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doomsday-clock

“Small steps will no longer get us to where we need to go. So we need to leap.” – Naomi Klein, award-winning journalist, author, and syndicated columnist

We are close to global catastrophe. Yet our political leaders don’t seem to feel a sense of urgency. Fortunately, public engagement is growing, and this just might be what it takes to give leaders the license they need to leap.

The Doomsday Clock, a tool used by The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to rate how unsustainable our current human endeavors are, still sits at three minutes to midnight. This year’s announcement began with a statement that says it’s “an expression of dismay that world leaders continue to fail to focus their efforts and the world’s attention on reducing the extreme danger posed by nuclear weapons and climate change. When we call these dangers existential, that is exactly what we mean: They threaten the very existence of civilization and therefore should be the first order of business for leaders who care about their constituents and their countries.”

The atomic scientists call for an immediate and sharp reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. 

Thomas Walkom, National Affairs Columnist for The Star, notes on April 27 that both Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Justin Trudeau “say that the only way Canada can afford to build a green economy free of fossil fuels is by exploiting and expanding fossil fuel production.” And, “while both agree that climate change poses an immediate threat to Canada and the world, both also say governments must not move too quickly to meet that threat.”

Into this discouraging situation bursts The Leap Manifesto: A Call for a Canada Based on Caring for the Earth and One Another. The document was a collaborative project involving representatives from Canada’s Indigenous rights, social and food justice, environmental, faith-based and labour movements. Initial signatories include Roy McMurty, retired judge and former Progressive Conservative MPP, and Clayton Ruby, Canadian lawyer and activist, specializing in constitutional and criminal law and civil rights, along with 48 other notable Canadians. As of early May, there were almost 40,000 signatories. I’m proud to say I’m one.

This concise non-partisan document – only two pages long – manages to cover a wide range of issues: improvement of human rights, development of local resiliency, electoral reform, the end of austerity, transition to clean energy, climate change preparedness and reduction of corporate interference in national autonomy, particularly as it relates to the protection of the environment and public safety.

In an attempt to be concise, the authors have confused some people over the breadth of issues addressed in the Manifesto. Critics see the Manifesto as a smorgasbord of unrelated ideas. What they fail to understand is that the transition to a sustainable way of life, one that provides lasting prosperity for all, is primarily a socio-political challenge. (The Solutions Project, which involves Mark Jacobson, Director of the Atmosphere and Energy Program, Stanford University, claims that the technology already exists to rely entirely on renewable energy sources, and this can be achieved by 2050.) No, it’s primarily the willpower to act that is lacking.

Making drastic changes requires widespread public engagement. For people to care, they need be freed from the anxiety of just trying to get by. To engage in politics – by voting for something rather than against something else – they need to feel that their vote counts. Then, as long as we still have retained sovereignty over own domestic decision-making, politicians will have the social license they need to act.

Well, politicians take note. Despite relentless negative media coverage, an April 2016 EKOS poll found that a little over half of Canadians had heard of The Leap Manifesto, and of those, support for it outweighed opposition by over 2-1 for the progressive party supporters, and even 20% of Conservatives endorsed it. Overall, support equaled opposition at 40% a piece. (Note that in 2011, the Harper Conservative government won a majority with 39.62% of the vote.) As Canadians learn about the Leap Manifesto, support will grow. Go to https://leapmanifesto.org for all the details and add your support.

The sooner we leap the better.

This article was first published in the June/July 2016 issue of North Simcoe Life.

Robots and Profit

“Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution.” – Stephen Hawking

An economy is successful if it adequately provides for all its citizens. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development states that poverty in Canada has been steadily growing since the 1990s. Now, one in seven Canadians live in poverty. But hope is on the horizon. Canada is getting set to initiate experiments with guaranteed basic income, and proponents are coming out across the political spectrum.

Back in the ‘70s, we were told that technological advancements would lead us to a life of leisure and comfort. Instead, for much of society, it has resulted in job insecurity, a downward pressure on wages, and job scarcity. We’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg.

