Friday, April 21, 2006

When "Greenest" Isn't Green

Last night, Brian Mulroney was declared Canada's "greenest" prime minister by a group of environmentalists selected by Corporate Knights magazine. Someone with more restraint than myself would probably just say "way to go" and leave it at that, but, well, here we are.

Let's give credit where credit is due. Mulroney oversaw the creation of a Canada-US acid-rain treaty, and signed on to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. He spoke frequently and passionately about the need to take action on issues of environmental health. If he'd had five priorities, the environment would have been one of them.

Signing treaties, regulations, and agreements was where Mulroney excelled. Unfortunately, we're far more threatened by our economic systems and structures than by lack of regulations. And in this area, Mulroney took us backwards, not forwards.

No amount of regulation alone can possibly hope to stand up against an economic machine that is designed to extract virgin resources and turn them into waste more quickly and efficiently than has ever before been possible (what Ray Anderson calls the take-make-waste economy). According to Anderson, "less than 3% of the material processed through the [industrial] system has any value whatsoever six months after its extraction from the earth." Trying to regulate against a system that is designed to create waste is a bit like dealing with the proverbial bull in the china shop by covering it with foam padding. The point is, the bull shouldn't be there in the first place.

The greening of Canada will only happen when we create closed-cycle, local economies. Standing directly in the way of this goal is Mulroney's most well-known legacy, NAFTA. Not only does chapter 11 of NAFTA prohibit the Canadian government (for example) from interfering with an American corporation's "right" to make money by asking them to, say, please stop putting carcinogens in our water, NAFTA also encourages the development of global economies in opposition to strong, local, green economies and communities. It will need to be significantly re-negotiated or replaced before much progress can be made towards building a green economy.

For me, NAFTA detracts from the other positive contributions Mulroney made to genuine progress. If he truly is our greenest prime minister, we could stand to get a lot greener.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Other Leadership Race

Last week, Elizabeth May, who is resigning as executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada after 17 years, announced she's considering running for the Green Party of Canada leadership. Today, she expanded on why.

She joins David Chernushenko, a current deputy leader and former Ottawa Centre candidate, who's been twice endorsed by the Ottawa Citizen.

This is great news for the party (read: country, planet), because both May and Chernushenko are well qualified for the job -- albeit for different reasons. In a perfect world I'd have them as co-leaders, since they have complementary strengths. I remain hopeful that whoever comes second in the leadership race (assuming it's one of them) may offer to serve as deputy leader, and have that offer accepted.

So keep an eye on this one. The next leader is almost certain to be included in the televised leaders' debates, which will automatically make the Green Party an even more significant player. And a word to the wise: if you want to vote for the next leader, you need to join the party by June 27th.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

That was then...

Newsflash: I don't disagree with everything Stephen Harper says. For example, in 2002 Harper wrote that "standing committees of the House should not simply be extensions of the Prime Minister's Office, and members of Parliament should choose their committee chairs by secret ballot and set their own agenda."

Bang on! I couldn't agree more. The centralization of power only leads to corruption and opacity. Harper was ahead of his time, actually. The Gomery report would later note that "there has been an increasing concentration of power in the Prime Minister's Office," and that many Canadians believe that the structures of power should ensure that "no one single individual, such as the Prime Minister, can influence by appointment the decisions of others." Go Harper go!

Except that now that he's the PM, he's changed his mind. The Globe and Mail reports that Harper is, "choosing which Conservative MPs will become chairs of Commons committees, reversing a parliamentary reform that he championed while leader of the Official Opposition." Oh well, so much for priority number one.

And who gets to benefit from the Prime Minister's first committee chair appointment? Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott, who the Globe notes is best known for frequently issuing anti-abortion press releases.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Bush Baby vs. Hillier

The man Robin Williams calls a Bush Baby has told yet another person they're not allowed to speak publicly. Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier now joins Conservative MPs, cabinet ministers, people who use cell phones in meetings, and an Environment Canada scientist who believes in global warming on the list of people who aren't allowed to talk without checking with the PM first.

Seriously, how long is this list going to get? And how far down is my name?

More than "positioning," please

A new poll by Decima Research finds that 63% of Canadians believe the Conservative government is "doing a poor job on the environment." (The poll was even taken before the government gutted environment programs last week.)

Pollster Bruce Anderson was quoted as saying that public opinion research suggests Canadians are becoming more focused on global environmental issues, and that "it's important for [the Conservatives] to position themselves as progressive advocates of environmental solutions domestically and internationally if they want to broaden their support base."

Bruce isn't wrong. I might humbly add, however, that "it's important for the Conservatives to become progressive advocates of environmental solutions -- and implement those solutions -- if all of us want to preserve our quality of life."

But hey, I don't want to get into an argument over semantics.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Rahim's Magic BlackBerry

On the lighter side, our friend Rahim Jaffer was on the radio today defending his government's decision to ban cell phones and BlackBerries in cabinet meetings. Cynics could be forgiven for taking this as a sign that the Conservative government does not trust its ministers, or that they want to further clamp-down on ministers' abilities to communicate with the media.

