Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2012 - On the End of Days and a Non-Believer's Special Offer

On this penultimate day of 2009, I awake knowing that in just a little under two years, we are all going to blown to smithereens by an as yet unseen celestial onject! Or inundated by a mega-tsunami right up to the peaks of the Himalayas. Or - worst of all - become transformed into gibbering hordes of mystical new-agers, not unlike the krishnas who used to hang about chanting in airport terminals. The horror, the horror!

Now that the movie is out, so too in ever greater numbers will be the dire predictions and expectations of the last days of earth. Variously, this prophecy is Mayan or Hopi in origin -- neither of which really say the world will end only that it will change precipitously, a much safer bet since it has been doing so, according to no less that the great Marcel Proust:

The one thing that does not change is that at any and every time it appears that there have been ‘great changes.’

I had taken about as much notice of this dreaded imminence as I had of the anal infection of the beetle that lives under my desk, until recently when my rather sensitive and nervous 11-year old daughter came home from school verging on tears because her reading group had been avidly discussing the ominous possibilities two years hence. Overcoming my instinctual desire to rip the lips off of whatever presumptive adult had presided over such malarkey-talk, I played the judicious and wise father and explained quite a number of things about the history of prophecy to her. I noted, for example, the fascinating sociological study I read years ago, called When Prophecy Fails. In that account, the researchers - including the late Leon Festinger, originator of the concept of cognitive dissonance - closely followed the dynamics of a millenarian claque in Michigan. The group had received the wisdom of THE END from much further afield than old wise indigenous earthlings - kindly aliens had informed their leader, Mrs. Keech, of a flood that would engulf us all on December 21, 1954 - there's something about the Winter Solstice, eh? So Festinger and his colleagues sat up all night with the believers as they patiently, at first, but then with growing, albeit temporary, disquiet as the hours passed, awaiting the catastrophe.

As you may have already figured out by the very fact of your sitting comfortably reading this excellent blog, they and their extraterrestrial informants were wrong...No wait, not wrong at all! The Keech family wackos took very little time realizing that they and the rest of creation had been saved at the last minute by - you guessed it! - God who in his beneficence had once more held the finger off the global smite button. They came out of it their beliefs intact, the quintessential exemplar of the aforementioned phenomenon of cognitive dissonance.

It does seem, then, that it may take some considerable effort to move devotees of this doomsday bullcrap off their spot and, again in that same conversation with my daughter, an inspiration came to me which I shall apply to anyone I henceforth encounter who espouses the inevitability that at 11:11 a.m. (11:41 in Newfoundland) on December 21, 2012 we'll all be trans-personalized into some infinite or new age-y void. This offer applies to any reader wishing to take me up on this.

I will agree to pay any such person the princely sum of $2,012.00, right now, for full title to their unmortgaged house (or any other similarly-valued chattel) with possession on December 22, 2012. Naturally, their unshakable conviction that I am buying what will at that point no longer exist should have them laughing all the way to the bank, so to speak.

Any takers?

If not then will y'all believers do the rest of us the great kindness of shutting your gob about 2012 and the apolcalyptic hocus-pocus surrounding it!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Who We Are Dealing With: China Murders Sick Man

If all the tainted goods and devastated North American local economies, all the bald-faced brutal suppression of internal opposition and the dogged attempts to discredit his Holiness the Dalai Lama while making Tibet, a "hell on earth,", all the price-gouging and illicit counterfeiting of goods, haven't convinced you, today's state-sanctioned murder of Akmal Shaikh ought to move you a little closer to recognizing the monsters that have been allowed to take over the world economy.
I am not opposed to finding the kingpins who tirelessly underwrite the international drug trade, and removing them in any manner whatsoever. The head honchos are unquestionably destroying lives in every sense of the words. But China, as in so many other things makes punishment into an hyperbole and in this case has plain-and-simple murdered a delusional sufferer of bipolar disorder who was clearly duped into muling several kilos of heroin. This empire, more truly evil than anything even Ronnie Reagan could have ever imagined, carries out nearly three-quarters of annual executions worldwide.

In this case wide-ranging international appeals, including from Britain where Shaikh was a citizen, met with the same "fuck you guys!" attitude that the People's Republic adopts increasingly as its economic might aggrandizes. And be clear: China is vigourously converting that financial clout into military capacity that will further assure their ability to do what they want within and outside their borders. The lethal injection stuck into Akmal Shaikh is just one more small if revolting shot fired in the widening China Wars.

