I was drawn first to the book launch and then to the book by
its title: “A Pessimist’s Hope: Food and the Ecological Crisis”. I have long
understood how pessimism and hope can coexist and, since I’ve been feeling
increasingly pessimistic about our future due to the ecological crisis, and yet
recently decided to become a father, I was interested in finding out where hope
might be located. Also, anything to do with food, and I’m in.

The author, Patrick Kerans, didn’t disappoint. He drew
together a broad range of fact and philosophy to fashion a strong argument in
favour of hope. It is an impressive work, and Ottawa is lucky to have such a
thinker (and an activist) in its midst. I’ll first briefly lay out his
argument, and then, since disagreement is such fertile ground for discussion, I’ll
talk about a how I disagree with the main premise of his pessimism (and yet am
still a pessimist for other reasons).

Kerans argues that it is the related Western focuses on
economic growth and reductive science that is at the root of the present
ecological crisis, most sharply characterized by climate change. He sees these
ideas as being so entrenched and fundamental to the power structure of modern Western
civilization that he sees little likelihood that they will change in time to
stop catastrophic climate change. Hence his pessimism. Yet, in the second half
of the book, he argues for a vision of hope that unlocks the potential of
communities to create improbable futures. He says hope is about people coming together
to discuss and resist, and that, if we care about the future of life on this
planet, we have an obligation to hope, no matter what the odds. We no longer
have the “luxury of despair”.

While I agree wholeheartedly with his vision of hope, I
disagree with the premise of his pessimism. Kerans believes that in order to
deal with the climate crisis, we must first radically overhaul our society –
jettisoning economic growth as a priority. He says that while the energy
question might be solved by green energy technology (which is the transition
usually discussed in the context of climate change), allowing our society to
continue down the path of endless economic growth, when you look at the food
system, which contributes up to 57% of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, you
realize that the changes required are so radical that it means a paradigm shift
for Western culture. Food is not often discussed in the context of climate
change, yet Kerans focuses on food because of the seemingly intractable
problems it presents to the status quo of our society. This, then, forms the
basis of his pessimism.

However, he never goes into much detail about what exactly
needs to change about our food system, merely stating several times that they
are massive and radical. I know some things about this issue, so I’ll attempt
to think this through, and see if the changes really do require a complete
revolution in our thinking. I’m sure I’ll miss a few things, but I feel this is
a pretty complete list. So, as I understand it, here’s the major ways in which our
food system contributes to climate change:

1)
Energy use for tractors, greenhouses, transport,
refrigeration, processing.

2)
Chemical fertilizer use. Nitrous oxide, a potent
greenhouse gas, is released when artificial nitrogen fertilizers are applied to
fields.

3)
Methane from cows’ intestines and animal manure

4)
Deforestation and loss of soil organic matter.
The latter effect happens when soil is tilled and the organic matter in the
soil is exposed to oxygen, causing it to decompose and release CO2.

So, how might we deal with each
of the food system’s contributors to climate change? #1 is really about energy,
and as such is amenable to a technological solution. Technology is what our
society does best, and I believe that we should have no problem generating all
the energy we need from sources that don’t put carbon or other greenhouse
gasses into the atmosphere. On both sides of the environmental debate, too much
is made of our dependence on oil; a cursory look around reveals that this
planet is awash in energy, in the form of sunlight, wind, geologic heat, tides.
We already have the technology to harness and store this energy efficiently –
all that is lacking is investment at the scale needed. Furthermore, massive
amounts of energy could be saved if we paid even a little more attention to
conservation and efficiency. If you don’t believe me, check out the research (here
and here)
pointing to this same conclusion. It’s simply a technical question of changing
our energy system – a big change, to be sure, but far from paradigm shifting. The
belief in an energy scarce future seems to me to perhaps stem from the same
scarcity mindset that Kerans correctly states is a product of capitalism.
Resource depletion is not our major problem – as the peak oilists and others
believe – rather it is the unravelling of ecological balance.

#2 presents a bigger challenge,
because its solution implies a wholesale shift to organic agriculture. Kerans
points to studies that show that organic agriculture would be 8% less
productive than current chemical-based agriculture. We can live with that. We
already waste tons of food, and people in industrialized countries suffer
numerous diseases from over-eating. People aren’t hungry or malnourished
because we can’t grow enough food to keep everyone healthy (the lie perpetrated
by Monsanto and other corporations looking for justification for increased use
of GMOs and other high-tech food productivity “solutions” that are really about
corporate control), people are food insecure because they lack the money to buy
sufficient food. In other words, “feeding the world” is a problem of wealth
distribution, not food production. Yet our society is predicated on avoiding
tricky questions of economic equality by finding technological fixes that
increase productivity. But you can only push the productivity of a natural
system like agriculture so far before it breaks, and our technological quick
fix has reached a dead end when it comes to food production. What the 8% figure
is telling us is that we have already overreached ourselves in agriculture, and
to be sustainable we must be less productive. However, through ensuring access
for all to healthy food (perhaps by decommodifying it), and by wasting less, we
should have no problem feeding the world – even as population increases.

However, there will be sacrifices.
What Kerans doesn’t state, and what I am unsure about, is how the reduced productivity
of organic agriculture is being measured: per acre, per worker, per inputs?
Also, does the 8% figure take into account the land needed to generate the
fertility to sustain organic agriculture? Remember, the last time that humanity
survived off of a fully organic agriculture, the population was a fraction of what
it is now. How much land would be needed to feed seven billion (and rising)
people organically? I think it’s possible, but we’re going to have to eat a lot
less meat. Now don’t get me wrong, I do not believe that all meat is inherently
unsustainable; I know that some meat can help a food system be more
sustainable, in fact. But currently a huge portion of our croplands are devoted
to growing fodder (mostly soy and corn) for animals. In any kind of organic
future I can envision, much of that land will need to be devoted to restoring
the fertility of the soil, through leaving it fallow, or growing green manures
or compost crops. Furthermore, without chemical fertility it would probably no
longer make economic sense to feed cows grain, meaning a return to grass-fed
beef, and a lot more land devoted to pasture for our cattle. Taken together, it
implies a rise in the price of food in general, and in meat in particular.
Again, a significant change, but not paradigm upturning.

#3 follows the same lines as #2.
Cows produce more methane when fed corn, so feed them grass instead, and maybe
have less of them. Manure can be pretty easily managed better, capturing the
methane it releases, and actually burning that to generate some energy. End
result: more expensive meat, and people consequentially eating less of it.

The solution to #4 is to protect
forests. Easier said than done, to be sure, especially in a culture that feels
the need to constantly expand its economy. But despite the growth economy, many
countries have successfully protected large areas of their forests. The
benefits of forests (especially for flood control in a warmer future more prone
to heavy rainstorms) are simply so great that even the most growth-focussed
governments can’t completely ignore them. We need to increase awareness of
these benefits and strengthen legislation protecting forests. As for soil
organic matter, reduced tillage helps, organic agriculture is even better, and
perennial agriculture is the best of all. In fact, some forms of perennial pasture
management (involving, yes, the much maligned cow) hold the promise of
sequestering large amounts of carbon in the ground in a very short time – a one-shot
deal of taking carbon from the air and restoring it to the soil that might end
up buying us the time we need to make the changes necessary to stop climate
change.

So, to sum up, the main actions
necessary to halt climate change are:

1)
Switch from fossil fuel based energy generation
to clean sources like wind, solar, and geothermal. Increase conservation and
efficiencies. This may very well end up providing even cheaper energy than oil
has.

2)
Switch to organic agriculture (and pay more for
food, particularly meat).

3)
Switch to grass-fed beef, and capture the
methane from compost and manure (also resulting in more expensive meat)

4)
Halt and, in some cases, reverse deforestation
and loss of soil carbon.

While these are big changes, I would
argue that taken together they do not imply a radical change of direction for
our civilization. Our societal pillars of science, technology, capitalism, and
economic growth should be able to soldier on despite these alterations. So I
believe that Kerans is mistaken in thinking that radical change is a
prerequisite to tackling climate change.

Let me be clear: I do agree that
radical change is necessary if our
society is going to be sustainable in the longer term, say, the next 200 years.
Climate change is only the first major ecological crisis that our society’s approach
of command and control over its environment has produced; more crises will
follow, as our collective actions increasingly shred the intricate fabric of
ecosystem interconnectivity and throw those systems dangerously out of balance.
We do need to change. We do need to redefine progress from material economic
growth to human well-being. But we also need to give ourselves a future where
we’ll be around long enough to have a chance of changing, and that means
dealing effectively with the climate tipping out of balance immediately. There
is no time left for a radical overhaul of society’s fundamental worldview, but
there is, just barely, perhaps, still enough time to stop climate catastrophe.

If we believe that we can’t deal
with climate change without first transforming the roots of our society, or
that oil is irreplaceable, or that sustainability will require great sacrifice –
as many environmentalists do – we are in a way playing into the oil
corporations’ hands. They are the ones who tell us that to transform is too
difficult, and they profit from the status quo. Much better to believe that a
future with a stable climate is not all that hard to achieve. I believe there
are good grounds to believe such a premise, and there is cause for hope in that.

However, I still consider myself
a pessimist, like Kerans, because I have not observed us making even these
lesser changes in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus about the
seriousness of the climate problem. I am a pessimist because governments have
done little or nothing to reverse the build-up of greenhouse gasses since
Kyoto, and many climate scientists believe we are already past the point of no
return. I do have hope, for all the good reasons Kerans outlines, but I have no
optimism. So while I differ from Kerans in the source of my pessimism, we both
arrive at the same bleak outlook.