According to the Bank of England, 50% of jobs could be taken over by machines in the next 10 to 20 years. “These machines are different,” the bank’s chief economist Andy Haldane said. “Unlike in the past, they have the potential to substitute for human brains as well as hands.”

Examples include:

  • IBM Watson, famous for winning $1 million on Jeopardy, is now doing analysis for medical professionals.
  • Artificial intelligence (AI) is being used to write real estate, financial analysis and sporting event articles indistinguishable from those by human journalists.
  • Driverless vehicles will cut into the markets of parts suppliers, auto insurers, body shops, parking lot operators, and many more.
  • Google and Apple are starting up mobile account and loan companies that threaten Canada’s big banks, who responded in 2015 by increasing automation and cutting jobs.

Google, Facebook, Microsoft and IBM are all betting on AI as a prime source of growth. Mid-level jobs are on the radar.

For the owners of capital, automation has been a bonanza. As capital replaces labour, owners seize a greater share of income. An Oxfam International study showed that in the last 5 years, the number of people that have as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity has gone from 388 people to just 62. The richest 1% now has more wealth than the rest of the world combined. And the automation revolution still has a long way to go.

To address the increasing concentration of wealth at the top, some Canadian provinces are conducting pilot projects on a guaranteed basic income. Every citizen in the project would be guaranteed a minimum income. At income tax time, low-income earners would receive a rebate. As income increases, the benefit declines, but less than proportionately to ensure an incentive to work.

If adopted, existing welfare, disability support and old age security programs would be replaced. Several Queen’s University professors have tallied the cost of a Canada-wide basic income system that provides every adult in with an annual income of $20,000 and children with an income guarantee of $6,000. The cost: $40 billion.

The Fraser Institute pegs the total cost of Canada’s current income support system at $185 billion in 2013.

So there are some huge potential savings to a streamlined system. But there are other potential savings too. Poverty is also one of the biggest burdens on the healthcare and criminal justice systems in Canada. Health care now consists of nearly half of provincial spending and is under great pressure to cut costs.

Back in the 1970s, Manitoba ran a successful basic income pilot project in the small town of Dauphin. The four year program saw unprecedentedly high secondary school graduation rates and an 8.5% reduction in hospitalizations, particularly for mental health, accidents and injuries. The project aimed to find out if giving money to working poor would kill their drive to work. The result: only new mothers and high school aged boys opted to work less – and for very good reasons. The project was widely viewed as a resounding success but was cancelled for political reasons.

Support for basic income is widespread in Canada. The municipality of Kingston and the mayors of Calgary and Edmonton have voiced their support. Both Ontario and Quebec announced plans to run pilot projects. The Liberal Party of Manitoba has pledged to run two pilot projects if they win in April 2016. The Canadian Medical Association is behind it. Mr. Jean-Yves Duclos, Federal Minister of Families, Children and Social Development has expressed pleasure that the program is generating interest. (Although basic income is not in the official Liberal platform, two policy resolutions on basic income were passed at the 2014 Convention.) It’s endorsed by the Green Party of Canada in their policy document, Living Green. Senator Art Eggleton has tabled a motion in the Senate to encouraging the federal Liberals to evaluate it. Former Conservative Senator Hugh Segal has endorsed the idea for 45 years.

Outside of Canada, interest is growing too. The Dutch launched a pilot project in the city of Utrecht. Finland has announced it will bring in basic income for everyone later this year. The Swiss vote in June on a basic income plan that will provide every citizen with the equivalent of $3,200 Canadian per month.

With even more automation and concentration of wealth, poverty in Canada is sure to grow. We could try to create new meaningless jobs selling more stuff we don’t need, creating more pollution and destroying more of the earth’s dwindling resources. Or, we could conserve our resources, reduce government spending and provide all Canadians with a decent life. The biggest challenge will be standing up to the interests of the “machine-owners”. But, it looks like we may be ready.

First published in the April/May 2016 issue of North Simcoe Life.

