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Little Black Lies Sparks War of Words

September 25, 2012

Last week, I wrote a column for Fast Forward Weekly about the plethora of bullshit spewed in defence of rapid bitumen development in Alberta’s tar sands. In essence, it was a sneak peek at my next book, Little Black Lies, which Rocky Mountain Books will present to the world in early November.

After an introduction to the scholarly work on the concept of bullshit, particularly Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, and how it infuses our society, I wrote: “Nowhere is the bullshit thicker than in Alberta’s bitumen fields. From the website of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) to the political podiums in Ottawa and Edmonton, it’s everywhere you look. Remember, after David Schindler and his colleagues published two peer-reviewed journal articles documenting industry-generated pollutants in the air, land and water in the tar sands region, how Rob Renner, Alberta’s environment minister at the time, continued to claim that any pollution found in the rivers and wetlands was from natural sources? When confronted by the media, he even went so far as to claim that Schindler’s paper didn’t say what it did, in fact, say — without even reading it.” Renner’s comment is, without a doubt, bullshit. It couldn’t be a lie, because Renner would have needed to read the paper and then deny the essence of its contents. But to simply say that it didn’t say what it did, in order to preserve his erroneous belief in the sanctity of tar sand development and convince Canadians likewise, Renner was clearly spewing bullshit.

Not surprisingly, the oil industry was not impressed with my characterization of their prolific use of disingenuous misinformation in their campaign to convince North Americans that the liquidation of Alberta’s tar sands is the best thing for society since the wheel. Janet Annesley, CAPP’s VP of Spin, responded with a grammatically defective letter to the editor in which she accused me of calling her and her industry “liars,” followed by a long quote from Frankfurt’s book about sincerity and the epistemology of self-knowledge. You can read the whole thing here.

It’s clear Ms. Annesley hasn’t read, or at least understood, Frankfurt’s thoughtful and excellent book. As one astute commenter on the Fast Forward website noted, Gailus’ “exhortation to the reader to keep an open mind, to not take pronouncement from not disinterested parties at face value, and to be aware of their own biases is perfectly sensible. I am sure he was being sincere when he said that, but that Frankfurt’s point is certainly not that everything that is said or written sincerely is therefore bullshit. Either Ms. Annesley fails to grasp this, or she does, and her lengthy quote is merely an attempt at misdirection disguised as a tu quoque. Either way, it’s bullshit.”

Ms. Anneseley, in a mere 536 words, managed to tie herself into a knot that leaves one wondering what she was trying to say. First she writes that my “tirade has the feel of general abuse and not the finer texture of BS.” But then she implies through the passage she quotes from Frankfurt’s book that the “sincerity” of my skepticism is BS.

So which is it? Is my proposition BS or isn’t it? I leave the reader to read carefully and think hard on the matter.

Finally, her misperception of my claim — that I’m calling them liars rather than bullshitters — indicates that she hasn’t the foggiest idea of what Frankfurt wrote about. As I wrote in my column, Frankfurt believes that the most salient feature of bullshit is its absolute lack of connection with the truth. Liars, by comparison, must know the truth, or at least think they know it, in order to disavow it. A liar “insert[s] a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth.” Bullshit and those who spew it, on the other hand, have no interest in an accurate representation of reality. It is an utter “lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are,” that he regards as “the essence of bullshit.”

So, backed by the scholarly might of Dr. Frankfurt, I just want to be clear that I’m not shouting “liar, liar, pants on fire.” I’m suggesting, with a hard drive full of evidence, that many if not most of the voices defending the status quo in the tar sands are bullshitters. They are indifferent to how things really are, because they believe, against all the evidence, that the tar sands are (and can be) developed in “responsible, sustainable and ethical” manner.

It’s time to call them out and steer the debate back to a more honest consideration of the facts and our future.

Little Black Lies

September 20, 2012

It’s been a while since I last posted to my blog. Teaching, hunting, new house and remodel: It’s all taken away from my writing.

But this is an auspicious occasion. Little Black Lies is finally coming out. Look for it in your local bookstore in November.

Here is the Preface to let you know what’s coming.

 

I never planned to write this book. It just forced itself upon me and demanded to be written.

