Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for July, 2008

The Private Life of Plants

Sunday, July 20th, 2008

If human beings have learned anything about nature during my lifetime, it is that we know almost nothing about nature. And the more we learn, the more we realize how little we know.

Consider the nature of plants. Aristotle divided the living world into two kingdoms: plants, which don’t move, and animals, which do. Most of us probably still think that way. Pushed a little harder, we would probably say that many animals are conscious. They think, feel, understand, communicate and interact. Plants don’t.

But nothing in nature is as simple as our mental models of nature. Some microscopic organisms are not clearly animal or plant; they have characteristics of both. And plants interact in much more sophisticated ways that we ever imagined.

A decade ago, for instance, I was fascinated by the research of Dr. Suzanne Simard, then a biologist with the provincial Ministry of Forests in Kamloops, BC, and now a professor at the University of BC. Dr. Simard was researching the interactions between trees and the various species of fungi which sheathe the tree’s roots and – like a set of roots upon the roots – send out tiny threads to forage in the soil for nutrients. The fungi convey these nutrients to the tree. The tree in turn reaches up into the sunlight to capture carbon from the air through photosynthesis – and it conveys carbon to the fungi in the form of sugars.

This is a classical symbiotic relationship. The fungi and the tree depend on each other. Simard and her colleagues, however, showed that there was another whole level to these interactions, in that the fungi connect the trees not only to the earth, but also to other trees. Furthermore, the fungi can transfer carbon from one tree to another. Seedlings blocked from sunlight by the forest canopy are nurtured by their elders – and even by trees of different species.

Among the trees which overshadow young Douglas fir, for instance, are fast-growing paper birches, whose roots can be connected with the roots of the fir by as many as 10 different species of fungi. By “feeding” different radioactive carbon isotopes to different trees, and then noting where the isotopes wound up, Simard’s group was able to show that the birch was actually providing carbon through the fungi to the fir.

Simard’s research changes the whole definition of a forest. Above the surface, the trees look like isolated individuals — but almost half their biomass is underground, where they interact to form what one biologist calls “a superorganism.” Or, one could say, a social organization. That’s what a forest really is. (And that’s why a “managed forest” of identical trees is not a forest at all.)

More recently, researchers at McMaster University have demonstrated that a humble beach weed called the Great Lakes sea rocket is able to tell whether another sea rocket is related to it – and to react accordingly. If a neighbouring sea rocket is not related, the plant aggressively puts out roots, grabbing nutrients in a highly competitive way. If the other sea rocket is kin, however, the first one restrains itself.

No plant has ever been known to do this. But the discovery is consistent with a whole range of new discoveries about plant interactions. Some plants can determine whether nearby plants are potential competitors by detecting the wavelengths of sunlight that the other plant absorbs or reflects. And plants send electrical signals around within their bodies, just as your nervous system does, though nobody yet knows what information is being transmitted, or why.

We now know that a parasitic plant called “dodder” locates a potential host by sniffing the air. Unlike almost all other plants, dodder can’t grow its own roots or draw sustenance from photosynthesis. Instead, it grows on and into other plants. But how does it find those particular plants?

Scientists set up time-lapse movies to see how dodder seedlings located their victims. As they watched, the seedlings sent out tiny sprouts, which circled around sampling the air like a dog. When they detected traces of certain airborne chemicals, they recognized their victims, and grew immediately and rapidly in that direction. One member of the study team described the process, as seen in the time-lapse film, as “like a little worm moving towards this other plant.”

These findings are tremendously controversial, because they show that plant behaviour is far more complex and sentient than anyone had imagined. Furthermore, since plants don’t have obvious organs for thought or perception, it must be the case that these functions can be accomplished in some other way. The dodder, for example, “smells” without a nose, which seems to imply a whole alternative physiology of sensation and perception.

Fascinating. Wondrous. The more we learn about nature, the more we realize how little we know.

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The Geography of Hope

Monday, July 14th, 2008

“Environmentalism has become a sort of mythology of death – passionate, lyrical, righteous and hopeless,” says Chris Turner. It has “failed as a common language of hope or a ritual of rebirth. It has failed as myth.”

