The Paper Garden


The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 by Molly Peacock. McClelland & Stewart 2010.

The eighteenth century was an amazing time. It saw the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and of the American Revolution. It was the Age of Enlightenment, but it was still an era when the rich were rich and the poor were poor, and everyone knew their place. Mrs. Delany, born Mary Granville (1700-1788), bore witness to much of the century. From a minor branch of an aristocratic family, she was witty and educated, and knew many of the preeminent figures of her day, including Handel and King George III. Through her correspondence with her sister and other friends, Mrs. Delany left behind a personal record of her times. Her greatest claim to fame, however, is her artwork. Late in life, at the age of 72, she began work on the intricate paper collages that can still be seen at the British Museum. Constructed from handmade paper, her botanically correct flowers record not only the flora of British fields and gardens, but also the more exotic plants being introduced to England for the first time by botanists exploring the wide world. Over the next decade, she created an astounding 985 collages.

What a life she led! At the age of just 17, she was married off by her uncle to a drunken 60-year-old squire, with a view to improving the family fortunes. What must have seemed like a sort of death sentence suddenly became an unusual opportunity when her husband, Alexander Pendarves, died. Although she didn’t inherit his estate, she was able to claim a small pension, and at the age of 25, could move more freely in society than many married women. After turning down offers of marriage over the years, in 1743 she finally settled on Patrick Delany as her second husband. They moved to his home in Ireland, where they lived for the next 25 years. After his death in 1768, Mary was once again a widow. She began to spend time with her friend Margaret Bentinck, Dowager Duchess of Portland. It was through the Duchess, a keen collector, that Mary met Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, two well-known botanists of the time, and pursued her interest in botany, which ultimately led to her famous collages.

The Paper Garden is Molly Peacock’s creative biography of Mary Granville Pendarves Delany. Each chapter of The Paper Garden is introduced by a reproduction of one of Mrs. Delany’s flowers. Peacock places Mary’s life in context by relating information about the period and people Mary knew, and speculating on how Mary might have been feeling or thinking about matters. Peacock is a poet, and her writing is sometimes more embroidered than what might appeal to every reader. At times, I felt a bit bogged down in her storytelling. However, the amazing Mrs. Delany is sure to win your heart, and I enjoyed learning about her life.

sweet flowering raspberry

Sweet Flowering Raspberry (Rubus ordoratus)

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In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts

hungry ghosts

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by Gabor Maté. Alfred A. Knopf Canada 2008.

Maté’s title springs from the Buddhist Wheel of Life, which revolves through six realms, each of which represents aspects of human existence. In the Hungry Ghost Realm, inhabitants are depicted as emaciated, scrawny characters. It is the realm of those constantly seeking something outside of themselves to curb an insatiable yearning for relief. But their emptiness will never be relieved because the sought-after objects are not what they really need. Such, Maté explains, is the world of the addict.

Dr. Gabor Maté works in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, home to a large population of addicted men and women. In Hungry Ghosts, Maté introduces some of his patients and details their life stories. Virtually one hundred percent of his patients have suffered through miserable life experiences that were beyond their control, most from early childhood. But in Hungry Ghosts, Maté doesn’t just consider drug use. Rather, he looks at the dynamics of addiction in its many manifestations, including overeating and workaholicism. He details how addiction changes the chemistry of the brain and looks at the social causes, costs and consequences of addiction.

I picked up Hungry Ghosts after hearing that Supervised Injection Sites, modelled after Vancouver’s Insite, were being recommended for Ottawa and Toronto. Predictably, opposition to SISs was immediate, in spite of evidence supporting their value. Probably the opponents think along the same lines as those who believe ignoring prostitution will make it go away and withholding contraceptive information from teens will prevent them from having sex, the “Head in the Sand” approach.

In Hungry Ghosts, Maté outlines what enlightened drug policies might look like. He doesn’t hold out any hope for these policies being put in place however, noting:

In a culture that projects its darkest features onto the addict and makes addicted people into scapegoats for its shortcomings, insight and knowledge are almost entirely absent from public discourse concerning drug policies. Moralizing displaces compassion and prejudice substitutes for inquiry. The evidence accumulated by decades of scientific research into the psychology of addiction, brain development, child rearing and the social origins of addictive drives rarely enters into the discussion of how to tackle the persisting problem of drug addiction. Indeed, as this book goes to press, the Globe and Mail reports that Canada’s assault on drug addicts is about to escalate. According to the Globe, “the federal Conservative government [is preparing] to unveil a strategy that cracks down on illicit drug users,” with harsher penalties for users of illicit substances. The mountain of evidence showing the worthlessness of this get-tough approach is, once more, ignored.

