Post Clusterfuck Nation Post

Ever since I read “The Long Emergency: Confronting the Converging Crisis of the 21st century’ I’ve been a fan of Jim Kunstler. When I was a city councillor, I brought him to Ottawa to speak and it was a very successful event. The hall was packed to hear America’s Jeremiah preach the coming economic and political meltdown and I continue the connection to this day. Reading his weekly blog ‘Clusterfuck Nation’ is like a taking an intellectual emetic. One read is enough to flush the dyspepsia of the previous week’s repetitive news cycles which trumpet more events but never new directions.

The only problem with Jim’s Clusterfuck Nation rants is the same one as the original Jeremiah had. It’s a long, long drop from our current state of petroleum based bliss to the one where people will abandon just-in-time global production, cheap franchise distribution and the world re-localizes. I have no doubt Jim is right and it will happen, but unlike Mr. Kunstler I don’t believe there is any collective cliff face waiting for us to drive over.

Rather it is going to be a city by city grand and slow progression as cities change from refuge areas to refugee. It’s going to be more like a moth eating away at a wool blanket. At first the holes are scarcely noticed. There is simply too much systemic inertia, supported by too much global investment in more cars, trucks, oil, bigger boats and jumbo jets. Watersheds and wilderness will continue to be sacrificed to keep the black gold flowing and the status quo intact.

The most successful economies will continue to be the ones that find a multitude of ways of slowing and managing the steps down as the European Nordic nations are doing today. It’s not especially complicated. Look at the city of Detriot or Cyprus and you can get clear images of how deep the voyage down can be, but that doesn’t mean it’s coming to New York or Toronto anytime soon. As frustrating as it is for Jim Kunstler, there’s simply too much money to be made out of supporting the status quo, but in a more perfect world this is how the steps down would be delayed and reduced.

1) The financial meltdown. Solution: Return progressive taxation to all sectors of society including the banks. Get rid of derivative and currency speculation entirely. Societies can’t succeed with fewer and fewer people bearing the costs. It didn’t work in the 18th century and it’s not going to work in the 21st. In the long term, it creates a revolutionary scenario and in the short term starves both the public and individual capacity. But progressive taxation won’t work by retaining today’s expenditure patterns. There’s no point in improving public revenue generation if it just means there’s more money for wars in Africans deserts and Asian mountains.

2) The governance meltdown. Solution. Share the taxes more fairly. Cities get 8 cents of every tax dollar; the federal government gets 50 per cent but provides fewer services. This isn’t sustainable. Can you imagine the Mayor of Toronto flying in his armoured car to Calgary for a meeting? Even if he wanted to, he doesn’t have the cash.

3) The environmental meltdown. Solution. Stop subsidizing the oil and car industries. One underground parking space costs 15 to 25,000 dollars depending on where it is. Surface storage costs 5 to 10,000 per slot. Each private vehicle requires 8 storage spaces. No society can continue successfully when it costs more to store machines that it does to house people.

4) Urban Meltdown: Get off the global umbilical cord. Local rail. Local energy. Local food.

These are some of the ways we start to walk down the stairs instead of driving happily forward until arriving at the cliff face. Will it happen? It has already begun in some countries, but not in Canada. Our current crop of federal leaders have made it clear, they are followers and to give them credit, they have been clear about this. When every other nation get their tax, environmental, tax and public investment acts together, including developing nations then Canada will consider following. In the meantime, it’s business and politics as usual.

Needless to say, followers don’t have much street cred. No one cares anymore if Canada has ‘the bomb’ or not, or is more interesting in armed intervention than ‘keeping the peace’, or vice versa. Canada has become a ‘you-lead, we’ll follow country’ while managing to retain it’s unpleasant hectoring qualities as in ‘our banks are better than your banks’. Not a way to win friends and influence people.

Reading Jim Kunstler’s ‘Clusterfuck Nation’ blog is a pleasant diversion, but it’s very existence in the blog world and not as a syndicated column in the mainstream print media is proof enough that it is the sound of Jeremiah howling and not North America changing. -30-

Clive Doucet is a writer and former Ottawa City Councillor. He is a retired Jeremiah. His latest book is “Shooting The Bruce”. It can be purchased electronically in electronic or print versions. It has no redeeming social importance.

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What does sustainability mean for human beings?

It’s very clear what ‘not sustainable’ means for polar bears.  The polar ice cap is thinning and shrinking, polar bears no longer have a hunting platform.  They are going hungry  and their populations are shrinking.  The lucky ones are moving to a land based habitat to interbreed with brown bears.  Most people understand what is happening to polar bears, the curious thing is they don’t get what’s happening to the human equivalent of the polar ice platform.

In spite of the constant news about climate shift, planet heating, ocean and atmospheric changes, most people can’t tell you what it means for human beings except the weather is less reliable and storms more frequent. This is what it means.  The human hunting platform is its social organization and the greatest expression of the human adaptive accomplishment is the nation state.

It was the nation state in the 20th century that was the primary motor for the massive expansions to the human population and the provisions of extraordinary collective capacities in all the domains essential to human welfare – research, technological development, clean water, education, health, food supply, transportation.   There is nothing that you do each day of your life that isn’t the result of the successful operation of your local and national governments.

The problem is the human platform is melting down – everywhere.  All that varies is the rate and the details  but everywhere nations are becoming less and less effective at providing  the ‘universal’ services upon which we all depend.  The most spectacular failures are the most spectacular successes.  It is something of an international agony to watch that flailing giant the United States of America.  There are, of course, glimmers of hope.

The  Americans electorate decided on a decent, intelligent and well spoken chief executive but the reality is there is absolutely nothing he has done or will do in the next 3.5 years which will arrest the decline of the nation state.  President Obama is not alone. Everywhere we see the same incapacity to restore the forces that made nation states successful.

