Tag Archives: Ray Grigg

Dr. Richard Muller (Guardian photo)

The Last Climate Change Skeptic


If Dr. Richard Muller, a professor of physics from the University of California, Berkeley, is not the last of the global climate change skeptics, he should be. For years he has been one of the highest profile critics of the procedures and conclusions of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), arguing that its current analysis of evidence is too flawed to definitively conclude a relationship between anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide and rising global temperatures.

He has since changed his mind, offering an opinion piece in The New York Times (July 28/12) describing his “total turnaround” on the subject and defining himself now as “a converted skeptic”. His transformation is worth exploring.

Funded by the American multi-billionaire Koch brothers — themselves heavily invested in fossil fuels and major funders of climate change contrarians — Professor Muller gathered a team of a dozen scientists to examine the evidence from a single authoritative perspective. Rather than using the more diverse strategy of the IPCC, his team examined only raw temperature records, the data he believed would reveal whether or not the planet was warming and, if so, whether it correlated to rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Professor Muller’s team began by examining 1.6 billion temperature records from 36,000 stations dating back to 1753, about 100 years longer than previous data sources. His Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project (BENT) eliminated all possible sources of error. It ruled out “urban heating” — cities generate their own heat, and large areas of asphalt and roofs also increase temperatures so the project used only rural temperatures. BENT ruled out “data selection” — previous studies compiled samples from a representative 20 percent while the BEST project used 100 percent of temperature records. The project ruled out “poor station quality” — not all temperature records were reliably accurate so it allowed for this error factor. And, finally, it ruled out “human intervention” and “data adjustment factors” by automating the data collection process so no element of subjectivity could intrude on the statistics.

The BENT project also took into account the effect of ocean currents on any heating, as well as solar variability — satellite information revealed the sun’s output of energy to be relatively stable and that sunspots had very little effect on any heating. And, finally, the project considered the cooling influence of particulate matter from volcanic explosions. The graph of temperatures from 1753 to the present shows distinct and sharp drops after every major volcanic eruption — Laki, Tambora, Cosiguina, Krakatoa, Agung, Chichon and Pinabubo — followed by an immediate recovery. The line of the graph arches slowly upward from 1753 until 1950 when its ascent increases markedly. The IPCC proposed the possibility that prior to 1950 the temperature rise may have been due to increased solar activity; the BENT project ruled out this possibility because the temperature rise correlates too closely to the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide. In most respects, the BENT findings are even more dramatic than those of the IPCC. Professor Muller estimates that the global rise in temperature attributed to human activity has been 1.5°C since 1753, of which 0.9°C has occurred since 1950.

As a disciplined scientist, he jumps to conclusions carefully. “Much to my surprise,” he wrote, “by far the best match [to temperature increase] was to the record of atmospheric carbon dioxide, measured from atmospheric samples and air trapped in polar ice.” This match doesn’t prove conclusively that rising carbon dioxide levels are responsible for global warming, he notes. Correlation is not causality. But the correlation indicates “it’s extremely likely that at least 74% of observed warming since 1950 was manmade; it’s highly likely all of it was.” As a caution, he notes that, “To be considered seriously, any alternative explanation must match the data at least as well as does carbon dioxide.” Presently, nothing else comes close to being a candidate. Without a better explanation, the evidence compels the conclusion that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are “almost entirely the cause” of Earth’s rising surface temperature.

Professor Muller is also quick to note that no particular weather event can be linked to the global temperature rise of 1.5°C. He is technically correct. But his declaration raises an interesting question. What, if any, is the effect of a rising temperature on weather? Heat energizes everything — this what heat does. His study did not venture into the complex realm of climatology. It is inconceivable, however, that such a temperature increase could not have some effect on heat transfer, humidity, precipitation, wind patterns, jet stream flows and the myriad of other factors affecting weather.

Meanwhile, Professor Muller is intent to offer advice from his “surprise” discovery. “Science,” he writes in his New York Times article, “is that narrow realm of knowledge that, in principle, is universally accepted. I embarked on this analysis to answer questions that, to my mind, had not been answered. I hope that the Berkeley Earth analysis will help settle the scientific debate regarding global warming and its human causes. Then comes the difficult part: agreeing across the political and diplomatic spectrum about what can and should be done.”

Indeed, the next part will be difficult. The findings of the BENT project simply confirm a finding and focus an issue that is now beyond the bounds of reasonable dispute. Skeptics, deniers and habitual contrarians have just lost the remnant of their tattered credibility. So the moral weight for corrective action shifts to our political leaders — where the avoidance of their ethical duty is no longer an excusable option.


The Internet Addiction


Canada’s media guru, Marshall McLuhan, wrote that we invent things and thereafter they invent us. So, what invention are we being transformed into by the things we invent? Perhaps, if we truly understood the character of our inventions, we could anticipate the way they shape our perceptions, our awareness and our behaviour – how they form us as individuals and as societies. But we don’t. Consequently, we move blindly into the future, discovering after the fact how we have been shaped by the things we invent.

One of the most powerful and pervasive of our recent inventions has been the Internet, the digital magic that has compressed time into microseconds and space into irrelevance. The distance between individuals – wherever they may live – has been obliterated. McLuhan’s notion of the global village has become reality through the World Wide Web, Facebook, Twitter and Google. We extol the wonders of this connectivity, of knowing nearly instantaneously the events that occur everywhere around us – London, China and Mars are now closer than our next door neighbours. We know that we created the Internet. But what has it created?

