Friday, 27 September 2013

Government is Not a Business

I have a "varied" mix of experience and education -- some might say "unusual", while the less kind amongst you would say "odd".  A Bachelor's degree in Music is not often combined with a Master's in Business Administration.  And the "normal" career path does not typically chart a course from high-end retail audio, to the building services and cyber-security industries with Honeywell and Siemens and TELUS, and back again.  

As a result, my innate humanist inclinations are informed by an understanding of business practice, and this makes for an interesting review of a video recently sent to me by the MinuteMBA, entitled "Why Government Shouldn't Be Run Like a Business".

The mission of the MinuteMBA is to provide a comprehensive resource to online MBA aspirants.  An important part of this mission is the group's set of videos on various topics related to the course of study students will encounter.  And this brings me back to the reason for the post -- the notion that government shouldn't be run like a business -- and why a dilettante like me is supremely comfortable passing judgement.

This short video identifies three reasons to support its proposition, based on three important adversarial relationships: 1. Profits vs People; 2. Shareholders vs Citizens; 3. Customers vs Constituents. The brightest among you (potential MBA candidates) will see the alignment of profits, shareholders and customers against people, citizens and constituents.  As the video correctly notes, the business of business (and its legal obligation) is to generate profits and maximize shareholder return, while the business of government (and what should be its legal obligation) is, perhaps naively, to serve the common good.  This view of business is generally accepted, if not heavily reinforced, through a constant drumbeat in the (corporate controlled) media.  The expectation of government as serving the common good, however, has increasingly come under attack in our increasingly de-regulated and globalized political environment.

The video hints at the notion of benefits sought by people, citizens and constituents that government is uniquely positioned to deliver. This notion is tied to the common good, or the more arcane term commonwealth.  Canada identifies itself as a member of the Commonwealth Group of Nations -- so too the US, Britain and 50 others.  The term dates from the 15th century, and its original meaning is "a political community founded for the common good".  

That meaning has been purposely and inexorably minimized by the rise of corporations and the governments they have captured, and that trend is (imho) at the heart of the MinuteMBA video.  The notion of common good, common well-being, is decidedly at odds with the unfettered pursuit of profit, and the attendant rise in the power of corporations and special interests over government.  And governments (notably the Harper government in Canada) create selective (and often, false) imperatives -- the economy and jobs, crime, the military, patriotism -- to give cover to their ideological convictions over the well-being of the people collectively. 

As governments around the world have been captured by commerce, it is particularly fitting on this day of the IPCC's 5th Report on Climate Change that I post the MinuteMBA video.  We have lost the collective sense of the importance of commonwealth -- the release of CO2 into the atmosphere is the most powerful and timely example of the struggle between profit and people, shareholders and citizens, customers and constituents.  The unregulated release of the fossil-fuel industry's primary waste bi-product is an existential threat to our species and life on Earth. 

Postscript.  I urge you, dear reader, to learn all you can about the science of climate change.  The deniers and sceptics are ill-informed (at best), or willfully ignorant (at worst), in support of the profit vs people motive.  Become aware, and challenge the deniers (especially those in government, industry and the corporate sponsored media) at every single opportunity.  Maybe, just maybe, the IPCC Report will begin to tilt public opinion against the climate change deniers in government, as well as the multitude of corporate and media shills.

And I urge you to access the MinuteMBA at your first convenience. The material presented there is valuable source of reference to everyone, not just those chasing the exalted three letters -- another interesting example of their work is this: "Why Women Make Better Business Leaders".

By David.

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Your musical accompaniment for the day: Say What, from Stevie Ray Vaughn's Soul to Soul album.  One of the greatest blues guitarists EVER, and a great way to end the week.  Enjoy. 

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Equivalencies - Is Syria Like Global Warming?


The news reports have been positively breathless with the fevered anticipation of more aggression by the United States, and still more by President Obama, the Nobel Peace Laureate.  The reports and images (real and imagined) of gas attacks against civilians have generated the requisite reaction from those of us far away (as they should when innocent lives are taken, whether by chemical or conventional weapons).  And so the Syrian issue has sucked all the air out of the news cycle, as it will continue to do for some time yet.  Though, the notion that the deaths of 1,500 Syrians from a suspected Sarin gas attack somehow requires an immediate response from the world community when 100,000 casualties in that country's ongoing civil war has merited till now no substantial interest is, I humbly submit, disingenuous and self-serving on the part of those so ardently pressing for military action. 

