Silver Donald Cameron

Progress Traps

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.”

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

A Million Futures

August 29th, 2010

August 29, 2010

When Hamoon Ekhtiari came to Toronto from Teheran in 2001, he was just 17 and he spoke only Farsi. By January, 2009, he found himself speaking to former Prime Minister Jean Chretien at a large dinner at Power Corporation’s headquarters in Montreal. Hamoon was enrolled in a master’s degree program in mathematics and chartered accounting at the University of Waterloo, and he was already working in human capital consulting at accounting giant Deloitte. What he wanted to say to the former Prime Minister — on behalf of dozens of other students in the room, and thousands more elsewhere — was, “Thank you.”

A decade earlier, Prime Minister Chretien had been contemplating the millennium. As he said in his own inimitable way that evening, “The millennium, it’s something that comes only every one thousand years — so the next one, we might not be ‘ere.” To commemorate it, said Chretien, the government concluded “that we would create a programme de bourses, a bursary program. We would invest in the brains of the young people. And when I see the results today, that decision gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

The programme de bourses became the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, and its results were people like Hamoon Ekhtiari. The Foundation began with a $2.5 billion endowment and a 10-year mandate. It eventually gave out $3.3 billion — it had invested shrewdly — to more than a million needy and deserving students. It also did some trailblazing research on the obstacles that keep students out of post-secondary education, and about 5% of its funding went into a Millennium Excellence Awards program. One of the Excellence Award winners was Hamoon Ehktiari.

When Hamoon arrived in Canada, he had just finished Grade 9, and he was excited. He hadn’t wanted to move to Canada, but “if I’m here I want to get the most out of it,” he said. “I want to know what it is to live in Canada. I want to know what it means to be Canadian. So I chose the path of dropping myself, in my entirety, in every possible aspect, into the country. It was do-or-die having to take history and English.” He laughs. “And as an elective, I decided to take French. So I was sitting in a class where a teacher was teaching a language I didn’t know, in another language I didn’t know.”

After high school, he wanted to plunge deeper into his new life, so he applied to universities from UBC and UNB to the University of North Carolina to study anything from philosophy to architecture. He also applied for a Millennium Excellence Award, since his parents had made it clear that they couldn’t support him at university. To his surprise, he won the scholarship, and was drawn deeply into the other benefits that Millennium laureates were offered — national conferences, regional meetings, a national network of other student leaders, and backing from a superb group of young scholarship administrators.

“They recognize, they support, and they encourage, and they don’t stop doing it,” Hamoon said. “The money is important, nothing after it would have happened without the money, so that support piece is absolutely crucial. But the recognition and the encouragement is priceless. These people don’t give me the answer. They help me to ask the question. The lessons I’ve learned from some of these people in mere minutes have been worth more than spending months upon months in a classroom.

“And now, if you ask me where I’m from, I will tell you I’m from Toronto. I’m Canadian. If you ask me where I was born, I will tell you. But what I feel is, I’m Canadian, and this is my home.”

In 2008 I was asked to write the history of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation. It’s a fascinating story, and the book — A Million Futures: The Remarkable Legacy of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation – has just been published. The joy of the project was meeting so many fantastic people that I couldn’t get them all into the book. Hamoon is not in the book. But through the Foundation, Canada has shaped him and the leaders of his generation. Now they are shaping Canada. We will be a better, brighter country because of them.

– 30 —

Silver Donald Cameron’s book, A Million Futures, is published by Douglas and McIntyre. It is available in bookstores, or online at

Farewell, Poirier’s Garage

August 22nd, 2010

August 22, 2010

Clem McDonald built the service station in D’Escousse soon after the Second World War, in his father’s front yard. His wife Madeleine ran a hair-dressing salon in a little trailer nearby. Bless their memories; they were lovely people.

In 1952, Lauchie Poirier bought the garage for his son Russell, a trained mechanic who was working in Sydney. Russell came home, cut some trees, hauled them to the sawmill, built a house, married and settled down. After raising two girls and two boys, Russell and Mary are in that house yet.