Studies outlined in Newsweek magazine (July 16, 2012) give us an indication. In the US, one of the most connected societies, the effects of heavy use of the Internet among those under 50 years old are depression, loneliness, obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, and even psychosis. The average American spends eight hours a day gazing into screens and receives 400 text messages per month; teenagers manage seven hours per day and average 3,700 texts per month. The Internet has accelerated human minds to the hyper speed of a frenetic buzz, their consciousness absorbed and mushed into the intensity and immediacy of ubiquitous digital signals. If 38 hours per week online is considered a reference for addiction, many people have reached this benchmark by mid-week. “This an issue as important and unprecedented as climate change,” notes Susan Greenfield, a pharmacology professor at Oxford University (Ibid.).

Studies in China, Korea and Taiwan suggest that many millions of people are literally addicted to the Internet, with a rate as high as 30 percent among teens. A Chinese study found heavy Internet users have “abnormal white matter” in their brains to accommodate the neurological changes required for excessive attention, control and immediate action the same physiological characteristics of those with obsessive-compulsive behaviour and attention-deficit disorders. Other Chinese studies found “structural abnormalities in gray matter” that were identical to those addicted to drugs and alcohol impairment to those functions related to speech, memory, motor control, emotion and sensory processing were typically 10 to 20 percent. One in eight Asians is deemed to have an unhealthy attachment to the Internet. An American study found 10 percent of iPhone users “fully addicted” to their devices, compulsively checking e-mail, text messages or their social network “all the time” or “every fifteen minutes”(Ibid.). Internet Addiction Disorder is now accepted as a treatable diagnosis in China, Korea and Taiwan.

The extreme examples are arresting: a young couple whose real infant died of neglect while they kept alive a virtual baby; 10 heavy users of the Web who died of blood clots from being immobile too long; universities unable to conduct campus addiction studies because they couldn’t find enough students who were willing to disconnect from the Internet; a man reduced to a psychotic wreck by the torrent of compliments and criticisms inundating his popular blog; the high-schooler who only ended his 24-hour-a-day iPhone use when committed to an asylum; a teenager who simultaneously maintained four separate avatars, with his real self “usually not my best one” and another teen who confronted the onerous task of replying to 100 new messages on his phone with the plaintive question, “how long do I have to do this?”

Serious as these problems are at the personal and psychological level, they suggest a society becoming progressively disconnected from the real world in which real people must function realistically. An objective and rational connection to reality becomes increasingly crucial as the speed and power of our technological world accelerates its disturbing impact on the planet’s ecosystems. As communities, we can’t make considered and apt decisions if we are disengaged and psychotic, if we are distracted and dysfunctional. And we can’t sustain thoughtful and persistent strategies if we are depressed and impulsive. The compulsive tendencies that accompany Internet addiction lock its victims into the repetition and inflexibility that has been the source of our problems. How do we break loose from the bonds that are creating our present environmental difficulties if we can’t be open, flexible and genuine, if the psychological and sociological conditions of our age are eroding our ability to act realistically?

Societies make their own futures. Granted, some exigencies surprise and disrupt our plans and intentions. But mostly we are the saviours and the victims of ourselves – probably truer now than at any time in our history. With our potential, as Susan Greenfield reminds us, “we could create the most wonderful world for our kids but that’s not going to happen if we’re in denial and people sleepwalk into these technologies and end up glassy-eyed zombies.”

Our hope must be that we become fully aware and carefully watchful of the way in which our inventions invent us. Education, study and diligence can spare us from being victims. We have much to know, very much to do and little time in which to act. The Internet has the incredible potential to suture our world into a comprehendible and manageable whole – it can be our salvation as easily as our ruination. We just need the mindfulness and discipline to use it wisely.

A handful of Canadian oil sands

The Dilbit Silence


“Dilbit” is a contraction of “diluted bitumen”, a little word loaded with controversy that has recently entered the English vocabulary. This is because “bitumen”, a word in long existence, has entered popular use as the peanut butter-like concentrate extracted from Alberta’s tar sands. Since bitumen is too thick to move through pipelines, it is diluted with benzene, naphtha, hydrogen sulphide and other proprietary ingredients — “diluent” — to make the bitumen fluid enough to be pumped. The result is dilbit, usually about 70 percent bitumen and 30 percent diluent. Although often compared to crude oil, it is categorically different.

This was illustrated on July 25, 2010, when 3 million litres of dilbit burst from Enbridge’s 6B pipeline into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Unlike crude oil, dilbit only floats for about nine days — more or less, depending on temperature and weather conditions. Then the solvents of the diluent evaporate, the dilbit reverts to bitumen and usually sinks if the spill is in water. At this point the traditional methods of recovering crude no longer work. (As a comparison, about 10 percent of conventional crude oil sinks.) Even the 15 percent recovery of a marine oil spill — the usual measure considered a “successful” cleanup — is unlikely. After the volatile, toxic and carcinogenic components of the diluent release into the air, the bitumen migrates to the bottom of the river or ocean, where its dispersal is essentially unstoppable and cleanup is nearly impossible. River ecologies pose a special problem because removing the bitumen from the bottom usually causes irreparable trauma to the sediment and gravel of the living bed.

This dilbit is the material that Enbridge’s $6 billion Northern Gateway pipeline would move over and under 773 of BC’s creeks, streams and rivers on its way from Alberta to Kitimat. And this is the material that tankers would be transporting along 230 km of the narrow and winding Douglas Channel, past the shoals and reefs of Caamano Sound, then through the waves and storms of Hecate Strait on its way to offshore markets in Asian.