Progressive taxation has collapsed everywhere.  Yet, it’s clear progressive taxation was one of the key innovations that gave nations the capacity to provide the services needed to create more wealth, not less, more growth not less, more personal success, not less.   It’s also clear nations can’t function by taxing only part of their population.  It’s two sided sword.  It not only reduces government capacity, it twists and reduces civic commitment which is central to all national success, but this is what has been happening – everywhere. It is world wide news when a tiny state like Cyprus even suggests that a progressive bank tax should be applied to foreign capital hiding in their banks or when France suggests it will go it alone on a tiny transaction tax on international speculation.

Look at the actual legislative proposals of any national government and what strikes is how ineffective the are.  Austerity is the principal response to social and economic meltdown.   All austerity accomplishes is speeds up the the processes already in place which are feeding the decline of the national level of social organization.  The supra national state is already fracturing.  It is in Europe.  It’s fracturing in the United States and in Canada it is being tacked together with flag patriotism, Afghanistan and Tim Horton’s images.

Like or dislike Tim Horton’s coffee, all the metrics, not controlled by the federal government, show the nation is in full on decline domestically and internationally.   Even the famous inter-provincial equalization payments which did so much to build the famous sense of Canadian fairness and high quality public services are evaporating as each province is left to struggle by itself.  The once powerful Ontario flounders with no hope in sight and no real interest from the rest of the country in her troubles.

At the end of the day the Berlin Wall fell because enough people on both sides of the wall understood it didn’t work to do anything but protect a corrupt and inefficient supra national state.   In the 21st centuries nations will fracture along old and familiar ethnic lines as they are in Syria but also along resource and organizational lines.  Meanwhile, the war on terror has been exposed for what it always was, an expensive side show which distracts people from focusing on the central problem – their national governments which are no longer successfully functioning.

As the larger organizational units fail, smaller ones will move to replace them – which is good news for some.  Pauline Marois, Quebec’s new premier has stated the province’s transportation future will depend on electricity, not oil.  She calls it a ‘structural’ issue. Her argument is simple.  Electricity is an energy source and a technology that is renewable, oil is neither.  In fact, the oil rich policies of the national government are suppressing and delaying the needed conversion in Quebec.

The decline of the Canadian Federation will happen as it does elsewhere with a push and a pull.  A pull from its constituent parts and a push from the national level as the human beings struggle to re-balance their organizational capacities just as the earth’s climate struggles for a new equilibrium at a higher temperature.  -30-

Clive Doucet is an author and former city politician.  His last book was “Urban Meltdown: Cities, Climate Change”.   His latest is “Shooting The Bruce”.

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On Stephane Hessel Dying. (20,Oct, 1917 – 26 Feb. 2013)

One of the small books I carry like a talisman in my backpack is “Time for Outrage” by Stephane Hessel or Indignez-vous as it is called in the original French version. Monsieur Hessel’s book is credited with starting the “Occupy” movement.   Part brief biography of an extraordinary life as a WWII resistance fighter, concentration camp survivor, diplomat and partly a call to arms, written when he was at ninety three, Indignez-vous galvanized a movement.

Death always has a summary effect.   Like it or not, one is pushed to evaluate, to measure, to summarize the life that has passed away.  When I first read “Time for Outrage” like millions of others, I found myself nodding my head in agreement.  Why were nations able to accomplish so much after the horror of the Second War?  At a time when nations like France and Britain were on their knees and all nations were poorer, yet national health care was invented and delivered.  Free public education was expanded to the university level or cost so little  a summer job could put you through.  (I graduated with zero debt.)

Hessel’s generation wrote ringing declarations like the U.N. Declaration of Universal Human Rights.   Yet, today the most basic, the most primitive of these accomplishments is under relentless attack.  For example, where do drone attacks fit into the U.N.’s Declaration of Human Rights? Or the slave wages of Walmart and the ever, increasing gap between the poor and rich?  It’s ‘time for outrage’ said the 93 year old Stephane Hessel.

The Occupy Movement was a great success.  For the first time, it got people talking about government for the one per cent instead of government for the majority.  It helped to get Mr. Obama re-elected and  helped to at least slow the relentless union and pension bashing.  But the most significant accomplishment of all was that the Occupy demonstrations around the world exposed the harsh reality that there is no Franklin Delano Roosevelt with a New Deal plan in hand to fix the mess – anywhere. In France, Hessel’s home country, Francois Hollande defeated M. Sarkozy and this was supposed to be a Roosevelt moment, but each day, he looks more like a bespectacled version of Mr. Sarkozy himself than a white knight for Stephane Hessel.   Like other leaders he’s taken refuge in keeping the barbarians at bay in someone else’s country while the problems in his own remain unsolved.

What is happening?  Why can’t outrage be harnessed in a useful ways instead of igniting destructive ‘beggar thy neighbour’ policies as the present Canadian government has grown expert at.  The latest is protecting Canadians from ‘seasonal worker fraud’.  This is to be accomplished by impoverishing forestry and fishermen who are already poor, further.

The problem is ‘getting tough’ on people is not solving problems anywhere from Greece to Spain to the United States .   It’s just making people poorer.  Nor do we see any capacity to cut through the structural problems that are as evident as the strings that the Lilliputians used to tie down the giant Gulliver

It’s been clear for decades now that the costs of supporting the the oil/car industries are not sustainable, that each year they require greater subsidies and these subsidies are slowly bankrupting cities especially.   It’s been clear for decades that one of the principal infrastructure solutions is to re-build national and local surface rail systems.  Rail has always been the cheapest, most cost efficient and environmentally healthy way to move people.  This is why the car companies moved to get rid of them at the beginning of the last century, but there is no money for rail.  Yet there are billions available for fighting a war in the poorest nation on the planet.

It’s been clear for everyone who reads that the financial ‘industry’ is out of control.  Again, the solutions are crystal clear, transfer taxes have to be imposed, tax havens and derivatives eliminated, the Glass-Steagall Act to separate commercial from investment banking brought back etc., but what has been the political response?   Don’t upset the apple cart, ‘the banks are too big.’

