Monday, December 29, 2014


There was an item recently about a "toilet day" in India. (1)  Most of the indian subcontinent we were told uses the great outdoors for toilet facilities.  The use of a flush toilet is not just uncommon, but rare.  Presumably in an effort to reduce contamination of the environment, the government had promoted a toilet day to encourage use of toilets and discourage continued direct use of the natural environment.

It seems to me that one of the ways we have distanced ourselves from the environment is the use of toilets.  There is no question that our voiding habits have changed substantially in the last few hundred years, to the point where we are blind to what happens.  We flush the toilet and immediately forget about our abluted wastes.  As long as the toilet works, we dont worry about it any longer.

It is also true that the cleanliness promoted through the use of toilets has contributed significantly to our health and consequent population growth.  Without clean toilet facilities, we would not have a clean and healthy societal environment.

At the same time there were two other news items that intrigued me.  The first was about the faeces of whales (2), and the second was about the rebirth of savannahs in desert regions of the world through large herding practices (3).

It turns out that the faeces of whales are vital to the healthy ecosystems of the antarctic, and presumably other parts of the world where whales are dominant.  Whales feed at depths where krill occur.  They surface not only to breathe, but also to defecate, a bodily function impossible at the pressures of the deep.  The faeces are not only fed on at the surface, enabling the growth of plancton, but descend gradually to the deep where they fertilize in turn, the growth of krill.  Without this cycling of nutrients, the ecology of the seas would be relatively infertile.

The role of deserts and of grasslands in the world's ecology is subject to some controversy.  A recent TED talk addressed this issue head on: deserts may be deserts only because of our extreme success is eradicating large herds of animals from the world.  When large herds roam over the land, they Are part of a cycle very similar to that of the whales.  They chew up the grass, and they disturb the soil.  They leave behind their waste and move on to other pasture.  Their faeces become the fertilizer that enables the growth of the rich grassland to which sometime later they will return, to feed again, and repeat the cycle.  Without the herds, the cycle does not happen, and the grassland becomes desert.

This has evidently happened to the grasslands of North America, where the loss of the vast herds of bison, has led to the dustbowls and desert conditions of the south west.  It has happened in Africa, and may explain large swathes of the Sahara, where there is certainly evidence of past vibrant civilisations.

Which leads me to wonder about the way in which we distribute our waste.  Are we doing our environment a favour by removing our faeces from local biological ecological recycling?  Should we not be composting and reusing our own waste? (4)  Rather than pumping it all across our cities in vast concrete corridors to be concentrated and dumped in very large volumes into our waterways?

John Crapper did us a favour with his invention.  But we have not done ourselves a favour with the use of sewage works.  We should reconsider how we dispose of our wastes.

1.  World toilet day, November 19th, is celebrated throughout the world, not just India.
2.  George Monbiot.
3.  Allan Savory.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Yanomamö

In a recent edition of the eSkeptic,, there is an extract from an interview with anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon.  Central to the reason for the interview is his disdain for those anthropologists who do not appear to follow the scientific method.  If skeptics believe in anything it is the scientific method as the means to discover and understand the world.  Chagnon has had a career exploring anthropology from a scientific point of view, perhaps as opposed to a cultural point of view.  He has encountered considerable resistance from other practitioners, though was recently rewarded with a membership in the National Academy of Sciences.

Much of his field research has been done with the Yanomamö of Brazil and Venezuela, in theory at least, a group of humans who have not been subject to civilisation's influence, and may be the last of the "Noble Savages."

But Chagnon's findings disputed this, and hence the rejections he received from the establishment.  the Yanomamö were known to be a warring group of people.  The established thesis, was that they fought for resources.  Chagnon's discovery was that they warred over women.  The most successful men were those who had killed the most and in return had been able to father the most children with the most wives.

Not sure that this is a dramatic discovery: it sounds pure Darwinian to me.  Survival of the fittest is the survival to reproduce, and the fitter you are to survive, the more you are able to reproduce.  Resources are not the issue.  It is resources that enable you to access the most desirable women, and therefore you fight.

It seems to me that the same is true of our own civilised societies.  We no longer overtly kill to gain prestige and power, though we certainly reward those who kill on our behalf.  An individual who kills another is not regarded as a good member of society, nor those who contract for such killings.  It is a fine line between leading an army into war crimes, and leading an army into a great victory.