The imagination boggles at the environmental implications of a spill occurring anywhere along this route. How is bitumen to be recovered from any of the remote watercourses along the 1,172 km of the pipeline? The delays caused by remote and inaccessible locations would mean that bitumen would be dispersed along countless kilometres of pristine rivers before — or even if — cleanup crews could arrive. This is treasured wilderness, nature’s heaven, salmon country, the indispensable heartland of BC’s marine ecology. Enbridge discovered that the bitumen spill in the Kalamazoo River, conveniently in a flat, populated and accessible region of Michigan, could be 18-times more expensive to clean up than conventional light crude. (During the last decade, industry’s average cost of cleaning up a barrel of spilled crude was $2,000; the cost of cleaning up a barrel of dilbit is estimated at $29,000.) And even after two years of effort and an expenditure of over $800 million, the Kalamazoo cleanup is not complete — whatever “complete” means for an oil spill. In all likelihood, a comparable spill in BC’s wilderness could not be contained and would probably never be cleaned up.

Then consider a tanker spill of dilbit anywhere in BC’s marine environment. At least the largest proportion of crude floats and a small portion of this is recoverable. Sunken bitumen would soon submerge to unrecoverable depths, its gummy and sticky black mass dispersed along the ocean bottom by tides to become a permanent and toxic fixture of the benthic ecology. It could eventually travel for hundreds of kilometres, washing ashore unexpectedly in distant places, perhaps for decades after the initial spill — the time delay a nearly perpetual reminder of the consequences of some unforeseen natural disaster or, much worse, of the gross stupidity of some engineering miscalculation or preventable mistake.

The silence on the dilbit issue is deafening. Significantly, Enbridge took weeks to notify US authorities that their spill on the Kalamazoo River was not light crude but dilbit. No wonder. No one has had any experience dealing with a major dilbit spill. The Kalamazoo experience was the first. As Robyn Allan, the former CEO of the Insurance Corporation of BC, noted on CBC radio’s The House (Aug. 11/12), no risk analysis of the Northern Gateway pipeline project by Enbridge includes any reference to the Kalamazoo River spill, suggesting that no experience has been gleaned from it and applied to BC’s rivers. “So far,” Allan said, “it’s as if Kalamazoo never happened.”

Which is probably what Enbridge would prefer. Dilbit and bitumen present complications that are incompatible with their promotion of the Northern Gateway project. As their Kalamazoo mishap has established, a dilbit spill in an aquatic environment cannot be properly addressed with known technology, the cost of cleanup is horrendous, the damage to corporate profit is considerable, the stigma on reputation is lasting, and the public relations dimensions are lethal. The challenge of cleaning up ordinary crude is bad enough without having to consider a mix of diluent and bitumen. The wisest strategy for a corporation that is constantly spinning a positive message and opportunely escalating safety assurances is just to pretend that Kalamazoo didn’t happen. And then, when the subject of the Northern Gateway arises, hope than no one will notice the sound of its silence.

Postscript: The recent and surprising proposal by newspaper mogul David Black for a $13 billion refinery in Kitimat complicates rather than solves the bitumen problem.

Vancouver's Stanley Park was severely damaged by a wind storm in 2006 (flickr photo)

Carbon Costs


During nearly three decades of fruitless negotiating, the political leaders of the international community have failed to find an effective way to price carbon dioxide emissions and thereby ameliorate global warming and climate change. But simple causality guarantees that we will pay a carbon tax, even if we don’t have an official one. So a carbon tax is levied and collected by nature, usually inequitably and sometimes very cruelly.

In anticipation of this rising tax, the cities of Toronto and Halifax have already instituted expensive “adaptation” strategies to accommodate an increase in street flooding, storm water runoff, sewer backups, heat-related illness and storm emergencies.

Vancouver is the latest city to consider costly preventative measures that should reduce the astronomical costs associated with more active weather. The city is still stinging from a 2006 windstorm that left 250,000 people without electricity and required infrastructure repairs of $10 million. Then a 2010 rainfall flooded many homes, which resulted in lawsuits against the city. Said Sadhu Johnson, the deputy city manager, “The key for us is to be proactive. It will save us billions in the next century” (The Vancouver Sun, July 21/12).

And how much will it cost Vancouver to be “proactive”? Just the risk assessment studies for coastal flooding, urban forest management and fresh water challenges could be $1.3 million. The “adaptation” strategy is expected to cost $84 million for the years 2012 to 2014. All these re-engineering costs can be attributed to global warming. “The climate is clearly changing,” concludes Vancouver’s study, “and, in many instances, we are observing changes at the most extreme end of the projections made a decade ago.”

And what are the expected changes? Wetter winters with a 28 percent increase in “extremely wet days” by 2050. Heavy rainfall events that occurred every 25 years will occur every 10 years. Summers will get correspondingly dryer. Temperature increases will average 1.7°C by 2050 and 2.7°C by 2080. “Extreme heat events” that occurred every 25 years will occur every 8 years. Sea level rise, difficult to predict because of so many variables, could be from 1 metre to 2 metres by 2100, a change that could cause havoc with drainage systems, wharfs, buildings, roads, waterfront facilities and low-lying residential areas.

Although inland cities do not have to contend with rising sea levels, they often have to contend with flooding rivers, and may be subjected to more extreme weather because of their continental location — Manitoba recently spent $1 billion on dikes and flood management. So multiply Vancouver’s initial “proactive” costs by the number of other cities in Canada to get a vague estimate of the hidden carbon taxes that will either be payed in prevention or repairs. Then add the rest of North America’s cities and those of the world. “Adaptation” is a term describing people’s efforts to make the best of a bad situation. Call these costs a carbon tax.