PULSES

With our society’s overflowing abundance of food, I haven’t given food security much thought. But my complacency has been rattled by the steadily increasing cost of food, up 4.1% in 2015 and expected to rise another 4% in 2016 (Food Institute, University of Guelph). Then, as if by providence, I stumbled upon an article in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic – The New Food Revolution.

Until I read this piece, I had no idea of our predicament. “Our need for food poses one of the biggest dangers to the planet,” warns author Jonathan Foley, Executive Director of the California Academy of Sciences, environmental scientist, and expert on food security.

First, the global agricultural system produces up to one-third of all human caused greenhouse gas emissions, more than the entire transportation sector. The way we grow and produce our food drives global climate change.

farm_emissions_sources

Farming emissions come from a variety of sources that differ depending on the type of farm. Image credit: IPCC

Second, without a major change in what we eat, we will need to double the production of food crops by 2050 for both human and livestock consumption. With the spread of affluence, particularly in China and India, a growing portion of food crops will go to the production of meat, dairy and eggs.

Third, agriculture is the thirstiest user of our dwindling water supplies.

 

Fourth, farming is a major driver of wildlife extinction through the pollution and destruction of ecosystems. Indonesia’s tropical forests, home to orangutans and some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet are being burned down for plantation development.

Fifth, a billion people currently lack adequate access to food, and that number will certainly increase, contributing to worldwide instability (think of Syria, for instance).

Foley and his team of scientists set out to answer this question: “How can the world double the availability of food while simultaneously cutting the environmental harm caused by agriculture?”

They identified five steps:

Step One: Freeze agriculture’s footprint

We already use an area the size of South America to grow crops, and an area the size of Africa to raise livestock.

Step Two: Grow more on farms we’ve got

Yields on less productive farmlands, especially in Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe, can be boosted several times over with precision farming techniques and organic farming approaches.

Step Three: Use resources more efficiently

Tailor the application of fertilizers and pesticides to exact soil conditions. Subsurface drip irrigation, cover crops, mulches and compost conserve water and build up nutrients.

Step Four: Shift diets

We need to eat less grain-fed meat, particularly beef. For every 100 calories of grain we feed animals, we get only about 40 new calories of milk, 22 calories of eggs, 12 of chicken, 10 of pork, or 3 of beef.

Step Five: Reduce waste

An estimated 25% of the world’s food calories and up to 50% of total food weight are lost or wasted before they can be consumed. In rich countries like Canada, most of that waste occurs in homes, restaurants, or supermarkets.

One of the best things we can do for our health, our budgets, and for the planet is to add pulses to our diet. Never heard of them? Neither had I, until the United Nations declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses. They are legume crops harvested solely for the dry seed, such as peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas.

IYP 2016

Pulses are very high in protein and fibre, low in fat, and have high levels of minerals such as iron, zinc, and phosphorous as well as folate and other B-vitamins. They are nitrogen-fixing crops that improve soil fertility (unlike other crops that require nitrogen fertilizer made from natural gas). And, they require far less water than other protein sources (i.e. 50 litres of water per kilogram versus 13,000 litres of water per kilogram of beef).

Pulses are Canada’s fifth-largest crop, but most of what we grow gets exported. By adding pulses to our diet, we also support an important Canadian industry.

Go to http://www.pulsecanada.com/ for recipe ideas. For me, it’s spicy lentil tacos tonight!

This article was first published in the February/March 2016 issue of North Simcoe Life in my Building a Better World column.

 

Here I am on the cusp of a new year and one month before I turn 51. It just struck me – the thought of how I intended to make this year count. I had a vision of living a full and beautiful life. And here I am, sad, bored and lonely.

Lonely is the key word. I’ve been lonely all my life. Solving the mystery to why seemed like the key to living a life of abundance and joy. But I haven’t solved it, and it occurs to me that lonely is what I AM. It’s intrinsic to every cell of my being. It’s time I give up the battle and accept it.