It’s been clear that the richest nations especially have to re-localize food production, but we continue to allow food production to develop little differently from a human version of locusts moving across the planet  fishing the seas dry, burning the forests, destroying the soil in order to bring the richest nations the ‘cheapest’ possible products.

It’s been clear for generations now that the criminalization of drugs is an annual trillion dollar plague which keeps violent men very rich, impoverishes entire nations and kills thousands of innocent people each year, but what politician, what nation who has the courage  to declare drug abuse must be treated as a health problem, not a criminal problem?

These are just a handful of the fundamental structural problems that are never addressed by any politician or political party, because unlike Stephane Hessel they are afraid.  Politicians are afraid that people will suffer if they advocate for real change and some of them will.   They’re afraid that they will suffer personally for trying to cross the vast vested interests that supporting the status quo requires. They’re afraid that banks will collapse, interest rates will go wonky, or worst of all that the people who count will get poorer not richer.  So it’s best to keep shovelling more cars out onto the road, putting up more malls, jailing drug dealers and letting the banks play their margin games.  None of this is sustainable and that is why economies everywhere are melting down.

People are afraid from the highest to the lowest income levels of any real change and so they run around in ever diminishing circles.  Politics has turned into repetitive, public theatre where the same scripts and the words loop back on themselves like an electronic feed where the code has short circuited.  The Occupy movement arose from nowhere but a book to identify many of the problems the 21st century faces but could not overcome the fear of leaders actually responding.  Stephane Hessel never understood this because he was one of those rarest of human birds – a fearless man.   -30-

Clive Doucet is an Ottawa writer and former city politician.  His most recent novel ‘Shooting The Bruce’  has just been released.  His last book, “Urban Meltdown: Cities, Climate Change and Politics as Usual” was short listed for the Shaughnessy-Cohen Prize for political writing.

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Paddling the waterways to Washington, D.C. (**first pub. Glebe Report)

Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of three articles offering readers a glimpse of the journey of a lifetime – paddling a voyageur canoe from Ottawa to Washington, D.C. along historic waterways, getting up close and personal with the rivers and canals. Local participants in the adventure that launched on September 5, 2012 from Turtle Island and wrapped up in the U.S. capital on October 17 included several people with Glebe connections among the Ottawa paddlers: Liz Elton, John Horvath and author Clive Doucet, who traveled the entire distance, as well as Carol MacLeod and J.B. McMahon, each of whom joined the crew as paddlers for a section of the 42-day journey.

There were five of us who paddled from Ottawa to Washington. Five paddlers, no matter how strong, cannot move a 34-foot voyageur canoe weighing 450 pounds empty, and about a ton with equipment, 1,800 kilometres. It’s simply too heavy and the distance too great: at 45 paddle strokes a minute, travelling 50 kilometres a day for 40 days, at least eight paddlers are needed to get the boat from dawn to dusk, town to town. Fortunately, most days we had them.

It started out as a trip about twinning the Ottawa and Potomac Rivers and making friends, as a way of celebrating and promoting cleaner water on both sides of the border. This is the way it started and ended, but somewhere in the middle, for the original five travellers, it turned into just surviving. Judging by the amount of Ibuprofen the original five consumed each day, big pharma should have sponsored our trip, not the Canadian Wildlife Federation.

No one had ever paddled a freighter canoe from Ottawa to Washington before. We had Max Finkelstein, one of Canada’s foremost wilderness canoeists, leading the expedition, but Montreal, New York City and Philadelphia are not exactly wilderness areas, and no one knew quite what to expect. Would it be possible to camp? How dirty would the water be? Could we swim or drink the water? Would it be ugly? These were not easy questions to answer because no one travels by canoe on these waters anymore. On urban waterways, people travel in versions of motor homes equipped with toilets, fresh water supplies, kitchens, sleeping areas. In an open canoe, you have none of these things. Would camping even be possible or would we have to stay in hotels?

With the exception of the Richelieu River south of Montreal, where it was like paddling through one long suburb, the rivers were surprisingly wild, surprisingly lush, filled with interest and wildlife. Even in the post-apocalypse landscape of New Jersey just south of Manhattan, the banks of the rivers were verdant, the foliage dense and vibrant, plants and trees pushing up amongst the abandoned factories. I went swimming on the Delaware, a day’s paddle from Philadelphia, and a beaver quietly surfaced, unafraid and curious at my unexpected presence. Great bald eagles are back all along the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. They soared above us every day, sometimes so close you could feel the power of their wing strokes and pick out the outlines of their pinion feathers framed against the sky. Fish jumped at our bow, sometimes so large, they seemed to breach like whales.

The 1972 American Clean Water Act has made a tremendous difference along the rivers. We saw the cleanup projects on many sites contaminated by polyclorinated biphenyl compounds (PCBs). All of these were funded by the U.S. federal government. Everyone we talked to said the quality of the water had improved since the passage of the Clean Water Act. American rivers and lakes were cleaner, wildlife was back, fish and fishermen were back. This was all good to hear, but to keep things in perspective, nowhere could we risk drinking the river water. We had to search out a faucet somewhere and carry our own drinking water in the boat. Only at the ocean end of Chesapeake Bay did we see people catching fish to eat, rather than catching and releasing. Here, we were able to join in and dine on pan-fried fish just pulled from the water.

Entering Manhattan or Montreal is a very different thing in a canoe than a car. Manhattan’s skyline appears at the mouth of the Hudson, as impressive as the Rocky Mountains rising from the prairie, but the buildings are not your focus. Your focus is the Hudson River, wide and tremendously powerful with standing waves and dangerous currents. When the view is from a canoe, even a great city is no more than a backdrop, its many bridges decorative rather than useful. Your entire attention is on what it always has been – the water and the canoe.