Other carbon taxes are more severe. The four people who died in BC’s Johnsons Landing mudslide on July 12, 2012, were just a few of those paying a heavy carbon tax. Unusually heavy winter snowfall and torrential rains during warm summer weather created the conditions that brought down a mountainside on their idyllic homes in the Kootenays. But floods in China, Thailand, Brazil, France, Poland, Japan, India, Australia and the Philippines in the last two years have exacted a much heavier toll.

The floods in Pakistan in 2010 drowned thousands, submerged one-fifth the country and displaced 20 million people. These floods were followed by record high temperatures of 53.5°C. Saudi Arabia had temperatures exceeding 47°C in 2010, and Mecca had rain this summer when the city was sweltering at 42.8°C — the highest temperature at which rain has ever been recorded. Russia had 172 casualties from extreme rainfall on July 7th. Britain ended an extraordinary spring drought with incessant rain. A drought is presently parching much of the US corn belt, more damage to add to the $5 billion that Texas recently lost to drought.

Climate change deserves so much attention because the impacts are pervasive and fundamental, affecting almost everything related to our security and prosperity. The science of this process is indisputably clear. More than 40 different supercomputer models consistently predict nearly identical weather outcomes for rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, confirming repeatedly that the extreme weather events we have been experiencing in recent months and years are wholly consistent with the new reality we are inflicting upon ourselves. Much of this damage can be counted as carbon tax.

This tax cannot be negotiated or postponed. It is levied in accordance with the laws of physics. A rise of a single degree in temperature increases humidity by 8 percent. Humidity over oceans has already increased by 5 percent. More humid air coupled with higher temperatures transfers greater amounts of energy into storm systems and causes more extreme weather. More heat means more evaporation. Climate science requires that increasing amounts of evaporated moisture must eventually come down as precipitation. For some places, this means more droughts; for other places, this means more floods. The distribution is not based on any human notion of fairness. Nonetheless, it is a carbon tax, duly levied and dispassionately collected. Our own version would likely be less painful and more equitable — if ever the international community should find the foresight to implement one.


Carbon’s Terrifying Mathematics


Exasperation about the world’s ineffective measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was registered clearly on August 2, 2012, when Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and a principle founder of the environmental movement called 350.org, published a detailed article in Rolling Stone magazine called “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”. As one of the most eloquent, passionate and informed spokespersons on the environmental threat of rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, McKibben’s article reads like a warning and an ultimatum. To give shape to his concerns, he identifies three numbers as key reference points.

The first is 2°C. This is the maximum global temperature increase that national political leaders have decided is prudent and safe. But even with this limited increase, climatologists warn, we have a one in five chance of losing control and far exceeding this number — it’s Russian roulette, McKibben reminds us, with five chambers instead of six. He quotes Thomas Lovejoy, former World Bank’s chief biodiversity adviser, who observed, “If we’re seeing what we’re seeing today at 0.8 degrees Celsius, two degrees is simply too much.” And James Hansen, one of the world’s foremost climatologists, concurs. “The target that has been talked about in international negotiations for two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster.”

Newscasts now commonly carry reports of unusual droughts, heat waves, forest fires, torrential rains, floods, landslides and windstorms. As the global temperature rise approaches 0.8°C, weather anomalies are already disruptive and costly. Even with this apparently modest rise, McKibben writes, “June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere — the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th century average…”. The odds of this “occurring by simple chance”, he explains, is 3.7 x 10 to power of 99 — “a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.” A rise of 2°C represents two and a half times this temperature increase.

The second number he asks us to note is 565 gigatons. This, scientists estimate, is the additional amount of carbon dioxide we can emit into the atmosphere before we exceed the 2°C limit. Global emissions in 2011 were 31.6 gigatons, an increase of 3.2 percent over the year before. Projections are for continued increases, the result of wholly unsuccessful efforts to reduce the global output. “In fact,” McKibben writes, “study after study predicts that carbon emissions will keep growing by roughly three percent a year — and at that rate, we’ll blow through our 565-gigaton allowance in 16 years, around the time today’s preschoolers will be graduating from high school.” A more ominous prediction comes from Fatih Birol, the International Energy Agency”s chief economist. “When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about six degrees,” a situation McKibben describes as “a planet straight out of science fiction.”

The third number McKibben asks us to note is 2,795 gigatons. This is the total carbon dioxide known to be held in storage in proven reserves of oil, gas and coal around the world. These reserves are the national property of countries and the private property of corporations. The present value of these reserves is about $27 trillion, an amount that the owners expect to recover by sale and the purchasers expect to burn as fuel. Notice that this 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide in storage is five times larger than the allowable 565 gigatons of emissions if average global temperature increases are to be held below 2°C.

As McKibben points out, this discrepancy reveals a worrisome dilemma. If the 2°C temperature ceiling is going to be met, then 80 percent of the fossil fuels held in storage will have to remain there, unburned, at a loss of about $20 trillion in assets. In McKibben’s words, “Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically above ground — it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide — those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value. It’s why they’ve worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada’s tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians.” Countries relying on royalties and corporations expecting profits will have to forego most of their income to avoid the unleashing of a “science fiction” world of excessive heat and extreme weather.

These countries and corporations are not expected to willingly constrain their extraction of fossil fuels to save the planet from the environmental consequences. Their history and performance confirm this expectation. As McKibben points out, the melting Arctic ice has merely been an incentive for countries and corporations to rush northward to find even more gas and oil. Venezuela is intending to develop the Orinoco tar sands, a site even bigger than Alberta’s reserves. Burning the oil from just these two deposits would reach the 565 gigaton limit set for holding global temperature increases below 2°C. To paraphrase Naomi Klein’s chilling words, “…wrecking the planet is their business model. It’s what they do.” The Northern Gateway, Keystone and Kinder Morgan pipelines are all North American examples of such oil promotion projects. So are the daily tankers planned for BC’s West Coast.

