Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Upside of 2006 and the Down

Keywords: Doug Saunders; war; poverty; population growth; literacy; refugees; AIDS; child labor; Doha round; WTO; agricultural subsidies; tariffs; Democratic Congress; Sylvia Ostry; unilateral liberalization.

If you’re really determined to see 2006 as a great year, you can, though you have to look with your eyes squinting and your head tipped sideways. managed to do it, with one of his superb columns in the Globe and Mail (p. F3, December 30th).

His trick was to discount Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, and the Middle East, claiming that in the long term, is not what the world will remember about the year. Wars these days get a lot of attention, but the ones we have now actually are not big things, and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be misguided by the amount of attention the press gives them. What really counts are some trends that do not make news.

So what was genuinely worth remembering?

First, there’s the tipping of the world’s economic output back to . For the first time in centuries Asia, led by China and India, has accounted for the larger part of the world’s economic output.

Second, in 2006 for the first time in history, more of the human population was than in rural areas.

Third, declined everywhere except in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the UN Human Development Report 2007 (released in 2006), “High economic growth in China and India has been the most powerful motor for reducing income poverty.”

Fourth, and because of the reduction of poverty, has dropped in the poor countries. “People in developing countries now have, on average, 2.8 children per family; this is down from 5.8 in 1970. As a result, population growth in the world’s poorer half has slowed to 1.6 per cent each year from 2.1, and the rate of slowdown is increasing.”

Fifth (by my count, since Saunders stopped numbering these items a paragraph or so ago), rates and school enrollment are up.

Sixth, there were fewer than at any time during the past quarter-century.

Seventh, more careful counts of victims shows that the incidence of that disease is not as bad as previously reported. And besides, there have been places, notably in India, where the crisis is being reduced. HIV infection has declined as a result of education campaigns.

Eighth, has decreased, largely because agriculture has become less dominant in the economy of developing countries, for it is farm children who have had to be employed.

I wouldn’t want to take anything away from Doug Saunders’s report, which is splendidly upbeat and based on sound data. Nor do I particularly like to be downbeat myself, but I will mention one of the darker events of the year here — but only one: the failure of . I think it is important, though it too failed to gain much attention in the press. Most of the cheerful news items that Saunders reports above are not events that happened within a single year, but are long-term trends that could be claimed as accomplishments in any given year. Doha, on the other hand, failed (or is still in the process of failing) in 2006, with consequences that may persist indefinitely.

In July, the director general of the World Trade Organisation () indefinitely suspended negotiations in the Doha round of trade talks, which were going nowhere. (Indeed, one might say that the WTO itself is going nowhere, but that’s a wider point than I want to make here.)

The purpose of the Doha round, which began in Qatar in 2001, was to avoid further instances of the conflict that had been so apparent in the WTO Seattle meeting. The Doha agenda was development. Until that point, the North-South divide had been increasing, with the South being obviously disadvantaged. In fact, the WTO meeting in in 2003 had ended in a failure, for the Latin American countries chose no-deal rather than one that ignored their demands regarding agriculture. Several new coalitions of Southern countries formed in Cancun and continued into the subsequent Doha round, which had as its agenda the creation of trade and development policies more favorable to the poor countries.

At the heart of the issue were and . The United States, Australia, and initially Brazil, demanded reductions in tariffs on farm goods, claiming that this would benefit the poor by reducing the price of food and expanding markets for farmers everywhere. Developing countries replied that cheap imports would drive their farmers out of business. They found allies in some developed nations in the EU and Japan, who at the same time demanded cuts in agricultural subsidies. The American payments of subsidies to their own farmers distort prices and unfairly hurt farm producers in the less developed countries (LDCs). The US spends $23 billion dollars a year on subsidies, mainly supporting mega-farms. The poorer countries insist that these subsidies be cut substantially before they will agree to any further liberalization in their own economies. They stand to gain nothing from the Doha round unless its terms are changed.

By July 2006, it was apparent that the two positions were at loggerheads, so the Doha round was suspended. This was a grave failure of the whole multilateral system of negotiations and a severe disappointment to everyone — especially the LDCs. Every such delay imposes huge opportunity costs on them. (According to a World Bank estimate in 2005, global in agriculture would yield gains of US $287 billion, of which $86 billion would go to developing countries.) Almost no one wanted to see Doha fail.

In September, therefore, the WTO director-general sought to re-start the negotiations, though no basic positions had changed. Still, there are compelling reasons for resuming the talks, since the US congress has granted the Bush administration a mandate (“") to negotiate trade agreements. With it, the administration can submit trade deals to Congress for a yes-or-no vote without the possibility of major amendments. Without this authority, which will expire in mid-2007, the US negotiators would lack credibility. Thus they have only a few months in which to succeed with these revived talks. Of course, if the Congress so chooses, it can extend the trade promotion authority or change its terms.

But in the meantime, the US mid-term elections have taken place, replacing the Republicans with a Democratic majority in both the House and the Senate. The question arises whether the Democrats will want to help the Doha round succeed by extending the administration's mandate. On the one hand, the Democrats make considerable political hay from objecting to the loss of American jobs. However, their overall record is not entirely slanted toward protectionism, so the answer to this question is not clear.

But if Doha is really dead, what then? No one whom I have read sounds happy about it, but the alternatives seem limited. I'll mention only two.

, in the Munk Centre Monitor, would like to see a coalition of middle powers formulate some reforms recognizing the special problems of subsistence agriculture. This body would not be linked to the WTO's rules or negotiation, but would operate with private funding. Such a coalition, says Ostry, "might not create a Brave New World but it should produce something more hopeful than our present Fearful New World."

The alternative approach comes from Razeen Sally: "unilateral liberalization." Sally calls this the “Nike strategy,” for governments

"'just do it.' They liberalize independently and voluntarily outside trade negotiations. Bottom-up unilateral liberalization is patchy and uneven; it is not a total substitute for multilateral rules. But it is the best liberalizing engine on offer. The World Bank estimates that, since the 1980s, about 65 percent of developing-country tariff liberalization has come about unilaterally. This is especially true of east Asia, with China now the pace-setter."

