Archive for May, 2008

The Ethics of Food vs. Fuel: Just Politics as Usual?

May 30, 2008

A couple days ago, the federal government decided to require all gasoline to contain 5% ethanol.  This more or less parallels existing policies in the U.S. and in European countries.  But is following in their footsteps the right, or even best, thing to do?  Is it the ‘Made in Canada’ environmental policy Stephen Harper promised, for that matter?

The announcement went largely unnoticed because the media and opposition were more interested in reporting and following up on the fallout of the Bernier affair (double entendre entendree).  It was given only a passing mention on the news with no examination of the logistics or implications.  This is despite the fact that the same media had been reporting on the growing global food crisis for the previous few weeks.  Those reports revealed that one of the causes of the crisis was the shift of much agricultural production away from food to fuel.  Food, particularly corn, that was being produced for food is now being used to produce ethanol.  This has resulted not only in a huge spike in food commodity prices, but also in food being taken off the ground in front of the hungriest people in the world (let’s face it – they don’t have a table to take it off of).

To add insult to injury, the economics and environmental benefits of ethanol production for fuel don’t even make sense.  It actually requires more than a barrel of oil to produce a barrel of ethanol.  So, instead of burning 5% more gasoline in your car and adding that much more carbon emissions to the atmosphere, an ethanol refinery will spew out even more emissions to produce the cleaner burning replacement fuel.

So, who benefits from this policy?  Well, farmers do, to begin with.  They benefit from high commodity prices that make farming more profitable than usual.  These are good times for Canadian farmers, relatively speaking.  Our unsubsidized farmers are not only able to make a decent living, they are also investing in new productivity enhancing equipment and machinery that will allow them to continue to survive and compete on an unlevel playing field against subsidized farmers elsewhere.

The government also benefits.  The optics of doing something tangible about global warming boosts their credentials in the eyes of voters.  All those happy, prospering farmers are voters, too.  Let’s not forget that this is a minority government that could, in theory, fall at any time.  In practice, of course, that hasn’t happened and isn’t likely to any time soon.  Whether you voted for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives last time or not, you have to give him credit for keeping a minority government alive for three years when, statistically, they last only eighteen months.  In fact, this one will probably see out a full term, unless opposition leader Stephen Dion does something out of character.  The accomplishment is even more impressive when you recall how self-defeating and fractious the newly re-merged Conservative party was a few years ago.  When the day comes that he is no longer Prime Minister, a struggling company might do worse than to hire Harper as their CEO.

Regardless of when the next election comes, a lot of farmers and ‘armchair environmentalists’ will probably remember this decision.  That increases the government’s chances of winning a majority.  The decision to require ethanol content in gasoline may prove to be not so much about a sustainable environment, as a sustainable government.

The Suburbs Downtown and Downtown in the Suburbs

May 20, 2008

Vancouver’s downtown condo development market has been very successful.  Developers sold the lifestyle and the convenience.  “Walk to work”, “It’s like the suburbs downtown” are common selling points.  The problem is, condo developers have been so successful they’ve driven up the cost of property so high it discourages commercial property development.  Office projects can’t or won’t compete for prime locations downtown, or what few locations are left.  The condos have taken over downtown.

That has created a commercial office space crunch downtown.  Office vacancies are down to just two percent, the lowest in decades.   It also creates an interesting reverse flow situation where, while people are moving downtown into their new condos, the new office developments have largely been in the suburbs.  Wouldn’t it be an interesting twist if all those people who moved downtown so they could walk to work ended up commuting out to the suburbs to get to the office?

This might be a good time for a major office tower development downtown.  A two percent vacancy rate now, combined with the added interest in Vancouver that will likely follow the Olympics in 2010 should make for good market conditions.  It would take a couple years to complete, so the timing would be right.  The slowdown in the residential real estate market should also get some developers to look to the commercial property sector.

Vancouver could use a high profile office tower downtown.  The Shangri-La, the new multi-use tallest building in the city that is nearing completion, already makes a great addition to the skyline.  A new, even taller, office tower that stands out in both scale and form would add even greater definition.  What’s missing from the skyline is an iconic building, something instantly recognizable that people around the world will see on TV and know is in Vancouver.  It would raise the profile of the city, internationally.

If Vancouver wants to remain the commercial heart of Greater Vancouver, the city should think about trying to get an office project going and zoning to make sure there will be more in the future.  Otherwise, the amusing reverse commute situation could actually happen.  Who knows?  It may seem unlikely now, but maybe even Surrey could develop a downtown commercial district on some of its less attractive land.  They are already clearing out the crackheads and removing some houses with drug connections.  Then there’s that awful junkyard sitting on prime riverfront property.  It has the growing population and land to rival Vancouver.  It will probably have more people within twenty years.

Is Vancouver going to just sit back and let it happen?

New Humanist Symposium (#19)

May 12, 2008

The new Humanist Symposium blog carnival is out, including a post contributed by myself.  It’s all about life from a humanist perspective.  You can find it at:

http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com/2008/05/humanist-symposium-19.html

Well done, L.C.

Do Canada’s Leaders Have the ‘Nads?