If a way exists through this dilemma, it’s a global carbon tax that is sufficiently large to give renewable energies a competitive advantage and to leverage petro-states and fossil-fuel corporations to leave their assets in the ground. But this will take an unprecedented act of political will — one, it seems, we are not yet ready to take.

Vincent van Gogh - a self-portrait

Van Gogh in Perspective


Almost everyone knows about the Dutch painter, Vincent van Gogh, and his turbulent life of abject poverty, bouts of insanity, total failure as an artist — he sold one painting in his career — and his eventual death from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot to his stomach.

This personal tragedy juxtaposes with his current popularity and success — one of his paintings, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, recently sold for an astounding $82.5 million. But van Gogh’s significance is not usually considered in a wider cultural context. This is what the art historian Modris Eksteins explores in his two books, Rites of Spring and Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age (Maclean’s, Feb. 27/12).

To understand van Gogh’s deeper significance, we need to recognize that history is only meaningful in the grand sweeps that are rarely noticeable to those living at any given moment. So the details of ordinary life usually provide little perspective of what is actually happening until these daily events fall into the context of larger time frames. This explains why artists and historians are so important. And the two come together in Eksteins’ consideration of van Gogh.

Van Gogh’s present popularity, Eksteins argues, arises from the match of his personality with our present age — “an icon of authenticity for the age of doubt”. Van Gogh certainly didn’t seem to belong in his own time. During the span of his life, from 1853 to 1890, he embodied all the traits that were uncharacteristically Victorian. Instead of diverting the raw drives of life into duty, order and propriety, van Gogh lived them directly, like a unfettered animal following the creative urges of his instincts. He seemed to be wholly out of tune with the outward pulse of his era. But, as Eksteins argues, van Gogh was wholly in tune with the unconscious forces that were frustrating Victorian Europe at the end of the 19th century.

Europe was struggling with a “crisis of authenticity”, a pseudo certainty that felt hollow and hypocritical. In essence, van Gogh was living the life that many Victorians secretly desired but rarely fulfilled. It took the Great War and its aftermath to bring this obscure Dutch painter to prominence.

At the end of van Gogh’s life in 1890, Europe did not know it was careening toward catastrophe. But all the conditions were being set for the 1914 calamity of the First World War. As difficult as it is to believe today, most Europeans welcomed the conflict, enticed by the prospect of authentic experience and an opportunity to live all their high Victorian values of pride, loyalty and honour. They learned a sorry lesson. At the end of the destruction and carnage — at least nine million dead — Europe sat amid wreckage, a continent devastated physically, economically, socially, psychologically and philosophically.

Europe, in effect, had lived Vincent van Gogh’s life and could now identify with him in a way that was never possible during its previous innocence. Van Gogh’s popularity soared. He became an icon of the new century’s turmoil and intensity. In Eksteins’ words, “We choose our heroes out of our deepest concerns.” Or, expressed differently, the people we make into our heroes embody a part of ourselves that we do not always recognize at a conscious level. Thus our heroes creep into prominence, slithering sideways in curious disguises until we eventually understand how they define who we really are.

This brings us to the present, to the way history always repeats itself — the unfolding circumstances are always different enough to surprise us yet always similar enough to be familiar — and explains why van Gogh still looms so large in our imaginations. The First World War bred a half-century of tumult and shattered ideals, wreckage that we are still trying to reconcile with an image of better selves. Like the Victorians, we also live in a world of illusions.

We, in the 21st century, are not that different from the Victorians at the end of the 19th century on the brink of conflagration. Instead of their hollow decorum, propriety and duty, we are a culture of materialists and consumers, technological and scientific wizards wholly engrossed in our own biases. Just as the Victorians, we possess the same smug and compulsive indifference to the warning sirens screaming around us. The momentum of our cultural habits carries on with the same willful blindness that characterizes every civilization marching into its future — smart enough to observe what is happening but not quite able to measure its actual significance.

The brooding presence haunting us today, of course, is global environmental deterioration exacerbated by too many people consuming too much on a planet that is now too small, a destructive compulsion coupled with a momentum of greed that sometimes seems unstoppable. Our frenzy of resource extraction, energy consumption and industrial production makes the Victorians’ storied enthusiasm seem comatose.

Is our situation analogous to the Victorians? Will we re-live their naivety with an Armageddon of our own? The real answer is that we don’t know — yet. But rising numbers of ecologists, climatologists, biologists, economists, philosophers and almost everyone of intellectual and scientific substance are warning us of imminent and irreversible consequences that should give us pause for a very serious evaluation of our collective values and behaviour.

But maybe we already know. Perhaps this is why we are so drawn to Vincent van Gogh, the earthy, intense and self-destructive painter who risked all and lost all in the fire of his creative energy. Perhaps Eksteins’ insight — that “we choose our heroes out of our deepest concerns” — is truer than we realize.


Bread and Circuses


The Roman empire faced an unexpected internal problem as it reached the peak of its power and wealth in the second century CE. Plunder and tribute filled its coffers, widening the gulf between rich and poor. Meanwhile, cheap slave labour was powering farms and mines, together with the construction of buildings, bridges, aqueducts and roads. Many Roman citizens were left unemployed, bored, hungry and restless. This was a politically dangerous situation.

So in 140 CE, the Caesars began creating make-work projects and distributing free grain. Over the next two centuries, writes Alice Schroeder in The Danger of Living on Bread and Circuses (Bloomberg.com, June 1/11), subsequent “emperors added holidays until, eventually, the Romans spent half their days attending gladiator games, public executions and chariot races. Disgusted, the satirist Juvenal accused his fellow citizens of selling out for bribes of ‘bread and circuses’ [panem et circenses]“.

