Collapse

A factory building collapses in Bangladesh, killing a thousand garment workers, many of them young girls. “What a tragedy,” we all say.

A woman is found alive, 17 days later, in the rubble. She’s rescued just moments before heavy machinery was due to move in and clear away the wreckage. “What a miracle,” we all say.

Days or weeks or months from now, she returns to work in some other garment factory, with some other child labourers, earning the same exploitative wages from some other garment producer. “What a tragedy,” we won’t say, because we’ll all have moved on to the next thing.

Popes

When I was ten years old I met Pope John Paul II. It was during a mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. I was attending the mass with my dad during a trip to Rome together.

The woman directly to the left of me in the picture shoved past my dad the moment the pope arrived by us. Not that it mattered much to my dad. As choir director at St. Patrick’s Catholic church in Markham, Ontario, he had several occasions to meet Pope John Paul II.

My dad is current director of the Office of Formation for Discipleship for the Archdiocese of Toronto. His boss, the Archbishop of Toronto, is Cardinal Thomas Collins, whom Pope Benedict appointed Cardinal just last year, and who was therefore a member of the papal conclave that voted in the new pope. (Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, was appointed Cardinal by John Paul II, in 2001.)

My grandfather also met a pope in his day.

I am fiercely proud of my dad, just as I am proud of my grandfather, despite not sharing their faith and belief system. Granted, I know that the kernel of my ethical system is the remnants of the culture of Christianity into which I was raised. And I’m fine with that. (There are fellow Left-leaning atheists whose moral and/or intellectual frameworks are less appealing to me than my conservative Catholic parents’.) But that’s all that’s left — remnants.

I’m neither god-fearing nor church-going anymore. In the almost twenty-five years (!) since that picture was taken I’ve gone from suit-wearing Jesus fanboy to what a friend once called “the only real atheist” she’d ever met, so thoroughgoing is my non-belief.

Over the past year it’s become more of a radical agnosticism, although  a more apt term would be profound ambivalence.

But one thing I do care about is who the new pope is.

I don’t care about the new pope any more than I care about the next president of Venezuela. But it matters who these people are. The Catholic church in particular exerts social, political, cultural, even economic influence on the world, not just the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. (Though that number is dubious: are folks like me still on the list?)

So who is Pope Francis? (Exciting time to be a Wikipedia page!)

He picked his pope name in honour of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the environment. He reportedly takes the bus rather than a limo, cooks his own meals, and thinks extreme poverty and the unequal distribution of wealth is a violation of human rights.

He’s also against birth control, abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.

As the first pope chosen from outside of Europe in over a thousand years, perhaps he’ll make the elimination of exploitation and the alleviation of poverty and suffering in the global south a priority over banning condoms, banning married gays, banning married priests, banning women priests, and banning access to education, technology and medical services in Africa, etc.

To paraphrase former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, the church has no place in the bedrooms of the world’s nations. (Do with that what you will.) Jesus, after all, was concerned with overturning moneychanging tables, not riffling through bedside tables. In other words, the work of the church should be to disrupt the exploitative socioeconomic order of capitalism. Period.

Of course, I have as much hope as I have faith.

But as this new pope struggles to connect the gospels to the lives of modern believers, perhaps a new generation of believers will exert a counter-pressure on the papacy to modernize. To find Christianity’s kernel — social justice, egalitarianism, peace — and discard the rest.

Who Owns Sydney’s Port?

The Cape Breton Post’s assessment of yesterday’s events (“Greenfield Gold”) doesn’t say much for its opinion of this community. CBRM council voted 17-0 to put in an offer on the Greenfield site. The Post believes this unanimous decision was the result of council’s impressionability, as if they were simply charmed by Rankin MacSween.

When in fact, as reported by CBC, councillors based their decision on the volume of phone calls and emails they received from constituents following Tuesday’s council meeting. Council’s decision was the direct result of a community acting together to achieve a common goal. This was neither a coup by council nor by MacSween; it was a win for the community, by the community.