I should say that at least Kerans’
outlook offers an explanation for the inaction of governments – that the
changes required are simply too great. My belief that the changes required are
not so drastic offers no corresponding explanation for the apathy of
governments. Perhaps I am naive, but I can’t believe that society’s leadership
is either sufficiently ignorant or malevolent to ignore the climate crisis. I
am left, therefore, with only bewilderment at their failure to take the actions
necessary to preserve a liveable world for ourselves and our children. In the
US, I can understand how the oil lobby has so clouded the issue with propaganda
that a significant block of the population entertains serious doubts about the
seriousness of the issue, thus blocking political action. But most other places
in the world are less deluded. I am left with no good explanation for the
biggest failure of leadership in the history of humanity.

While both Kerans and I are
pessimistic, I think that the basis of my pessimism – that world leaders have
done little to halt climate change and I don’t know why because the changes
required are not too radical – offers a bit more hope than Kerans’ – that the societal
changes required to halt climate change are too radical. My premise offers the
hope that we don’t have to reverse the momentum of hundreds of years of
societal evolution in a few short years to forestall disastrous climate change.
That is a project for the longer term. It also offers a window of opportunity
to try to identify what the blockages are to climate policy reform, and to move
past them.

Kerans is an astute observer of
society, and his book gets to the root of how we must change in order to keep
living well on this planet. My only disagreement is that we don’t need to
change radically to deal with climate change. In fact, we can’t change as
radically as he advocates in the short time we have to deal with this crisis. As
Kerans is well aware, societies can only change slowly, at a generational rate.
We must keep the transformation to a sustainable society moving forward as
rapidly as possible, but there is just no way that this job will be done before
the world is an uninhabitable desert, if it is a precondition to success.
Fortunately, the climate crisis is eminently solvable within our current
thinking.

Postscript: A Possible Future

I know divination is a fool’s
game, but I can’t resist positing the broad strokes of a possible scenario for
how things with climate change might work out. This is about the most hopeful
scenario I can imagine.

Economic growth in the developed
countries has basically been moribund since the 1970’s. It has continued on
paper only, through debt – both the financial kind, and by running down our
natural capital. The neo-liberal project was the (temporarily successful)
attempt to continue economic growth by aggressively bringing more and more of
life into the market economy, where it is counted, and externalizing more and
more of the costs, where they are not counted. In fact, by nearly any measure
other than GDP, progress has halted or gone into reverse in the rich countries
since the 1970’s. We are now, with the economic woes buffeting the world since
2007, running up against the limits of even this false form of growth. More and
more must be sacrificed to appease the god of economic growth. Already people
are revolting against what is demanded of them.

First, the Greeks will vote down
the conditional bail-out from the EU, and Greece will default on its debt. Next
will follow other severely indebted Eurozone countries: Italy, Spain, Ireland.
The EU will collapse. In between the panic, some will pause to savour the irony
that the so-called cradle of civilization will bring it all down in the end.

The US will experience its Second
Great Depression (in fact, it’s already begun – but it will be named). The US
will go the way of the USSR – a massive implosion of power, breakaway states,
etc. It will be worse than the USSR because of the greater wealth and greater
inequality. Also, the Russians have always been pessimists, so weren’t all that
surprised when their empire crumbled. The optimistic Americans, on the other
hand, will suffer both materially and philosophically. It won’t be pretty. Hopefully, Canada will manage to avoid
being sucked down into the US’s death spiral, although Canadians will suffer
too.

The net effect of all this will
be the effective end of globalization, and a considerable shrinkage of the
world economy. While this will cause great hardship, there will be some bright
spots: namely, a severe reduction in the amount of new CO2 and other greenhouse
gasses entering the atmosphere.

However, the load of greenhouse
gasses already in the air will be enough to trigger positive feedback loops. The
climate will start changing faster than anyone predicted, with tipping points
changing everything in just a year’s time. Massive storms will buffet the
tropics, making many areas virtually uninhabitable. Sea levels will start to
inundate coastal cities. Droughts and famine will send millions of people on
the move, desperate to find food and shelter. By this point, it will finally become
very clear to everyone that the climate is tipping out of control, and that
that’s very bad news.

Emergency geoengineering
solutions will be rolled out. Our first inclination will be for massive
technological solutions, such as machines that sieve CO2 from the air and
sequester it underground, or deploying materials into the upper atmosphere to
reflect incoming sunlight back out into space. But, again, hopefully, our reduced economic ability will lead us to look
towards less high-tech solutions, such as biochar or mob grazing.

This intervention will pull us
back from the brink, after which we’ll make the changes necessary to stabilize
the climate, and, having had a healthy dose of what the planet can dish up if
we ignore its physical laws, we’ll move forward with more respect for the
forces of nature and commitment to live with them, rather than fight against
them.

The End.

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Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | May 4, 2011

Canada needs proportional representation

It’s time again for the perennial post-mortem on the failing voter turnout in Canadian federal elections. Despite perhaps the most exciting election in decades, the percentage of Canadians who bothered to vote remained in the basement compared to peer countries, at 62%. Only France, at 60%, and the US, at 49% were lower in their most recent general elections – and both those countries had much higher turnouts for their presidential elections.

Many a tooth is gnashed over this disturbing figure, yet few seem to offer any explanations, and fewer solutions. There is the vague explaination in the air that there is something wrong with the personalities of the current crop of politicians. But what if the disease is more institutional?

Allow me to hazard a guess at one major reason for the low voter turnout in Canada: many people don’t vote because they see no point. They see no point because unless their vote goes to the winning candidate in their riding, their vote is essentially “wasted” and elects no one. Their vote – and voice – goes unrepresented in parliament. Worse still, the system is rigged to favour majorities (with 40% of the popular vote easily translating to over 50% of the seats), so even if your vote did elect an MP, unless they are part of the party that forms the majority, they are effectively shut out of power. Taking the recent election as an example, out of a total of 14.7 million votes, and 24 million eligible voters, 5.8 million votes were cast for the Conservatives. That means that the Conservatives will now wield absolute power for the next four years with a mandate from 39% of those who voted, and only 24% of the total population of eligible voters. The NDP received 4.5 million votes on May 2 – only 1.3 million less than the Conservatives – yet will hold zero power in the next parliament.

As final insults to Canadian democracy and the incentive to vote, take these facts to the polling station: power is concentrated in the party leaders, who usually enforce rigid party discipline; the PM has powers to make a dictator envious; and then there’s the small matter of the unelected Senate. Oh yeah, and our head of state is a representative of the Queen of England. Little wonder so many Canadians see so little point in voting.

But what to do about it? Obviously, the problem is deep-seated and, I would argue, institutional. Low voter turnout is but a symptom of an array of sicknesses besetting Canadian democracy. A multifaceted problem requires multifaceted solutions. Yet one solution I believe would go further, faster, and easier than most, is to change the electoral system to something more representative of the popular vote than our antique “first-past-the-post” (FPTP) system. FPTP was designed for a two-party state. Perhaps that worked well for people in the 19th century, but most in the 21st century feel a truer expression of their national will requires more options than white or black. The problem is that as soon as more than two parties vie for seats in a FPTP system, they start winning with far less than majorities.

Furthermore, if a party manages to coalesce on one side of the political spectrum, as the Conservatives have done, they will have a far better chance of forming majorities than the other side of the political spectrum, if they remain divided into different parties. So the FPTP system is constantly asserting pressure on our diverse political landscape to reconsolidate into two homogenous blocks once again. Since I doubt many Canadians would prefer only two choices on their ballots, the only other solution is electoral reform. Either Canadians’ voting choices shrink to accommodate FPTP, or FPTP changes to fit Canadians’ preferences.

The vast majority of democracies use some form of proportional representation (PR), where at least a portion of seats are assigned based on the popular vote. Only three countries still use FPTP: the UK, the US, and Canada. The US only has two main parties, and the UK just held a national referendum on an alternative to FPTP. That leaves Canada as the only country in the world with a multi-party FPTP system and no national debate about its validity.

There is reason to believe that a switch to some form of proportional representation may revive voter turnout. The countries with FPTP have lower voter turnouts than those with PR; the UK, at 66%, fairs little better than the US and Canada. Meanwhile, Germany is at 71%, New Zealand at 79%, Italy at 81%, and Denmark sets the gold standard (among countries that don’t enforce mandatory voting) at 87%.

Logically, it just makes sense that more people vote when they know that every vote cast goes towards electing someone they believe in to parliament. That’s why I believe that PR for Canada is a logical, and necessary, first step towards reengaging the electorate and fixing our broken democracy.

Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | February 7, 2011

The Ethics of Eating

THE ETHICS OF EATING

Humans have always created ethical guidelines for what should be eaten and what shouldn’t. This is a natural inclination for a species that can eat just about anything, and believes in separating good from bad. In the past, these guidelines were often religious – kosher or halal, for instance – while in more recent times they have been based on more personal ethical codes, such as vegetarianism or veganism.

Organics has been a particularly successful modern incarnation of this inclination to divide good food from bad. Yet organics has fallen partly victim to its own success, as mainstream acceptance has translated into a perceived watering-down of its former ideals, and the loss of faith amongst many who were once its most ardent supporters.

Enter the local food movement.

Food localism can be seen as a reaction to the partial co-optation of organics by agribusiness. This explains why it is often presented in opposition to organics – local versus organic. While there is a strong and growing contingent of farmers who live up to both these ideals, it is true that we are sometimes forced to choose. Hypothetical questions that pit these two value-added labels against each other are easy to come by: which is better, a locally grown, but pesticide sprayed pint of raspberries, or organic ones, trucked in from California?

