Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Balancing 'Occupy Sudbury' and the Public Interest

I read with interest today an editorial published in the Sudbury Star by the Star’s Editor Brian MacLeod (“City should not facilitate permanent ‘Occupy’ presence – Point of View”, the Sudbury Star, November 30 2011)

I have been a supporter of Occupy Sudbury almost since the first day of the occupation, as I share many of the concerns of those who have and who are now occupying a part of Memorial Park in Sudbury’s downtown. I do not, however, consider myself to be an occupier, as I lack both the courage and the conviction to maintain a physical presence in the Park in order to stand for what I believe in. My shortcomings in this respect are my own burden to bear, and I do not relish having to answer the future questions of my daughter who, years from now, may ask me where I was when the Occupy Movement had its first physical presence in Sudbury.

Media Coverage

With regards to the editorial, on the whole, I believe this was a pretty balanced piece from Brian MacLeod regarding the future of the Occupy Movement in Sudbury. As a follower of the global Occupy Together Movement, I appreciate that Brian has taken the time to articulate in his editorial the reasons that the Movement has come together in the first place. All too often, our mainstream media has tended to focus on the occupation of public spaces (and generally in a very negative way), while entirely missing the point as to why the protests are going on. Alternatively, the mainstream media in many cases has offered only its airy dismissal of a leaderless protest movement that makes no demands.

The lack of thoughtful coverage of the Occupy Together Movement in the North American mainstream media has not been in reaction to the media’s inability to pigeon-hole and sound-bite the protesters, despite the protests of many journalists to that effect. Granted, it’s easier for the media to deal with a single spokesperson, especially one who can identify a protests’ single demand in 20 words or less. But that’s not what this Movement is all about. It’s an organic, truly grassroots Movement which has coalesced not for one specific reason, but to shine a light on a society which clearly is leaving too many people behind in all of our communities. Poverty, environmental degradation, social justice, healthy democracy, education, human rights…we could (and should) be doing so much better addressing all of these issues.

Yet the mainstream media has, to a degree, failed to articulate to a generally disinterested public the reasons behind the Movement, mainly because most of the issues which the Movement wants to have addressed are issues which the mainstream media are not ready to report on to any great degree. That income inequality has now entered the vocabulary of the mainstream media is a testament to the success of the global Occupy Together Movement. But that’s just one issue (and the one issue with the best sound-bite to emerge from Occupy: “We are the 99%”).

Occupy Sudbury and a Unique Local Issue: Homelessness

Here in Sudbury, one of the biggest issues that I’ve heard discussed when I’ve attended the Occupy site in Memorial Park has been homelessness. Those at the park engaged in a Charter of Rights sanctioned act of freedom of assembly have come face to face with the issue of homelessness and how it is affecting community members. I know that many who are staying in the Park have expressed surprise with their new-found knowledge about the homelessness situation in our Greater City. Their eyes have been opened to this local issue, and they are doing what they can to bring more attention to this issue. Whether that’s directly providing food or shelter to the homeless, or protesting unjust federal legislation which will lead to more social inequality, poverty and homelessness, those involved directly with Occupy Sudbury have found themselves on the frontlines of this issue, due to their direct experiences.

Although homelessness does receive some coverage in the mainstream media, again the coverage tends not to delve into the systemic reasons for homelessness. The media is very good at reporting on the “what”, but continues to struggle with reporting on the “why”. And that’s why I’m glad that this editorial provided a significant level of depth to the discussion. Our mainstream media continues to be a prominent force for shaping public opinion, and I believe that it’s important to watch what’s being reported in the media, and what’s being omitted by the media. There is certainly a lot more going on in the world today than what appears on our TV sets and in our newspapers. Thankfully, new social media has provided us all with a historic opportunity to inform ourselves about issues and matters on which the mainstream media has not or will not address. That we must often wade through conflicting facts, unsourced materials and a bevy of cat videos to find real stories remains perhaps a frustrating experience for those who participate in social media.

Participatory Democracy and Consensus-Based Decision-Making

All of that being said, above, with regards to Brian MacLeod’s editorial, I think that there is one area where MacLeod has missed the mark, and that has to do with what is to happen next at the Park. I believe that we can all stand to learn a valuable lesson about the health of our democracy from the Occupy Sudbury protest underway at Memorial Park.

The Occupy Together Movement is a truly grassroots movement, with decisions being made in the most democratic way possible: through a consensus-based approach which truly expresses the will of all of those involved in the decision-making process. This isn’t an exercise in “majority rule” or “might makes right”. Instead, this approach to “participatory democracy” in which those engaged in decision-making seek first to discuss all issues related to the matter under discussion, and provide for an organic way forward which all involved in the process are able to buy into. When a decision is made by the group, the group is then able to take ownership of it.

And as we know, those who make decisions have to wear those decisions. With a consensus-based approach to decision making, the entire group will share in the success of the decision made, or in its failure! Either way, though, the group has taken ownership.

Full disclosure here: I belong to a federal political party, the Green Party, which has embraced a consensus-based decision-making approach within its corporate structure. The consensus-based approach to making decisions was in place in the Party long before I became a member. I can tell you that it was one of many aspects of the Green Party which attracted me to joining, and to giving much of my time and energy to. So I am biased about consensus-based decision making processes.

With regards to Brian MacLeod’s advice to Occupiers that it’s time to move the protest ahead through other means, I don’t think that there’s any question that the time has come to do so, and I know that Occupiers have been having those discussions. As MacLeod points out, the minutes of the Occupy Sudbury General Assembly are available online, and anybody is free to come down to the Park and participate in the Assembly (as I have done on occasion), or to offer suggestions and ideas online through their Facebook Page. Occupy Sudbury offers a truly open and engaging process for people to become involved with on issues important to our communities.

The Continuing Occupation of a Part of Memorial Park: Finding Balance in the Public Interest

However, it seems that for now, the Occupiers have chosen to remain in the park. I understand that this upsets a number of people in the community, given that a part of our public infrastructure appears to have been removed from the public realm, and that there are concerns regarding costs to the municipality. That these concerns with the occupation are being brought forward to our City and to our elected officials is another exercise in democracy. If one feels strongly about what’s going on in our community, it’s important to express those concerns in a legitimate and healthy manner. Writing or calling your Councillor is one way of doing so. Of course, physically occupying a portion of the public realm is another, in my opinion. That there must be a balance between the two is evident, along with a recognition that at some point, a decision regarding the future of the Occupy Sudbury site will need to be made. Such a decision, however, needs to be informed by the will of the community, which means that the valid issues brought forward by everyone require careful and conscientious consideration. We can not afford to be dismissive of the opinions and positions of others simply because they may appear to be contrary to our own.

I believe that the occupation should continue at this time. The following informs my opinion: First, the entirety of Memorial Park has not been placed out of bounds for the general public. In fact, the Occupiers have been very welcoming of anybody who has stopped by the portion of the park being occupied, and certainly when members of the public have simply indicated that they’re not interested in engaging the protesters, the protesters have let those members of the public be.

I understand that the physical nature of that part of the park being occupied appears to have become less inviting for the public, but I believe the opposite is actually happening, despite appearances. What I’ve seen is that more people than ever are using Memorial Park now because of the occupation. People are stopping by, and engaging members of their community whom they’ve never met before. They are forming new relationships, and in some cases, new business partnerships. They are talking, expressing opinions, and getting to know others in their own community. In fact, I would argue that Memorial Park is being utilized by the public to a much higher degree than it ever was before Occupy Sudbury moved in.

Yet, there remain questions related to by-laws, and I understand that there are those in our community who prize by-law enforcement over Charter Rights. I also understand that Occupy Toronto and Occupy Vancouver both were taken to provincial courts, and argued that their Charter Rights should trump municipal by-laws, and in both cases, lower court judges ruled against the occupiers. That being said, it should be kept in mind that circumstances on the ground in both Vancouver and Toronto were quite different than in Greater Sudbury, given the nature of the occupied space (in Toronto and Vancouver, the entirety of the park was under occupation, and there were a number of health-related issues identified). In Toronto, the City successfully argued that community residents should be able to walk their dogs in St. James Park without the hindrance of encountering protesters. The judge agreed that being able to walk one’s dog was in the greater public interest than the right to freely assemble throughout the day.

In Greater Sudbury, only a portion of the park is under occupation, and the public remains able to use those sections of Memorial Park which are more suited to the public realm anyway, and include those areas where the military memorial is located, along with the splash park (although in November in Sudbury, there’s not a lot of use of that section of the park by anybody). And for those walking your dogs at Memorial Park, the occupiers have been known to provide doggie treats for your pet, if you stop by to have a word with them.

Our Charter of Rights allows for freedom of assembly to protest. I understand that there are those who may believe that the right to protest should be restricted to certain hours of the day, and should not also include the right to erect structures – certainly judges in Vancouver and Toronto came to this conclusion (albeit after a month-long occupation of a public space). It’s not clear that a judge in Greater Sudbury would come to the same conclusion, given the differing circumstances. However if a judge ultimately does so, I’m sure that the occupiers will discuss their options at a General Assembly and find their own way forward. Should they decide to engage in civil disobedience in the face of a judge’s order to the contrary, they will no doubt be arrested, just as a small number of protesters in Toronto were when the police moved in after the judge’s ruling.