And what exactly was it that the community won? Again, the Post misses the point. This was not the triumph of a container terminal over a coal field, or the triumph of councillors over a consortium. The decision to purchase the greenfield site shouldn’t be seen as an investment in whatever future development takes place there, container terminal or otherwise. Rather, it should be understood as a securing of this community’s right to determine its own future. It’s not about what gets built on the site; it’s about who decides. And ultimately about who benefits.

The Post would prefer we “let the chips fall where they may”, as if the rights of every Henry Melville Whitney should always and everywhere trump the long-term interests of a community. Indeed the editorial seemed quite concerned with the message yesterday’s decision sends to the private sector. But what message does this send to members of this community, who spoke out in favour of shared ownership of a vital community asset, and had their elected representatives listen? This was truly a triumph for democracy.

It’s too bad the Post editorial missed all this, with its simplistic reduction of a complex issue, and its shameful dismissal not only of this community’s leaders but of the multitude who supported them.

What we witnessed was a community realizing its power, and demanding its right, to determine its future. It was an act of courage. It came from a place of hope. And it displayed a profound commitment to each other and to this island. May this letter serve as a corrective: We noticed. And we celebrated.

Richard Florida’s Creative Classism

In the Community Economic Development MBA program at CBU, our Economic Geography professor tested our reading comprehension by having us summarize one of the assigned readings. I chose Richard Florida’s “Cities and the Creative Class”.

The City as an object of academic study has been marginalized in the last several decades by scholars whose myopic view of regional development has led them to see only companies, firms, and industries as engines of innovation and economic growth. Richard Florida has corrected this egregious error, rescuing the city from undeserved obscurity, and effectively filling in a giant blind spot in economic geography as a discipline that has existed ever since Jane Jacobs stopped writing about the city and started writing about the planet.

If it weren’t for Florida’s heroic effort to return the city from oblivion to its rightful place at the centre of regional development theories of economic growth, policy makers would spend another wasted generation misplacing their energies (by attempting to influence and attract firms with incentives); and lesser scholars would misplace their energies by studying non-economic functions of places. Policy makers and scholars alike should instead look to the city as the new way of organizing geographies. And here’s why.

Not only is geography not “dead”, but in fact the people responsible for economic growth in (mainly) the US are concentrating in a handful of places. The question then is whether favourable economic conditions (jobs, etc) bring those people to those places, or whether those people actually bring the economy with them. Indeed, Florida argues that firms cluster in places, spurring the huge economic growth and spawning the advancements in innovation that characterize booming economies, precisely because those people are there, all at once, together. The best and the brightest, they are. Look at ’em! They’re almost glowing. They’re called… The Creative Class.

There are several important things to know about this important group of important people. First, they don’t care for bowling, church, politics, group sports in general, trusting people, caring about strangers, knowing people outside of their class and specialty, or having meaningful connections to humans that might in any way inhibit the economic growth of the economy.

What they do like is “networking” with people who share their interests, which allows them to socialize while simultaneously pursuing their own interests.

In this way, not only are they highly motivated technological innovators, but indeed social innovators. They spontaneously create the very lifestyle conditions required to reproduce themselves: a diverse, open society where anyone is welcome so long as you don’t try to get to know others too well (i.e., invasive-ness is taboo) or do anything else to inhibit the production of novelty leading to economic growth (like, say, promote stability or obligations).

While Florida places cities at the centre of regional development theory, he places these people, the Creative Class, at the centre of the City. No longer are cities important because of their centrality in a distribution network nor their proximity to natural resources. The new economy is still structured around resource extraction, but of a radically different resource, what Florida calls “human capital”.

Being human is not enough to endow a human with human capital worth extracting: a human must first be enriched with high-grade education, and pressurized to a level of productivity not found outside the lab, in nature. The resulting human product is called “talented”, and as specimens accumulate in a place, yet remain unattached so as to easily reconfigure in novel combinations, we see economic growth.