To answer that question, we must first define “better”. Does “better” mean less environmental impacts? If so, what are the environmental impacts of our two contrasting pints of raspberries? Obviously, the local one used pesticides, with all their associated environmental costs (destruction of beneficial fauna along with the pests, contamination of land and water, detrimental health effects on humans), and the organic one used diesel. But that is just the tip of the iceberg lettuce. To truly tally up the full environmental costs, we must look at much, much more.

Synthetic fertilizer for instance; it’s used on our conventionally grown, local raspberries, but verboten in organics. Its manufacture accounts for a huge share of the total energy consumed by agricultural production: as much as one half.

Or roads; the trucks that shipped our organic berries to market needed something to drive on, and all that asphalt is incredibly expensive (economically and ecologically) to manufacture, install and maintain.

A far from complete list of other factors to add to our balance sheet could include: origin of organic fertilizer and how far it traveled, the manufacture of capital equipment like tractors and tractor-trailers, topsoil loss or gain, soil compaction or salination, greenhouses, irrigation, carbon sequestration in the soil, methane and nitrous oxide emissions from animals and fertilizer, refrigeration, how the energy that ran the refrigerators was generated, processing, packaging, how the food was transported to the store, costs associated with the retail store, how you got to the store and back, the efficiency of household appliances, and disposal. This sort of Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), which looks at the total environmental impact of a product from “cradle to grave” (or, in the case of food, from “farm to fork”), is gaining popularity amongst researchers.

But even all this still only looks at part of the picture.

To go back to our attempt to define “better”, surely “better” must include not just environmental considerations, but social ones too. For starters, what about workers’ wages and conditions? To take an extreme example, the ultimate eco-green-enviro-bio-farm, delivering its produce by unicycle (because one tire uses less resources than two), could hardly be considered ethical if it employed slave labour.

Having invited the workers into our circle of care, we would be remiss to not include their employer – the farmer – as well. Were these raspberries produced in a way that respected her right to earn a reasonable livelihood from her work? Did she have to work two off-farm jobs, in addition to full-time work on the farm, so that we could have raspberries for a few cents less?

Building on the economic viability of individual farms, we’d do well to also consider the economic viability of rural communities. Some food can be grown in cities, and some livelihoods besides farming are available in the country, but a large part of the health and viability of rural communities – indeed, of this distinct society – will likely always be tied to the health and viability of farming.

Things are starting to look pretty good; we’ve figured out how to tell if our berries are produced in an ecological manner, if everyone’s labour is being valued, and if rural communities are being supported. But wait – assuming we can find such karmically upbeat berries, can we afford them? Now that the environment, workers, farmers, and communities are no longer paying the price for our cheap berries, we’ve got to pay it. Affordability inevitably becomes an issue for the poor when you internalize formerly externalized costs, and it needs to be addressed in any approach to ethical eating. 

Staying with the consumer for another moment, we could shift our focus from affordability to quality: taste, nutrition, and an absence of toxic residues or contaminants. Despite the impression fostered by industrial-scale agriculture that, say, all Macintosh apples are basically the same, differentiated only by price, the resurgence of organics, food localism, and heirloom crops has reintroduced the qualitative to food. Fortunately for our sanity, this is one area where there is a good deal of overlap between environmental and social values, for it so happens that the most ecologically-benign farming practices also produce the healthiest, tastiest food. Crops grown in healthy soil tend to taste better and hold more nutrients, and if they are organic they won’t have been grown with the aid of pesticides, sewage sludge, or strange genes (as is the case with GMOs). Conventionally raised food, on the other hand, is produced to feed a global distribution system first, and people second. Little wonder that varieties are selected primarily for ease of harvest, shippability, and shelf life. Even if local farmers grow the same mass-produced varieties, at least their produce is fresher, with more of its nutritive and gastronomic qualities intact.  

The final two social factors we might want to consider are more amorphous, yet may be the most important of all: connection to land and connection to people. One could argue that many of the environmental problems already alluded to stem from an estrangement of people from the land (that is, a sense of how the Earth sustains them), just as many of the social problems stem from the estrangement of one person from another. One could then go on to make the case that food – engaged with heart – could go a long way towards repairing both these schisms. Think of how gardening, or gathering, or fishing, or buying directly from someone who did any of the above can make you feel closer to the natural world. Think of how much better a meal is when shared with others.

We’re almost there now, but there’s still one more consideration. We’ve covered the environmental impacts, from the soil that nurtured the raspberry bush to the recycling facility that pulped the paper container we bought them in. We’ve reflected on the human impacts, from the health of communities to the health of individuals. We’ve even brought the whole discussion full circle with that weird talk about “connection”. What could possibly be left?

Animals. If you don’t want to kill animals in order to eat them, then the choice is simple: don’t eat meat. You may also want to consider more indirect ways that your eating habits contribute to the death of animals; the life expectancy of male chickens and dairy cattle, for instance, is quite short, and they get born in equivalent numbers to their egg and milk producing sisters. Even organic-eating vegans should be conscious of the source of the fertilizer used to grow their veggies – did it come in the form of manure from an organic cattle ranch, or solely from plant sources such as compost or green manure? And if they are relying on synthetic fertilizers, the greenhouse gasses resulting from their manufacture will likely kill far more animals than all the abattoirs in the world.  

If your concern is to minimize the suffering of animals raised for milk, eggs, or slaughter, then things get a bit more complicated. If you are buying from a local source, you can go check out the operation yourself to see if it meets your standards of humane treatment. If you’re buying organic, you can take some consolation from the fact that animals not fed antibiotics have to be kept healthy the old fashioned way: exercise, good food, and low levels of stress. There are also labels like “free range” and “ethically raised” that go to the heart of the problem – although you’d do well to look into what exactly they mean. And keep in mind that some of the worst abuses of farm animals occur after they leave the farm gate – in transport and slaughter. 

If you eat wild animals, such as deer or fish, you’ll need to consider the welfare of not just the individual animal but of the species as a whole. In the case of deer, limited hunting can actually contribute to the health of the species in areas where humans have all but eliminated their natural predator, the wolf. Fish are another story; collapse and extinction from overfishing are serious concerns with many of the world’s fish stocks. And the emergence of “dolphin safe” tuna shows that you also need to take into account the impact harvesting techniques have on other species.

Beyond the individual species, we must also think about the role it plays in maintaining balance within the larger ecosystem. For example, the extreme overfishing of sharks means that more of their smaller prey are surviving; those smaller fish then eat more of the phyto plankton that would otherwise be absorbing carbon dioxide. So, by a chain of relationships that scientists are only beginning to understand, less sharks means more climate change.

As you can see, determining which is the better pint of raspberries is an extremely complex undertaking. First you must identify which of your values are relevant to the question of what to eat: in this case, broadly speaking, they are environmental sustainability, human well-being, and animal welfare. This ethical framework is subjective, but has broad appeal to modern society. Next you must consider which factors impact these values – from overgrazing causing environmental degradation, to the bankruptcy of the family farm precipitating the decline of rural society, to the cost-cutting policies of industrial feedlots leading to the suffering of animals. We should also note that not all impacts are negative; responsible agricultural management can build topsoil, increasing its fertility and capacity to sequester carbon, just as certain prairie ecosystems require periodic grazing by large animals to thrive.

One lesson that emerges from this complexity is that each of the ethical labels we now apply to food – organic, local, free-range, dolphin-safe, ethically-raised, grass-fed, hormone-free, Fair Trade, vegan – really only look at part of the totality of ethical eating. It’s like the parable of the blind men assuming that the smaller parts of the whole elephant they are feeling constitute individual animals. The first step to eating ethically is to see the whole elephant.

The other lesson is less easily resolved. You’ve probably already thought of it: how are we going to collect all the data necessary to accurately calculate some sort of Gross Ethical Index for our raspberries? And if we can calculate this hypothetical GEI, how do we encourage producers to increase the GEI of their products, and consumers to buy them?

* * *

Ethical behavior is impossible without information. You can’t choose to not buy a product that causes harm if you don’t first know about that harm. Yet the global food system shields consumers from almost all information about the products they buy. In the case of your average grocery store apple, you might know the following: its price, variety, country of origin, and, of course, appearance. That’s it. In the case of packaged food, there’s a bit more info: ingredients, nutrition facts, possibly a “best before” date, and anything else the company deigns to tell you (although actual appearance is often lost to an idealized depiction). This degree of information obviously falls far short of the amount needed to make an ethical decision.  

So first, we need a way of gathering all the necessary information. In a globalized food system, the amount of information is quite complex. To analyse the packaging alone of a can of soup would require tracing back several streams of raw and refined materials. This kind of analysis is obviously far beyond what one individual or even a small collective could hope to undertake – only large institutions like governments, businesses, and NGOs could do it.

However, the more locally sourced the food is, the more feasible it becomes for small groups or individuals to ascertain its Gross Ethical Index. So, depending on how local the food is, we could place strategies for gathering information about it on a spectrum from very centralized (government) to very decentralized (individuals). 

Once the information has been gathered and analysed, the second step is to translate that knowledge into solutions. Most people want to be ethical, and once they become aware of harm caused by their actions, seek to eliminate or at least reduce it. I can think of four possible solutions to the harm caused by our food system: regulation, fiscal policy, labeling, and food localism. Again, these solutions can be placed on a spectrum, from very coercive (regulation) to very non-coercive (food localism).

These solutions are not mutually exclusive. I will look at the advantages and disadvantages of each in turn.