There are other ways of dealing with competitors, that effectively kill them, and remove them from the gene pool.  Office politics is all about gaining advantage in the fight for movement up the ladder.  Or its about limiting the advances that others may make.  Such machinations are every bit as effective in removing competitors from the race, as bumping them off.

Religious tolerance

It may be that my title is an oxymoron: it is difficult if not impossible for religions to show tolerance.

Fundamental to all the abrahamic religions is an intolerance of all who do not follow their specific creeds.  I can't quote the Sura, but the Koran includes specific injunctions in how to treat, that is kill, heretics, those who do not conform.  It is even harder on those who renounce their faith in Islam.  The Bible similarly includes extreme punishment for those outside the faith (Jeremiah...).  While this is technically included in the Old Testament, it is never the less very much part of the canon of the Christian church.

Central to all the major world faiths is intolerance of the infidel.  How then can we ever get out of the spiralling catastrophe we face?  There is no other way to see the wars of the Middle East but as a fight between religions.  Christian against moslem, moslem against jew.

Yet all these same religions claim to be compassionate and peaceful.  If this is truly to be the case, then they need to expunge from their texts references to barbaric behaviour towards their neighbours. It happened once before with the creation of the Apocrypha; more books need to be declared apocryphal.

They also need to find a way to bury the hatchet, to reach a consensus that continued killing of each other is no civilized way to behave.  The governments of the western world, the US in particular, claiming to be (Christian) god loving, need to show this in their approach to the islamic world.  The islamic world similarly needs to show compassion towards (not only its own people but also) the infidel western world.

Ecumenical efforts need to be promoted.  These need not only to involve Christian churches, the papacy and the anglican communions, but also the islamic faiths, both sunni and shia.

In fact, given the miserable presence of the churches in the public debate on our actions in Iraq and Syria, I call on all of them to create a coalition to call for a peaceful approach.  It appears to be well recognized that the Islamic State is neither islamic or a state.  Yet we are encouraging them by giving them this name.  And our religious leaders say not a public word, make no concerted public effort at denial of intolerance!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Will we ever learn?

A month ago I had blogged deploring the situation in Iraq and Syria, ending it with a the phrase,"Bomb the heck out of them!"

The following is the text of a letter I sent to the Ottawa Citizen (unpublished), arguing that bombing is something we should never consider.  It is just not productive, and as is shown by recent history, singularly creative of antagonist forces who wish "us" (gee surprise, surprise!) the same treatment.

If we persist in bombing IS, we will only create a worse terror than they already represent.  The focus of the world's attention and armaments on them will only encourage them.  The Australian cartoonist, First Dog on the Moon(1), has got it right.

Far from condoning what IS is doing -- of course they need to be stopped, but responding in a similar way, and even a more cowardly way (no boots on the ground!), is every bit as bad, and as destructive and uncivilised.  Far far better to isolate them and ignore them.(2)  Deny them access to the world's civilisation.  Deny them access to funds and goods.  While they persist in conducting themselves in an uncivilised way, deny them access to civilisation.  We're doing it to North Korea.  We've done it to Cuba and the palestinians.  We did it to South Africa.  So we certainly can do it to IS, with or without the support of Iran.(3)

Nothing "we've" done to the Middle East in the last 20 years has produced a peaceful result.  Our failures in Irak, Libya, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria (not to mention going a little further afield to Afghanistan), should give us considerable pause before attempting anything similar again.  We dont know how to realise our foreign policy goals through military action and should recognise this limitation.

If our civilisation is better than theirs, then we need to show it.  We pride ourselves on respecting the law, and in showing compassion.  Military law is of course an oxymoron: claiming that what we might be doing is legal, as both Obama and Cameron are doing (shades of WMD), is merely trying to hide behind a technicality, to justify illegal actions.

So lets treat murderers as such.  Bring them to court, as we have done with others such as Osama's son-in-law.  But extra judicial killing by drone is hardly legal nor civilised, nor compassionate.  They are the acts of a bully.  Just imagine how we'd react if drone killings occurred on our soils.  Two wrongs do not make a right.

