Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for September, 2010

Tim O’Neill’s Can Opener

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

September 26, 2010

A venerable joke places a physicist, a chemist and an economist on a desert island. They’re starving. A can of soup washes ashore. They have no can-opener. The physicist says, “Let’s smash the can open with a rock.” The chemist says, “Let’s build a fire and heat the can till it ruptures.” The economist says, “Assume a can-opener.”

The semi-science of economics rests on assumptions. When you consider the findings of an economist, think first about his or her assumptions.

Consider, for example, the findings of Tim O’Neill’s recent report on universities.

O’Neill is an astute, experienced and public-spirited man — a former professor at St. Mary’s University, a former president of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, a former vice-president of the Bank of Montreal, a devoted citizen. Commissioned by the government to review Nova Scotia’s university system, O’Neill assumes that future university enrolment will decline while government funding will grow slowly if at all. Therefore the major challenge will be “to manage growing financial pressures and looming system over-capacity in the face of anticipated enrolment declines.”

Too many seats, too few bums, and too little public money. Those are the trends, O’Neill assumes they will continue, and they allow little room for maneuver. If less money comes from the government, more will have to come from student tuition. The universities already share library services and purchasing, but possibly more can be saved by merging such administrative functions as industrial liaison offices. “Over-capacity” means that some small universities may have to merge or affiliate with larger ones.

All this tinkering follows logically from his perfectly reasonable assumptions. But are those the only assumptions? As it happens, CBC’s Sunday Edition ran a panel discussion at Dalhousie on the question, “Is University Education Worth the Cost?” just a few days before the O’Neill report’s release. At the panel, speakers like Jim Turk of the Canadian Association of University Teachers raised questions that went far beyond the O’Neill framework.

The present system assumes that post-secondary education is mainly about future earnings, and mainly benefits the student, who is therefore expected to pay an increasingly outrageous price for it. But, Turk noted, we accept that high school should be tuition-free, because we all benefit from a literate, educated population.

If that’s true for secondary education, why isn’t it true for post-secondary education? Indeed, many European countries accept that logic and do provide free post-secondary education. The idea was floated here a couple of years ago by Joan McArthur-Blair, former president of the Nova Scotia Community College. It has a lot to recommend it.

The flip side of a free-tuition system, Jim Turk explained, is a progressive income tax, so that we do recapture our investment when a student does prosper. Students who choose low-earning careers — in day-care centres, say, or as artists — will not be burdened with a huge debt. And we can adjust the tax rates to suit our requirements.

Unaffordable? Other CBC panelists noted that Canada can afford $100 billion in tax cuts, $16 billion for high-testosterone fighter jets and $10 billion to build new prisons for 3400 additional inmates, each of whom will cost more than $100,000 a year to support. That’s an annual commitment of $3.4 billion. At the provincial level, our highways cost $3 or $4 million a kilometer, and people are seriously suggesting that we toss $150 million at a deeply dubious convention centre project.

Our spending decisions starkly reveal that our problem is not money but priorities. Canadians are wealthier than they’ve ever been. We just don’t choose to invest our money in the brains and creativity of our young people.

Free tuition coupled with a sharply-graduated income tax would turn the present system right-side up — supporting education not by piling debt on struggling young people but by levying fair taxes on people who could well afford them. That ought to be our goal, and Tim O’Neill might at least have noted such possibilities.

In fairness, nobody commissioned O’Neill to dream. But he would have served us better if he had. As South Pacific’s Bloody Mary said, “You got to have a dream. If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”

– 30 —

Our Greatest Companions

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

September 19, 2010

I pushed the shovel into the earth, lifted it and swung it to one side. MacTavish pounced on the hole and began digging furiously. He backed off as I took another shovelful, then pounced back and started digging again. The third time, I finally caught on, and a whole afternoon’s behaviour suddenly made sense.

My dog was helping me work. That’s why he’d been right in my face as I worked on the wooden walkway. That’s why he was guarding the tools, standing on the next board to be screwed down, hanging in close to me wherever I walked.

He’s a working dog, a Shetland Sheepdog, very bright and observant. I was working, and he was pitching in. It sounds preposterous, but no other explanation makes sense.

Channel-surfing that evening, Marjorie and I came upon a PBS program called Nature — and this episode was about dogs. The relationship between dogs and humans, the program noted, is unique. We have close relationships with other animals — the cat, the horse, the camel — but with no other animal do we have the same level of intimacy or the variety of shared activities that we do with dogs.

Dogs live in our houses, play with our children, do the tricks we ask of them, eat our food, warn off intruders, sleep in our beds. They hunt with us, protect our property, rescue swimmers, guide blind people, track criminals and lost children, sniff out drugs and cadavers and much, much more. Many breeds have special talents and adaptations. Sled dogs bear their puppies right on the ice, subsist on snow and blubber, and can run five marathons in a day. One can argue plausibly that human beings could not possibly have settled in the Arctic but for their relationship with dogs.

