Saturday, May 31, 2008

Slow Motion Oil Spill

As a Canadian living abroad, I have to admit to being more than a little proud of pointing out some of the Canadianisms that are with all of us. Whenever a Canadian song comes on or a Canadian actor appears on the screen, I'm guilty of being the guy who has to say, “s/he's Canadian, eh!”. The maple leaf, a beaver, even a hockey game always make me smile. That's why today's post is so difficult to write. If someone were to ask you where the largest recoverable source of oil in the world was located outside of Saudi Arabia, what would you answer? Unfortunately, I'd have to answer that it, along with Celine Dion, is Canadian. Welcome to the biggest capital project underway on earth.

Having grown up in the capital of Alberta, Edmonton, I've always known of the existence of tar sands. Today, you're more likely to hear the term oil sands to describe the Florida sized reserve of oil trapped in dirt, sand and rock in the northern portion of my home province. It is actually deposits of bitumen, a molasses-like viscous oil that won't flow unless heated or diluted with lighter hydrocarbons. Essentially, it is oil trapped in the rock. Fortunately, for most our lives, the price of a barrel of oil has been under $30 a barrel which made extracting the oil from the muck an uneconomical proposal. Of course, 2008 has brought with it a new world energy order, one where oil companies have been given the green light to rape the world at any cost in order to keep America running.

So how is this goo extracted from the earth? There is the “easy” way, and the “hard” way. The easy stuff is near the surface, representing about 20% of the reserves. The topsoil is simply scraped away by huge excavators and the underlying tar sands are dug out and put in huge trucks and taken for extraction. It is steamed to extract the heavy bitumenous oils and piped to refineries. The hard way, for the remaining 80% that lies in sand too deep to be mined again involves steam. It is injected deep into the earth, loosening the bitumen, allowing the producers to draw it upward.

Searching for reliable information can be exasperating due to the fact that the federal and provincial governments have decided to give the oil companies themselves oversight over the environmental impact. A more extensive report on the cost can be found here if you have the time to study. A simple input/output analysis of extracting one barrel (1/8 of a ton) of usable oil is: (mostly 2006 figures)
-two tons of tar sands (yes about 16 times the weight of oil you'll get)
-two to four and a half, I've read as much as 3 to 7, barrels of water (yes, some is recoverable, most goes to tailage ponds, some of which can be seen from space)
-um, that's about 350 million cubic metres a year, twice the amount the city of Calgary uses
-one to 1.25 gigajoules of natural gas. The barrel of oil that will eventually be produced is about 6.227 gigajoules, so about a fifth is wasted off the top
-that's 1,000 cubic feet per barrel of oil, 20% of Canada's total natural gas production goes to the extraction process, and it still will need further refining
-does this remind anyone of reverse alchemy, turning gold into lead as we take a relatively clean burning fuel, natural gas, and turn it into crude oil?
- one barrel of oil (that will still require further refining and will eventually contain 6 times the carbon levels of conventional sweet crude)
- between 85 and 125 kg of CO2 simply from the extraction, with refining and ultimate use still to add much more (by comparison conventional oil extraction releases about 28.6 kg)
-these oil sands are centred in one is the boreal forest ecosystem which stores more carbon in its peat lands, soil and trees than any other ecosystem in the world, yes, including the tropical forests, that's why there's so much of this stuff. The lungs of North America are being ripped out to produce the destroyer
-the Athabasca River, Canada's longest river runs through the heart of the area has a experienced a runoff decrease of 50% in the 93.7% of the Athabasca Basin that is downstream of the Rocky Mountains.
-pollution as far downstream as the Peace-Athabasca Delta which drains 1/6 of Canada's water, causing mercury levels to rise 98% higher, a jump of 466% of dissolved arsenic and 114% in sediment arsenic
-seepage and plain old dumping into the water system creating cool looking mutant fish
-arsenic levels 453 times acceptable levels in moose meat from the region
-cancer clusters popping up in areas downstream, potentially 458 times higher rates than expected
-huge tailing ponds of used, dirty, toxic water that kills anything that lands on it
-an old fashion gold rush boom town, Fort McMurray, a place I've had the opportunity to visit. It was the middle of the summer, which due to it's northern latitude meant that I enjoyed a midnight sun of sorts as it never quite set. The population has doubled in the last 9 years to about 75,000 with a “shadow” population of 12,000 living in work camps, campgrounds or hotels. (With debilitating effects on the infrastructure link)
-fun for conspiracy theorists as the amount of cover up from these effects becomes known, lives destroyed, people dying. For an excellent article click here.

While most people probably think of Canada as an environmentally friendly country, they are not only allowing this to happen, but encouraging it, while the Americans are at least keeping the oil companies out of Alaska... strange dichotomy. One report called the fiasco a slow motion oil spill, which is essentially the game being played by the powers that be. As long as the oil can get pulled out of the ground fast enough, hopefully not enough people will notice what's going on. Oil companies are pouring money into the area on a mind-boggling scale. As of 2006 the Alberta government said it had issued leases for 4,264 oil sands projects covering 25,065 miles. New projects costing more than $100 billion are on the books for the region as production is expected to at least triple to 3 million barrels a day by 2015.

The Alberta provincial government says it has issued leases for 4,264 oil sands projects covering 25,065 square miles . It knows the oil industry, luring them to invest by only charging a 1% royalty until capital costs are recovered. New projects costing more than C$100 billion are on the books for the oil sands region and production is expected to triple to 3 million barrels a day by 2015. This is a government that also knows it's people, who in turn have kept the Conservative party in power since 1971. Over the years the Alberta government has shown the people that they are saving for the future by building the Heritage Trust fund and issuing occasional royalty cheques to the people. However, when you contrast what a country like Norway has done with it's resource wealth, it puts Alberta to shame. 32 years of savings equals $16.6 billion in Alberta, in Norway they have over 160 billion Euros! Environmental Defence calls the whole thing the most destructive project on Earth and it's hard to argue. From the huge toxic tailing ponds with earthen dams holding them back from the river, rivalled in size only by China's Three Gorges dam, which could burst any time and are continually seeping into the groundwater to the greenhouse emissions that have forced the entire country to abandon it's Kyoto commitments, it is a source of intense shame to any Canadian. More importantly it's could be the biggest danger to mankind in the entire world.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