Russell was soon joined by his younger brother Claude, an auto-body virtuoso. Claude bought a tiny house across the road, cut some trees, milled them, and extended his house up, backwards and sideways. The house was built over a swampy dimple in the bedrock. Claude thought to improve the drainage by splitting the bedrock. He placed a charge of dynamite in the basement, covered it with explosive matting, and set it off. The house jumped. The windows blew out. Sandra’s hair turned white. The drainage was magnificent.

After raising four girls and a boy, Claude and Sandra are in that house yet.

The service station had two bays, a tiny stockroom, a terrifying toilet, a minuscule office. The bay with the pit was Russell’s. The bay with the solid concrete floor was Claude’s. The garage became the men’s social centre in D’Escousse. Just like the Halifax Club.

Between them, Russell and Claude could fix anything from a broken cylinder head to a broken heart. I once took Claude my geriatric Volvo, lacy with rust. Could we get one more year out of it? A month later, Claude had patched it up with sheet metal, pop rivets, tar, roofing shingles and other improbable materials. From a moderate distance, the car looked good.

“Used half the ductwork in the house,” Claude said proudly. And did we get another year of life for it? Claude pursed his lips and smiled.

“I think we got two,” he said.

Russell and Claude never had much money, but they had a wonderful life. I don’t think they ever charged more than $10 an hour. They both owned big, brutal old Jeep pick-up trucks that would haul anything — trailers, stumps, boats, you name it — and they kept them going with the same skills that saved the Volvo. Claude drove a school bus. They foraged for clams, fished for mackerel, cut their own firewood, raised chickens and turkeys, planted extensive gardens. In the great rural phrase, they put together “enough to get by.”

In fact, they lived very rich lives, at the swirling heart of the village, connected to everyone, an essential part of their neighbours’ lives. In an emergency, Claude would spring from his bed at 3:00 AM and pump a tank of gas for you — and on credit, too. When my car needed service, I walked over and gave Russell the keys. When he was ready, he took the car from my driveway, did the work, and drove it back. I paid him whenever I got around to it. Customer service? You never saw anything like it.

At various times both Poiriers owned pleasure boats. I once came by the garage and found a big new shed beside the building, a new addition to Claude’s matchless collection of sheds. It had come from a lighthouse on an offshore island. Claude bought it from the federal government, filled it with oil drums and saplings, floated it home and dragged it up to the garage.

On another occasion, the boys created a snowmobile from miscellaneous salvaged parts — Skidoo, Arctic Cat, Polaris, whatever. So what make of snowmobile was it? Claude shrugged eloquently, cast his eye around the shop, spotted a nameplate, and screwed it on the snowmobile.


Russell quit in 2004, at 72. Claude painted a few more cars and then stopped. The garage slowly crumbled. It became an eyesore bulging with memories. Last month, an excavator dropped its bucket through the roof, tore it apart and spread earth over the spot. Gone.

If you listen closely, though, I swear you can still hear the echoes of tall tales and tears, lies and laughter, the warm echoes of human fellowship.

– 30 —

Silver Donald Cameron is host and executive producer of the environmental web site His new book, A Million Futures: The Remarkable Legacy of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, will be published by Douglas and McIntyre next month.

The Ugly Government of Canada

August 16th, 2010

August 15, 2010

I’m always wary of the words like “fascism” and “dictatorship.” People on the left have a tendency to use such terms too casually, which simply erodes their power. So when I find myself deeply disquieted by the attitudes and actions of the Harper government, I’m not in a rush to apply those names.

And yet… At what point in the 1930s should Germans or Italians have begun to use those terms, and to treat their own governments with distrust and suspicion.? Hitler was democratically elected, after all — with a minority government — and then employed what one commentator calls his “blend of political acuity, deceptiveness and cunning” to transform Germany’s feeble democracy into the murderous Third Reich.

At what point did the majority of Germans — who were not Nazis — definitively fail to stop him? And what should they have done? And how would Canadians recognize a similar moment in our own country, if one should occur?