Hopefully it won’t come to something like that in our community, given our City’s demonstrated desire for tolerance. I personally question what is truly motivating many of those who have taken issue with the occupation of a part of Memorial Park in our community, given the under-use of the Park at this time of year, and indeed at many times of the year. That it may appear that protesters are breaking the law has not been determined. I would expect that if our Police Service believed that laws were being broken, action would have been taken before now.

Public Discourse

Municipal by-laws are a different story, of course, and it does appear that there may be some infractions taking place. Of course, every municipality has a different set of by-laws, and engages in enforcement in slightly different ways. I note that when the City was intent on enforcing its zoning by-law during the recent Vale labour dispute, the lands being occupied by Vale replacement workers were still available for the habitation of those replacement workers while the enforcement matter worked its way through the court system. That the labour dispute ended before a court hearing could determine the validity of the City’s enforcement powers was immaterial. The point here is that there is a process to be followed for by-law enforcement, and the automatic eviction of premises simply because they have been deemed “undesirable” isn’t part of the process. Where health and safety are in jeopardy, well, that may be another story, and different action may be required. Right now, though, I have not heard that there are any health and safety related issues which have been brought forward, except by the occupiers themselves, who are reasonably asking the City for permission to maintain a chimney for the purposes of keeping warm throughout the ongoing protest.

Yet, clearly there are those who believe that it’s time for the occupation to end. The fact is that it’s probably time that the City host a public discussion about the future of the Occupy Sudbury site in Memorial Park. That’s what we do in democracies. The occupiers don’t have a monopoly on public discourse. Let us all then be a part of the decision-making process regarding the future of this Movement within our community. I say if Council wants to open public hearings on this matter to determine the will of Sudburians to support the Movement or not, by allowing for a by-law exemption to facilitate a chimney, what could be a better outcome for our community than that?

And that’s where I have to disagree with Brian MacLeod, who in his editorial has called for the City not to facilitate the continued occupation of the park. I note that MacLeod has not called for a unilateral effort to begin the process of removing the Occupiers from the Park, although some who have commented on the online version of his article have done so. A better approach in this circumstance, an approach in the interests of democracy, would clearly be to now call for a public discussion about the issue. Recently, MacLeod did just that in an earlier Point of View editorial when he called for a discussion regarding the disposition of public infrastructure (Pioneer Manor) through a sale to private interests (see: “Let’s have the debate about Pioneer Manor – Point of View”, the Sudbury Star, November 26 2011). Publicly discussing the way forward on issues important to our community seems to me to be a sensible approach for our decision makers to engage in.

The Interests of the Public and the Interests of Democracy

I understand that we elect our municipal council to make the tough decisions on our behalf; that’s the way our representative democratic system functions. That Council should make decisions after receiving input and advice from the public is often a luxury of time which they can not afford to partake of to a significant extent, I understand that. However, all decisions must be informed by something, even if it is only a gut feeling when a councillor is put on the spot and does not have the luxury of study or time. Sometimes our decision makers simply have to act, and make the best decision that they can make.

With regards to the on-going occupation of a part of Memorial Park, which has been happening for more than a month now, I would suggest that the City does have the luxury of time on its side, and that any decision to be made should be carefully considered. Calls for a unilateral move by an admittedly growing public who wish to see an end to the Occupation should not be heeded out of hand, and no decisions should be made those whom we have elected to represent our interests prior to community consultations on the matter. Those who wish our Council to act in place of listening to the public first should remember that the Occupiers and their supporters are also taxpayers and electors.

Given that the Occupation has continued for over a month now, and all issues brought forward by by-law enforcement have been dealt with in a timely manner by the Occupiers, there is no need to act in haste. In fact, to do so at this time should be considered an affront to our democracy. That Occupiers may be working on alternatives to carry their message forward through other means does not negate the fact that they have chosen to remain physically entrenched at Memorial Park for “as long as it takes” (I believe that’s the time period which has been specified by the General Assembly, but somebody please correct me if I’m mistaken). A more than month-long lack of legal action at this point informs my position that the Occupiers are not engaging in an illegal activity. If the position adopted by the Occupiers ultimately proves to be an illegality through a court challenge, then maybe I would have a different opinion regarding the continued occupation.

But right now, as a taxpayer of the City of Greater Sudbury, I support the Occupiers’ continued use of Memorial Park for the purposes of protesting our economic, social and political systems. I’ll be pleased to share my opinions and reasoning regarding my support with Council if and when public consultations on this matter are held. Which they should be. I note that the City of London is currently under investigation for making a closed-door decision regarding the future of the former Occupy London site. It is incumbent upon all of us to respect our democratic processes.

Our City has a long history of tolerance when it comes to protests and disputes. That the City has taken a measured approach to the current Occupy Sudbury protest speaks volumes regarding this tradition, and a civic understanding that in a civil society, we must be prepared to tolerate dissent. In the case of Occupy Sudbury, the City has tolerated what some have called “an exercise in civil disobedience” by continuing to allow the protest to occur in the form of the occupation of a portion of an under-used public space for more than a month. This isn’t facilitation on the part of the City – but it has been an expression of tolerance. And I can say that I am proud of Greater Sudbury’s continuing tolerance of an on-going peaceful protest in the heart of our community.

The Occupy Together Movement has been in the process of changing its tactics for some time now. That the physical occupation of Memorial Park might yet come to an end through a decision of the Occupiers remains a possibility. That the Greater Sudbury community may ultimately determine the need for an end to the occupation through a democratic process also remains a distinct possibility. Whatever the outcome, it must be in the form of a democratic expression of the people. We are all stakeholders in this process – Occupiers, Supporters, the homeless, downtown residents and those who Dissent to the Occupation. Let’s have an open discussion about the future of the Occupation. There’s no reason for haste here, and no reason to circumvent an adult conversation about the future of our community.

That we will all surely learn more about many of the issues to which our mainstream media remains largely aloof will also be a positive outcome for those who choose to involve themselves in the process.

(opinions expressed in this blog post are my own and should not be considered to be in keeping with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Cliffs Chromite Project: My Response to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency's Call for Public Comments

The following is a copy of a letter which I have submitted to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency regarding the environmental assessment process underway for Cliffs Chromite Project. Cliffs is seeking to establish an chromite mine (open pit and underground) on crown lands in remote Northwestern Ontario, known as the Ring of Fire. Chromite ore will be processed on site, and then trucked several hundred kilometres to an existing rail head at Nakina, Ontario, where it will be loaded and transported to a ferrochrome production facility (smelter). Currently, Cliffs "base case" for the environmental assessment is using the Moose Mountain site, located in the City of Greater Sudbury, about 20 minutes drive outside of the community of Capreol, for the purposes of the EA, although no commitment has been made to locate the smelter there.

Cliffs has published the "Cliffs Chromite Booklet", which contains more information on the plans for this project.

Commenting on the draft CEAA Guidelines closed on November 16th. Opporutnities for addtional public input may be availalbe later in the process, once technical and other studies have been finalized by Cliffs and its consultants.


November 15, 2011

Cliffs Chromite Project
Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency
Jim Chan, Project Manager
55 St. Clair Avenue East, Suite 907
Toronto ON M5T 1M2

*Sent Via email and Regular Mail*

Re: Cliffs Chromite Project, Public Comments Invited on
Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Guidelines

I have had an opportunity to review the draft EIS Guidelines posted to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) website for the Cliffs Chromite Project. I understand that this project includes four components:

1) The mine site, intended to be located near McFauld’s Lake in that part of remote Northwestern Ontario which has lately become known as “The Ring of Fire”. The mine will extract materials from Cliffs “Black Thor” deposit;

2) The ore processing facility, which is to be located at or near the mine site;

3) An integrated transportation system to service the mine site and ore processing facility, which will include air transport features, and an all-weather roadway which will connect the mine site and ore processing facility to the railhead at Nakina (a portion of this road is already in existence);

4) A ferrochrome production facility to be located elsewhere in Northern Ontario, and for which the draft EIS assumes will be located within the geographic boundaries of the City of Greater Sudbury, at a location known as “Moose Mountain” outside of the community of Capreol (this assumption forms the “base case” for ferrochrome production facility).

I have also reviewed materials previously published by Cliffs on the internet (at:, known as the “Cliffs Chromite Booklet” (dated February, 2011). This publication was extremely helpful in my understanding of the anticipated project and processes, although I do understand that some or all of the information contained in this publication may be out of date or otherwise not relevant to the CEAA’s environmental assessment process, as it appears that the CEAA is relying on more recent information received from Cliffs (noted in the draft Guidelines as being from May, 2011).

I wish to offer the following comments:

1. “Comprehensive Review” vs. “Joint Environmental Assessment”

The four components of this project, as outlined above, are limited in scope to what is currently being sought by a single corporation for approval from the CEAA. Specifically, the mine which is to be located to exploit Cliffs’ Black Thor deposit, is only one of several deposits of chromite in the area which are expected to be commercially viable deposits.

