Saturday, November 29, 2014

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, by Naomi Klein, is incredibly difficult to write about. I've been putting sticky notes beside important paragraphs as I read, and my copy now looks like an art project, bristling with coloured paper squares. I can say without exaggeration that this is one of the most important books you'll ever read.

In her clear, readable prose, Klein demonstrates exactly what is destroying our planet: unregulated, unchecked capitalism, brought to you by the scourge of our era, neoliberalism. (US readers may be more familiar with the term neoconservatism.)

In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, Klein showed us how corporate interests exploit crises to enact policies that enrich a small elite, using the holy trinity of neoliberalism: privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and lower corporate taxation, paid for with cuts to public spending. Now Klein widens her lens to demonstrate how that same orientation actively prevents us from taking the necessary steps to halt and reverse climate change, and with it, the impending destruction of a habitable Earth.

Klein succinctly and precisely diagnoses the root problem. In order to challenge climate change, in order to reverse a course that threatens billions of lives and is ultimately suicidal for humanity, radical change is required. We must stop living as if infinite growth is possible on a finite planet. This goes way beyond separating our trash into different bins and using more efficient light bulbs. It means dismantling the fossil-fuel industry, powering our entire society with renewable energy sources (it is possible!), and ultimately, abandoning the idea of growth as the basis for our economies.

Tackling climate change means, ultimately, dismantling neoliberalism itself.
A belief system that vilifies collective action and declares war on all corporate regulation and all things public simply cannot be reconciled with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that are largely responsible for creating and deepening the crisis.
This means rethinking the false notion of "free" trade. Ontario, for example, would be decades ahead in wind and solar production, not to mention good, green jobs, but for the crippling mandates of free-trade agreements. "Free" deserves scare quotes.
Not only do fossil fuel companies receive $775 billion to $1 trillion in annual global subsidies, but they pay nothing for the privilege of treating our shared atmosphere as a free waste dump.
Klein reminds us that if free-trade regulations block our ability to disrupt our dependence on fossil fuels, then those regulations must be rewritten. And so it goes for any number of policies that express the neoliberal ideology, which, as Klein writes, "form a ideological wall that has blocked a serious response to climate change for decades."

Of course, nothing is free; the question is who pays the price. The price may be unemployment, or jobs that can't sustain a decent life, or overcrowded classrooms, or a generation condemned to poverty-stricken old age. The price may be flammable drinking water, or whole villages beset by rare cancers. The neoliberal agenda wreaks its havoc in ways seen and unseen. Shell's Arctic oil rig ran aground when it braved impassable winter weather, attempting to beat a timeline that would trigger additional taxes. In Montreal, the MM&A rail company received government permission to cut the number of staff on its trains from five to a single engineer: thus the Lac-Megantic disaster. However measured, it's a price paid by ordinary people, while corporations wallow in profit.

In turn, dismantling neoliberalism would mean rethinking our governments, too, as democracies driven by lobbyists, corporate donors, and industry interests - valuing profits over people - pave the way for policies that are killing us all. Can a society where this can happen be rightly considered democratic?
...the most jarring part of the grassroots anti-extraction uprising has been the rude realization that most communities do appear to lack this power; that outside forces - a far-off central government, working hand-in-glove with transnational companies - are simply imposing enormous health and safety risks on residents, even when that means overturning local laws. Fracking, tar sands pipelines, coal trains, and export terminals are being proposed in many parts of the world where clear majorities of the population has made its opposition unmistakable, at the ballot box, through official consultation processes, and in the streets.

And yet consent seems beside the point. Again and again, after failing to persuade communities that these projects are in their genuine best interest, governments are teaming up with corporate players to roll over the opposition, using a combination of physical violence and draconian legal tools reclassifying peaceful activists as terrorists.

....Only two out of the over one thousand people who spoke at the panel's community hearings in British Columbia supported the project. One poll showed that 80 percent of the province's residents opposed having more oil tankers along their marine-rich coastline. That a supposedly impartial review body could rule in favor of the pipeline in the face of this kind of overwhelming opposition was seen by many in Canada as clear evidence of a serious underlying crisis, one far more about money and power than the environment.
When reviewing the proposed solutions to climate change, Klein skewers the chimeras that don't and can't work, from the corporate boondoggle known as cap-and-trade, to various technological fixes that would take our fantasy of controlling nature to bizarre new heights.
Indeed, if geoengineering has anything going for it, it is that it slots perfectly into our most hackneyed cultural narrative, the one in which so many of us have been indoctrinated by organized religion and the rest of us have absorbed from pretty much every Hollywood action movie ever made. It's the one that tells us that, at the very last minute, some of us (the ones that matter) are going to be saved. And since our secular religion is technology, it won't be god that saves us but Bill Gates and his gang of super-geniuses at Intellectual Ventures.
Klein also heaps contempt on the so-called partnerships between large environmental organizations and the fossil-fuel industry, which are something like the partnership between the pig and Oscar Mayer. As Klein puts it, "the "market-based" climate solutions favored by so many large foundations and adopted by many greens have provided an invaluable service to the fossil fuel sector as a whole."

