Silver Donald Cameron

I’m phasing out this blog…

November 13th, 2010

Hi, everyone:

I’m phasing out this blog, and concentrating all my efforts — including my Sunday columns — on the blog at The Green Interview, which will soon become my only blog. I hope you’ll move over there with me.

To do that, please go to www.thegreeninterview.com, where you’ll be asked to register with your email and a password. When you’ve done that, click over to “BLOG.” If you subscribe to this blog by RSS — and there’s no other way — just sign up for an RSS feed on the Green Interview blog, and that should be that. I’ve just posted last week’s column there, but for your convenience I’ll paste it in below as well. It’s about a fine piece of work by Nova Scotian composer Scott Macmillan that will be performed tonight at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax.

SUNDAY HERALD COLUMN – November 7, 2010

WITHIN SIGHT OF SHORE

by Silver Donald Cameron

At 6:30 AM on April 16, 1945, HMCS Esquimalt was patrolling the eastern approaches to Halifax Harbour while a sister ship, HMCS Sarnia, cruised westward towards Sambro. They were scanning the ocean floor with a primitive sonar known as ASDIC, looking for German submarines.

There was one down there; U-190 lay submerged near Musquodoboit. The ASDIC operator had not actually identified the echo of the submarine among all the various echoes coming back from the shallow bottom – but when U-190′s crew heard the distinctive ping! of the ASDIC signals striking the hull, they assumed they were being hunted. When they raised their periscope and saw Esquimalt heading directly towards them, they fired a torpedo and fled seaward.

The torpedo struck Esquimalt near the stern, where its depth charges were stored, and the aft end of the ship instantly blew off. The skipper ordered the crew to abandon ship. Sailors scrambled for the life-rafts. The last man to leave the ship, in accordance with nautical tradition, was the captain, who stood on the bow as the ship fell away underneath him. The vessel was gone in four minutes.

Two hours later, when HMCS Sarnia reached the rendezvous point, Esquimalt was nowhere to be seen. Sarnia’s skipper radioed the Halifax Dockyard for instructions, but the Dockyard gave no orders. It was three hours before the Dockyard figured out that something must be terribly wrong – three hours during which Esquimalt’s crew clung to life-rafts awash in the icy sea, slowly dying of hypothermia. Near noon, search planes were dispatched at last, and Sarnia picked up the survivors. In the end, 44 men died, and 27 survived.

HMCS Esquimalt was the last Canadian ship to be lost in World War II. A few weeks later, the war was over. Among the survivors was Lt.-Commander Robert Macmillan, the captain, who became the father of the celebrated composer Scott Macmillan. In 2008, 63 years after the sinking, Scott Macmillan lifted his baton in the glorious old church of St. John’s in Lunenburg. An orchestra drawn from the naval band at HMCS Stadacona and from Symphony Nova Scotia delivered the debut performance of a four-part orchestral work called “Within Sight of Shore,” commemorating the event and telling the story in musical terms. The piece was later presented at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

Stephen Pedersen described the composition as “Macmillan’s most impressive and exciting original work since his 1988 masterpiece, Celtic Mass for the Sea.” It was also short-listed for the Lieutenant- Governor’s Masterworks Arts Award. It has not been heard since 2008 – but on November 13, in honour of the centenary of the Canadian navy and to mark the 65th anniversary of the sinking, many of the same musicians will combine to present the piece at the Maritime Museum once again.

“Within Sight of Shore” runs about 40 minutes, and it will occupy the second half of the program. The first half will be the premiere of a 45-minute film, also called “Within Sight of Shore,” by filmmaker Ian Macmillan, the son of Scott Macmillan and Jennyfer Brickenden.

The film covers both the actual sinking and Scott’s quest to capture its essence through music. It includes visits to the spot where the ship went down, and to the city of Esquimalt, BC, which annually holds a memorial service to remember her. The film also provides fascinating insights into the very nature of composition, as Scott sits at his keyboard in the studio, explaining how he derives the themes and melodies that weave together in the work. One poignant touch: Robert Macmillan liked to sing “Beautiful Dreamer,” and phrases from the song represent the skipper’s presence in the musical story.

Ian Macmillan interviews Joe Wilson of Victoria, the only living survivor of the sinking, and Werner Hirschmann, now a Canadian, who was the chief engineer on U-190. In one of the film’s most affecting moments, the Macmillans cast a wreath at the site of the sinking, and Hirschmann casts another in memory of U-190 and its crew, expressing his deep regret that the two crews had to meet as enemies, and not as friends.

That, too, is something to remember, as we honour those who lie at the bottom of the sea.