The fact that it is difficult to isolate and ignore IS, should not deter us, nor lead us to lose our tempers and strike militarily.  We need patience and resolve and compassion.(4)  Not bombs.
(3)  Quoted from the President of Iran in New York this week.
(4)  I've used we and us throughout this letter to show inclusion of Canada as well as the US, Britain and France; we are all collectively responsible.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Resignation of Paul Estrin

I have just written the following to the editor of the Canadian Jewish News, in response to their publication of an item by Paul Estrin, recently resigned as the President of the party.  Whether they choose to publish or not is their right.  I am publishing on my blog to record the fact of my letter to them and as an expression of my views.
I am a member of the Green Party of Canada, and I am deeply concerned about Paul Estrin's resignation and the treatment he claims to have received. 
If Paul is guilty of anything, it is for publishing a view as President on our web site that did not conform to party policy.  No-one should be surprised by the reaction of the party.  If he had not been President, or not on the party's web site, the reaction would have been very different. 
However, beyond that, it is the policy of the party to support neither Hamas nor Israel.  Both are guilty of extreme acts against the other.  We fully support the right of Israel to exist, and equally the right of Palestinians to an equivalent statehood.  We support the right of Israel to self-defence, and equally that of the Palestinians to the same.  We do not equate those rights to the right to kill large numbers of either Palestinians or Israelis.  In the most recent conflict Israel's loss is small compared to that of the Palestinians.  I think one can be forgiven if one's sympathies are with the Palestinians (note please NOT Hamas!). 
None of which says we condone the acts of either party.  The Green Party would work towards a peaceful coexistence with each recognized and respected by the other. 
This expresses my personal view, based on Green party policy, and not necessarily the official view of the party.

I am not convinced that had I been in Paul's shoes I would have resigned.  The apology he issued would have been enough.  We do pride ourselves on tolerance, and part of the reaction to Paul appears on the surface to be intolerant.

I have not been privy to the deliberations within federal council (the administrative body of the GPC), nor have I read the blog that has led to Paul's resignation.

At the same time, I think it is a bit short-sighted to lose the president at the start of an election year.  Paul's skills wold have helped ensure we garner the support we need.  We now have alienated a segment of the electorate that we may need.  A new president has to be found, who will need to be brought up to speed rapidly to ensure we can field the candidates and the platform required in 2015.

Monday, August 11, 2014

In support of Bombing

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd start an essay with that title!  But the decision to bomb the forces of the Islamic State (IS) has tempted my thinking.  Lets see where this gets us.

Aerial bombing seems to me to be the ultimate in terrorism.  Particularly given the nature of an advanced warning that it is going to happen.  People on the ground can look forward with anticipation of the terror knowing that bombs will be rained down on them.

Compare this to a suicide bombing.  Nobody knows its going to happen except the suicide bomber, and suddenly there is blood and guts everywhere.  The terror is in the fright and horror of the after event, rather than in any anticipation before hand.

The crews in a plane, on the other hand are high above, mostly way beyond any risk of aggression from below in a position basically to rain terror on whoever is below.

For me this is an act of gross cowardice.  Whereas a suicide bombing takes enormous courage on the part of the bomber.  The fact that it is also idiocy is another matter altogether.

Both are idiocy.  Both are aimed at unspeakable loss of life, of strangers rather than intimates, those who one might meet in say single combat.  Both are the act of bullies, unable to resist the need to make their presence felt, to make their statement of power, unable to find a way of living together otherwise.

However does that mean that we can be in support of the use of bombing?

Powerful governments have always adopted the greatest terrorist threat they can to force their views.  The blitz of London and other cities in England was Hitler's attempt to subjugate the British early in WWII.  Churchill's carpet bombing of Dresden and other cities in Germany was his attempt to bring Hitler to his knees later in the same war.  And Truman's dropping of the A-bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima similarly, and finally brought that war to its close.  In all cases the bombing followed an offer of a surrender.

Still gross acts of terrorism, and conducted from a position of power but with great cowardice.  (This latter attribution not to belittle the efforts of the airmen who took part in the raids, nor of the sacrifices many of them made.)

The bombing of IS targets approved by Obama, is required of course because of the unconscionable errors made by the US presidents of the last 25 years.  If we (they!) had not wished to topple Saddam Hussein etc, we would not be in the position we are to day, of a power vacuum in Iraq that the forces of IS (originally we called them ISIS, though neither I suppose is what they call themselves) have been able to fill.  Despite Kerry's shuffling around in the mid-east, I doubt an offer of surrender has been made to IS.