This strategy of appeasing and distracting was successful in Rome – at least until 410 CE when the Visigoths sacked the city. And the strategy has been used elsewhere in history with limited success: in Spain with “bread and bullfights”, in Russia with “bread and spectacles” and today with “bread and games”. The “bread” of history, Schroeder reminds us, has been replaced with fast food restaurants, big box stores and warehouse wholesale clubs. The “games” have multiplied. Professional sports now occupies huge amounts of the public’s attention: football, hockey, baseball, basketball, golf, tennis, cycling – anything competitive that can entertain by arousing tribal loyalty and passion.

The electronic and digital ages have simply magnified this trend. “When entertainment dominates a society, it changes more than the culture; it also reshapes the economy,” Schroeder notes. “You can see that circuses are where the money is from the rise of digital entertainment, which has steered enormous amounts of discretionary income toward digital content and the devices that run it: laptops, televisions, gaming consoles, smart phones.” The problem, she suggests, is that this circus atmosphere shifts labour and energy from production to service, weakening the foundational economic structure of cultures.

Entertainment also reshapes the character of cultures, increasing their internal political vulnerability by drawing attention from important social and environmental issues to wholly manufactured and artificial distractions – the well-being of society is rarely improved when the public gets exercised by one team defeating another on a playing field or a hockey rink. But valuable attention and energy are diverted from matters that are important.

The “circuses” that presently distract from the important work of society are not a contrived and co-ordinated effort by the entertainment industry and corporations working in collusion with government. The professional sports industry makes money. The sponsoring corporations advertise and profit. The politicians have fewer people pestering them about matters of governance. The process is more inadvertent than engineered; it simply persists because it suits the interests of the few and it entertains the many. So it becomes a cultural habit that is deemed to be normal. The Olympics are only special because of their infrequency and the marketing acumen that promotes them.

The spectacular “circus” of the Olympics is so blatantly elaborate, extravagant and expensive that it should be its own worst advertising. The costs are staggering. Montreal spent 30 year paying off its $1.5 billion debt for hosting the 1976 games. The financial burden is a factor in Greece’s present financial crisis. The 2012 London Olympics are a similar exercise in outrageous superlatives, with overall costs expected to be $17 billion.

London’s security costs alone are approaching $1 billion. This will include, as a sample, 24,000 to 49,000 security personnel (the total, of course, is a secret), a helicopter gun-ship carrier on the Thames, a surface-to-air missile system in the city, 1,000 armed diplomatic and FBI agents, 55 dog teams, and an 18 km electric fence of 5,000 volts costing $125 million. The cost of protecting each of the 17,000 athletes for the 17 days of the London Olympics will be $92,500. This, however, is a bargain compared to the $15 billion Greece spent on the 2004 Athens Olympics, at a security cost of $140,000 per athlete. Fortunately, Beijing could afford its security costs of $6.5 billion. As The Guardian Weekly (March 30/12) duly concludes, these costs show that the modern Olympics are “society on steroids”.

This profligate spending on the Olympics could be dismissed as merely expensive indulgence if human civilization didn’t have critical structural and environmental challenges that need urgent attention. If societies everywhere could rouse themselves to give as much impassioned energy to the litany of social, economic and ecological problems plaguing the planet as they do to the Olympic gatherings, then our future would look more promising.

If our international environmental gatherings in Kyoto, Stockholm, Cancun and Rio were measured against the standards of the official Olympic games, they would be deemed abject failures, marked by the collapse of nearly all the sprinters within a few metres of the starting line. The comparison would not be so disquieting if we had not done all this before – back in the Roman Empire.


From Market Economy to Market Society


If we can accept the scientific opinion that the primary ecosystems of our planet are seriously degraded — a United Nations’ report recently warned they are on the verge of collapse — then why have we been so slow to seriously address a problem that is rapidly approaching a condition deemed grave? One answer comes from Dr. Michael Sandel, a Harvard political philosophy professor, in his new book What Money Can’t Buy.

Dr. Sandel concludes that, “We have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.” The business of business, it seems, has infected society. Everything is now for sale and everything has a dollar value. We have stopped asking, “What are your principles?” Instead we are asking, “What is your price.” Life has been commercialized and money has become the primary measure of worth.

Want a law that favours your interests? Hire a lobbyist. Want to repair your damaged corporate reputation? Employ a public relations firm. Want to meet a powerful politician? Pay the $1,500 political contribution to a party’s fundraising event. Want special medical treatment? Go to a private clinic. Want to attend a special sporting event? Pay the ticket scalpers their asking price. Want to sell a product? Buy advertising. Want to avert the consequences of committing a crime? Hire a skillful legal team. Want to skirt the moral obligation of paying taxes? Hire a tax lawyer. Want environmental concessions? Invest huge sums in industrial development. Need fulfillment? Go shopping. Even the academic world is being skewed in the direction of money as universities are pressured to pander to commercial interests and students are lured toward business degrees rather than liberal educations.

The complicated moral and ethical issues of our time are reduced to monetary values. The virtue quotient is replaced by the asset balance. Wisdom is displaced by financial smarts. Success is measured by money, a gauge that somehow bypasses the old indicators of merit. So those with the most money are venerated with the greatest social approval. The result is a moral paucity, a materialistic quest that is swelling the ranks of the rich and the poor while shrinking everything between.