The great six-lane bridge that crosses Lac des Deux Montagnes carrying a river of vehicles each day between the cities of Ottawa and Montreal appears entirely different from a canoe. From the canoe, you cannot see or hear the vehicles pouring across it. All you hear is the rushing water beside and under you. The bridge with its six lanes appears and disappears remarkably quickly, and you are back in a different world. This is a world largely forgotten by the modern one, for the cities have all moved to the edges of the highways, and the rivers, except for the summer efflorescence of recreational boaters, are silent as a church at midnight.

I still can’t tell you how to drive to Washington from Ottawa, but I can tell you how to canoe. You take the Ottawa to the Lachine Canal, to the St. Laurent, to the Richelieu, to Lake Champlain, to the Hudson Canal, to the Hudson River, to New York Harbour, to the Raritan River, to the Delaware, to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, to Chesapeake Bay, to the Potomac, to Washington – and add 800,000 paddle strokes.

And I can tell you that there is a great will out there on both sides of the border to have our rivers return to the condition Europeans found them in when they first arrived – rivers from which you can drink the water, catch and eat the fish, and swim.

To be continued….

 Clive Doucet is a poet, author,  former Capital Ward councillor and paddler extraordinaire.

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The Office of Religious Freedom and the Meaning of Life

Part II of  an invited lecture given by Clive Doucet at Carleton University

The human world has always been divided into two parts, those who believe that there is an ultimate meaning to life and those who do not.  This division is as old as civilization.  In the ancient world, it is Socrates who most clearly defined that division when he said, ‘perfect virtue depends on perfect knowledge and since perfect knowledge is impossible there is no such thing as perfect virtue.’

Another way to express this is that virtue is relative and life itself is relative because all choices including moral choices depend on the evolution of possibilities and these change over time. Makes sense to me. For if you believe life is eternal which the evidence seems to indicate that it is or so close it makes no difference, evolutionary relativity must be one of the guiding forces of all life.  It was the dinosaurs and it is for human mammals.

This is, however, a minority opinion.  It is today in Canada and around the world.  Mr. Harper has clearly stated that he considers moral relativists as people without any moral anchor.   In short, they’re dangerous. He belongs to the belief based section of humanity that believes that there is a ‘right and a wrong way’.  His new Office of Religious Freedom is all about protecting moral absolutists from each other and making sure they have a safe haven in Canada while he does what he can to eliminate the laws, public institutions and funding that supports relativists from whom the idea of separating church and state sprang.

I used to think that the principal fractures in human society were around language, culture, religion and colour.  I no longer do.  If you are a relativist, the divisions of language, culture, religion and colour can always be overcome through compassionate actions and a willingness to entertain more than one idea to create solutions.  This is never easy because there are no perfect solutions and no simple answers.  It requires a well educated population, a willingness to debate and strong institutions and laws to broker the complexities that this view of human destiny requires.

Until recently, this was the kind of country Canada was famous for being.  It made us a world leader at the United Nations, made us principal player in the formulation of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, U.N. peace keeping and so on.  It is no longer.  Mr. Harper has been steadily and relentlessly chopping away at all those public institutions, civil organizations, laws which were derived from the view of the world that life is eternally evolving and there are never any final or perfect solutions.

The belief driven meaning of life is primitive and always has been.  We see it in action today with Mr. Harper’s approach to climate change.  It is the approach of a petulant child.  In sum, it is:  “we can’t do anything until everyone else does something and since everyone else won’t, we won’t.  Further, it  probably is useless so we should just wait until the climate catastrophe happens and then we will start building civilization over again.”

This is what a child does when he or she had trouble with their building blocks.  They smash them down and start over again.  The most primitive manifestation of the belief driven life does not even anticipate rebuilding the blocks after they have been knocked over.  It’s simply the end as in : ‘we the people with belief have the correct belief, thus we will go to heaven and where we live happy, eternal life after the catastrophe comes.’

The belief driven life’s principal defense is assassination.  You simply kill the opponents of your beliefs.  Socrates was just one of many whose lives were extinguished in ancient Athens for not being sufficiently subservient to the gospel of the absolutists. Nothing much has changed over the millennium.  When pushed by thoughts which challenge the belief driven life, murder and the extinguishing of science is regarded as reasonable reaction.

For those like myself who are relativists, the meaning of life is always difficult to discern because there’s no handy code to refer to every time I lift a fork to my mouth or pick a grand child to hug.  Part of the meaning of life for myself has always been found in the struggle for more sustainable cities.  It started when I was twenty year old student at the University of Toronto and I was living on a street called Spadina.  By chance, I was living just a few blocks away from Jane Jacobs, one the 20th century’s seminal thinkers about cities and a central leader in the resistance to the destruction of the pre-1950 city.

It was not difficult to imagine what an expressway down this broad city boulevard was going to do to the University and every community that lived beside it.  I got involved.  Sold buttons.  Marched to City Hall.  Gave speeches at the student centre and the extraordinary end of this first battle for a more sustainable city was – we won.  Nobody expected we would.  The Mayor and City Council had duly signed off on the demolitions required and the funding of a six lane highway to bisect the city, but the premier cancelled it and so began the story of my life and much of its meaning.

My young life started with this great success but I can’t say the rest of it has been.  Virtually every battle,  I’ve engaged with I have lost.  We lost the struggle to have the Sens Stadium built in the city centre instead of in  the middle of Class I corn fields at the city’s edge.  Most Ottawans don’t even realize bringing NHL hockey to Ottawa was financed by rezoning Class I agricultural land for tract housing, warehousing and car lots.  It was never about hockey.  It was a post-1950 city, re-zoning a pre-1950 city for more malls and sprawl.