What truly scares us is their apparent philosophy.  I say apparent, since I have read no credible journalistic reporting of the aims and motives of the newly declared caliphate.  But the reporting of the threat to non-muslims of, pay a tax, convert, or be killed, appears singularly brutal.  I have seen no clean indication of what the tax might be, but have to presume given the intensity of the western reaction to the threat that it is beyond the means of most to pay it.  It is also antithetical to our mores to tell or be told pay up or die!

So it boils down to a sense that IS is being exceptionally intolerant of others.  Given our sense of fairness in that the only thing to be intolerant of is intolerance itself, we respond to their intolerance with an intolerance of our own, though it is unlikely to make much difference in the long run, and may have many unintended consequences:  Bomb the heck out of them.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Our car culture

Every time I get stuck in a traffic jam, I wonder why.

Were it not for the car, we would not be able to function.  Yet even with cars we waste large amounts of resources just getting to and from wherever it is that we desperately need to go.

We have engineered our society to be dependent on cars.  Vast shopping malls could not exist unless we were prepared to drive to them.  And because we can we do.  Vast forests of suburban residences could not exist unless we were prepared and able to drive to them.  Between the acres of homes and the acres of shopping malls and other acres of entertainment complexes, there are vast ribbons of roads.

Acres and acres of land consumed irretrievably in homage to the car.

A prime issue is of course that our dedication to driving has polluted our atmosphere to the point of serious global warming.  Since there are so many of us increasingly dependent on oil and gas for our travel, and the movement of the wonderful goods we all desire, it is no wonder that CO2 concentrations have increased to a dangerous level.

One solution proposed is to go electric.  The result would be a dramatic reduction in tailpipe emissions.  It would not be an elimination of tailpipe emissions, as in any case the building of roads and the building of the electric cars themselves would remain an intensive oil consuming process.

It would solve the one problem, in time at least, reducing our pollution.  But it would not stop the other problem, that of the proliferation of cars.  It could even exacerbate it.

We can mitigate one problem, not solve them all.  As Boulding is quoted as saying, "The name of the devil is sub-optimization."

On Nationalism

What is it about nationalism and its associated ism patriotism?

I really dont have a problem with being a nationalist or a patriot.  They are good expressions of identity, of belonging, in a world of multiple identities.

But when taken to extremes, I find them very objectionable.

The extreme is when my country takes precedence without critical consideration.

The case in point is the extreme nationalism of the israeli state.  Under the guise of fighting for its survival within the arab world, the israeli state is suppressing freedom of expression  Those who would be peaceful Israelis, against the abhorrent assaults on the palestinian people of Gaza, are being stripped of their rights to free expression.

This of course is not unusual.  When a nation goes to war, its populace are encouraged to support the aggression.  It helps enormously in the propaganda war to have the masses behind you.  Britain did it in WWII along others with its "loose lips sink ships" campaign, and the US did it very successfully with the disinformation about "weapons of mass destruction" in the Iraq excursion under the Bush regimes.

But is it necessary?  I was always taught that the means justifies the end, not the end justifies the means. There are those that think that aggression, such as quite possibly about to be unleashed in the Ukraine by Russia, unleashed in Iraq by IS against the Yazidis, as well as recently by the Israelis in Gaza, justify the goal of survival in a hostile world.  However, those that live by the sword die by the sword, is an axiom that suggests that survival does not follow.  It is so much better to be Ghandian, or Mandelan, or in the real tradition of Christianity, to turn the other cheek, to respond with kindness not aggression.

My preference as an ethos is in the masthead of the Globe and Mail: The subject who is truly loyal to the chief magistrate will neither propose nor condone arbitrary measures.  Thus we should encourage discussion at all levels of public discourse, we should have a continuing public discourse whether we are at peace or at war, in Israel no less than in Ukraine.

One of the things we have managed to do in our relatively peaceful societies -- though the US has been at war almost continuously since the end of WWII, is channel our aggression through team sports.  It is very satisfying to "beat the crap" out of the other guys.  We do it vicariously through support of our favorite teams.  In team sports, the other guys survive to play another day.  In war they do not.  It is so much more civilized for the victor to allow the vanquished an equal role in the future.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

We need a revolution.

We need a revolution.

I don’t mean a dirty bloody revolution that loses lives.  Our culture has risen beyond that kind of extreme correction.  But extreme correction we desperately need.

The issue is the elephant in the room, the issue that no politician wants to address.  The issue is our addiction to our current life style.