The most intelligent of dogs, by common consent, is the Border Collie, developed along the Scottish border as a herding dog. The PBS program showed a couple of Border Collies working on the steep slopes of the English fells with a shepherd. The shepherd whistled his commands continuously, sounding almost like a bo’sun’s pipe, and the collies maneuvered the sheep accordingly. Bring them over here. Get them across the brook. Look back, you’ve missed one. The rapport between shepherd and dog was uncanny.

Dogs evolved from wolves at about the same time that human beings settled down in agricultural villages — and, although evolution normally takes hundreds of thousands of years, the dog emerged in an eyeblink of 5-7000 years. How is that possible?

Dmitri Belyaev, a Soviet geneticist, may have found the answer. In the 1950s, even after generations in captivity, silver foxes were still wild animals, wary and hostile. Seeking a more manageable, less aggressive fur fox, Belyaev bred the tamest foxes together. After 18 generations of selective breeding, his foxes would approach people, play games and come when called. Even more surprisingly, their coats were no longer silver-black, but piebald. Their ears were floppy, their tails curled upward, and they barked. By breeding only for tameness, Belyaev had effectively transformed foxes into dogs.

Fascinating. And perhaps that’s what happened in mesolithic villages. Perhaps the tamest wolves began hanging around the settlements, scavenging the garbage, cautiously developing a rapport with humans, and speedily evolving into dogs. The more tame the animals, the more they worked together with humans, the better they fared.

No doubt the same was true of humans. The ones who got on well with the proto-dogs had companions in hunting, protection from other animals, and warm bodies to hug in the chilly nights. For Australia’s aborigines, a really cold night is a “three-dog night,” when you need the body heat of three dogs to stay warm.

Digging away beside me, MacTavish is enjoying his work. He and I are the beneficiaries of a sad, brilliant strategy. The wild wolves are now down to a few hundred thousand. Their domesticated descendants number in the hundreds of millions. MacTavish’s ancestors made a wise choice. And so, I think, did mine.

– 30 —

Silver Donald Cameron’s environmental web site, www.TheGreenInterview.com, will be officially launched tomorrow afternoon at 2:00 at Mount Saint Vincent University. The event will be webcast live by haligonia.ca. For further details, see Silver Donald’s blog on The Green Interview site, or visit his Facebook page.

The Beetle and the Feedback

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

September 12, 2010

The valleys of the Interior of British Columbia are like slashes in the earth’s skin — deep, steep, dramatic, falling precipitously into dark, narrow lakes. The landscape looks like frozen violence, the product of a time when tectonic plates collided, their edges crumpling and folding under the unimaginable force of crustal jockeying.

But the violence is not frozen, and the jockeying is not over. The plates are still moving. Their sudden shifts are earthquakes, and their vents are volcanoes. These mountains and valleys are part of a stupendous “Ring of Fire” that surrounds the entire Pacific Ocean.

We think of geology as finished, complete, the world having been made ready for its masters. But geology is never finished. Nature is always a work in progress. On our recent trip, Marjorie and I enjoyed the hot springs of Ainsworth and Nakusp. What heats that water? The hell-fires in the basement of the mountains.

The slopes of these valleys should be a uniform swath of green: spruce and fir, pine and cedar. In 2010, however, great rusty smudges on the mountainsides mark the corpses of vast numbers of dead trees. British Columbia is suffering from a massive mountain pine beetle infestation, and more than a billion of its trees have died. The infestation stretches south to Colorado and east to Alberta.

The villainous beetle is a little black bug about the size of a grain of rice. It lays its eggs under the bark of pine trees, and when the eggs hatch, the larvae eat the white phloem layer under the bark, cutting off the tree’s supply of water and nutrients. The beetle does have predators — woodpeckers, for instance — but the predators have been overwhelmed by the sheer size of the infestation.

The factor that normally controls the beetle population is cold weather. For the last decade, however, even the normally-cold Interior has had mild winters, while the summers have been sizzling. Marjorie and I spent 21 broiling days in BC last month, and the alleged rainforest gave us only one day of rain. This is thoroughly novel. BC’s summers used to be warm but moist.

This is climate change in action. And here’s the kicker: BC’s forests have normally been a huge sink for carbon, sucking carbon dioxide out of the air and sequestering its carbon within the trees. When trees die, however, they slowly but inexorably release all that stored CO2.

The shocking result is that BC’s forests have not only stopped absorbing carbon, they’re now emitting it — and on a huge scale. Last year, the carbon emissions from the dying forests were larger than all the human emissions in BC — and roughly double the size of the emissions from the Alberta tar sands.