I was on contract with Rocky Mountain Books to write a follow-up to The Grizzly Manifesto about wolves when two unexpected events happened. The first was the rather fortuitous recommendation by a friend that I watch Adam Curtis’s award-winning BBC series The Century of the Self. This eye-opening documentary explores how Sigmund Freud and Edward Bernays used the nascent tenets of psychotherapy to develop a ground-breaking new method of social manipulation.

Bernays initially called the method “propaganda,” but later renamed it “public relations.” Through his early work in political and corporate marketing, Bernays began to realize that the “conscious and intelligent manipulation … of the masses” was not reserved for totalitarian states; it was also an important part of a democratic society. “Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society,” he wrote in his 1928 book Propaganda, “constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power” of capitalist democracies like the United States and Canada.

The other surprise was a short essay I read in Alternatives Journal by Bob Gibson, an environmental studies professor at the University of Waterloo. Boldly titled “Bullshit,” the article referred me to a profound little book I’d never heard of: On Bullshit. Written by Princeton professor emeritus Harry Frankfurt in 2005, and all of 4″ × 6″ in size, the 80-page treatise was an instant hit. It spent 27 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was translated into 16 languages, including Chinese, Hebrew and Slovene. It even got Frankfurt on The Daily Show, the only academic philosopher to battle wits with Jon Stewart.

Despite its droll title, On Bullshit is a serious work. Frankfurt, one of the world’s most respected moral philosophers, wrote it because he was concerned about the preponderance of bullshit in public discourse. For Frankfurt, the most salient feature of bullshit is its absolute lack of connection with the truth. Liars, by comparison, must know the truth in order to disavow it. A liar “insert[s] a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth.” Bullshitters, on the other hand, have no interest in an accurate representation of reality. They have an utter “indifference to how things really are.”

What really concerned Frankfurt, though, was how comfortable we are with the ubiquity of bullshit. More so even than lying, an excessive indulgence in bullshit weakens our habit of seeking out the ways things really are and diminishes – perhaps even eliminates –  our respect for truth. A society that cares too little for the value of truth, he argues, will be unable to make well-informed decisions in the public interest and will eventually succumb to its own foolishness. “Bullshit,” writes Frankfurt, “is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

It was obvious that the Century of the Self and On Bullshit were related. Frankfurt’s ideas on the dangers of bullshit was simply a meditation on the negative social implications of the implementation of Bernays’s psycho-marketing strategies. And nowhere was this playing out more radically than in the rhetorical battle over the Athabasca oil sands of Alberta.

Much of what Bernays and Frankfurt wrote about was unfolding right before my eyes every day: oil companies and governments were consciously and intelligently manipulating the masses to promote the rapid liquidation of Alberta’s bitumen fields, and opponents were doing likewise trying to stop it. The stakes were high: whichever “invisible government” won this battle in the global war for oil would determine what kind of future we were going to leave our grandchildren.

The wolves would have to wait.

Harper’s Pride and Prejudice

April 12, 2012

This column was published in FFWD on April 12, 2012.

Auditor general Michael Ferguson’s scathing report on the Department of National Defence’s handling of the F-35 debacle indicates there are big problems in Ottawa, and they may run much deeper than the single-minded desire to purchase a flock of cutting-edge fighter planes. If Ferguson’s report is accurate, and there is no reason to believe it isn’t, it reveals a federal government — led by the strident, micro-managing Prime Minister Stephen Harper — that has no problem with manipulating information and policy processes meant to ensure government decisions are transparent and in the public interest.

Last week, Ferguson revealed that the Harper government misled Parliament and the Canadian public in its bid to purchase 65 fifth-generation Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning IIs. Originally, the estimated cost of the purchase was $9 billion. Before the last election, Harper’s Conservatives claimed it would cost no more than $15 billion. Ferguson revealed that the Conservatives knew the price tag had risen to $25 billion, but chose not to let us know before we cast our votes. Now estimates indicate it might be as high as $40 million. Why? Presumably to keep us in the dark so we would elect them based on a now discredited platform of fiscal responsibility.

Worse, Ferguson revealed that the Conservatives chose to circumvent the procurement process reserved for purchases of this magnitude. Instead of putting the purchase out to competitive bids, which is the usual practice, the government manipulated the process so they could sign off on the F-35s before it adequately understood the stealth fighters’ performance, or the costs and risks associated with purchasing them. The F-35 was, they claimed, essential to protecting our national sovereignty.