REGULATION

The government could simply use its regulatory powers to compel the agri-food industry to abide by ethical standards. While this approach has an appealing simplicity – and is undoubtedly necessary in some areas to provide iron-clad protection for human and animal welfare – several objections spring to mind.

One, it would be expensive to expand the bureaucracy to study, oversee and enforce the new agricultural rules. Because it is cheaper to regulate a few large firms rather than many small ones, there would be further pressure to centralize food production, which could put the final nail in the coffin for small family farms.

Two, only one set of rules could be agreed to for all; inevitably a sizable portion of the population would feel that the rules do not satisfy their personal ethics. Furthermore, the rules would be decided by a small bureaucratic elite. The ethics of eating would be homogenized and centralized.

And three, nobody likes new regulation, especially an independent breed like farmers, who are already chaffing under the existing level of regulation. It is unlikely that they would cooperate cheerfully with such intensive oversight. And even if they did agree with the intent of the law, usually the letter of it doesn’t allow for creative solutions. Regulation is an inflexible, one-sized-fits-all approach. 

FISCAL POLICY

Governments could tax activities that don’t support the public’s widely held values and subsidize those that do. This could be accompanied by a lowering of taxes on positives like employment or profits – the same as the “green tax shift” advocated by many environmentalists, except extended to include human and animal concerns. At a minimum, the goal would be to provide a cost disincentive to produce goods unethically; if producers persisted in unethical ways, they would have no choice but to pass their higher costs on to consumers, who would then face their own price disincentive when buying the product.

The fullest realization of this idea would be to quantify the value of the environment, community, and everything else we hold dear (there are economists trying to do this), calculate how certain activities impact those values (for example, a smokestack detracts from the value of the atmosphere, while a tree adds to it), then include the cost of these activities in the price of the product through taxation. In effect, it would correct a massive market failure, for the market only functions properly when all costs are accounted for in the price of a product. Since the environment, community, and animals cannot charge for the costs certain forms of production inflict on them, the government could essentially charge producers on their behalf. It would then be up to the market to decide what was the most efficient way of doing business.

The advantages of this market approach are that it has at least the appearance of being less coercive, and more objective, fair, and decentralized. Yet it shares all the disadvantages of regulation (expensive to oversee, homogenization and centralization of ethical standards, unpopularity of new regulation or taxes), with one important addition.

It is unclear whether taxing “bads” like pollution will shift behavior as dramatically as anticipated, particularly if, through “tax shifting”, the government’s revenue becomes more dependent on the bads. One need only look to gambling or alcohol to see how a government’s conflict of interest between discouraging “bad” behavior through taxation and encouraging it as a valuable revenue stream tends over time to slide towards the latter. It may be that where the funds raised through such taxation are directed is crucial; if they go into general revenue, then governments may be more tempted to encourage the activities that produce them; if, however, they are directed towards offsetting the damage caused by those activities (not always possible – how do you “offset” the loss of a loved one to a cancer caused by pollution?), then the government will have a much stronger incentive to follow through on the purpose of the tax in the first place. If this is the case, though, then tax shifting would not be feasible – the government would still be dependent on revenue raised through income taxation and other more conventional means.

It is interesting to note that both regulation and taxation begin at the same place (government) and are aimed at the same end (a curtailment of unethical practices). Yet we in the capitalist world seem much more amenable to being told that something is too financially expensive than ethically expensive. Money is our supreme arbiter, and if making the most unethical products the most expensive is the way to our hearts, then this solution – despite its drawbacks – has something to recommend itself.

LABELING

Governments, private companies, and non-profits could create product labels that go beyond the current hodgepodge (organic, local, Fair Trade, nutrition facts – only parts of the elephant) to create labels that address the broad range of ethical concerns. Labels could take the form of either certificates awarded to producers who meet certain standards, or information labels that present some form of Gross Ethical Index, with perhaps a breakdown of some major sub-categories (greenhouse gas emissions, workers’ pay, etc.). The great thing about this solution is the low level of coercion involved: in the case of information labels, companies would just be required to submit their operations to analysis, and to publish the conclusions on their packaging; in the case of certification, producers would only adhere to the label’s standards if they chose to. In either case, consumers would still be free to buy whatever products they wished – yet now armed with the information they need to make a more ethical decision.  

On the down side, this approach shares with regulation the fact that it would be expensive to oversee. It also shares the problems of the homogenization and centralization of ethical standards. If information labels are to be useful as a means of comparison between products, then one methodology of calculation has to be applied to all. That means that one institution, most likely government, would determine which considerations to include in the index and how much weight to give to each in calculating the final number. This drawback is lessened somewhat in the case of certification, as several different certifiers could offer competing ethical visions for producers and consumers to choose between.

However, certification has its own mark against it: unlike regulation, which does away with unethical products, or taxation, which makes them more expensive, certification singles out certain ethical products and makes them more expensive. Part of this price premium likely derives from the actual production practices being more expensive, part from the added cost of certification, and part from an increased willingness of richer consumers to pay. This leads to the tragic misperception that we cannot afford to be ethical, when in reality the opposite is true: we cannot afford to be unethical. Right behavior towards land and life will ultimately determine our longevity as a species.

Finally, labeling also implies that there is a label in the first place. Unpackaged, unprocessed foods are often the most healthy, sustainable food available – and packaging is a great source of waste. Labeling regulation can also often be difficult for smaller, cottage industries to comply with, discouraging them from entering the marketplace. These small businesses create many jobs, and are the mainstay of the last approach I will discuss, food localism.

* * *

Put simply, food localism describes consumers’ desire to eat food that grew close to where they live. To an extent it also describes the desire of harvesters to sell food to a local market. What it comes down to is society’s desire for greater connection between the different elements in its food chain.

This solution differs fundamentally from the first three in that it is not a policy, but a social movement. Certain policies can support this movement, such as offering subsidized land or buildings for farmers’ markets, but in the end food localism springs from the people. This approach also differs from the others in that it is both a solution and a way of gathering the information needed for that solution. Consumers gather information on a scale that is accessible to them (from local producers), then put that information into action by buying from those local productions they consider the most ethical.

ADVANTAGES

The chief advantage of food localism is that it empowers consumers with firsthand knowledge of their food’s provenance, removing the need for legions of researchers to investigate its impacts. It also puts the agency squarely in consumers’ hands, to act on their knowledge and particular ethical beliefs through their food purchases, rather than have those decisions made on their behalf by bureaucrats or technocrats. Food localism shares none of the common disadvantages of the other solutions: centralization, homogenization, coercion, and the burden of administration. Instead, these negatives are replaced with the positives of (usually) pleasurable human interaction and the strengthening of community ties.

Note that food localism implies a real connection between producer and consumer; it is not enough to simply buy food you know was grown locally. To do so is really just another form of labeling, as indeed some regions have created “local” labels. The whole idea of food localism is that you have firsthand knowledge of how it was produced, rendering the need for labels moot. Labels are appropriate for an anonymous global food system, not local food. There is little value in knowing only that food is local – except that it is probably fresher and has less food miles associated with it. But even food miles is a flawed measurement because it matters more how the food was transported than how far – the same amount of fuel can transport 5kg of food 1km by car, but 3,800km by ship. In order for food localism to be an effective catalyst for more ethical food consumption, and not just another food fad, consumers must get to know their farmers and the farms their food comes from. 

Note also that ideally food localism shouldn’t just refer to consumers buying locally raised food, but also to producers buying their inputs (seeds, fertilizer, fuel), and processors buying theirs (such as grain for a flour mill) locally. The ethically conscious locavore may be able to find out a lot about how their local farm is run, but it becomes much more difficult to track down information about all the farm inputs if the farm itself is buying them from afar. The more the entire food system becomes relocalized, the better equipped consumers will be to make the right decisions.

Another advantage of food localism is that, by creating a market where producers can sell smaller quantities directly to consumers at a higher price, it tends to support smaller farms. And there are many good reasons to want smaller farms: more people making a living from the same landbase leads to a revitalization of rural communities; they tend to be more diversified, which means more sustainable; they are as a group much more productive than larger farms; they can be less mechanized; they don’t produce the excessive concentrations of manure that is a problem with larger livestock operations; and animals tend to get treated better when they are one of several dozen rather than one of several thousand.

Besides supporting smaller producers, food localism, at its best, represents a synergistic intersection of many other goods: consumers more empowered to hold producers accountable to ethical standards; producers more empowered to educate consumers about ethical standards and the realities of farming; money circulating more within the local economy, thus distributing wealth more equitably; fresher, tastier, and healthier food; less transportation; more diversity of foodstuffs from region to region, thus increasing food security; and better adaptation of seeds to local conditions. Add it all up and it seems food localism has at least the potential to check off a great many of the ethical considerations discussed earlier. 

Lastly, there’s the “connection” piece. Food localism strengthens connection to one’s land and community. And stronger community means less harm, because most people have a much harder time causing harm to those they personally know than to distant strangers. While connection allows consumers a greater ability to hold producers accountable, producers have consciences too, of course, and are much less likely to sell unhealthy food or dump pollutants into the environment if these actions will harm people they know. And less harm means more ethical food. So, in a positive chain reaction, food localism builds community, then community strengthens ethical food.

CHALLENGES

But how likely is food localism to gain the level of popularity necessary to make a significant impact on the food system? There are reasons to believe that it may. For one, it has a wide appeal: conservatives like it because it supports rural communities, liberals because of its positive environmental impacts, gourmands because of the better taste and more distinct varieties, the health conscious because of the improved nutrition, and almost everyone prefers to support local businesses over transnationals. Witness the runaway success of the Slow Food movement. While Slow Food attracts mostly the well-to-do, financially strapped producers also like it because it allows them to sell at higher prices.