One sees in the stiffly worded but action-free reaction of the British Prime Minister, the extent of empty puffery which most Nations on earth now feel obliged to limit themselves to due to China's power. In response to Gordon Brown's noisy indignation, China has, in essence, even challenged the right to freely criticize their atrocities. Thus does party mouthpiece Jiang Yu rejoin, "We express our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to the British government's unreasonable criticism of the case. We urge [them] to correct their mistake in order to avoid harming China-UK relations."

Correct our mistake? This is the same "re-educational" argot as in Pol Pot's Cambodian bloody regime -- and the time is surely coming when China will not hesitate to apply the very military force that our relentless purchasing of their cheap and dangerous goods has funded, to physically shut up us impudent westerners, just as they now silence the Tibetans and groups such as the Muslim Uighur and Falun Gong.

Is it too late for the West to recognize the monster that we have largely created, and put them back in the isolation tank? Too late to suspend them from every gathering of purportedly respectable world leaders and impose on imports of their nigh slave-produced goods, a rigourous human rights audit? Probably, for to paraphrase from Leonard Cohen's old song, "Stories of the Street," our pleasures - the pleasures of cheap - are the seal of the prison we are now locking ourselves into.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Of Externalities, or Sticking PG Polluters with the Bill

It was a clear night as I flew back on a recent Sunday evening from Vancouver. You could see Prince George glistening like a jewel (well, a bunch of rhinestones, anyway) even by Quesnel. At the crew's insistence, I put away my iPod on which I was listening to B.J. Harrison's fine rendition of the Moonstone (Classic Tales readings - shameless promotion) and prepared to step out into the -24C crispness that the pilot had announced.

But as we were about to land, simultaneously the cabin filled with the familiar noxious smell of the pulp mills and the engines revved up suddenly. We began to ascend. Things grew quiet among the passengers and after a few minutes of banking and flying about, the pilot announced that visibility had been too limited: there was, he said, "a bit of fog" at the north end of the runway.

By this time we were high enough to have a good vantage for seeing what the real problem was. The mills located on the north side of the Fraser were, as usual, spewing out their filth and in the considerable cold, plumes of vapours, aqueous and otherwise would rapidly condensing. And the winds just happened to be pushing this airborne crap to the south, straight over the Prince George airport.

The pilot tried another approach, this time from the west but with no better outcome. Having had a nice scenic tour over BC's northern capital, we turned south for Vancouver where we recollected our luggage and a fistful of food and hotel vouchers from West-Jet. Having boarded the plane at a little after seven, it was near midnight by the time I settled into the palatial facility at the Richmond Sandman, thinking back to economics 101 and the concept of externality.

To the economist, an externality "... exists whenever one individual's actions affect the well-being of another individual -- whether for the better or for the worse -- in ways that need not be paid for..." In simpler and very crude but apt terms, it means I enjoy a nice shit and you have to smell it. We are all familiar with the game that pulp mills and similarly noxious industries play with local and high-level pols. In essence it is that if such companies are forced to clean up and, thereby, to absorb externalities, to pay fully for the burden they place on the well-being of others, they'll just shut down and move to a more welcoming locale, i.e. some even more desperate community or country where they can get away with figurative and, if it so happens, literal murder.

I did suggest to West-Jet that they ought to invoice CanFor and its malodorous buddies for the substantial cost to the airline of an extra flight and all those meals and beds for the stranded. So far they have only chuckled and sighed and, yet, internalizing such externalities is the exact prescription that economists are making the world over as an alternative to more draconian regulations or, my personal favourite, putting the executives of these polluters in pillories down at the public market.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Copenhagen - Just whose deadline is it anyway?

As the clock winds down at the Copenhagen climate change boondoggle, the theater has become evermore tedious and predictable. Obama, playing so well the ineffectual postmodern hero; Wen Jiabao, Premier of China, mouthing the usual lame alibis of the nasty heavy, and Stephen Harper.. well I'd say, the court fool, but that would denigrate a very useful medieval occupation and, Stephen is only funny when he's trying to act as if he was actually a human being.

Meanwhile myriads of primarily useless bureaucrats from all sectors scurry about self-importantly, accomplishing very little except that they will be able to go back home soon and act as if, somehow, breathing the fetid air of a predictably failed treaty process, makes them special, worthy claimants of insights into something that so very few, if any, have.

