Major coverage of a minor story

(July 18, 2018)

The world’s attention was riveted by the plight of the Wild Boars soccer team trapped in a cave in Thailand, and the effort to bring them out.

The cave rescue even came close to moving the World Cup off the front page of the news, as hour-by-hour reports from the huge media team flooded in faster than themonsoon rains.

Like the World Cup, everyone was playing for a win. The time was short, the intensity had a deadline, and there was no prize for second place.

It was an event custom-made for media coverage, able to be captured in tweets by the moment that updated everyone on the plight of the boys and their coach, complete with pictures from inside the cave where they were trapped.

In a world beset by difficult problems, this one would not drag on for long. One way or another, it would soon be over. Accustomed to watching soccer players take dives on the World Cup pitch, these cave dives were for real— and dangerously so. The Thai diver who ran out of oxygen himself was instantly immortalized as a hero, and we will no doubt learn of other heroes after the fact.

It was all over before there could be competition from the final games of the World Cup. Hailed as a successful example of global co-operation, it was an international effort that transcended the differences that separate us.

And so on. You might detect a tinge of sarcasm here. While the rescue truly was heroic and amazing, the commentary tended to be overdone and rather self-serving. Most countries contributed media teams, not divers. While the “thoughts and prayers” were no doubt sincere, we will need to see whether that international partnership extends to paying the enormous cost of the rescue operation.

No doubt the media spotlight helped, but I was left reflecting on how many much-larger problems lack that special attention because they can’t be resolved so quickly. If there is no quick “win,” just a long and painful story, it gets pushed to the side — ignored, or soon forgotten, if new ways aren’t continually found to bring the issue back into the news.

So at the same time, the worldwas focused on soccer and cave diving, eight million people in Yemen moved closer to death from starvation, with far less fanfare.

We were concerned with 12 boys in a Thai cave, and several thousand children separated from their parents and kept in cages in the United States for being “illegal” migrants, but conservative estimates conclude that at least 50,000 children died from malnutrition and disease last year in Yemen alone.

With a military offensive underway by Saudi Arabia and allies against the Houthi militia, those horrible numbers will skyrocket if taking the port of Hodeidah remains the objective of their assault.

Local players might find a solution to the war in Yemen if they were not backed by outside agents (Saudi Arabia and Iran) that are essentially fighting the war by proxy. The recent escalation has apparently been endorsed by the American administration, making it complicit in this unfolding tragedy.

Whether his actions are deliberate or merely the result of impulsive early-morning tweets, U.S. President Donald Trump’s presidency so far has been marked by acrimony, both at home and abroad.

Allies are poised to become antagonists, while supposed antagonists seem to have become friends.
In Trump’s decisions, however, there also seems to be a consistent curve toward encouraging conflict. Under moderate leadership, Iran could be a force for stability in an area where— looking at Iraq, Syria and Libya — there has been nothing but devastation for more than 25 years.

From moving the American embassy to Jerusalem to cancelling the Iranian nuclear deal, to cutting off the oil exports on which Iran’s economic recovery from decades of sanctions depends, Trump seems to be taking every possible step, short of declaring war, to ensure instability will continue in the Middle East.
Those eight million people at risk of death in Yemen seem about to become anonymous casualties of the politics of governments — or presidents — that don’t care.

Clearly, looking at the overwhelming public response to boys trapped in caves or children kept in cages, however, it seems ordinary people do care, once they know what is really going on.

We all have a responsibility to make sure the Yemen story continues to be told until something changes for the better.

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4.5 billion reasons not to vote Liberal

(June 6, 2018)

Despite their perpetual bleating that “there is no more money,” governments always seem to find the money they need to buy whatever they want.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered spectacular evidence of this, finding $4.5 billion in his sock drawer to purchase the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, present and future.

Jim Carr is now not just Minister of Pipelines, but owner, operator and CEO, as well.

The addiction continues. Canada will not only deserve Fossil of the Year awards at future climate conferences, but risk being kicked off the guest list entirely for its national hypocrisy.

So much for “sunny ways,” optimism and visionary environmental leadership. Trudeau has just provided 4.5 billion reasons for you not to vote Liberal in the next federal election, if you have any thought for your children and grandchildren’s future.

To be clear, the Conservatives are no better. While Andrew Scheer is laughing all the way to the pollster’s office today, the Kinder Morgan scene was set by the Harper government, which repeatedly made the worst environmental management decisions in Canadian history, across all sectors. Scheer’s leadership offers a smiley version of the same serial disasters.

As for the New Democratic Party, they are still straddling the picket fence — a painful position, with British Columbia Premier John Horgan on the one side and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley on the other. National NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has been conspicuously absent all along, making it hard to evaluate his leadership when none has been apparent.

Only the Green party’s Elizabeth May has demonstrated concern for something beyond the needs of the fossil-fuel industry. After receiving a hefty fine for her public support of the protest, she spoke to following higher moral principles than those expressed in the law — an unusual position for a politician to take.

So, that $4.5 billion — plus another $7 billion for construction, it seems — will be another bad investment in a future no thinking person wants to happen. There will be jobs, but the main employment opportunities will be cleaning up the inevitable spills. Given the fact those spills will happen in B.C., there won’t be many extra jobs for Albertans, despite Notley’s flailing efforts to engineer her re-election with a variety of pipe dreams.

Her threats against B.C. are as desperate and absurd as they sound, moreover. Land-locked provinces should not threaten trade wars against the provinces with ports, rail lines and highways — and Horgan has shown restraint by not escalating the situation, despite holding the stronger hand.