However, if local food is more expensive, then there is one group not likely to buy into it: people on limited food budgets – a group that represents a sizable portion of the world’s population, and therefore a major obstacle to food localism gaining wide acceptance. Part of the reason globalized food is often cheaper is subsidies – both for large farming operations and transportation networks. Subsidized food is rarely if ever grown for local markets. This is one example of how the fiscal policy solution, discussed earlier, can play a supporting or even contingent role in the food localism approach.

Another reason for cheap globalized food is the still relatively low price of oil. However, as oil supply dwindles and demand increases, its price will inevitably continue to rise. Barring the development of alternative energy sources that can move vehicles at a price comparable to oil, or large increases in fuel efficiency (both very real possibilities, to be sure), the cost of transport, and therefore the sale price of globalized food, will rise. (The end of the age of oil will also likely spell the end for synthetic fertilizers, which are made from fossil fuels. This development won’t necessarily translate into food localism, but it will force agriculture into more sustainable, healthy relationships with the land.) 

But probably the biggest reason – from the industrialized world’s perspective – that food from other countries is cheaper than local food is simply that the wages paid to workers in many other countries are a fraction of what they are locally. This is a good example of how the unethical nature of our global distribution of wealth spills over to induce or force large numbers of us into supporting potentially unethical food systems. With the two issues thus linked, the question then becomes, how do we best correct this wealth imbalance, and how specifically might our food system be able to help correct it?

It could be argued that globalized food is perhaps a good way to redress this wealth imbalance – that the more food we buy from poor countries, the more wealth we’ll redistribute to where it’s most needed. Unfortunately, such a line of reasoning overlooks the fact that very few of our food dollars go to the people who actually grow the food. The reality is that the international distribution of foodstuffs is controlled by a few large corporations who hold all the cards; because of their poverty, the farmers who sell to them don’t have the luxury to bargain for better prices, and must sell at whatever price the distributors are willing to offer, which is usually just enough to keep them barely afloat. No surplus is made to reinvest in their families, businesses, communities, or countries, and they remain mired in poverty. Meanwhile, the international distribution and processing companies make healthy profits, and their employees spend their wages back in the industrialized nations where the food dollars originated from. Even in the industrialized world, most farmers face the same powerlessness in setting decent prices for their produce; but at least there they have access to subsidies, or the option of selling their farm and finding other work (probably in a city) – or turning to local markets and selling direct to well-off consumers who can afford to pay more for local food. This last option is a strong argument in favour of food localism for producers, but unfortunately not one available to many poor farmers who live surrounded by other poor people who can’t afford to buy their food.

It is hard to have a globalized food system without large companies controling its international distribution (but not impossible – Fair Trade does it), a fact that leads innevitably to an imbalance of power between the primary food producer and the secondary industries they must sell to. Without a decent return flowing to agriculture, it cannot afford to produce ethical food. This then represents a strong argument against a globalized food system supporting ethical food.

If farmers in poor countries are to gain the power to effectively bargain with their distributors and thus truly benefit from international trade in their products, they must first rise from the state of backs-against-the-wall desperation many are currently in. The catch-22 of capitalism is that you need money to make money, and poor farm families (who number about two billion people worldwide) need a little extra money in order to start raising themselves and their countries out of poverty. But where is this little extra to come from if the market won’t provide it? It can come from international aid, but, while aid can do a lot of good, there are many serious problems with any form of charity – not the least of which is the dignity of those on the receiving end of it. Worse still, the influx of free goods and foreign workers that often accompanies aid can destroy local commerce, ultimately deepening the poverty.

A far better solution is the “hand up, not hand out” provided by the Fair Trade movement. It does an end run around the capitalistic catch-22, linking caring and ethical consumers to poor communities through above-market prices for their products, and cutting the profit-making middle-man out of the equation. If the Fair Trade movement continues to spread and captures a significant market share, eventually poor farmers around the world will be able to raise their material well-being up to a level where they can demand fair prices on the free market without the intervention of an external organization. Success for Fair Trade would be to make itself redundant – fair trade in a free market.

Interestingly, Fair Trade actually supports food localism – by raising the price of globalized food to a level more on par with local food. Consumers are then free to choose between a more ethical global food product and a more ethical local one, without price considerations seriously influencing their decision. As such, this represents another example of how one of the first three solutions discussed – in this case, labeling – could work in concert with food localism. Another solution – regulation – could take it even further if it mandated that all trade be fair; for as long as there is unfair trade, fair trade will be relatively more expensive, and most poorer consumers won’t buy it. Many have spoken of the need to put fair trade principles onto the agenda of organizations like the World Trade Organization, and the arena of international trade is an appropriate place for government regulation, since it is so far beyond the control of smaller entities. If all global food were fairly traded, and perverse subsidies were removed, local food could compete on a much more even playing field; if cheap transport were also taken out of the picture, local food would probably have the price advantage.

In the absence of fair trade and other mechanisms for leveling the price difference between local and global food, another way that labeling could be so used would be for governments to require that all food that travels more than, say, 100 kilometres to carry a label displaying its Gross Ethical Index (GEI). If the cost of conducting this analysis were included in the product, it would serve to raise the price of non-local products, putting them more on par with local ones. The implicit assumption of such regulation and labeling would be that consumers are able to find out the GEI of local foods for themselves, whereas they need third-party labelers to inform them of the GEI of products from afar. Labels for non-local food make much more sense than labels for local food.

There are two key concepts to keep in mind when thinking about the price problem of local food: the price relative to other foodstuffs, and the price relative to one’s income. In Canada, the relative price of local food, compared to imported, is usually higher. However, one must keep in mind that food prices in Canada are very low compared to other industrialized countries, and that the price of local food relative to the average Canadian’s income is still quite affordable. For most Canadians, the choice of higher priced local food (or other food they know to be ethical) probably means only a slight sacrifice of other consumer goods. People commonly buy more expensive, better quality goods as they move up the income ladder – why not with food? It’s a matter of first recognizing that some foods are more ethical than others, and then valuing the positive effects of ethical food on both oneself and one’s world.

For poorer Canadians and billions of those in poorer countries, however, the price of food relative to their income is much higher, and they have no such luxury to accommodate higher prices. Does this mean that the goal of ethical food being available to all should be abandoned? I would argue no, because promoting ethical food systems has a positive effect on alleviating the causes of poverty. More importantly, it should be clear that the problem is not the cost of ethical food, but rather the fact that large numbers of people do not have enough money to buy it. To lay blame on the cost of food and demand that prices be as low as possible in order to “feed the world” is to perpetuate an increasingly unsustainable agricultural system that in the short term will lead to more poverty and in the long term may threaten the survival of civilization itself.

The problem is clearly poverty, and, for many more reasons than the affordability of food, it urgently needs to be addressed by a broad range of solutions – one of the best being governments guaranteeing a sufficient annual income to everyone. In a world without poverty, the problem of ethical food costing too much relative to income goes away – as do many other problems.

Another issue affecting the potential effectiveness of food localism as a solution for addressing the issue of ethical eating is that it is essentially qualitative and subjective, while the other three are quantitative and more objective. No locavore visits a farm to test for coliforms in the stream or pour over the farmer’s accounts – clipboard and checklist in hand – as a certifier might. Most people have only the vaguest notion of how food is actually produced, and wouldn’t know what to look for. A locavore’s observations typically more take the form of “getting a sense of the place”, looking a grower in the eye, shaking her hand, talking to her, and “feeling things out”. Even if they are more knowledgable about farming, most consumers in face-to-face contact with their growers are not likely to be too confrontational. If a farmer’s ethics seem more or less aligned with one’s own, most people are content to assume that she is going about her operation in an ethically acceptable way. Food localism’s greatest strength – personal connection – is also its greatest weakness.

In a way food localism is like democracy: messy. But then at least it is democratic. Our food dollars are our votes, and unlike politics, we get to vote every day. But like democracy, we often fail to do our homework and fall for the façade of false salesmanship. Perhaps food localism is the worst of all systems – except for all the others.

* * *

It is fitting that this essay spent the most time discussing the strengths and weaknesses of food localism as a means to ethical eating, since food localism has probably done more than any other approach, in its short run so far, to bring these issues to the fore. Certainly labeling – organic and Fair Trade especially – has done a lot too (while regulation to date has done little good, and fiscal policy on the whole has had a negative impact).

But where labeling addresses individual issues, food localism seems to raise the question of competing considerations. What to do when food miles collide with organics? Or Fair Trade with freshness? Or vegetarianism with sustainability? Simple, one issue labels no longer cut it. Food localism throws wide open the barn door, forcing us to consider the source of our food in all its complexity. It represents a maturing of our thinking, and as such, whether we want it to be or not, it is already a central part of the answer to how to create an ethical food system.

But if food localism is to be the centrepiece of our approach to making food more ethical, then the other solutions discussed in this essay have important supporting roles to play. They are:

1. Regulate the really bads. Some things – like animal welfare or workers’ rights – shouldn’t be left to the marketplace or consumer choice. They should be strictly regulated.

2. Regulate fair trade, making it the norm in trading relations rather than the exception.

3. Regulate GEI labels on all non-local food, so that consumers have the information they need to choose ethical global food. Include the cost of this analysis in this food.

4. Utilize fiscal policy to end harmful subsidies and shift them to more beneficial ends. For instance, the billions currently spent annually to pay farmers to overproduce a few commodities (thus keeping prices low so the food processors can churn out cheap but mostly unhealthy food) could be redirected towards building local food systems (employing many more farmers than currently) and establishing elementary school courses where students learn about how food is produced.