Eloquent – and painfully accurate. Fear and hopelessness are useless emotions – emotions which make people numb and passive, preventing them from taking useful action. As Turner notes, would all those people in Washington have been inspired if Martin Luther King had stood before them and declared, “I have a nightmare today?”

So Turner set out to find what he calls “the archipelago of hope,” the places and initiatives in the world where people are fully aware of the environmental crisis – but are attacking the problems with imagination, exuberance and optimism. The result is a stimulating new book, The Geography of Hope (Random House Canada, $34.95).

Turner takes as his mantra Kenneth Boulding’s observation, “Anything that exists is possible.” He sets out to see not only what might be, or could be, but what is. Is there, for instance, a really prosperous city where people normally travel on first-class public transit, where car ownership is restricted and heavily taxed, where the remaining cars are often powered by hydrogen fuel cells? Well, yes, that would be Singapore. And if Singaporeans can do it, so can others.

Are there houses which are entirely sustainable, generating their own heat and electricity, processing their own wastes, growing some of their own food? Yes, in Germany, Thailand and New Mexico. In Manchester a commercial tower entirely clad in photo-voltaic cells generates enough energy for 61 British homes. It exists, so it’s possible.

Is there a first-world community powered entirely by renewable energy? Yep – that’s the island of Samsø, in Denmark. The OPEC oil shocks of the 1970s made the Danes realize that they were reliant on oil imports for 94% of their energy. So Denmark began taxing emissions and consumption – doing the sort of thing that Stephane Dion is now proposing for Canada – and invested heavily in the renewable energy industry. Denmark is now the planet’s highest per capita producer of wind energy, and it exports wind turbines to the world.

I n 1997, the Danish government invited the country’s 78 inhabited islands to compete to become Denmark’s showcase “Renewable Energy Island.” Samsø won. At the time, it was deriving 92% of its electricity and 85% of its heat from fossil fuels. Eight years later, it was obtaining all of its heat and more than 100% of its electricity from solar panels and wind generators, exporting its surplus green power to other parts of Denmark. Its heating costs were down by 20%, and its CO2 emissions had been reduced by 140%.

Even more remarkable, says Turner, was the deliberate, thoughtful process which persuaded conservative Danish farmers and villagers to sign up for leading-edge green technology. The proponents did it by buying a fruit press and lots of beer, and going out to the villages to press apples into juice and share a few beers, and talk about working together on a beneficial project that would save everyone money. It was, says Turner, a classic “viral marketing” campaign.

Does that sound familiar? That’s Moses Coady and Jimmy Tompkins, holding study sessions and kitchen meetings all over eastern Nova Scotia, slowly building a whole co-operative economy. That’s the citizens of Halifax, spending a year talking about what to do with their own garbage and coming up with a composting and recycling program that leads the world – a story that appears in Turner’s book.

Turner tackles some important themes along the way – recycling, for example, which almost always “down-cycles” materials, making them progressively less sophisticated and useful. A variant is Extended Producer Responsibility, the scheme favoured in Europe which makes the manufacturer responsible for the entire life-cycle of a product. But neither of these solutions, says Turner, really tackles the fundamental problem, which is a whole system of lousy industrial design.

Better design also exists, and Turner finds it – Interface Carpet’s sustainable factory in Georgia, the long-established eco-spiritual community in Findhorn, Scotland, a Colorado shopping mall converted into a real town centre, bio-gas digesters and micro-hydro sites in rural Thailand. And the point is that you know it’s possible because it exists – the technology, the knowledge, the examples, everything.

What really interests Turner are the social processes that can transform our vision and behaviour and thus bring the new, sustainable world into being. Those processes require optimism, excitement, commitment. They’re rooted in community, in the happiness of doing good things in company with others. They’re rooted in hope.

“We gotta start thinking of ourselves as what we are, which is the future,” says one green ad guru. The future is cool, hip, smart and exciting. It’s fun. Show it to people, and they’ll want to live there – and that’s how you change the world.

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Allan J’s Ancient Error

Sunday, July 6th, 2008

I have a bone to pick with Allan J. MacEachen.