Further, portions of the integrated transportation system will undoubtedly provide service for accessing other deposits, both those staked by Cliffs (such as the “Big Daddy” deposit) and those of Cliffs’ competitors.

Finally, the ferrochrome production facility will also undoubtedly process ore from other deposits in the Ring of Fire, including Cliffs’ Big Daddy deposit, and perhaps those of some of Cliffs competitors as well.

Given the unique circumstance which future chromite producers in the Ring of Fire find themselves in, the environmental assessment process being contemplated by the CEAA in its draft guidelines is simply not providing the right kind of assessment, in that it will ignore the anticipated development of other deposits in the area, including Cliffs own Big Daddy deposit. Without assessing impacts from other anticipated development, the process which is laid out in the draft guidelines will not address the full range of anticipated actual impacts.

I understand that a more comprehensive process is available to the CEAA, known as the “Joint Environmental Assessment”. Given the specific situation which mining companies in the Ring of Fire find themselves in, and the clear overlap of issues, it would seem sensible for mining companies to work together and provide a truly comprehensive analysis of expected developmental impacts. A Joint Environmental Assessment would also likely save mining companies and the governments of Canada and Ontario money, as redundancies could be addressed through a single process (whereas each company may be asked to repeatedly provide the same information, for the repeated review by our governments; this is not an effective use of time and money, in my opinion).

Respectfully, I believe that the CEAA needs to provide an environmental assessment process which will capture the full range of anticipated impacts of all proposed development within and stemming from the Ring of Fire. Only a truly comprehensive process can assess anticipated impacts. Further, such a process will likely cost less in the long term. I strongly urge the CEAA to initiate a Joint Environmental Assessment for all projects within the Ring of Fire.

2. Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Whatever process is to be used, the draft Guidelines prepared by the CEAA appear to be deficient when it comes to the need to factor the costs of greenhouse gas emissions into the project components. Specifically, greenhouse gas emissions need to be considered as part of the “net economic and social benefit” of the project to Canada.

Emissions Costs

While section of the Guidelines references that the EIS should include a discussion of measures to minimize the release of greenhouse gases, there is no requirement for the EIS to assess the future cost of such emissions. A per tonne levy on carbon emissions may have significant financial impacts on the Cliffs Chromite project, and indeed on all future projects located within the Ring of Fire. That there isn’t currently an established price on carbon emissions should not mean that the anticipated costs of carbon pricing aren’t considered.

Ontario’s recent election returned to power a government which campaigned on Ontario’s continued involvement in the Western Climate Initiative (WCI). The WCI is a group of provincial and state level governments in Canada and the United States which has been working together to establish a carbon emissions trading program, also known as a “cap and trade” carbon pricing system. Further, in the May 2011 federal election, more votes were cast for the candidates of parties which support carbon pricing (approximately 60%) than for political parties which have been non-committal on putting a price on carbon (approximately 40%). As such, we can fully expect that carbon pricing will be a reality at some point during the anticipated lifespan of the Cliffs Chromite project, and therefore the cost of emissions need to be evaluated.

Total Emissions

With or without an assessment of the anticipated costs of carbon emissions, the draft guidelines do indicate in section that the EIS shall discuss analytical techniques and relevant policies in the EA, and list and estimate greenhouse gases produced for all relevant project sources, and compare these to other mining projects. Here the CEAA should also require in the draft EIS that the EA should include projections for greenhouse gas emissions based on both the current provincial energy mix and the province’s anticipated future energy mix, over the estimated lifespan of the project. Further, the assessment of greenhouse gas emissions should be identified for each of the four project components, and be cumulative over time.

“Should” vs. “Shall”

In section of the draft EIS guidelines the word “should” is used regarding a discussion of measures to minimize the release of greenhouse gases; this word should be replaced with the word “shall” in order to clearly require the discussion. This change will provide some certainty for Cliffs that minimization measures must be looked at.

Specific Concerns

With regards to greenhouse gas emissions, I have specific concerns regarding two components of the project, which I will address briefly, below. These issues could be built into section of the Guidelines.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the Transportation System

Cliffs appears to have decided that road transport on trucks from the Black Thor deposit to the Nakina railhead will be the primary method to move ore and ore concentrate. I believe that more information is needed regarding rail transport before Cliffs can definitively identify a preference for a road network. While I do not have specific data regarding greenhouse gas emissions from trucks versus rail for the quantities of ore and concentrate to be shipped, it is my suspicion that rail transport from Black Thor to Nakina would offer lower emissions. Rail transport should be assessed as part of the EA process, as it would provide a legitimate alternative to trucking.

Further, the Moose Mountain site, which is intended to house the ferrochrome production facility, is located considerably outside of the City of Greater Sudbury’s settlement area boundary. While this may be a sensible location in order to minimize noise, odour and dust other environmental impacts on existing development, the fact is that Moose Mountain is currently only accessible by road (although a rail spur is being contemplated for the movement of goods to and from the site). As approximately 300-500 jobs are being contemplated for the ferrochrome production facility, the EA should also address the best way to minimize greenhouse gas emissions for employees who must travel to and from Moose Mountain. Specifically, the EA should address public transit routes, including busways and/or the opportunity for a light rail corridor (tramway), instead of simply requiring access to be by personal motorized vehicle, which is the current situation.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Energy Use

According to Cliffs, the arc furnace which is to be located at the ferrochrome production facility will use as much electricity as a city with 300,000 inhabitants uses. Given this circumstance, is there any opportunity at all for Cliffs to implement some form of carbon capture and storage, in order to minimize greenhouse gas impacts on our atmosphere? Assessing the potential for carbon capture and storage should be a requirement of the Environmental Assessment.

Further, Cliffs may wish to consider providing for green energy production on-site at both Moose Mountain and at McFauld’s lake, either through biomass, wind or solar, in order to help offset impacts on the provincial energy grid.

3. Cumulative Effects

Section 10.9.3 of the Guidelines indicates that Cliffs shall identify the sources of potential cumulative effects. Here, the Guidelines should clearly identify that one of the sources of cumulative effects is the presence of other commercially viable mineral deposits in the Ring of Fire (including chromite), both under the control of Cliffs and those not under Cliffs control. Exploitation of at least some of these deposits is likely to move forward towards development over the next 20 or so years. Infrastructure to be created through the Cliffs Chromite project will most likely also provide service to Cliffs exploitation of other deposits, as well as for Cliffs competitors, especially the use of the transportation and production infrastructure which is being contemplated by Cliffs through this EA process.

4. Water Quality and Hexavalent Chromium

The proposed ferrochrome production facility is to be located in close proximity to Lake Wanapitei, which is a drinking water source for the City of Greater Sudbury. I understand that the Guidelines emphasise the need for the EA to look at anticipated impacts of the production facility on water, and also specifically reference hexavalent chromium as a chemical compound of interest. That being said, the importance of understanding the anticipated impacts of hexavalent chromium on the Lake Wanapitei watershed can not be understated, given the lake’s importance as a drinking water source, and given the acidic nature of Sudbury’s soils. This is an extremely important issue, and Cliffs must address it seriously and comprehensively.

5. Economic and Social Benefit

The economic and social benefit of this entire project remains unclear and unknown at this time. Yet, that has not stopped publicly elected officials at all levels of government from offering their backing and support. Despite the backing of elected officials, the CEAA needs to take this matter seriously. To do so, a comprehensive analysis of costs is necessary. Without understanding the full and anticipated costs of this project, questions regarding economic and social benefit will remain unanswerable.

Regarding costs, specifically the EA should look at anticipated energy costs and the level of subsidy which Ontario taxpayers may be asked to contribute in order to make this project economically viable for Cliffs. Cliffs has already gone on the public record with claims that current electricity prices in Ontario are too high for the economic viability of a ferrochrome processing facility, and that the public should therefore subsidize their operation. Ultimately, this may or may not be a good economic approach, which is why more information regarding current and future energy costs and subsidies are required.

Cliffs should provide an economic impact analysis of the entirety of the Cliffs Chromite project, including a realistic assessment of wealth creation through direct jobs (both permanent and temporary) and indirect jobs from establishing a new industry in Ontario’s north. Ideally, this economic impact assessment should look at the full range of economic opportunities offered through anticipated development of the Ring of Fire in its entirety, so that the public can have a clear picture regarding total costs and opportunities.

The costs to the planet’s climate should also be assessed and it should be determined through the EA process whether Canadians will derive a social benefit from the Cliffs Chromite project, which is anticipated to be a significant contributor to climate changing greenhouse gases. It may be that the social benefit of not allowing this project to go forward outweighs any benefit of permitting the significant outputs of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. Again, this issue is bigger than Cliffs Chromite project, and the CEAA really should consider the total contribution to greenhouse gas output of all anticipated Ring of Fire development.