– 30 –

Within Sight of Shore

November 7th, 2010

November 7, 2010

At 6:30 AM on April 16, 1945, HMCS Esquimalt was patrolling the eastern approaches to Halifax Harbour while a sister ship, HMCS Sarnia, cruised westward towards Sambro. They were scanning the ocean floor with a primitive sonar known as ASDIC, looking for German submarines.

There was one down there; U-190 lay submerged near Musquodoboit. The ASDIC operator had not actually identified the echo of the submarine among all the various echoes coming back from the shallow bottom – but when U-190′s crew heard the distinctive ping! of the ASDIC signals striking the hull, they assumed they were being hunted. When they raised their periscope and saw Esquimalt heading directly towards them, they fired a torpedo and fled seaward.

The torpedo struck Esquimalt near the stern, where its depth charges were stored, and the aft end of the ship instantly blew off. The skipper ordered the crew to abandon ship. Sailors scrambled for the life-rafts. The last man to leave the ship, in accordance with nautical tradition, was the captain, who stood on the bow as the ship fell away underneath him. The vessel was gone in four minutes.

Two hours later, when HMCS Sarnia reached the rendezvous point, Esquimalt was nowhere to be seen. Sarnia’s skipper radioed the Halifax Dockyard for instructions, but the Dockyard gave no orders. It was three hours before the Dockyard figured out that something must be terribly wrong – three hours during which Esquimalt’s crew clung to life-rafts awash in the icy sea, slowly dying of hypothermia. Near noon, search planes were dispatched at last, and Sarnia picked up the survivors. In the end, 44 men died, and 27 survived.

HMCS Esquimalt was the last Canadian ship to be lost in World War II. A few weeks later, the war was over. Among the survivors was Lt.-Commander Robert Macmillan, the captain, who became the father of the celebrated composer Scott Macmillan. In 2008, 63 years after the sinking, Scott Macmillan lifted his baton in the glorious old church of St. John’s in Lunenburg. An orchestra drawn from the naval band at HMCS Stadacona and from Symphony Nova Scotia delivered the debut performance of a four-part orchestral work called “Within Sight of Shore,” commemorating the event and telling the story in musical terms. The piece was later presented at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

Stephen Pedersen described the composition as “Macmillan’s most impressive and exciting original work since his 1988 masterpiece, Celtic Mass for the Sea.” It was also short-listed for the Lieutenant- Governor’s Masterworks Arts Award. It has not been heard since 2008 – but on November 13, in honour of the centenary of the Canadian navy and to mark the 65th anniversary of the sinking, many of the same musicians will combine to present the piece at the Maritime Museum once again.

“Within Sight of Shore” runs about 40 minutes, and it will occupy the second half of the program. The first half will be the premiere of a 45-minute film, also called “Within Sight of Shore,” by filmmaker Ian Macmillan, the son of Scott Macmillan and Jennyfer Brickenden.

The film covers both the actual sinking and Scott’s quest to capture its essence through music. It includes visits to the spot where the ship went down, and to the city of Esquimalt, BC, which annually holds a memorial service to remember her. The film also provides fascinating insights into the very nature of composition, as Scott sits at his keyboard in the studio, explaining how he derives the themes and melodies that weave together in the work. One poignant touch: Robert Macmillan liked to sing “Beautiful Dreamer,” and phrases from the song represent the skipper’s presence in the musical story.

Ian Macmillan interviews Joe Wilson of Victoria, the only living survivor of the sinking, and Werner Hirschmann, now a Canadian, who was the chief engineer on U-190. In one of the film’s most affecting moments, the Macmillans cast a wreath at the site of the sinking, and Hirschmann casts another in memory of U-190 and its crew, expressing his deep regret that the two crews had to meet as enemies, and not as friends.

That, too, is something to remember, as we honour those who lie at the bottom of the sea.

– 30 –

The Perfect Lunch

November 6th, 2010

October 24, 2010

The autumn light slants in across the marshes, strikes the glittering
surface of the slow little river, bounces through tall windows, and
flares up into amber, red and gold in the five little sampling glasses
of beer before me.

Raspberry Wheat Ale, Rojo Mojo Red Ale, Planters Pale Ale, Blue Heron
Extra Special Bitter, Port-in-a-Storm Porter. They’re all delicious, but
the bitter and the porter are exceptional. They’re made by a brewmaster
named Randy Lawrence, whose brewery is right here, right behind that
wall in the Port Pub and Bistro in Port Williams.

Marjorie and I have brought friends from BC, and we’re all delighted.
The ambiance of the pub is alluring – barrel-staved ceilings, dark wood
floors, original art on the walls, a waterside deck, a welcoming air of
warmth, cleanliness and competence. Our server, whose name is Miki, is
friendly and attentive, but never intrusive.