“Defence officials simply decided in advance which aircraft they wanted, and that was that,” wrote columnist Andrew Coyne in the National Post. “Guidelines were evaded, Parliament was lied to and, in the end, the people of Canada were stuck with planes that may or may not be able to do the job set out for them, years after they were supposed to be delivered, at twice the promised cost.”

Critics have been raising these same concerns about the F-35 boondoggle for years, but Harper and his ministers simply dismissed them as illogical speculation, and attacked critics for being treasonous Canadians bent on putting soldiers’ lives and Canadians’ jobs at risk. Now the truth is out: the critics were right. But it would appear that despite the reprehensible behaviour that is at the root of what can only be called a political scandal, not a single politician or bureaucrat will be reprimanded or punished.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Harper’s Conservatives (along with Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives) have adopted similar strategies to promote and even fast-track the development of Alberta’s oilsands and the pipelines they claim are undoubtedly in Canada’s national interest. For years critics expressed concern that oilsands development was polluting the land and water in northern Alberta, but government officials continued to rely on a faulty, industry-run monitoring system to claim they were being developed in a “responsible, sustainable, even ethical” manner. It wasn’t until renowned aquatic ecologist David Schindler took the matter into his own hands and conducted what he called the most basic of analyses that the government was forced to look into the matter. And guess what: the critics were right.

The difference was that none of the independent panels were tasked with understanding why the monitoring program for one of the world’s largest energy projects was so defective. The focus was on “moving forward” rather than looking back to understand who or what was responsible for the breakdown in the regulatory process that allowed industry to pollute one of the world’s largest freshwater ecosystems for more than a decade without the appropriate oversight of the responsible government agencies. Not a single politician or bureaucrat was reprimanded or punished.

The problem with the optimistic “moving forward” approach to government accountability is that there are no disincentives for individuals to game the system. And so the same politicians and bureaucrats, under the watchful eye of the same authoritarian prime minister, are doing the same thing as Canadians decide whether or not to build the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline to transport bitumen crude to the West Coast.

Despite the fact most experts concur that Canada’s environmental assessment process is inadequate and ineffective, and despite a 2011 report by Canada’s commissioner of the environment and sustainable development that was highly critical of the environmental assessment of oilsands projects in particular, the Harper Conservatives are systematically dismantling the regulatory process that decides whether these projects are in the public interest. In the process, they attack critics for being radical extremists and treasonous enemies of the state, just as they did critics of the Conservative’s desire to buy F-35 stealth fighters.

Why? As in the F-35 debacle, the federal Conservatives have already made prejudicial decisions on the future of the oilsands and the Northern Gateway pipeline. They are not interested in the results of effective, transparent regulatory processes meant to ensure that ideology doesn’t get in the way of important decisions that will impact Canadians for generations. They think they know — no, they know they know — what’s best for us, and they will do whatever they can to ensure the facts don’t get in the way.

Coyne, quoting the Ferguson report, pointed out that it was the “wealth of ‘industrial benefits’ they were promised” that the Conservatives used as the basis for key decisions regarding the F-35 purchase. Overestimating the short-term economic benefits and ignoring, even hiding, the long-term costs has become a classic characteristic of neo-liberal politics, which is likely a bigger problem in the debates over the future of the oilsands and the Northern Gateway pipeline than they are in those over the future of the F-35.

If this is democracy, it is democracy at its worst. We need a political system that doesn’t allow politicians to hoodwink us with a web of little black lies. Greater separation of powers, more transparent regulatory processes, and a stronger judiciary — one that allows citizens to punish politicians and government agencies in the courts for their transgressions — is the only answer to such abuses of power. Yes, it will be less expedient, but when the future of a nation and a planet are at stake, what’s more important?

Kenynote Address to 2012 Rocky Mountain Powershift

February 28, 2012

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of giving one of the keynote addresses at the 2012 Rocky Mountain Powershift Conference. These regional “powershifts” bring together students to exchange regional success stories and campaigns, hear from climate movement leaders, and learn from each other how to organize and launch new campaigns. It was one of the most inspiring experiences in my life. More than 250 high school and university students came out to learn how they could be better, more engaged citizens in the fight for climate stability and environmental justice. It was an honour to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Alex Loorz and Bill McKibben (if only virtually). Here is what I added to the conversation:

There’s something slightly ironic about the fact I’m up here talking to all of you tonight. You see, when I was your age, I didn’t give a damn about any of the stuff you’re learning about and discussing here this weekend.