But still, I strive for a life of purpose. If I must be lonely, then there must be something good that can come of it. I think of all the other lonely people out there in our community: the senior parked in and old folks home, the misfit child in school, the destitute woman in a shelter, the homeless person on the street. I could share their pain, tell their stories, and maybe, just maybe, open some doors to connection.

I have lost  people dear to me. I endured years of chronic pain. There is no greater agony than loneliness. If I can do something good with mine, then I will gladly shoulder my burden.

 

Za'atri Refugee Camp in Jordan

Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan

Climate change is not just an environmental issue. – Greenpeace

It has taken the world four years to wake up to the horror in Syria. How we respond to the crisis will help determine the kind of world we live in.

The Syrian crisis is almost beyond comprehension – the world’s largest humanitarian crisis since WWII. Over 17 million people are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance: 13.5 million people within Syria (over half of whom are displaced) and 4.2 million people who fled the country. Civilian deaths from the conflict are estimated at over 250,000.

100115-refugee-camp-copy

Since 2011, the Syrian people have faced uninterrupted violence from Government forces and armed opposition groups. The European Commission states, “Rape and sexual violence, enforced disappearances, forcible displacement, recruitment of child soldiers, summary executions and deliberate shelling of civilian targets have become commonplace.”

We cannot stand idly by. Not when our hands are so dirty. Not when the world has become so interconnected. Not as a looming refugee threat grows in many highly populated areas of the world. We need to get this right, because the refugee era has arrived.

Through our contribution to climate change, we in the West have helped create the mad state of affairs in Syria. Research conducted by Columbia University’s Earth Institute explored how a record-breaking drought between 2006 and 2010 contributed to the Syrian uprising of 2011. Up to 60% of Syria’s land experienced, “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.” (Moreover, in 2011, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a US federal agency, published strong evidence linking the drought to climate change.) Millions of farmers and their families abandoned their properties, and joined hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees that had fled the American invasion of Iraq and the resulting sectarian violence. Syria’s big cities became overcrowded, food prices soared and water became scarce. Mismanagement and neglect by the al-Assad regime sparked the civil war still raging today. Fear, anger, misery and disaffection created the opening for ISIS to thrive in Syria.

drought

How we deal with Syria affects our national identity and our international reputation. The Syrian crisis provides us with the opportunity to restore our tarnished image as humanitarians. We must do better than allowing in only about 2,500 refugees between 2013 and September 2015. Canada has a proud history of helping refugees. In 1957, Canada admitted 37,000 Hungarians. From 1979-1980, Canada welcomed almost 60,000 Vietnamese.

We can do more than accept a very small percentage of the refugees; we can send money to help care for and resettle over 17 million Syrian people, both inside and outside of Syria. Despite record levels of aid from the international community, the UN refugee agency reported in September a funding shortfall of an astounding $4.6 billion dollars (62% of the budget). The Canadian federal government has pledged $810 million in aid for Syria. In September, the government announced it will also match every eligible dollar donated by individual Canadians to registered Canadian charities for aid in the crisis, up to $100 million, until December 31, 2015.

The Liberal Government’s pledge to stop participating in the US led bombing missions in Syria and Iraq was the right move. Unfortunately, it cost us $528 million, fell outside of international law, and was deemed a failure by authorities including former US President Jimmy Carter, retired Canadian colonel George Petrolekas (fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute), Anthony Cordesman (Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington), and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. All promote the pursuit of diplomatic solutions as the only way to establish peace in the region.

As humanitarians and peacekeepers we can hold our heads high and regain our positive international influence.

The Syrian refugee crisis is a trial run for the massive mobilization of climate refugees to come. Around 1 billion people today do not have adequate water for drinking, agriculture or sanitation, and the situation is going to get worse. Since the early twentieth century, with few exceptions, glaciers around the world have been retreating at unprecedented rates (National Snow and Ice Data Center). More than half of the world’s 37 largest aquifers are being depleted (Water Resources Research Journal, June 2015). About one in three people live in drylands susceptible to desertification. The United Nations predicts that by 2030, between 24 and 700 million people will be displaced by water crises. In January 2015, the World Economic Forum identified the water scarcity as the number one global risk based on impact to society.