If we continue to do what we are doing, we are going to destroy this planet.  I dont understand how that is not clear to any sane thinking person.

Over the last two hundred years we have burnt the accumulated deposits of many millions of years.  Those carbon deposits have produced carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  The burning of those deposits has resulted in an increase in the concentration of CO2 from around 250 ppm to somewhere now near 400 ppm, way in excess of the 350 ppm that we had thought was a reasonable upper limit.

The effect of that increase is the warming of the atmosphere.  That warming has reached the point where we are losing or have lost, very significant amounts of the accumulated ice in both northern and southern hemispheres.  The seas are rising, and temperatures throughout the world are rising.

The rate at which these things are happening may be up for debate, but the fact that they are happening is not.  We are heading for a climate change like no other the human species has experienced, nor indeed, any other life form on this planet.

We are also facing, independent of the climate change, a rapid exhaustion of the resources we need to survive.  It is quite absurd how our leaders spend their time during election campaigns, claiming that continued, sustainable, growth is the only answer to our problems.  When in fact it is continued growth that is unsustainable, and the cause of our problems, not the solution.

Continued growth if “sustained” at any annual rate of change will result in the end of our civilisation.  The simple binomial theorem spells this out.  All politicians and advisers should be taught this simple theorem.

When a quantity grows exponentially, it can be shown that there is a doubling time, that is to say the time in which the quantity will double in size.  Whether the growth is one per cent or 100 per cent, there will always be a doubling time.  If growth is sustained, then inevitably the quantity will double.  In an additional doubling time, the quantity will double again, then four times its original size, and so on.

The doubling time can be calculated very trivially as 70 divided by the rate of growth.  If the rate of growth is 1 per cent, then the quantity will double in 70 years; if the rate of growth is 7 per cent, it will double in 10 years.  Only if there is a zero percent growth, or a negative growth, can the expansion halt or even be reduced.

The problem with the doubling is this:  If we expect the economy to grow at say 2 percent a year, often thought to be a good idea, then everything associated with the economy can be expected to grow similarly.  Population will grow at that rate; houses built will grow at that rate; roads will be surfaced at that rate; demand for food will grow at that rate; demand for cars will grow and demand for fuel will grow at the same rate, if not faster; garbage production and waste will similarly grow.

In particular land occupation will grow.  Once land has been occupied, it is rarely if ever returned to its natural state.

Suppose for example, that 5% of our available land is currently occupied by human development.  If our economy is growing at 2%, then in 35 years, 10% of our land will be occupied, in another 35 years (ie 70 years from now), 20% will be occupied, in another70 years we will have occupied 80%, and have none left for adoption within the next doubling time, 150 years in the future.

We may not be growing at 2%, but the point is that any growth will ultimately result in the occupation of all our land, vast as it appears to be today.

And at what cost?  The land that vanishes under the hammer is often the best agricultural land, often because agricultural land is under-valued.  We will have lost substantial amounts of the soil we need to live on.  If we have to depend on imported foodstuffs, what then?

Well, of course our habits have been exported.  Already vast amounts of the arable land of the rest of the world, the areas we currently depend on for food (and enjoyment) are vanishing under the same development pressures we have created at home.  So unless we have the capacity at home, we will within the lifetimes of our grandchildren’s children, not be able to eat.  We cannot depend on the rest of the world.

The thing that should drive the point home is the staggering cost of our daily commute.  Whether you are stuck (in Canada) on the Gardiner, the 401, The Don Valley, the Queensway, the 50 or the 2 and 20, you know that you are wasting fuel.

With a quick calculation, the production of CO2 in our traffic jams, in our daily commute is one third of the daily contribution to global warming.  If you travel 20 kilometres each way, or 12,000 a year, you will use some 2,500 pounds of gasoline, and produce some 6,000 pounds of CO2.  With each of 200 million North American commuters doing the same thing, we collectively will have added some 600 megatons CO2 to the atmosphere, about a third of the 1.7 gigatons we add each year.

Of course, the CEOs of Exxon and Shell et al are laughing their ways to the bank!  And funding the ever growing disaster of fracking and heavy tar sands extraction.

Yet, unless we change our habits, we will get where we are going.  Unless we find ways of not consuming, of not commuting at inordinate cost, we will not have an environment in which we can live.

Unless we change our living styles, we will exhaust this planet.  Without a planet we have nowhere to live.

We need a revolution immediately.  If not sooner!