5. Utilize fiscal policy to end poverty, or at the very least ensure that people can afford ethically produced food.

These five strategies, animated by the vitality of the local food movement, would go a long way towards creating a food system biased towards ethical food rather than unethical. 

Yet these five strategies, you may notice, all rely on government action. It could be years, if ever, before large governments enact such sensible policies. It may be up to individual consumers, farmers, fishers, bakers, brewers, and cooks, working together, to shift things –  without much help (and possibly hindrance) from governments. Here’s what we can do, as individuals and within groups:

1. Learn about how food is produced.

2. Decide, based on your values, what ethically produced food would look like to you. Make a list of considerations.

3. For each product you’re thinking of buying, try to find information on as many of these considerations as possible. This part is hard – but working in groups and sharing information lightens the load.

4. Vote with your food dollars on the most ethical products you can find.

5.   Remember that ethical responsibility doesn’t end the moment you spend your food dollars; it also applies to how you transport the food home, how you cook it, how you utilize the waste, etc.

If you’ve gotten that far, you’re doing really well. But if you want to take it to another level:

6.   Become an ethical food activist. This could take many forms: conduct research and educate others, lobby governments, ask producers to improve their practices, start or work with initiatives that one way or another help make ethical food happen.

Food is vitally important. Besides being one of the few things we cannot live for long without, eating food is also, along with our vision, hearing and touch, one of the chief ways we interact with the word. Yet eating is in a class of its own – for vision and hearing are just passive receivers of light and vibration, and touch, which has both its passive and active aspects, is rarely so violent as our teeth and intestines are routinely to the poor morsels of food we ingest. Our choice of what to eat has a very real effect on the world around us, but it also has a very real effect on ourselves. Food, water, and air – these are the material bridges between ourselves and the world, and of the three, food is the only one where a complexity of choice exists. Food is outside matter made internal, pieces of the world used to construct, for a period of time, our selves. As such, the choice of what to eat is close to the choice of what to be.

Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | March 4, 2010

IF IT’S BROKE, DON’T FIX IT (AS LONG AS YOU CAN WORK AROUND IT)

For about a year there was a gaping hole in my mom’s kitchen ceiling, where the leaky bathtub above it had finally caused the plaster to give way. She had no cause to fix it, because the hole was serendipitously situated directly above the kitchen sink, into which drops plunked conveniently whenever someone took a shower. This system would probably still be in place if she hadn’t sold the place, and had it plastered over as part of it’s pre-selling spruce-up.

When it comes to maintenance, my mom takes the old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” one step further, to: “if it is broke, but you can still work around it, don’t fix it.” For instance, her TV’s volume depended for years on whether a strip of duct tape was muffling the speaker or not.

It almost goes without saying that duct tape is a great friend of hers. Other lesser-sung but equally valuable tools of instant maintenance include the garbage bag tie (which held the kitchen sink’s faucet in place), the safety pin (a good stand-in for broken zippers), the hairdryer (any internal combustion engine that won’t start is usually cured by a half hour blow-dry), and double-sided tape (comes in handy when hemming pants). When I told her about Harvey Pekar’s technique – as depicted in the film, American Splendour – of patching holes in old winter jackets with glue, she thought it was a good idea. Perhaps she’ll add some Elmer’s glue to her arsenal.

One thing she’s learned by allowing things to stay broken is that entropy isn’t all bad – sometimes, in fact, broken can be better. Take the case of the door to her cottage: back when the lock worked, the inevitable petty thieves of autumn would always break the doorframe when they kicked the door in. However, now that the lock is dysfunctional, they can kick the door in all they want while leaving the doorframe intact — a wondrous innovation. Her cheap second-hand phone offers similar undreamed of conveniences, when the static – which kicks in after five minutes or so – makes further conversation impossible. Since she doesn’t usually like talking on the phone any longer than that anyway, it provides a useful excuse to duck out of conversations.

Certainly part of the explanation for her approach to maintenance is that she was a single mother and has never had much money to spare. But if finances have been her only impediment, surely she could have afforded to replace the handle on the bathroom cupboard. Yet for twenty years it was good enough to simply pry it open with her fingertips.

It’s not that she isn’t handy, either. She built my sister and me a play-structure when we were kids, reupholstered the entire couch, and was the owner-operator of a woodworking business.

Neither is it a question of time. She readily admits that, for example, crawling under the half-opened garage door because you can only open it the rest of the way from the inside is inefficient, and, in the long run, much more time consuming than fixing it.

No, she persists in her snubbing of maintenance because it bores her. It’s dull. It’s no fun. Why should you do all that work just to get things back to the way they were? Maintenance is as tedious as treading water.

Agreed, most would say. Yet most do it anyway. So what makes my mom different? How can she so blithely ignore the slow decay all around her? Maybe it was her Ottawa Valley farm upbringing. Where she came from, when something broke, you didn’t just throw it out and go down to Home Depot to get a new one. You patched it up into a semblance of functionality again. My mom, it seems, got the not throwing away part. And she got the non-consuming part (she once said all she needs is a grocery store, a Canadian Tire, and a Value Village). She just overlooked the third part, the fixing part.

But perhaps more importantly, my mom has a strong sense of “good enough” in a world that always seems to be pushing for better. She (to the annoyance of Bell) was one of the last holdouts for the pulse dialling system, she continued using Carleton University’s freenet email service long after everyone else had switched to more user-friendly platforms, and she drives cars until their axles break. In stark contrast to the growing ranks of the technology-enamoured, who sometimes seem to love their gadgets more than the ends these things purport to serve, her values are grounded in results. If it gets the job done – even with a bit of inconvenience or effort – it’s good enough for her.

And there’s something to be said, in times such as ours, for that kind of acceptance. With the explosion of choice we have witnessed in the last 50 years – from 36 million websites to 36 flavours of yoghurt – it’s become an essential skill to be able to say, “good enough”, and move on to more important things.

So – as she’s running up and down the basement stairs to reset the washing machine’s three-minute rinse cycle, which is now pinch-hitting for the busted wash cycle – she’s not troubled by the fact that this is less than ideal. She’s content in the knowledge that she’s getting her clothes clean. And a little exercise.      

©Sean Butler 2004

Published in the Globe and Mail, November 26, 2004

Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | March 4, 2010

WORDS OF WEALTH

There’s a story I once heard about a fisherman and a tourist. The tourist comes across the fisherman dozing one afternoon on the beach by his boat and asks, “Why are you sleeping?”

“Because I’m done fishing for the day,” replies the fisherman.

“But,” says the tourist, “if you fished all day, you could make more money. And then you could buy a second boat and hire workers and catch even more fish. And then,” – the tourist is getting more and more excited as he speaks – “you could buy a whole fleet of boats, and a processing plant, and maybe even start a chain of seafood restaurants!”

“Why would I want to do that?” asks the fisherman.

“Because then you’d be rich and could do whatever you wanted!” exclaims the tourist triumphantly.

“I’m already doing that,” says the fisherman, pulling the brim of his hat back over his face.  

I like this story because it reminds me that there’s more than one way to be wealthy. For a speaker of English like myself, at least, that’s a useful reminder, for my language betrays a peculiar cultural bias when it comes to defining “rich” and its synonyms. A quick look at the first meanings of the following words in the Oxford English Dictionary will illustrate my point:

· rich: having a great deal of money or assets
· wealthy: having a great deal of money, resources, or assets
· affluent: having a great deal of money
· prosperous: successful in material terms
· profit: a financial gain
· treasure: a quantity of precious metals, gems, or other valuable objects

It’s no surprise that we should have many words to describe well-being. But it is surprising that the first meanings of many of those words all refer to one thing: material wealth. What this says about our beliefs is clear: the best thing that can happen to us is money. 

But if we dig a little deeper, past the first meanings, we find buried treasure of a different kind. We can, for instance, be “rich in ideas”, “profit from experience”, or “treasure a friendship”. Even “wealth” itself has origins that go far beyond the kind of financial success we usually associate with the word. It comes from the same root as the adverb “well” – the “th” added the same way it is to “heal”, forming “health”. If “health” is the condition of being healed, then wealth, rightly, is the condition of being well.  

“Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth,” said the Buddha. Of course, somewhere deep down we all know that to be true. Yet we still follow the rainbow of material riches in the hopes that it will lead us to a pot o’ gold of contentment. But the truth – obscured by a lexicon that overemphasizes monetary wealth – is that the correlation between money and contentment is weak at best, and may even be negative at times.

Ronald Inglehart, a professor of sociology at the university of Michigan, has headed up a number of studies with the World Values Survey that measure people’s “subjective well-being” – meaning how happy and contented individuals feel themselves to be. He has found that, as people begin their climb up the first few rungs of the economic ladder, their contentment level rises correspondingly. But once their income reaches about US$13 000, further increases have no significant effect on contentment. It would seem that, after our basic needs have been met, money can’t buy us any more happiness. These findings are consistent with others, such as David G. Myers’ revelation in his book The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty that, from the mid-1950’s to the mid-1990’s, the percentage of Americans describing themselves as “very happy” slightly decreased from 35% to 32%, despite a doubling of per capita income.

I asked a few friends and family to define wealth for me. One mentioned money, one mentioned freedom, and the other two both referred to the kind of material sufficiency that Inglehart found was so vital to contentment. “I feel that if I have enough to live comfortably,” said my grandma, “I’m wealthy.”

