Friday, December 17, 2010

How Much is that Polar Bear in the Window?

This morning CBC is featuring a news item about a Canadian federal government contract to put a dollar figure on the worth of polar bears.The precipitant is the consideration of polar bears for designation under our Species at Risk Act (SARA). I find it odd that this has come up for so emblematic and, as the lingo goes, charismatic a species as the big whites given that the list of endangered species currently includes a multiplicity of hitherto unheard of creatures which even the most eco-sympathetic and creative economist would have trouble ascribing money value to. For in addition to such zoological shoo-ins as the Grizzly and the Grey Whale, presently, Canada has listed the Pygmy Short-Horned Lizard, the Dwarf Wedge Mussel and the Pacific Water Shrew on the top priority ledger - Schedule I qualifiers. It would be superficially entertaining to see the economic rationale for these or for plants like the Illinois Tick-trefoil or the Incurved Grizzled Moss, both also on the list of priority designation.

I say "superficially" because superficial is exactly what this preposterous economic study is now underway by a Quebec firm, ÉcoRessources. CBC's commentators are reporting the analysis as if this is some vanguard hitherto unseen creative methodology when, in fact, it is nothing of the sort. During one of the last century's several pulses of environmentalism, in the late 1960s and 1970s, economic busy-minds, anxious to be part of the vogue for environmental impact assessment, clunky calculators at the ready, started turning up all over the place with data-rich evaluations that put dollar values not only on species but entire valued ecosystems. A new sub-discipline replete with own journals and internecine methodological controversies emerged - "ecological economics". yet this was itself, only a johnny-come-lately to work such as the venerable Resources for the Future and the less venerated US Army Corps of Engineers had been doing for years, busily tallying up the worth of nature, often merely as part of the due diligence for planning and implementing ecocidal mega-projects.

Which brings me to why anyone truly concerned about polar bears or obscure rare mosses should speak out against this hyper-mundane attempt to reduce our caring to the almighty loonie. On the surface, these exercises frequently come up with equally news-catching headlines trumpeting that such and such a species is worth some bigger number of dollars than you and I will ever have to whatever jurisdiction it lives in. For example in an interview on CBC's Daybreak North program today, one of ÉcoRessources' staff gave the example of a Wisconsin assessment that valued the state's bald eagles at a whopping $28 million dollars. Our local CBC interviewer seemed impressed: but pause and think about just how small a destructive project which may threaten those eagles would have to be to score higher. A mid-sized port dredging project or the extension of the Green Bay airport runway could easily boast discounted future benefits that kicked eagle ass. My point is that it is exceptionally dangerous to concede to the economic frame of mind the methodology by which evaluation of real value is to occur.

Thirty-five years ago, the traditional indigenous peoples of the Mackenzie Valley, in dialogue with Justice Thomas Berger, demonstrated a very different way of taking measure of nature's services. They turned up at countless small community workshops and told Justice Berger why bears and everything else that interacts with them are precious beyond the transitory benefits derivable by pumping hydrocarbons south. Their "metrics' were of the heart and, with Berger's excellent rapporteur-ship, those evaluations provided a durable protective cover for lands and creatures we need and we value way beyond dollars. It would seem from yesterday's news that most though not all of the Native people along the planned pipeline corridor have been won - or should I say "bought"? - over to a more "realistic," contemporary mind set, i.e. take the money today and damn the consequences to that once-vaunted seventh generation in the future. Or as an academic paper by a very wise and now late economic historian, Robert Heilbroner wryly asked "What has posterity ever done for me?"

Well before even Berger or Heilbroner, one of the founding fathers of environmentalism took on early ecological number crunchers with his beautiful and brilliant plea for a land ethic. Back in 1948 he confronted the trend even then to quantify the value of species and environments in these words, well worth reflecting on as our philistine government and its analytical handmaidens pore through the dollar figures on our magnificent and declining polar bears:

When the logic of history hungers for bread and we hand out a stone, we are at pains to explain how much the stone resembles bread. I now describe some of the stones which serve in lieu of a land ethic.

One basic weakness in a conservation system based wholly on economic motives is that most members of the land community have no economic value. Wildflowers and songbird are examples. Of the 22,000 higher plants and animals native to Wisconsin, it is doubtful whether more than 5 per cent can be sold, fed, eaten, or otherwise put to economic use Yet these creatures are members of the biotic community, and if (as I believe) its stability depends on its integrity they are entitled to continuance.