I do not personally have an opinion about these or related options. I simply don't know enough to guess what might work. I'm not even sure how far I want to go with this "liberalization" business. I do believe, however, that it is immensely important to the fate of the planet that protectionist subsidies in the rich countries be curtailed so that producers in poor countries can get ahead and export their products. In that sense, I do not belong to the "anti-globalization" camp.

Nevertheless, there's another element in the equation that has not been mentioned. I doubt that trade of agricultural commodities will continue on the present scale indefinitely. The coming shortage of will make it necessary for everyone to consume local products, even if our international rules have been changed to promote free trade.

But that's the story for a different blog, probably a year from now.

Happy 2007, everybody!

Friday, December 29, 2006

Britain is Planning for Carbon Rationing

Keywords: Ellesmere Island ice; Climate Change; Gwynne Dyer; John Bacher; Derek Paul; carbon rationing; Britain; polar bears

Yesterday they announced that a 66 square km shelf of ice had broken off last year in the , in the north of . And a few weeks ago the International Panel on Climate Change announced the portion of its fourth report that deals with the Arctic — because, they said, the forecast is so alarming that they dared not wait until the full report is released next year.

I got this information from ’s column on the Internet (since it is, regrettably, no longer published in a Toronto paper). I’m astonished to have missed the news about this Arctic report. Dyer writes:

“If current trends persist, the scientists reported, the Arctic Ocean will be entirely ice-free in the summertime not in 2080, as previously forecast, but by 2040, just 33 years from now. Then the dark ocean surface absorbs much more heat than the reflective ice did, and another element of feedback kicks in, and the speed of warming increases again. . . .”

Perhaps this is why the Bush administration is making its first nod in the direction of accepting the reality of climate change by identifying the as a species at risk that needs protection.

If the United States and Canada are oozing slowly toward the inevitable recognition of reality, the Brits are zipping ahead. And, remarkably, Dyer reports that they are seriously planning a system of carbon rationing. drew my attention to this revelation, for he and have been engaged in a debate about the value of as a method of reducing greenhouse gases. Derek thinks people will not cooperate, but apparently the British government is more optimistic that it will work. According to Dyer’s column,

“Everybody in the country will get the same allowance for how much carbon dioxide they can emit each year, and every time they buy some product that involves carbon dioxide emissions - filling their car, paying their utility bills, buying an airline ticket - carbon points are deducted from their credit or debit cards. Like frequent-flier miles, only in reverse.
“So if you ride a bike everywhere, insulate your home, and don't travel much, you can sell your unused points back to the system. And if you use up your allowance before the end of the year, then you will have to buy extra points from the system.
“This is no lunatic proposal from the eco-radical fringe. It is on the verge of becoming British government policy, and environment secretary David Miliband is behind it 100 percent. In fact, he is hoping to launch a pilot scheme quite soon, with the goal of moving to a comprehensive national scheme of carbon rationing within five years.”

To me the surprising aspect is the notion that people will be able to buy and sell ration points. I wonder what the price will be. It must be quite steep if the system is to work. It may actually help create greater , since a poor person who does not emit much carbon will be able to boost his income, whereas the affluent person will have to pay for using more than his share. On the other hand, it may be that most people will want to pay rather than conserve points. Perhaps they will let the price of the ration points be determined by market forces, with the price going up as the fixed number of points gets closer and closer to being exhausted. That would make sense.

Still, I wonder whether it will be possible to monitor everything. sales and , yes. These are public acts. But heating one’s own home? Okay, if you buy heating oil or coal, someone has to deliver it. But suppose you burn wood cut from trees on your own property. Maybe that’s an unusual case, though. Most people won’t be able to find combustible material and burn it in private. I suppose fuels generally can be monitored. Maybe it will work. Let’s hope so.

I ran into the chairman of my condo’s board of directors today. He says they will be changing over eventually to a system whereby each owner will pay his own individual electric bill. That’s an excellent idea. It will make everyone in this building more cognizant of the use of power. I don’t suppose that covers heat, though. There is hot water running through the radiators, going from one apartment to the next. I don’t know whether the variations can be measured. However, the could be shifted over to cogeneration or , at least in part.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Taxes or Rationing Solutions?

Keywords: climate change; energy crisis; rationing; air travel; rationing stickers; carbon tax; environmental value-added tax; George Monbiot; John Bacher; Lynn McDonald; Ray Morrison

I sent my report on the "Climate Change and Energy Crisis" forum to my friend Derek for proofreading. He said I had got it all down correctly, but he had misgivings about ’s main proposal. Yes, that’s what Bacher had in fact said, so it should go into the report, but Derek thought it was not a realistic approach to reducing emissions. Bacher had suggested rationing gasoline – the system that had been used effectively during World War II. Derek thought you could do that for a
short time under the extraordinary circumstance of war effort, but doubted that
people would tolerate it during peace.

My own qualms about rationing (though I’m ambivalent on the subject) is that it would require a big bureaucracy and a complicated set of rules. I was a child during World War II and I remember the stickers we had on our windshields in the US. Different families had different letters, ranging from A to C. (See photo.) Ours was A (ordinary), which allowed us three to five gallons of gas per week. The purpose was to save not only gasoline but also rubber for tires because trade with the Far East had been cut off.

We couldn’t always drive out to the countryside to visit my farm grandparents because we’d used up our weekly ration. People who had to drive to see the doctor regularly or who had war-related jobs to which they commuted, got more favorable stickers. Trucks got T-stickers. There must have been or punch-out cards too, but I don’t remember those. I do recall overhearing conversations about the proof that people had to produce when dickering with the local ration board.

But the moral imperative had kicked in. There was grumbling, but most people wouldn’t cheat much because they recognized the necessity of conservation during wartime. I think that will become relevant again pretty soon.

The alternative to rationing, of course, is to let the market take over the allocation of scarce resources. I’m a fairly strong supporter of the
(in other words, I mistrust more than I do capitalism) but the disadvantages are obvious. If the market alone determines the price of fuel, that will exacerbate the that already exists (and is increasing) in society. The people who already have plenty of money will be able to use it for further financial gain, whereas the people who are poor may become desperate — unable even to go to work if they can find a job.