I have even seen defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.  With the north/ south pilot light rail line we won a national sustainability award.  Then a national procurement award for its full service extension and had signed a contract that would have delivered 26 kilometers of new rail service to Ottawa, the cheapest in North America.  The contract was torn up by the new Mayor, Mr. O’Brien, millions were paid in damages to Siemens and the new project which replaced it will cost 4 times as much and give the city no new service.  It’s a zero impact project.

An international design competition was launched for the revival of Lansdowne Park inviting the best designers from around the world to come to Ottawa and propose a new plan for Ottawa’s famous Victorian Exhibition Park – Lansdowne.  Lansdowne goes back to 1868 and fronts on a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Rideau Canal.  The city simply has no more important, no more valuable piece of real estate in its portfolio.  Yet, the international competition was cancelled in order to give the land to local mall and sprawl developers who had never before redeveloped any municipal park anywhere.  Their proposal for a condo and big box development was accepted by city council without any further reference to a competitive process.

These kinds of losses are not easy to swallow and can batter one’s sense of purpose and even one sense of the meaning of life itself.  How can it not?  If your whole life has been dedicated to a simple proposition: Cities if they are to endure must grow within their means.  This is the only way we can assure their prosperity, security and success for future generations.

Every one of these losses will make it harder to develop a sustainable Ottawa and it’s clear we’re not getting anywhere fast.   More people used public transit per capita in 1960 Ottawa than they do today; which brings me around, in a round about way to the meaning of life.  For someone who can’t rest on a belief driven life, what happens when the meaning relative to your own times and life that you are trying to create is not successful, that the story of your life has not been marked with success.  How do you resist sinking into a morass of ‘what’s the point?’ Thoughts.

It requires the humility of eternity.

My life is important to me, but from the perspective of the eternal, little different from a tree that blooms each spring. I suspect if you asked a dinosaur after a 160 million years of life on our planet what the meaning of life was, the dinosaur would have looked up from his foraging and said: “I exist therefore I am.”

And if you think that’s trivial, you’re free to do so, but will we humans be able to say we have existed for 160 million years?  Anything is possible but we’ve got a very long way to go, having only existed in our present form for 200,000 years and only as a hominid for five million.  I suspect if you had asked one of our relatives just a hundred thousand years ago:  What was the meaning of life  The response might have been the same as the dinosaur, “I exist therefore I am’. 

A little later, say 60,000 years on if you asked tool making man what his or her meaning of life it might have been: “I do therefore I am”

St. Augustine nuanced this with: “I believe therefore I am.”

Descartes with: “I think therefore I am.”

Jean-Paul Sartre with: I choose therefore I am.”

We have a federal government now that wants to turn the clock back to ‘ I believe therefore I am’ and in the service of this life maxim funds religious organizations like Focus on the Family, defunds environmental like the Suzuki Foundation, doesn’t need statistical analysis and government science that contradicts belief driven policies.

One of the things that is clear if you are a relativist is that change doesn’t happen sequentially or in a single, forward oscillation.  Change happens in intersecting ellipses.  The old cycle of change is always part of the new cycle.  The new part of the old.  “I believe therefore I am” remains a powerful reality for billions of people in the 21st century.  More people read St. Augustine today than did when he was alive.  President Obama says he’s one.  More people also read Marcus Aurelius and Jean Paul Sartre than when they were alive.

Another thing that is clear if you are relativist is that these oscillations bringing change are a manifestation of the divine.  It is clear the creative spirit loves change and diversity for this is what we see all around us, has been all around us since the birth of the planet and all indications are always will be.

Perhaps, the Meaning of Life for some of you will be to become rich and I hope you do.  Perhaps for others, it will be to have many children and I hope you do.  Perhaps for others it will mean something else.  It is my thought, that it will be up to you to decide what the meaning of your life will be.  When I look back on my life, I certainly would have liked to have won more battles for sustainable cities but I didn’t, and no amount of rhetoric or rationale examination will change this and these losses will always remain like wounds which never quite close.

But in the end, if I am right that life and the meaning of life are relative concepts, then all of the above holds.  “I exist therefore I am” is as true for humans as it was for the dinosaurs.   Because if the human species does not exist there can be no meaning of life at least for our species on this planet.  In this way, we are no different from the dinosaurs.

I do.  I believe.  I think.  I choose. Surely these thoughts are also part of the meaning of life also. They can’t be separated. Belief must be part of life as is thought, although for me belief isn’t connected to the Augustine thought that a transcendent God awaits me with his city of God prepared for my citizenship.  For me belief is about prayer and prayer is about hope. And my prayers are for a better, kinder, smarter, more sustainable world, no matter what the present scene may be.

I have put  my small shoulder to that great wheel without regret.

Thank-you for your kind attention.

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Two Cities and The Meaning of Life

Two Cities and The Meaning of Life,

(an invited lecture given by Clive Doucet at Carleton University)

I was born in 1946, just as the war in Europe was ending and I grew up in the old city of Ottawa.  What I mean by the old city of Ottawa is the same as the old city of Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, Philadelphia, Boston or Des Moines.  Old Ottawa is template for the kind of city that we built all over North America prior to 1950.

You can draw a line down the twentieth century in the exact middle of it and on one side you have one kind of city and on the other another one.  The post-1950 city has a different landscape, different housing, different housing lots, different shopping, different car storage, different culture, different politics from the pre-1950 one.

It’s taken me a long time to realize that not only was I born in the pre-1950 North American city but that I’ve never left it.   Without even being aware of it, I have always lived in the pre-1950 city.  This city was built around streetcar lines.  I still live in this kind of city, a block away from Bronson Ave which used to have a streetcar line that ran from the city centre to Sunnyside, traversed Old Ottawa South, and then returned to the downtown on Bank St. making a long, neat rectangle.