In Conclusion

I am frustrated that the CEAA has chosen to assess Cliffs Chromite project as a single project, disconnected from the reality of development proposals on the ground in the Ring of Fire. If ever there was an area of proposed development for which a Joint Assessment should be used by the CEAA, clearly Northwestern Ontario’s remote Ring of Fire fits the bill, as development is to be in an isolated, geographically confined area, which because of its ecology, is sensitive in nature. The Ring of Fire is located within the habitat area of Canada’s iconic woodland caribou, an endangered species which is very skittish when it comes to development. While I am glad that the draft Guidelines developed by the CEAA require the assessment of potential impacts on caribou from Cliffs Chromite project, the fact is that this assessment should be taking place on a broader scale, and it should consider the impacts from all anticipated development.

This ad hoc approach to assessing development is doing a considerable disservice to the people of Canada, and to residents of the City of Greater Sudbury in particular, who may be on the hook to finance upgrades to service a ferrochrome production facility which may ultimately be bigger in scale and used longer than anticipated to simply service ore and concentrate from Cliffs Black Thor deposit. We don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into here, and the EA process contemplated in the draft Guidelines won’t provide clarity when it comes to actual anticipated impacts. A more comprehensive process which assesses the Ring of Fire in its entirety is therefore necessary.

Another process is available to the CEAA: the Joint Environmental Assessment process. The CEAA should require a Joint EA process at this time. It is to the CEAA’s, and ultimately Canada’s shame, that our federal environmental assessment agency is deciding to pursue an ad-hoc approach when environmental sustainability and the health of Canadians could be at risk from development if it proceeds in an uncoordinated manner.

Further, Cliffs may find itself financially disadvantaged for being the first company through the door, as it were, and may have to foot the bill to answer many questions which go beyond the specifics of their project. To make the process fair for Cliffs, a Joint Environmental Assessment process would see costs shared amongst all who will benefit from resource exploitation.

I wish to be kept informed of all aspects of the CEAA’s environmental assessment process, and added to the list of those to be consulted by Cliffs throughout the process.


Steve May
CEO, Sudbury Federal Green Party Association

(the opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

The Occupy Movement's Overwhelming Success

What started on Wall Street with the habitation of Zuccotti Park early this fall has transformed into a global movement where public spaces within our cities, big and small, have become populated with citizens braving the elements around the clock. The “Occupy Together” Movement, or simply the “Movement”, has brought attention to a number of issues in our society which, frankly, weren’t receiving the kind of attention that they deserved. The Movement has been an overwhelming success, even as inhabitants are being flushed out of the public realm in an increasing number of communities. That the future remains uncertain for all existing occupations can not detract from the Movement’s success.

Now, that may seem a strange comment for me to make. Wasn’t the goal of the Occupy Movement to change the world? Did that somehow get lost along the way? Well, yes and no. Changing the world is a noble goal, one I’m sure most of those participating in the Movement would love to see occur. But I don’t think that anybody sleeping in our public parks really thought that the world was going to change overnight. Indeed, the very type of change of being requested by the Movement wasn’t something which could just “happen” in the same way that the demands of the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square could be met. Changing our corporate greed-based economic system to a more equitable system based on values and compassion (if that was one of the many requests being made) was not going to happen with the resignation of any head of state.

The Occupy Movement was condemned to failure by some media pundits right at its beginning. Not all of the pundits questioning the Movement were necessarily predisposed to its failure (although a good many were). Even those pundits with whom the Movement’s issues found resonance found themselves questioning the Movement’s tactics. How could the occupation of public spaces bring about real change, particularly when there were no demands being made, and no leaders were emerging who could speak on behalf of the Movement? A goal-less, leaderless movement which would inevitably find itself on the wrong end of by-law enforcement (or police batons), well, how was that ever going to change the world?

So the pundits predicted that the occupations of public spaces would deteriorate, until the public became fed up with the presence of protesters in the public realm. Often, this sentiment was expressed with considerable disdain towards the people participating in the protest. “They don’t know why they’re there.” “They don’t understand the issues.” “They’re a bunch of communists.” “They feel a sense of entitlement and don’t want to work.” Sometimes, the protesters were belittled because of their levels of income, almost as if a person’s worth in society really did have a dollar value attached to it.

Would a violent end to the occupations of public spaces be good or bad for the Movement? Although that question was not being specifically asked by the pundits, clearly those paying attention were watching, almost waiting, for the violence to break out, much as they were at the Toronto G20. Violence makes for good video footage after all, and it allows us to create a barrier between “us”, the non-violent watching events unfold at home, and “them”, the violent anarchists with whom we have nothing in common. In short, violence plays well for the mainstream media, because it’s interesting and makes media consumers feel alternatively fearful and good about themselves. It sells.

That a number of occupations have been brought to an end now, mostly with minimal violence, has probably been a disappointment to those who have been keen to see the peaceful protest fail. There has been a desire amongst the right-wing media in particular to want to separate the protesters from the common people who might otherwise support the Movement. That violence may still be the result should our armed police services instigate it against peaceful protesters who have been ordered to leave our parks will not diminish the success that the Movement has already achieved.

Look, I’m one of those people who pays very close attention to the mainstream media, as I believe that the media wields real power through its ability to influence public opinion. If you have a cause, for example, that isn’t being talked about in the media, it becomes very difficult for you to get your message out. Trust me; I’m a member of the Green Party, and I speak from experience. Perhaps getting the message out is a little easier now with the advent of social media, but even social media users find themselves in a whole other realm when the mainstream media picks up their YouTube clip of the day, or investigates something arising from someone’s blog or Facebook status update. The mainstream media, in my opinion, remains a venue for public influence. The mainstream media isn’t just a mirror being held up to society, reflecting society’s image back at it.

Jon Stewart on the Daily Show probably had the best line about the Occupy Movement and the media. When the Movement first originated on Wall Street, it received little media attention. Suddenly, that all changed. Stewart had an explanation of how that worked, and to illustrate, he showed a picture of a dial, labelled “Media”. The dial could be set to one of two settings, labelled: “Ignore” and “Circus”. Once the media circus began in New York City, the Movement was not going to be put back in its bottle.

Suddenly, the mainstream media was awash with discussions about income inequality, some serious, some much less so. What was different, though, was although some in the mainstream media had been writing about these issues for a long time (here in Canada, Linda McQuaig at the Toronto Star comes to mind), in general these were voices in the wilderness, reporting on niche-interest issues. Certainly, no one in government was talking about these issues, and there were an absence of talking heads on TV gabbing about income inequality. Although there has been considerable focus on the economy as of late (and for good reason), there were few voices talking about how those benefiting from growth have disproportionately been the richest amongst us.

The media circus in New York changed that, and pretty soon everybody was talking about the income inequality. Sure, some of the coverage was very negative, especially from the right wing media, which seems to want to make a political issue out of everything. But, Oscar Wilde once remarked that the only thing worse than being ‘talked about’ was not being talked about. In this case, Wilde was proven right yet again. Believe what you want about the issue of income inequality. But you can not deny that this issue has suddenly exploded onto the public agenda.

The TV talking heads can’t stop talking about it. Government officials from Presidents to Ministers of Finance have talked about it. Here in Canada, leadership hopefuls of progressive political parties have expressed a desire to incorporate some of the Movement’s messaging in public policy. Sentiments of sympathy for those concerned about the issue have been offered by the heads of major corporations and Wall Street bankers.

And this is why the Movement has already proven to be a success. No matter what happens next, the issue will remain on the public agenda. The issue has proven itself to be different from the kind of pop-up issue which the media tends to report on for a few minutes, and then drops when the next issue of the day pops up. Unlike when billionaire Warren Buffett urged the U.S. government to tax the rich (do you remember that?), this time the issue will have staying power, and it can no longer be ignored.

That the “issue” has no single expression is probably its greatest strength. Had the Movement offered a prescriptive resolution, or issued demands, those ideas would have formed the backbone for future discussions, which admittedly would make it easier to “get behind”, but it would also open itself up to criticism. By deliberately not describing what a desired outcome would be, by deliberately not drawing a line in the sand and laying out what it would take to declare victory, the Movement has proven itself to be a remarkable success. And that’s because now people will be engaged on finding workable solutions, of which there are probably many, but admittedly few which are going to be easy to implement. When solutions arise from considerable discourse, there is always more public buy-in.

Instead of creating a single idea, what the Movement has done has been to start creating the desire for change, of some kind. The Occupy Movement has been the spark which has led to engagement. Now, when we discuss economic issues at a geopolitical level, there will be a different voice which emerges to add its own perspective to the discussion. And that voice will be questioning the wisdom of the entire system.

In fact, it’s already started to happen. I see it creeping into mainstream media discussions about what’s happening in the Eurozone. Oh, it’s not an overwhelming voice yet, but some are questioning whether it might not be better for Greece to default, for example. Whether austerity measures make sense. And some have called Germany and France’s kyboshing of former Greek PM Papandreou’s call for a referendum a victory of the bankers over the democrats, recognizing that we are going down a slippery slope here in the name of economic growth. Is Italy really better off with a government consisting almost entirely of appointed technocrats? How will anyone be held accountable when the austerity measures are implemented?