But Bacher is not unique in proposing a rationing system.
also suggested it in his new book, , which I recommended to John after hearing him make the same point. Independent minds were thinking alike, I guess. And also suggested that same approach in an op ed
piece published in the Toronto Star on December 7. She particularly
mentioned the rationing of , which Monbiot urges, since there is
at present no way of reducing the enormous emission of carbon dioxide by
jet planes. Monbiot says that propeller-drive planes are not quite as bad, but
that’s not saying much.

(In another conversation Derek said that there is, at least potentially, a
solution to the emissions by jet planes: a combination of hydrogen and
oxygen as fuel. Theoretically, it would be possible to fill one wing of
the plane with hydrogen and the other with oxygen, and then mix them in
flight. There's no greenhouse gas emission whatever – only water — but
he admits that it would be a terribly dangerous thing to do. The
combination is exceedingly explosive, and the worst risk would be on the
ground, while they were preparing the plane for flight.

I know nothing more about this idea, and Derek wasn’t necessarily proposing it as
realistic. One question that occurs to me: how do you get the hydrogen and
oxygen? If you’d have to use a lot of electrical power, or even worse,
something like coal, then it still might not be a real solution. Anyhow that’s a side point, to be explored another day.)

I don’t doubt that the price of gas in a true market system would
eventually create incentives for innovative renewable technologies. In
fact, I think we ought to push that approach forward as quickly as
possible – far earlier than any politician would dare introducing
rationing as the alternative solution. Already there are political leaders
— even including Michael Ignatieff — who favor the “carbon tax.” That
would, in effect, artificially boost the price of gasoline in the market
and make it unaffordable, or at least make people think twice before
taking an unnecessary trip.

Al Gore argues in favor of a carbon tax, which would be
revenue-neutral because it would replace payroll taxes. That’s not a
totally bad idea in terms of restraining social inequality – at least if
the government closes other tax loopholes, since at present the system of
graduated taxes, which supposedly soak the rich more than the poor, is not
working properly. Many rich people still find ways of keeping their actual taxes
down unconscionably low. Getting rid of payroll taxes might not increase
inequality much, though a would seem to be somewhat regressive.

Maybe not, though. If rich people travel to vacations abroad, they will be
paying more for the trips, though admittedly they will be able to afford
it more easily than the poor. I think the whole carbon tax idea has to be
matched by a moral appeal. Let's make everyone feel guilty for fouling the air
with unnecessary travel or for keeping second homes that need heat and
light. I myself have already started thinking conscientiously about unnecessary
flights. If I go anyone on this continent, unless it is an emergency, I
will travel by car or train. Of the two, train is better, but with the
proliferation of hybrid cars that get over 75 miles per gallon, auto travel won’t
be so bad, especially if I take a passenger. My current Chevy isn’t in that league, but my next car will be.

Recently I received an e-mail (I think it was meant as a submission to
Peace Magazine) from Ray Morrison of Warner, New Hampshire. I like his suggestion, which I’ll quote here:

“Our hearts tell us what we should do. tell us what we will do. The challenge of the 21st century is to make prices reflect what we know is right.

“The single most important step to help assure sustainable prosperity is to use ecological consumption taxes to make polluters and green house gas emitters charge their true costs.

“By replacing income taxes with , the market will send clear price signals. What’s unsustainable will cost more. What’s sustainable will cost less. Entrepreneurs and customers responding to price will quickly move emissions toward the sustainable.

“Al Gore has proposed a carbon tax to replace payroll taxes.

“My preferred alternative is stronger medicine. An ecological value added tax, or , could replace all income taxes with consumption tax paid at the point of sale for all goods and services.

“The E-VAT is a smart sales tax that avoids double taxation for businesses. The more polluting, the higher the E-VAT tax rate. Phased in over 10 years, the E-VAT would replace all income taxes.

“An average 18% E-VAT could finance the federal budget. There’d be no and just a one-page E-VAT tax form for businesses. Get rid of greenhouse gases and the IRS. Ecological taxation is a good deal for America.”

I don’t have a fixed opinion on these matters. I’d just like to get a discussion going with input from concerned economists. In fact, I’ll send this to a few folks whose opinions are probably more formed than my own. All comments are welcomed.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Christmas as Dream, as Metaphor

Keywords: myth; Christmas; Solstice; cultural borrowing; Timothy Garton Ash; Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip; Northern Exposure; ravens; Kwanzaa; Aaron Sorkin; suspension of disbelief; symbolic repertoire.

I had a dream last night. A small, obscure medal-like object is lying at the bottom of a fish tank that contains water and some small stones and pebbles. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, those pebbles are turning to gold. I am with a fellow who realizes what is happening and is preparing, against a tight deadline, to present a scientific paper about some scientific topic relating to this, but he alone has observed the transmutation of stone into gold, and he’s frantically trying to figure out how it works in time to give a proper scientific explanation.

He shares the truth with me, asking my input. Maybe, I figure, it’s a form of electrolysis, which is gold-plating the stones. But we don’t want to take a pebble out and cut it up to find out whether it is gold clear through or only on the outside, lest that disrupt the process. The medal bears a tiny engraving that seems to be of a saint or other religious figure. It doesn’t seem that we’re going to be able to give a good scientific explanation, but the truly remarkable thing is that it is happening at all, and I feel that what is important is simply to witness it and marvel at it, as a magnificent demonstration of an amazing power that transmutes base things.

It is quite rare that I can interpret my own dreams with a sense of certainty, but I am sure I know what this one means, because as I thought about it, my associations were about several conversations I’ve had lately about and the winter . I hadn’t consciously figured out what there was about this “solstice” business that seems emotionally chilling, but the dream made that clear.

The “solstice” notion is becoming very popular. Just before I went to sleep I watched the news, which was about a solstice street demonstration involving lights in Kensington Market. That made me sad, for it is intended as a way of replacing Christmas, and I think that’s not a great thing to do.

Solstice is a left-brain kind of , with no inspiring stories, music, or art behind it. I don’t mind adding myths, but I dislike taking any away. I’d gladly throw myself into the swing of celebrating Hanukkah or Divali or Eid (I guess, though I know nothing about that) because I want more myths, not less. And Christmas is probably the richest myth in human history. It takes a lot of work to enact it, which I sometimes resist, but in the end it’s worth it. All around the planet, societies are picking it up (even where it has no parallel in their own traditions) because it works. It’s a whole repertoire of symbols that can be drawn upon to create ceremonial events of fun, beauty, and wisdom. In , the Indians add one of their myths to the Christmas mix: something about a who brings light to the world. People decorate their trees with ravens. I like that. The more the better.