Not so, explained Jaffer. The ban is for security reasons. You see, according to Jaffer, even if your BlackBerry or cell is turned off, a hacker could remotely turn it on and cause it to start transmitting audio from your location to theirs without your knowledge.

Seriously. He said that. I am not making this up.

Tell ya what -- I'm offering a cash prize to anyone who can do that with my phone. I'll even give you a head start: I'm leaving it turned on.

Chasing the Cancer Answer

Wendy Mesley just got off CBC radio talking about her Marketplace documentary "Chasing the Cancer Answer," which will re-air in an extended one-hour cut this Monday April 17 and 8pm on CBC Newsworld.

If you decide to watch it (and tape Prison Break), you'll learn a lot of things someone should have told you by now. Like the fact that almost 1 in 2 children born today will have cancer in their lifetimes. Or that a recent study found that the average Canadian has 44 heavy metals, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals in their blood. Or that the Canadian Cancer Society only spends 10% of their budget on prevention (and even that is mostly spent on healthy eating and anti-smoking campaigns).

What can the government do? Well, for a start they could ban carcinogens from being used in personal products (there are carcinogens in my shampoo? in my food?), or at least require that those carcinogens are listed on the label (...labeling isn't required?).

How is it possible there's still only one political party in Canada that thinks this is a priority? Are we going to wait until 1 in 1 children are destined to have cancer?

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Real Transparency and Accountability

Listen, there are lots of things I find disturbing about this government's performance so far. Seriously. Lots and lots. But nothing upsets me more than the way they've attempted to shut-out and manipulate the media, or those who disagree with them.

This is the one issue that all of us, regardless of partisan leanings, should be able to get behind. Even if you support the Conservative government, you still need to know what they're up to.

And remember, this government was elected, above all, on a promise of transparency and accountability; as in, transparent and accountable to us. The news media, regardless of its faults, is our number one source for information on what's going on in government.

(As a side note, during the last election campaign my communist opponent loved to opine at all-candidates meetings that "Stephen Harper is the face of George W. Bush in this country." It's not the most accurate statement that's ever been spoken, but it's a great way to get applause from a Toronto crowd. Try it some time. Anyway, the point is that this move to control the media reminds me more of the Bush White House than anything else Harper's done so far.)

We need our government to open up. Let ministers and MPs speak their minds; hold frequent press conferences; give reporters full access. Of course, if we do that, we're also going to need to learn to be more forgiving of politicians who talk like normal people. And bloggers who write longwinded ranty diatribes.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Storage: the next generation

Adriana Mugnatto-Hamu (one of the other co-authors of the previously mentioned Realistic Energy Plan for Toronto) has a good op-ed piece in The Toronto Star about flow-batteries and why they're cooler than gas-fired power plants. Check it out.

First Bike of the Year

It is with a healthy mixture of excitement and embarrassment that I announce that today was my first "bike to work" day of the year. Excitement because I love biking around Toronto; embarrassment because it took me this long to get my tires pumped and find the key to my bike lock.

This morning reminded me of what I discovered last summer: that despite all obstacles and barriers, and even when compared to the first way, another way, and the better way, biking really is the best way to get around the city. Unfortunately, it still needs to be even easier and safer before it will enjoy the mass-adoption we need it to.

Let's be realistic. The population of Toronto is expected to grow by 1,000,000 over the next few years (and that doesn't even include the number of Green Party voters I'm trying to trick into moving to my riding). Just try and picture a million more cars on the road. No? How about 500,000 more? Ok, try imagining cramming just 10 more people onto a Yonge Street subway at rush hour. Ain't gonna happen.

I'm not saying there's no room to improve TTC infrastructure, but I'm doubtful it will happen in time. As for automobiles, Queen Street isn't going to get any wider. Cycling is a big part of this city's future. And that's good news, but we've got some work to do before we get there.

Monday, April 10, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

I know, I know, there are almost no good movies out right now. But be patient. Last night I saw three trailers for what look like good ones, including An Inconvenient Truth.

This documentary follows Al "I used to be the next president of the United States" Gore on his campaign of awareness regarding global warming. I'd never suspected Gore would become one of those movie-star presidents, but hey, whatever gets the job done.

My main criticism was that the trailer seemed very heavy and fear-based ("this is the scariest movie you'll see all year"), which can be paralyzing and lead to a loss of hope. But when I saw the official movie poster, all was forgiven.

Mark May 26th on your calendars.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

G.R.E.E.N. Conference at St. Clement's School

I had a great time running a workshop this morning at the (3rd?) annual G.R.E.E.N. Conference, organized by students from the Bishop Strachan School, Havergal College, Crescent School, St. Clement's School, and Upper Canada College. The acronym stands for Global Action, Respect, Environmental sustainability, Education, NOW! Over a hundred students were there to learn more about various environmental issues and how their lives are affected by them.

