Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for December, 2009

The Prime Minister of Bhutan

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

December 27, 2009

“Nature cannot continue to absorb the abuses that we are throwing at it,” the Prime Minister told me. “The world is finite, and economic growth cannot continue to take place except with considerable cost to this generation and generations in the future.

“It is time that the world understood that we should talk about growth with a different understanding — growth of the individual, growth of the mind, growth of happiness. What really constitutes wealth? What is prosperity, and what is being rich? I think these have to be understood more in human terms, in terms of relationships and in an ecological sense.”

The Prime Minister of Canada? Ah, I wish! But no: the speaker was His Excellency Jigme Y. Thinley, the Prime Minister of Bhutan, a Himalayan kingdom smaller and less populous than Nova Scotia. Nearly 40 years ago, Bhutan’s Fourth King declared that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product,” bravely setting his tiny nation on a unique path to development. In 2006 he abdicated in favour of his 27-year-old son. In 2008, ancient Bhutan became the world’s youngest democracy, its commitment to Gross National Happiness intact.

Gross National Happiness sounds like wide-eyed California mind-mush, but it’s as rigorous as most economic measurements — and far more useful. GNH rests on “four pillars” of value that almost everyone accepts. The first pillar is environmental conservation, caring for nature and others. Second is cultural promotion, preserving the wisdom of an ancient and cherished culture. Third is sustainable and equitable development that benefits all citizens, past and future as well as present. Fourth is “good governance,” the inculcation of active and responsible citizenship.

These “pillars” are divided into nine “domains,” which in turn are broken down to 72 measurable variables. One variable reflects Bhutan’s commitment to maintain at least 60% forest cover forever. In actual fact, 72% of Bhutan is forested, 52% is protected, and Bhutan presently absorbs three times as much carbon as it produces. Similarly, between 1984 and 1994, life expectancy rose from 48 to 66 years, while infant mortality was cut in half. The country now has universal health care and universal free education.

That’s solid data. And that’s GNH in action.

Bhutan has serious problems, including the controversial status of Bhutanese refugees of Nepali origin, a relentless rural-urban migration that has created a restless cohort of unemployed urban youth, and the advent of western-style materialism resulting from the introduction of TV and the internet a decade ago — all of which make GNH even more urgent.

To help entrench GNH values in Bhutan’s civic consciousness, Prime Minister Thinley turned to GPI Atlantic of St. Margaret’s Bay, the creators of Nova Scotia’s own Genuine Progress Index. Assembling educators and others from 16 countries, GPI convened a workshop in Thimphu, the capital, in early December, on “Educating for Gross National Happiness.”

So I found myself in Bhutan, listening to a sparkling five-day debate on education attended by both the Prime Minister and the Education Minister. What would the graduate of a GNH-infused education look like? How would you develop and nurture such a student?

After two days, Ron Colman of GPI made an amazing announcement. Overnight — literally — the government had adopted the workshop’s findings as government policies. Now, how should those policies be implemented? Two days later, the government had committed to an immediate GNH workshop within the education department, followed six weeks later by a workshop for all school principals in the country. Within a year, the new policies would reach every schoolroom in Bhutan.

As the workshop ended, I asked the Prime Minister how Bhutan would be different in 10 years, if the GNH education program succeeded.

“I would like to see an educational system quite different from the conventional factory, where children are just turned out to become economic animals, thinking only for themselves,” he said. “I would like to see graduates that are more human beings, with human values, that give importance to relationships, that are eco-literate, contemplative, analytical.

“I would like graduates who know that success in life is a state of being when you can come home at the end of the day satisfied with what you have done, realizing that you are a happy individual not only because you have found happiness for yourself, but because you have given happiness, in this one day’s work, to your spouse, to your family, to your neighbours — and to the world at large.”

– 30 –

Four Posts at Once

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

A word of explanation for anyone who cares — if indeed anyone much follows this blog — I was in Asia from November 28 to December 19, and wasn’t able to update this blog easily. So here are four columns all at once, and another one due tomorrow.

I hope you’ll enjoy them.


A Christmas Carol

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

December 20, 2009

“Waiter!” Scrooge demands. “More bread,”

“It’s a ha’penny extra, sir,” says the waiter, apologetically, emerging from the gloomy shadows of a dreary public house.

“No more bread,” grunts Scrooge, waving him away.

Ah, Scrooge! Pinched and mean and narrow, the enduring symbol of greed!

“Oh, but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge!” cries Charles Dickens. “A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.”