Eyes are being opened to a new way of looking at the world, and what I’m seeing reflected back in the mirror are more people questioning whether the pursuit of gross domestic product and growth at all costs is going to ultimately be beneficial for a majority of the world’s population. For us all.

Our economic and political systems are broken. Together, those systems are looking after the interests of a minority of the people and ignoring the will of the majority. Income inequality is but one expression of this disconnect. There are many others, but all are intertwined with one another. The Occupy Movement has provided a spark to add income disparity to the public agenda. As it is so connected to many other important issues, like peak oil, climate change, poverty and homelessness, war and resource depletion, I remain optimistic that these issues, too, will soon begin to receive a higher level of scrutiny from all of us. And that we shall urge our decision makers to take them seriously on our behalfs, despite what the corporate interests might think about that.

It’s past time that we wake ourselves up to all of these issues. I know that it’s not going to happen overnight, but I am optimistic that it will happen. It is already happening. And when I see the success of the Occupy Movement, I know that a small group of people can accomplish a lot when we work together.

(the opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Austerity Agenda, Part 3: Fight the Power

Lately, at least since 2008, the injustices of our economic system have been on a bit more of a public display. How can it be that we reward big banks for losing our investments, and reward them with our own money through public dollar bailouts? Sure, that didn’t happen here in Canada, but that’s only because Canada’s neo-liberals, who were clamouring for more deregulation of the financial sector, couldn’t figure out a way to seize power in the 1990s. Of course, they’re in power now, and determined to do what they can to cater to the bankers, although deregulation now is a political no-go.

But a Tobin Tax isn’t. Out of all of the measures I identified before which would generate revenue for our governments to pay down the debts, out of all of those measures, why did I refrain from discussing new taxation? Well, politically, it’s just not on the table right now, I think because Canadians don’t understand the true extent of the mess that we’re in. Sure, we don’t have it as bad as some, even as bad as most. But when a ship is sinking it doesn’t matter whether we’re stowed in the hull or sitting atop the highest mast: we’re all going to end up in the same place. Sure, maybe by staying up top we prolong the hope of being rescued, and that might work in a ship-sinking scenario. But in this case, it’s our global economy which is sinking; it’s not as if there’s another economy out there steaming along the horizon which might catch site of us before we go under.

There has been talk of implementing a tax on financial transaction. This would have the effect of both raising revenues for governments and minimizing the sorts of casino-style banking speculation which has gone on in the financial system and which led in part to the 2008 collapse. Like heroin, banks remain addicted to risky financial behaviour, even if their habits haven’t been in the news as much lately. The reason for their addiction is simple: they are still making gobs of money from speculation, and will continue to do so until it all comes crashing down again. Back in 2008, some of the biggest banks in the world almost went under. Had not the United States and other nations injected massive amounts of taxpayers dollars into the banks, they would have collapsed. Back in 2008, our governments could, just barely, afford to engage in these actions. Now that the United States is running a trillion dollar deficit, will it be able to afford to do so again in the future?

Well, maybe. But they’re going to have to get public spending under control first, which means more cuts to social programs. Or at least they could stop financing one or two wars (why do you think Obama is finally bringing the troops home from Iraq an Afghanistan?). If the U.S. can squeeze every penny out of its budget by cutting public services to the bone, they may just find enough money to hand over to the bankers when the next crisis hits.

Sounds like a pretty lousy proposition for the public, doesn’t it? The problem is, though, that having these banks fail might be an even worse proposition. Sounds like a “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” scenario, doesn’t it? So where does the real problem lie?

The Real Problems: Economics & Democracy No More

Those currently down at Occupy Sudbury know the answer. The problem lies with our current economic system. The one which must be fuelled by constant growth, or else it doesn’t work. That’s part of the answer. The other part of the answer is a governance model which will continue to put the interests of the rich corporations ahead of the interests of the rest of us.

Remember, for a moment, what happened back in the fall of 2008 in the United States. George W. Bush, who was on his way out as President, tried to push a stimulus package through Congress. The lower house, the House of Representatives, initially balked, and refused the package. The more well-heeled Senate, however, was on board, and eventually the House of Reps was bullied into making a decision to hand over billions of dollars of taxpayers money to the banks and auto sector. That elected U.S. officials were able to change their minds so quickly says a lot about the governance system in place there.

But not once did anybody ever think that maybe this sort of unprecedented public spending initiative should receive the blessing of the People. There had just been an election in the United States, the one which brought Obama to power. Yet stimulus spending was never raised as an issue beyond Obama and his Republican Party challenger John McCain agreeing to do whatever would need to be done. Not exactly the sort of public discourse which was being considered by Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou (who by the time that this is published may no longer be Greece’s Prime Minister) when he said that there would be a referendum. Of course, it’s been remarked that elections generally aren’t the best of times for serious public policy discussions. Which leaves me with this question about the United States: given that the U.S. political system is in constant election mode, when does it find the time for the sorts of adult public policy conversations it needs to have with its populace?

Oh ya. That’s right. It doesn’t.

Of course, here in Canada, things were different. Nobody was talking about bailing out banks in the fall of 2008. In fact, the Prime Minister was openly musing about the excellent opportunities being presented for investors to make money as people were being thrown out of work. And you know what? Stephen Harper was quite right: it was a great time for the richest to get even richer.

Canadians returned Harper and his Conservative Party to government with a larger mandate in 2008, as they had campaigned on making government smaller, decreasing spending, and getting the deficit under control (the deficit which the Conservatives themselves had created through irresponsible cuts to consumption taxes, of course, but that rarely came up during an election in which the media was fixated on pooping puffins and the Leader of the Opposition’s difficulty speaking the English language). That what Canada ended up with once in power was a Conservative government which created the highest deficits ever seen in this country was another thing. Here in Canada, there was no public discussion about bailing out the “too big to fail” sector, or providing economic stimulus through even more revenue-killing tax cuts. Our elected officials made those decisions on their own, without our specific consent. And this has been a bit of a problem with regards to the legitimacy of stimulus spending ever since.

What we Canadians got instead was a Prime Minister who flouted our democratic conventions and prorogued parliament in order to avoid a confidence vote which would have removed him from power. What Harper did in 2008 is not all that different from the situation in Greece today. In both cases, the democratic will of the people has taken a back seat to those who wield power. Back in 2008, that wasn’t apparent to many Canadians, who viewed the Constitutional Crisis as some arcane political manoeuvring, or an attempt at the electoral losers to seize power from its victors. That the media gave great comfort to those who held those views did not change the fact that the prorogation of parliament in 2008 by Stephen Harper was one of the worst abuses of democracy in Canadian history.

That elected leaders in the European Union are now publicly declaring that the interests of investors and the economic elite must be considered greater than the democratic rights of Greeks to choose their own destiny is further evidence that democracy just doesn’t matter as much as it used to. Clearly, if the public is going to accept the coming austerity measures, the public must do so as quickly and quietly as possible, preferably before they understand what’s really going on. Papandreou wasn’t prepared to force-feeds the Greeks Buckley’s Mixture, even if he thinks that they need it. The rest of us will be given the same choice when the time comes (which is to say, none at all), unless we start to wake up and do something about it now.

The Middle Class: Waking Up is Hard to Do

I attended an event on Wednesday night at which poverty activist John Clark spoke about the coming austerity crisis. What struck me as most poignant was that Clark said that if activists think that we can change the game through tactics which have been employed over the last several decades, we are bound to fail. That Clark would not discuss in great detail the tactics which he thought would be successful in changing the minds of government was, to me, a little telling. For I have no doubt at all that Clark has given this a lot of thought. So have I, although I’m not an activist, and I’m especially not an activist versed in the tactics of the Labour Movement out of which Clarke and most of those in attendance at last night’s meeting emerged.

If the recent tactics of organized labour will not work in delaying or minimizing the austerity measures, what will it take? Clark suggested (and I agree) that there will need to be a broader-based public acceptance of the movement opposing austerity. In Greece, certainly it’s not just the Unions who are on the front lines in Athens – it’s pensioners, youth, women and all of those who have a lot to lose when the austerity measures are imposed. But it’s also not enough, for what’s really missing in Greece is the participation of the broader middle class. Sure, there are some there, engaging in the protests, but the middle class in Greece, as the middle class throughout the world tends to do, remains unengaged. Sure, they probably believe that they’ll be impacted by the austerity measures, but…

But surely it won’t be so very bad, will it? It’s not like they’ll all lose their jobs, their homes, their abilities to feed their families, right? Surely that’ll happen to some, they think, but not to most. Not to me. And they’ll be right about that. Until it happens to them.

As long as the middle class remains unengaged, those pushing austerity are sure to succeed. And it looks like the middle class in North America at least, is taking zero interest in engaging. If anything, the middle class is being convinced by corporate propagandists and astroturf movements like the Tea Party to vote against its own economic interests and support wasteful tax-cutting measures which will only decrease the relative health of our governments and their ability to service the debt. Which can only mean that the middle class itself will need to be squeezed even further in the name of Economic Growth.

