Posts Tagged ‘productivity’

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.

Analogue Makes Life Easier

January 12, 2008

It may come as a surprise to you that I’ve recently rediscovered some decidedly analogue technology that is helping to increase my productivity.  It comes as a surprise to me because I hate radio.  That is surprising in itself, considering I was a DJ for four years.

The corporatization of rock radio, and the shortening of playlists that went along with it, was enough to put many people off the medium.  When you hear Led Zeppelin every hour on every station, it becomes a tad predictable.  It can also make you sick of them.  Every few years, I put on some Zeppelin and remember how good they were.  You’re better able to appreciate something without the overkill.

But there is something I’ve started listening to on the radio and it allows me to be more productive by multitasking.  This is no mean feat.  Multitasking is not a skill I could ethically include on my resume.  If I try to manage three burners on the stove, for instance, or do something else while dinner is cooking, inevitably something sticks to the pot.  What I listen to is hockey.

By listening to the Canucks games on the radio, I can work at the computer – writing this blog, for instance – without missing the action.  I can hear it without having to watch it.  Then I can watch the highlights on the news later.  I can even take my hands off the keyboard to clap when the good guys score, without seriously interrupting my workflow.  I no longer have to choose between catching the game or working.  I can do both at the same time.  Isn’t that amazing?

Believe it or not, this wouldn’t have occurred to me not so long ago.  Having grown up in the television age, I think of hockey as something you watch.  And when you watch something, you set time aside for it.  But there are other things I want to do, too.  Now, with a little compromise, I can do both.

Of course, I still watch some games, here at home or sometimes in a bar, with a crowd.  You have to take breaks, too.  But I don’t have to watch every game, like I used to.  So, I generally listen to most games on weeknights, rather than watch.

In a digital world that puts everything at our fingertips and encourages us to want it all, there’s a certain irony in an old analogue technology, which I had considered obsolete, enabling me to do more.