Given their apparent desperation, since re-election trumps common sense among Alberta’s NDP (or concern for the planet’s future), they might take a lesson from other developing economies in the global South equally dependent upon natural resources.

Some countries are paid not to cut down their rainforests, paid to preserve wetlands, paid to preserve habitat, wildlife and so on.

Perhaps Alberta should ask the rest of the world for money not to dig up the tar sands, which alone are big enough to push the planet over any survivable carbon limit if the rest are developed.

I remember in the 1970s when prairie farmers in Saskatchewan were paid not to grow wheat. Perhaps it is time to pay Albertans not to produce bitumen.

Still, I wish I had the prime minister’s sock drawer. Perhaps there might be more money in it for the host of infrastructure, health care, education and development needs that have been sidelined until now.

But I expect the drawer is empty again, just like the promises that were made about truth and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, environmental protection and whatever else sounded good during election season.

This decision satisfies no one except Kinder Morgan shareholders.

The protests and blockades will continue, as will the legal challenges. The economics of this pipeline will never make sense — and the environmental devastation of its construction and use will be forever.

The Trudeau government, however, bought the Trans Mountain pipeline for the same price it would otherwise have had to pay Kinder Morgan for damages had the project been cancelled (under the same NAFTA rules that just awarded Bilcon millions of dollars in damages for having its Digby Neck quarry in Nova Scotia denied as an ecological menace).

Perhaps it now can snatch disaster from the jaws of catastrophe and just shut the whole thing down — and put the other $7 billion needed for constructing the Pipeline-to-Nowhere back into Trudeau’s sock drawer for something else.

On top of the wish lists that other people have made for the federal government, that same money could subsidize a carbon-free future for future generations of Canada, instead of buying more obsolete technologies of mass destruction.

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NAFTA arbitration can hurt communities

Local residents on Digby Neck used simple messaging to tell the story. Photo by Ruth Denton

(May 11, 2018)

It is a costly and unnecessary lesson, but the federal government’s unsuccessful challenge of a North American Free Trade Agreement arbitration ruling could not have come at a better time.

As we renegotiate — or just scrap — NAFTA, perhaps the government will accept what environmentalists have said all along: the current language allows Canada to be sued by companies for protecting our environment and preserving the communities where we live.

Bilcon, a Delaware company, may be awarded up to $500 million for failing, in the end, to explode a significant part of Nova Scotia and crush it into gravel, providing cheap roadbed material for New Jersey highways. The gravel would have been shipped across the right whale breeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy, also destroying lucrative lobster and herring fisheries in the process and effectively rendering Digby Neck uninhabitable.

However the company tried to spin things, this was the project. Local politicians were “persuaded” this was a good idea; local people had visits from folks genially offering to buy land — and only after the fact did people realized these were actually agents for Bilcon, which (by the way) still owns much of the land in question.

You might wonder why Bilcon would bother to seek environmental approval for such a destructive project. I did, when I first heard about it — how could it ever be approved? — but this one strikes close to home. The quarry marine terminal would have been built on land my grandfather once owned and the communities slated for devastation included those where the descendants of my European ancestors have lived since the 1780s — and where relatives still do.

So, without support from either federal or provincial representatives, the local people protested when the implications of the project sank in. They had to fight hard to get a hearing, or to have their concerns heard. Some, such as my aunt — who was one of the leaders — were either threatened with lawsuits or were sued by Bilcon for amounts guaranteed to scare people into silence.

It didn’t work. Finally, with the support of large environmental NGOs such as the Sierra Club and with public exposure from an article by Noah Richler in The Walrus, the rest of Canada realized that what was going to happen to Digby Neck could just as easily happen to them and to their own communities.

I fumed from a distance, watching events unfold — I still think a great slogan would have been “It’s Your Neck, Too,” superimposed on a picture of Digby Neck.

The locals were more prosaic, as signs reading “Stop the Quarry” proliferated from Digby to Briar Island.

Belatedly, and despite a feeble environmental-assessment process, the two levels of government (arguably after one election and faced with another) realized that continued support for the project would admit Canada’s resources — and its leaders — were for sale to the highest bidder.

Officially, the reason given was that an environmental review panel concluded the project was “not in keeping with community values.”

So, what were these “community values” that surprised everyone later in the process? What “community values” are now potentially going to cost all Canadians as much as $500 million?

Simply, to have a community at all. To preserve the country we have on loan from our children, the resources of land, water and air that are our heritage, resources that we have a responsibility to protect if we want to preserve a decent quality of life for ourselves and others into an environmentally-uncertain future.

This project should have been dismissed out of hand, right from the start. The fact it went far enough to result in a NAFTA arbitration hearing shows our environmental-assessment rules were (and still are) laughably weak.

When Canadians are confronted with the kind of corporate greed that allows others elsewhere to profit from the misery of the people who live where the damage is done, we need to demonstrate that while this might work in other places, it does not work here.

Or, at least, not at the moment. I am concerned that the blatant disregard for similar “community values” reflected in pipeline decisions shows the federal government still has moral lessons to learn.

I worry that it will trade away Digby Neck, after all, to dodge the NAFTA ruling.

But those communities whose values were finally respected were originally created by people who knew that loyalty and respect come at a price. They were United Empire Loyalists, who lost everything because of the American revolution.

Faced with the same thing happening 200 years later, their descendants were not going to let it happen again. Nor should we.

Peter Denton is a descendant of United Empire Loyalists who settled in the communities of Little River, White Cove and Sandy Cove, Nova Scotia.

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