May 10, 2008

The stink being raised in Quebec over Governor General Michaele Jean talking up Quebec City’s 400th anniversary celebrations this year highlights Canadian politicians’ lack of vision and leadership.  There are two objections that Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe and others raise.  I disagree with one but agree with the other.

Separatists are offended by the idea that Ms Jean and the federal government are calling the celebration a Canadian celebration.  They say it is a Quebec celebration.  This is the one I disagree with.  Quebec is part of Canada and Quebec’s history is part of Canada’s history.  I studied it in school, too.  Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain made Canada possible.  They discovered and founded a French colony, not an independent country.  So, it is every bit as much Canada’s history as Quebec’s.

Where I agree with the separatists is their complaint that the Governor General represents the British queen.  This is a national embarassment that I wish the rest of the country would want to remedy as much as some Quebecers do.  As the queen’s representative, she is a reminder that we don’t even have our own head of state.  Separatists see the link to the British crown as a constant reminder of the capture of New France by the British about 250 years ago.  This is one of the biggest problems they have with the rest of Canada.  They think of the rest of us as the British conquerors and colonizers.  Why can’t we feel that humiliation and decide to do something about it?  I mean, really, borrowing someone else’s head of state?  Are we an independent country or not?  The separatists know they want to be one.  Maybe if the rest of the country felt the same way, we could get on the same page and move forward as one.  As one joke goes, Quebec can go as long as it takes the rest of us with it.

They aren’t the only ones who are offended and think we should have our own head of state.  When I was living overseas in London, I was asked several times why we didn’t “go with the Yanks”.  They don’t understand why we would maintain a link with them.  They were often offended to hear that the queen has the title Queen of Canada.  “What?  Now their taking our queen?”, they would say.  They don’t want to share her with us.  She’s their head of state.  Every country should have its own head of state.  They think like a country.

By contrast, a lot of people in Canada still want to share their head of state rather than have one of our own.  They think like colonials.  Many of these people are British immigrants or recent descendants of them who don’t want to let go.  Some may be descendants of United Empire Loyalists who cling to British roots partly out of bitterness over what their ancestors endured at the hands of their former neighbours.

This attitude is holding us back as a country.  Not only does it give separatists something to complain about, it permeates our political and business leadership.  Colonial style thinking is still widespread.  Fitting into others’ plans is the easier option than conceiving and executing our own.  Sending raw materials to bolder countries that know what they want to do with them is easier than making and marketing products.  Arguably, we’ve even been lazy about that.  I don’t agree with everything in it, but, as Andrew Cohen wrote in ‘While Canada Slept’, we don’t export to others so much as allow them to import from us.  If we still cling politically to our colonial connection to Britain, economically we look a lot like an American colony.

Letting go of mummy’s apron strings would go a long way towards alleviating the resentment felt by many separatists.  It would be a good investment in national unity.  It could also result in a new attitude and outlook among our political and business leaders – one that puts us first.  Maybe then, if we stop clinging to the past, we will start thinking about and planning for the future.  Maybe we could see leaders emerge with a vision of the future that extends beyond the next election.  Maybe we would see some forward planning, with short, medium, and long term goals.  They might even think about where this country could be at the end of this century, for example – long after they’re gone.

Vision.  Goals.  Planning.  Going your own way.  Takes balls.  Do we have ’em or not?

Life by Proxy

May 4, 2008

A couple nights ago, there was a story on the news about the little McCann girl who went missing in Portugal.  This one took a different angle.  It looked at it from the point of view of a Canadian clergyman who was assigned to the Anglican church in the Portugese town where it happened, a few days after the tragic event.

In the course of the story, the minister’s wife spoke of how she and the entire congregation prayed constantly for the little girl’s safe return.  They’re still waiting and praying.  She then asked, “How can so many people pray for the same thing and it not happen?”  If ever a question answered itself…  It was screaming out.  I wanted to scream it out.  “Because there’s no one on the receiving end of the prayers, of course!”

How she couldn’t – or wouldn’t – see it is beyond me.  Why millions of others can’t see that prayers aren’t answered is beyond me.  Everyone in a competition can pray for victory, but only one will win.  Millions have prayed for loved ones to come home from wars who didn’t.  Other people will survive complicated surgeries or be found by the police, but these are the results of human actions, not  prayers.  I guess people really are that desperate.

At best, praying for someone is extending good wishes and hopes by proxy, albeit an imaginary one.  But, why channel good wishes through a third party?  Why not give them directly?  It expresses the sentiment you feel and, ultimately, is more sincere.

Prayer could actually be seen as a selfish act.  It makes the person praying feel better.  It does nothing for the target of the prayers.  There was even a study done in Europe recently that monitored results for people who prayed and those who didn’t.  It made no difference.

I was going to say, “At worst, prayer is a selfish act”.  Then I remembered another news story that demonstrates it can be worse.  If any of you are thinking praying can’t do any harm, think again.  Remember the story of the girl who died because her parents chose to pray for her rather than take her to a doctor?

If you want to help someone or extend your good wishes, do it in the real world.  Send them a card or letter.  Phone them.  Tell them face to face.  Take them to the hospital or feed them.  Contribute to a fund or charity (one that does practical things rather than convert people and pray for them).  You might just give them a little comfort, rather than yourself.  You might even save their life.  Praying won’t.