Benjamin Franklin came up with this definition for a rich person: “He that is content.” He then cynically added, “Who is that? Nobody.” While that sentiment may often seem accurate, I think our best chance for contentment may lie in the recognition that we’re already filthy rich. Think of the infinitesimal chance of your birth; the eons of evolution that have given you the best brain nature offers and the senses to enjoy the world; the sun that beams down trillions of watts of free energy day after day and the millions of species that sustain life on earth; the millennia of culture that have woven a rich tapestry around the planet and the accumulated wisdom and technology of thousands of generations; the love of your family and friends.

Chasing money – a little bit of it – is just one way to increase our wealth. But to truly become a millionaire, perhaps the best way is to recognize the millions of gifts that exist in and around us every day, and accept the wealth that can never be bought but is always offered for free. Just like the fisherman.    

Copyright Sean Butler 2004

Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | March 4, 2010

AN EVENING AT THE WOLF HOWL

Last month I was privileged to a unique experience – I talked to some wolves. Well, I didn’t actually do any talking, but I did – along with about 30 others – eavesdrop on a conversation between biologist Rhonda O’Grady and a couple of wolves at the edge of Gatineau Park.

It was the latest in a series of “wolf howls” O’Grady has held for the Friends of Gatineau Park. It began with an information session at the Park’s Visitor Centre in Old Chelsea, and then we took a bus ride out to a “secret” location next to the Park.

Filing out of the school bus into the cool, moon-brightened night, we walked down a dirt road in as perfect a silence as a mob of humans could muster. The noise from the highway slowly faded behind us, as we were enveloped by that stillness characteristic of late fall, when the world seems hushed and waiting for the first snow. Our eyes adjusted to the pale blue light, our bodies to the rhythm of our feet. When O’Grady stopped at a point in the road, overlooking farmers’ pastures and, beyond them, the dark, treed hills rising into the Park, we knew to gather around her and wait for her to howl.

O’Grady let out a long, well-practiced howl, her hands cupped around her mouth and directing the sound up into the night, carrying to wolves’ ears up to 10km away. We waited anxiously, unsure if anyone would answer her call, or if they would be close enough for our inferior human ears to pick up.

After about ten seconds we were rewarded with an answer – a high-pitched voice, likely a young wolf, unable to restrain itself from answering O’Grady’s hello. Seconds later, a lower voice added itself to the choir – a mature adult wolf. O’Grady made a stab at the translation: “Be quiet, child, and don’t talk to strangers!”

EDUCATION

O’Grady does these howls as a form of education. She’s got her work cut out for her, for the mythology surrounding wolves has centuries behind it. Long after we stopped burning witches, we still persecute wolves beyond any reasonable justification.

People who know nothing about wolves may fear them. But the fact of the matter is, wolves are about as dangerous to humans as bunny rabbits – a human has never been killed by a wild wolf in North America.

Another popular rationalization for killing wolves is that they kill livestock. It is true — wolves do take some livestock. Yet many question the effectiveness (to say nothing of the morality) of culls. The Canadian Federation of Agriculture’s website, Wildlife and Waterfowl Management Strategies for Farmers, includes the following advice: “Hunting, trapping and snaring… may not reduce the incidence of predation over the long term…While it may be useful for dealing with one problem predator, it does not prevent others from moving into an area, finding livestock and acquiring a taste for it.” Instead, the CFA recommends nine-wire fencing around livestock, or – and here’s thinking outside the corral – llamas. (Apparently, llamas – all 250 to 500 pounds of them – can be quite aggressive towards predators, chasing them, putting themselves between them and other livestock, and giving a shrill alarm.) 

Ranchers who do lose animals to wolves should be compensated for their losses – as they already are in some jurisdictions. This money could come from conservation groups, government, or it could simply be reflected in a slightly higher price for meat. Organic food is a good example of people willing to pay more for a product that hasn’t been produced by killing everything in its path. Why not apply the same principle to livestock and wolves?

If this seems too high a price to pay for wolves to once again take their place in the natural order, we should remember – as we are apt to forget – that extermination carries its own high price: an ecosystem out of whack. And then we should factor into the equation tourism; as the wolf has gained in popularity, as perhaps the quintessential totem of wilderness, more and more people want to experience the presence of wolves in their world. When Yellowstone National Park reintroduced wolves from Canada a few years back, its attendance jumped by 13%, and the wolf howls in Algonquin Park regularly attract tourists in their thousands.

The other major argument against wolves is that they kill the ungulates (deer, moose, etc.) that we like to kill. To this line of thought, I can only offer the following stats from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society:

Average annual number of deer killed by wolves in area around Algonquin Park (1987-1991): 58

Number of deer killed by hunters in same area around Algonquin Park (1996): 5,440

Didn’t anyone ever teach us to share?

Copyright Sean Butler 2004

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, December 31, 2004

Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | March 4, 2010

WHY BIKES WIN

I propose a race. A modern day duel between tortoise and hare. Picture this: a bicycle and an automobile, across Canada. Which one would you bet on?

Are you sure about that?

There is a catch. First, both drivers must earn enough money to buy their respective vehicles. Ah, you say – that’s different. To be more accurate, it’s only fair. 

Let’s say Nadine, the cyclist, has a disposable income of $500 a month; in one month she has enough to buy a shiny new touring bicycle, and she peddles away from Tofino, B.C., heading east. Meanwhile, Susan, the car driver, who also has $500 a month to spare, is desperately saving for a new car.

Five months into the race, Nadine triumphantly pulls into St. John’s. Susan, sadly, hasn’t even left Tofino yet – she still has another two years to go before she can buy a new car for $18,000. Like the old fable, the tortoise upsets the hare.

I haven’t told this tale to convince you of the efficacy of transcontinental bike travel, because to do so would be pure lunacy. The moral of this story is about the oft-overlooked false economy of the car, which applies equally, and more relevantly, to the local scale.

Many of us succumb to the myth that a car gets you where you’re going faster than a bike (or a bus). And it’s easy to see why, because on the surface it does seem true – after all, don’t you zoom past bikes in your car everyday? If you look only at the immediate situation, the car is faster. But what happens when you take a step back, and look at the larger picture?

There are many factors to juggle when making transportation decisions, but two of the most decisive are time and money. How long will it take to get from point A to B, and how much will it cost? And yet, money can also be thought of as an expression of time, as in the time it took to earn that money. For the business person, time might be money, but for the average worker, money is time. Therefore, as the above race illustrated, any truthful estimate of travel time must include the time spent earning money to pay for your chosen vehicle.

I hope you liked those high school math problems, because I’m going to give another example now: John, a dedicated car driver, makes $13 an hour. According to the CAA, he will spend on average $9,500 a year on his car. The upside of all this expense is that it only takes John 15 minutes to get to work, meaning he spends 2 ½ hours a week driving to work and back. In addition, he spends another 1 ½ hours a week behind the wheel, for personal reasons, bringing his weekly total to 4 hours.

Then there’s Sam, a cyclist, who (in the interest of controlled scientific experimentation) lives in the same neighbourhood as John, works in the same building, and makes an identical salary. Owning and operating a bicycle costs Sam just $250 a year. But Sam must spend 30 minutes biking to work each morning, meaning commuting takes 5 hours of his time each week. Add to that another 3 hours of biking for personal reasons, and we get a total of 8 hours a week spent in transit.  

So John spends a total of 200 hours a year getting around, while Sam spends double that – 400 hours. It would seem like John is the clear winner but, as we know, we can’t stop there. Next, we must factor in money spent on their respective vehicles as an expression of time.

In order to earn the $9,500 needed to pay for his car, John must work for 730 hours. That gives his yearly total of time spent in transit a substantial boost – to 930 hours. Meanwhile, Sam need only work 19 hours a year to pay for his bike, bringing his yearly total of time spent in transit to 419. Now, the tables have turned: John is spending over twice as much time as Sam on transportation. Who’s got the faster set of wheels now?

I can hear some objections to this admittedly simplified model, like what about when Sam needs to transport people or bulky items, or when he needs to travel long distances? Yes, the cost of taking the occasional taxi or bus should be added to Sam’s annual total. But I could then counter that the health benefits of cycling represent a further saving over driving. We could go back and forth for some time, adding layer after layer of complexity to our model. But the result would be hopelessly theoretical. Instead , I urge you to use this model as a starting point to run your own calculations, based on your personal situation, which you can then make as complex as you wish. My suspicion is that once the numbers are all crunched, the bike will still win the race.

Copyright Sean Butler 2005

Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | March 4, 2010

WHAT ABOUT AIDS?

My partner recently received a letter from a friend who is working on an AIDS education project in Rwanda. In it, she complained, “If there is a war with Iraq, everyone is going to forget about HIV/AIDS issues.”

For how long now has the news – in North America, Europe, possibly the whole world – been dominated by the question of what to do about Iraq? After that fateful day in September 2001, the question began growing; once the Afghanistan campaign wrapped up the question was asked louder; by last summer the question had already begun to take over as the most important issue of the day.

Now, Western countries have worked themselves into a frenzy, wracked with paroxysms of debate over this question. What are we going to do about Iraq? What are we going to do about Iraq?

The implicit assumption of this question is that there is a terrible problem with Iraq. As any lawyer knows, she who asks the questions has the power. She sets the boundaries for discussion, lays the framework for what is relevant and what is not, and directs the discourse to the desired outcome.

At the moment, the Iraq question has so thoroughly eclipsed public discourse, that its shadow is blotting out everything else. The Iraq question may be important, but is it more important than, “What are we going to do about AIDS?” or, “What are we going to do about poverty? Or malnutrition? Or dysentery? Or illiteracy? Or the environment?”