League of Democracies, Us vs Them

Picture it. John "McBush" McCain and Nicolas Sarkozy standing side by side. Except instead of wearing normal suits and ties, they're wearing superhero suits. I picture Super Sarkozy as Superman and McBush as Ironman. (Sorry Prime Minister Brown, I don't think you'll be around long enough to try on the tights) Yes, it's the new and improved Justice League, but this time it's called the League of Democracies. I have to admit, I missed it the first time and second time around. Apparently John "McBush, McWar" McCain gave a foreign policy speech a little over a year ago and yet again a couple months ago in which he advocated the establishment of a new League of Democracies. So what is it you may ask? Well, you take the countries who you like, you bring them all together, slap a name on it, something with democracy in it, and use it to forward your foreign policy goals. The first two questions that popped into my head were why would we need it and who would be included, let's take a look shall we.

The obvious answer to the why question is the necessity the McBush campaign feels to distance themselves from the disastrous foreign policy followed for the last eight years by George W Bush. The dangerous mix of the "war on terror" and the "global freedom agenda" has been an utter failure, leaving the world a more dangerous place than ever and the image of America in ruins and even Joe Voter is beginning to understand this. So, combining the attack of Obama's diplomacy strategy with the idea of a new "modern" UN to cope with global problems, Joe Voter sees new hope, all without having to talk to the enemy. A few excerpts from McWar's speech of over a year ago, a speech in which he quoted Hamilton, Truman, Madison, T. Roosevelt and Reagan!:
"...our great power does not mean we can do whatever we want whenever we want, nor should we assume we have all the wisdom, knowledge and resources necessary to succeed. When we believe international action is necessary, whether military, economic, or diplomatic, we must work to persuade our democratic friends and allies that we are right."
"like-minded nations working together in the cause of peace. The new League of Democracies would form the core of an international order of peace based on freedom. It could act where the UN fails to act, to relieve human suffering in places like Darfur. It could join to fight the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa and fashion better policies to confront the crisis of our environment... It could bring concerted pressure to bear on tyrants in Burma or Zimbabwe, with or without Moscow's and Beijing's approval."
All sounds pretty good, except for the fact that we already have a world body called the United Nations that's supposed to do all that. Looking past it's obvious flaws (hello security council veto power) wouldn't it make more sense to try to improve the model we already have, one that includes all nations, instead of excluding a whole group of nations from the process. Wouldn't this new league inevitably lead to the formation of an international counterweight, perhaps a real life axis of evil...?

Which brings me to question number 2, who would be part of this new league? I wonder how they would decide on membership. Do you think there would be a slumber party at the White House and McBush, Sarkozy, Merkel et al. would stay up all night talking about boys, I mean other countries, which ones would be just right? If we take the number of countries that McBush threw out there of 100, how would we decide which 100 nations are democratic enough to join? Maybe they'd draw up a chart similar to say the one use by the Economist in their democracy index, or maybe the freedom of the world scores compiled by Freedom House. Let's take the Economist's list as it's much easier to read. I guess the 28 "full" democracies would be no-brainer choices (Sweden at number 1 and Iceland at 2, damn, I've gotta get to Iceland some day, also the happiest people in the world). If we're to get anywhere near 100, we also have to assume the 54 "flawed" democracies also get in there bringing our total to 82. This is a leap of faith though as we've got such democratic heavies as Timor Leste and Mali in there, plus the fact that Palestine and Israel would have to find a way to play nice together. This "coalition of the willing" still needs another 18 member to get to a hundred, and the pickings are pretty slim from here on in, what the Economist terms "hybrid regimes". OK, maybe a Turkey, a Ghana or even Tanzania, but Iraq? or Kenya? of course not Russia, it comes in at 102.

The biggest flaw in the reasoning is the idea that just because they are democracies, these nations will share the same interests on different fronts and will be able to work together as a whole by this virtue. The UN has international legitimacy because every nation in the world participates in its decisions. Democracies' legitimacy comes from the consent of the governed, once they act outside their borders, no such legitimacy applies. Yes, the UN needs to be reformed and re-thought to meet the challenges of the 21st century, but I'll take it any day over the idea of a League of Democracies.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Crouching Bear, Snarling Dragon

The first foreign visit by a newly elected president is a highly symbolic gesture. I remember a few years ago, well almost eight long and torturous years in fact, shortly after Dubya was "elected", the uproar caused in Canada by the fact that his first trip abroad was to see Vicente Fox in Mexico instead of the traditional visit to his northern neighbour. It was seen as a deliberate snub to the Canadian government and a move towards the south as the previous three presidents had begun a tradition of smiling to the north first. So what can be read into Russia's newly elected President's first foreign diplomatic trip? This weekend Putvedev is visiting China.

Sino-Russian relations are possibly at an all-time high. Both economies are booming and both are looking to flex their muscle. Apart they are strong, together they hope to bring down American hegemony, a fact the hasn't been lost by any of the American presidential candidates, even if the electorate has missed it. Maybe if we weren't so inured to Dubya's failings it might have been a bigger part of the news coverage, but George W truly scored a triple crown of incompetence over the past couple months of foreign trips. In addition to being rejected by King Faud in Saudi Arabia in his request for more oil and trying to compare Barack Obama to Nazi appeasers in Israel he was also rebuffed by outgoing Russian president Vladimir Putin in Sochi, on the Black Sea. So long Vladimir, remember me, I'm the guy who looked into your eyes and got a sense of your soul, let's be friends, let us point interceptor missiles your way. NO! Now, with Putvedev in China, along with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao, they wasted no time signing a joint statement, marking the first time they have come together in denouncing the plan.