It grieves me to say this, since “Allan J” – as he is universally known in his native Cape Breton – is a towering figure, and a much-loved one, with a record of public service stretching back into the mists of history. There are people now in retirement who were not born when Allan J. was first elected to the House of Commons in 1953. He was re-elected to the House eight times and retired as a Senator in 1996.

During his 43 years in Parliament, Allan J was Minister of Labour, of National Health and Welfare, of Manpower and Immigration, of External Affairs, and of Finance. He was Leader of the Opposition in the House and in the Senate, and Government House Leader three times. He ran for the leadership of the Liberal Party in 1968, and lost to Pierre Trudeau, who later appointed him Deputy Prime Minister.

None of this begins to capture MacEachen – his erudition, his charm, his capacity for political legerdemain. Think of him as Cape Breton’s own Highland chieftain, complete with kilt, sporran and deadly little sgian dubh in his stocking top. During his years in public life, he moved through his riding just like a clan chief, smiling and inscrutable, dispensing favours, absorbing information, reassuring the troops. He greeted everyone by name, knew their families, their tastes, their fears, their occupations and preoccupations. I was among his constituents, and I owe him a favour or two myself.

Allan J is the only politician in my experience who generated his very own cliché; writers repeatedly referred to him as “the wily Cape Bretoner.” And wily indeed he was. It was MacEachen who engineered the surprise defeat of Joe Clark’s government in 1979, and the immediate return of Pierre Trudeau from retirement. When the roof was about to fall in on the Liberals in 1984, MacEachen slipped upstairs to the Senate. After Brian Mulroney’s landslide victory, MacEachen led the Liberal majority in the Senate, who were the only real opposition to the Mulroney juggernaut.

The new Government Leader in the Senate happened to be Lowell Murray, also a Cape Bretoner. The two faced some major issues – the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords and the imposition of the GST, for instance – and mighty was the clamour of their conflict. The venerable chamber rang with the clanging of claymores, the air was filled with smoke and Gaelic imprecations. The battle over the Constitution of Canada was being fought out by two Cape Bretoners, with the rest of the country as spectators. Wonderful.

But I still have my bone to pick. In 1981, as Minister of Finance, MacEachen introduced a budget full of sweeping changes to the taxation system, closing numerous loopholes and tax shelters. One of the provisions he abolished, however, was not a loophole, but a fundamental mechanism for fairness in the tax system. The provision was income averaging, and we’ve never been able to get it back.

Income averaging? Suppose you earn $30,000 a year for four years, and then you have a bumper year and earn $150,000. Under today’s tax system, you’re taxed in the fifth year at the top tax rate, as though you earned $150,000 every year. Under income averaging, you’d tot up your five-year earnings, which come to $270,000, and then you’d divide that by five. The result is $54,000, and your tax would be recalculated as though you had earned $54,000 a year for five years. You’d still pay tax on everything you earned – but at a rate which reflected reality.

The cultural community cares passionately about income averaging, because wild swings in income are common in the arts, where almost everyone is a self-employed freelancer. A novelist works in poverty for years – and then her book is sold to the movies. A painter struggles in obscurity, and then lands a major commission. The taxman swoops down and carries off far more than his fair share. And so, ever since 1981, the cultural community has been asking in vain for a return of income averaging.

But income averaging benefitted any taxpayer with an irregular income – farmers, fishermen, commission salesmen, and many others. Indeed, the problem can afflict almost anyone. Suppose you sign up for your employer’s share-purchase program. Over the years, you accumulate a nice chunk of company stock. When you sell it, you probably have a big capital gain – and though the gain didn’t occur in one year, it will be taxed as though it did.

The loss of income averaging harms thousands who know nothing about it. And every spring, when I wrestle with my taxes, I think, “Allan J, Allan J, you did so many things so well. How did you blow it on this one?” Twenty-seven years later, I still don’t have an answer.

– 30–

Caper Gas: Back to the Future

Sunday, July 6th, 2008

When I moved to D’Escousse, Isle Madame, in 1971, the island had at least eight gas stations, all representing major oil companies – Gulf, Shell, Esso, Irving. They were full-service businesses, selling gas, oil, tires, batteries, accessories, lube jobs, minor repairs and tune-ups. Some of them also did bodywork and paint jobs. Two were new car dealerships: Clarence Martell sold Chevs, and his cousin Leo sold Fords.