The evidence of this trend has been mounting for decades but only recently have some corporate remunerations become obscene enough to define the situation with shocking clarity. In 2009, the CEOs of the Canada’s top 100 corporations earned an average of $6.6 million per year in salary and benefits — 3 hours of their pay took their employees 12 months of labour to earn. In 2010, these same CEOs earned an average of $8.4 million per year while their employees’ wages remained flat. In 2011, a year of record profits for big American corporations, their CEOs earned an average of $9.6 million — a typical US worker would need to labour 244 years to reach the same remuneration. Such amounts of money can only be used to gain even more power to make even more money.

These numbers are astounding for their effect as well as their amount. As humanity’s inherent intolerance for unfairness is violated, the result is a rise in crime, social breakdown and pervasive discontent. Devious profit-making schemes, exploitive investments and reckless banking practices have shaken the global financial system. Anxiety and insecurity are increasing in an age of apparent plenty.
Although these disquieting effects are important, they fall within the realm of human affairs and can be corrected with a change of mind and legislation. Much more worrisome, however, is the environmental damage caused by a culture that has evolved from a “market economy” to a “market society”. When the fundamental value system of a society is in sympathy with market values, it elects similarly inclined governments, the constraints on money’s destructive power relax even further, disturbances to nature accelerate and, ultimately, we victimize ourselves.

This is the trend that is making scientists, historians, philosophers and a rising number of economists uneasy. A society living by “market” values has internalized the economic rules that are external to nature’s inflexible and iimpassive principles. This partially explains why the warnings of environmental experts go unheeded and why conservation policies are so difficult to implement. If the public has become a “market society”, it is not inclined to provide political support for environmental initiatives, and reform is seriously handicapped. A collective ethos that worships at the altar of Mammon will not understand that some things are more important than money. The impending collision of the two conflicting systems could be messy.

Nature is essential to our well-being. Virtually everything we do is dependent on it. But its accounting system doesn’t understand ledgers, promises, intentions or risks. A ruined ecology cannot be legislated back to health. An extinct species cannot be reintegrated into the biological fabric of life. Weather changes caused by burning fossil fuels will take centuries to subside, even if we were capable of a radical and immediate reduction of greenhouse gases. An acidified ocean will take millennia to return to normal. A massive species extinction — exactly what we are causing today — takes evolutionary processes about 10 million years to repair. The logic of a “market society” doesn’t synchronize with the logic of nature.

So we know the answer to Dr. Sandel’s rhetorical question, What Money Can’t Buy. We also know the alternative. It’s carved into a stone in the ruins of ancient Rome — the old and silent Latin words of “Salve Lucrum”, roughly translated as “Hurray For Profit!”


Everest Ascent


At an elevation of 7,900 metres on Mount Everest, Ralf Dujmovits made the difficult decision to abandon his sixth ascent of the highest mountain on Earth. The weather had turned bad and, as one of the most experienced climbers in the world, the 50 year-old German realized that the risks of proceeding were just too great — for himself, for his climbing companions and his sherpas.

That’s when he saw “in the distance on the Lhotse face,” as he noted in his internet diary, “a human snake, people cheek by jowl making their way up. There were 39 expeditions at the same time, amounting to more than 600 people. I had never seen Everest that crowded before,” he reported. “I was thinking how absurd the scene was. I had a strong feeling that not all of them would come back….That leaves you with a really oppressive feeling that some of the people would soon be dead. I was also filled with sadness [for] this mountain, for which I have immense respect together with the experienced sherpas, that a great deal of that had been lost” (Globe & Mail, May 31/12).

Indeed, four people did die on Everest that May 18th weekend, adding their corpses to the nearly 200 now littering its high slopes. The boast of climbing the world’s highest mountain is beginning to ring hollow and foolish, a mere tourist excursion in which people “drink [oxygen] like it was water,” Dujmovits notes, and anyone can attempt the ascent — even a short, fat French journalist and a Turkish-American who insisted on packing his bicycle to the summit to fulfill a “dream at whatever the cost.” As a consequence, according to Dujmovits, “the [appalling] jams of people… led to hours of waiting around which led to hypothermia and exhaustion. Many were dehydrated. But none of that seemed to have put people off.” As Dujmovits concluded, “People nowadays treat the mountain as if it was a piece of sporting apparatus, not a force of nature. It really makes my soul ache” (Ibid.).

This aching soul invites closer scrutiny, a search in our sense of the sacred, in the importance of mystery, in the magic of wonder, in our long and intimate history with Earth as the genesis of our existence. Perhaps the very act of summiting Everest is a fulfillment that ruins dreams, an accomplishment that defiles innocence, a victory that brings defeat. Perhaps success is a kind of destroying and knowing is a kind of killing.

Dujmovits was certainly concerned for the people who would likely kill themselves on Everest that May weekend. His concern didn’t seem personal, that the significance of his own efforts would be diminished by the ascent of others — by so many others. He seemed mostly concerned about the mountain being treated as “a piece of sporting apparatus”, as a mere object, as a wholly impersonal thing, and that the quest to reach the highest place on Earth was becoming an empty fad that was diminishing the stature of every climber, and of Everest, too. If people couldn’t respect themselves and the sacredness of their own lives, how could they respect the mountain and the sacredness of nature?

Perhaps Dujmovits was feeling that something wild and powerful, something natural and holy is being defiled by yet another rampant expression of wanton human desire, that the urge to reach the summit is becoming less an honourable pilgrimage than a vain and empty exercise in ego gratification, that the rule of empty pride is displacing something more selfless, humble and precious. Avarice is turning the grandeur of a mountain into a trivial trinket, just as the ubiquitous following, flocking and crowding is continually diminishing the value of everyone and everything. The ingenuity of crass commercialization and the tides of mass consumption are diluting and cheapening the magic and the mystery of being alive on this astounding planet. Whatever is touched by this process is more available and less valuable. Everest is still 8,848 metres high but it now seems lower, less formidable, less clean, less important, less respected and less inspiring.