This is a positive feedback loop — an outcome that amplifies the original cause. Emissions change the climate, and the changed climate creates even more emissions. The result is a self-feeding, intensifying spiral. There’s a feedback loop in the Arctic, where ice cover has normally reflected the sun’s heat back into space. As the ice shrinks, the dark water absorbs heat, and the remaining ice shrinks ever faster.

Another feedback loop is the ice-and-gas crystals known as “clathrates,” which exist at the bottom of the sea and form the permafrost in some parts of the Arctic. Clathrates sequester methane gas, which is more than 20 times as potent a climate-warming agent as carbon dioxide. As temperatures rise, however, clathrates disintegrate and the methane escapes into the atmosphere, driving up the temperatures.

The eventual result of such feedback loops, scientists hypothesize, could be runaway global warming, where feedback loops keep reinforcing one another and the process becomes self-fuelling and irreversible, speeding up like a snowball rolling down a hill.

If it can’t be stopped, it would be smarter not to start it. The emissions caused by the pine beetle were a shock to scientists — but who knows what other high-risk feedback loops we may be creating? Human civilization evolved over the past 10,000 years, nurtured by a period of uncharacteristically stable and temperate climate. For us, this hospitable climate is utterly indispensable. We should treat it with reverential care.

– 30 –

Progress Traps

Sunday, September 5th, 2010

September 5, 2010

“Archaeology is the best tool for looking ahead,” says Ronald Wright. Written history is useful, he agrees, but archaeology doesn’t depend on the relatively recent invention known as writing, and the information it provides is difficult or impossible to fake. The location of Babylon or Chichen Itza is not a matter of opinion. We know where the ruins are.

A tall, lean man in a blue oxford shirt and tan trousers, Wright is talking quietly but intensely in his hilltop home in Salt Spring Island, BC. He is a diligent student of failed civilizations, picking through their remains for clues to their failures. This is not an academic exercise. The fate of our own civilization is at best uncertain. If we understand what happened to our predecessors, perhaps we can avoid their fatal errors.

Wright has written several books about past civilizations. I am here to ask him particularly about his 2004 Massey Lectures, published as A Short History of Progress. Progress is one of the foundational ideas of our culture — the notion that the future will be different from, and better than, the past. That’s an increasingly doubtful proposition.

Consider one of the most powerful ideas to emerge from Wright’s work, his concept of “progress traps.”

A progress trap, Wright explains, is an idea or a technology that generates splendid results at first — but leads to a deadly, impossible end. Take weapons, for instance. At the outset, improved weapons meant a better food supply, and a major advantage in conflicts with other humans. The flint arrow, the bronze knife, the long-bow, the rifle. But with the new weapons we hunted game animals to extinction — and the end result of progress in weaponry is the hydrogen bomb.

That’s a progress trap. And indeed, the whole idea of progress may be a trap. Progress, Wright has written, “has an internal logic that can lead beyond reason to catastrophe.” The Garden of Eden story probably has its roots in Mesopotamia, where, over the centuries, people cut down the forests and plowed up the ground, stripping away the earth’s resilience. The rains brought soil erosion and legendary flash floods — perhaps including Noah’s — and the terrain became almost uninhabitable.

“Human beings drove themselves out of Eden,” Wright concludes, “and they have done it again and again by fouling their own nests.” The short-lived 21st-century BC Empire of Ur, he writes, shows the paradigm — failing to change social beliefs and practices to adapt to changing conditions, “robbing the future to pay the present, spending the last reserves of natural capital on a reckless binge of excessive wealth and glory.” The result was “a collapse from which southern Mesopotamia has never recovered.”

Does that sound at all familiar?

“The lesson I read in the past,” Wright concludes, “is this: that the wealth of land and water — and of woods, which are the keepers of water — can be the only lasting basis for any civilization’s survival and success.”

Refugees from earlier failed civilizations could move on to other places and try again. Today, however, civilization is global. This time we cannot flee. As a sign at the Copenhagen summit noted, “There is no Planet B.”

Are we doomed? Perhaps not. The civilizations of China and Egypt survived for millennia, and we have a unique advantage over earlier cultures, namely the knowledge of how they failed — and how we might avoid their fate. But the time is short, and the demands on our culture are profound. It’s up to us to prove that civilization itself is not just a vast progress trap.

“We have the tools and the means to share resources, clean up pollution, dispense basic health care and birth control, set economic limits in line with natural ones,” Wright declares. “If we don’t do these things now, while we prosper, we will never be able to do them when times get hard. Our fate will twist out of our hands. And this new century will not grow very old before we enter an age of chaos and collapse that will dwarf all the dark ages in our past.”

– 30 —

Silver Donald Cameron is the author of the just-released book A Million Futures. His video interview with Ronald Wright will be posted at www.thegreeninterview.com later this year.