As noted, only some humans possess human capital. And only some humans with human capital possess the kind of human capital, “creative capital”, necessary to drive economic growth. And still fewer of these creative humans possess highly enough concentrated levels to be considered super-creative. These include scientists, artists, designers, and Richard Florida.

In order for someone’s output to be considered super-creative, it must meet the following dual criteria, both of which are necessary and neither of which is sufficient on its own: it must be highly original, yet highly reproducible.

Among the creative class as a whole, Florida counts almost 1 in 3 Americans. There is a high degree of probability that the remainder are creative human beings. But they aren’t required, or allowed, to employ this creativity in their jobs — because they stayed in their hometown which is ethnically homogeneous and sparse in technological assets, and they didn’t graduate from university, like Steve Jobs.

Florida is not uncritical of the new cities, and notes some of the contradictions of the rise of the creative class: as university graduates relocate to join the creative class, we can see intensifying economic inequality between a few fast growing regional economies and the shrinking regional economies of the various backwaters where they grew up; and within fast growing economies, anyone not a member of the creative class can no longer afford their rent and must move to those hollowed out communities that the creative people just evacuated.

Worst of all, members of the creative class must check their email frequently, causing mental disorders that will lead to social breakdown in the absence of support structures like bowling leagues, Kiwanis, church, community, friends, and family.

To summarize, the Creative Age is distinguished by the movement, accumulation, concentration, and infinite reconfiguration of “human capital”. The creative class is, in other words, capital incarnate.

Imagining an Alternative World

Capitalism is in crisis: this is clear to anyone paying attention to world events. But rather than rehashing the same old critique, the fifth annual “Human Security Forum” will examine alternatives to business-as-usual economics.

A project of the Centre for International Studies at CBU, this participatory forum brings together people from around the world to explore ideas for a more democratic, egalitarian and sustainable future.

This year’s forum features speakers from the US, Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina, and Canada, including:

  • David Tracey from the Vancouver Community Agricultural Network, which seeks to create more community gardens in order to increase urban organic food production.
  • And Eric Leviten-Reid, an independent community development consultant who for the past ten years has been a member of the national staff team of Vibrant Communities, a pan-Canadian initiative exploring comprehensive, collaborative and community-driven approaches to poverty reduction. Eric is currently pursuing strategies for sustainable community development (economic, social and environmental) in Cape Breton.

The conference runs all day Saturday, at the new Centre for Sustainability in Energy and the Environment at CBU; and kicks off on Friday with a keynote speech and one-act play, Howard Zinn’s “Marx in Soho,” which imagines Marx returning to earth to defend his ideas.

Registration is free. Full details, including agenda, speaker bios, and late registration (still about 8 spots left) online at: cbu-cis.ca/events/human-security-forum-2011-after-capitalism/

Web 2.0 – Undoing the Industrial Revolution?

Internet usability guru Jacob Nielsen has argued that the Web will “undo” the Industrial Revolution, and lead to the re-establishment of “a more balanced, decentralized lifestyle.”

Industrialization is characterized by mass centralization:

  • mass centralization of manufacturing in big factories and of production itself, especially of the assembly-line variety;
  • mass centralization of decision-making in big companies, whose executives are far-removed from the workers;
  • mass centralization of people in cities;
  • mass centralization of media; and
  • mass centralization of marketing.

The workers of the Industrial Age spend their days in factories and evenings at home, becoming alienated from the products of their labour (of course, this is Marx not Nielsen I’m paraphrasing). Work is thereby reduced to a mere means of making money – money which can be spent consuming, even if those workers can’t afford to purchase the particular products of their particular labour, further alienating worker from work.

The products of the Industrial Age are mass-produced, aimed at the lowest common denominator. One sprocket varies only slightly – if at all – from another.

In order to stand out, then, “image building [becomes] a primary means of sustaining market position in a mass-marketing environment crowded with similar products.” We call it branding.

The economies of the Industrial Age are economies of scale, where only the big survive. That means big money and big brands.

Where, in all this, is quality? Real need? Fulfilment?