I grew up in Calgary, Alberta, now World Headquarters for the tar sands industry. Like so many of my fellow Albertans, I was an apathetic citizen at best in my early twenties. I had never heard of a single environmental organization and didn’t know anyone who belonged to one. I didn’t attend community meetings, I didn’t write letters to the editor, I never contacted my political representative, or even know who he was. I didn’t even vote. I was too busy racing motorcycles, partying, playing basketball and rugby, and watching football on TV. I was too busy fulfilling all of my short-term, selfish desires, while Big Oil helped Alberta’s so-called Progressive Conservatives consolidate its now 41-year hold on power in an unaccountable democracy that often reminds me more of Nigeria than it does the United States.

That all changed when I finished university and moved to Budapest, Hungary in 1993, shortly after the Berlin Wall fell. There, at the age of 30, I got my first “environmental” job. I was hired as the communications officer for a medium-size, international environmental organization called the Regional Environmental Center. Everyone there spoke English, but most of the four dozen or so employees were from the countries of the former Soviet Bloc—Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Bulgaria and so on. They all had lived lives characterized by repression and violence, and they were happy to be free to openly challenge the business community and their governments to work together to improve the state of the environment.

Many of them had been political and environmental activists during some of the most repressive regimes in modern history. Despite political realities that made public criticism of the government a dangerous thing, they were doing what they could to nurture the seeds of democracy, and to prevent unchecked and unregulated industrialism from poisoning their air, land and water.

The story I remember most vividly is Adriana’s, a young woman from Romania. On December 21, 1989, Adriana was one of thousands of people who gathered in what is now known as Bucharest’s Revolution Square to listen to a speech by the country’s increasingly unpopular leader, Nicolai Ceaușescu. Ceaușescu was one of the most despotic leaders in the Soviet Bloc, his regime one of the most staunchly Stalinist. Despite the fact the army had opened fire on a crowd in another city just five days earlier, Adriana and her fellow Romanians, many of them students, jeered and booed Ceaușescu in Revolution Square. Their vocal, public condemnation of Ceaușescu’s tyranny kicked off an open revolt that spread to every major city in the country the next day. A thousand Romanians died during those two days, but the people would not be denied. Ceaușescu and his wife were apprehended by the police, who quickly turned them over to the army. On Christmas Day 1989, Ceaușescu and his wife were convicted of genocide and the “illegal gathering of wealth.” The tyranny was over.

I was struck by the courage and the commitment Adriana and her fellow citizens had shown in their bid to overthrow a government that was clearly not ruling in the public interest. Where, I began to wonder, were these people at home? Although I grew up in a democratic country where it was perfectly acceptable to criticize the government, I didn’t personally know anyone who made an effort to actively influence public policy. And that struck me as odd.

About the same time Adriana had recounted those harrowing events in Bucharest, I was invited to accompany a delegation from the Regional Environmental Center to a major UN conference in Sofia, Bulgaria. It was the Third Ministerial “Environment for Europe” Conference in Sofia, Bulgaria. I became an instant fan of the Netherlands, but I watched in utter disbelief as Canada (aided and abetted by the United States) undermined every idea the progressive and outspoken Dutch proposed. Although it comes as no surprise now, it was shocking to me then how environmentally unfriendly the Canadian delegation seemed to be. So I vowed to look into Canada’s environmental record when I returned home.

What I have found since is shocking, and I no longer believe Canada to be the progressive environmental steward the world thinks it is. Perhaps it never was. The discovery changed my life, and since I returned to North America I have been working, in the spirit of Adriana and all the other activists I met in Europe, for social and environmental justice at home.

One of the things I enjoy most is teaching. Every summer, I spend a month outside in the wilderness with groups of interested and engaged students who have chosen, much earlier than I ever did, to learn about ecology, environmental issues, and how might come to terms with them.

Two years ago, I went on an adventure with about three dozen high school students. I flew up to Whitehorse, and we all piled into a school bus and drove south through coastal BC, around Vancouver Island, and back to Whitehorse via Alaska. Along the way, we visited remote First Nations communities, conducted midnight science experiments on slippery tidal flats, and learned how to SCUBA dive in the fecund waters of the Georgia Strait. We also learned about a variety of environmental issues, from unsustainable forestry to fish farms and the decline of salmon. And climate change, of course—we talked a lot about climate change. And no matter how upbeat and positive we tried to make it, those wily high-school students understood well enough that climate change was bad news getting worse.