It is possible, if a whole community agrees to it, to create a new cultural element. The African Americans have done so fairly successfully with . But the dissidents' elevation of solstice is more akin to Charlie Brown’s creation of the Great Pumpkin — an invention that amusing for the limitedness of its significance.

There was a swell op ed piece by this week that goes something like this: He begins by saying he’s just been singing some words that he doesn’t believe. He’s been to a Christmas service with his family and, along with most Europeans, he doesn’t literally believe any of the words he sang. He says he’s an , but he sure gets into Christmas. Mary and Joseph had a baby, and what a man he turned out to be! Most of the finest people Ash knows are Christians who take courage and inspiration from that myth. And the music is glorious. (I agree; it can turn pebble people into gold.)

My favorite TV show now is . When I find a show that’s really lovable, one that makes me feel great because its message is great, I watch it over and over. I still have three of the recent episodes of Studio 60 on my PVR, and I’ve watched the Christmas episode five or six times.

Studio 60 is about two guys, Matt and Danny, who are co-producers of a show clearly modeled after . Matt, who like Sorkin, is Jewish, arrives in one day with a small Christmas tree, which he puts onto the writers’ long conference table and tells them to produce a Christmas show. They can use snow, wassail, open fires, chestnuts, Santa Claus – the whole set of mythic elements to draw upon.

But the writers and two of the performers are resistant. They get into being literal about the Christmas story. They report that our Santa Claus was invented in 1931 by an artist commissioned by the Coca-Cola company to represent Sinter Klaus. The Bible never says how many wise men there were, but it is known that they didn’t have camels and they came only six miles. The star was probably a comet. Over one million reindeer would be required to do the delivery, traveling at twice the speed of sound. Mary wasn’t necessarily a virgin; the Hebrew word means only “young woman of marriageable age,” according to

Matt keeps saying, “I don’t care! I want a warm, inspiring, beautiful Christmas show.” Meanwhile, his partner, Danny, hears a substitute horn player down in the studio performing magnificently and asks about his background. It seems that all over Hollywood, musicians for TV shows are calling in sick and proposing substitutes to fill their slots. The substitutes are New Orleans musicians who are in Hollywood, sleeping on people’s couches. The regular musicians are giving them a chance to earn a little money to send to their families for Christmas. So Danny invents a wonderful conclusion to the show. We see five or six black horn players against a backdrop showing slides of their . Snow is falling and they give a long jazz rendition of (I think it was) O Holy Night. It was superb. I couldn’t imagine a better Christmas show.

Now I realize that I’ve invited people to Christmas dinner who don’t like Christmas. This is going to be awkward because I don’t think they will play along with the metaphor of Christmas. One of my friends, who was invited but can’t come, is trying to teach her kids to celebrate solstice, not Christmas. Another couple, who are coming, share that opinion. And my Bosnian friends are a mixed family who live by the wife’s atheistic beliefs, instead of the husband’s Serbian Orthodox tradition. Their daughter was upset when I took her to the Christmas Story at Holy Trinity a few years ago when she was about six; she knew that she was somehow supposed to resist it and she did so, managing to hate the whole experience.

So what do I do? Normally, politeness requires one to go along with the prevailing views of the guests, but I really don’t like that idea. I don’t want to surrender Christmas. I certainly don’t believe it, but metaphors and poetry are not about literal belief, but about being transported. Anyone can resist being transported by refusing to in the premise of the myth. Indeed, one must do more than suspend belief, as in watching a play; one must join in enacting the performance itself, which seems to be hard for some people to do.

Why do my friends dislike that myth so much? I don’t want to be coercive, but the Christmas dinner ritual isn’t created for practical reasons. Christmas elicits good human qualities. I want it to go on inspiring billions more people in the future, including me and my guests. That can happen only when people are willingly participatory. Fortunately, the can reward itself.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

My Memory Exercise Wanders off to Anatolia

Keywords: memory; Alevi; religion, Turkey; Sunni; Sufi; sema; Mevlevi; whirling dervish

Yesterday the paper gave some brain exercise tips. It seems that old people who are losing their memory can recover somewhat by exercising the old neurons in a rigorous way. However, the brain calisthenics that they described don’t seem like exercise but rather like ways of coping when the memory fails. Making is the key thing. I do that already. I couldn’t go shopping for five items successfully unless I made a list or at least developed some kind of mnemonic device for each item.

But I did learn one possibly helpful tip: keep a log of my the . I decided to try it, and now there’s a yellow stickie note on my computer saying “dandelion, Alevi, Joy's Japanese friend, Peter Ackerman, Cynthia Who? (Erindale gal).” These are words that I couldn’t recall in the past few days. All except one are proper names.

The article suggests that many old people forget to do things, or lose their keys and other personal items. I don’t think I’m losing the ability to manage things in that sense. It’s mostly names, but that failing can wreck a whole line of conversation. I wanted introduce Joy’s Japanese friend the other day but I couldn’t remember her name, so I left her un-introduced, though maybe that was more impolite than asking her name when I should have known it.

It was the same with the word .” I’ve forgotten that word two or three times before. This time I was with friends who had been to and I wanted to discuss the situation of the Alevi people, but all I could say was, “There’s a certain pain medication that has almost the same name. It starts with A.” My friends guessed: aspirin? No. None of us came up with “Aleve,” the name that would have triggered my memory.

A week later it came to me — Alevi — and I put it onto my new yellow sticky log of mental lapses. I also decided to study up on the Alevi, to pound their memory into my head harder. One should not let things escape the mind without putting up a struggle. And so this investigation took over my day.

I printed out and read everything Wikipedia says about Alevism and spent three hours pursuing other leads. Oddly, my friends wouldn’t have been able to discuss them anyhow, because they had never heard of the Alevi, which is a pity. They are a religious community — the second largest one in Turkey, comprising between 25 and 50 percent of the Turkish population, living mostly in — who survived only by hiding their identity for centuries.

