Monday, December 20, 2010

Living in the Ingenuity Gap

A few years ago, Thomas Homer Dixon established himself as a public intellectual with his insightful book, The Ingenuity Gap. It was a compelling read and its thesis was an easy one to accept: the more than mankind tinkers with the environment and creates more and more modern versions of gargoyles and flying buttresses to cobble together our environs in a manner that suits our needs, the harder it will be to find the answers for the increasingly complex questions that our revised reality would impose.

I was reminded of the book during the weather-related snarl that has curtailed trans-Atlantic air traffic for the second time in 2010. The first occasion was when volcanic ash from Iceland made it risky to fly to and around Europe. That was clearly a situation where nature intervened to remind us that this green-blue orb isn't as dormant and indulgent of our ambitions as we would like to assume. In the case of the snow storms, which would easily spark a round of climate change debate, does give evidence of an occasion when our tinkering with the environment has created situations that we lack the confidence to resolve with our current intellectual and capital resources. Otherwise, London Mayor Boris Johnson, would not have found himself saying, “It can't be beyond the wit of man surely to find the shovels, the diggers, the snow-ploughs or whatever it takes to clear the snow out from under the planes, to get the planes moving and to have more than one runway going.”

With simple problems like shoveling snow, it is easy to tell when we are floundering. With bigger issues, ironically enough, it is much easier to pretend that we indeed have a solution.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Duffy's Lament

Conservative Senator Mike Duffy spoke to the party faithful in Amherst, Nova Scotia during the weekend and made a statement that ought to raise questions about the man's credibility as a journalist despite his own lengthy career.

He told his audience:

“When I went to the school of hard knocks, we were told to be fair and balanced,” Duffy said. “That school doesn’t exist any more. Kids who go to King’s (College in Halifax), or the other (journalism) schools across the country, are taught from two main texts.”

“When you put critical thinking together with Noam Chomsky, what you’ve got is a group of people who are taught from the ages of 18, 19 and 20 that what we stand for, private enterprise, a system that has generated more wealth for more people because people take risks and build businesses, is bad."

From there, he went on to defend the capitalist system and argue its merits after citing the media and the opposition for voicing discontent with, among other things, the mission in Afghanistan.

I cannot claim to have attended the meeting but his argument seems to ricochet off a number of different topics and is not as coherent as it ought to be.

He says of journalism students that they are influenced by the writings of Noam Chomsky, specifically Manufacturing Consent. The main thesis of Manufacturing Consent is that the media does much more to distract and entertain audiences than actually enlighten them on issues to a required depth because of the business model of the mass media. If a journalism student takes this to heart they would make a more concerted effort to focus on the issues and find a way to deliver more investigative and hard-hitting work on topical issues. However, audiences, shareholders and editorial boards have indicated an eroded interest in doing such work so it is quite hard for Duffy to argue this point when journalists have either not taken it to heart or have been handcuffed in their efforts. (Chomsky’s overall liberal position has taken issue with the way the United States has abused or extended its power over the years. If Duffy wishes to refer to that as capitalism he might want to go after Glenn Beck’s job after he has finished exhausting what is left of US attention spans.) The tabloidish pursuit of Helena Guergis, Rahim Jaffer and Maxime Bernier at the expense of coverage on health care, the mission in Afghanistan or the government's shuck and jive in Copenhagen in December is a sign that the media nor the audiences are keen on going into any depth.

Senator Duffy’s second point of contention is that journalism students have taken critical thinking to heart, perhaps even gotten carried away with it. Such posturing, even for the party faithful, is outrageous and belies cynical notions about a government or group of politicians that simply want an addled electorate to herd along like sheep. Critical thinking is a requirement of a democratic society as it is the very acid test that policies and attitudes must stand up against. Without critical thinking and informed dissent Canada would not have become the pluralist society that it has.

Throughout Canada’s history there have been bad decisions made, but more often than not people have subjected policies, -isms, attitudes, processes, and questions about countless aspects of this nation and its nature to the scrutiny of sober second thought. Regardless of intention, whether it be decency, principle or mere expediency, time and again the leaders and citizens of this country have exercised their ability and responsibility to reflect on matters and make sound decisions.

During his brief tenure as senator, he has clearly demonstrated himself to be one of the most partisan senators in recent history, and I have yet to see much record of him participating productively in committee or any other parliamentarian capacity. It will be interesting to see if and how Senator Duffy tries to contextualize his comments in Amherst. Regardless of what he tries to say about his comments on the weekend, I certainly hope these remarks remain as an epitaph on the Senator’s career as a journalist.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Unsustainability of Individualism

Last Friday, on a commute home sundrenched with the promise of a unseasonably warm weekend, I happened to overhear to oil company employees mulling over the distant prospects of their office Christmas party. Still nine months away, the subject was the type of phatic time-killer that indicated how superficial their relationship. When they pinned their prospects of a more luxurious Christmas party a steady rise in the price of oil. Solipsistic? Naive? Opportunistic? Hard to say.