Certainly nothing has improved since Maté wrote those words a few years ago. Indeed, the Conservative government has devoted itself zealously to minimizing informed scientific input into decision-making on every possible front, conducting what amounts to a “War on Science”.

Maté further notes that the “War on Drugs” has been a total failure. All that the crackdown on illegal drugs has succeeded in doing is making an incredibly profitable market for organized crime. “The major reason why our society is awash in illicit drugs is the unbelievable profits that can be realized in their being manufactured and sold.” writes Judge James P. Grey of the California Superior Court. It is the same in Canada. Maté argues convincingly that decriminalizing drug use is a first necessary step in coming to grips with drug use.

Hungry Ghosts is impressively complete in its consideration of addictions and their costs. Maté is deeply humane and sensitive and his thorough knowledge of addiction, both as experienced on the front-lines and through research and study makes Hungry Ghosts a compelling read.

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The Daily Coyote


The Daily Coyote: A Story of Love, Survival, and Trust in the Wilds of Wyoming by Shreve Stockton. Simon & Schuster 2008.

After a couple of years in San Francisco, the time had come when Shreve Stockton was ready to move back to the city of her passions, New York. She decided to take her time, and make the six thousand mile trip across the continent on her little 150cc Vespa ET4 over a couple of months. Her plans went awry when she reached Wyoming. Not that anything terrible happened, quite the contrary. She fell in love with the countryside.

Once she reached New York, she found she couldn’t settle down and forget Wyoming. She searched the internet for Wyoming rentals and came up with a house in the tiny town of Ten Sleep, about a hundred miles south and west of Sheridan. Within weeks, she was moving in. For a city girl accustomed to the bustle of New York, it was like moving to a different planet. As Stockton began to settle into her new surroundings, she met John, a rancher who would become first a friend and then a romantic partner.

In Wyoming, coyotes are detested pests, shot on sight by ranchers, and hunted by government agents. It was through John, a coyote hunter, that Shreve acquired an orphaned coyote pup that John unaccountably chose to rescue. Soon named Charlie, the pup became a central part of her new life. A photographer by training, Shreve began recording the pup’s activities and sending out photos to friends and family each day. The emails were titled The Daily Coyote.

Stockton relates both the story of Charlie’s first year with her, and her own adjustment to rural Wyoming as she takes up life in a twelve by twelve foot cabin. The Daily Coyote is an interesting animal story but it is much more. Writing in an easy, forthright manner, Stockton brings the Wyoming landscape to life and offers a thoughtful reverie on our relationship with nature and a world unknown to most city dwellers. The text is complimented by beautiful photographs of Charlie and the wilds of Wyoming.

You can visit Stockton’s website and blog at

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The End of Growth


The End of Growth by Jeff Rubin. Random House Canada 2012.

Jeff Rubin has good news and bad news. The bad news is that the cheap oil that once came gushing out of the ground like a geyser is mostly gone. The oil we are burning now comes increasingly from remote and difficult to access sources and it’s not cheap. With the end of cheap oil, the economic growth that has fuelled prosperity since WWII has stalled. Government efforts to kick-start the economy with huge injections of cash will only lead to ever-increasing deficits. Cheap oil is gone, and economic growth is gone, and they won’t be back.

But there is good news too. As the price tag for a barrel of oil settles into the triple digits, consumption levels will drop, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There’s no need for government interventions. No need for Kyoto agreements! No need for cap-and-trade systems! We can just stand back and the whole emissions problem will take care of itself.

Rubin’s view that economic growth has hit its limit isn’t new. Economist Kenneth Boulding (1910–1993) famously remarked that “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” Herman Daly, former Senior Economist in the Environment Department of the World Bank, has long espoused the need for a steady-state economy and has written many books on the topic. Even Rubin’s title is borrowed from a book of the same name written by Richard Heinberg and reviewed here.

However, as the former Chief Economist at CIBC World Markets, where he worked for over twenty years, Rubin is uniquely positioned to offer a Canadian perspective. Unlike Heinberg’s dense and rather weighty tome, Rubin’s book is an easy read and an accessible introduction to the topic. He strikes up a conversational tone and invites the reader to share his insider’s view. Rubin covers many of the same areas as Heinberg, albeit in a more superficial manner. I especially liked the inclusion of the helpful maps that supplement the text. Still, some of his notions may give the reader pause.