Thus Everest becomes a symbol of our treatment of the planet, an image of what happens to environmentalists and naturalists who come to know nature, who fall in love with its intricate beauty, and then find it degraded or ruined by those who exploit it for prestige, fashion, profit or the plastic badge of material success.

Anyone with a hint of environmental sensitivity feels this daily as nature is systematically displaced, occupied, used and abused by the manic activity of our culture’s industrial hysteria. Because we can do things doesn’t mean we should. The frantic pace of constructing and intruding, of trespassing and polluting, of exploiting and defiling, of callous indifference to the integrity of landscapes and ecologies is ultimately self-defeating. Our creative ingenuity for ascending symbolic mountains is ultimately more disquieting than satisfying. The “appalling jams of people” on Everest’s littered slopes is a metaphor for the pipelines and tankers, the refineries and factories, the mines and tar pits, the highways and cars, the concrete and congestion, the chemicals and concoctions that clutter, defile and poison our planet.

Let us hope that the 200 corpses littering the slopes of Everest are not the harbinger of our future as we climb ever upwards, abusing nature in our headlong quest for more and more of everything, seemingly heedless of the dangerous altitude and the bad weather.

Wind farms like this one aren't the only secret to Denmark's carbon-cutting success

Carbon 400 and How Denmark Became an Emissions Cutting Success


The level of atmospheric carbon dioxide hit a record 400 parts per million in May, 2012, a milestone that should send a chill of concern through anyone who is remotely concerned about the disturbing ramifications of global warming. Little solace should come from the fact that this concentration of greenhouse gas was only reached in the Arctic regions of Alaska, Iceland, Norway, Greenland and Mongolia, and will dip slightly as plants in the Northern Hemisphere absorbs some of it during the summer months of growth.

As for the rest of the planet, however, levels have risen during the last year from 391 to 395 ppm, up from the pre-industrial reference number of 280 ppm. We are now at the highest known concentration in at least 800,000 years, according to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Lab in Boulder, Colorado. The rest of the planet will probably reach the 400 ppm milestone within two years as carbon dioxide concentrations increase and equalize. The NOAA reports that the decade from 2000 to 2009 was the warmest ever recorded in human history. Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency recently announced that global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels in 2011 hit a record high of 34.8 billion tonnes, up 3.2 percent from 2010.

For those who are counting carbon, these numbers are dismaying because they are the definitive indicators of how poorly humanity is collectively addressing the climate change issue. Normal weather, reliable food production, community safety, political stability and almost everything environmental is linked directly or indirectly to these carbon dioxide levels. Efforts to date are not even slowing the increase in atmospheric CO2, let alone reducing the concentrations to the 350 ppm considered safe for stable climate conditions.

The exasperating element in this whole sorry process is that we know how to fix the problem and we have enough of the technology to do it. All we lack is the political will.

As models of contrast, Canada is an example of dismal procrastination and denial while Denmark represents exemplary and pragmatic effort. Instead of reducing emissions from the 1990 reference level and despite its pledge to do so, Canada has increased its emissions by 30 percent and is not even expected to reach its diluted 2020 target. In contrast, Denmark’s emissions are now 13 percent below its 1990 levels and the country is taking a leading role in wind technology, energy efficiencies and functional solutions. Canada’s failure to act is a powerful factor in the cynical and gloomy mood pervading the country — the only real antidote for pessimism is to acknowledge a problem and confront it with constructive effort.

Jeff Rubin, who left the CIBC bank as its chief economist for World Markets to analyze the direction of future socio-economic structure in an age of rising energy costs, has included Denmark’s success in his latest book, The End of Growth. How is this country accomplishing what Canada is not? The answer is surprising and obvious.

Denmark is thought of as the “wind technology capital of the world”. Indeed, it may be. But its thousands of huge turbines produce only 20 percent of its power. The rest comes from coal. Yes, coal, the fossil fuel that is 20 percent dirtier than oil and twice as polluting as natural gas. Granted, the coal is combusted in state-of-the-art facilities and the excess heat is used to warm buildings. But that’s not how Denmark’s has accomplished what Canada cannot — or will not.

Denmark’s secret, according to Rubin, is carbon taxes. The simple pressure of price on carbon dioxide-emitting goods and services induces Danes to reduce electricity consumption, to buy small cars, to build efficient houses, to bicycle, to favour local over imported food, and to shop for low-carbon products. Amazing. And the money raised goes to increasing efficiencies that further reduce carbon emissions. This little country has found a solution that is elegant, practical and effective, one that must lift a heavy moral weight from the Danish conscience and replace the load of guilt with an immense national pride — very unlike Canadians who live with a shameful international reputation darkened by the stigma of being a global environmental laggard and pariah.

For Canada, the carbon tax solution has been recommended multiple times by the government’s own National Roundtable On the Economy and Environment, an organization created in 1988 precisely for the purpose of finding common agreement between seemingly opposing interests. It was founded on the principle that “a modern economy” and “a sustainable environment” are “mutually reinforcing.” And this is one of the organizations, along with important climate science, that the Harper government is eliminating as superfluous.

If a government intends to deny the facts of science and repudiate the relationship between economics and the environment, then an image is emerging of leadership wholly disconnected from fundamental realities. All that remains for Canadians is bewilderment, exasperation and the haunting suspicion that their future is being charted by an ideology that is incomprehensible, myopic and ominous.