I am not saying that the Stephen Harper is another Hitler, even in embryo. But as I watch his masterful and ruthless manipulation of his situation as a minority Prime Minister, I am certainly struck by his “blend of political acuity, deceptiveness and cunning.” He dodges defeat by proroguing Parliament — not once, but twice. When the Supreme Court rules that his government has infringed the Charter rights of Omar Kadr, he ignores the Supreme Court. He treats politics as a perpetual state of total war. He loads up his budget bill with all manner of contentious, non-budget items, and dares the Opposition to defeat the bill and precipitate an election. The smaller parties might accept the dare, but the Liberals — never a party of principle — are terrified of an election, so they become Harper’s enablers.

Since the Liberals are jellyfish, the true opposition must come from outside Parliament. A petition now circulating begins, “Since 2006 the Government of Canada has systematically undermined democratic institutions and practices, and has eroded the protection of free speech, and other fundamental human rights. It has deliberately set out to silence the voices of organizations or individuals who raise concerns about government policies or disagree with government positions. It has weakened Canada’s international standing as a leader in human rights. The impact and consequences for the health of democracy, freedom of expression, and the state of human rights protection in Canada are unparalleled.”

All true, and you can find the petition here. I’ve signed it, and I hope you will, but it’s too general to be very effective. Fundamentally, it calls on the Harperites to be nice and play by the rules. Fat chance.

But that, perhaps, is the importance of the census brouhaha. The census is an unlikely flashpoint, but the issue once again reveals this government’s sneakiness, and its preference for ideology over information. And it turns out that accurate census information is important to a far wider range of interests than the government ever suspected. Furthermore, a courageous public servant was prepared to resign over the issue. This is an odd point to be drawing a line in the sand, but if that’s where the push-back begins, so be it.

Fundamentally, Harper doesn’t like Canada very much. It’s too liberal, too loose, too polite. It values community as much as commerce. The Prime Minister wants Canada to be harder, more aggressive, less forgiving, and he has set out to make it so — whether the country likes it or not. That doesn’t make him a fascist, but it doesn’t make him much of a democrat either.

As Lawrence Scanlan recently wrote in the Ottawa Citizen, “Our government freely spends tax dollars on prisons, police and war machinery, while insisting ‘taxes’ is a dirty word.” He reeled off his own list of embarrassments. “The tar sands, our pathetic stance at the Copenhagen conference on climate change, the prison farms/super prisons debacle, ongoing asbestos mining, the shift from peacekeeper to major player in a dubious war, Afghan detainees: what’s appalling, and indeed what has perhaps enabled all this, is our apathy. And there’s a price to be paid for apathy.”

Yes, there is. This is the way your own government steals your country. Just ask the Germans.

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Silver Donald Cameron is host and executive producer of the environmental web site His new book, A Million Futures: The Remarkable Legacy of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, will be published by Douglas and McIntyre next month.

Satish Kumar and the Dancing Economy

August 8th, 2010

August 8, 2010

“If you are protecting the environment for the benefit of humankind, valuing the natural world in terms of nature’s usefulness to humans, that is a shallow ecology,” says Satish Kumar. “If you see intrinsic value in nature, and you say that a river has intrinsic value that cannot be measured in terms of its usefulness to humans, that is a deep ecology.

“But when you say that rivers and trees are sacred, and that we need to revere the earth, that is a reverential ecology. You receive the gifts of trees — like fruit, or wood, or oxygen — but you receive them with gratitude. And gratitude is the essential quality of reverential ecology.”

Satish Kumar knows about reverence. Since 1973 he has been the editor of Resurgence, the leading British environmental magazine, but he was born to a devout family in Rajastan, India, and became a Jain monk at the age of nine. At 27, influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and Bertrand Russell, he set out with a companion to walk to the capitals of the four then-existing nuclear powers — France, Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States — in a “pilgrimage for peace.”