Admit the truth: Do you know who the Alevi are? No? That’s because, fifty years ago if you had asked one of them point blank whether he was Alevi, he would have denied it. He might even have attended mosque, prayed five times a day, and observed Ramadan just to pass as Sunni, the dominant religious group in Turkey. Only lately have the Alevi been coming out publicly, asserting their identity and learning their own traditions, which they themselves had come close to losing because of this secrecy.

About three years ago I met a Turkish guy here in Canada who told me about his religion. I was the first time I’d ever heard of them. Unfortunately, he didn’t really know enough to describe the group correctly, and today I’ve been studying Google, You-Tube, and Wikipedia to correct the misinformation he gave me.

I don’t think he was trying to mislead me, but he told me that the Alevis are not . (Actually, they are Muslims.) And he told me that they do a dance as part of their ritual, but when I asked whether they are Sufi, he said no. (Actually, they are Sufi.)

I wondered whether their dance, the “,” is the same as that of the so-called “whirling dervishes,” who belong to the Order. So I’ve watched several You-Tube videos of sema performances. The Alevi dances do include a bit of whirling, but not nearly as much as the famous Mevlevi dervish men, who constantly whirl, wearing tall hats and white full skirts. The Alevi don’t seem to be in a meditative state during their sema, but they do wind up kneeling and bowing.

I admire the Alevi. In no way do they resemble stereotypical Muslim extremists. Like all other Shi’ites, they do revere Ali, Mohamed’s son-in-law and the Twelve Imams of his house. However, their religion is an expressive, mystical spirituality with a strong aesthetic dimension — a religion of the heart. They teach love and tolerance. Their everyday style of dress and behavior are secular, but spiritual values suffuse these secular activities. Alevi women have full rights and do not have to go about in veils. In his day, , who modernized Turkey, could count on the enthusiastic support of the Alevis. Indeed, as writes:
“Entering Alevi spaces, such as association buildings, private living rooms, or cemevis, one is very often confronted by a surprising visual arrangement: the portraits of the two Alevi saints, Ali and Haci Bektas, accompanied by that of Kemal Ataturk, the founding father and first president of the Turkish Republic, whose picture is almost omnipresent in Turkey. Ataturk is commonly understood as a symbol for the state ideology of Kemalism, especially its key republican and secularist principles. Some Alevis, however, not only strongly uphold these republican and secularist principles, but also give them a religious meaning. These Alevis honor Ataturk as a saint, and also embed laicism and certain themes of republican history into their religious narrative.”

The fusion of politics with religion, of spirituality with secularism, supposedly reflects a distinctive aspect of Alevi culture. As Dressler puts it,

“the Alevi worldview has no proper equivalents for a paradigmatic way of thinking that explores religion by reference to dichotomous notions like religious/secular, religious/political or sacred/profane--especially if these notions are conceptualized in an essentialist manner.”

How refreshing! Alevis do distinguish between the outer forms of religious and its inner meaning, which is what is truly important. That is why they are not particularly concerned with the literal meaning of the Koran or the practical religious obligations prescribed by orthodox Islam, such as the haj to Mecca, fasting, and ritual prayer. I like that.

I also like the fact that no clear distinction is maintained between God and the world. God is not transcendent but . He is in the human being, but not in the . There is an Alevi saying: “The greatest book to read is the human being.”

Lovely. It’s been a good day. That happens sometimes when I can allow my curiosity to carry me off into unexpected excursions. It probably does nothing for my failing memory, but it’s good for the soul.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Democrats, Free Trade and Fair Trade

Keywords: Bart Mongoven; free trade; outsourcing; unionists; environmentalists; Democratic Party; Seattle coalition; Francisco Wulff; fair trade

A smart paper by ’s clarified a lot for me about the political support for in the US. (I assume that it’s similar in other countries, including Canada, but he doesn’t say so.)

The thing is, free trade doesn’t line up along the usual left-right political dimension. There are supporters and opponents in both sides. I had assumed that most free traders were Republicans, but that is not true even now, and is becoming less true all the time. It seems that and , who are of course important constituencies within the , are increasingly convinced that there are advantages to be gained from free trade agreements.

of jobs may be tapering off (he doesn’t try to prove that, but only suggests it) and so union people don’t fear it much nowadays, especially since it has not caused the economic hardships they expected. The US economy continues to be strong.

Environmentalists see that the earth is often ravaged worse in than in rich ones, and that a good free trade agreement with rigorous environmental clauses is a powerful tool. (My former student Francisco Wulff, working as an environmental economist in Latin America, told me at least ten years ago that was great for the environment, since it held Mexico to standards that would not have been possible without it. Apparently the American activists have come round to that opinion in considerable numbers, though not as a consensus.)

The task Democrats are facing is the job of creating a program that will unify the party. Free trade is not one of their issues because it is still divisive. The answer to this is to raise the banner of “fair trade’ — to write trade agreements with clauses protecting liberal values such as the right to organize, the prohibition of , and the protection of the environment. As a rhetorical device, this is an attractive solution, and indeed if it is carried out it will generate truly desirable substantive benefits.

However, as Mongoven points out, when you get past the slogan and into specifying the nature of forthcoming trade agreements, there will be strong differences of opinion. If the party accepts what Mongoven calls “realistic” (but another person might call limited) demands for trade agreements, it will have implicitly come round to accept free trade, and there will be conflict within the party. If the demands are what he calls “onerous” they will make it difficult to negotiate treaties and will, therefore, amount to a stance on the part of the Democrats.

It will be some time before this matter is sorted out, but I am grateful for the update on changing opinions about the matter in the US. I suppose I’m as ambivalent as most others of my political stripe. My environmental feelings are stronger than my opinion about protecting jobs, and I take comfort from the fact that environmentalists now do not entirely seek to block free trade but rather prefer, as I do, to carry it forward internationally under rigorous terms. Only the “Seattle coalition” — the radicals who blocked the WTO meetings in Seattle — are dead-set against free trade. Personally, I just want to see the terms of trade limit the dominance of US interests, especially in .

Friday, December 15, 2006

Net Energy — Ouch.

Keywords: energy crisis; CO2 emissions; EROEI; net energy; wind turbines; oil.