Before we jump into the equivalency at the heart of my post, lets recap the current situation in the Situation Room.  Over the past two weeks, President Obama has veered from unrelenting warrior to committed diplomat (for the moment, and because he doesn't have the support in Congress).  He had previously drawn a red line in the Syrian sand, and told Bashar al-Assad he not dare cross it. And when it was crossed (allegedly) by someone (we know not yet who, with any certainty), Obama's widely reported revulsion at the deaths of these innocents caused him to rev up America's war machine once more.

Britain's Prime Minister, wishing to participate in yet another grand adventure -- so as to enhance the special relationship -- becoming, in the process, an international statesman in the likeness of Tony Blair (because that's what war does), assumed his parliament would fall in line with more bloodshed in the Middle East (justified and righteous, of course).  But to David Cameron's great surprise (and to the UK's supposed humiliation) democracy actually worked, and the members of parliament correctly divined the wariness of their constituents who, sensibly, did not want to sanction another fiasco even remotely similar to Iraq.  And thus Britain has been forced to watch from the sidelines, and Cameron suffered his isolation in St Petersburg.

Meanwhile, President Obama, finding himself alone and exposed in the international community (and not wanting to wait for clarification from the UN inspectors), even as he reached his own judgment, was forced to seek ratification from Congress.  The world watched that process unfold on its well-worn and familiar track of manufacturing consent.  Surprisingly, for the moment at least, American public opinion may have snatched from this President his "responsibility to protect".  Obama and his surrogates had begun a full court press on the Hill and in the media, even as he sought some personal cover by saying, "I didn't set a red line. The world did."  Except, he did set the red line and, thankfully, has been called out for his hypocrisy and duplicity (see here, here, here, here, here and here, among the many examples).

It had already become clear that his path to war was in jeopardy when, as the G20 meeting concluded, reports emerged that Obama could not build a new coalition of the willing to take immediate military action.  The New York Times notes,
"President Obama ran into an impasse on Friday in his bid to rally international backing for a military strike on Syria as world leaders wrapped up a summit meeting...Mr. Obama emerged with a few supporters but no consensus, as other leaders urged him not to attack without United Nations permission...The failure to forge a stronger coalition here in the face of opposition from the Russian host, President Putin, raised the risks even further for Mr. Obama as he headed home to lobby Congress to give him the backing his international peers would not.  It also left Mr. Obama in the awkward position of defending his right to take action largely alone if necessary after campaigning against what he portrayed as the unilateralist foreign policy of his predecessor, George W. Bush."
I'm struck by the phrase "defending his right to take action".  American presidents have repeatedly defended their right to take action (in the name of freedom, democracy and humanitarianism) for the past 100 years -- a catalogue of war and invasion that has killed millions of innocents around the world (and I'm reminded of the 40 year anniversary of the coup in Chile, and of America's participation in that dreadful event).  I've yet to note any revulsion or outrage from President Obama over the deaths of innocents from the US drone campaign in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; and meanwhile, civilian death tolls continue to mount in Afghanistan and Iraq.    