The two began at Gandhi’s grave in Bangalore, and ended at John F. Kennedy’s grave in Washington. They had walked more than 8000 miles, carrying no money and depending on the goodwill of the people they encountered. They had met with the leaders of all four nuclear nations, and had given each one a packet of “peace tea,” which they had received from the women workers in a tea factory. Tell the leaders, said the women, that “when you think you need to press the button, stop for a minute and have a fresh cup of tea.”

Reverential ecology, Kumar says, represents “a reciprocal, mutual and respectful relationship with the entire natural world,” recognizing the interdependence of all living things. All species belong to our family. The wolf is our brother, the eagle our sister. We can take from nature what we need — but no more. And we must take it with humility and gratitude.

This philosophy resonates powerfully with aboriginal thought, giving thanks to the plants and animals for what they provide to us, and wasting none of the gifts that nature confers. It is a dramatic contrast to our current economic model, based on continuous obsolescence, which takes materials and energy from the earth, transforms them into products, uses them briefly, and then sends them to the landfill as indigestible garbage.

This economy, Kumar notes, is “linear,” but the life of the earth is cyclical. Things die, decompose, regroup and return. Everything recycles. We need a circular economy based on “elegant simplicity,” a “joyful economy.”

Joyful? Well, yes. Mass production, Kumar notes, requires mass consumption and mass wastage. Since our economy produces far more than we need, what motivates us to buy? Fear and insecurity. We’ve been sold the idea that accumulation makes us more secure. That’s another illusion. Beyond a certain modest level, possessions are simply a burden.

We need what Kumar calls “a dancing economy” that takes only what’s needed, and returns its wastes to the earth in usable forms. Soy inks on recycled paper, compostable auto bodies, aluminum that cycles through a hundred uses. An economy that does not starve a billion people while making another billion people obese. An economy that allows us to live “beautifully, but simply,” enjoying lovely hand-made clothing, furniture, housing, art, music and drama.

Can such a transition occur? Satish Kumar is certain it will. The onrushing, multi-faceted environmental crisis will force us to change — and the change may come very quickly. Who ever predicted the collapse of the British Empire, the Soviet Union, apartheid? In the 1960s, when Kumar visited Martin Luther King, he was thrown out of a segregated restaurant at gunpoint. But today there is a black man in the White House, and a national holiday named for Dr. King.

“The true superpower in the world is the power of people,” smiles Satish Kumar. “When people change, governments will follow.” He knows it’s so. He’s seen it happen.

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Silver Donald Cameron’s hour-long interview with Satish Kumar was recently posted online at

The Sea Cook of the Schooner

August 1st, 2010

August 1, 2010

I read Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous when I was a boy, and I loved it. It was among the books that shaped my life by fuelling my interest in the sea, and in fishing, and in schooners. Later, after moving to a fishing community and actually meeting some of the men who had built and sailed the saltbankers, I read it again. That’s probably 30 years ago now, and I might see it differently today, but I still thought it was a fine book.

The essence of the story is simple. A spoiled young man named Harvey Cheyne Jr. is travelling with his wealthy family on a luxury liner from Europe to New York. As the ship crosses the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, Harvey falls overboard. He is rescued by the Gloucester fishing schooner We’re Here, whose skipper, Disko Troop, tells him flatly that they’re not taking him ashore till they’ve filled their holds with fish sometime in the fall. In the meantime he can earn his room and board by working as a fisherman.

The boy is furious, and he resists and complains — but ultimately, for once in his life, he has to do what he’s told. Naturally, the impact on him is profound. He grows up and fills out both in body and in soul, and he learns how to conduct himself as a man among men. He develops a deep respect and affection for the working men he lives with, and when he’s eventually returned to his family, the spoiled boy has become a capable and responsible man.

When I read it the second time, I was struck by the book’s fidelity to reality, and by the really specific references — one decrepit schooner goes by, “full of gin and Judique men,” says Disko Troop, not the only reference in history to a certain Cape Breton predilection for the sauce. But when I read that the cook on the schooner was a Gaelic-speaking black man from Cape Breton, I thought that Kipling had trusted his imagination too far. No doubt Kipling knew that Cape Bretoners spoke Gaelic, and that Nova Scotia had a large black population. So he added two and two and got five.