When one of these non-economic categories is threatened and if we happen to love it, we invent subterfuges to give it economic importance. At the beginning of the century song birds were supposed to be disappearing. Ornithologists jumped to the rescue with some distinctly shaky evidence the effect that insects would eat us up if birds failed to control them. The evidence had to be economic in order to be valid.

It is painful to read these circumlocutions today. We have no land ethic yet, but we have at least drawn nearer the point of admitting that birds should continue as a matter of biotic right, regardless of the presence or absence of economic advantage to us.

This profound insight and the ethic upheld by Leopold are what ought to underlie the stewardship Canadians and others get behind including the belated and so obviously needed designation of the polar bears - lest otherwise they exist in animatronic Coke commercials or in the windows of museums.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Full Circle in Afghanistan

Today the unwitting heir of Bush's Afghan adventure releases his long-awaited assessment of the war over there. There will be sufficient commentary and dissection by people who know something about this, that more virtual ink from my peepings can add little. But I do have to flag an irony of the forest which the better informed may miss for all their insights on the trees. Despite all the different rationalized objectives that have piled up since the invasion nine years ago, the espoused single-most purpose in romping into Taliban country was to root out the Al-Qaeda militants from their training bases, the locales where the World Trade Centre's demise was planned. The add-on purposes that we in Canada and the USA know hear widely touted - establishing un-corrupt democratic governments, liberating women, (re)building the infrastructure of a nation so long at war etc. - were entirely subsidiary to and derivative of getting rid of terrorist incubators.

The seemingly deliberate ignorance of the history of longer term foreign intervention in Afghanistan is stunning as is incomprehension of basic precepts of insurgency, laid down long ago by the likes of T.E. Lawrence and Che Guevera. You don't raze villages and "collaterally damage" thousands of innocents and then expect love, gratitude and support or emulation.

So here we are back on December 16, 2010 and the key insight emerging from Obama's year-long situation review is that the enemy has extensive sanctuaries in Pakistan, about which, it appears nothing can be done, not without further alienating the world's second most dangerous and unstable nuclear power. The net result is that the terrorist training camps of the early 2000s in Afghanistan are dead; long live the terrorist training refugiae across the border today. The persistence of these bases means that all the other high-sounding purposes of freeing women and building bridges and schools for a future Afghan democracy have no more staying power than does the Karzai regime, of which it has been said: if the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force leaves at 4 p.m., it'll be toast by 6.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Flanagan's Fatwah (and Other Wiki-Crap)

It seems an increasingly common thing for me to wish a pox on both sides of public controversies. Call it maturity. I had watched the continuing massive and unselective dumping of WikiLeaks with a feeling of disdain, especially irked when commentators would equate this to whistle-blowing. The latter practice refers to the courageous, often career-destroying and never self-aggrandizing practice whereby knowledgeable insiders within organizations, publicize the failings and misdeeds of their employers. Part and parcel of real whistle blowing is finding that something is seriously wrong within one's organization, usually trying to have head honchos mend their ways, and, failing that, going public. Famous examples include Karen Silkwood, who exposed the dangerous ambient levels of plutonium in nuclear facilities and Jeffery Wigand, the cigarette company exec who went public about nicotine-doctoring aimed at increasing the addictiveness of smokes. Both of these heroes were immortalized on the big-screen and, no doubt, it won't be all that long before WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is likewise "honoured".

But his plundering and publicizing of communications shows neither the specificity of rationale nor the necessary step of trying to effect change before going public. Assange seemed little more than one of those irksome parasites known as computer hackers whose motivation has nothing to with societal betterment or anything so tangible but instead lies in simply being able to screw things up for someone else. He's just done that, thanks to an equally unselective and unreflective low-ranking informant,Bradley Manning, on a vaster scale than any of the pimple-faced vandals who break into other people's files for the pure fun of it. This is not to say, that all Wiki-leak leaks have always been thus. When the targets were specific and could potentially induce needed change, great! This seemed to be the modus operandi before the current deluge, if one scans the pre-2009 history of the organization and its activities. Now, the targets are innumerable and there are good reasons to expect that far from creating more openness and candour in the conduct of international relations, the result will be a global clamming up, heightened security that will affect efforts to shed needed and well-focused light on wrongdoings in high places.