The food is succulent and surprising. Karen has a “spectacular”
lamb-burger with sprouts and yam fries, accompanied by the local
Tidewater cider. Doug orders fish and chips and bitter, with the fish
battered in Planters Pale Ale. Marjorie chooses a pizza loaded with
sausage, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, olives and cheese. She washes it
down with bitter. Along with my five little beers, I have Al’s local
sausage with a bright, spicy sauerkraut and real potato chips – not
French fries but chips, thin slices of potato deep-fried right on the
premises.

I look around the table.

“Is there any way this lunch could have been improved?” I ask. Everyone
shakes their head. It has been, apparently, a perfect lunch – and
perfectly affordable, too.

The Annapolis Valley is amazing right now, a cornucopia of vineyards and
wineries, orchards and cideries, roadside stalls bursting with squash
and onions and tomatoes, artisanal jams and cheeses. You’ve heard of the
100-Mile Diet? The Port Pub does The Ten-Kilometer Meal, a feast in
which every single item – the beef, the butter, the vegetables, the wine
– is gathered within ten kilometers of the kitchen.

How many places in Canada could possibly assemble such a meal? And
here’s the kicker: The Port Pub is a community development project
organized by local citizens working in partnership with a creative
government program.

Dr. Bruce McLeod is the CEO of the investors’ group that owns the pub,
which began with three Port William couples, mostly physicians, getting
together on Friday evenings for drinks and food. Wouldn’t it be nice to
have a congenial place to socialize right in Port William, though,
rather than driving to Wolfville? A place like an Irish local pub, say?

Well, why not? In fact, why not Nova Scotia’s first “gastropub,”
emphasizing fine food?

Nova Scotia has an instrument called the Community Economic Development
Investment Fund which allows a group of community investors to pool
their money and invest it in local businesses. Because such investments
can be risky, investors receive a 30% tax credit. The investments are
also eligible for RRSPs. CEDIFs, says Chris Payne, the provincial
official who supervises them, have been very successful in generating
jobs and profits at minimal cost to government. Prince Edward Island has
just adopted the concept, and the new government in New Brunswick
proposes to follow suit.

McLeod and his friends formed a CEDIF and set out to raise $1.2 million
to ensure that the proposed pub would start with no debt, no rent, no
mortgage. The shares cost $5000, and many of the 60 investors really
didn’t expect to get their money back – but they ponied up $1.4 million
anyway. The Port opened in November, 2007, its kitchen supervised by
famed chef Michael Howell of Wolfville’s Tempest Restaurant.

The pub initially served 200 customers a day. It now serves twice that
number, and on one recent Saturday, says McLeod with mock chagrin, it
had served 400 people by lunch-time, and the CEO had to wait for a
table. It employs 38 people, full-time and part-time, and buys most of
its beer, wine and food from local producers. It’s a solid contributor
to the Valley’s economy.

What’s even better than a perfect lunch? A perfect lunch that builds up
a community. Thanks, guys. Well done. We’ll be back.

– 30 –

The Forests of the Crown

October 31st, 2010

October 24, 2010

Steve Talbot is right, I’m not a forester. I stand before you naked and disqualified.

Steve Talbot is the executive director of the Forest Products Association of Nova Scotia. He speaks for the industry. He contends that – because I’m not a forester – my recent column on forestry “contained misleading statements about forest ecology, Nova Scotia’s forest industry and the Natural Resources Strategy process.”

In particular, I described the forest industry as dominated by a few large companies that have far too much power over both our forests and the people who work in them – and also over the government agencies that ostensibly regulate them. Not so, says Talbot. “The forest industry in this province is run and mostly owned by generations of Nova Scotian families” who “work in forests and mills, and in the companies and communities that support them. They’re your neighbours, friends and family.”

Well, yes and no. Mostly no.

Talbot is right that many rural Nova Scotians rely on the forest industries, and those people do indeed include my neighbours, friends and family. But the only reason they’re still working is that the pulp companies haven’t yet found a way to discard them. Between 2000 and 2007, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia shed 9,550 jobs in wood products and paper manufacturing. That doesn’t include similar job losses in the woods, where guys with chainsaws have been replaced by huge harvesting machines churning through the plantations of pulpwood, snipping off trees like dandelions.

Talbot says that the industry wants “sustainability, diversity, collaboration and transparency – grounded in informed decision-making.” Fine words – but describing clear-cuts and monocultural plantations as “diverse” or “sustainable” is sheer Orwellian double-speak.

Talbot is not alone, however. A woodlot owner in eastern Nova Scotia writes to say that government should “carefully consider the evidence of qualified people in the respective field and base decisions on facts, not emotion.” He further argues that “even if some of the public wants what you call a forest, it is the job of government to explore the issues, get input from various sources and consider the repercussions of any proposed action. Just because the public seems to want something, eg lower taxes, more doctors, better roads, more senior care beds doesn’t mean the government can or should do it.”