I was wrong. Kipling was right.

Since then, I’ve run across the story of the black Gael in several places and in several forms. As I understand it, the story begins in Halifax, where Captain David Smith, the patriarch of Port Hood, met a black orphan boy on the docks, took him home, and raised him with his own family. The boy — whose last name was Maxwell — grew up as a Gaelic-speaking Cape Bretoner and married a black woman from Guysborough County. According to a 2003 article by Rannie Gillis recently re-printed in the Gaelic magazine Lasag, the Maxwell family lived on Cameron’s Island, just off Marble Mountain. Among their children were twin brothers named George and John, both of whom went to sea on separate fishing schooners.

The two had never experienced racism in Cape Breton, says Gillis, but the international schooner fishery was a different environment. Though the twins were big men, George was retiring, while John was more assertive. When the two met on the Banks one day in their dories, George complained about the harassment he was getting from two new crew members. John suggested they switch clothes and dories, and he returned to the ship in George’s place.

When the two new crewmen taunted him, John taunted them right back. When one of them rushed him, John flattened him. When the other one attacked, John knocked him cold.The next day the twins met again and switched back. Neither was ever harassed again.
Some time later, George Maxwell met Kipling in Gloucester, and the two spent several evenings together. Kipling was fascinated by Maxwell’s experiences, and the result was the black, Gaelic-speaking sea-cock of the We’re Here — the one I thought was impossible.

W.O. Mitchell once said that in a work of fiction, every single word is the literal truth, and the whole damn thing is a lie. Yes, I actually know that. And so did Rudyard Kipling.

– 30 —

Sharon’s Salon

July 25th, 2010

Sharon Urquhart’s hair-dressing salon was a modest addition built to a small bungalow in Grand Anse, Cape Breton, a wide spot in the road between Port Hawkesbury and St. Peters. The salon, someone once said, looked like a Norman Rockwell painting — men getting their hair cut, women under bee-hive hair dryers, pets and kids coming and going, everybody talking.

The talk was not trivial. Sharon was a born intellectual, and she loved to talk about books and ideas, music and travel, gardening and politics, and particularly the theatre. She had a degree from Dalhousie in theatre, and she refused to be kept from theatrical experiences simply because she lived in the country and never learned to drive. Instead she would scoop up her husband and her daughter and organize a trip to see Cirque du Soleil, Peter Pan, The Rolling Stones, Ben Heppner, Les Miserables. Halifax? You bet. Toronto? Fine.

“She always knew what was going on culturally,” recalls her cousin and close friend, Ken MacInnis. “And she could always get tickets to anything. She was famous for it. Speed dial was her friend.”

“Sharon had an artist’s soul,” says her friend Denise Saulnier. “She did hair design for her clients, but she also ran a mini art gallery in her salon where the ‘show’ on the walls changed with the seasons. She loved painting, sculpture, music, dance. It’s not surprising that she studied theatre – a field where all the arts come together at once.”

Carpe Diem, said the motto from Horace painted on her wall. Seize the day! In her youth she hitch-hiked across Canada, worked in Toronto and returned with a German luthier named Johannes Sturm. A luthier in Cape Breton is as important as a farrier at the Preakness; the last time I was in Johannes’ shop, he was massaging a guitar while J.P. Cormier anxiously looked on.

When their only daughter was born 12 years ago, Sharon and Johannes made sure that Ava learned to fiddle and step-dance, playing at concerts and festivals across the island. And so the little bungalow with the hair salon became a focus of another generation of gifted young people. Ken MacInnis’ wife Mary remembers Sharon as a momma duck, always followed by a flock of ducklings: Ava and her friends, nieces, a sister-in-law, more friends, other children.