In 1950, few people in Ottawa owned cars.  Almost everyone lived a few minutes away from a streetcar line and when they weren’t on their feet, that’s the way city people moved around.  My father walked down Bayswater to Sherwood Drive to Carling Ave. and caught the streetcar downtown.   Streetcar service was built on a series of interconnecting grids that followed where people actually lived.  People didn’t have to find a way to the streetcar line, the streetcar line came to them.  It was called the ten minute pedestrian shed.  (Streetcar riders should never be more than a 10 minute walk from a line.)

In the summer, if you wanted to go to the country in Ottawa, you caught the tram to Britannia Beach.   It was a dedicated line and the tram old and ugly as it was, could travel the 18 kilometers to the beach faster in 1950 than you can today in a car from the city centre.  I don’t mean to imply here that the day calendar switched from to 1950 to 51 that the city suddenly changed from one kind of city to the other, but that is when the change to a different kind of city began.

This actual conversion would take decades and it continues unabated to this day, but this long process started as soon as the resources were available after the Second War.  During the 1950s, cities all over North America would begin to actively destroy the pre-1950 urban form by physically tearing down old style neighbourhoods as they did with LeBreton Flats in Ottawa, under investing in the pre-1950 neighbourhoods that were still standing, and ripping up the streetcar systems around which they were built and upon which they depended.  This happened everywhere from Pacific to Atlantic, from Canada to Mexico City.  Toronto and San Francisco were two of exceptions to this rule.  San Francisco’s hilly geography made getting rid  of them seem a little crazy even to the most dedicated post war modernist, and Toronto escaped through luck.

In 1971, Toronto was in the process of ripping up its extensive streetcar lines but as luck would have it the OPEC oil crisis hit and suddenly people in Toronto began to ask themselves: Why was City Hall destroying the only alternative the city had to the internal combustion engine?  With oil prices doubling, it didn’t seem to make much sense and the SOS movement was born, Save Our Streetcars.  Today the pre-1950 city of  Toronto is remarkably lively and livable primarily because of that decision.  Just four of Toronto’s streetcar lines carry more passengers than the province’s entire Go train system.

I’m sure it’s very hard for young folks like yourself to imagine the enormity of these changes because you’ve all grown up in the post 1950 city.  It’s a bit like asking a fish to imagine a different kind of fishbowl, but here’s a little story that will give you an idea of the extent of the changes, that were social, psychological and cultural as well as physical.  In 1953, when I was seven years old, we lived on Bayswater Avenue.  Bayswater is a little residential street that connects Carling Avenue to Somerset Street, both of streets had robust and busy streetcar lines.   One day, the family across from our hung a banner in their driveway, it said: ‘WELCOME HOME, DAD!’ The banner was blue and had balloons which tugged and floated in the breeze.   This was really intriguing.  Our mother never thought to hang a banner saying ‘welcome home to our Dad and he came home every day just like the man across the street. My sisters and I wondered what was up and we camped out on the front porch to find out.

All day long we waited and finally the man across the street came home. He came home in an enormous, baby blue Chevrolet with fins like wings on the back.  This boat of a car took up their entire laneway from sidewalk to house.  Within a very short time, my Dad had purchased a black Pontiac and we parked it in our little laneway across from the baby blue Chevrolet and that’s about all I noticed.  But if I had been a little bit older I might have noticed that we weren’t the only ones on the street with a new car.

Just seven years later, the Ottawa began tearing up, the city’s entire streetcar system about 300 kilometers.  This was seen as progress.  The transit ridership collapsed and never really recovered in spite of billions invested in buses. At the same time, Ottawa tore up the city’s east/west heavy railway line, replacing it with eight lanes of highway.  In the 1960s, this new city highway was called romantically the ‘Queensway’. It’s now called the 417 and the entire city depends on it.

The conversion of the city went into hyper drive. Developers, immediately, bought farmland at both ends of the 417 and along its entire length. From, 1960 on, all new city construction would be built around the 417.   Within a few years 90 per cent of the new construction would be controlled by five developers.  They would become very rich and very powerful.

In some parts of the city, you can still see the dividing line between the pre-1950 city and the post, but in most parts it has been gradually erased by demolitions and construction.  In the west and east end, the malls, strip malls and arterials just kind of blend into what’s left of the pre-1950’s city.  But in the south end, if you go to the bridge that spans the Rideau River in Old Ottawa South, you can still see the line separating the two cities as clear as bell.   On the south side of the bridge, the first shopping centre in Ottawa was built.  It was called Billings Bridge Shopping Centre (and still is)  after the village which was demolished and a rather beautiful creek called Saw Mill which was buried to allow its construction.

If you stand in the middle of  the bridge and look south across the river towards the shopping centre, you can see nothing but six lane arterials, a massive parking lot, the mall itself and few high rises dotting the edge of the Bank St. arterial before the tract housing begins.  There’s nothing unusual about the view.  This is the way the post 1950s city have been built everywhere.  The same pattern is repeated from Denver to New Orleans, New Orleans to Edmonton.

But you’re not in Denver or Edmonton, you’re standing on a bridge crossing the Rideau River in Old Ottawa South.  Now, turn 180 degrees from your view of Billings Bridge Shopping Centre and look north.  You will see a completely differently landscape.  The street you’re looking up has the same name, Bank Street as it does south of the Rideau River but it looks entirely different.  It’s not six lanes wide and has not a single bleed-off or turning lane at the intersections.  It’s a narrow commercial street lined with a wide variety of stores, restaurants, pubs.  The intersections are right angled, square and small. There’s even an old fashioned a movie theatre from the 1930s which is now considered a heritage building.  I can’t say the street looks particularly graceful, elegant or even chic.  It looks kind of jumbled and crowded.  The buildings are mostly old.  The sidewalks are busy with pedestrians.  The only parking is in the curb lane, leaving only two through lanes.  There are no parking lots or none big enough to notice.  Curiously, Bank Street, the surrounding neighborhood and shopping north of the Rideau River functions without the streetcars much the same way it did pre-1950 when streetcars rumbled up and down it.