At the end of the course, as our ferry followed the grey whale migration route north to Alaska, I checked in with each student about what they had learned and how they felt about it. There was the usual comments about how “cool” and “fun” the trip had been, but many took the time to reflect on how much they had learned, not only about environmental science and some of the issues we discussed, but about themselves and how they work in the world. I felt energized and optimistic to see how mature and thoughtful these students were, and to hear about the plans they were making about how to make the world a better place.

But when I posed my question to one young woman—a bright tenth grader with a great sense of humour, who had been nothing but cheerful and cooperative the whole trip—she looked at me with a scowl on her face and said, “You know what makes me mad? Everywhere we go, people are always telling us about all these horrible environmental problems, and they tell us that it’s up to us to fix them.”

“Well,” she continued. “I’m tired of it. For one thing, we didn’t cause them. And for another, your generation isn’t doing much about them. Why should we?”

I have heard similar comments from undergraduates who feel overwhelmed by the scope and severity of the issues we face, and who are angry and frustrated at the lack of action from our political representatives, both liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat. One undergraduate told me that students in his environmental studies program at a small, liberal arts college on the other side of the country were complaining to their professors about how depressing everything was, and that they were getting tired of hearing it. They wanted to know if they couldn’t just talk about something else.

This, I think, is the primary challenge of our age: To look openly and honestly at the social and environmental problems we face, and—despite the enormity of the task ahead and the lack of meaningful progress to date—to embrace the challenge with courage, resolve and equanimity. It’s unfortunate that we can’t spend more time skiing and hiking, but the reality is that along with the gift of being born into wealthy democracies, we’ve been bequeathed quite a mess. We don’t really have much choice. Indeed, the fact we live in a relatively open, democratic society obliges us to do the things that are fellow human beings in China and Myanmar and Russia can’t do.

I won’t spend too much time dwelling on the specifics of the environmental problems themselves, because I’m guessing by the fact you’re here that you are all well aware of what we’re doing to our planet. Biodiversity is plummeting, water is increasingly over-exploited and polluted, and forests are being leveled for timber. And then there’s climate change. The fact we are altering the climate with megatons of greenhouse gas emissions is the most pressing social and environmental issue in human history. It’s melting the ice caps, acidifying our oceans, raising sea levels, intensifying weather patterns, and altering ecosystems—the very fabric of life—on a massive scale. Perhaps the saddest part about the whole thing is that poor and underdeveloped societies, who contributed relatively little to the problem, will endure the brunt of the consequences.

None of these are really scientific or even environmental problems. The first and most important step to solving a problem is to accurately identify what it is, and what’s at the root of all these crises is a politic process that serves the interests of corporations rather than the public interest. While researching my next book, Little Black Lies: The Global War on Truth in the Battle for the Tar Sands, it’s become abundantly clear that the reason we have done so little to prevent biodiversity loss, pollution and climate change is that private, corporate interests whose bottom lines and profit margins rely on business as usual, don’t want to change the way they do business. At every turn they have undermined progressive energy and environmental policies and discredited environmentalists who support them; funded elaborate movements to discredit the science and confuse the public; and ramped up efforts to exploit and burn ever last barrel of oil, no matter how dirty or how much of a risk it poses to human and environmental health.

Nowhere in the western world is this worse than in Canada. Canada, it turns out, is an international laggard in environmental policy and practice. According to Yale and Columbia universities, Canada ranked 37th in their 2012 Environmental Performance Index, far behind green leaders such as Sweden, Norway, and Costa Rica, and trailing major industrial economies including Germany, France, Japan, and Brazil. Worse yet, our performance is deteriorating: we rank 52nd in terms of progress over the 2000-2010 period.

Nowhere are these problems more apparent than in the environmental assessment of tar sands development. According to William Leiss, a scientist at the University of Ottawa and one of Canada’s foremost experts in environmental assessment, “Canada has an embarrassing and consistent record of failure in credible environmental assessment for high-profile, large projects.” And it’s been well documented that the environmental assessments of the big oil sands mines—which are polluting the Athabasca River, pushing threatened species like caribou to the brink of extinction, and contributing significantly to climate change—have been based on incomplete scientific information. These assessments rely on corporate goodwill and a cornucopian faith in untested technology that might, at some unknown point in the future, mitigate the significant environmental risks that are openly acknowledged in the environmental assessments themselves.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of Canada’s new petrostate persona are the egregious attacks against those who oppose the tar sands and the pipelines they feed. Oil industry lobbyists and politicians, backed by obsequious members of mainstream media, have labeled aboriginal and environmental groups as “radicals,” “extremists,” and adversaries.

While Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and several Nobel Laureates raised their voices against the tar sands, and Forbes Magazine celebrated the success of American citizens opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives went one step further: they lumped environmentalists and aboriginal groups, people just like you and me, into the same category as white supremacists and called us “enemies of the state.”

According to an assessment prepared by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, our version of the FBI and CIA, these kinds of people—people who use civil disobedience to have their voices heard, people who propose boycotts to oppose things like the seal hunt—have become dangerous subversives.

This is what we are up against. Even if you don’t care a whit about climate change or biodiversity loss, these attacks on our democratic freedoms in the name of expedient and unsustainable resource development should make every Canadian and America citizen very concerned. This is no time for us to wither on the vine or stick our heads in the sands. Instead, we need to embrace the challenge before us with courage, resolve and equanimity.

The challenges before us are enormous, but they can be overcome. Just look at what Adriana and her fellow citizens accomplished in Central and Eastern Europe. And look at what the good work of so many people accomplished on the Keystone XL pipeline.

As a dear friend reminded me recently, it’s worth remembering what has been accomplished by those who came before us: the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air and Water acts, NEPA, a network of national parks and wilderness areas that is the envy of the world, and now, unbelievably, the beginning of an era of dam removal, starting with the Mill Town Dam not far from Missoula. These were battles hard fought and won, battles that we won’t have to fight again.

  • It has always been young people who have led the way.
  • It was students who rode the buses to Birmingham during the civil rights movement.
  • It was students who stood in front of the guns at Kent State to help put an end to the Vietnam War.
  • It was students who stood in line to vote for Obama.
  • And it will be students who will lead the way as we clean up government and the atmosphere!

We have only just begun. Long-term social and environmental change will take the commitment of tens of thousands of people decades to manifest. It is a long-term project, and it needs people like you to see it through. Remember that as you graduate from university and start your careers and families. Do not forget why you came to Rocky Mountain Powershift in Missoula, Montana, beneath the watchful gaze of the Sapphire Mountains. Keep your inner fire burning.

Like any fire, it will require tending or it will go out. If I may provide some unsolicited advice to you, it is this:

  1. Work hard, but not too hard. While change will require hard work, it is not up to any individual to take the world upon our shoulders. Commit to do what you can, when you can, and make sure you leave time for it in your life. But don’t work so much or so intensely that you burnout.
  2. Keep an open mind and read widely. Ideas change, and knowledge is dynamic. It wasn’t so long ago that the earth was at the center of the universe, and now it revolves around the sun. Advocate for what you believe in, but be open to new ideas and creative ways of doing things. It is the inability of so many people to do this that has made these problems so difficult to resolve.
  3. Celebrate your successes, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential. Social change is a long, difficult process. It will take time, and there will be much disappointment along the way. But there will be victories too, and celebrating them with your friends and colleagues will keep you strong and focused.
  4. Get out in the woods. Many of us got into this because we love being outside, watching grizzly bears cavorting in meadows and salmon spawning upstream. Nothing can feed your fire like a walk in the wilderness, just to remind you why you do what you do.

Thank you for being here this weekend, and the best of luck in whatever you choose to do.

“I have no enemies, and no hatred.”

February 17, 2012

For my dear friend J.P.

As we work to make the world a safer, better place, for all people and for the environment on which we all depend; and in the face of much violence, corruption and manipulation, it is worth keeping in mind the words of Liu Xiaobo. Xiaobo is a Nobel Peace-prize winning Chinese writer and dissident currently serving an 11-year jail sentence in China.In his final statement, written two days before he was imprisoned in 2009, he emphasized the need to spurn hatred and maintain respect for individuals, for it is the system that is corrupt and needs changing.

“I have no enemies, and no hatred. None of the police who have monitored, arrested and interrogated me, the prosecutors who prosecuted me, or the judges who sentence me, are my enemies. While I’m unable to accept your surveillance, arrest, prosecution or sentencing, I respect your professions and personalities, including Zhang Rongge and Pan Xueqing who act for the prosecution at present. I was aware of your respect and sincerity in your interrogation of me on December 3.