Oh, but he was a brilliant and blistering writer, Dickens! His prose soars and drives and hammers, sparkles and plunges, seizes us by the elbow and hurries us on. His books are classics not because some authority declared them masterpieces, but because they provide experiences as vital and moving and powerful as those of life itself. Such novels expand our world, putting us inside the skins of other people, propelling us into battles and triumphs that we will never know ourselves.

And great films can do the same.

It is a tradition at our house, every Christmas Eve, to watch Scrooge, the 1951 adaptation of A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim. By now we know entire scenes by heart — including the brief moment with the waiter, which doesn’t exist in the book. Indeed, numerous episodes and characters in the film have been inferred from the story, but are not in the book — the charming embezzler Mr. Jorkin, the deathbed scenes of Scrooge’s sister and his partner, most of the scenes with Scrooge’s Cockney charwoman, Mrs. Dilber.

And yet the book and the film perfectly match one another.

The Sim version is by no means the only dramatic adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Along with innumerable versions for radio, television, the stage and the opera, at least 20 film versions have been made, most recently the current Disney version with Jim Carrey as a memorable Scrooge. But the 1951 version is still arguably the best, largely because of Alastair Sim.

Smug, sly, grim and sneering, Sim has the perfect reaction to every event in the story. His self-satisfaction is as sharp as the smell of sage and onions, and he can convert the mere act of pulling on his gloves into a glittering expression of the joys of avarice. When he is afraid, his round eyes become rippled pools of terror, like two little targets bracketing his nose. In his final scenes, giddy and ecstatic, he capers about his chambers on legs so skinny they barely seem adequate to support the violence of his joy.

Our videotape of Scrooge has been “colourized” from its original black-and-white format, and the result of that operation — and of the rather primitive set construction of 1951 — is to give the film a remarkable period charm. The beautifully-composed frames look like animated oil paintings, soft-focussed and tinted as if by time. The “colourizing” ages the story perfectly.

A Christmas Carol could be called — and has been called — a slight and sentimental piece of work. In fact, it is a powerful myth, and an important myth for a culture obsessed by profit and gain. Fundamentally, this is a familiar saga of redemption, made vivid by the talent and passion of its author.

Redemption is at the core of the most influential religion in the western world, and we all want to believe in it — especially in the middle of winter. In the cold and the darkness, we explode into the greatest festival of our year, and we swear — don’t we? — that next year we will be different and better people. We will lose weight, take exercise, conquer selfishness, find more time for the people we love.

In the most profound darkness of the winter, we foresee the renewal of the light. And perhaps that represents the best of what we are, the essential human quality that justifies our lives and gives us hope.

– 30 —

The Eden Project

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

December 13, 2009

The bounty of nature, writes Tim Smit, “should make us humble at the miracle of the living systems that provide for us on this beautiful planet home of ours.”

Absolutely. And Tim Smit knows better than most, since he’s the visionary spirit behind a remarkable environmental theme park and education centre called The Eden Project. Visiting the site on a raw December day is a heartening and powerful experience.

Created from an abandoned open-pit mine in Cornwall, England, the Eden Project is a “global garden” designed to demonstrate humanity’s complete dependence on plants, a “living theatre of plants and people.” It’s an exhibition space, the home of innumerable initiatives in environmental education and restoration, a living demonstration of what we really can do to place ourselves in harmony with the planet.

And it’s a huge hole in the ground.

The original China-clay pit was 60 meters deep, with an area as large as 35 football fields. Its bottom was 15 meters below the water table. Today it’s an enormous sunken garden dominated by two huge bubble-like domes called “biomes.” The architect got the idea for the design when he was washing dishes and contemplating the soap suds. The end result looks a little like a sprawling set of geodesic domes, made up of air-filled plastic “pillows.”

The larger biome encloses a tropical rainforest, while the other envelops a Mediterranean landscape. They are, says the Guinness Book of Records, the largest conservatories in the world. The Tower of London could fit inside the Rainforest Biome.

Walk inside the Rainforest Biome. It’s steaming hot inside, and your glasses instantly steam over. Take them off. The bow of a huge trading ship looms over you among the coconut palms, bamboo groves, looping vines and kapok trees. The trail meanders through the forest, leading you from one specific habitat to another.

Here are tropical islands, with mangrove swamps and a rare Coco-de-Mer tree from the Seychelles.. A miniature West African farm grows cassava, coffee and cocoa. A Malaysian home garden contains herbs, spices, rice and neem trees. Beyond a huge waterfall, South American art decorates a rock face, linking human life to the plants that sustain it. Other plants in this explosive living environment include soya, cola, rubber, cocoa, pineapples, cashews.