Hold on now. There used to be a theory that democratic governments were responsible to the people who elected them. What my critics are proposing instead is that governments simply rely on neutral, emotionless expert advice, although Talbot’s invocation of “neighbours, friends and family” contains a distinct whiff of emotional appeal itself.

Alas, expert advice is never neutral. It’s always rooted in values and assumptions. For a pulp company, value is measured in dollars. The experts know how to maximize the dollars. And if in the end the forest is mangled, too bad. If you’ve had a satisfactory return on your investment, who cares?

Buried in here somewhere is the assumption that humans actually understand the natural world well enough to manage it. But we don’t. Before the advent of foresters and “forest management,” the forest flourished. Even as late as the 1950s, woodlands covered 25% of the globe. By 2005, only 5% survived. In that same period, smug experts in the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans assured us that all was well even as they “managed” the cod fishery into extinction.

Through the recent consultations, Nova Scotians have asked for a diverse, resilient forest. As I wrote before, a genuine forest is a natural community, complex and diverse, full of complicated interactions. It performs vital services – carbon sequestration, erosion control, habitat – that we neither understand nor count, let alone value.

A real forest even yields more monetary value than a pulpwood plantation. Consider this fact: a single black walnut tree can sell for as much as $60,000 – enough to pay for a university education. How many acres of pulpwood does it take to produce as much as one walnut tree?

I am not a forester, no. But I am a citizen, and along with my fellow-citizens, I am an owner. Together we are The Crown. We believe that Nova Scotia needs a real forest, and we are entitled to be heard.

– 30 –

The Forest and the Trees

October 17th, 2010

SUNDAY HERALD COLUMN – October 17, 2010 [HH1035]

THE FOREST AND THE TREES

by Silver Donald Cameron

Which is more important, the forest or the trees?

The trees, say the forest corporations. The forest, say the rest of us. That’s the clear message from the public consultations led by Voluntary Planning for Nova Scotia’s Natural Resources Strategy Review, which started in 2007.

Let’s be clear about the terms. A genuine forest is a natural community, complex and diverse, full of complicated interactions. Soil fungi pass nutrients between plants, bears flip salmon ashore to nourish the trees, birds and insects distribute pollen and seeds. A living forest inhales greenhouse gasses like CO2, and exhales oxygen. It prevents soil erosion. It absorbs rainwater, filters it, and regulates its release into the streams. It nourishes the human sense of wonder, attracts visitors and supports recreational activities like hunting, fishing, birding and hiking. Its inhabitants pollinate our crops.

An industrial “managed forest“ is not a forest at all. It`s a plantation, a farm for pulpwood. Its trees are all the same species, all the same age, maintained by chemicals and grown to be clearcut by monstrous machinery. It resembles a forest about as much as a plastic turkey resembles a Thanksgiving dinner. But that`s what the “forest“ industries want, and that`s what they`ve created on vast tracts of the Nova Scotian landscape.

According to the consultations, Nova Scotians want a real forest, not a plantation. Voluntary Planning’s first report accurately reflected those opinions, and its Phase 2 report massaged them into proposals designed
to shape the province’s new forestry policy – and, ultimately, its new forest.

But the forest corporations are desperately concerned that the provincial government may actually do what the citizens have called for – a truly horrifying novelty. Behind the scenes, they’re staging a veritable orgy of lobbying, spin-doctoring, bullying and arm-twisting.

Their scare campaign could very well succeed, says Wade Prest, a professional forester, woodlot operator and former president of the Nova Scotia Woodlot Owners and Operators Association. The three big pulp mills absolutely dominate forestry in Nova Scotia, and they have been strongly supported by the provincial Department of Natural Resources. In effect, the mills now control the whole provincial market in wood fibre.

A sawmill, for example, absolutely requires a reliable source of saw-log and a place to sell its waste products. A pulp mill can provide both – but the agreement binds the sawmill firmly to the pulp mill. By the same token, many woodlot owners feel they have no choice but to do the
bidding of the pulp companies, which diligently foster the illusion that they’re the only game in town.

And that’s how the companies got the clout they’re using to put pressure on Natural Resources Minister John MacDonnel – who, say Wade Prest and others, really does understand the desperate need for reform.

The Forest Products Industry Association of Nova Scotia, for instance, boasts over 600 members including loggers, truckers, “sawmill operators, pulp and paper manufacturers, small and large landowners, forest equipment operators, maple product producers, woodlot owners, Christmas tree producers, silviculture and harvesting contractors.” FPANS is calling on all its members to write the Minister opposing the Voluntary Planning report.