In a chapter entitled The Keystone Conundrum, Rubin, rather oddly, compares the construction of the Keystone Pipeline and the Northern Gateway Pipeline to his fishing experiences. Rubin notes that when catch-and-release policies lead to the subsequent deaths of fish from barotrauma, catch-and-kill limits seem like a better option. Similarly, he concludes that the Keystone Pipeline represents the less damaging pipeline option and in blocking it, environmentalists have ill-advisedly forced a more destructive option, the Northern Gateway pipeline, into play.

Of course, these are both false dichotomies. A third fishing option would be for well-heeled middle-aged fishermen to take up lawn bowling or antique collecting, and leave all the fish in remote ecosystems alone. They might even consider petitioning the government for better protection of aquatic resources.

There are better options than pipeline construction as well. One obvious choice would be to slow tar sands development to a level that can be handled by existing facilities. This would have the advantage of lessening pressure on Fort McMurray’s strained resources, reduce extraction impacts on the environment and preserve tar sands oil for future anticipated higher prices.

In looking at how we might adjust to slower growth, Rubin makes other questionable suggestions. He concludes, for example, that libraries are an unnecessary frill. Good thing we haven’t closed them down yet; I was reading a library copy of his book and would beg to differ with his view! He takes a swing at over-paid garbage collectors and government clerks, and suggests that we should look to rich philanthropists to fund our public institutions. There is so much wrong with this latter idea that a book could be written about it. In fact, a book has been written about it, Linda McQuaig’s The Trouble with Billionaires, reviewed here.

Interestingly, Rubin doesn’t make any mention of tax reform or consider the impact of growing income inequality on the economy. Even stranger, he fails to examine government subsidies to Big Oil and the perverse subsidies that reward industrial agriculture that relies on petrochemicals. Nor does he discuss how the redirection of government subsidies to green alternatives might hasten our adaptation to slower economic growth. Indeed, while Rubin points out that Germany is shutting down nuclear facilities, he concludes that this will increase their dependence on fossil fuels, while in fact, Germany’s investment in green technology has both supported its industrial sector and led to phenomenal success with solar technology. A new solar power generation world record was recently set and is outlined in a Guardian article here. The billions of dollars that the Canadian government gifts to Big Oil could likewise be redirected.

As for Kyoto, Rubin is wrong in suggesting the Accord has been a failure. It has just been a failure in Canada, where federal governments with feet of clay have failed to uphold Canada’s duty to the planet and their own obligation to protect future citizens. This is not universally the case. Most of the countries in the industrialized world have met or exceeded their Kyoto targets. The EU as a unit has exceeded its target. Japan has reduced emissions below 1990 levels but falls short of its target. Canada is the only country within the Kyoto Protocol to have repudiated legally binding obligations.

Note: As Fiddlegirl points out in the Comments section, Ontario has reduced GHGs by 6.5 per cent since 1990, making it the only province to reach Kyoto emission-reduction targets. Other provinces have also acted independently of the federal government to address environmental issues. See her link to a provincial ‘report card’.

It is no doubt true that high oil prices will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the triple-digit prices that Rubin refers to repeatedly are not yet permanently in place. Rubin seems to lack a sense of urgency. But climate change is already underway, and even if all emissions ended today, forces already set in play will continue to mount. Doing nothing is certainly an easy out, but does not address the immediacy of the emissions problem.

The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, one of the recent victims of the Harper Regime’s ‘Silence the Messenger’ campaign (Conservatives can’t handle the truth?), has just issued a Reality Check. Their last study finds that Canada is on track to achieve only half of its watered –down 2020 target to reduce greenhouse gases by 17 per cent below 2005 levels. The Conservatives must love Rubin’s “Everything will take care of itself” approach.

The End of Growth is worth reading, but you might want to have a box of salt on hand. A grain of salt might not be enough.

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Living Downstream


Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment by Sandra Steingraber. Da Capo Press 2010 (Second Edition)(First Edition 1997).

There was once a village along a river. The people who lived there were very kind. These residents, according to parable, began noticing increasing numbers of drowning people caught in the river’s swift current. And so they went to work devising ever more elaborate technologies to resuscitate them. So preoccupied were these heroic villagers with rescue and treatment that they never thought to look upstream to see who was pushing the victims in.

This book is a walk up that river.

Sandra Steingraber begins Living Downstream with this parable. It is indeed very apt to the way in which we look at cancer. It’s all about the cure. Run For The Cure. Research will find a cure. Wouldn’t it be better not to make ourselves sick in the first place?

Steingraber is uniquely qualified to explore the question of how cancer and the toxins we release into the environment are linked. She holds a Ph.D. in biology and she is a cancer survivor. But Living Downstream is not simply a stilted recitation of facts. Steingraber also holds a master’s degree in creative writing, and Living Downstream is beautifully written, a satisfying and engrossing interweaving of her own personal fight with cancer and the results of her investigation and research into the state of our relationship with toxins.