Wild vegetation in the tropics is under merciless attack from mining, lumbering and the expansion of plantations — think palm oil, rubber, cocoa. The exhibits in the Eden Project constantly remind the visitor that an area of tropical forest as large as the Rainforest Biome is lost every 10 seconds, and it links up the exhibits with partner organizations — like the Forest Restoration Research Unit of Chang Mai University in Thailand — that are taking action to combat the losses.

The project itself tries to model sustainability in every aspect of its operations. Its captured rainwater irrigates the plants, flushes the toilets and maintains the misty humidity in the indoor rainforest. Rather than trucking in earth for the plants, the Eden Project built its own soil — 83,000 tonnes of it — from mine wastes, sand and compost, a remarkable demonstration of environmental regeneration. It is developing a geothermal heating and electrical system based on deep wells driven deep into the earth’s crust. It even gives a discount on admission to visitors who arrive by bicycle.

When he conceived the Eden Project, Tim Smit had already made a fortune in the music business, retired to Cornwall and restored a large Victorian garden nearby. Like all great entrepreneurs, he was able to mobilize others with his vision, and his group eventually raised L140 million from such sources as the British Millennium Commission, the local development agency and the European Union. Since 2001, the project has created more than 400 full-time jobs and 200 part-time jobs, and its 11 million visitors have added L900 million to Cornwall’s economy. This is green business with a vengeance.

Despite the difficulties we face, we should “take heart” from the sheer miraculousness of our planet, says Smit. The Eden Project’s purpose is to build “an understanding that we can rise to the challenges and face the future with hope.” A great message. A great project. It was a privilege to visit there.

– 30 —

Brad McRae:Listening to the Masters

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

December 6, 2009

“Master leaders,” says Brad McRae, “aren’t afraid to take on big challenges. They set tipping-point goals — goals that achieve multiple objectives at the same time. You get what Rosabeth Moss Kanter calls ‘Rubik’s Cube moments’ –moments when everything just falls into place.”

Brad McRae knows. A former professor at Carleton and Dalhousie universities, and a former student of Rosabeth Moss Kanter at the Harvard Business School, McRae became a faculty drop-out in 1987 Since then he has been a self-employed trainer, speaker and author on negotiation, presentation skills and leadership. His new book is The Seven Strategies of Master Leaders. (Northridge Publishing, $24.99)

McRae does more than 100 presentations a year. His “anchor clients” have included ATV, the provincial government, and Michelin, for whom he presents across the US and in Mexico, as well as in Canada. He makes, I would judge, a very good living.

McRae’s Atlantic Leadership Development Institute is an excellent example of an industry that’s now booming, but remains largely invisible, namely private-sector education. For most of us, “education” means the publicly-supported system of schools and universities — but there’s now another whole system made up of private vocational schools, highly-specialized (and often very expensive) career colleges, supplementary services like tutoring centres, and in-house training programs for specific agencies and companies. McDonald’s has a Hamburger University, Clearwater has a Lobster University, and the grand old academic city of Heidelberg, Germany, boasts an institution entirely devoted to training music therapists right up to the doctoral level.

Why has education slipped out through the gates of the campus and into the workplace? Partly, I suspect, because knowledge has multiplied at such a ferocious pace that no one group of institutions can any longer stay abreast of it and partly because companies, non-profits and governments need very specific training programs immediately, and are more than happy to pay for them.

Individuals often have similar needs. As a self-employed person, I’ve taken courses in e-commerce, business management, ballroom dancing, Web programming and design, and computerized accounting. I didn’t need a broad, comprehensive program in any of these fields. I just needed quick, precise instruction in very specific subjects, and I didn’t mind paying for it.

The huge market for such services creates a huge need for textbooks and the most successful practitioners commonly provide their own texts. Brad McRae, for instance, is the author of eight books. Two of them — Practical Time Management and From Our Grandmother’s Lap: Lessons for a Lifetime — are recognizably main-stream titles, aimed at the general public.

But the other titles, particularly the last three, are text-like volumes, aimed at the people Brad trains. After years of teaching negotiating skills, he wrote a text called The Seven Strategies of Master Negotiators. To his surprise, the book interested others — and provided him with a template.

“My background is academic psychology,” he explains, “and what I really like doing is taking the best theory about a subject, and then illustrating that theory by interviews.” Having interviewed many of Canada’s top negotiators, he realized that most of them were also superior presenters and leaders which led him to The Seven Strategies of Master Presenters and then to The Seven Strategies of Master Leaders.