With the rise in US power since the end of the Cold War and fear of Islamic extremism in Central Asia, it should have come as no surprise that both Russia and China's unease would lead to closer ties. The Sino-Russian Treaty of Good Neighborly Friendship and Cooperation (yes, it's real name! Maybe I'll call it the SRTGNF&C),in 2001 marked a real turning point. Since then bilateral trade volume has surged from $10.67 billion in 2000 to $48.17 billion last year, with Putvedev stating a target of $60 billion for this year. Of that $48 billion, almost $7 billion of it is oil flowing into China, which will exponentially grow once the East Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline and its branch to China are completed. Of course all of this growth has been driven by the transformation of the USSR to capitalist Russia and the opening of the Chinese market to capitalism, as the west and especially America probably would have wished for 20 years ago. At the same time as buying Chinese goods and Russian oil, America has also done everything in it's power to improve their future prospects, seemingly investing in their future. While borrowing money mainly from China daily to fund a war whose most pronounced effect globally has been increasing terrorism and the price of oil from $25 to $135 a barrel. Driving the value of the dollar down, thus increasing the cost of importing, mainly from China to buy more crap and finance the debt. Oh, yeah, about that war on terror...

Ostensibly on the pretext of training for joint responses to terrorist threats (and extremism and separatism, hello Taiwan), the Russian and Chinese armies have been staging manoeuvres together since their inaugural Peace Mission 2005, a result of the war on terror and the aforementioned SRTGNF&C. The week of August 18-25 of that year saw joint war games involving 10,000 troops, cruise missile capable Russian heavy bombers and units of the army, navy, air force, marine airborne and logistics units from both countries. Week 2 saw an amphibious landing in Eastern China, not far from Taiwan. In what has been evolving towards an "anti-NATO" group, the SCO, or Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), played host to more "anti-terror drills" in 2007 on an even grander scale. In addition, through this group, both China and Russia are seeking to increase their influence, and reduce American influence in Central Asia both economically and militarily. Not only are they securing oil supplies, they've gone so far as to demand the US military out of it's member countries, with Uzbekistan complying. Yes, the names may be unpronounceable, but they are important staging posts for the war in Afghanistan. Remember Nixon in China? Neither do I, but I've read that it was a trip designed to counter fears of Soviet hegemony in Asia, an attempt to enlist China's support in America's containment strategy. The present American administration seems to have done everything possible to push them together.

The American plan to balance this new alliance in Central Asia has been the velvet revolution idea, working off the successes in the Ukraine of the orange revolution and the rose revolution of Georgia. However, with the possible exception of Kyrgyzstan, it's been a complete failure, most notably in Uzbekistan where yet another American staged coup attempt went awry in 2005 in Andijan. Two other wild cards, both of whom are observer states in the SCO, are Iran and India. With Iran obviously tilting to the east, India's role of possible kingmaker is undeniable. Donald Rumsfeld might have said of the 2005 Peace Mission "...I guess I don't find it notable" and continued, "I mean, countries do that. We are obviously observing what's takes place, but I didn't see anything in it that was threatening to Taiwan or anyone else." However, America has taken notice, witness the latest good cop-bad cop game played by McBush and Bush before and during Bush's last visit with Putin in Sochi. The reality is, for those of us who missed it the first time around, a new cold war is definitely forming with most of the same players playing different roles.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Fear of the Other

Archaeologists tell us that the earliest human groups were small family-tribes consisting of about 30 to 50 individuals. It was the perfect number to achieve the balance between having the ability to move quickly and being able to defend themselves effectively in the fight for survival. In a sparsely populated world, these small groups rarely came into contact with each other, but when they did, they had to decide how they would react to this Other. Today's world sees many more potential meetings between groups, yet still we must choose how to react when faced with the Other. What kind of attitude should we have towards them? Should we throw ourselves in fury on those people who are different than us, build a barricade to keep them away, or get to know and understand them?

The headlines today are from South Africa, so we can can once again turn the page and know it doesn't affect us. Whether we're reading this in Europe, North America or even Australia we can feel comfortable in the knowledge that we won't have problems like those in the townships of Johannesburg and Cape Town where at least 42 foreigners have been killed in violence aimed at immigrants. The country that has styled itself as the Rainbow Nation, has seen more than 12 days of violence aimed at immigrant groups. It was thought that this kind of thing could only happen in Nigeria, or maybe the Congo, but the home of the Truth and Reconciliation commission has been witness to marauding groups of vigilantes hunting foreigners, burning their homes and even burning people. A spike in Zimbabwean immigration combined with the fact that the economic gains of the past decade haven't been shared equally among the population has led to violence and the worst is yet to come.

Yeah, well it is only an African phenomenon, right? Well, let's take Italy, a country that has a few skeletons in their closet when it comes to xenophobic hysteria, so you'd think they'd have learnt from past mistakes. In fact though, the country is on the brink of beginning a process of deporting Italian citizens because of their Roma heritage. As is often the case when a right wing populist movement wins an election, Berlusconi's party and their coalition partners won partially on a platform based on blaming the Others. Now, the people have begun to take matters into their own hands. In a scenario supposedly sparked by a 17-year-old Roma girl who supposedly tried to steal someone's baby, the people of Naples have risen up night after night, marching, chanting and burning the homes of the second-class citizen Roma population. What's worse is it seems they've been blocking firefighter's access to the blazes. It's an almost textbook example of directing the populations anger at a scapegoat as the city battles a huge waste collection problem. During the recent election campaign Berlusconi vowed to curb illegal immigrants, describing them as an “army of evil”. The government's response to the recent violence, well quite predictably, more measures to get rid of the "army". Army of evil you say, sounds familiar...

Meanwhile, in America, where they have been busy perfecting the policy of attack over dialogue, they are also embracing the idea of wall building, in this case to keep out the Mexicans. At the same time an election campaign, which could see the election of the first black president, drags on.

Why build a wall when your people need all the exposure to the outside world they can get? It's not to fight terrorists, as construction was begun well before 9/11, in 1994 in fact. It's to keep out the Other. The Great Wall of China, Hadrian's Wall, The Maginot Line, even the rabbit fences of Australia were all overcome by the invaders they were designed to keep out. Over, under, around, through, a wall is just something to be overcome, and they always are. Another doomed barricade will surely be the planned missile shield whose only tactical value seems to be that it pisses the Other off. America has already wasted the past 8 years focusing their response on the first two reactions to the Other, what the world needs more than anything is someone to take up that risky third option, dialogue.