It seems clear that the only way to truly succeed will be to engage the middle class to a significant degree, and to have the middle class actively participate in a way which would make the middle class entirely uncomfortable. And I’m not sure that seems a likely prospect. Who likes to be removed from their comfort zone? I mean, if it’s not happening in Greece, how can we expect it to happen in Canada?

Which is why I don’t expect the middle class to become engaged in time to stave off the austerity medicine which we will be force-fed. And that’s why I lament the future world which my own children are going to inherit, because with austerity being the name of the game, we still will not have addressed the real problem, which is our current economic system.

The Only Long-Term Solution: Changing our Economic System

Look, I’m not an anti-capitalist. I just believe that a system which depends on growth and which can not grow is a system which isn’t working any more. And like a lightbulb which was useful when it worked, but no longer useful now that it’s burned itself out and needs to be replaced with something that does work, I believe that it’s time we got serious about changing our economic system. Sure, that’s going to be a monumental undertaking, as it will pose huge challenges to the rich who control the system and to the labour movement which operates within the system, but, like changing a blown lightbulb, if we want to carry on it’s got to be done. We can’t let Big Money, Big Government and Big Labour get in the way here. Not when our future is at risk.

We must transform our current economic system into one which has at its heart the concept of sustainability, rather than the concept of growth. That may sound simple, but in our consumerist society, it’s not going to be. We need to start putting a dollar value on waste and other externalities, and building those costs into the prices of goods and services. Only by monetizing waste and all externalities will we be able to achieve innovation in production and service delivery. Nothing makes business and industry want to innovate faster than saving money!

Rather than living in a throw-away society which emphasizes a culture of convenience (for those who can afford it), we will instead prize durability and energy efficiency. Instead of an economic system which can only function if we mortgage our children’s future, we can and must create a system which leaves our children a better planet than the one that we have inherited (and seem intent on passing along to our kids). Instead of exploiting the next seven generations so that we may live in (relative) luxury, we need to consider and plan for the needs of those seven generations, and actually take the actions necessary to ensure that there’s more than enough left for those future generations.

And before you start thinking that’s all well and good and “kumbayah” Steve, let’s revisit why sustainability has to be the way forward. Our current economic system is not broken: it’s doing exactly what we should have been expecting it to do. It has served us well, some of us much more so than most of us. But now our economic system, which requires Growth to function, has run into a circumstance where growth can only be achieved by impoverishing ever more people in the same way that a parasite feeds on our blood for its own sustenance.

Our Current Economic System as a Blood-Sucking Parasite

Our current economic system must be recognized as a threat to our own well-being. And if not a threat to our own personal well-being, certainly a threat to the well-being of our neighbours, family and community. And if left unattended, this threat will grow into a clear and present danger to our children, even while making us sicker and sicker.

Our only long-term solution is to remove the parasite, as difficult as that will prove to do. In the end it won’t matter to the parasite anyway, because the parasite itself is doomed. Whether that doom comes through its exorcism from our bodies, or whether it comes because it has sucked our lifeblood dry doesn’t matter – at least not to the parasite. It may matter to us, sure. But what’s more important here, us or the parasite?

Judging by what’s going on in the world, clearly prolonging the health of the parasite is much more important than you or me. Does that make any sense?

There will come a time when the middle class will need to figure out where it stands, but I fear by then it will be too late. Unless we can figure out a way to wake more people up, the austerity deed will be done without our consent. We may even believe that the medicine our governments are force-feeding us is for our own good, and we’ll accept it like sheep who can’t see the world beyond their own pens. And it may keep us going for a while, sure. But at some point in time in the not too-distant future, likely in my lifetime and certainly in the lifetime of my daughter, our economic system which requires Growth will again butt up against natural barriers which will constrain growth. They will be the same barriers: peak oil and ever-higher energy prices. And our governments will again demand more sacrifices from the public; only the next time we will have found ourselves in a situation where we are likely unable to resist.

And then it will happen again. And maybe again. Maybe the next time it happens, rather than force more austerity measures on us, we will choose instead to eliminate those factors which contribute to economic competition over the remaining scarce resources, in order to allow those remaining resources to be used by more efficiently by fewer corporations and people. By that, of course I mean some kind of significant reduction in human population, which would be achievable only by war, mass famine, or some kind of health care crisis, real or manufactured.

These fluctuations in our economic system, these ups and downs, will continue to happen as long as we try to implement short-term solutions to a long term (and terminal) problem, that being the end of an economic system which can not function without perpetual Growth. It will happen until the whole system stops working. And it will happen because an economic system which needs to grow has to be and will be constrained by a natural system which is finite.

The answer isn’t to continue to feed the system, the parasite. The answer must be to jettison the parasite and create a new system. And that’s not going to be easy. Far from it. But it’s what we must do.

You can see why I’m in a very bleak headspace today.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Austerity Agenda, Part 2: Democracy in Tatters

Earlier this week, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou returned from a meeting with Eurozone members, clutching a deal which was hailed (at the time) as the salvation of Europe. World markets went on a celebratory spending spree at the news, which continued right up until Papandreou announced that he would take deal to the public through a referendum. Papandreou wanted the Greek People to give their assent to the severe austerity measures being requested by the Eurozone. Only a referendum would lend democratic legitimacy to the austerity measures to be implemented, according to Papandreou. Greeks would vote knowing that a rejection of the austerity measures would likely see Greece thrown out of the Eurozone and left to sink or swim on its own (with sinking being the likeliest outcome either way).

And then a truly scary thing happened, and it was this scary thing which has contributed to the dark headspace that I seem to find myself in today, as I indicated in Part 1 of this post. As European markets plunged on the news that Greece was going to hold a referendum, the other Eurozone nations, notably France and Germany (who are going to be on the hook for a significant part of the bail out extended to Greece) demanded that Papandreou not hold the referendum, and institute the austerity measures without going to the Greek People as Papandreou had planned.

In Animal Farm parlance, this can be summed up as: In a democracy, all people are equal. But some people are more equal than others.

Or, if you’d prefer a Star Trek reference (which caused Mr. Spock a headache, due to its complete lack of logic): The needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many. Sure, things worked out well for Spock, but he had Captain Kirk, Sulu, Chekov, Uhura, Scotty and Bones in his corner. We've got Suncor, Harper, Obama, BP and Haliburton looking out for our interests.

In Greece’s case, the needs of the Investors outweigh the needs of the People. That’s the message which our international leaders are telling the Greeks today.

What the hell is going on?

The Buckley’s Mixture Approach to Democracy

It’s almost as if the needs of the wealthiest supercede the hopes, dreams, aspirations and desires of everybody else, and that everybody else is being told that we must remain subservient to the will of the rich, for our own good of course. Else those stock markets will tumble, and we’ll all be out of jobs. We’re being told to listen to the rich investors because they know what’s best for us, and that if we’re going to continue to grow our economy, the majority of us are going to have become a little poorer. That’s what Austerity is all about. It’s the only plan that they’ve got, and therefore it’s the only way forward.

Of course, they are right. Right now the only way for the economy to continue to grow is by making the middle class poorer than it is today. These moves will consolidate the growth of wealth even further into the hands of the wealthy, who can then continue to spend and increase the GDP. Jobs will be created along the way, absolutely, because we need workers to exploit those remaining resources in hard-to-get-to places in the ground, like the tar sands. You’re not against creating jobs, are you? That those workers will be earning less pay than they would have years ago doesn’t matter (and “less pay” here may be a relative term, but when you factor inflation into the equation, it will be less pay). Just be happy that you have a job, and don’t rock the boat.

So if the rich are right, why not go along with their scheme? Why not except these austerity measures the way that we drink Buckley’s Mixture? The measures will be painful at first, but if it’s the only way to get out of the crisis, well let’s do it. It tastes horrible, but it works, right?

Reality Intercedes

No, it’s not right at all. Because what’s missing from this point of view is Reality.

Our current economic system, which has functioned generally pretty well these past five or six decades (ok, that’s arguable, but let’s move on), is predicated on a concept which completely ignores the impacts of reality. In order for our current economic system to work, it must continue to grow. That’s why when economists talk about growth, it’s always a good thing, but recession is bad. Depression? Terrible! Don’t you dare go there. While Growth may not need to be continual (a little recession every now and then will bring wages back in line, for example), the overall trend toward Growth must be a constant in our current economic system. Sustained contraction, also known as “negative growth” just won’t work.

But here is where reality comes in: Sustained Economic Growth is no longer possible, and there’s very little that we can do about it. Our economy has encountered barriers to growth which can not be overcome without drastic action of a kind which only the psychopathic would contemplate. Economic Growth has been fuelled by inexpensive energy, and for a number of reasons, we’ve run out of that. And there is no replacing it.

Inheriting the World

We are living in a time of energy austerity, which hasn’t been imposed on us by any government. We find ourselves here because of our selves. We used up significant sources of one-time energy to give ourselves the luxuries of the modern world. But we haven’t paid for those luxuries ourselves. And I tell you this is probably the biggest reason that I find myself in a cold and bleak place today, because I realize that the lifestyle that I inherited from my parents and all of the good things that I’ve had, from gadgets to education to universal health care to economic opportunity, all will be paid for by my children and their children. The world that my daughter is inheriting from me is going to be a crappy, broken place.