You may be familiar with this story of the demise of the streetcar or its Boston, Winnipeg or wherever equivalent, but what people everywhere have trouble grasping is the massive consequences the loss of streetcar based cities had, not just for how we move around the city but how we work, live, govern ourselves and even imagine life itself to be possible; because most people now think it is only possible to live a mall based, parking lot and arterial road existence; that everything else is ‘boutique’ which is another way of saying ‘just not practical’.

Why all this matters is because of the sustainability issue, not that a pre-1950 city was perfectly sustainable.  It was not but then no city ever has been.   Cities from their first invention in Mesopotamia have been leaches on the landscape, sucking up clean water, sending back polluted water and depending on rural immigration to sustain their dense populations.  But the post 1950, North American city has taken this sustainability problem to a new level.  We now pave over entire townships and call this  progress.  We are told we need more of it.  Yet, the costs of this kind of city are crippling city governments everywhere.  One half of most city budgets are now dedicated to building roads and repairing them.  In the city of Ottawa that’s more than a billion dollars every year and this doesn’t include private investment which runs at about 15,000 dollars per private parking space.

The ballooning cost of roads is the reason cities can no longer afford what was routine in the pre-1950 city, community centres, ‘free’ recreation services, affordable housing, libraries, swimming pools, ice rinks, generous parks and of course, city wide transit.  The costs of air pollution resulting from the post 1950 city are impossible to document as they are so broad.  The problem is simply too large and too diffuse to calculate.  For example, one hundred year storms cost millions to clean up and are regarded as exceptional, that’s why they’re called a one hundred year storms – so they don’t count.  But cities now routinely get a one hundred year storms two, three, sometimes four times a year depending where they are..

Culturally and politically, the old cities of Ontario and Canada generally have been drowned in a wave of cross cutting changes.  The Harris government amalgamated all the pre-1950 parts of Ontario cities with the post  1950 cities.  This has made it impossible for residents of the pre-1950 cities to protect themselves from what for them was an invasive culture.

In pre-1950s  Ottawa, Mr. O’Brien, (the Mayor who destroyed the city’s award winning light rail project) would never have been elected, but he appealed to the post 1950s part of the amalgamated city which is now dominant. Nor would the pre-1950 city have lost its oldest and most important public space to a condo/mall development because the old city of Ottawa would not have elected a Mayor who supported this loss.

Pre-amalgamated Toronto, would never have elected a Mayor (Mr. Ford) who regarded surface streetcars as an unhealthy encumbrance to the successful operation of private vehicles.  Vancouver is the only city in Canada that has seen a decline in car ownership, has built no new roads and has the most complex, broad ranging transit system in the country – everything from sky trains, to surface and sub surface trains to trolley cars, to buses, to pedestrian ferries.  Vancouver could never have done this if it had been amalgamated with the post 1950 cities of Surry and Richmond.  As in Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg et al. the majority population in the post 1950 cities now dictate what happens to the pre-1950 city.

I have dedicated my whole life to a simple proposition: Cities if they are to endure must grow within their means.  This is the only way we can assure their prosperity, security and success for future generations.   So far, it has been a losing proposition.  More people used public transit per capita in 1960 Ottawa than they do today.  I have lost just about every sustainability battle that I was ever engaged in –which brings me around, in a round about way to the meaning of life or at least my life.

End Part One

Two Cities and The Meaning of Life

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Pluralism versus Fractionalism, Obama versus Harper

In progressive circles, Mr. Obama has sunk from being the great black hope to being just another President.  James Kunstler is particularly devastating in his popular blog and I don’t disagree with him, nonetheless I feel obliged to say a word or two in support of Mr. Obama.  Democracies need pluralism to function.  Tyrannies need factionalism and it’s clear Mr. Obama recognizes this fundamental democratic need.  His speeches are always about inclusion.

The problem is fractionalism serves powerful interests well.  The old ‘divide and conquer’ approach to both domestic and international governance worked for Roman Emperors and it works for modern emperors.   A coherent public dialogue between the representatives of various social and economic forces that can debate and arrive at a  collective conclusion  is not useful to the National Rifle Association, anymore more than the tobacco industry is aided by collective, majority conclusion about cigarettes.

Warren Buffet and some of his colleagues recognize the inequity of American taxes and asked to be taxed more but not even a powerful group of the super rich cannot move entrenched factionalism and the confusion of authorities lined against fairer taxation, so the nation wallows with not enough funds and too many responsibilities.

Children are mowed down in schools, politicians and people shot on restaurant terraces, people standing in line ups for films, the whole world watches in horror and yet the simplest laws to control the flow of weapons from manufacturer to users cannot be enacted. The fractioning of the electorate comes from different places around the arms issue than it does for Mr. Buffet’s reasonable request for fairer taxation, but the results are the same.  No change.  The nation wallows.

There’s a lot to be said for the thought that a man of colour with the singular name of Barack Hussein Obama could be elected to the Presidency alone is testimony that factionalism although ascendant has not won the day.  And it says a lot about the man himself, he has done what just a few years ago, no one would have thought possible.  On the other hand, as Kunstler howls from his blog pulpit, the fundamental problems that plague the nation remain untouched.  Terrorism remains a bogeyman which mostly works to militarize the world and frighten the electorate into the conformity of flag waving – which all politicians use to their own ends; while the unsustainable asphalting of the nation, off shoring of profits and taxes etc. continues unchecked and so on.

The ugly economic-environmental reality is the United States has been eviscerated by global and domestic policies which leaves it each year a little less self sufficient.  Sustainable nations feed themselves; do not panic when oil prices shift; take care of their citizens – all of them, not just those who can afford it.  And they do it based on their own local productive and political capacity.  This is the core of Kunstler’s criticism and many others.   Great speeches are needed but nothing is being done to address these fundamental problems.