The Other is an easy target when people start getting nervous about their pocketbooks, or worse yet, the hole in their bellies. Throughout our history, mankind has always wavered between the options of war, wall building and dialogue when dealing with this Other. War is hard to justify, the encounter with the Other usually ends tragically with the imposition of one's beliefs on the Other. Wall building only serves to isolate without fixing the problems that lie underneath. In a world where we seem to be moving from a mass society to a new, global society 2.0, interconnectivity is becoming the new world order. Linked more than ever before electronically through communication and physically in terms of transport and movement, how we deal with the Other will only become more important, culturally and economically. A surge in oil prices, a spike in food prices, an economic slow down, fingers will be pointed, swords could be drawn, if we don't talk, who will be next to be blamed?

Monday, May 19, 2008

A New Democratic Process

Obama lights up, Hillary throws 'em back and McBush, well, he'd try anything to get elected come November. If only we had a better method of choosing the president of the USA than this democracy thing that has obviously gone awry. Anybody who still has faith in the system that elected George W. Bush president back in 2000 hasn't been paying attention. In an election campaign where it somehow matters whether one wears an American flag pin all the time, it has become clear that we need a new and improved method of resolving these annoying elections. My proposal is a drinking contest.

Flashback to August 2004, both Hillary Clinton and John McBush McCain find themselves part of a congressional delegation visiting Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Being in a Baltic country, what else could they do but partake in some of the local spirit, vodka. Well, the story goes that one thing leads to another and a shot contest develops between the two presidential hopefuls. True or not, the story ends with Clinton being the victor after around four shots each. Who knows when a situation may develop where the future President and his/her counterpart in Russia will be seated across from each other and the need to resolve a dispute evolves into a similar contest? Well, in case you missed it, Mrs. Clinton has demonstrated her shot taking ability in front of the cameras. Right before the Indiana primary, she had stopped for a drink and some pizza at a local den if iniquity when a shot of whiskey appeared before her. Now, there seems to be some problem with the fact that it was a shot of Crown Royal, the finest hooch from Canada, but the fact is she downed it like a champion.

Score one for Hillary. Hmmm, come to think of it, maybe there was a reason ol' George W won back in 2000... Try the Boozin' Bush quiz.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Shiver me Timbers! Pirates!

Ahoy me hearties! Blow me down, shiver me timbers, there be modern pirates in the waters today. That's right, sailing on the open sea involves many risks, and if you happen to be sailing in the waters off the Somali coast, one of the biggest dangers is that you'll be boarded by pirates. For the most part it seems these scurvy dogs aren't in it for the booty on board the vessels, but for the money involved in ransoming the crews and passengers. This area has seen a dozen attacks this year and three in recent weeks.

However, surprisingly, the horn of Africa isn't the most dangerous place in the world when it comes to the number of pirate attacks worldwide. In fact, it's the area around Nigeria that is the worst, replacing the area around Indonesia as the hottest spot for pirate attacks, but it's the Somali attacks that have been given the most press, and along with Nigeria will continue to rise in number and scale. In Nigeria, the main reason is oil, and the fact that there are even more attacks than are probably reported due to the fact that oil companies wish to keep the attacks quiet, giving would be pirates added incentive. Somalia's attacks are poised to grow even faster with a perfect storm environment of lack of central government, demand for money to buy arms and an international community that has shown itself willing to give in to ransom demands.

Somalia has not had a functioning central government since 1991 and has an 1,880 mile coastline, the longest in Africa. There is a Transitional Federal Government, but it is just a nice sounding name for a group of warlords backed by Ethiopia that claims it can do nothing to stop the attacks. Funny enough, the attacks all but stopped in the six months period when the Somali Council of Islamic Courts controlled much of the country in 2006. It's become a highly lucrative business, especially of late. After Somali pirates seized a French luxury yacht on April 4th and held its crew of 30 for a week, Super Sarkozy sent in the troops along with $2 million in cash, which was only partially recovered. Later in the month a Spanish fishing boat off the coast of Somalia was taken, with their release only being secured with a reported $1.2 million ransom. Now, just this weekend pirates have taken a Jordanian flagged ship bringing humanitarian aid to Mogidishu. Doesn't sound as profitable does it? Not until you find out the Jordanians have a deal with the Danish government to protect their ships in the area. Ka-Ching! The International Maritime Bureau says 49 attacks were reported in the first 3 months of 2008, up from 41 in 2007, but with the profits rising, this number sould skyrocket in the months to come.

As the battle over control of Somalia continues, more and more people will turn to this business. If there aren't links with terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda yet, there is sure to be soon. The US and France have introduced a draft resolution to the UN security council that would allow foreign governments to pursue pirate vessels into Somalia's territorial waters and make arrests. The last time I checked though the Americans were caught up in too many other battles to commit enough resources to help. Besides, haven't they seen Black Hawk Down?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

When Talking Became a Bad Thing

I must have missed the meeting. Can someone please tell me when we decided that discussing issues and problems became a bad thing? Watching John (McBush) McCain the other day I was struck by the way he thought he was putting down his potential Democratic rival in the November election by saying that if Obama were elected president, he would have an open dialogue with Iran. In case you missed it, at some point talking with people, and nations, about issues and disagreements was displaced by a new method of conflict resolution, namely bombs.

This change has been written about before, yet it still makes no difference. I've been having some fun looking back at articles written before the US invasion of Iraq and the sad thing is that we knew what was happening even then. America had decided to abandon the whole idea of diplomacy in order to make it look like they were doing something to fight the "war on terror". In the post 9/11 world where America needed help most, to build alliances and trust, they decided to throw it all to the wind and wage war. Why? Who knows, but for some reason it's no longer just OK to not care what the rest of the world thinks about their actions, it's a campaign strategy that is likely to attract voters!