Remove the restrictive blinders of the “War on Terror”, and one sees the world differently: about two World Trade Centres of people die from AIDS every day in Africa. Stephen Lewis, UN special envoy on HIV/AIDS, predicts that in a few years we will see entire failed states. How many lives are saved by the billions of dollars currently being lavished on the “War on Terror”? How many more could be saved if our priorities were realigned?

 The American agenda, unfortunately, seems difficult to ignore. The rest of the world is compelled, like it or not, to tag along. Even arguing against Bush’s perverse logic saps the time and energy of people who could be concentrating on graver problems – problems that concern the world much more than a few aging stockpiles of weapons in a bankrupt dictatorship. It is an insult to the intelligence of humanity that the world is held hostage to the ridiculous priorities of the Bush administration.   

But perhaps the Iraq question will backfire in the face of the inquisitor. Increasingly, it seems, people are asking different questions, questions aimed at the Bush administration. Why the irrational obsession with Iraq? With national security? With terrorism? What about North Korea? What about your own weapons of mass destruction? What are you going to do, George W. Bush, about poverty, violence, illness, illiteracy, and the economy at home?

Maybe it’s time we started asking the question found on my partner’s T-shirt, “What are we going to do about the United States?”

Copyright Sean Butler 2003

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, March 10, 2003

Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | March 4, 2010

TROUBLE IN THE BARN

MARGARETSVILLE, N.S. – The little barn is alive with people. A few naked light-bulbs burn away the gloom of late dusk; by their glow, we flip furiously through veterinary reference books, eyes scanning the texts, searching for answers.
“Look under `Birthing – problems with!'” shouts Janet Wallace. She and her partner, David O’Leary, are in a stall with Carmina, a goat in the final stages of labour. Her kid is jammed in the birth canal. It should be exiting the womb like someone diving into water – front hooves extended forward to the nose. But only the nose is visible, poking out from the vulva; the legs are bent backwards somewhere inside Carmina, clogging up the works.
We could call the vet, but by the time he arrived, both mother and kid would be long dead. All we have to go on are a few seasons’ experience under Janet’s belt, and the thick stack of reference books before us.
“Here!” several of us yell almost simultaneously, shoving our tomes under Janet’s nose so she can study the diagrams within. The pictures are of ruminant insides, laid bare by X-rays – the bulbous shape of uterus and birth canal, the hinging of spindly kid’s legs.
“It says here to rely on your experience,” says one of Janet’s friends, Kris. “Yep, that’s what mine says too,” asserts Kris’s partner, Sue. In other words, the best advice these sagacious compendiums of animal husbandry knowledge can offer is, “You’re on your own, buddy.”
Our small library does eventually yield some fruitful words of wisdom. Apparently, the only way to remedy the situation is to push the kid back through the cervix and into the womb, coax the wayward appendages forward, and then pull them out again.
Janet reaches for her very big latex glove, and pulls it up to her armpit. Carmina – happily for her – can’t grasp the implication of this latest development.
The next few moments are drowned out by Carmina’s bloodcurdling bleating, as Janet pushes the stuck kid back against the force of her contractions.
It sounds as if Janet is killing her – but she’s “relying on her experience,” which reassures her that she is only doing what she must to save both mother and kid.
A world of warm gooeyness closes around Janet’s arm, as she struggles blindly to complete her task inside the nebulous folds of flesh. It’s moments like these that cause Janet to bristle when people call her operation a “hobby farm.”
“It’s not a hobby when you’ve got your arm halfway up a ewe’s vagina at two in the morning,” she retorts. As for the rest of us, all we can do is watch and cringe, or avert our gaze and pretend to have found a particularly captivating passage in Diseases of the Mammary Glands of Domestic Animals.
To everyone’s relief, Carmina gives one last heaving grunt, and a long, slimy black thing slips into Janet’s waiting hands. Minutes later, a brother appears; he slithers out so quickly, no one’s there to catch him before he ignobly plops onto the straw floor like a freshly caught fish.
These are just two of the latest additions to Tangleroot Gardens, a small farm on what is called “North Mountain,” a modest ridge of woods and pastures that rises from Nova Scotia’s fertile Annapolis Valley before plunging into the cold waters of the Bay of Fundy.
Besides two milking goats who have given birth, there are five sheep with new lambs. In addition to this cohort of bounding, clamouring mayhem, we accept three orphaned lambs from another farm, and bottle-feed them every few hours. Feeding time is like a speed-eating contest, and each time I thank my maker that those nipples are not attached to me.
Later, several of the hens catch a wave of “broodiness” – an all-consuming desire to sit day and night on a clutch of eggs until they hatch – and three weeks later we have a flurry of chicks underfoot.
The first time I see a chick hatch, I am astounded that something I make omelets out of could produce a little, fluffy being that runs around cheeping.
The closest experience I can relate it to was in Grade 6 when I left a Zip-Lock bag of carrot sticks in the bottom of my locker for a semester.
They, too, magically got fluffy, but unfortunately remained inanimate.
The chickens share lodging with a smattering of geese and ducks, and one of my favourite chores is letting them all out first thing in the morning. The geese charge out at the head of an eruption of pent-up avian energy, honking with imperious self-importance; behind stream the ducks, quick-marching in single file to the pond as fast as their stubby legs can carry them; and then strut the hens and the rooster, Louis Quatorze, already sizing up the day’s grubbing possibilities.
It is always an inspiring sight to watch these animals throw themselves into the morning’s activities with such unhesitant gusto.
Meanwhile, we humans sit by the big window and eat our meals prepared with the animals’ eggs and milk, and watch them like we used to watch TV. I think we find them so endlessly fascinating because they give us something perhaps more important than food – they remind us of what it is to live in the moment, to have guiltless desires, to treat a little patch of earth like there’s nothing more important.
Now, the seasons are changing faster than even the newborns are growing; the snow is gone, the leaves whisper in the ocean breeze, and that brief Canadian window between killing frosts has at last been pried open by the sun. It is the garden’s turn to be born.

©Sean Butler 2004
Published in the Ottawa Citizen, July 11, 2004

Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | March 4, 2010

THE WHEELS OF PROGRESS SPIN ROUND AND ROUND

After five days of driving, we were back where we started. We had driven all day, we had driven all night, and then we had driven some more, pretending to sleep on a cot in the back of the van in between shifts at the wheel, until driving was all we were good for. We became robots, born to drive, and any interaction with the world beyond our windshield left us babbling like village idiots, infantile and mystified. The monotony of pointing the van down that endless strip of asphalt was our exclusive forte.

A TV production company had hired my friend Joe and me to drive from Toronto to Calgary, pick up an ultralight aircraft, and tow it back to Toronto.
 
We drove the company van – a V8 Turbo-charged overdrive equipped diesel burning cargo van, the megafauna of vans, the kind destined to go the way of the dinosaurs sooner or later. Until then, however, we could indulge our latent male trucking fantasies. As we tore down the highway, my smog-conscious cyclist persona was quickly corrupted by the under-the-hood power of this beast, the soundtrack to Star Wars echoing Wagneresque through our rapidly devolving minds.

“Westbound, Manitoba…” I wrote in my journal, “I wonder if I could do this forever? Here, in our rocket ship, we blast through a landscape we always knew was there. It holds all the familiarity of an assumption, one based on a steady diet of TV, films, books, maps, classes and hearsay, all geared towards providing us with a picture of this part of the planet. This secondhand picture is so complete, so assuring, who needs to see it firsthand? We could stop this, break this forward momentum, get out and explore, but it holds little appeal compared to the certainty of miles. At 100 km/h, we’ll be in Kenora at 7:30, in Winnipeg at 9:30, in Brandon at 11:30 – road progress, unlike life progress, is so easy to chart, so predictable, and accomplished with such little effort. That is, unless we stop. We mustn’t stop.”
 
But our turbo-charged armor proved useless against one thing: all that land. The automobile, for all its seeming speed and power, is dwarfed by the overwhelming expanse of the land. Time blurs and stretches, like the land you hurry through. To drive in Canada, one must return to the patience of an earlier age. The longer you drive, the more you regress. If you go long enough, far enough, you stand the chance of entering the sacred world of the pilgrim.
 
I notice the sunset when I drive. I observe the sky transmuting through colours I never dreamed could wash the firmament – hues of translucent purples and greens – and realize the sky never stays still, not for a moment. The moon rises fat and orange like the headlights of an avenging trucker from the highway directly ahead. The landscape spins by like the panoramas of old, looping over and over.
 
I offer music chosen with the tenderness of a lover into the cassette player and let the soundtrack begin to the movie beyond the glass. Music and movement, time and space: twin aspects of the same birth. We have always instinctively united them, through dance, songs of the road and work, and lately through the music video, cinema, and – perhaps the greatest of all – car audio.
 
Out of the boredom of long driving springs creative impulses long forgotten to modern humans. Having nothing left to entertain you, you become the entertainment. The art of conversation is revived. Games involving cows or hydro poles are invented. You attend to the neglected pleasures of reading and writing, singing and sketching, or simply reflecting. Out of the motion around you is born a tranquility; you sit in the eye of the storm, calm and detached. (Are we moving forward, you think, or are our wheels pushing the land by, the globe a giant hamster wheel?)
 
In Canada, the supremacy of the automobile pales against the vastness of space; lost on deserted highways, the interminable crackling of the radio between stations, the engine sputtering on a dry gas tank.

Back in Toronto, the illusion of progress was revealed; five days of driving and we were back where we started. The drone of our machine had lulled us into a false sense that we were getting somewhere, when really we had just come full circle.

Copyright Sean Butler 2003

Published in The Ottawa Citizen,  Oct. 5, 2003

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