An intensely social woman, Sharon was an active player in the United Church and the school advisory council. She created extravagant floats for local parades, and built haunted-house sets inside the fire hall at Hallowe’en. Hair-dressing suited her perfectly, bringing her a constant stream of personalities, conversations and ideas, and she was exceptionally good at her work. My wife Marjorie, a city-reared woman with an extensive experience of ruinously-fashionable hair-dressers, never had better hair-care than she did with Sharon, who also became her cherished friend.

Sharon delighted in learning, and she was a tireless researcher. In her encounters with ideas, she had a warrior spirit, fearful of nothing, always willing to face and tell the truth. Over the sinks in which she washed her clients’ hair was a big mural of Narcissus — a reminder to us, perhaps, not to be too preoccupied with our own appearances.

Her salon often doubled as a counselling office. Finding themselves alone with Sharon, people would unburden themselves in the most intimate way. Sharon listened, commented sympathetically, made suggestions, and kept her mouth shut. But if someone said something nice about you, she made a point of passing it on.

Last fall, Sharon learned that her slight cough was a symptom of lung cancer. She fought it valiantly. In March, her small community organized a spectacularly-successful day-long fundraiser for her and her family. On June 10 she died. She was only 51.

In 18th-century Paris, a “salon” was a scene of brilliant cultural conversation, “conducted” by an inspiring host whose guests strove both to amuse one another and also to refine their taste and knowledge. What Sharon really did, said Marjorie, was not to operate a salon, but to conduct one. Yes, exactly. We have lost someone who helped us all to find the very best that was in us. What a loss. And what a legacy.

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After the Web

July 18th, 2010

July 18, 2010

“You people,” sighed the Silicon Scout, shaking his head. “You and your web-sites. The web is like, so over.”

We sit on a non-profit board of directors together, the Scout and I. He’s one of the guys known to technology marketers as “early adopters.” The first guy with a cell phone, a fax machine, an MP3 player. The first guy with an infra-red mouse for his computer. The first guy to send you photos that he took on his phone. (On his phone?)

The Scout is considerably younger than most of us — well, he would be, wouldn’t he? — and during the breaks in the meetings he would be texting and surfing on his iPhone. If we needed to know the price of a doughnut in Dacca, the Scout could find out in a wink.

So there we were, trying to figure out what was needed on our organization’s web site, and here was the Scout, heaving youthful sighs and saying, “You people. You and your web-sites. The web is like, so over.”

Over? The internet is over? I was utterly bewildered.

Well, no. The internet is not over. But the World Wide Web is not the internet. The Web lies on the internet like a quilt on a bed and, like a quilt, it makes the internet much more comfortable and attractive. And the Web remains — but the action has moved to “social media” like Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn and, above all, Facebook.

I wrote about social media in 2008, when Facebook had only been accessible to the general public for two years, and already had 100,000,000 users. Twitter, even younger, made me quite crotchety, with its ceaseless drizzle of 140-character “tweets” about users going for coffee, praying for rain and scratching themselves privily. What, I asked, “ is the point of this torrent of narcissistic nonsense?”

Good question. But it missed the larger issue, which is that the Web is relatively static and passive, and the social media are dynamic. A web site is like a brochure or a billboard, providing information to people who come looking. A social media site is a conversation, a buzz, an instantaneous international grapevine. Your Facebook or Tumblr or YouTube page is a busker’s performance. You put your stuff out there, and passersby look at it, engage you in conversation or walk on by. If they like it, they tweet to the grapevine and the world comes to watch.

So, for example, during the nine days after Susan Boyle did that electrifying performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” in April, 2009, her videos were watched more than 100 million times. Think of that: a hundred million times!! When her album came out in November, it sold nine million copies in six weeks, becoming the best-selling album of the year. Barack Obama largely owes his presidency to his ability to galvanize people and generate huge streams of cash by using social media. During the World Cup, reporters were tweeting furiously on their smartphones while the action was still unfolding — reporting not to their editors, but directly to the hordes following them on Twitter.