The Internet Revolution will undo this.

Custom-built and niche products will mean the end of bland lowest-common-denominator goods; geographically-dispersed and virtual companies will allow less time spent (and less pollution from) physically commuting, but more collaboration between the best people for the job; and greater connectivity will encourage the blending of work- and personal-life, not to mention more people can work from home.

These trends will re-establish a more balanced, decentralized lifestyle, Nielsen argues. Re-establish because the result of the Industrial Revolution is that we often live and work in ways that in fact conflict with evolution. “Our dominant historical experience as a species,” he says, is one

wherein we lived in places where we knew everyone; worked either for ourselves or directly for the leader of a focused team (as on a hunting expedition or farm, or in a crafts shop); and had work and lives that were tightly integrated (typically, our homes doubled as our workplaces).

The less people are alienated from their productive capacity, the more fulfilled they will be and the more pride they’ll take in their work. This means, you guessed it, the return of quality – meaning the reputation of the producer and the product will again take precedence over the “image” of the company or brand.

The way forward in Copenhagen: Rich countries must blaze a green path

This was read on-air on CBC's Maritime Noon and reprinted in the Cape Breton Post

The urgency to reach a deal on climate change seems lost on the Harper government. As world leaders gather in Copenhagen to negotiate a global carbon emissions reduction agreement, Prime Minister Stephen Harper continues to delay and disrupt talks by demanding carbon reduction parity, arguing that unless all countries accept equal cuts we run the risk that some will gain economic advantage over others.

Harper’s position is not only callously self-interested, but short-sited and wrong-headed.

Short-sited in that an economic disadvantage already exists, but not the one Harper is concerned with.

Developing nations are not responsible for the build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which is to blame for global warming, nor have they reaped the economic benefits during the last two hundred years of the Industrial Revolution. Developing nations are, therefore, not in an economic position to adapt to climate change.

The result is that those who will be hit first and hardest, due to geography, are also those most vulnerable to rising sea levels and extreme weather events due to lack of infrastructure.Harper’s position is also wrong-headed in that moving away from fossil fuels presents an economic opportunity.

Of the 44 countries committed to emissions reductions under Kyoto, only 4 are on track to meet their targets: Britain, Germany, Sweden and Denmark. (Canada’s emissions rose by 26 per cent between 1990 and 2007.) Yet far from experiencing economic contraction as a result of investing in a ‘green-collar economy,’ those countries are in fact outperforming other wealthy nations in terms of job and business creation.

Greater investment in a sustainable energy future will not only result in decreased emissions, it will bring down the cost of renewable energy technologies, thereby making it possible for all nations – including developing nations, and especially rapidly developing nations – to make the switch away from fossil fuels. It’s no wonder that the heaviest polluters are fighting such a move given that 55% of Canada’s emissions come from industry.

Harper has further warned that “without the wealth that comes from growth, the environmental threats, the developmental challenges and the peace and security issues facing the world will be exponentially more difficult to deal with.” This is surely true, and reinforces the urgency for rich countries to fulfil their commitments made under Kyoto for an adaptation fund to help developing nations cope with the effects of climate change.

But if the growth of which Harper speaks is fuelled by carbon, the challenges of climate catastrophe facing the world will be exponentially worsened.

To quote from the ‘Survival Pact’ by Mohamed Nasheed, President of the Maldives:

“It is not carbon we want, but development. It is not coal we want, but electricity. It is not oil we want, but transport.”

In other words, growth without environmental destruction is possible. But only if we break the link between energy and carbon. In order for this to happen, we first must break the link between energy companies and government.

The damage caused by the profligate burning of fossil fuels over the last two centuries must now be answered by a green energy revolution – one from which every nation would benefit, both economically and environmentally. Only a global Green New Deal, combined with a global agreement rooted in social justice, can rectify the historical economic disadvantage experienced by developing nations while ensuring a sustainable energy future for all.

The way forward must be led by rich developed nations, including – especially – Canada.