So Julian was and is no hero of Wigandian stature to my mind, but instead, at least in his and his organization's most recent activity, a thrill-seeking cyber-thug, who doesn't care whose windows get smashed when he hurls his rocks helter-skelter.

But then, just when I'm thinking what a self-aggrandizing vandal he is, along comes Tom Flanagan, a man whom I have despised for decades most especially after his neo-colonial disquisition on indigenous people, a diatribe titled First Nations, Second Thoughts - a strange choice of title for a "scholar" who does not appear to have had a second thought about anything over the course of his decades in Calgary. Yes, the same Flanagan who greased Stephen Harper's trail to the head of the Reform Party and thence to Parliament's East Block (a contribution for which, by itself, he deserves a few days in the stocks). Yes, medieval punishment comes readily to mind for Ayatollah Flanagan who very publicly opined that Assange should be assassinated suggesting that Obama dispatch a drone to do the job -- apparently not reflecting much in this outburst of what he called "feeling very manly" on how that might work for a fugitive hiding out in central London, England.

Well anyone this wing-nut hates can't be entirely worthless and I was later to discover that Fox TV loony Bill O'Reilly likewise is advocating the death penalty for such traitors too. This and the suspiciously timed rape charges that Sweden began to push are enough to sway me a bit towards sympathy for Assange. It may well be true that he is a sex offender but we also can rightly suspect - in no small part thanks to the threads of gold amidst all the WikiLeak dross - that the shadowy figures who linger in the crevices of international relations frequently come up with vicious schemes, far less stupid but of a similar mind-set to motor-mouths like Flanagan and O'Reilly.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Low Class Leaving

I would like to pretend that the dearth of Grouses since my last post in mid October wherein I demanded BC NDP Leader Carol James' departure, was some kind of journalistic fast that I stalwartly maintained pending her compliance. In that version, I can e-speak again because yesterday (Dec. 6), she finally got the message and vamoosed. I wish I could report that she did so with some grace, a tinge of the kind of classiness that had eluded her at least in the last year of her reign. Alas, Ms. James left with the same conspicuous defects as she presided over the should-be replacement for Gord-O's Liberals.

Puffed up like a hen defending long dead and infertile eggs, she clucked on about her ever-growing legion of detractors as - get this from a leader who fired a guy for saying she gave an unimpressive speech! - "bullies." She unlike them, she sermonized, had the interests of the people of British Columbia at heart. While these ducks pecked at her, we were told, she had been trying to lead effective opposition in the province. It's not clear when she thinks she started doing that nor does she seem to take one micro-gram of credit for the unprecedented opposition that had built in her own caucus - I say "unprecedented" because though BC generally eats its presiding premiers alive, opposition leaders, especially ones who haven't held highest office, have never, before James, excited such hostility.

The tragedy is that she still was unwilling to acknowledge why all this was happening, to look deep (or as deep as she goes) into her own soul and performance, her inability to defeat a repulsive, hated Gordon Campbell who, lacking a worthy opponent had to shoot himself repeatedly in the foot to finally get the boot. Carol and her supporters are happy to take credit for the NDP's phoenix-like return from 2 to 35 seats in the legislature when, in fact, the kudos belong to the Liberals who should have been trounced two years ago. What Ms. James wears forever is all the added neo-con strife and stress Gordon Campbell and his successor will have foisted on society's most needy, thanks to her dismal and failed electioneering in 2008.

Especially with the announcement today of the photogenic and relatively untainted candidacy of broadcaster Christy Clark for Liberal leader, it is imperative that the NDP think and look outside the box for a more progressive and electable antidote. Carol James benefited enormously from Campbell being so easy to despise. The new NDP leader will not have Gord-O to kick around and will have to win, if at all, on merits.

I can only repeat my "dream" replacement for James - Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafonde with her impeccable integrity and determination, excellent counterbalances to the glitz of someone like Clark.
Coda: I see that one name that is being touted elsewhere for the NDP is the youthful and impressive Skeena MP, Nathan Cullen. I'd throw my considerable weight (albeit of the wrong kind) behind this passionate and intelligent lad, if, as is likely Mary-Ellen continues to ignore my calls for her candidacy!