Yes, democracies need pluralism, not fractionalism.  Without inclusive pluralism, democracies inevitably decline into the rule of force which doesn’t need reasoned response to reality.  Rule by force is the always the dead end towards which fractionalism leads.  And right now, the arguments for pluralism are weakening because  the political spokesmen for it like Mr. Obama are not conjoining it to the application of successful new ideas which can solve problems to the benefit of all.  This has so far been his critical weakness.  The challenges of the 21st century will not be addressed by an endless attempt to replay the successes of the post war decades when populations were smaller, resources appeared unlimited and climate shift hadn’t been heard from.

The relative success of Mr. Obama can be measured against our own Mr. Harper.  Mr. Harper has been handed a very rich plate.  He is the political leader of a small, wealthy country, not much bigger than the state of California in terms of GDP and population.   He has absolute control of Parliament.  Unlike Mr.  Obama he can do as he pleases.  Canada should have  Norway’s problems, – what do we do with all our money? How do we prepare for climate shift and control growth?  He should be flying problem free instead mired in attack and punish politics that plays to a fractionalism  so profound that it has reanimated the moribund Quebec separatist movement.   And Alberta, his own province can’t even sustain a mild downturn in oil prices without running a deficit because provincial/federal royalty payments from industry are so weak – 35% less than Norway.

Environmentally, the country is staggering.   So much of the environmental legislation has been repealed that rumors are circulating in Ottawa that the Department of Environment itself will be rolled into the Department of Natural Resources.  Then, there are a vertiginous list of court cases before Canadian courts protesting the legality of the government’s various Acts. The latest being aboriginal communities worried about maintaining clean water in wilderness communities and respecting their original land transfer agreements by slicing them up into the same anti-environment legislation that applies to the rest of the country.   They have simply joined a long line.  No wonder the Supreme Court feels under assault.

Economically, nothing has been done to prepare the nation for a high cost energy world or an eventual re-localizing of the economy, instead Mr. Harper is racing around  the planet signing mystery trade deals the importance or effect of which no one understands because no one has seen them.  On the ground, from China to Europe governments are busy building electric rail systems and making Canadian companies like Bombardier rich in the process.  In Canada, Bombardier struggles to keep a couple of aging plants open to serve the resupply of Montreal and Toronto’s  subway systems.

Neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Harper’s legacy is clear yet, but one thing is clear.  Barak Obama is trying to overcome challenges.  Steven Harper is creating them. -30-

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In Praise of Chief Spence. In awe of Stephen Harper.


Big oil writes to their buddy, Steve detailing how they want him to trash the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Canadian Fisheries Act and so on.  Steve complies.  Sending Canada officially to the bottom of the list among developed nations for environmental responsibility.  Non treaty Canadians  are powerless to protest, but as member in good standing of a First Nation and the inheritor of legal Treaty Rights, Chief Spence can protest and she does: that this is an abrogation of the conditions (the Treaties) upon which her people joined Confederation.

Virtually, alone one brave woman manages to do what no opposition political party has been able to do, create a popular feeling of outrage for the violent way thousands of pieces of legislation were forced through Parliament in service of the oil lobby to the detriment of water quality, security and ecological health of the nation.

So what does awesome Stevie do? Turns it into a debate about a small communities managerial ability (everywhere suspect) and the lack of coherent voice among Indian leadership (famous since the beginning of time).  Because Stephen Harper is smarter than you.

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The Horror of Lance

It’s difficult to chose between the horror of Lance and ugly world feeding fest around his ‘confession’.   The  same folks who made millions off his success, the Tour organizers, reporters, advertisers, celebrity bunnies feel betrayed and want his money and medals.  Well tough.  I think he should keep them, but he should ‘share’ with all others who were shooting up.  That’s sufficient.

Maybe if the Tour wasn’t about money first and athletic accomplishment second, Lance and the rest of the pack wouldn’t have felt compelled to win at any cost.  Lance is a fancier version of Ben Johnson.  Aeons ago, it used to be ‘how you played the game’, not whether you won or lost that counted.  Today, that’s a losers philosophy.   The glee of the sanctimonious turns my stomach as much as Lance’s needles to win.  Dick Pound especially makes me nauseous, but it’s hard to pick a real winner among the world wide jump from the cliff onto one man.  There’s a reason why athletes when polled if given a choice between pilling up and winning and not, choose to pill and it’s not just in their own eyes that they judge themselves.

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Acts of Resistance II and Hollow Tears

Tears are hollow for the children, for the girls killed at the University de Montreal unless they are connected to action to reduce the chance of these senseless deaths happening again.  The great thing about the tears after the murders of the young engineering students at the Universite de Montreal was this tragedy was followed by action.  Under the leadership of Canada’s first female Minister of Justice, Kim Campbell, the Canadian Parliament came forward with the idea all weapons should be registered so the police had some idea of when they were likely to face an armed person.  Is there a weapon in the house?  Became a question they could answer. The new law also made many automatic weapons illegal and there was more attention paid to who was buying guns and how they were stored at home.   According to the police, the new gun control laws worked.

When I was a federal public servant, I worked on the gun registry at the Department of Justice.  It was one of the accomplishments that I have always been proud to say I was part of.  Canada became a safer place and I received some comfort from the idea that those young women in Montreal did not die entirely in vain.  Now we have a government that has destroyed the gun registry, except for the province of Quebec and a Liberal leadership hopeful, who thinks the gun registry didn’t work.  How could it not work when about 60 people are killed each year in Canada with guns and 10,000 people are killed with guns each year among our southern neighbours.  How could it not work when until recently Canadians made themselves famous around the world by seeking peaceful solutions to armed disputes?  This was our tradition, not reaching for a gun.

Tears are hollow that turn their face away from the threat the possession of violent weapons are to all people but especially women and children.   I turn the radio off.  I turn the television off.  I refuse to buy the newspapers that wring with these hollow tears.   These are my small, sad acts of resistance to the soul poverty of our governments on both sides of the border.



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