Why? The report’s recommendations, FPANS declares, “are not based on credible science and come from a few vocal people who would prefer to see our industry die. These people forget the forest industry is the backbone of the rural economy of Nova Scotia. Without a viable forest industry – we will see rural communities fade off the map.” Apparently the whisper campaign goes so far as to insinuate that the wicked socialist government intends to expropriate private woodlots.

Get a grip, lads. Who are these bogeymen who want the forest industries and the rural communities to die? The real enemies of rural communities are the pulp companies who have been mechanizing and cutting jobs for decades, who come and go as it suits them, whose forestry management” closely resembles the fisheries “management” that extinguished the cod fishery, and whose idea of democratic procedure is to bully its suppliers and employees – and, if possible, the government itself.

There’s a better way to do things, both in the woods and in the legislature, and the time to start is now.

– 30 –

The 10% Solution

October 14th, 2010

At its best, British humour — the Monty Python dead parrot sketch, for instance — is almost unbearably funny. At its worst, British humour is flat, vulgar, and nasty. An example of that? The video recently released by 10:10.org, under the title “No Pressure” or “There Will Be Blood.”

In the video, climate-change evangelists urge groups of school children, football players and office workers to pledge that they will reduce their carbon footprints. No pressure, of course. But when the unwilling identify themselves, the advocates push a red detonator button, and the laggards are blown into strawberry jam.

And that’s it. That’s all that happens in the video. Loaded with laughs, eh?

The 10:10 carbon-reduction campaign was launched in September last year, based on a Climate Safety report’s claim that a 10% annual cut in the developed world’s emissions would give the planet a fighting chance of avoiding runaway warming. The plan was devised by Franny Armstrong, the director of the innovative environmental docudrama, The Age of Stupid. The idea was to sign up individuals, schools, companies and other groups to commit to reducing their carbon use by 10% by 2010 — and in doing so, to put pressure on governments to take action on climate change.

It was a brilliant idea, and it won the enthusiastic support of numerous major organizations, including Microsoft, Sony, the Tottenham Hotspurs, Adidas, the British Fashion Council, the Methodist Church, several universities and the Royal Mail. The organization also launched a “Lighter Later” campaign to advance British clocks by an hour permanently, giving more daylight at the end of the day, when people are awake, rather than early in the morning when many are still asleep.

The Guardian newspaper became a partner of 10:10, and over the ensuing months ran a series of stories about people who had taken up the challenge, and how they were coping. Its “1010 Honour Roll” describes a great array of actions taken by individuals and organizations — the London Underground turning off escalators late at night, a local council giving a discount on parking to hybrid car owners, Kyocera reducing its paper use by 29%, an historic steam train in Orkney converting from coal to wood waste.

By the beginning of October, more than 96,000 people in 44 countries had signed up, and more than 3000 organizations — including the new British government. And then came the “No Pressure” video, written by Richard Curtis, arguably Britain’s top comedy writer (Mr. Bean, Blackadder, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’ Diary) and by Franny Armstrong, the fireball writer and film-maker behind the whole idea.

The film was released on the morning of October 1 — and withdrawn, with apologies, that afternoon. In the wake of the fiasco, Sony and Kyocera withdrew from 10:10, as did 350.org, the climate-change organization headed by respected author Bill McKibben. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, right-wing columnist James Delinpole called the film “ugly, counterproductive eco-propaganda” in which “the environmental movement has revealed the snarling, wicked, homicidal misanthropy beneath its cloak of gentle, bunny-hugging righteousness”.

So there.

There’s some truth in what Delingpole says. The environmental movement does have an element of misanthropy and authoritarianism. But so do some of its critics. Why are we surprised? From al-Queda to Dick Cheney, from Nazism to Stalinism, from the Crusaders to Nova Scotia’s own Governor Cornwallis, lots of people have believed that they have The Answer, that the end justifies the means, and that the people who oppose them are less than fully human.

Agreed, the video was a horrible blunder that played right into the hands of the environmental movement’s opponents. But here’s the irony: I hadn’t heard of 10:10 before the video. I think it’s a great idea, however, so — in the face of the video — I joined, just in time for the big event of 10:10′s first year.

Today is October 10, 2010 — 10/10/10. At 10:00 this morning I’ll be at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax, ready to start on one of 6300 Climate Change Work Parties in 187 countries around the world. Want to be part of a team of wicked, homicidal misanthropes viciously planting trees around the city? Come and join us.

– 30 —

Dayenu: Losing Irving Schwartz

October 3rd, 2010

October 3, 2010

“We have a useful expression in Hebrew, Dayenu,” said Ron Caplan. Tall, grizzled and warm, Ron is the publisher of Breton Books in Wreck Cove, Cape Breton.