Social media allow smart entrepreneurs to create great instant businesses, and to reach customers they could never reach before.The trick is to pick a niche, create great content within that niche, and give a lot of it away.

Natalie MacLean, for example, a Cape Bretoner with a spectacularly successful wine site, gives away tons of information about wine and food. She’ll even provide you with a little program for your smartphone that allows you to browse her recommendations as you cruise the aisles of the liquor store.

But if you want her reviews of specific wines, complete with matched food recipes, you have to subscribe to her paid, premium service. It’s only $2.10 a month, though, so untold thousands have subscribed.

Facebook was cooked up in a Harvard dorm in 2004 by a couple of undergraduates. Today it’s an $11.5 billion company with 400 million users. Entertainment Weekly summed it up thus: “How on earth did we stalk our exes, remember our co-workers’ birthdays, bug our friends, and play a rousing game of Scrabulous before Facebook?” How indeed?

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Beyond the Teapot Theory

July 11th, 2010

July 11, 2010

The meaning of the PhD degree, said Stephen Leacock (who had one), “is that the recipient of instruction is examined for the last time in his life, and is pronounced completely full. After this, no new ideas can be imparted to him.”

That’s the Teapot Theory of Education, stripped naked. The teacher is the full teapot, the students are empty cups. Tilt. Pour. At the end of the course, you put a measuring cup beside each student. Tilt. Pour. If there’s sufficient tea in the students, education has occurred.

That’s the unacknowledged model of education that underlies much of what we do in schools, colleges and universities. But it’s nonsense.

For two years I’ve been working on big projects about education. I recently completed a booklet for the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation on community service-learning, which is why I wrote no columns last month. I also wrote a book called A Million Futures: The Remarkable Legacy of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, which will be published around Labour Day.

The immersion in education powerfully reinforced what I already knew: the Teapot Theory is obsolete. It’s an industrial-era model, an assembly line designed to churn out interchangeable workers. Teapot education is a dreadful preparation for a tumultuous, shape-shifting post-industrial society. That’s not the way people learn.

So how do people learn?

One revealing analysis of human learning is a four-stage model created by David Kolb of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Most people start, says Kolb, with a concrete experience. We reflect on the experience, formulate some ideas, and then test those ideas by visiting the experience again. The result is a “spiral of learning” that gets steadily deeper and richer.

Notice this: in Kolb’s model, there is no such thing as a teacher. There’s only a learner — and learning is an active, iterative process. People don’t just sit there while knowledge is poured into them. They go seeking it, testing it, figuring it out. Isn’t that the way you learned to tie your shoes, reconcile your bank statement, take good photos? Nobody put those things on a curriculum and insisted that you learn them. You needed and wanted to know, and you sought out resources to help you, including people.Your mother. Your uncle, the book-keeper. The instructor at the evening class in photography.

That’s the natural and normal procedure. You try things on your own. You read a book. You apprentice yourself, perhaps only briefly, to someone who can show you.

So why do we need an educational system?

Primarily for the benefit of employers and clients. What the system provides are credentials — and that’s not a bad thing. I do want some reassurance that cardiologists and airline pilots know what they’re doing. But that doesn’t mean they have to acquire the learning in the same place they acquire the credential.

In aboriginal cultures, in pre-industrial societies, kids learned by hanging around with adults who knew useful and interesting things. In 19th-century Nova Scotia, nobody went to ship-building college, but every village had master shipwrights. A Cape Breton apprenticeship agreement binds a young man to a blacksmith “to learn his art and mystery.” What a noble description of knowledge!

Similarly, in my youth a person could become a lawyer without attending university simply by apprenticing — or “articling”– with a lawyer, and passing the bar exams. To this day, graduates from some English universities can get “higher doctorates,” such as the DLitt, DD and DMus, simply by submitting a portfolio of published research that demonstrates the applicant’s scholarly eminence.

In a networked world, where some universities only exist online, why not award other degrees the same way? We already have student exchanges, off-campus placements, work terms and co-op education. Why shouldn’t a young person engage an academic planner — a personal teacher, like a personal trainer — to design a completely individualized program of apprenticeship, courses, work placements and independent study that could then be presented to a university for a degree?