The hubris of humans individually and collectively is, of course, at the spiritual roots of why we are in crisis. Like boozed-up teenage boys on prom night, we've got high and been speeding around in our souped up vehicles, sure that cold scientific facts of impending doom will make never catch us, that we shall escape becoming a fatal statistic.

In part the foreseeable failure at Copenhagen has to with the excessively complex nature of the event itself. Billed as treaty-making it has few of the requisites for that seemingly lost art. The hitherto most complex exemplar of relatively successful multi-nation environmental diplomacy were the United Nations Law of the Sea negotiations. The process of developing a substantive multi-faceted treaty that won most of the world's support took 15 years of steadily building. In contrast, foolish hopes blossomed in Kyoto with few or no sanctions for duplicitous participants - like Canada - who figured that a climate treaty was like an election, that it's okay to promise more than you ever intend and hope that the public goes amnesiac. The global climate issue, unlike the global ocean issues, has never seen power and knowledge combined in dedicated visionary leadership. Obama, the heir apparent to saving the world, shows little of the sustained commitment that he did, for example, to passing medicare and, even more vigourously, to getting himself to the White House. Now, there was a cause he could really sink his teeth into!

No one is even asking the right guiding questions: what future course will save us and the biomes we are so powerfully affecting? What does the path to salvation actually look like? We need that vision in as much specificity as we can muster. Instead we (I refer to the collective "we" of humanity) have busied ourselves bickering about meaningless reduction targets -- is 1.5 % reduction compared to 1990 emission levels enough or should we agree on 2%? - as if scientific knowledge is anywhere close to being able to say what different outcomes such alternatives might lead to. Will this difference really matter in coastal Bangladesh and, indeed, will we ever have the predictive insights to make that call?

Meanwhile, like jealous infantile siblings, the leaders point accusatory fingers at each other, saying in effect, "I'm not going to behave if my brothers and sisters won't." There is no thought of any significant nation (something which Canada once was on the verge of being), saying in essence, screw you all: we are not going down in history (if there is any left to be read) as having dithered around while the storm tides swelled. We will make sacrifices regardless of who else does it, adopting the noble disposition of the great Spanish existentialist, Miguel de Unamuno, who said: "If it is nothingness that awaits us let us so act that it will be an unjust fate."

Meanwhile back in Copenhagen, one question that none of the legion of reporters on site seemed to have asked, is where this ostensibly unshakable deadline comes from? Yes, yes, I know that this is an urgent global problem but it is not going to be significantly less solvable (if it is solvable at all) the day, or month or year after Copenhagen than it is now. To believe that this fractional assemblage of the human population, well-fed and overpaid as it is holds the key to all our futures is just more of the same bloated self-importance and hubris that got us where we are.

Like it or not, the same pompous politicians and their lackeys will have climate change to deal with next week and into the very distant future. They don't get to just move on to the next flavour of the month issue. If there is the thinnest vein of real leadership among them, they will leave the Danish capital humbled by the enormity of what must be done, and committed to act, as they have not so far, as if - paraphrasing Unamuno once again - they are the valourous parents of our future rather than just the whimpering offspring of the past.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

An Obamian Fable

Trying to wrap my head around the mind-set that has resulted in last night's dramatically pronounced new American Afghan strategy, I get to thinking analogically.

Let us shift the setting to an inner city neighbourhood rotten with punk gangs running protection schemes. In the parlance, they own the 'hood. A new savvy, good-talkin' police chief is hired and after much deliberation and amidst great pomp and circumstance announces how he's going to fix things.

He says he will be tripling the number of police in the 'hood for 18 months. the baddies will be hunted down like dogs and neutralized if not neutered; and meanwhile, he will collaborate with one particular gang, build up their capabilities and then pull all the cops out of the area once and for all. The police chief warns the leader of his chosen thug allies that if they aren't able to subdue the even nastier groups within this time frame, he's still going to yank out all the flatfoots come hell or high water. That should make the living easy for the hapless civvies especially women and free-thinkers!

Now imagine yourself head honchos of the targeted gangs. You know the place'll be crawling with cops for a year and half. No biggie. Keep your head down, bide your time, and get set for all the post July 2011 fireworks reunion with the homeys.

And the moral? It may sound great sitting in the Oval Office to spout tough-sounding guidelines and timetables but any Taliban and Al-Qaeda with half a brain -- and they have shown that intelligence is not their short suit - is just going to hang in there and prepare to take back the whole country when America's half-hearted, half-baked and half-assed strategy implodes.