostonian who became a towering figure in Cape Breton and died last July at 54. Grief at his loss hung like a whiff of autumn smoke in all these concert halls.

The same inclusiveness creates an instinctive respect for the talents of children. Three generations are always visible in Cape Breton music: the venerable elders, the mid-life masters and the eager fledglings. Dan R. shares the stage with Sandy MacIntyre and a stripling named John Morris Rankin. A few years later, Buddy MacMaster and the Rankin Family share with Ashley and Wendy MacIsaac and their contemporaries. Now Ashley plays with Quinn Bachand.

Our visitors had wondered how many listeners actually understood Gaelic, and were fascinated to hear the low hum of dozens of people singing along with Mary Jane’s Gaelic songs. Knowing the language, Mary Jane knows the culture deeply, and her laconic accounts of the stories behind her songs were among the great pleasures of the evening.

Now I’d love to describe the scorching colours of the Highland hillsides, the pleasures of staying at the lovingly-restored MacNeil House at the Silver Dart in Baddeck and the Duncreigan Inn in Mabou. I want to praise the cooking at the Celtic Touch Bakery and Pizzeria in Dingwall, and evoke vistas of silver sea under black clouds, and the shock of finding three inches of wet snow on the road as we crept down French Mountain into Cheticamp. And I have no space to do that.

But I absolutely must report that we stopped for fishcakes and home-made beans at the Celtic Music Interpretation Centre in Judique, and the featured musician who played as we ate was Ashley MacIsaac. He was aflame that day, magnificent and generous, and I thought again of the paradox of Celtic music: that a people so shy and reserved should engender a music of such passion and abandon. These artists are the best in the world at what they do — and it is the hunger and discernment of their audiences that fires them.

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