This Changes Everything illuminates an impressive array of activism, introducing most readers, I'm guessing, to a new expression: Blockadia. Blockadia represents the global, grassroots, broad-based networks of resistance to high-risk extreme extraction. From Greece to the Amazon to New Zealand to Montana to British Columbia, the resistance is in motion. Taking many forms - the divestment movement pressuring institutions to sever economic ties with the fossil-fuel industry, the towns declaring themselves "fracking free zones," the civil disobedience that physically slows the building of pipelines while court challenges continue - Blockadia is creating space for public debate and the possibility of change.

In many places, Blockadia is led by people from indigenous communities. Not only are indigenous peoples often the first victims of climate destruction - witness, for example, the off-the-chart cancer rates of First Nations people living downstream from Canada's tar sands - but their worldviews may form the basis of our way forward. On a Montana reservation where young Cheyenne are learning how to install solar energy systems - cutting residents' utility bills by 90% while learning a trade, creating an alternative to a life spent working for the coal industry - a female student makes this observation.
Solar power, she said, embodied the worldview in which she had been raised, one in which "You don't take and take and take. And you don't consume and consume and consume. You take what you need and then you put back into the land."
I want everyone to read this book, and because of that, I hesitate to share this unfortunate truth: ultimately, This Changes Everything filled me with hopelessness and despair. I wouldn't say it made me pessimistic, as I am optimistic about humankind's ability to change ourselves and our systems, if we choose to. Rather, the book filled me with outright hopelessness, because I don't believe we will even have the opportunity to make that choice. The forces aligned against the necessary change are massive, and massively powerful. Untold profits depend on the system not changing, and what's more, gargantuan profits are being reaped off the destruction itself. The oligarchs who profit from climate change are associated with the most powerful tools of violence every known - the mightiest armies and the greatest amorality.

Adding to the difficulty, our society clings to what Klein calls "the fetish of centrism": of the appearance of reasonableness, of "splitting the difference, and generally not getting overly excited about anything". This is the illogic that dictates we must "balance" the interests of the petroleum industry with our need for clean water, or the profits of real estate developers with the human need for shelter. This fetish of centrism allows the government and its partners in the media to label as "extremists" people who want to protect water and land from catastrophic oil spills.

Added to this, huge numbers of ordinary people, led by corporate media and astroturf faux activists, align themselves against their own interests, stoked by fears of imagined foes (be they communists, immigrants, or feminists) and cling to notions of a supposedly free market, which in reality is heavily subsidized by taxpayers. This global market is anything but free: the risk is socialized in every way possible, but the returns are strictly privatized.

If you've read Jared Diamond's Collapse, you are familiar with the concept that societies don't always do what's best for them. Societies make choices that ultimately chart their own demise. I do not despair of our ability to remake our world, but I know that the forces aligned against us will stop at nothing to prevent us from doing so. The most powerful people on the planet can shield themselves from the effects of climate change until it is too late for the rest of us.

And yet... and yet. I feel hopeless, but my feelings don't matter.

What matters is this: we have little time, and we must try. Resistance movements have changed cultures. Resistance movements have brought mighty empires to their knees, have ended deeply entrenched systems: slavery, colonialism, apartheid. For centuries, there was something called the Divine Right of Kings, a concept which must have seemed permanent and immutable. Now it does not exist. Capitalism, as currently practiced is killing our planet - killing us. We cannot shrug our shoulders.

If you agree - and more importantly, if you disagree - read this book. (This review was originally posted at wmtc.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World

I never know what interesting book I might read next. In my pattern of alternating personal books with library books, my library tastes are all over the Dewey map. I could read a book by Duran Duran's bassist then follow it up with a book about cod. Yes, as in Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky. I had already read two books by Kurlansky. The first was The Basque History of the World from 1999 which was long before I started to write reviews. Earlier this year I read Salt: A World History from 2002. Cod predates them both, as it was written in 1997. I could see the thematic similarities in each of the three books, and now that I have read Cod, I could tell how Kurlansky progressed first from writing about the fish, then to Basque traditions which included fishing for cod, and finally to the method that the Basques used in order to preserve the fish: salt.