I remember being young and watching the first space shuttle take off from Cape Kennedy, with its solid rocket boosters painted white. I wasn’t yet 10 years old, but I remember hearing the adults talking about how this space shuttle will lead us back to the moon, which will be a staging ground for a mission to Mars. From there, the asteroid belt beckoned, and who knows? The moons of Jupiter perhaps? When the movie “2010” came out a few years later, I was enthralled by the mystery and majesty of Jupiter, and I imagined visiting its moons one day, just as those astronauts and cosmonauts in the movie did. After all, the year “2010” wasn’t that far away, right? Surely we had ample time to get our act together as a species to explore our own solar system.

Those dreams of my childhood seem so wasteful now. It’s not that we chose to ignore space travel, it’s that we chose to ignore developing the new technologies necessary to build a better society. It’s past 2010, and we’ve yet to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, even though we’ve known all along that they weren’t going to last. Sure, there’s still a lot of oil in the ground, and we can squeeze more out of the bitumen in the tar sands. But the oil in the ground is heavy and dirty and perhaps most importantly – expensive to get out of the ground. And the tar sands? Well, the energy invested to make a barrel of tar sands oil is close to half that barrel of oil. So sure, there’s a net energy profit to be made there, but look at the cost!

Humanity won’t be going to Jupiter in my lifetime. We probably won’t even make it back to the moon, and if we do, it will be for show, and not to establish a base of operations for a Mars mission. Over the past several decades, we had the opportunity to invest our public dollars in sustainable energy solutions, but instead we did the exact opposite: we invested in wasteful energy solutions, such as car-dependent suburban neighbourhoods fuelled by cheaply made goods sold in big-box stores at the end of energy-intensive supply chains. We paved over our farmland and decided it was better to import salads from California and Chile. We built bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger everything, all requiring more fuel to run, more energy to heat.

Waking Up the World: The Occupy Movement

Author and futurist James Howard Kuntsler, who coined the term “The Long Emergency”, referred to “suburbia” as being, “the greatest misallocation of resources of all time” a number of years ago. Most people who heard him make that remark scoffed at him, and pointed out all of the great things suburbia has brought us. Of course, most people never heard the remark in the first place, because very few were paying attention. Even today, the biggest news-making items in Canada have more to do with Justin Bieber’s supposed love-child than the Long Emergency in which we now find ourselves in.

What will it take for people to start paying attention? I’m sure that’s a question which those occupying Wall Street were asking themselves back in September when the occupation of Zuccotti Park began in New York City. After severakl weeks of being ignored, the mainstream media finally woke up to the fact that there was a protest going on, and maybe it was newsworthy. Things went from “silence” to “circus” pretty quickly. The media is sure to lose interest at some point, but today at the beginning of November, it’s something that we are still talking about. For me, that’s a very positive sign.

Occupy Wall Street led to a larger, international movement, now known as “Occupy Together”. Media pundits have provided mixed reviews on the protest. Some have suggested that since there are no demands and no leaders, the protest is destined to fail. Indeed, the Occupy protests do seem to defy the conventions of what it means to have a successful social campaign which leads to real change. Any marketing expert can tell you that having a small number of defined goals, and a time-limited campaign fully mapped out is the only way forward. Success must be measurable, surely!

Other pundits have been more critical, and have largely been spouting propaganda for their corporatist interests. As an aside, it saddens me that so many Canadians don’t understand that today’s mainstream media has transformed into an organ of propaganda for corporate interests. That’s why the same old, predictable neo-liberal lines are present throughout all media, and even those organizations which might want to challenge the neo-liberal way of thinking can only go so far, or else they risk being silenced through lost jobs. Eric Margolis, who refused to tote Sun Media’s party line on the Middle East, was ousted a few years back, and his platform for challenging our thinking and attitudes about international affairs was diminished as a result. Sure, he’s still online, but how many people today turn to online sources for their news?

Waking Up Youth: The First Step

Well, actually an increasing number of us do. But for the most part, alternative media is still in its infancy, and the mainstream media continues to rule the roost, even online. Alternative media remains largely in the purview of young technocrats, who, because of their numbers worldwide are only just now waking up to the notion that they can have real influence on existing power structures. Whether Tahrir Square was the first Twitter Revolution or not, it was an overthrow of an old, entrenched, corrupt power by a youthful, largely peaceful movement which captured the dreams, hopes and aspirations of young Egyptians throughout the world. But here in North America, the young remain under the thumb of the Baby Boomers, and although youth are finding out about issues on Twitter and Facebook, and watching first hand accounts of violence against the poor posted from cellphones onto YouTube, for the most part North American youth (like the rest of us) remain unengaged in what’s going on in the world around them. When just getting by is a struggle, it’s hard to worry about current events.

And of course, since young people overwhelmingly do not vote, our political parties pay only lip service to issues which might be important to them. Youth in Canada are kind of like an Occupy protest, only with much less clarity of purpose. While we can put our hopes into youth to be the ones to wake up, given that they will be feeling the impacts of the austerity agenda much more significantly than any other demographic, we really should expect nothing more from our youth than we would expect from ourselves. After all, which age demographic do you think is making Justin Bieber and Grand Theft Auto the top trending story on Twitter today? And which age demographic is CNN catering too when it brings you live coverage of the Michael Jackson wrongful death trial? We are all equally implicated.

Occupy Sudbury

The Occupy Sudbury protest taking place in Memorial Park has been receiving balanced press from our local media, which doesn’t surprise me, as we seem to have some of the fairest local media outlets in Canada here in Sudbury. I’ve been down to the Park a number of times now since the occupation began, and I’ve had the chance to listen to a number of the people down there who are either like myself, just visiting, or have chosen to sleep in the cold and the rain in order to make the occupation a success. After all, you can’t occupy a space unless you have people committed to being there.

I’ve been overwhelmed by some of the personal stories of hardship that I’ve heard, and I have a better understanding of what it is which motivates the occupiers. The media will have you believe that the Occupy Movement is about protesting corporate greed (best case scenario) or about lazy young people, welfare bums and anarchists looking for handouts from banks through some kind of communist wealth redistribution scheme. Lately, in Canada, an anti-First Nations tone has started to creep into media discourse, as ultra-right wing pundits like Ezra Levant have started suggesting that the Occupations could turn into a Caledonia-style armed conflict in the midst of our communities because First Nations people are involved. This, of course, is racism at its worst, but it’s great for stoking fears in the middle classes whose support will be key in moving ahead with Phase 2 of the movement, whatever that might be.

While the Movement might have been predicated on the notion of the need to do something about growing income disparity and the economic inequalities which are promoted by our current system, let me tell you that it’s actually much more than that. Of course those are some of the very real issues which bring people down to Memorial Park and other public spaces throughout Canada, North America and the world as part of the global protest. Other issues are also frequently brought up by protesters: climate change; taxation; a lack of government responsiveness; homelessness and poverty. And the coming economic austerity measures which will need to be imposed on us in order to continue fuelling Economic Growth.

Every time that I’ve visited Occupy Sudbury, I’ve been amazed at how happy the protesters are. Not that they’re truly happy mind you, but given the personal hardships which they have previously faced, and the ones which they are going through now to keep the occupation moving forward, I just don’t understand how it is that they’ve managed to maintain such positivity. I mean, here I am in my personal dark space, yet I’ve had to sacrifice so little. Both the occupiers and me understand where our society is heading, yet they embrace hope and optimism and, most importantly, action. They believe that they can change the world as a result of what they are doing. And I’m tempted to believe along with them, although I realize that what’s happening right now in our public spaces is only a beginning.

But as far as a beginning goes, the Occupy Together Movement has been wildly successful. That it may yet end in violence and despair as the powers that be may choose to wage aggression on a peaceful protest saddens me (although I don’t think that will be the outcome in Sudbury, given the wisdom continually displayed by our local municipal leaders and Police Services to remain largely uninvolved). Mainstream media pundits have already declared that the Movement has failed, because it either hasn’t articulated its demands for an end-game, or invigorated the public into larger support. That’s the kind of short-sighted thinking that I’ve come to expect from the media, however, which seems to be caught up in a constant sense of wonder every time a new story breaks, forgetting of course that there is history behind everything.

The Occupy Movement just didn’t suddenly coalesce from nothingness. Dissent has been building throughout the world for some time now, decades even. Those who have tried to peer into the future and who have witnessed the cluster of ill omens headed our way have largely been dismissed as Cassandras on the wall of Thebes. But guess what? Cassandra was proven right in the end, but that didn’t save the Thebans or herself.

No, the Occupy Movement has not been a failure. It’s been an absolute success, an unbridled success, and I suspect that’s why the occupiers in Memorial Park seem to be happier than I would have expected them to be. They know that they have initiated a dialogue with governments, corporations, banks, the media and the public about the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us. Where others have failed in the past have tried to break through the barriers of conversation to bring these issues to the general attention of the public, the Occupy Movement has finally succeeded. Talk about income disparity is suddenly mainstream. And that genie won’t be going back into its bottle.