Five of those eight stations have run out of gas. One stands abandoned, another has been levelled, and three have been converted to other uses: a fiberglass boat factory, a heritage centre and an auto-repair shop. Of the three surviving stations, two are essentially unchanged, but one has morphed into a little retail node which includes a convenience store, fast food services, a propane depot and a car wash.

These changes echo a nation-wide movement away from traditional service stations and towards self-serve gas bars, often coupled with convenience stores. Between Halifax and D’Escousse, gravel lots mark the sites of vanished service stations in Heatherton, Salt Springs, Marshy Hope, Sutherland’s River and elsewhere.

The vanished stations may be no terrible loss on the TransCanada Highway, but it’s another story on the back roads and secondary highways. There’s hardly a place left to buy a chocolate bar, let alone a tank of fuel, in the 80 km between St. Peters and Sydney.

Yet though rural communities may not offer economies of scale, they do still represent a market. Years ago, when the major oil companies shut down their local heating-fuel businesses, a wide-awake entrepreneur named Greg Boucher established Greg’s Fuels and built a thriving home-heating operation in the niche vacated by Big Oil. He expanded into the gasoline business, and when major companies like Esso abruptly severed their long-standing relationships with outlets like Poirier’s Garage in D’Escousse, Greg’s Fuels – head office, Arichat, NS – was ready to fill the gap.

Boucher ultimately built a chain of service stations reaching into New Brunswick, just as Wilson’s Fuel expanded elsewhere. (The former Petro-Canada station in West Arichat is now a Wilson’s convenience store/gas bar.) But then along came Emera, the energy company that grew out of Nova Scotia Power. Emera bought Greg’s Fuels, and promptly closed down the head office and many of the stations.

The Poiriers in D’Escousse eventually found their competitors were selling fuel for less than they themselves were paying for it. They stopped selling fuel, and within a couple of years they closed the station and retired. That left us with an 8-km drive to the nearest gas pumps.

But the oil business – and the Acadians – are irrepressible. After Emera bought Greg’s Fuels, Greg’s customers migrated en masse to a new distributor in Arichat, Boudreau’s Fuels, established in 1995. Boudreau’s Fuels is owned by four Boudreaus, two cousins and their wives – Brian and Lisa, Lloyd and Viola. In the beginning, the two men drove the company’s two trucks. Now, with seven trucks and 10 employees, Boudreau’s is the dominant fuel supplier in the area. And rightly so. I’ve done business with them for a decade, and they’re a pleasure to deal with.

And their whole business is built on their perception that though rural communities may not offer economies of scale, they do still represent a market. Which brings us to Caper Gas.

Caper Gas is the Boudreaus’ new venture – a business aimed squarely at rural consumers abandoned by Big Oil, a business which actually returns gasoline retailing to its roots. In the beginning, after all, gas was sold from a hand-cranked gas pump out in front of a general store. Service stations came later. But why shouldn’t a general store sell gas again? As a standalone business, gasoline retailing may not be very rewarding – but as a community service, as part of a broader business, and as a generator of traffic to a store, it may make a great deal of sense.

The Boudreaus commissioned a smart corporate orange and green logo derived from the Cape Breton flag, and adopted the Cape Breton phrase “drive ‘er” as their motto. They developed a micro-station format, with a fat above-ground tank and a single pump for regular gas. They found partners in small Cape Breton general stores like G.H. Smith and Son in Orangedale, the Fleur de Lis Store in Rockdale, Ehler’s Convenience in Whycocomagh, and – of course – Shamrock Store in D’Escousse, run by my friends Pearl and Raymond LeBlanc. Four outlets now, two coming soon, more in development.

And when Wilson’s recently chose to build up a great fund of consumer ill-will by peevishly and publicly allowing rural gas pumps to run dry, the phone was ringing furiously in Arichat. Would Caper Gas be coming to other Cape Breton locations?

Soon, soon! Drive ‘er, chers Boudreaus!

– 30 –