Kurlansky is an excellent storyteller, who can make a school of fish seem like a hot topic. I could not put Cod down, and read the book from cover to cover, including the final chapter devoted to forty pages of cod recipes. The addition of recipes is typical of Kurlansky, as I recall Salt had recipes and The Basque History of the World featured many from the Basque kitchen. Cod played a vital role in the advancement of trans-Atlantic exploration. Who living in North or South America today would have thought that cod would be the reason they are there now? For it was because of dried and salted cod that crews could sustain themselves across long oceanic passages. The Basques made countless trips to North America before Columbus because:

"They were able to travel such distances because they had found huge schools of cod and salted their catch, giving them a nutritious food supply that would not spoil on long voyages."

However the Basques were not alone in their pre-Columbian expeditions across the Atlantic. Norse explorers settled on the island of Newfoundland over a thousand years ago:

"How did the Vikings survive in greenless Greenland and earthless Stoneland? How did they have enough provisions to push on to Woodland and Vineland, where they dared not go inland to gather food, and yet they still had enough food to get back? What did these Norsemen eat on the five expeditions to America between 985 and 1011 that have been recorded in the Icelandic sagas? They were able to travel to all these distant, barren shores because they had learned to preserve codfish by hanging it in the frosty winter air until it lost four-fifths of its weight and became a durable woodlike plank. They could break off pieces and chew them, eating it like hardtack. Even earlier than Eirik's day, in the ninth century, Norsemen had already established plants for processing dried cod in Iceland and Norway and were trading the surplus in northern Europe."

Yet Kurlansky has a soft spot for the Basques. So do I, in fact, yet in regards to their exploits at sea, the Basques reigned far and wide:

"The Basques, unlike the Vikings, had salt, and because fish that was salted before drying lasted longer, the Basques could travel even farther than the Vikings."

The Basques kept many secrets to themselves, including of course where their people came from, yet they never divulged the location of their mysterious cod supply. They likely sailed to the area now known as the Grand Banks. Once this location was discovered in the 1500's, the Atlantic Ocean was wide open. There was no idea of depleting the stocks much less thoughts of conservation. Ships would fill themselves up to the point where they came perilously close to submerging. As ship technology developed, likewise the cod catch increased:

"Steam ships with otter trawls were reporting catches more than six times greater than those of sail ships. By the 1890s, fish stocks were already showing signs of depletion in the North Sea, but the primary reaction was not conservation. Instead North Sea fleets traveled farther to richer grounds off of Iceland."

I found Kurlansky's excessive use of off of to be distracting. This is more an American idiom than what we say or write in Canada, which is without the of. I could have let this matter go however Kurlansky used it to annoying excess; in one single paragraph I counted the superfluous of after off five times, as in "In the dark waters off of Iceland" and "the cod off of Massachusetts".

Cod catches were becoming noticeably smaller at the start of the twentieth century:

"Were there any limits to how much could be caught, or was nature inexhaustible, as had been believed in the nineteenth century? Fishermen were beginning to worry."

The two World Wars gave all fish stocks a chance to replenish, as fishing ships were taken out of service and reassigned military duties. Thus only one country in Europe was left to continue fishing: Iceland:

"For six years, it was the only major fishing nation of northern Europe."

These years gave Iceland a sustained sense of confidence in its new independence. Iceland felt young and powerful. It proved to be the mouse that roared when it declared its fishing limits to be extended into international waters. Over a period of twenty years, these limits were extended bit by bit, causing conflict among the other north Atlantic fishing nations. This time has become known as the Cod Wars, where Iceland faced off versus Europe:

"The Icelandic government was shockingly tough. It refused to allow injured or sick British seamen into Iceland unless they arrived on their vessel, which would have meant surrendering the trawler. It blocked British NATO planes from Icelandic air traffic control and even threatened to cut diplomatic relations. Unlike Britain, Iceland depended on fishing for its entire economy; fishing was the miracle that had lifted its people from the Middle Ages to affluence. Despite a history of warm feelings between the two nations and a close alliance, Iceland was not going to yield on its only resource. NATO, concerned about this conflict within its ranks in the middle of the Cold War, began pressuring Britain to back down."