I’m still mulling over the conclusions that could be drawn from last week’s forum, “Climate Change and the Coming Energy Crisis.” Actually, there was too little debate among the panelists to permit any conclusion to arise – certainly not any consensus. I wish now that we had left more time for that kind of conversation. As it stands, I have to reach conclusions for myself — and I don’t like the options.

Most, if not all, panelists agreed that there already exist technologies that could reduce CO2 emissions by up to 80 percent — if....

Of course, the “ifs” are multiple and challenging. The worst “if” is that there may not be enough energy around to construct adequate systems such as windmills and solar power by the time we accept the necessity of doing so. This is the objection of the “peak oil” theorists. The problem arises from the concept of “” or (energy return on energy investment) — how much energy you can obtain for every unit of energy you put into getting, processing, and transporting it.

Net energy varies enormously from one type of fuel to another. For the best well, it can be 100 — you get 100 units of energy out for every unit of energy you put into searching for oil, drilling, pumping, transporting, refining it, and so on. But all the alternative fuels receive far poorer payoffs. Thus corn ethanol fuel has been estimated to yield an energy output: input ratio of only 1.6.

The implications of this gap are serious. I can’t find firm estimates of the net energy of other sources of energy — wind, geothermal, solar, and the like — but they are probably in the single-digits.

On the other hand, the truly nasty sources have considerably better net energy levels. is quite high, depending on such factors as the depth of the mine. Nuclear is high — at least when high grade ore is used.

So the dilemma is this: In a few years, oil will be too scarce to meet our needs. If we continue to need a lot of energy (and we will — even if we become more efficient and conservationist — because the human population will keep increasing for many years), we will need to invest VAST amounts of energy in the systems that will produce renewable, non-carbon-emitting energy (such as wind, solar, and biomass), or else we’ll have to choose one of the nasty sources that can be produced with less input: coal and nuclear.

If we can get those alternative, renewable sources up and running in adequate amounts, we’ll be okay. But where are we going to get the energy to do that after the oil is gone? We won’t. So we have to build these alternative systems right away. (I’m ignoring here the other environmental problems that will result from building them successfully — such as the birds that will run into huge wind farms.)

If we don’t get cracking, we’ll lack the materials to get the renewable, sustainable sources of energy going, so we’ll have to settle for something worse — coal or nuclear.

Coal is abundant, but it is truly foul stuff. Mining it (or tar sands, for that matter) wrecks the environment, but the worst thing is that it’s the dirtiest form of energy. It emits carbon dioxide and a huge amount of other chemicals and particulates into the air. What we’re hearing now is the hope that it can be cleaned and made useful. So far, those technologies are not well advanced. The one I find most appealing is something called “greenfuel” which involves expelling the CO2 through a tank of that grow by living off the stuff. You keep harvesting the algae and putting new feedstock in. Let’s hope this brings the emissions down enough to make it worthwhile. It’s a costly process, as are some of the other proposed ways of managing coal’s emissions, such as pumping them into empty mines or into the bottom of the ocean.

The remaining possibility is — but who wants that? It’s a hideous prospect, and not actually as cheap as we are told. is already getting scarce, so the power plants are resorting to lower grade ore. Net energy declines. Eventually, when you have to dismantle old nuclear plants and dispose of the waste, the total cost is higher than alternative sources of energy.

But suppose the drop-off in oil production is as steep as the peak oil believers say. If so, then there may be insufficient energy even to create the alternative fuel systems we all want. We’ll have some terrible choices to make: nuclear or coal? Either that or accept ’s prediction — that most of the human will surely die off, leaving a minority still surviving in the Arctic, which will be comfortably warm.

Mind you, I don’t believe this stuff. I also don’t disbelieve it. I am not sure that sufficient evidence exists yet to make any sound predictions. I want that evidence, one way or the other. You should want it too.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Local, the Personal, and the Pine Beetle

Keywords: Doug Saunders; local trap; national politics; Global Partnerships Program; University of Toronto at Mississauga; forestry; climate change; pine beetle; globalization; babies; range of interests; age

scored again with his weekly Globe and Mail column today — or perhaps it meant more to me because of my preoccupation with a parallel distinction. Referring to the “,” he notes that many people have come to believe (mistakenly) that local governance is more participatory, more than politics at the capital of a state. There’s a readiness to devolve power to or other local or regional levels rather than make decisions through centralized structures. In fact, he says, Ottawa is more responsive to citizens than politicians functioning at the level of cities (maybe also at the provincial level, though he didn’t spell that out). Besides, lots of federal-level officials are actually based in scattered posts throughout the country, where they are nevertheless highly responsive to citizens.

I can’t speak to that question from experience – but only because I have so little contact with municipal government. I did vote in the mayoralty race a few weeks ago, but not with conviction. I am rarely interested in local issues, but was fascinated by the Liberal party convention. I was in Ottawa yesterday, talking with two people about, among other things, the , which is not just national in scope but actually works to dismantle nuclear weapons in Russia with money from Ottawa.

Upon reaching home I dashed off immediately to a retirement party with my former departmental colleagues at the University of Toronto in Mississauga. (When I finished teaching there nine years ago it was still called Erindale College.) Everyone else was standing around eating cake by the time I arrived and assembled a plate of salmon and salad. The women were talking about their families – especially their , since there was one newborn present. I sighed and headed toward the host to talk about trees instead. He’s a forestry professor, dealing with the effects of . We talked about the economics of infestations (see photo) and about the likely effects of . He scoffed when I uttered those two words, “peak oil,” but I couldn’t figure out whether it was an informed scoffing or evidence of prejudice, such as my own. I’m suspending disbelief to look as seriously at peak oil as possible, but I was glad to talk about it with him for a while.

Later I talked to my friend Harriet, a dedicated anti-globalizer who knows enough to be taken seriously. After Christmas she will go back to the classroom after a lengthy leave, teaching a course on . She’s going to analyze the assembly of a particular garment in her lectures – what countries the raw materials came from, where the weaving is done, where the components are assembled, and where they are shipped around the world. Intriguing topic.