The leadership book — based on interviews with such icons as Romeo Dallaire, Jim Balsillie, Louise Arbour, Stephen Lewis, Annette Verschuren and Ruth Goldbloom — is especially close to his heart.

“If you go into the bookstores,” he says, “99% of the books on leadership are by Americans, about Americans. We under-acknowledge and under-celebrate and under-recognize our own Canadian leaders, and I think we pay a very high price for that, because we’re not providing ourselves and our children with Canadian role models. We need to know how people lead in our culture, which tends to be more collaborative than in the US.”

And that, he says, is very pertinent globally, because “for today’s and tomorrow’s complex problems, the leadership model is going to be more collaborative than it’s ever been before.” Canada is a complex, multicultural country in a complex multicultural world. Others need to know the things we’ve learned.

And Brad McRae is perfectly ready to teach them.

– 30 —

Pandemic Panic

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

November 29, 2009


by Silver Donald Cameron

Soon after her flu shot, a friend I’ll call Joan noticed a tingling in her hands and feet. Then she found her sense of balance deteriorating. Her doctor said it was stress. She had no strength in her grip, and she developed an excruciating back pain. Her doctor said it was flu. Her speech began to fail her. Three weeks out, she couldn’t speak or get out of bed.

Her husband carried her to the car and drove to the Colchester hospital. A smart young doctor recognized the symptoms of Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an auto-immune condition that attacks the myelin sheathing of nerve cells, short-circuiting the signals between the brain and the rest of the body.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare and mysterious condition, sometimes mild and sometimes lethal, which can be triggered by flu vaccination. In 1976, a massive vaccination campaign in the US was halted when more than 500 cases of GBS broke out, of which 25 were fatal. The vaccine, apparently, produced one additional case of GBS per 100,000 people.

Seasonal flu kills about 36,000 people annually in the US, and the H1N1 version is clearly a killer too, as witness the heartbreaking death this week of Stephen Nolan. So the risk of getting GBS after a flu shot seems acceptably low unless you turn out to be Joan, who is still grappling with the effects five years later.

Watching our rickety flu immunization program, I am struck by the simple-mindedness of our approach to public health. The health establishment pushes the vaccine like a magic elixir, as though it always worked and had no downside. But it does. How many cases of GBS have we generated? How many patients were neglected because medical personnel were giving shots instead of doing their normal work? My next door neighbour was bed-ridden with searing pain in her arm for a week after her flu shot. Where does her suffering and lost income show up in the calculations?

This is all about balancing risks. I am not opposed to vaccination, but I skipped the flu shot because I’m in good general health, and I probably have decent immunity already. My parents lived through the 1918 Spanish flu, and I have witnessed two flu pandemics myself. (“Pandemic” evokes an epidemic of panic, but it only means a widespread disease, not necessarily a vicious one.) The odds that I will get the flu are low — most people don’t, even in pandemic years — and the odds that it will threaten my life are lower still.

The larger point here is well-described in The Literary Review of Canada by Dr. Charles J. Wright, a former surgeon, professor of medicine and Scientific Officer of the Canadian Health Services Research Foundation. Canadians, says Dr. Wright, have developed “high expectations for relief of ailments that in past generations were accepted as normal accompaniments of daily living and aging.” We are “medicalizing” our lives. Baldness, for instance, is not a medical issue. Grief is a natural consequence of love. High-energy kids aren’t necessarily sick.

Furthermore, some widely-accepted programs do more harm than good. Dr. Wright cites recent studies showing that large-scale screening with mammography and PSA testing produces many false positive results. Patients then receive tests, biopsies, surgeries and treatments that inflict “serious harm… to a person who had no medical problem in the first place.”

And that costs big money. Health-care now absorbs 48% of Nova Scotia’s budget, notes Capital Health CEO Chris Power. As Dr. Wright says, there’s a limit, and we’ve reached it. Worst of all, I would argue, the exploding cost of conventional medicine leaves us nothing to spend on prevention and palliation. We could make huge improvements in public health by attacking the fundamental determinants of health identified by Health Canada — housing, nutrition, poverty, unemployment, literacy and so forth.

We need to begin weighing benefits against costs. For example, we should have a dispassionate audit of this colossal vaccination project, in terms of both its cost-effectiveness and its medical efficacy. Was this a good idea? What role did the vaccine vendors play in the decision? What was achieved? Disconcerting questions, but we need to discuss such issues. Right now would be a fine time to start.

– 30 –