President Obama's point man on the Syrian issue is none other than Secretary of State John Kerry, a man who proved his own enthusiasm for the killing of innocents in Vietnam.  Kerry has elevated the discourse in the usual way, by claiming that Syria's Assad is the reincarnation of Sadam Husein and Adolf Hitler (it is always useful to draw upon the spectre of Nazism, just as George Bush did when he likened Sadam to Hitler in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq, before ultimately executing him).  Now Secretary Kerry warns us,
"This is no time to be silent spectators to slaughter...this is not the time to allow a dictator unfettered use of some of the most heinous weapons on earth."
This is, of course, a tactic applied by every US administration since 1940  -- direct a righteous indignation and horror at the acts of others, acts that pale in comparison to those routinely perpetrated by America or its surrogates (see John Pilger's excellent summary of some of the worst American atrocities committed in the last century, and see also this excellent commentary on America's utter hypocrisy regarding the use of chemical weapons).  And it's always important to justify any action as being vital to American security, just as its useful to minimize any foreseeable difficulties (reminiscent of the "cakewalk" that was supposed to be Iraq).  This is, in fact, exactly the messaging from Secretary Kerry, as reported recently by The Guardian,
Kerry insisted that intervention in Syria was vital to American security.  He sought to assuage concerns that it could lead to a lengthy and difficult campaign by saying that any military action would be "targeted and limited but clear and effective" and would not involve "boots on the ground."  He said: "We are not talking about going to war, this is not Iraq and it's not Afghanistan.  It's not even Libya or Kosovo."
You've got to admire the man's deadpan chutzpah: "It's not even Libya or Kosovo."  We can only hope so, since the number of dead in Libya has been variously estimated in the tens of thousands, as The Guardian noted at the time,
What is now known...is that while the death toll in Libya when Nato intervened was perhaps around 1,000 - 2,000 (judging by UN estimates), eight months later it is probably more than ten times that figure.  Estimates of the numbers of dead over the last eight months -- as Nato leaders vetoed ceasefires and negotiations -- range from 10,000 up to 50,000.  The National Transition Council puts the losses at 30,000 dead and 50,000 wounded... Of those, uncounted thousands will be civilians, including those killed by Nato bombing and Nato-backed forces on the ground.  The figures dwarf the death tolls in this year's most bloody Arab uprisings, in Syria and Yemen.  Nato has not protected civilians in Libya -- it has multiplied the number of deaths, while losing not a single soldier of its own.
The results of Western humanitarian (read: military) intervention in Kosovo likewise fails to inspire confidence as we await the first of the "targeted" American strikes in Syria.  Human Rights Watch reported in 2000 that the Yugoslav government claimed that NATO was responsible for at least 1,200 and as many as 5,000 civilian deaths. HRW also noted that, 
"Once it made the decision to attack Yugoslavia, NATO should have done more to protect civilians.  All too often, NATO targeting subjected the civilian population to unacceptable risks."
The salient point that emerges from any review of past American humanitarian (read: military) interventions is this -- the very civilians (supposedly) desperate for aid and longing for freedom were generally among the first to die from its application, and in disproportionate numbers.  And when the bombing begins, the humanitarian (read: military) forces typically refuse to acknowledge the resulting civilian deaths, though, when forced to, always respond with the same vacuous phrasing -- "we deeply, deeply regret any loss of innocent life".  Appropriate, then, that the Nuremberg Tribunal declared aggressive war the ultimate war crime, since all other atrocities (chief among them, civilian casualties) flow from it.

And so the situation in Syria has morphed into one of negotiation and diplomacy.  That which was so recently so urgent has become an opportunity to step back and take a deep breath.  A summary of the latest reports (here, here, here and here provide a representative sampling) variously suggest that President Obama lost his nerve and credibility, while Russian President Putin scored a major victory for his client state.  Lost in the scoring is the Syrian civilian population, who might yet be spared the West's unique brand of freedom and democracy, as it has been historically and consistently applied to Arab peoples.  

The chemical attack was an urgent matter -- right up to the moment it wasn't.  It was a problem that demanded action, and since a military response is a kind of action, Obama chose to solve the problem with a military response -- simple (and consistently American).   After all, when you've only got a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  And now that the US is forced to ponder next steps, we too might take a moment to consider the question posed at the top of this post: "Is Syria Like Global Warming?"  

Such an equivalency might at first seem frivolous but, given the preceding discussion, I might just as easily have asked: "Is President Obama like Martin Luther King or more like President George W. Bush?"; or perhaps, "Is unprovoked aggression of the kind outlined by the Nuremberg Tribunal like humanitarian intervention or more like a war crime?"  But back to my primary question.

Like the situation in Syria, the global warming "debate" has its own red lines.  So too are governments creating narratives that utilize facts selectively, ignoring root causes and placing their own actions and motivations in the best possible light -- often in direct opposition to the truth.  And of course, like Syria, the global warming issue is shrouded in a labyrinth of special interests and the dominant power relationships of the status quo.

But if you agree that 400ppm merits at least the same level of international urgency as a chemical weapons attack, then Syria is not the same as global warming -- the very governments so keen to bomb the crap out of a country in order to punish a reviled dictator have also chosen to ignore the perils of man-made climate change that will affect us all, and for all time.

On both files, the human race is captive to leaders that demonstrate neither leadership nor vision.  

By David.

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Your musical accompaniment for the day: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Ludwig van Beethoven.  Originally conceived as a dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte and the ideals of the French Revolution, Beethoven became enraged when Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor, and tore the title page in a fit of rage.  Enjoy.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Prosperity Drives Global Climate Change

A slide from a Robert Graves Presentation on alternative energy sources.

The basic scientific concepts of climate change have been well-known for many decades.  And at its core, the science contends that human activity has released to the atmosphere ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide, a naturally occurring gas that science has directly linked to fluctuations in global temperatures throughout Earth's history.  The most recent numbers and computer models on the subject have served to clarify and confirm what has for so long been suspected.  In fact, the highly anticipated report from the United Nation's Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change is expected to confirm - with a confidence of 95% - that climate change is due in part (in large part) to human activity.  A contributor to an earlier IPCC's climate report noted,
"The [most recent] report is simply an exclamation mark on what we already knew: Climate change is real and it continues unabated, the primary cause is fossil fuel burning, and if we don't do something to reduce carbon emissions we can expect far more dangerous and potentially irreversible impacts on us and our environment in the decades to come."
Over the past 50 years in the life of the recognized environmental movement, little of real significance has happened to change the trajectory - what was foreseen then is confirmed now.  Indeed, with all we know and all we have known for many years, we seem to be approaching calamity at an accelerating rate.  Which naturally raises the question of why.  Why has so much evidence had such little impact in slowing our headlong rush to global climate change?