Teapot education won’t do any longer. We need art and mystery, the liberation of learning. It’s an utterly glorious prospect.

– 30 —

To learn more about Silver Donald’s new book, A Million Futures, to read the Preface, and even to pre-order it, visit his web site,

The Lonely Mission of David Hughes

May 30th, 2010

May 30, 2010

What’s the true value of a barrel of oil?

Around $70, say the markets. The market value of anything is the price that a willing buyer will pay and that a willing seller will accept.

David Hughes shakes his head. It is a big head, with a high forehead topped by a thatch of curly hair. Hughes is a hydrocarbon geologist, a veteran of 32 years with the Geological Survey of Canada. He is now an independent consultant living in Cortes Island, BC. His special interest — his obsessive interest — is the rate at which human beings have been consuming the earth’s fossil-fuel supplies. He has spoken about this subject all over the world, including here in Nova Scotia.

For Dave Hughes, the value of a barrel of oil is the amount of work the oil can do. It represents about six gigajoules of energy. A joule is roughly the amount of energy it takes to lift an apple from the floor to the kitchen counter. Six gigajoules is six billion joules, enough energy to lift that apple 6,000,000,000 times.

Put a guy on a treadmill wired to a generator, and in an hour he can generate about 360,000 joules. Keep the guy on the treadmill continuously except for breaks, weekends and holidays. How long will it take him to produce the energy contained in a barrel of oil? About 8.6 years — and if you were paying him the Alberta minimum wage, you’d owe him $138,363.

That’s the real value of a barrel of oil. Oil is a miracle substance. It has given us a lifestyle hitherto obtainable only by people who owned slaves, and we literally treat it like garbage. That plastic bag you buy, the bag that was created for the sole purpose of being thrown away, is made out of invaluable, irreplaceable, vanishing oil.

And the era in which that was possible, the era of cheap fossil fuels, that era is ending. Spreading that message is what Dave Hughes is all about.

Discussions of energy supply have been dominated by economists, not geologists. Economists will tell you that shortages make prices rise, and rising prices create additional supplies or alternative technologies or both. So the problem is self-correcting.

Geologists reply that the economists’ model only works if there is no limit to the potential supply But that’s a fictional world. In this world, Dave Hughes notes, what count are things like EROEI, or Energy Return On Energy Invested, a very different measurement.

In traditional oil fields, EROEI is about 100 to 1. You consume one barrel of oil to drill a hole in the desert, and 100 barrels come gushing up. Today, EROEI in traditional oil fields has fallen to 25:1. Oil scraped off the surface of Alberta’s tar sands has an EROEI of only 6:1. Oil retrieved from deep in the tars sands has an EROEI of 3:1. The ratio for corn-generated ethanol is barely over 1:1.

Oil supplies with an EROEI lower than 1:1 will never be produced, no matter how high the price of oil, because they absorb more energy than they yield. And that’s why it’s meaningless to note that there may be billions of barrels locked up in formations like oil shales, which have never been mined at a net energy profit. It’s possible, of course, that technology will find an efficient way to extract oil from such sources — but not soon, and not on a sufficiently massive scale to allow us to continue using oil at our present breakneck clip.

Fundamentally, to understand EROEI is to recognize the truth of Dave Hughes’ analysis. Obviously, if we had access to plentiful oil reserves with an EROEI of 25:1 or so, we would not be bothering with low-yield sources like corn ethanol and the tar sands. We would not be spending $100 million to lower a drill bit through a mile of ocean water in order to drill down through four more miles of Brazilian sea-floor.

But we are.

We are not “running out of oil,” Hughes agrees. But we are certainly running out of cheap, easily-recovered oil. We are about to discover the real value of oil, and it may not be a pleasant experience.

– 30 —

Silver Donald Cameron’s full-length video interview with David Hughes was recently posted at This column is also posted on the blog at

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