This is a pivotal moment. The U.S. Defense Department issued a report last November identifying climate change as a “threat multiplier” that will impact national security. Do we turn our back on the destitute of the world and enhance security measures in an attempt to protect ourselves from their anger, their wrath and their desperation? Or, do we accept our responsibility toward our fellow man, extend a helping hand and share our good fortune? As the saying goes: United we stand

(This article was first published in the October/November 2015 issue of North Simcoe Life.)

If you give people freedom, they will amaze you. – Laszlo Bock, Senior Vice President of People Operations, Google

Jacob Barnett

As an elementary substitute teacher for over 20 years, I have often questioned the efficacy of the school system. School should be a place that kids love, a place that inspires effort and creativity, a place that helps kids identify and realize their potential.

But the sad reality is that for most kids, school is boring, tedious and seemingly pointless. Instead of being motivated to strive for greatness and overcome obstacles, many of these kids learn to give up. Rather than developing a sense of pride and self-worth, these kids develop low self-esteem, and deflect attention from their perceived incompetence through misbehavior.

These kids have not failed – the system has failed them.

Forward-thinking leaders in business and education are beginning to conceive of a new way to empower the young. The end goal is no longer to develop workers subservient to authority who can toil for long hours on mundane tasks (the focus of education for the Second Industrial Revolution). Now, the goal is to develop creative, collaborative, resilient and empathic contributors for a rapidly changing precarious world.

We are going to need all the ingenuity, passion and interconnection that we can muster to meet the challenges of a world in economic, social and ecological turmoil.

Freedom is the key. Kids need to be free to pursue their element, the place where “natural aptitude meets personal passion”, in the words of international educational advisor, Sir Ken Robinson.

Inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk gets it. He hated school, and was dissatisfied with what the public school offered his children. So, for his own five boys, he built an alternative school without grades that takes a radically different “unschooling” approach to learning. (Musk is the CEO and CTO of SpaceX, CEO and product architect of Tesla Motors and chairman of SolarCity. He is also the founder of SpaceX and a co-founder of PayPal.)

Unschooling is an educational approach of primarily self-directed hands-on experience. The core premise: When learning is personal, it’s more meaningful, well-understood and useful to the child. While courses may occasionally be taken, unschooling questions the usefulness of standard curricula, conventional grading methods, and other features of traditional schooling.

While this approach is likely too radical for most people, we could easily improve the school experience for disaffected kids by taking a page from the Google playbook. Employees at Google are encouraged to spend 20% of their time on a project of their choosing. Google, incidentally, is celebrating its sixth year at No. 1 of the 100 Best Companies to Work For.

Imagine if, for one period every day, kids had the mentors and resources to pursue their element in a collaborative learning environment. They could learn computer programming, build and repair things, make music, art and dance, delve into the wonders of science and math to explore and explain the world, develop athletic abilities, write, master languages, or who knows what. They would love school. With their passions fed, they would also have mental resilience for less favoured, but still necessary, educational pursuits.

Jacob Barnett is a remarkable boy. His IQ surpasses Einstein’s. At age 12 he became a paid researcher in quantum physics. Currently he is a doctoral student at the prestigious Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario, where he earned a master’s degree at the age of 16. But, his extraordinary mind was almost lost to autism.

In her memoir, The Spark, A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius, Kristine Barnett shares her remarkable journey with Jake. As he stopped talking and drew inward, Kristine found the courage to resist pressure from her husband and the “experts”. She took Jake out of special ed, where the focus was on teaching him basic life skills, to focus on what lit him up: outer space. The results were beyond what anyone could have predicted.

Kristine wrote her memoir to inspire us, parents and teachers, to light the spark in each child. If Jake could transform from a withdrawn and helpless child to one of humanities great hopes, imagine what potential lies in all children. If we empower them to pursue their element, they will amaze us.

Solar panel against blue sky

This article was first published in the August/September 2015 issue of North Simcoe Life.