Since World War II, there has been an explosion in the development of synthetic chemicals. Most enter use without any research at all into their toxicity or carcinogenic properties. DDT is perhaps the best known introduction. First synthesized in 1874, DDT wasn’t put to wide use until WWII, when it was used to halt a typhus epidemic in Naples, and shortly thereafter was used in the Pacific theatre. By 1945, the U.S. government allowed the release of surplus supplies of DDT for civilian use. An advertising campaign promoted DDT as the farmwife’s friend, complete with dancing farm animals. As it turned out, DDT wasn’t quite the boon it was advertised to be after all. It was banned in the U.S. in 1972.


That experience didn’t discourage our embrace of synthetic chemical-based pesticides. On the contrary, in 1939, there were 32 pesticidal active ingredients registered with the U.S. federal government. At present, 1,290 are registered, and are formulated into many thousands of products. In 2001, U.S. pesticide use exceeded 1.2 billion pounds.

The postwar boom in synthetic organics was not limited to pesticides. Other products derived from petroleum found wide-spread use. World War II ushered in the transformation of a carbohydrate-based economy to a petrochemical-based economy. For example, plastic was formerly derived from plants. Invented in the 1870s, it was first called celluloid. Now, the manufacture of plastic consumes 8% of world oil production.

These synthetic chemicals end up in the air we breathe, in the earth and the food we eat, and in the water we drink. In 2007, 834,499,071 pounds of known or suspected carcinogens were released into the air, water and soil by reporting industries in the U.S. Many chemicals are not classifiable as a human carcinogen, not because they have been rigorously tested but just the opposite, because of an absence of knowledge. Our current regulatory system tends to assume chemicals are safe unless proven otherwise.

Synthetic chemicals linked to cancer are largely derived from the same two sources as those responsible for climate change: petroleum and coal. The U.S. petroleum industry accounts for one-quarter of toxic pollutants released each year in North America. That doesn’t include the air pollutants generated by vehicles . Coal-burning electric utilities and mining operations are also top generators of toxic chemical releases. Investments in green energy are also investments in cancer prevention.

Steingraber writes that it is time to declare the production of carcinogens and suspected carcinogens to be the result of outmoded technologies and invest in green chemistry.

It is time to aim for zero waste, eliminating the need to bury garbage over drinking water or light it on fire inside incinerators.

It is time to invest in diversified, local, organic farming. This would decrease amounts of carcinogenic diesel exhaust created from the long-distant transport of food, decrease pesticide residues in our diets, decrease pesticides in our drinking water, decrease dependency on petroleum-based fertilizers, and increase access to healthy foods to fight obesity.

It is time to invest in green energy sources and thus reduce the air’s load of ultrafine particles, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and aromatic amines.

Let’s end the fifty-year era of petrochemicals and coal. Then let’s see what happens to the cancer rates. And what happens to the cost of health care.

Steingraber concludes that what is needed is a precautionary approach. The onus should be on manufacturers to prove lack of harm, rather than on users to prove harm. Let us embrace the Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle:

The release and use of toxic substances, resource exploitation, and physical alterations of the environment have had substantial unintended consequences on human health and the environment. Some of these concerns are high rates of learning deficiencies, asthma, cancer, birth defects and species extinctions; along with global climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion; and worldwide contamination with toxic substances and nuclear materials.

We believe existing environmental regulations and other decisions, particularly those based on risk assessment, have failed to adequately protect human health and the environment, as well as the larger system of which humans are but a part.

We believe there is compelling evidence that damage to humans and the worldwide environment, is of such magnitude and seriousness that new principles for conducting human activities are necessary.

While we realize that human activities may involve hazards, people must proceed more carefully than has been the case in recent history. Corporations, government entities, organizations, communities, scientists and other individuals must adopt a precautionary approach to all human endeavors.

Therefore it is necessary to implement the Precautionary Principle: Where an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public bears the burden of proof.

The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic, and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.

If you or someone you love has ever been effected by cancer, if you care about the state of our environment, Living Downstream is a must-read. In 2010, The People’s Picture Company of Toronto released the film adaptation of Living Downstream. You can watch the trailer, below.

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The Leap


The Leap: How to Survive and Thrive in the Sustainable Economy by Chris Turner. Random House Canada 2011.