“It means, ‘it would have been enough,’” Ron continued. “It’s what comes to mind when I think of Irving Schwartz. It’s from a vigorous song sung at Passover. God brought us out of Egypt. Dayenu: it would have been enough. He didn’t have to part the Red Sea as well. But when He did part the Red Sea, Dayenu. That would have been enough.

“Irving did so much for so many people. Even a small part of what he did — Dayenu. It would have been enough.”

“The Canadian International Demining Corps,” I said, remembering Irving’s outright joy at being able to create an organization based in Sydney, Nova Scotia to remove some of the tens of millions of land mines buried in war zones around the world.

“Exactly,” Ron nodded. “If the demining were the only thing he’d done, Dayenu, it would have been a wonderful contribution for anyone to make, all by itself. But Irving did so many more things, started them from seed or gave them support. Some of them were in public, public service, fundraising, things like that. But I’ll bet you he did 500 other things that we’ll never know about.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” I said.

Irving Schwartz was an exceptionally gifted businessman who literally learned about business at his mother’s knee. Rose Schwartz was widowed young, and at 13 Irving was travelling to Montreal, buying for the family store in New Waterford. He was rooted in the furniture business, and he became an iconic figure in Cape Breton for appearing in his own commercials, ending each with his trademark slogan, “I guarantee it!” As he prospered, he branched out into high-tech, cable TV, travel agencies, health-care and more.

His community service work was legendary — everything from Children’s Aid and Junior Achievement to the Lions Club, the regional hospital and Cape Breton University. That commitment to service runs in the family; his sister, Ruth Goldbloom, is a celebrated philanthropist and humanitarian in Halifax, the driving force behind the transformation of Pier 21. Her achievements, like Irving’s, have been recognized by the Order of Canada.

I spent a lot of time with Irving in the mid-1980s, when we were both trying to develop Centre Bras d’Or, an arts organization in Baddeck, into an east-coast analogue of the Banff Centre. The idea was good for Cape Breton, so Irving gave it his full attention. Early on, the Board decided to organize a world-class summer performing arts festival. One Board member realized with horror that we’d have to sell tickets. How would we do that?

“How do you sell anything?” cried Irving. “Nothing down! No payments till next year! I guarantee it!”

Then he turned to me and to Dr. Donald F. Campbell, “Father Donnie,” the president of the university in Sydney.

“You fellows get out and raise $10,000 for Centre Bras d’Or in Sydney,” he said. “I’ll raise $10,000 in Baddeck.”

With Irving’s coaching, Father Donnie and I raised about $8000 from Sydney businesses in a couple of weeks of diligent effort. And Irving?

“I raised mine one Saturday afternoon on the main street of Baddeck,” he said gleefully. “And I sold 40 television sets and two fridges too.”

I loved a lot of things about Irving Schwartz — his humour, his generosity, his intelligence, his thoughtful analyses of people. A visit to his modest office at the back of the furniture store was among the great pleasures of Sydney. But perhaps what I loved most was his zest, his delight in being able to make good things happen, his joy in his life, his family, his community.

He died early on September 18, aged 81, having spent his morning at the store and his evening at the synagogue. When I heard, I was heartbroken. I wept like a child. Dayenu: a tenth of what he accomplished would have been enough. But no matter how long he had lived, it would not have been long enough for me. Or for Cape Breton.

– 30 —

Tim O’Neill’s Can Opener

September 29th, 2010

September 26, 2010

A venerable joke places a physicist, a chemist and an economist on a desert island. They’re starving. A can of soup washes ashore. They have no can-opener. The physicist says, “Let’s smash the can open with a rock.” The chemist says, “Let’s build a fire and heat the can till it ruptures.” The economist says, “Assume a can-opener.”

The semi-science of economics rests on assumptions. When you consider the findings of an economist, think first about his or her assumptions.

Consider, for example, the findings of Tim O’Neill’s recent report on universities.

O’Neill is an astute, experienced and public-spirited man — a former professor at St. Mary’s University, a former president of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, a former vice-president of the Bank of Montreal, a devoted citizen. Commissioned by the government to review Nova Scotia’s university system, O’Neill assumes that future university enrolment will decline while government funding will grow slowly if at all. Therefore the major challenge will be “to manage growing financial pressures and looming system over-capacity in the face of anticipated enrolment declines.”

Too many seats, too few bums, and too little public money. Those are the trends, O’Neill assumes they will continue, and they allow little room for maneuver. If less money comes from the government, more will have to come from student tuition. The universities already share library services and purchasing, but possibly more can be saved by merging such administrative functions as industrial liaison offices. “Over-capacity” means that some small universities may have to merge or affiliate with larger ones.