“For hatred is corrosive of a person’s wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation’s spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and block a nation’s progress to freedom and democracy. I hope therefore to be able to transcend my personal vicissitudes in understanding the development of the state and changes in society, to counter the hostility of the regime with the best of intentions, and defuse hate with love.”

You can read his entire statement here.

We Have Met the Enemy, and It Is Us

February 16, 2012

Friends, Canadians, Countrymen,

The news is in: environmentalists and aboriganl groups are extremist threats of which we should be very wary.

While Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and several Nobel Laureates raise their voices against the tar sands, and Forbes Magazine celebrates the success of American citizens opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are doing their best to paint those who oppose unsustainable oil sands development as unpatriotic extremists.

According to a November, 2008, assessment prepared by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, these kinds of people “demonstrated the intent and the capability to carry out attacks against critical infrastructure in Canada.” Who are they? Where’s the evidence? Who knows, but they are dangerous subversives nonetheless, and we better keep a very close eye on them.

Critics, however, are not convinced. It seems that the Harper government is blurring the lines of counterterrorism to target legitimate opponents of resource developments such as the Northern Gateway pipeline project. “With a lot of the government’s rhetoric around Gateway and the government’s frequent use of ‘radicalism’ and ‘extremism’ to characterize opposition, these kinds of [counterterrorist] categories are used to justify a surveillance campaign,” Jeff Monaghan told the Globe and Mail recently. Monaghan is a Queen’s University sociologist who co-authored a paper on the threat assessment after receiving the documents under the Access to Information Act. “Certainly from what we’ve seen, a lot of political opponents – and vocal political opponents like eco groups – have been classified this way, and it did legitimize surveillance campaigns against them.”

If you care about the kind of Canada you live in, and the future you leave your children, you might want to do something about Prime Minister Harper’s attempt to brand environmentalists and aboriginal groups as dangerous extremists, simply because they use legal methods of dissent and citizenship to oppose unethical and unsustainable industrial development and extremist capitalism.

In a paper for Police and Security Journal, Monaghan and his co-author, Kevin Walby from the University of Victoria, argue Ottawa’s security services have blurred threat categories, “leading to net-widening where a greater diversity of actions are governed through surveillance processes and criminal law.”

If this sounds creepy and a little like fascism, you’re not alone.

When our national security service cites Greenpeace’s attempt to block the gate at the Pickering Nuclear Power Plant, and PETA’s “opposition” to the seal hunt, as evidence of “dangerous extremism” that Canadians need to guard against, well, we’ve got serious problems.

Now we know why Harper is investing so much taxpayer money in expanding the prison system when violent crime has been on the downslide for thirty years. By making peaceful, concerned taxpaying citizens into subversives and criminals, he’ll need more room to store us in order to implement his vision of Canada.

Even if you don’t care about animals or the environment, this a dangerous affront to the integrity of Canadian democracy.

Who are the real extremists? Consider reading my latest column in Fast Forward. Or Murray Dobbin’s recent post.

And then put on your rain slicker and rubber boots and get out in the streets.

(Everyone smile and wave and say hello to CSIS and the RCMP. They’re no doubt watching.)

The Most Dangerous Game

February 2, 2012

I recently read A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R.R. Martin’s bestselling A Song of Ice and Fire series. For those of you who aren’t familiar with these books, A Song of Ice and Fire recounts, in harrowing detail, the battle for the Iron Throne of a medieval fantasy world called the Seven Kingdoms. It is a grotesque and pernicious tale of treachery and lies, where greedy egotists manipulate the weak and unwitting, often turning them against each other, in order to consolidate their own wealth and power. It is tough slogging to be sure, and not for the faint of heart, but it is also an allegorical tale of the universal battle of good against evil. And there is always hope.

Normally I don’t read such books, but I took them up as a means of escaping, if only for an hour a day, from the dangerous and depressing truths I was uncovering about the real world while researching Little Black Lies — about how the very essence of Canadian society is being dismantled, piece by piece, by Big Oil and its faithful servants in Ottawa and Edmonton. It wasn’t until today that I realized how Martin’s exploration of the abuse of power was playing out before my eyes right here in Canada, in the battle over the future of the tarsands and a nation.

Read the rest in today’s issue of FFWD.

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