Let's take the case of Iran. First, we have to try to imagine how they feel. America has invaded Iraq to the west and Afghanistan to the east. Imagine the case of a hostile power taking over Canada to the north and Mexico to the south, how would America react to being caught in this type of vice. Well, they would attack, but Iran knows that militarily they wouldn't stand a chance in a head to head confrontation, so you have to show strength in some other way. Iran chose the nuclear card. Maybe we have them, maybe we want them, in either case, don't attack us because we'll use them. Yes, Ahmadinejad has said a few wild a crazy things, but does that mean you can't talk with him? The White House has already in effect had the green light to invade Iran for 8 months since the passing of the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment (Clinton voted for it by the way), and with only about the same amount of time left in office don't be surprised if Bush/Cheney try it before saying adios. Don't talk, invade, and if not now, McBush will. Maybe we all forget his fondness for old Beach Boys songs.

More proof of the neocon aversion to diplomacy is the reaction to former president Jimmy Carter's recent meeting with representatives of Hamas, a party that, you know, only won the last Palestinian elections. But the we don't like them, so we don't talk to them rule seems to hold as in Iran. Secretary of State Rice said," We had certainly told President Carter that we did not think meeting with Hamas was going to help... the United States is not going to deal with Hamas." And of course McBush had to get a dig in on Obama, who refused to condemn such a wild move as Carter's, talking. As well as using the word terrorist 3 times in 6 sentences, McBush said, "If Senator Obama is not decisive enough to condemn former President Carter, how can he be strong enough to deal with the threat they pose to America and to our allies?" Read: if you think talking is a good idea, your weak. Well, at least he pleased the Israeli lobby. No, we'll just continue to support Israel so they can continue to antagonize Hamas by bombing them, thus creating more terrorists and more attacks, so Israel will bomb them... I think you get it.

In an environment where the level of rhetoric has reached a point where you can criticize someone for being a proponent of negotiation, where else will the world's most powerful nation turn to besides more bombs. Today we heard from both Bush in the Knesset in Israel and McBush speaking in Ohio as they were doing some kind of two step manoeuvre that left me, and I hope others, flabbergasted. Bush's speech, if not libelous, was at least offensive to anyone listening who believes in diplomacy. In a speech marking the 60th anniversary of Israel in the Jewish state's parliament Bush said: “The fight against terror and extremism is the defining challenge of our time. .. Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is – the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history."
In a clear reference to Obama's plan to negotiate a settlement with the Palestinians, Bush clearly linked the idea of the rise of Nazism in the 30's to the Palestinian dream of a homeland today. Why doesn't anyone mention that his administration's policies have created more terrorists in the past seven years than existed before his election? Meanwhile, in America, McBush was making equally farcical statements about the Middle East. The most disturbing part of his speech in fact wasn't that it included no details on how the predictions he was making were going to become reality, but the language that he used. Read carefully:"By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom. The Iraq War has been won. Iraq is a functioning democracy, although still suffering from the lingering effects of decades of tyranny and centuries of sectarian tension. Violence still occurs, but it is spasmodic and much reduced. Civil war has been prevented; militias disbanded; the Iraqi Security Force is professional and competent; al Qaeda in Iraq has been defeated; and the Government of Iraq is capable of imposing its authority in every province of Iraq and defending the integrity of its borders. The United States maintains a military presence there, but a much smaller one, and it does not play a direct combat role."
Notice the transition in verb tense from the passive to the active thus attempting to convince the listener in the reality of his words (sorry, I'm an English teacher). No details, just false hope for the gullible. Plus, I thought the war was won on June 5, 2003, almost 5 years ago, not 5 years in the future. Peace will have been restored without talking to the most important players in the region (Iran and Syria) and of course Al Qaeda, who did not exist in Iraq before American intervention, will have been wiped out. Anyone who buys this pipe dream and votes for four more years of empty promises deserves what they get.

Monday, May 12, 2008

God Car

It's a classic scene. The camera follows the car as it races along the highway, the road twists and turns up the side of a mountain, the driver confidently accelerates around the corners with the knowledge that he's in control of his life, his destiny. The wind rustles his hair as his passenger tosses her head back, revealing her flowing locks as she smiles and laughs to let the world know she has arrived. It's the American dream, it's the car, its God Car. If you've been reading some of my previous posts you may have come across the somewhat odd collocation God Car. With a tip of my hat to my brother for coining the phrase, God Car refers to the position the automobile has been granted within modern society. By this I mean the importance placed on owning, driving, parking, buying, selling, producing, exporting, importing, re-fueling and marketing cars in our world today.

Before you ask, no I don't own a car, but yes, I have owned a few in my lifetime. I too was one of the countless automatons who would hop in his car and drive to and from work, to the grocery, video or convenience store and back again. Then I moved to Europe and realized I didn't need the thing. So, why is it that everyone here either has one or dreams of having one? Wanting a car is as basic as wanting a beautiful house, wife or child. Including commercial vehicles there is now in the range of 650 million motor vehicles in the world today and with over 73 million being produced in 2007, that magical billion number can't be too far off. Somehow, everyone has the idea that they NEED a car. Having a car will make them a better person, give them more freedom, elevate their social status, all in one package, thus God Car is created. So, it's my job to shatter the myth, break down the God Car fallacy if you will by presenting my top 10 reasons for us to remove the car from our lives.

1. Death and Injury - Road traffic accidents are the number one cause of death by injury in the world. About one out of every 50 deaths worldwide is caused by God Car, about 1.2 million deaths per year. There are more than 50 million people injured in traffic accidents each year and road deaths are now the number-one global killer of people aged 10 to 24. With the expectation of vehicle ownership in populous nations such as China and India to double in the next 20 years this number is sure to rise, fast, as much as 80% by 2020.
2. Pollution - Related to the death and injury problem as some of the pathogens found in car exhaust include carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide suspended particles, benzene, formaldehyde and polycyclic hydrocarbons. The number of premature deaths caused by car exhaust is difficult to measure, but the health implications are obvious. Some other downsides can be seen here. Then of course there is the whole global warming issue...
3. Costs - One of the basic arguments for car ownership is that it saves time and time is of course money. So, taking 2003 figures, the average annual cost of car ownership in the US was $7,754 (a figure sure to be higher today with the increase in gas prices). The average American earned about $14/hour after taxes, so his car costs takes 554 hours of work to pay for, or a little over 3 full months of work each year just to pay for the car. Drive to work, work to drive my friends. Tax money goes towards road building and maintenance and of course the police that patrol them.
4. Space - Cars use up a lot of space. Look around your town, how much of it is taken up by roads and parking spaces. In some cities, up to 30% of the land is taken up just by parking. Add to that the streets and highways and yep, you guessed it, concrete jungle.
5. War - Oil, Iraq. Enough said.
6. Random ramblings - Open your window. Here anything? Probably cars speeding past. Ride your bike or walk and you'll have to pay attention to cars to avoid getting killed. Why should cars and their drivers hold your life in their hands?
7. Isolated communities - Is it a good thing that we don't have any neighbourhood stores anymore? Between 1990 and 2001 the number of miles travelled on American shopping trips rose by 40%.
8. Public Transport - A little bit of a conspiracy theory, but it makes sense. General Motors and a few others either bought out whole commuter rail systems across the states in order to dismantle them and force the public onto buses or into cars. A good read here.
9. Road Rage and traffic congestion - There are too many cars for most road systems to handle. Ever notice how aggressive some people get when they drive? Check out grandma's reaction to the honker:

10. Teenage pregnancy - Just kidding! But, when you think about it...

Please feel free to add a comment below if you can add to my list as I know it's a work in progress. I also know that we as people are not only psychologically dependent on God Car, but also economically dependent and so there is no way to get rid of them altogether. What I'd like to see change is the belief that we need cars to be complete people. Instead of driving 10km to the supermarket (your Tesco and Carrefour) or Home Depot or Ikea, rediscover the neighbourhood market by walking down your street, you might be surprised what you find.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Great Tits Cope Well With Warming

This is the kind of stuff you just can't make up. There it was, the headline we've all been waiting for, and on the BBC no less, Great Tits Cope Well With Warming. Finally, a positive story about global warming. Women's breasts, if their great, will be OK even if the world continues to warm up. Unfortunately, that's not exactly what the story was about, although I counted the phrase great tits 11 times on the page so it's well worth reading. The great tit is a type of bird apparently, wikipedia says "Great Tits are easy to recognize, large in size at 14 cm".

In a good news bad news story, we learn that the Great Tit chicks are hatching about 2 weeks earlier than they did 47 years ago. This is an adaption the species has undergone as the chicks' main nourishment, caterpillar larvae, has been emerging earlier and earlier each year as temperatures rise. So, although temperatures are rising, at least this species is adapting. On the flip side, researchers have found a greater number of species that are failing to adapt to the changing climate. Wait a second, I said the CC words, climate change, even GW, global warming, better back up.

First off, is it happening? It seems that for every person who is concerned about the warming planet, there is a naysayer who denies it. Why? The denial argument usually goes something like this. The earth has always gone through periods of warming and cooling, this period is just another naturally occurring cyclical event, so relax. In large part they are correct, as shown below, temperatures have gone up and down over the past 400,000 years or so. But the important question here is why have they gone up and down? One of the most obvious answers seems to be CO2 concentrations in the air. It's hard not to see the correlation between temperature and CO2:

According to NOAA and NASA data, the Earth's average surface temperature has increased by about 1.2 to 1.4ºF in the last 100 years, keeping in step with the CO2 rise. The scary part is barely visible on the right, check out that 2006 CO2 concentration level! Ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we've been putting more and more pollution into the thin layer of atmosphere that we have. The human population has been growing at the same time, soon to be 7 billion. These people will demand more and more as economies like China and India grow, putting more God Cars on the streets. So, here's what we know:

Mmmhmm, so, the planet is warming, so what could happen? Well, of course now we do move a bit into the world of hypothesis and speculation. Each year scientists are learning more and more, but a random sampling of the events that are likely to occur include:
-melting glaciers, early snow melt and severe droughts causing water shortages
-rising sea levels leading to coastal flooding
-warmer sea surface temperatures fueling more and more intense storms
-forests, farms and cities will face new pests and more mosquito-borne diseases
-disruption of habitats driving many plant and animal species to extinction

The science may be complicated, some of it may even be disputable, but how much in life is certain? When a rational, sentient being is faced with a situation in which they must choose between two options, the decision making process should lead one to choose the option with the most positive likely outcome. We have two choices, do nothing, or do something. Imagine a man standing on a railway line. As the train approaches, he has two choices. One option is to not move. Here we have two possible outcomes, one being instant death as he is crushed by the train, and two, a miraculous occurrence, such as the train derailing or Superman saving the day. The second choice is the man simply steps aside, in which case the train slides harmlessly past, or the train will jump the rail and still hit him. By stepping off the rail we increase our odds of a positive outcome. Add to this the potential for economic gain that could come from investment in the research for new technologies that could lessen our reliance of fossil fuels. Instead of pumping money into the Middle East, or Russia, or Venezuela, money could be spent at home developing and producing new technologies...aah, sounds like a rant for another day. Wasn't I talking about tits?

Friday, May 9, 2008

Your Cousin's a Platypus

Yes indeed, somewhere in your family tree there's a platypus. OK, you might have to go back a few years, but there's one there somewhere near the end of one of those branches. Yes, about 165 million years ago the platypus branched off the same mammalian path that we derived from. Go back a little further and you'll find a few reptiles as well that share some genes with you and me. The funny thing about the platypus though is that they kept a few more of the traits of their reptilian cousins, they lay eggs for instance, making it one of only two monotremes (egg laying mammals) in the world. However, like other mammals, it has fur and produces milk, although here again is another oddity, they lack nipples. The males also possess venomous spurs on their hind legs that are loaded with a venom so potent it can kill a dog. All of these eccentricities can be studied to determine when and maybe even why so many of our features evolved.

I love imaging a creationist, or ID (intelligent design) believer, reading these lines, face going red, blood pressure skyrocketing. NO! It was bad enough when science tried to tell them that we are related to monkeys, but a platypus? One of nature's oddest creatures, seemingly a random mixture of spare parts left over from a beaver, a duck, a lizard and maybe even a mole, has had it's genome decoded as reported in the journal Nature. Of course, it's just another piece of the evolutionary puzzle to aid the study of human evolution which will help scientists in innumerable areas, but particularly the development of the immune, nervous and reproductive systems. While scientists are hard at work with their latest scientific propaganda coup, I'm sure the ID folks will be hard at work with building another museum in the States to show their view of the world.