Around Ottawa, and no doubt across the country, new housing tracts continue to spring up like mushrooms. Many feature McMansions complete with a bathroom for every bedroom, granite countertops, and all the trimmings necessary for one-upping the Jones’s. You won’t see solar panels on the rooftops, or streets oriented to best take advantage of passive solar floor plans, or even solar water-heating units. Meanwhile, the federal government, with a view to the 1950s, is determined to turn Alberta into a petrostate, while simultaneously gutting all environmental protection or government supported scientific research. Canadians might be forgiven for thinking that clean energy is just some wild pipe dream. But they would be wrong. While Canada lags sluggishly mired in the past, many countries have been moving decisively to build for a better future.

Chris Turner compares our current business-as-usual approach to a train careening down a track towards a yawning abyss. Sustainability offers a better option, one that journeys to the same destination but travels on a safer track. We need to make the leap from our current track, across the abyss to the safety of a better way of living. In The Leap, Turner examines the arguments against change and offers up a worldful of inspiring examples of Leaps already in progress. Innovations are being developed by cities, by countries, by entrepreneurs, even by Walmart! Some changes are recent, while others have been underway for decades.

The city of Copenhagen began re-envisioning itself as a place where people have priority over cars some 50 years ago. In 1962, the main downtown shopping street was closed forever to motor vehicles. When the plan was first proposed, merchants and other critics predicted the death of downtown shopping. Instead, the closure led to more people strolling, visiting cafes, shopping, visiting. Copenhagen now has an outstanding pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, carefully integrated with its public transit and road systems, and the city is regularly listed as one of the most livable and sustainable cities anywhere. A verb has even been invented for the process of improving city centres: Copenhagenization. And in this city where 35% of commuters ride bikes, the traffic lights are coordinated to favour cyclists! The city plans to be carbon-neutral by 2025.

Germany is an acknowledged world leader in the field of renewable energy. By the end of 2010, 17% of Germany’s electricity was coming from renewable sources. In that year, Germany brought more new solar generating capacity onto its grid than existed on the whole planet in 2005. Recently, on May 26th and 27th of 2012, German solar power plants produced a world record 22 gigawatts of electricity – equal to 20 nuclear power stations at full capacity – through the midday hours of Friday and Saturday. Germany’s government decided to abandon nuclear power after the Fukushima nuclear disaster last year, closing eight plants immediately and shutting down the remaining nine by 2022. They will be replaced by renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and biomass. An UK Guardian article is linked here.

China continues to spew out dirty, coal-fired energy, but nevertheless is working hard on its renewable energy future. By way of example, consider that some 150 million Chinese households use solar-heated water, and an alliance of 16 Chinese automakers has set a production target of a million EVs (electric vehicles) per year by 2015.

Even Walmart is on board. In 2005, CEO Lee Scott announced Walmart’s new sustainability strategy. Walmart would invest half a billion dollars in technological innovations to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Its supply chain would be 25% more efficient within three years. Walmart’s long term goal is to be powered entirely by renewable energy, create no waste, and sell only products that ‘sustain our resources and environment’.

I did enjoy Turner’s description of North America’s dysfunctional agriculture megabusiness, given to contrast sustainable farming initiatives to the current norm:

The mainstream of food production…remains committed to a system of industrial monocrops grown in artificially over-fertilized soil, kept alive by petrochemical pesticides, tended, harvested and distributed by an oil-addicted processing system, and maintained by a vast web of perverse subsidies.

Yep, that about sums it up. Unfortunately, Turner isn’t always so succinct, often allowing his enthusiasm to bubble over in a verbose style that would have benefited from some serious editing. Still, it is encouraging to read of the great progress being made in other parts of the world where, unsaddled by the Harper regime’s petrostate vision, true leaders are making strides toward a better tomorrow.

Here is Chris Turner’s TED talk about the leap.

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Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster


Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster by Peter A. Victor. Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd 2008.

Since the 1940s, gross domestic product (GDP) has become a widely-used concept for measuring the state of the economy of nations. Wikipedia defines GDP thus: Gross domestic product (GDP) refers to the market value of all officially recognized final goods and services produced within a country in a given period. GDP per capita is often considered an indicator of a country’s standard of living. Economic growth is closely linked to rising GDP and has become the ultimate goal of most nations.

But GDP is at best an imperfect tool. It offers no information about how goods and services are distributed among the members of a society, for instance, and fails to consider many important variables such as unpaid housework or volunteer labour, or the cost of externalities such as pollution.

In Managing Without Growth, Victor looks at the meaning of GDP as a measure of progress and well-being and explores its flaws. He concludes that in the closed system that is Planet Earth, an open system such as a constantly growing economy is simply not feasible. Along the way, he examines many concepts relating to growth, including commodification, the consumerism required to keep the whole ball rolling, and price mechanisms as system regulators.