These students (many of whom are either voting age or just on the cusp) were extremely impressive. For one, they showed up for this thing on a Saturday morning (no word on whether or not they were forced). But more than that, they knew more about political issues--from NAFTA and other trade issues to electoral reform to current goings-on in Ottawa--than many people I've spoken with. The keynote speaker, Leah Henderson, spoke about the choice between acting from a place of hope or a place of despair. Meeting these people gave me a lot of hope. I wish I could have a similar conversation with a new group every weekend. (I'm available.)

Also, I told them to ask all of their parents to give me money. We'll see how well that goes.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Fair Vote Canada Seminar on Electoral Reform

Last night I attended a seminar on electoral reform hosted by the Toronto chapter of Fair Vote Canada. There was a good turn out, and many in the audience didn't necessarily know a whole lot about our voting system, the alternatives, or what it means to have proportional representation. Many also left feeling better informed, and prepared to be advocates for electoral reform in Canada (likely starting in BC or Ontario).

There were four presentations. Gregory Laxton began by explaining the need for electoral reform in Canada, which he described as "one of the only meta-issues in political science," meaning it's one of the only political issues that effects how all other issues are debated and decided. Even though we don't have a two-party system, Laxton explained, we do have a "two-party dynamic," where there usually are only two parties who have a chance to form government or win any single riding (Wayne Smith later pointed out that, in many ridings, there's actually a one-party dynamic). This motivates the two most popular parties to present themselves as binary opposites (even though they almost never are), which in turn leads to a binary-decision making process in parliament, and wrongly convinces many voters that there are only two sides to every issue. Laxton emphasized that our voting system was designed in 1265, before political parties or universal education. We now have a much more sophisticated electorate that can handle more sophisticated options. He concluded by explaining that a "winner takes all" system is a zero-sum game, meaning there's no culture of consensus or compromise. A proportional model is a consensus model, which means everyone (parties, politicians, media, voters) starts thinking differently about their options. We need to get over the cultural belief that "compromise is week."

Wayne Smith then spoke about Fair Vote Canada's founding principals, and outlined various discrepancies between how people voted and who ended up in parliament. He talked about Ontario's Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform, and said that over the next 18 months we'll need a lot of activists to spread the word about why our voting system needs to be changed.

The third speaker was June Macdonald, with a presentation called "Size Matters to Women." She said there are two kinds of representation: Substantive Representation of policy issues and concerns, and Descriptive/Mirror Representation that reflects the diversity of the electorate. Canada ranks 44th in the world for representation of women in government, and our system is largely to blame. (There are obviously cultural issues at play as well, but Macdonald pointed out that it's actually easier--as a first step--to change our electoral system than to change all of the cultural attitudes around women.) She argued that the current candidate selection process favours "comfortable, Homo Politicus" candidates, and that party list systems create more diverse candidates.

Finally, Bruce Budd got in to the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of three different proportional voting systems: the party list system, mixed member proportional (MMP), and single transferable vote (STV). His presentation was extremely technical, and, while interesting, would not be well-replicated here. The important thing to emphasize is that perhaps even more important than which voting system we choose are the details of how it is implemented. Each system has many small nuances that can make a big difference.

That's why it's so important for this decision to be made by a citizens' assembly, because the strength of our voting system goes straight to the health of our democracy. And because, as Wayne Smith pointed out, "our voting system belongs to us, not politicians or political parties."

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Generating Controversy on the Waterfront

I've co-authored "A Realistic Energy Plan for Toronto," which is a response to the provincial government's plan to build a gas-fired power plant on the waterfront called the Portlands Energy Centre. It's also a response to other alternative plans which still propose building a generator on the waterfront, but making it smaller. (Our plan is getting a lot of attention, despite the fact that we can't attach cash incentives to it.)

This Wednesday, April 12, from 7:30-9:30pm, the St. Lawrence Centre Forum is hosting a discussion about the plant and Toronto's energy plan in general. Included on the panel will be Greg Allen, another co-author of the plan I worked on. Please attend if you're able.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

So it's come to this

Fine world, I'll play your blogging game. But I don't have to pretend to understand or like it.

I think my biggest hesitation is that part of me still feels like it's a bad idea to broadcast ideas straight from the top of one's head to the entire world (and, by entire world, I mean the small percentage of us with web access) without at least mulling them over a bit first. It wasn't that long ago that you'd think before you spoke, and even then only a handful of people would hear you, without archiving your comments in perpetuity. (And yes, I'm aware of how obnoxious it is when 24-year-olds get nostalgic.)

I guess what I'm saying is, at their worst, blogs can make it really easy to quickly share half-baked ideas before you have a chance to think better of them. I think we'll all just have to get to the point where we stop expecting people (and remember, for these purposes politicians are people too) to live a gaff-free existence, because that's just not human.

I fully expect to use this blog to say lots of unintentionally stupid things, or things that I may believe at the time but will contradict later, all in the hopes of coming up with a good idea now and then. I hope it works out for us.

Oh, and every now and then I'll still take the time to create some well-rounded thoughts too.