I may be getting a little ahead of myself here. If you are a European reading this, or for that matter, from almost anywhere else in the world besides the US, you might be unaware of the fact that there is a controversy over whether or not we are all here due to evolution. While evolution is known as a theory, it is one of the most solid theories yet proposed, with enough scientific data supporting it to sink a battleship. Yet, there is a hardcore group of people who believe that ID should be taught alongside the theory of evolution to children in biology class. What exactly is ID though? Many of the proponents of the idea go to great lengths to separate it from creationism. Their basic argument being that whereas creationism "typically starts with a religious text and tries to see how the findings of science can be reconciled to it. Intelligent design starts with the empirical evidence of nature and seeks to ascertain what inferences can be drawn from that evidence". They (IDers) try to present their idea as scientific method, a four-step process involving observations, hypothesis, experiments, and conclusion. Intelligent design begins with the observation that intelligent agents produce complex and specified information (CSI). Design theorists hypothesize that if a natural object was designed, it will contain high levels of CSI. Scientists then perform experimental tests upon natural objects to determine if they contain complex and specified information. One easily testable form of CSI is irreducible complexity, which can be discovered by experimentally reverse-engineering biological structures to see if they require all of their parts to function. When ID researchers find irreducible complexity in biology, they conclude that such structures were designed. In other words because there is complexity, it must be designed, the old burden of proof argument, whatever has not been proved false, must be true. Unfortunately for them absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Before you laugh these people off, you must consider the forces that are behind this movement. They have taken their case of teaching ID in schools all the way to the Supreme Court in the US, where fortunately they failed, but unfortunately will try again. They have produced a movie, one that I am loathe to advertise here, but one that you should know exists, as many people will see the documentary style and take it as fact. It is called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Fortunately there are many honest scientists out there who are working to counter the lies that these people are setting forth. Among it's fear mongering lies, the movie puts much of the responsibility for the holocaust on Darwin's theory. Also, in case you missed it, there is the Creation Museum, located somewhere in the wilds of Kentucky. Preparing to celebrate their first year anniversary, this $27 million "museum" presents the history of the world through a literal interpretation of the bible. In this museum dinosaurs exist together with people and scenes from the bible are portrayed as fact, no not metaphors, fact. Lastly, I'd like to remind all of you what happened when the question of whether or not the Republican candidates for the presidency of the US of A believed in evolution was posed:

Back in the real world, the scientists compared the platypus genome with human, mouse, dog, opossum and chicken genomes and found that the platypus shares 82 percent of its genes with these animals. Comparing us with the platypus means that we can say something about our common ancestor, which was one of the earliest mammals, so that means that we can ask questions about what happened to make us mammals. When the platypus was first brought back to England, many people thought it was a hoax, that there was no way it was a real animal, of course science proved them wrong. Today, I think most people would also view the ideas and beliefs being put forward by the Christian right as some kind of joke but therein lies the danger. If we don't stay on our guard, not only could we lose the knowledge gained from evolutionary theory in the past 150 years, but you never know, the world could go flat again.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

When a Bear Sleeps on Your Doorstep...

No, this isn't an image from a May Day parade during the Soviet era. This is 2008, where once again the Russian military used the annual event to flex it's military muscle for the world to see. Why now you might ask. Well, in case you missed it, Russia is once again a world power, and this time it's not just militarily, but financially as well. What can a former superpower that has endured more than a decade of humiliating loss of prestige do with new found oil wealth and a supply of leftover weaponry from a half century long cold war? Well, make their neighbours uncomfortable for starters.

Starting today, we'll see three consecutive days of fireworks out of the world's largest nation. First, Dmitri Medvedev (from here on, referred to as Putvedev) will be sworn in as president, Thursday, Putin will be appointed Prime Minister and then Friday will see World War II victory celebrations. The first two events have been expected by the world for months as part of the Putin Plan, but it's the celebrations and military parades on Friday that might actually capture the world's attention. We'll be treated to a display that may serve as a warning that the Russian bear has tired of the insults from the west. From support for Kosavar independence from Russian buddy Serbia, to plans to install a missile shield system in Poland and the Czech Republic to Ukrainian and Georgian aspirations to join NATO, picture Russia as the puny kid who gets pushed into the sand one too many times by the bully. Then one day he finally decides to work out so he can get even, the Russian bear's work out regimen is called high oil prices, prices which show no sign of slowing down (In fact Goldman Sachs just released a report predicting $150-$200 in the next year). The state's share of Russia's oil production has risen to 44 percent, from 6 percent in 2000. The gas industry is almost entirely in the hands of state-run OAO Gazprom, the world's largest producer.

The first warning signs are already clearly visible, although in a remote corner of the Caucasus that most people confuse with an American state, Georgia. Georgia has faced huge problems with the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia almost from the moment of independence from the USSR in 1991. Both regions are ethnically different from Georgians and have therefore been fighting for their own independence with, many say, Russian aid. North Ossetia is located within Russia's current borders and Abkhazia is home to a couple of former military bases. Now, following civil wars, the powers that be saw fit to place Russian peacekeepers in these areas and agreements were signed limiting troop numbers by both Tblisi and Moscow. It could be a coincidence but ever since the west embrace of an independent Kosovo, Russia has been increasingly making their presence felt in the region. April 16th, Russia declares it will seek closer economic ties with the region. After claiming to have shot down an unmanned Georgian drone on March 18, video surfaces of another drone shot down on April 20th, this time clearly showing that it was a Russian MiG fighter.

Finally, April 29th, Russian begins moving more troops into the Abkhazia region.