We count on our planet to support economic growth in three important ways. First, the environment at large is the source of raw materials, most notably the fossil fuels that drive our economy. Second, we rely on environmental services to provide a sink for our waste. We pour vast quantities of toxic wastes into the air and water and atmosphere and count on the environment soaking them up at no cost to us. Thirdly, we depend on the services the environment provides. Wetlands, for example, purify water. Forests act as the lungs of the Earth.

On all of these fronts we are reaching the limits of exploitation. An obvious example it that the easy to reach oil has been used up and we are moving on to deep-sea oil and bitumen oil extraction. Canadians destroyed the cod fishery and it is not reviving. Our pollution of the planet has reached extreme levels, with climate change being an obvious example of the results. And every year, we diminish the ability of the planet to serve us by mowing down forests and draining wetlands and otherwise damaging natural systems.

Has economic growth served us well? Victor points to evidence that beyond a rather modest level, increased income and material wealth does not correlate to increased happiness. Victor considers the three forms of consumption, useful goods, status goods and public goods and how each impacts happiness. He points to the writings of Richard Layard, a professor of economics and member of the British House of Lords, and offers an examination of what an alternative theoretical framework called HappyGrow suggests.

Victor goes on to consider some ways in which growth might be reined in. One possibility is reducing the number of hours in the work week to spread employment opportunities over a greater number of people while increasing leisure time.

Economic growth has failed to bring full employment to Canada. Nor has it reduced poverty or led to improved environmental management strategies. Beyond a basic level, it has not even led to widespread happiness. With many natural systems reaching crisis status, the need for stable state economics is immediate. Will we learn to manage without growth through a process of planned change, or will growth end through the onslaught of disaster?

Managing Without Growth reads like a textbook, which is probably not surprising as Victor is an economist and professor of Environmental Studies at York University. Though not an easy read, it does reward the persistent with an interesting framework of facts and ideas.

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The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality


The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality by Richard Heinberg. New Society Publishers 2011.

Since World War II, economic thought has been dominated by Keynesian theory, developed by John Maynard Keynes, and neoliberal theory as espoused by Milton Friedman and others. Thatcher and Reagan both relied on advice from neoliberals and a nearly worldwide embrace of Friedman’s recommendations led predictably to increased inequality between the rich and the poor, and more frequent and severe economic bubbles and crashes.

Neoliberals believe that economic growth can best be promoted through a laissez-faire, government butt-out approach that assumes that the market always knows best. Keynesians believe economic growth is best achieved through appropriate government intervention as necessary. But both approaches share in common the belief that a sound economy is based on continuous, never-ending growth.

Growth ceased in the financial crash of 2008 that hit many nations. This is problematic for neoliberal thought, as the bank deregulation that neoliberals promote was central to the implosion of the financial system. However, government intervention in the form of stimulus packages and bail-outs has failed to return the economy to business-as-usual, confounding Keynesian theory.

In fact, the economy can perhaps be described as treading water, going nowhere fast. In newscasts, economic recovery is still being described as “fragile”.

Heinberg argues that the failure of the economy to rebound reflects a more fundamental problem than just the misdeeds associated with the 2008 crash. It is a reflection of the limits to growth.

It seems pretty obvious that, given a planet with a finite set of resources and space, infinite growth is simply not possible, yet there is a great deal of resistance to the reality of limits to growth. Here in Canada, the government invests taxpayer dollars in television campaigns that assure us all they are working hard on economic growth and all is well!

Oil is an obvious problem for continued growth. Peak oil doesn’t mean that there is no more oil, but that production is no longer increasing. The easiest to find, cheapest to produce oil has been used up. The United States uses more than 18,000,000 barrels of crude oil a day. It produces about half of that domestically, with recent increases in production resulting from new technologies for shale extraction. The rest, some 9 million barrels a day, is imported. Prime Minister Harper likes to promote Canada as a big producer, but the U.S. imports less than 3 million barrels a day from the Alberta tar sands. Even with major increases in tar sands production, that leaves a significant shortfall. The rest comes from sources around the globe.

But it’s not just oil that is peaking. It’s just about everything. World grain stocks, for example, peaked in 1986. Agriculture has become the single biggest source of impact on the planet, connected to soil salination (through irrigation), deforestation, loss of habitat and biodiversity, fresh water scarcity, pesticide proliferation, pollution of water and soil. Fertilizer use world wide increased 500% from 1960 to 2000, resulting in dead zones in the oceans from fertilizer runoff into rivers. Peak phosphorus production was reached in 1989. Does peak phosphorous mean peak food?

