Opinion surveys a moot point in climate discussion

(July 11, 2017)

And the survey says… or does it?

Comments on “what Manitobans want” about a carbon tax sound like an episode of Family Feud. The answers depend on the questions asked and who happened to be in the crowd that was surveyed on the day.

Moreover, expecting Todd MacKay of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation (CTF) to say something good about a carbon tax (“Manitobans should resist carbon tax,” July 5) would be like expecting the Dairy Farmers Association to say nice things about margarine.

The lesson to be learned here is never to use opinion surveys to direct government policy one way or the other. Surveys tend to yield the results desired by the people who commission them. From the questions themselves (where a loaded question gets you a loaded answer) to the selection of contributors, surveys have become tools of propaganda more than social analysis.

To use the poorly designed, badly administered, self-selected survey on carbon tax offered by the Manitoba government as anything more than an illustration of how to do things wrong is, therefore, simply absurd.

Further, it’s not just about what you ask, but what instrument you use for the survey. I have queried classes of university students for several years now and found that most of them only have cellphones. Want to know what Manitobans under 30 think about anything? Don’t expect to find out by calling their grandparents on the family landline at 2 p.m.

Nor will even that survey necessarily yield the wisdom we expect from our elders. As Britons found out to their chagrin in the Brexit vote, older people do not always have the interests of the younger ones in mind. Overwhelmingly, the younger voters (at least those who got out of bed to vote) wanted to stay in the European Union — by the same margins older people voted to leave it. Those who had no future of their own apparently did not care much about anyone else’s, either. That’s a disturbing prospect for any society, including our own.

I would thus rather listen to what the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce has to say about implementing a carbon tax than have supposedly random surveys or public referenda guide the development of government policy on ecological issues. Nor would I easily accept the conclusions of think-tanks like the CTF, which boasts such former leaders as Jason Kenney in its “non-partisan” work.

Frankly, the term “think-tank” tends to be an oxymoron. Too often think-tanks merely parrot the ideology of their founders/funders, cloaking their bias in little more than a dollar-store disguise — something (ironically) that actually tanks critical thinking and undermines the credibility of any conclusions they reach.

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On environment, Pallister needs summer school

(June 20, 2017)

The end of the school year in June means students get the final evaluation of their efforts before heading off to summer vacation, summer jobs — or summer school, if the grades weren’t good enough.

It should be the same for governments. After 14 months managing the environmental portfolio, the Pallister government is like a disappointing student who shows promise in September, but has not done much the rest of the year.

Such students skip a lot of classes and neglect their homework and whenever there is a test, they perform poorly.

The first example was the review of the cosmetic pesticides ban, already one of the more anemic ones in Canada. Public consultations were announced, so environmental and public health groups went back into their files and pulled out the materials they thought were no longer needed. Neither the science nor the health concerns had changed — just the government — which eventually showed the ideological face its detractors had predicted by ignoring the evidence and announcing there would be “practical” changes sometime soon.

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We must think before we eat

(June 13, 2017)

The next time you sit down to a meal, you might consider eating for a change.

That thought was at the core of Vandana Shiva’s recent Axworthy Lecture at the University of Winnipeg. A forceful and articulate Indian activist, Shiva aimed her pointed comments at a worldwide food industry more focused on its own profits than the health of its customers or the well-being of the Earth.

She illustrated her lecture with examples drawn from India, where she and the organization she founded, Navdanya, struggle against multinational agrochemical companies for the rights of farmers to control their own seeds and to farm without chemicals. The challenge, she said, both there and in Canada, is to embrace and nurture diversity in agriculture the same way we promote it in other areas of society.

For Shiva, uniformity threatens our health and our future. Monoculture agriculture — growing large amounts of the same crop, over and over — is not only destructive of farm land, requiring increasing amounts of artificial, petroleum-based fertilizers, but produces food that lacks the nutritional content of organically produced food. In short, we are eating empty calories, using fossil fuels and reducing the productivity of the soil under the guise of “feeding the world.”

It was a pungent critique, not only of chemical monoculture, but of the justice issues that go along with the devastation of the land — the soil — and the water on which we depend for life itself. Every time we choose what to eat, we are voting for the kind of agriculture we want to flourish and its effects on the places and people that grow the food, as well as on our own health.

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