In my last two posts I noted that the estimated value of the known global fossil-fuel reserves is $27 trillion.  This is an incredible sum, a sum that certainly drives the efforts (some might say, machinations) of Koch Industries, Exxon, Shell, BP and the many thousands of resource extractors world-wide, large and small.

But that enormous sum of money tells just part of the story, since it refers only to the anticipated revenues of the fossil-fuel companies themselves.  It does not speak to the economic value that accrues to the industries and individual companies that provide the technical, operational and service support to the extraction firms.  And it does not speak to the earnings of the millions of workers all these firms directly employ, nor the many millions more who benefit indirectly. I am referring, of course, to the broader economy, an economy that is firmly rooted in the supply of fossil-fuels.

Our economic well-being is predicated on ready access to the energy locked in the world's vast - but finite - supply of fossil fuel.  Our individual and collective prosperity, then, is a primary driver of global climate change.  This idea is captured by the graph at the top of this post, made popular by Robert Hargraves in his presentations of Aim High (see the pdf here), his proposal for an alternate fuel technology.  And our economic well-being is at the heart of the question of why so much evidence regarding climate change has elicited such a shockingly limited response to the impending calamity.

Let us explore some interesting aspects of this dilemma. 

As individuals, we are captive to a system upon which we are completely dependant, and this dependancy certainly limits the prospect of affecting any meaningful change.  And, sure, we can do our part and recycle and buy fuel efficient cars and generally be aware of our individual carbon footprint, but we are, each of us, locked into a reality that offers little scope for change.  Here in Canada, we live in a (so-called) representative democracy, and it is (supposedly) in the power of the individual en mass that we can really affect necessary change.  If that were true, though, why are we still asking why?  Why has the volume of evidence related to climate change not generated a ground-swell for change?   

Our own inertia and complacency has played a role in our limited response to the danger, but it is an inertia and complacency actively cultivated by our federal government.  Economic performance is a key measurement against which politicians rate themselves and their rivals, and politicians are quick to extoll the virtues of job creation that perpetuates our carbon economy.  The Government of Canada, led by Stephen Harper, is a leading proponent of this status quo.

To make the point, a commentary by Jeffrey Simpson in the Globe and Mail from last year notes that Canada "leads the world in presenting plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and Canada leads the world in the size of the gap between plans and deeds."  As he says, every government since 1990 has presented stirring visions for the environment that were doomed to failure before they were announced.  The Harper government is no different, though perhaps more calculating, than those that preceded it.  As Simpson says,
"The Harper government offers a target for reducing emissions that contribute to climate change by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020.  Over and over, ministers repeat this target, even though every environmentalist, oil company expert, academic, diplomat and bureaucrat who has studied the government's plan agrees that the target cannot be me, at least not the way the government is going about it."
This is a consistently cynical approach by the Harper government,
"It is typical of the Harper government to keep repeating statements that are implausible in the extreme or simply false, as in this case.  The theory, presumably, is that the truth arrives too late to catch up to the implausible assertion, that the media has given up tracking the gap between statement and reality, and that the people don't fundamentally care, so disillusioned are they with Ottawa and its ubiquitous spinning and information control."
In his commentary, Simpson makes reference to the (then) recent report released by the government's own Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Scott Vaughn, who provides his judgement on the Harper plan.  Scott notes that the government's plan to reduce emissions will not drop by the forecast rate of 17%; rather, he suggests that the Harper plan will increase greenhouse gas emissions by 7.5% against the 2005 baseline, an increase of 178 million tonnes of CO2 released into the atmosphere.

Simpson suggests that one reason why the target won't be reached is the Harper government's methods - relying on a level of excessive regulations of the type the government regularly denounces.  As Simpson writes,
"Each industry - trucking, aviation, shipping, rail, oil and gas, electricity generation, chemicals, fertilizer, iron and steel - is to be regulated to the pips.  Rather than use economic tools such as carbon-trading markets or a carbon tax, the government is going to use the least economically efficient tool, the very one it continually decries - regulations."
Simpson continues his commentary on the Harper government's gamesmanship on the environment when he notes that the ineffectual regulations are accompanied by backroom lobbying by industry.  This, he says, "means there are still no regulations for coal-fired power plants and not even preliminary ones yet made public for the oil and gas industry."