All this tinkering follows logically from his perfectly reasonable assumptions. But are those the only assumptions? As it happens, CBC’s Sunday Edition ran a panel discussion at Dalhousie on the question, “Is University Education Worth the Cost?” just a few days before the O’Neill report’s release. At the panel, speakers like Jim Turk of the Canadian Association of University Teachers raised questions that went far beyond the O’Neill framework.

The present system assumes that post-secondary education is mainly about future earnings, and mainly benefits the student, who is therefore expected to pay an increasingly outrageous price for it. But, Turk noted, we accept that high school should be tuition-free, because we all benefit from a literate, educated population.

If that’s true for secondary education, why isn’t it true for post-secondary education? Indeed, many European countries accept that logic and do provide free post-secondary education. The idea was floated here a couple of years ago by Joan McArthur-Blair, former president of the Nova Scotia Community College. It has a lot to recommend it.

The flip side of a free-tuition system, Jim Turk explained, is a progressive income tax, so that we do recapture our investment when a student does prosper. Students who choose low-earning careers — in day-care centres, say, or as artists — will not be burdened with a huge debt. And we can adjust the tax rates to suit our requirements.

Unaffordable? Other CBC panelists noted that Canada can afford $100 billion in tax cuts, $16 billion for high-testosterone fighter jets and $10 billion to build new prisons for 3400 additional inmates, each of whom will cost more than $100,000 a year to support. That’s an annual commitment of $3.4 billion. At the provincial level, our highways cost $3 or $4 million a kilometer, and people are seriously suggesting that we toss $150 million at a deeply dubious convention centre project.

Our spending decisions starkly reveal that our problem is not money but priorities. Canadians are wealthier than they’ve ever been. We just don’t choose to invest our money in the brains and creativity of our young people.

Free tuition coupled with a sharply-graduated income tax would turn the present system right-side up — supporting education not by piling debt on struggling young people but by levying fair taxes on people who could well afford them. That ought to be our goal, and Tim O’Neill might at least have noted such possibilities.

In fairness, nobody commissioned O’Neill to dream. But he would have served us better if he had. As South Pacific’s Bloody Mary said, “You got to have a dream. If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”

– 30 —

Our Greatest Companions

September 23rd, 2010

September 19, 2010

I pushed the shovel into the earth, lifted it and swung it to one side. MacTavish pounced on the hole and began digging furiously. He backed off as I took another shovelful, then pounced back and started digging again. The third time, I finally caught on, and a whole afternoon’s behaviour suddenly made sense.

My dog was helping me work. That’s why he’d been right in my face as I worked on the wooden walkway. That’s why he was guarding the tools, standing on the next board to be screwed down, hanging in close to me wherever I walked.

He’s a working dog, a Shetland Sheepdog, very bright and observant. I was working, and he was pitching in. It sounds preposterous, but no other explanation makes sense.

Channel-surfing that evening, Marjorie and I came upon a PBS program called Nature — and this episode was about dogs. The relationship between dogs and humans, the program noted, is unique. We have close relationships with other animals — the cat, the horse, the camel — but with no other animal do we have the same level of intimacy or the variety of shared activities that we do with dogs.

Dogs live in our houses, play with our children, do the tricks we ask of them, eat our food, warn off intruders, sleep in our beds. They hunt with us, protect our property, rescue swimmers, guide blind people, track criminals and lost children, sniff out drugs and cadavers and much, much more. Many breeds have special talents and adaptations. Sled dogs bear their puppies right on the ice, subsist on snow and blubber, and can run five marathons in a day. One can argue plausibly that human beings could not possibly have settled in the Arctic but for their relationship with dogs.

The most intelligent of dogs, by common consent, is the Border Collie, developed along the Scottish border as a herding dog. The PBS program showed a couple of Border Collies working on the steep slopes of the English fells with a shepherd. The shepherd whistled his commands continuously, sounding almost like a bo’sun’s pipe, and the collies maneuvered the sheep accordingly. Bring them over here. Get them across the brook. Look back, you’ve missed one. The rapport between shepherd and dog was uncanny.

Dogs evolved from wolves at about the same time that human beings settled down in agricultural villages — and, although evolution normally takes hundreds of thousands of years, the dog emerged in an eyeblink of 5-7000 years. How is that possible?

Dmitri Belyaev, a Soviet geneticist, may have found the answer. In the 1950s, even after generations in captivity, silver foxes were still wild animals, wary and hostile. Seeking a more manageable, less aggressive fur fox, Belyaev bred the tamest foxes together. After 18 generations of selective breeding, his foxes would approach people, play games and come when called. Even more surprisingly, their coats were no longer silver-black, but piebald. Their ears were floppy, their tails curled upward, and they barked. By breeding only for tameness, Belyaev had effectively transformed foxes into dogs.