"Negotiations were also intense. 'The Icelanders are, by any standards, very difficult to deal with,' reported the London Financial Times. Iceland was not going to compromise. At one point, the nation actually severed diplomatic relations with Britain."

Cod had plenty of Canadian content, as no book on this fish species can exist without mentioning Newfoundland and the Canadian moratorium on fishing in the early nineties. Kurlansky however was quick to label the Newfoundlanders as ignorant where they considered themselves blameless in regards to stock depletion:

"Whatever steps are taken, one of the greatest obstacles to restoring cod stocks off of Newfoundland is an almost pathological collective denial of what has happened. Newfoundlanders seem prepared to believe anything other than that they have killed off nature's bounty."

The fishermen know it all too well, and many are pessimistic that the cod will ever return. Cod ends with a warning about greed and the fallacy that the ocean is a bottomless watery pit of riches:

"It is harder to kill off fish than mammals. But after 1,000 years of hunting the Atlantic cod, we know that it can be done."

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death & Duran Duran

I am a huge fan of Duran Duran. I have thirty years of their records, seen them in concert three times, interviewed Roger Taylor for the Toronto Star and even posted a book review of a band biography here. Thus when I heard about bassist John Taylor's memoir, I wanted to read it. In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death & Duran Duran is Taylor's story (written with Tom Sykes) about growing up in Birmingham and forming Duran Duran with Nick Rhodes and Roger Taylor. It was indeed a speedy read, with 74 short chapters spread out over 392 pages, so there was always time to read a few pages more. Taylor kept his own diaries from before the founding of Duran Duran, so he relied on his actual writings instead of rose-tinted nostalgic memories. Taylor fortunately did not dwell long on his early childhood, and made his earliest memories relevant as antecedents of major events that would occur much later in life. He also wrote journals during the Duran years and also during his time out of rehab, so he provided short yet valuable insights that were always in perspective.

Taylor, whose birth name is Nigel John Taylor, used his real first name up until the start of Duran Duran. He decided to change it and go by John:

"It was more than just taking a stage name. I needed to reinvent myself. Not be Mom and Dad's son. I didn't want to be called Nigel by anybody; the band, my friends, my family. It would take Mom years to get with the John plan."

Taylor may have had the reputation of being Duran Duran's most popular member, always leading the other four in decibels from the scream factor. Although he could have any girl he wanted, insecurity kept him from using his natural charms to ask women out, so he always supplemented his style with booze and drugs. Once he was tripping on cocaine, Taylor wrote that he could just wink and raise his eyebrows and he could be in bed with any woman in half an hour. Yet now that he is clean, he no longer needs a crutch of self-confidence, whether that is drugs, alcohol or a new name:

"If I had had a greater vision for myself, I would have kept Nigel and been the only Nigel in a music business crowded with Johns and Johnnies. But I wasn't that confident."

Duran Duran has lasted for over thirty years because of many factors, one of which is the decision by the band members to credit songwriting with all five members' names:

"It gave us all an equal stake in the band, and we each had to respect the others. It's the reason we are still together today."

Taylor takes the reader on tour and into the recording studio and to video sets. I especially liked the local reference to the Duran Duran concerts in Toronto in 1984, where they shot the footage that would eventually become the live video for "The Reflex". I was at one of those shows at Maple Leaf Gardens. Taylor also spent a chapter discussing the decision to remix "The Reflex", which he felt was necessary in order to make it a hit single. Duran Duran's work has stood the test of time, and I can't agree more when he asserts:

"Rio was a masterpiece."

I could have drunk in a lot more than the three- and four-page chapters, and I was disappointed whenever I turned the page and found the first page of the subsequent chapter facing me. As a diarist myself, I appreciated Taylor's candour in facing his truths by not sugar-coating his boozy and druggy past. One must face one's past in recovery, and Taylor realizes that recovery is an ongoing process. Denial of the truth is one step closer to falling off the wagon. None of Taylor's reminiscences had the air of sensational exaggeration, and his depression, sleeping around and drug scoring all seemed entirely real. When Taylor's own source material was his personal diary, he just wrote about what he knew, although I would have liked a longer book with fleshed-out chapters. In the last chapters he talked about the death of his mother and father. It was quite sad to read about the passing of Mr. Taylor, who lost the will to live after his wife died. His increasing forgetfulness and dementia struck me as I recalled the decline of my own maternal grandmother.

Now in his early fifties, Taylor is married with one daughter and two stepchildren. He is very happy to be part of a reunited Duran Duran, "the reunion of the snake" as he calls it.