The terms conservative and liberal have become so overloaded with perjorative meaning that it is easy to misplace the basic distinction between the two sides. Neil Postman once defined the distinction as one where conservatives held that people were responsible for themselves and liberals held that people were responsible for one another. The knock on liberals is that they enable dependence and potentially discourage people from taking the initiative to make as much as they can for their lives. Barack Obama summed up the knock on conservatives in four words, "You're on your own."

The two women musing about their Christmas party were looking out for themselves, or at least they thought. As employees in the oil industry, it was easy for them to assume that they had worked hard enough to land the jobs they did and enjoy the fruits of their labours. If I interrupted to remind them of the difficulties that others would face during a period of higher oil prices they would have told me to screw off and if I told them their employers were unlikely to insulate them from those same harsh realities, polite decorum would have been all but shattered.

No matter how strongly we might want to believe that we ought to look out for ourselves first, we are still dependent on somebody else or something else to get by. These two people were counting on their employer to spread their wealth in a generous altruistic manner, to them if nobody else. Such a belief will eventually butt up against selfish or self-protective perogatives of those who are bigger, wealthier or more avaricious.

On March 9, 2010, a few days after those employees mused about posh suites in the hotels of Banff, one of the bigger oil companies stenciling the Calgary skyline, Chevron, announced it was laying off 2000 people. The layoffs hardly compare to the massive layoffs that have occurred in heavy manufacturing and the car industry over the past two years, or even longer for that matter, but it is a sign of things to come. No matter what the price of oil is, the oil industry will need fewer, not more, employees as oil supplies diminish. The company has to look after itself and ensure that it provides the profits and dividends that its investors require and expect. All well and good and within their rights.

The problem is that corporations taken their individuality to an extreme that overlooks the state of society, the community or the environment that hosts it. If the word "host" leads you to a parasite metaphor, I will not try to dissuade you from it.

In the pursuit of individualism we tend to believe more and more that we are big enough or wealthy enough to not need to depend on anyone else, and that there is enough money in the world for everybody to fend for themselves. If someone did not have ambition or read the right self-help book to get them over the poverty line, screw them. When that attitude prevails, community suffers. We insist on believing this but refuse to believe that there is someone or something bigger or wealthier than us that is responsible for our well-being, comfort and the illusion of self-reliance. We have entrenched a conservativism that discourages people from supporting one another in a sustainable manner and ignores the fact that we are reliant on our employers and that our employers depend on having enough people employed to buy their products.

That interconnectedness, that synergy is something that earns a knee-jerk dismissal as being to narry-fairy, too green, too new age. Labelling it perjoratively doesn't make it any less true, however. We realize it when an earthquake shortens the day by a second, we know it when a tsunami threatens friend who are on vacation and for that reason should not make them suffer. It happens when we are trudging down the stairwells of a burning building. At these moments we come together and support one another. Can we go about our lives assured that the we will not be sent into flight away from something, or sent running down the streets abandoning all of the trinkets, beliefs and values that we ultimately only use to decorate ourselves and advertise our beliefs to everyone else?

We can't.

There was a time when our mental, social, physical and spiritual health were maintained and reinforced by an interdependence that was implicit in the communities we lived in. At a time when obesity, domestic abuse, depression, random violence, ecological tumult and economic instability are all more prevalent than ever, we find it difficult to accept, adopt or enact the simpler solutions available to us.

We also refuse to believe that it would take us as long to get out of these problems as it did to create and exacerbate them.

Instead, we look for technological magic to pull our asses out of the various proverbial fires and create an unsustainable structure to keep our society from falling apart any faster than it already threatens too. The whole enterprise of pursuing progress and the quest for technological band-aids, stomach staples, hybrid vehicles, security cameras and the like are driving us further and further away from the types of communities that the cite with wistful nostalgia. Meanwhile, we leave others to fend for themselves and hope that the hardships that land upon others will give us a chance to feed at some trough of largesse just a little longer.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Vancouver's Olympic Protesters Hypocrites Without a Cause

The Individuals involved, and their ilk have spray painted on fences on my street along with the anarchy logo. A visit to that website merely boasts about myriad unrelated incidents and little to present a coherent, rational argument citing the shortcomings, broken promises or cash-shredding hypocrisies of VANOC or its partners.

These people are intent to cause havoc and satisfy their overwatered narcissism. They are more interested in media attention than justice. Their position is a muddle of cliches that have done nothing to bring new light or perspective to any issues or directly associate them with the "crime" of hosting the games. They are more interested in preening themselves for the role of victim of police brutality than they are in shedding light on the victims they assert so vaguely to advocate for.

They do not bring to the streets or the argument a credibility of stance, a consistency of belief or even a knowledge of who they ought to target. Attacking TD when RBC has been the sponsor of the games and the torch run is a clear indication of how solipsistically out of touch these outgrown adolescents are and their loose definition of violence emphasizes that they are mere willing to twist reality than their purported opponents. It also indicates that they are more interested in scattering havoc than they are in making a point.

The masks, the ladders, the lack of articulate argument point to the fact that these people have taken to the streets out of a gross inability to engage in a meaningful dialogue that is only more gross than the arrogance with which they claim to be defending to fight for the marginalized parts of their society. Few people would want these clowns to be their advocates or champions.