I remarked that, in my opinion, the whole question of economic globalization will be a dead issue in ten years. There won’t be enough fuel to trade commodities globally. She agreed, though she didn’t say it would be within ten years. She’s been telling all her friends for years that we must start eating local produce, but I paid no attention until lately. Nowadays the buzz word is “re-localization” in a lot of different senses. It’s not that I believe in it (what Canadian wants to subsist on rutabagas?) but that it may become necessary. Perhaps, like Harriet, I should already be doing my part for the planet by eschewing imported avocados.

Soon, however, she was in conversation with a young woman professor whose name I don’t recall. The topic was the young woman’s reproductive plans. When would she plan to have a baby? There was talk about how that’s what really counts. “Why should I write another article” when what really counts is family?

I strolled away. The local, the familial, no longer holds my attention. To tell the truth, I am losing respect for that orientation. Of course, for a young woman, procreation naturally takes priority; I acknowledge that. It’s supposed to be that way. We’re built to have such feelings. I remember craving more intimacy myself thirty years ago and worrying that I had missed the boat.

But even the older women I know are more involved with their families than with the future of the world. ’s first book was about the interests of aging women, and she tried to disprove a theory that was common at the time: that the range of a person’s interests shrinks as she ages. I don’t know how widespread that belief is now; maybe Arlie’s debunking won the debate. I haven’t checked the recent research out.

Still I have to believe it myself. There are just too many friends of mine — mostly female but a few males too — whose interests shrink after they retire. They talk mostly about their families, especially , and about personal relationships to the exclusion of anything abstract, structural, or global. I keep thinking that old people ought to pay more attention to the world's problems and leave a decent planet for their grandchildren.

Perhaps there’s no logical connection between preferring national or international politics over the local and preferring to talk about issues rather than relationships. Perhaps the parallelism exists only in my imagination. And perhaps it’s salient to me only because I have no grandchildren. Still, the result is pretty reliable: At parties I gravitate away from women and toward men, where I might provoke an exciting discussion of pine beetles and trees.

Friday, December 08, 2006

What's the Antonym of Flying?

Keywords: train; airplane; climate change; George Monbiot; Heat; CO2 emissions; freighters.

I'm virtuous at the moment -- on board a ViaRail from Ottawa to Toronto. Not driving, you understand, and certainly not flying. If this forum on climate change and energy has had any effect, it's by making me more conscious about the use of . I've even turned out a few more lights than I used to.

Train travel is no sacrifice. I prefer it to any other way of traversing a few hundred miles. Two years ago I even went to Nova Scotia and back by train. One way was good. The return was too much. But now I'd better get used to long journeys by train as well, for I cannot fly anymore. What's the opposite of ? Crawling?

's book, Heat, is the best thing I've read about the possibility of reducing CO2 emissions. He decides that we have to curb these emissions by 80 percent, so he sets up a series of categories -- transportation, heating of homes, agriculture, etc -- and figures out a way to reduce emissions in each category by 80 percent. It's easier in some respects than others. He admits in the end that there is no way to reduce air travel emissions much at all. Yes, you can could take propeller-driven planes (if there still were any) and cut emissions quite a bit, but not enough. I checked with the web page, which says that flying in the daytime is better than at night. The left by planes actually reflect some light in the daytime, so that reduces the bad effect of their emissions. At night, they can't do that, of course. The Suzuki people just ask us not to fly except when it is absolutely necessary. When we do fly, the emissions are so bad that they cancel out any conservation we've done all year.

Okay, I'll try to live that way from now on. But one thing immediately bothers me. I need to go to Russia for a few weeks in the spring to interview people for the Bears and Doves book that has been on my back burner for several years. How do I get there?

I checked the Internet for . The best I could do would be to sail from Montreal or New York and reach either northern Europe or a Mediterranean port maybe 13 days later. They charge at least 90 euros per day, and they note that there are no elevators but lots of stairs. I'm not good on stairs. Worse yet, they don't even accept passengers over 75 or 79 years old. Maybe I could find one that would accept me, but I couldn't manage my luggage or even climbing stairs. So that's out.

Someone mentioned dirigibles. Of course, they don't exist anymore. They would be at best a half-solution -- somewhat quicker than ships but not nearly as fast as jet planes.

For some things, I think we need to be face-to-face. used to spend all day interviewing people on the phone as a radio producer. He could tell what they had to say that was interesting and then tell what to ask them on the air. I myself depend more on facial cues. And the book I'm going back to finishing is about the activities of peace-minded Russians during the Cold War. It's not as sensitive a subject as twenty years ago, but it still requires face-to-face interaction, in my opinion. Probably it would be easier if we were both the same nationalityl Culture does make a difference in communication.

Still, when my dear friends move away, I cannot keep as close to them as before, and inevitably our phone conversations and even e-mails decline in frequency. I have many foreign friends, some of whom were very close at one time, but none of them are among my closest friends anymore. Occasional face-to-face encounters are necessary just to make up for the distance.

I digress. But from what argument? That is important, even if it is destructive to the environment.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

On Being a Pessimist

Pessimism ... is, in brief, playing the sure game. You cannot lose at it; you may gain. It is the only view of life in which you can never be disappointed. Having reckoned what to do in the worst possible circumstances, when better arise, as they may, life becomes child’s play.
— Thomas Hardy (1840–1928), British novelist, poet.

One has to have the courage of one’s pessimism.
— Ian McEwan (b. 1948), British author.

Optimism doesn’t wait on facts. It deals with prospects. Pessimism is a waste of time.
— Norman Cousins

I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.
— Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), Italian political theorist. in Letters from Prison

Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get.
— Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks)

I just offended a friend of mine by calling him a . I don’t like to be rude, but he is planning his life around an expectation that can only be called the “worst case scenario” about the of life on this planet. Still, when people think I’m characterizing them unfairly, I stop and give it some thought. That’s what this blog entry will do.

Pessimism and are about the way we organize ourselves with respect to an uncertain future. When the future is unmistakable — as in the situation recorded by this image of the of December 2004 — there’s no room for either pessimism of optimism. It is obvious what will shortly happen.

But is not so certain, and it makes a great deal of difference how accurately we anticipate it and revise our plans so as to enable the human species to survive it. My friend insists that pessimism, optimism, or realism here have nothing to do with . The orientation depends on whether one looks closely at the best scientific evidence. And one is obliged to be as realistic as possible, if not indeed pessimistic, and plan for the worst scenario, for false optimism will kill us all.