If economic growth requires further stimulus from governments, where will the money come from? Many countries and states are already on the brink of bankruptcy.

Heinberg provides a primer on economic theory and the status of continued growth as a viable reality. He considers arguments that rely on innovation, substitution and efficiency to keep the economy growing and finds them lacking. He looks at important issues such as the state of the rising Chinese economy, population stress and income inequity. Finally, Heinberg looks at the alternative to growth, a steady-state economy, and examines options beyond our current status quo. Many interesting projects such as Transition Towns and the Natural Step eco-municipality movement are already underway. Will it be too little, too late?

The End of Growth offers readers many interesting ideas and insights to ponder and is highly recommended. Richard Heinberg is a Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute. Don’t have time to read the book? There are a number of short videos available for viewing on Youtube featuring Richard Heinberg and/or the Post Carbon Institute. Here is a short, entertaining history of economic growth and where we are heading.

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Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies, & Aid


Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies & Aid by Samantha Nutt, M.D. McClelland & Stewart 2011.

I often see bumper stickers on cars that read “Support Our Troops!” or “If you don’t stand behind our troops, feel free to stand in front of them.” Huh? Catchy, but what the heck is that supposed to mean? I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t “Support Our Troops”. But supporting a war is quite another matter.

For nearly 20 years, Dr. Samantha Nutt has worked in many of the world’s most violent hotspots, from Iraq and Somalia to the Congo (DRC). In Damned Nations she shares some of her experiences with readers and shines a light on circumstances that are almost impossible for the average viewer of the evening news to grasp.

In America, those who questioned the war in Iraq were branded Saddam Hussein sympathizers. If you’re not with us, you’re against us! But what are the costs of these wars? What is it like to be a civilian in a combat zone? Who are the casualties of war? In World War I, just 15% of the casualties were civilians. Now, 80% of casualties in wars are civilians. In the Shock and Awe campaign, 7,500 Iraqis died and almost 18,000 were injured.

War is big business. Annual world-wide military spending now exceeds $1.5 trillion dollars. That’s $225 for every person on the planet and the most rapidly expanding market for weapons is the developing world. The market price for an assault rifle in a war-torn country averages less than the cost of admission to an American theme park.

We became accustomed to thinking of Canada’s role in the world to be that of peacekeepers, but in fact, Canada is among the world’s top 10 arms exporters, with one of the lowest international Arms Transparency ratings among industrialized economies.
Who profits from these arms sales? Well, Canada’s teachers are among the beneficiaries. All but two provincial teachers’ pension funds are invested in one or more of the world’s top one hundred arms producers, while the Canada Pension Plan holds more than $200 million in investments in top arms-producing companies.

Instability in regions such as eastern Congo often benefits arms dealers, mining companies, smugglers, foreign governments and other profiteers. The DRC is blessed and cursed with deposits of gold, diamonds, tin, copper and coltan (needed for electronic equipment such as cell phones). When Congo gained independence from Belgium in 1960, its first democratically elected prime minister was deposed in a CIA-sponsored coup just 3 months later, allowing corrupt dictator Mobutu to take charge and amass a personal fortune while leaving the country in chaos.

All of the money that is currently poured into military operations could go a long way towards solving some of the problems at the root of unrest were it redirected. Nutt notes that in countries such as Afghanistan, extremist movements offer angry young men, with no hope for their future, money and a sense of belonging. The only way to abort such movements – to strip them of their platform and subsequently their foot soldiers – is to strangle them with arms-control measures and thwart them through youth education, skills training and employment. And a justice system is vital to end the culture of impunity enjoyed by war’s profiteers.

Nutt looks at many aspects of the aid scene in war-torn and disaster-struck regions and dissects some of the proposed solutions. She also offers recommendations for where you might best spend your charitable dollars.

Disasters such as the Haiti earthquake often prompt well-meaning outpourings of dollars that can’t all be wisely invested in a short period, while long-standing war zones attract little support. Entertainment personalities who establish their own charities can raise funds, but they don’t have experience as aid providers. Donations of goods such as clothing are also problematic because they can undermine the local industries vital to a thriving economy.

Look for organizations with a long-term commitment and experience in a region. Consider a small but regular contribution to an ongoing project instead of a one-time donation to a disaster fund. Projects that empower women help a whole community. And don’t send a goat, send a lawyer!

Nutt co-founded War Child in 1999. War Child’s mission is to empower children and young people to flourish within their communities and overcome the challenges of living with, and recovering from, conflict. You can link to the War Child website here.

Although Damned Nations offers a great deal of information, the narrative never bogs down in facts and figures as Dr. Nutt enlivens her discussion with anecdotes from her often nerve-wracking encounters in war-torn regions. Damned Nations is a powerful and thought-provoking book.