Fascinating. And perhaps that’s what happened in mesolithic villages. Perhaps the tamest wolves began hanging around the settlements, scavenging the garbage, cautiously developing a rapport with humans, and speedily evolving into dogs. The more tame the animals, the more they worked together with humans, the better they fared.

No doubt the same was true of humans. The ones who got on well with the proto-dogs had companions in hunting, protection from other animals, and warm bodies to hug in the chilly nights. For Australia’s aborigines, a really cold night is a “three-dog night,” when you need the body heat of three dogs to stay warm.

Digging away beside me, MacTavish is enjoying his work. He and I are the beneficiaries of a sad, brilliant strategy. The wild wolves are now down to a few hundred thousand. Their domesticated descendants number in the hundreds of millions. MacTavish’s ancestors made a wise choice. And so, I think, did mine.

– 30 —

Silver Donald Cameron’s environmental web site, www.TheGreenInterview.com, will be officially launched tomorrow afternoon at 2:00 at Mount Saint Vincent University. The event will be webcast live by haligonia.ca. For further details, see Silver Donald’s blog on The Green Interview site, or visit his Facebook page.

The Beetle and the Feedback

September 12th, 2010

September 12, 2010

The valleys of the Interior of British Columbia are like slashes in the earth’s skin — deep, steep, dramatic, falling precipitously into dark, narrow lakes. The landscape looks like frozen violence, the product of a time when tectonic plates collided, their edges crumpling and folding under the unimaginable force of crustal jockeying.

But the violence is not frozen, and the jockeying is not over. The plates are still moving. Their sudden shifts are earthquakes, and their vents are volcanoes. These mountains and valleys are part of a stupendous “Ring of Fire” that surrounds the entire Pacific Ocean.

We think of geology as finished, complete, the world having been made ready for its masters. But geology is never finished. Nature is always a work in progress. On our recent trip, Marjorie and I enjoyed the hot springs of Ainsworth and Nakusp. What heats that water? The hell-fires in the basement of the mountains.

The slopes of these valleys should be a uniform swath of green: spruce and fir, pine and cedar. In 2010, however, great rusty smudges on the mountainsides mark the corpses of vast numbers of dead trees. British Columbia is suffering from a massive mountain pine beetle infestation, and more than a billion of its trees have died. The infestation stretches south to Colorado and east to Alberta.

The villainous beetle is a little black bug about the size of a grain of rice. It lays its eggs under the bark of pine trees, and when the eggs hatch, the larvae eat the white phloem layer under the bark, cutting off the tree’s supply of water and nutrients. The beetle does have predators — woodpeckers, for instance — but the predators have been overwhelmed by the sheer size of the infestation.

The factor that normally controls the beetle population is cold weather. For the last decade, however, even the normally-cold Interior has had mild winters, while the summers have been sizzling. Marjorie and I spent 21 broiling days in BC last month, and the alleged rainforest gave us only one day of rain. This is thoroughly novel. BC’s summers used to be warm but moist.

This is climate change in action. And here’s the kicker: BC’s forests have normally been a huge sink for carbon, sucking carbon dioxide out of the air and sequestering its carbon within the trees. When trees die, however, they slowly but inexorably release all that stored CO2.

The shocking result is that BC’s forests have not only stopped absorbing carbon, they’re now emitting it — and on a huge scale. Last year, the carbon emissions from the dying forests were larger than all the human emissions in BC — and roughly double the size of the emissions from the Alberta tar sands.

This is a positive feedback loop — an outcome that amplifies the original cause. Emissions change the climate, and the changed climate creates even more emissions. The result is a self-feeding, intensifying spiral. There’s a feedback loop in the Arctic, where ice cover has normally reflected the sun’s heat back into space. As the ice shrinks, the dark water absorbs heat, and the remaining ice shrinks ever faster.

Another feedback loop is the ice-and-gas crystals known as “clathrates,” which exist at the bottom of the sea and form the permafrost in some parts of the Arctic. Clathrates sequester methane gas, which is more than 20 times as potent a climate-warming agent as carbon dioxide. As temperatures rise, however, clathrates disintegrate and the methane escapes into the atmosphere, driving up the temperatures.

The eventual result of such feedback loops, scientists hypothesize, could be runaway global warming, where feedback loops keep reinforcing one another and the process becomes self-fuelling and irreversible, speeding up like a snowball rolling down a hill.

If it can’t be stopped, it would be smarter not to start it. The emissions caused by the pine beetle were a shock to scientists — but who knows what other high-risk feedback loops we may be creating? Human civilization evolved over the past 10,000 years, nurtured by a period of uncharacteristically stable and temperate climate. For us, this hospitable climate is utterly indispensable. We should treat it with reverential care.

– 30 –


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