Simpson concludes his commentary by saying,
"Canada has been embarrassed in the world's eyes so many times on the climate-change file that another embarrassment matters little.  The Harper government has many climate-change deniers and skeptics in its ranks - in caucus and the country.  Doing nothing, or as little as possible as slowly as possible, suits them just fine."
So government often plays a central role in the status quo, and the economy (our prosperity) is a key element in the purposely designed inertia.  To drive that point forcefully home, we can return to the aforementioned Scott Vaughn, who recently left his post as environmental commissioner to take a position with a public policy institute.  In his final report to the Harper government, Vaughn stated that the environment and the economy have never been so thoroughly intertwined in this country.  As reported in the Toronto Star in relation to Vaughn's last report, "about 30 per cent of Canada's gross domestic product is fuelled by exports, and natural resources account for half those exports.  More than 750,000 Canadians were working in the resource sector in 2010 and that number is growing.  Ottawa estimates more than 600 major resource projects, representing $650 billion in new investments , are under way or planned across the country for the next decade."

Despite Prime Minister Harper's calm assertion that his government will continue to provide "responsible resource development", Mr. Vaughn is less sure, as he says,
"There are serious questions about the federal capacity to safeguard Canada's environment."
Our headlong rush to global climate change is driven by the prosperity of individuals, corporations and governments - aided and abetted (in pursuit of their own prosperity) by the media, think-tanks and special interest groups.  Each plays the assigned role in a system seemingly unalterable.  And it will continue to be unalterable while our "leaders" remain blindly aligned to a model of prosperity based on the carbon economy.  Their lack of vision and leadership has been enabled and sanctified by an adherence to a range of tired ideologies - in politics, in business, in religion (more on this topic in future posts).    

I submit, dear reader, that we are in desperate need of new thinking.  And as part of that new thinking, we need to consider a new kind of prosperity - a prosperity that is sustainable.  And, by happy coincidence, there is just such a site that you can turn to in pursuit of new knowledge and thinking -- it is called Sustainable Prosperity, a national research and policy network at the University of Ottawa.  While it is not the only such site and source for information on alternative policies and strategies that can move us to a low carbon economy, it is certainly a site worth your time and support.

And while I'm on the subject of new thinking, and the move away from our carbon-based economy, why not check out the Pembina Institute, a group that is "leading Canada's transition to a clean energy future".

Or perhaps you'll want to learn about the Environmental Law Centre, or West Coast Environmental Law.  These organizations, and many more, provide alternative viewpoints and advocacy that balance the dominant policies and outdated ideologies espoused by our corporate and political masters.  And, no matter where you are, similar organizations are working in most every country around the world (such as the UK's Responding to Climate Change).

If enough people, individuals like you and I, captive to a system upon which we are completely dependant, can educate ourselves to the impending calamity inherent in our carbon-based economy, a critical mass will become aware of and advocate for the alternatives available to us.  And then we will project the power of individuals en masse to affect meaningful change.

And we'll stop asking why, and start asking how and when.

Postcript.  A brief article published on the RTCC website piqued my interest, and I think it a fitting coda to my post.  Rajendra Pachauri leads the UN's IPCC, and it is his group that will soon release the 5th assessment of global warming and its impacts.  Pachauri made this comment,
"We may utilise the gifts of nature just as we choose, but in our books the debits are always equal to the credits. May I submit that humanity has completely ignored, disregarded and been totally indifferent to the debits? Today we have the knowledge to be able to map out the debits and to understand what we have done to the condition of this planet.  We cannot isolate ourselves from anything that happens in any part of this planet.  It will affect all of us in some way or the other."
The article includes a video interview Pachauri gave at the COP18 climate change conference in Doha.  When asked about the role of "political will" in the context of political action in responding more effectively to the climate change problem, he said this,
"I think what's going to be crucially important is the awareness of the public, particularly in democracies, because that's the only way you create political will.  I mean, its the public that's going to demand actions.  And I suppose that raises the importance of creating awareness among the public, and you know the media has an extremely important part to play in this.  Once you have political will in terms of action at the national and sub-national level then I've no doubt that it will percolate into the discussions taking place in the COPs. And hopefully it will lead to an agreement."
And so dear reader, as noted in my post, the resolution to the problems of our carbon economy and global climate change will get a critical boost through the power of individuals en masse, and such newfound political will cannot happen soon enough.        

By David.

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Your musical accompaniment for the day, "Madness" from the album The 2nd Law by Muse.  Enjoy.