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More Money Than Brains: Why School Sucks, College is Crap & Idiots Think They’re Right


More Money than Brains: Why School Sucks, College is Crap & Idiots Think They’re Right by Laura Penny. McClelland & Stewart 2010.

Penny’s basic premise is that the people she labels nerds, particularly those who aspire to higher education, are increasingly targeted by anti-intellectual sentiment in an age that values money before all else. Universities have become places that students attend for the purpose of fast-tracking their pursuit of a profitable career rather than to extend their education and broaden their minds. She lays out her argument in seven chapters with titles such as Is Our Schools Sucking? and Bully vs. Nerd: On the Persistence of Freedumb in Political Life.

Here’s the introduction to Is Our Schools Sucking?:

I have to give the man (Bush Sr.) points for insisting that America must be a “reading nation,” even though he wrapped this fine principle in the usual blah-dee-blah about staying competitive in the international market. He omitted the salutary effects of reading that Jefferson endorsed, such as not becoming – or voting for – complete fuckwits, but he did ask the following excellent question:

Education is our most enduring legacy, vital to everything we are and can become. And come the next century – just ten years away – what will we be? Will we be children of the Enlightenment or its orphans?

More than a decade later, in 2000, his son posed a similar question: “Rarely is the question asked: is our children learning?” The difference between these two quotes says a lot, and none of it good. Even the president’s childrens is not learning. Is this because our schools is sucking?

In looking at the state of schools, Penny considers charter schools (in the U.S. and Alberta), standardized testing, programs such as No Child Left Behind and other relevant factors. The United States pours money into education but students continue to perform below average on international standardized tests. The gap between Canadian and U. S. test scores rules out the excuse of cultural distractions such as T.V. and video games. Penny points out that the most important factor in determining student performance is class. Poor students do poorly.

Generally, students in countries with greater economic mobility perform better on international standardized tests. A 2007 study found that the United States had about 1/3 the ratio of mobility of Denmark and less than half that of Canada, Finland and Norway. France, Germany, and Sweden, also had higher mobility, with only the United Kingdom being less mobile. (Economic Mobility: Is the American Dream Alive and Well? Isabel Sawhill & John E. Morton. 21 February 2007. Economic Mobility Project, Washington, D.C.. 4 December 2007) Standardized testing scores follow a similar pattern.

With the emphasis that is now being placed on universities as degree factories for career seekers, liberal arts degrees have fallen into disfavour. Yet, Penny notes, the top ten skills that employers list as vital for graduates entering the workforce include items such as English language proficiency, critical thinking/problem solving, written communications, and reading comprehension. These are all associated with a strong Liberal Arts program. Further, the emphasis on money before all else affects ethics. One study showed M.B.A. students cheated more than students in any other discipline, with the majority, 56%, of M.B.A. students cheating on assignments.

We should stop treating a university degree as a consumer good. Penny’s prescription for repairing universities includes removing career training programs such as Hotel Management, Business and Marketing to community colleges (which would also make them more affordable). Universities could then concentrate on higher education in the liberal arts and sciences.

You don’t have to look far to find anti-intellectual bias in government. Here in Canada, Michael Ignatieff was lambasted by the Conservatives as elitist and out of touch because he is well-educated and taught at the university level. Apparently, when it comes to politics, only dummies need apply. That would explain the mess the country is in!

Penny describes the governments since Reagan and Thatcher as essentially idiocratic, meaning focused on the individual rather than the greater good. Constant promises of tax cuts undermine the important functions of government as protectors of the infrastructures necessary to provide citizens with the framework needed for freedom of individual development. That includes things like good roads and schools and cops and legal systems.

Idiocrats such as Stephen Harper

… criticize executive power until they wield it and demand accountability and transparency untill they are the ones who have to provide it. People who do not believe in public service, because they do not believe in the public sector, run for office in bad faith. …Who tries to fix something they don’t believe in?

If the private sector is so fantastic, so much better at everything than the government, then go join it. Leave the work of governing to people who actually believe that governments can work.

Laura Penny has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and teaches English at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax. Readers expecting a weighty tome, complete with obscure references, will find that More Money than Brains is instead snappy, satiric and sarcastic in tone. I’m good with sarcasm myself. I found many passages in More Money than Brains to be laugh-out-loud funny. However, I’ve found through sometimes sad experience that not everyone ‘gets’ sarcasm. Indeed, a surprising number of people might say “We are not amused!” And in this case, that’s too bad because Penny makes many good points and More Money than Brains is a worthwhile read.

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