So, where will this all lead to? As likely as not, simply more posturing from both sides in an effort to gain support from the international community. On the other hand, it is important to know that most people in the Abkhazia region have been issued Russian passport and they use the Russian ruble, not the Georgian lari as currency. At the same time NATO and the EU are likely to continue to make their push east, making the slumbering bear more and more nervous. How the "new" administration under Putvedev reacts to being poked by a stick while sharpening its claws will be interesting to see.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

May Day

Aaaah, long weekend, a five day one for me, toiling as an English teacher here in Poznań, Poland, almost exactly at the mid-point between Warsaw and Berlin. While snoozing on the train returning home from a camping trip near Gdansk, I got to thinking about the holiday most everyone here in Europe was enjoying along with me. Did I know why I was able to take this trip, relax for the better part of a week, does anybody know? Foggy memories of May 1st growing up in Canada in the 70's and 80's I can remember the news showing parades in Red Square in Moscow as they put on a show for the world to see the might of the communist system. Soldiers and tanks marching and rolling beside ICBMs as the First Secretary looked down and saluted from time to time. For me, May Day, or International Workers' Day, equalled communism. As my train rolled out of the Gdansk station I could turn my head and just make out the tall cranes in the shipyard, where another association formed in my head, one with the shipyard and the Solidarity movement of the 1980's here in Poland and it's role in bringing down the Iron Curtain and opening the door to capitalism and the American Dream.

Wikipedia describes May Day as "a celebration of the social and economic achievements of the international labour movement." In Canada and the US, we have a similar day, known as Labour Day (or Labor Day in the US) celebrated on the first Monday of September. Ironically, the reason the rest the world celebrates on the 1st of May arose out of an incident that took place in America. May 1st 1886 was designated as the start of general strike across the US and Canada in support of the 8-hour working day movement. On Tuesday May 4th rallies were held across the continent. Although the intent was peaceful and most of the gatherings produced no problems, the centre of the movement and therefore the biggest rally was held in Chicago, where events took a tragic turn. In what has become known as the Haymarket affair, a bomb was thrown at advancing policemen and shots were fired from both sides resulting in the deaths of seven policemen and an unknown number of civilians.

Unfortunately, the bloody past of this day doesn't end in Chicago. The May Day riots of 1894 and 1919 in Cleveland, Ohio were due in part to what has become known as the First Red Scare, the widespread fear of communism and anarchism following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The Taksim Square massacre in Turkey occurred May 1st, 1977 where between 34 and 42 people were killed when shots were fired leading to security agents responding with lethal force. Curiously, the Taksim events began with unknown people firing gunshots, while the Haymarket affair also began with an unknown assailant throwing the bomb, leading to many conspiracy theories, mostly involving anti-communist agents. In the Taksim affair, shots came from either the water supply company or the Intercontinental hotel leading many to believe it was a plot by the CIA or the Deep State.

The labour movement began as a way to reduce working hours and generally improve working people's lives. The original goal was an 8-hour work day and a 40-hour work week. The mantra of 8 hours of labour, 8 hours of recreation and 8 hours of rest seems to make sense; have we gotten there in 2008. The answer would have to be yes and no. The OECD(organization for economic co-operation and development)The average hours worked is calculated as the total numbers of hours worked over the year divided by the average numbers of people in employment. However, as we all know, statistics don't always tell the whole truth. What is hidden in these numbers is the fact that there are more families where both parents are working therefore lowering the average number of hours worked per person, while the number of hours worked per household has increased. In addition, government data on hours worked don't capture time put in off the job, such as during weekends, or after-hours work that many salaried employees do on laptops, mobile phones and e-mail. Also hidden by the averaging is the growing number of people at both extremes in number of hours worked. The part-timers and the overtimers. Believe it or not, there is a Japanese word, karoshi, and a Chinese word, guolaosi, that literally translate to working yourself to death. A recent study showed that "long working hours increased an individual's chances of illness and injury. It noted that for those doing 12 hours a day, there was a 37% increase in risk compared to those working fewer hours." In another twist, the origins of the labour movement was to decrease the number of hours worked by blue collar workers, whereas today it is the white collar workers who are under the most pressure to work longer hours.

So why are we working so hard? To make more money silly. Why do we need more money? To buy more things silly! All this hard work should at least pay off, so we can head down to the mall and buy some new shoes. Wrong. Huh? How could this be? We're working more hours, and at the same time productivity has never been higher thanks to technology, therefore we should be able to buy more stuff. Not so fast brother. While we're working harder, the money we're earning is worth less and less. Real wages are what's important, how much stuff we can buy with the money we earn. So, if inflation is growing faster than our nominal wages, our real wages are actually shrinking, and yes, this is what's been happening. Measured in 1982 constant dollars, in 1972 the average American's weekly salary was $331.59, in 2004 it was $277.57, and real wages fell again in 2005, 2006 and 2007. You might be thinking, well, that's only in America, but it's happening in a nearly identical fashion over here, even in Germany where real wages are nearly at the same level as they were in 1986.

Worker productivity, the increased output of goods and services per hour worked, is up, the world economy has expanded, yet the workers are no better, or worse, off than a couple of decades ago. In an age where globalization and free markets were to bring an equitable distribution of wealth, we're seeing the opposite happen, and at an accelerating pace. I'm all for the concept of hard work and the American dream when everyone is playing on a level field. Unfortunately the field of play is tilting more and more in favour of the holders of capital. In the US, wages and salaries make up a smaller percentage of GNP than anytime since records began being kept in 1947, while corporate profits are at their highest share since the 60's. At the same time executive salaries are at higher levels than ever before. Plus, I'm sorry to say that the situation will only get worse, not better. The holders of capital are the same people who are shaping economic policies and they don't notice that the price of bread and rice is rising at a pace not seen since the 70's. The labour movement is slowly losing it's strongest component, unions. Union membership. In 1983, unionized workers made up 20% of the American workforce, it's under 12% today. No, I don't love unions, but the fact is, in lieu of decent labour laws, unions are the best option to protect workers and their wages.

Unless you live in Norway or the Netherlands you probably work more hours per day than a 14th century labourer in the UK. If you're lucky enough to live in South Korea, congratulations, you work more hours than anyone else in the world. In my adopted home of Poland, workers are the fifth hardest working according to the OECD. 25 years ago their parents were fighting for a non-communist trade union in a communist country. Martial law was the Soviet response to the demands of the people, but in the end, the will of the people won the day, and many believe helped bring down the Iron Curtain. Today's methods are much more subtle, when I asked my students what they did for the holiday, more of them worked on May 1st than took a vacation. They want to buy a car to drive to work. And me? I just want to catch a train to the next campsite...