The International Energy Agency predicts that if industry and governments do their part, solar will be the world’s largest source of electricity by 2050. For this to happen, they stress “the need for clear, credible and consistent signals from policy makers.”

What signals are we getting in Canada? In 2014, Canada was a world leader in fossil fuel subsidies, pegged at $34 billion a year, according to the International Monetary Fund. And, according to a UN sponsored report, 2014 Canadian renewable energy investments were $8 billion. No wonder we are lagging.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. and Europe, innovations are paving the way to cost parity with fossil fuels.

A New Way to Make Solar Panels

Traditional solar cells are made with crystalline silicon. Production is very energy intensive, making it the most expensive material in solar panels.

Rayton Solar of California has figured out how to use 50 to 100 times less silicon per panel. Using a new high tech process, they cut silicon in much thinner layers (only 4 micrometers thick) without any waste.  They say that their panels can be manufactured in the U.S. at a cost of 60% less than solar panels made in China, where most are made.

Rayton 1

Rayton particle accelerator cuts silicon in thin layers without any waste.

Solar for the North

Solar power generation no longer requires lots of sunlight. Researchers at Finland’s Aalto University have created a black solar cell with record-breaking 22.1% efficiency (versus the industry standard of 15%). And the best part: It works really well on cloudy days and with low sun angles.

Transparent Solar Cells

Transparent cell

Ubiquitous Energy, an MIT startup, has done the impossible: They have created a transparent solar cell that can be used as a window or display for an electronic device.

A transparent surface does not typically absorb light. In these cells, organic salts are used to absorb non-visible wavelengths of ultraviolet and infrared light. The light is then transferred to traditional solar cells that convert it into electricity.

The prototype currently has an efficiency of 1%, although the researchers think that 10% is possible. That may not sound impressive, but with widespread use, the numbers would add up.

Capturing More Energy From the Sun

A team of scientists from MIT and Stanford University are working on solar cells that have proven to boost efficiency by 50%. Their “tandem” photovoltaics use both silicon and perovskite as semiconductor materials, thereby absorbing more of the solar energy spectrum. Silicon absorbs photons at the top of the spectrum, while perovskite captures photons in the lower infrared range.

Solar Panels That Retain Energy

Today’s solar panels can only store energy for a few microseconds. Inspired by how plants generate energy through photosynthesis with extremely high efficiency, chemists at UCLA have found a way to organize inexpensive plastic photovoltaic materials to greatly improve their ability to retain energy from sunlight. The key is to separate positive and negative charges by arranging the elements precisely, like plants do, to prevent electrons from freely hopping about.

Concentrating PV Panels

How do you concentrate the power of sunlight in a solar panel while minimizing the use of silicon? Use lenses, the way you would light a fire with a magnifying glass. A number of American companies such as Sunrgi, Emcore and Solaria are racing to bring concentrating PV panels to market in the next year or two. Prototypes are breaking records with efficiencies of up to 45% to date.

Heliotropism: Tracking the Sun Naturally

Current electronic based systems that rotate solar panels to track the sun are costly to buy, install, maintain, and operate. Their complexity also leads to breakdowns.

Sulas of Colorado has created a simple, inexpensive, reliable and powerful tracking technology that uses the power of the sun to rotate a collection of solar panels. They call it the HelioDrive. (Heliotropism is the ability of flowers to follow the sun.)

Sulas HelioDrive

The HelioDrive relies on three components: a parabolic solar concentrator, a receiver filled with a small amount of engineered paraffin wax (that acts as a hydraulic motor), and a single moving component that translates linear movement into rotational motion. The system can lift over 3,000 pounds and operate in a wide range of environmental conditions.

The HelioDrive parabolic concentrator

World leaders are meeting in Paris this November to finalize legally binding carbon reduction plans for every nation. We need a National Clean Energy Strategy and an end to fossil fuel subsidies. The transition to a carbon free economy is the greatest economic opportunity of all time (source: Jeremy Rifkin, political advisor and author of the Third Industrial Revolution). Let’s get in the game.