(...continued in Part 3)

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

The Austerity Agenda, Part 1: Blood from a Stone

Today, I find myself in a very bleak space. It seems that I’ve been heading here for some time, although I’ve been unable to put my finger on exactly why I’ve found myself walking along this route to darkness. I’ve looked around at the world, and I have sensed that things are beginning to fall apart, whether that’s globally, nationally or locally, it appears to be happening. I’ve told myself that I have been mentally prepared for this, as it’s been something that I’ve been expecting for some time now. But as I look around on this road to darkness, I think that the one thing which surprises me the most, today, is how alone I am. I’m feel like a hitch hiker in the desert, and I just don’t get it. I always thought that misery loves company.

Today’s post is going to be formatted a little differently from my typical posts, as I want to talk about a few things which have been happening over the past week or so. These things have been building to a crescendo for some time now, and over the past few weeks they’ve exploded onto the scene. Yet so many of my friends, family, coworkers, and others whom I interact with continue to remain blissfully unaware of their significance. And I don’t understand why. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or a three year old) to connect the dots. What’s going on?

The Continuing Economic Crisis

I see our economy teetering on the brink, as it bashes up against all-too formidable natural constraints. Growth is necessary to power the economy, but with energy and food prices climbing, with competition for scarce resources amongst nations leading to higher prices, and with the wages of common people being squeezed throughout the world in order to give the corporations just a little more wealth, can we really be surprised that a global recession seems likely?

But the thing is, it can’t end there; and this is the part which genuinely confuses me, because I don’t understand why more people don’t understand this: The coming recession won’t be a new recession. Although we have experienced technical economic growth globally since 2009, after the short recession of 2008 (short because of the economic stimulus of public dollars being pumped into the economy and into the hands of corporations and banks – the so-called “job creators”), the real truth of the matter is that the world has been in an economic crisis for some time now.

Whether technically in recession or not, the crisis has been real, although not sustained. During these past few years we’ve been in a kind of Sitzkrieg, or Phoney War stage of the crisis, when it’s been easier to pretend that the hardships ahead might not happen. In his eye-opening book of the same name, author and futurist James Howard Kuntsler described where we are at today as the opening stages of the “The Long Emergency”. Kuntsler’s description is bound to be apt, even if the “Emergency” experiences ups and downs. In fact, there absolutely has to be ups and downs, given the economic circumstances of Peak Oil.

The End of Inexpensive Energy: Economic Impacts

I wrote about all of this before, just recently, in my blog, “The Limits of Growth and the Coming Recession: Why Measuring Matters”, so I won’t go into great detail again here. Quickly, though, when the recession hit in 2008, oil prices had never been higher. As people lost their jobs and there was less economic activity, oil prices began to fall. As the economy began to rebound, thanks to lower energy prices and a massive injection of public money, things started to pick up again and the price of oil began to rise. The same thing will undoubtedly happen again when the next recession hits.

However, oil prices (and the price of all non-renewable energy sources) will never fall back to where they were in the mid-2000s or before, because of resource depletion. That’s what Peak Oil is all about. So, although the price of oil may fluctuate with economic output, the overall trend is towards ever-higher prices. Which in our economy will mean less economic output, and less growth, maybe even decline.

And our current economic system can’t sustain itself for long when growth is not occurring. When economies are forced to contract, guess which group of people find themselves as the biggest losers? It’s not necessarily those who are already poor, as they’ve largely been left out of the current economic system’s benefits. Sure, they may lose what little they have. And the wealthiest amongst us may end up losing the most from an aggregate perspective (billionaires can afford to lose millions of dollars), but the rich will continue to be insulated from the shock.

It’s the middle class who will be the biggest losers, mostly because the middle class has become comfortable with its circumstance. This point has been borne out over the past several decades, as there has been little real growth in the middle class in terms of economic spending power. It’s been the middle class who has been squeezed out of prosperity and the ability to increase its wealth. We work longer hours for marginally better pay, only to see our gains eaten up by inflation and higher taxes, while our quality of life plummets due to government take-aways.

How will the middle class react to the coming austerity measures, those currently being contemplated for economic basket case nations like Greece, Italy, Portugal, Ireland, France, the UK and the United States? Wait a moment. Those nations include some of the biggest economies in the world. The term “economic basket case” is being misapplied by me, surely? We used to reserve that term for nations like Argentina, Chile, Poland, Russia and Bolivia, right? What gives?

Why Austerity

Deficit financing gives, that’s what. In the past, prosperous nations like Canada and the United States used to run its finances akin to how a household was run. It was ok to rack up some debt, primarily to purchase necessary items, like a home or even a car for transport. But there was always a point beyond which debt no longer made economic sense, because servicing that debt would simply cost too much money, or interest payments would have to be strung out over a greater time. In those days, now long past, national debts were held to a level which were generational in nature, just as a household has generally held its debts to a level which could be paid off during the productive lifetime of the household.

Then something happened back in the 1970s. The prosperous nations, for many reasons, but in part because they wanted to become even more prosperous, decided that it was ok to accumulate higher levels of debt in order to pay for public services and infrastructure, and to stimulate the economic system. As a result, massive highways were built to suburban utopias (a term I use here ironically), and productive agricultural lands gave way to subdivisions. The stock market ratcheted itself up a notch, and new ventures were formed to sell goods to suburban consumers occupying bigger houses: bigger cars, bigger televisions, bigger everything.

In the 1980s, the economy really kicked into high gear after a few early years of recession. Massive companies consolidated in order to squeeze out more profits, and new terms entered our vocabulary: “off-shoring”, “downsizing” and “out-sourcing”. In the North American heartland, factories closed down and manufacturing was moved to where labour was cheaper. The hollowing out of cities, previously relegated to large American centres, began to strike mid-sized cities, like Sudbury. While the suburban, car-accessible fringes grew with the development of big box stores and power centres selling cheap goods made far away, we thought we had it all. And for a while we did. Until we started losing our jobs, and then even shopping at Wal-Mart became a luxury.

And we paid for all of this – all of it – through deficit financing. The debt from which these goods were created was to become “inter-generational”, meaning that it would not be paid off within the lifetimes of those who received the majority of the benefit. The real costs would be passed on to future generations to deal with. And now national governments find themselves in circumstances where they can no longer service the debt under current budgetary constraints. Just as someone living in poverty may be forced to make a terrible choice between paying the rent or buying food, now too our governments find themselves in similar predicaments. The rent, clearly, has to be paid by our governments, meaning the debt has to be serviced. Or else eviction is going to occur, and it’s going to be hostile and nasty.

Finding Sources of Revenue

So what will our governments sacrifice? Public sector salaries are an easy first target. No one is going to complain when well-paid unionized government workers are forced to take cuts. But cuts to salaries and jobs aren’t going to amount to very much in the budget. Which means deeper spending cuts are going to prove necessary. What about public services? Absolutely there will be cuts to our public services, especially to those services which assist those living in poverty. After all, the poor are an easy target for governments: they don’t have any power, there’s a perception that they don’t contribute to society, and they certainly don’t vote. Those living in poverty will be the second group hit by austerity measures.

But where do we go from there, what’s the plan? Maybe sell off some public assets to private enterprise, even if we have to do so at bargain-basement prices (because there will be a risk for the private sector to turn a profit in a time of economic decline). In Ontario, we can say goodbye to the LCBO, public electrical utilities, transit services, waste collection, maybe even sewer and water services. And when these public services leave the public sector, we can say goodbye to good-paying jobs as well. Which leads to less wealth staying in our communities. Sure, these efforts might lead to raising the GDP and contributing to economic growth, because someone will probably make money off of privatization. But it’s not going to be the 99% who do the work.

But why stop there when it comes to public services? Especially when there are debts to be paid. What about police and fire protection services? Does that seem silly to you? It seems silly to me, sure, but check out the sizable chunks of a budget which these services eat up. If we contracted out our police services, as they do in some municipalities in the United States, we could save money.

How about health care services? After all, they’re doing just fine in the United States without public health care, while we here in Canada pay so much and receive so little in return? We wouldn’t have to get rid of the whole system all together, just decrease the overall funding to it by offering less service. Plus, we can make the rich pay their way by requiring them to seek out privatized services! Wouldn’t that mean more money then being allocated to help those who can’t afford to pay? Not sure where the middle class might fit in, but those technical things could be worked out.

But why stop there? Why not generate revenue through selling advertising rights to public parks and transit stops? Or bottling all that water that just ends up being wasted at the mouth of our rivers, and selling it for profit? Do we really need libraries when everyone has access to the internet? And swimming pools and recreation centres are costly too, so if you want to use it, you should pay for it, not me. Same goes for a public education system too, by the way. Or how about we sell off our roads to private consortiums who can maintain them by charging tolls to users (ok, I’ve gone too far with that last one I’m sure!)

Would the public accept it? The public probably wouldn’t be very happy about it, but then again, they might not have any choice. Literally.

(…continued in Part 2)

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)