And yes, one can make a case for that hard-nosed attitude. It’s better than the opposite, but neither one is ideal. As put it, lots of people go directly from a state of that there’s any problem to a state of and defeatism, without going through any intermediate phase of activism. My friend is not one of those. He remains a committed activist, even while holding out the gloomiest possible prognosis of the future.

None of us can be sure what’s coming. We are in the situation of , who noted astutely that “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” This open-mindedness has its benefits, but we do need to prepare, and so we need to gauge the probabilities and act accordingly.

But for us, life is not really like a box of chocolates, for, to some degree, how we act will determine what happens.

At the conclusion of his wonderful radio series, “Sustainability and the Future of Humankind,” ( suggests that our pessimism or optimism is a . If we are optimistic, we will recognize the various opportunities for saving the situation, whereas if we are pessimistic, we will not attempt to do much, for everything will appear impossible. Worse yet, our pessimism will affect others so they do not take action either. Instead of pessimism, we must face hard possibilities without being daunted. And not just one possibility. Futures are multiple, plural.

Yet not everyone agrees that pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some people take pride in being extra-brave by recognizing when it seems to lie ahead. Like , they believe that “One has to have the .” They may even believe that their pessimism prepares them best for hard outcomes, as apparently assumed, to gauge by this comment of his:

“Pessimism ... is, in brief, playing the sure game. You cannot lose at it; you may gain. It is the only view of life in which you can never be disappointed. Having reckoned what to do in the worst possible circumstances, when better arise, as they may, life becomes child’s play.”

Whether pessimism is a self-fulfilling or a depends, for some individuals, on whether they depend on having hope. Some people summon the fortitude to keep going only when can reasonably anticipate a good outcome. Indeed, a philosopher of my acquaintance wrote a book about the necessity of having hope. I never agreed with her opinion. I personally don’t operate on the energy of hope, nor do most activists whom I have known over the years. If I know I am going to perish, I want to die “with my boots on,” pursuing to the end the goals and ideals that I believe in. I recall that in her film “If You Love this Planet,” said that in her final moments, before going to meet her maker, she wanted to know that she had done her best. This attitude (which is neither optimism nor pessimism) is the best answer to the false optimism, the denial, that keeps many citizens from participating actively in the task of saving the world.

I believe that the optimum moral response is to keep testing reality and appraising it as accurately as possible, while still acknowledging that one’s appraisals are partly a matter of personality. But to make one’s personality traits a fatal obstacle is as unhelpful and untrue as to adopt fatalism on any other basis. As personality traits go, one’s pessimism or optimism are not decreed by nature but are matters that one can decide. As said,

“Optimism doesn’t wait on facts. It deals with prospects. Pessimism is a waste of time.”

And, as wrote, “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

I salute the will of the optimists, for they encourage others by setting an example by their own wise dealings with prospects.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Me and Stephane are on the Case

Well, blow me down. , my very favorite Canadian candidate, just won the leadership race for the Liberal Party. This guy is a smart, sweet man with all the right values. I once participated in a conference at a big table with him at the other end, and I was truly impressed – almost smitten. He was a fervent environment minister. I heard that he even bought a dog and named him . So I am going to vote Liberal next time just to help him.

I was already helping, I think, yesterday when my forum, “Climate Change and the Coming Energy Crisis” came together. There was a good turnout – especially in the afternoon. Unfortunately, there was a fire alarm while we were showing ’s film, but everyone came back in and packed the room fully. The panelists were fascinating, though I wish they had debated a little more. Probably I should have made time for them to address each other before opening the floor up for the audience to ask questions.

There were three perspectives represented there – all addressing some of the same problems but seeing them in different lights. First, and most importantly, there’s the climate change perspective, which simply points out that if we don’t cut the emissions of by about 80 percent, the planet will cook and most species — possibly including our own — will perish. To reduce greenhouse gases, we must stop using fossil fuels and switch to some .

Second, there’s the “” perspective, which points out that we’re depleting the world’s reserves of oil and other fossil fuels, which will create grave economic problems, since all practicable alternative fuels yield far less net energy and therefore will not enable us to do as much work as at present or to keep ourselves warm and well-fed. This energy shortage may endanger humankind as much as the s that are determined by the use or non-use of fossil fuel. In a sense, it’s a question which will do us in first, the energy shortage or the climate change. The peak oil people worry more about energy, though they recognize the dilemma.

Though their analyses differ, both the climate change and peak oil perspectives should be able to agree on a single policy. Both sides require the urgent development of alternative renewable fuels, greater efficiency in the use of energy, and conservation to make our existing fossil fuel resources tide us over until we have perfected and institutionalized these new practices.

However, there is yet a third perspective that is not satisfied with these solutions either. It is a pessimistic perspective that combines the preceding two concerns with an additional worry: the of ecological systems. This view is perfectly aware of the climate change threats and of the looming energy shortage, but it does not even accept the solution that would satisfy the other two perspectives: renewable energy. These ultimate pessimists believe that the use of energy is inherently damaging to the planet, even if it comes from, say, or wind power. The use of energy always has an impact on the environment. Whatever work we do and even our own biological functioning, affects the world physically, often to the detriment of other species. We cannot avoid having such impacts, and the more of us there are, the worse are our effects on the planet. My friend Jack Santa Barbara, who holds this ultimate pessimism, expresses the problem with this formula: I=PAT, where I means Impact on the planet, P means , A means affluence of society, and T means technology. The more people there are, the more affluent they are (with access to more energy), the more technology they use, the more impact they will inevitably have on the planet, making our world less sustainable. There is no answer to this.

On the panel, Jack didn't spell all of this out. He confined himself to expressing a pessimistic opinion about the possibility of getting the renewable fuels that we will need without ruining ecological systems.

Personally, I don't believe things are that serious. I think that the effect of energy on the planet is not necessarily deleterious; it depends on what you do with the energy. Nor is technology usually harmful. And, yes, there are more problems with larger populations, but by exerting smart social influences (e.g. through the use of persuasive storytelling) we can help curtail the expansion of population even more than is happening already. And I do think we can bring our greenhouse gas emissions down by 80 percent or more, if we get cracking. That's called . Stephane and I are going to create it. You're allowed to join us in the project.