Census 2016 (part 1)

The 2016 Census data is starting to trickle out. I’m not sure if it is for dramatic effect, or if different data sets require different massaging levels, but the info you and I provided Stats Can in 2016 will be released in several stages through 2017. The first tranche, released this week, is population and residential dwelling count per census tract, along with numbers that can be calculated from those, like population change since 2011, population density, and residential vacancy rate.

…from Canada Census website.

It should be no surprise to anyone that New Westminster is growing. Just a little under 71,000 people called New Westminster home in 2016. In terms of population growth, New Westminster grew about 7.6% over those 5 years (which works out to an average of about 1.2% increase per year). This rate of growth is above the average for Vancouver (6.4%), BC (5.6%), and Canada (5%).

There is a website called CensusMapper where the raw census data is popped into a map of census tracts as it becomes available, providing quick analysis opportunities for data geeks (like me).

Density is a simple measure of the number of residents per square kilometre, and density is one area where New Westminster leads the nation (by some estimates, we are the 4th or 6th densest Municipality in Canada). This s a result of several factors, including us having a relatively small land base (only 11 square kilometres), 150+ years of being the centre of expanding hinterlands that created their own local governments, and our being largely built out as an urban community. It is no surprise that Downtown and the Brow are the densest parts of the City, Queens Park and the industrial areas the least dense:

INSERT DENSITY 1 (image extracted from Censusmapper.ca)
Population Density, persons per square km. (image extracted from Censusmapper.ca)

There are a few things off with this presentation, as the census tracts include areas like the river and park land, so the east half of Queens Park neighbourhood is shown as less dense than the west half, which does not necessarily reflect the true residential density differences on either side of Second Street. In the image below, I highlighted in orange a downtown tract that is biased by including the river – without the river, it may be darker purple like the adjacent tracts.

INSERT DENSITY 1 (image extracted from Censusmapper.ca)
Population Density persons per square km. (image extracted from Censusmapper.ca)

Finally, there are some interesting patterns in the Population Growth plot. It is clear (and not surprising) that growth is not evenly distributed throughout the City. We have been building a lot of family-friendly ground-oriented “missing middle” housing in Queensborough, and that has led to predictable growth. Areas where we have towers and other forms of multi-family dwelling are growing, with only very moderate growth in the West End and other single family neighbourhoods. The only surprise is that the Connaught Heights neighbourhood, during significant regional growth driving an ongoing housing crisis, somehow shrank in population.

INSERT Popgrowth (image extracted from Censusmapper.ca)
Percentage population gr0wth, 2011-2016 (image extracted from Censusmapper.ca)

This is a concern. Both our City’s long-range planning and the regional planning documents depend on concentrating growth along rapid transit lines, for a variety of sustainability and livability reasons. We have slower growth around Braid and Sapperton Stations than in the relative transit desert of Queensborough, and actual population loss around 22nd Street Station. Keep this in mind as we discuss the OCP in the months ahead.

Sowing Doubt

The Earth is currently warming at a rate unprecedented in recent history, almost entirely due to human activity, primarily the digging up and burning of fossil carbon and introducing CO2 to the atmosphere at a rate much faster than natural biosystems can remove it. This is not a controversial set of facts.

However, much like people who refuse to believe that natural selection shaped the evolution of life on our planet, or those that believe there could be a breeding population of large bipedal hominids lurking just out of sight in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, there are some for which this set of facts cannot fit within their political, religious, or economic ideologies. No problem, it’s a big world, reality isn’t for everyone.

Problems do arise, however, when those so separated from reality are given the power to shape public opinion and political will. I provide for your review the most recent opinion of Black Press’ go-to climate change correspondent, Tom Fletcher. I recognize the Streisand Effect of even calling attention to this bunk, but perhaps we can glean from this a teaching moment.

There is a lot in here, representative of Tom’s liberal (ahem) application of the Gish Gallop on this topic, so I will only pull out two major themes, where he brushes up against the science. I’ll touch more on the politics later.

“According to the environment ministry’s 2015 Indicators of Climate Change report, B.C.’s average temperature has increased about 1.5 degrees from 1900 to 2013, slightly more in the north and less in the south. That’s one one hundredth of a degree per year”

See how only little cherry-picked factoid stripped of context can be used to sow doubt about the seriousness of the situation? The report (which you can read here) says 1.4°C per century from 1900 to 2013 (doing the math on that strange bit of language, that means 1.6°C in the 113 years between the two dates). At the risk of pedantry, this is 40% more than one one hundredth of a degree per year – an annual change of 0.014°C.

Still, a number so small, it can’t possibly a problem, right? Except…

We can all agree the climate has changed before. During an era 10-20,000 years ago there was a dramatic climatic change that saw continental glaciation in North America come to an end. What is now British Columbia went from being about 95% covered with ice to less than 1%. No doubt this type of dramatic climate shift had devastating effects on the extant biosystems, not to mention any society that existed during that time. Some survived, others didn’t. It was monumentally disruptive.

However, that dramatic landscape-shifting shift in climate came with a 3.5°C shift in temperatures over about 8,000 years. To simplify this trend to Tom Fletcher math, that is about 4 ten-thousandths of a degree per year – an annual change of 0.0004°C. The current temperature shift is happening at more than 30 times the speed of the previous, devastating one.

Except it isn’t, because the current trend has been accelerating over those 113 years. The rate of warming now is more than twice that of the first half of the century. If one looks only at the trend from 1960 onwards (as the ubiquitous use of fossil fuels and resultant exponential increase in energy consumption has expanded from the socio-economic “First World” to the majority of the planet), the rate is not only faster, but the acceleration is accelerating.

“The B.C. report ritually attributes this to human-generated carbon dioxide, the only factor the UN climate bureaucracy recognizes. And here lies a key problem for the global warming industry.

“More than 90 per cent of the greenhouse effect in the Earth’s atmosphere is from water vapour. Antarctic ice core analysis shows that over 400,000 years, increasing carbon dioxide has lagged centuries behind temperature increase. This suggests that rising temperatures lead to increased CO2, not the other way around. (Scientific American, working hard to debunk this, found a study that shows the CO2 lag is only 200 years, rather than 800 as others calculate. Still, it can’t be causing warming.)”

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and the measure of Fletcher’s knowledge of this topic is most generously described as “little”. So let’s unpack that paragraph a bit and see where his failure to do his reading has failed his keenly skeptical mind.

On water vapour, Mr. Fletcher is almost right. Water vapour is indeed a strong greenhouse gas, however the behaviour or water in the atmosphere (where it enters as a vapour, exists in all three phases at a wide variety of temperatures, and exits primarily as a liquid, influencing upward and downward energy fluxes at all times) is horribly complicated. The best estimates modelling these fluxes (and I’ll refer to Kiehl and Trenberth, 1997 here) suggest water vapour represents about 60% of the total radiative forcing under clear skies, and somewhat more under cloudy skies (at any given time, the planetary cloud cover is about 62% – a pretty cool factoid to pull out at your next dinner party). There are more complications here, as we can get into debates about defining the “greenhouse effect” relative to the impact on the planet’s surface vs. that in the atmosphere, about difficulty defining latent heat fluxes from precipitation, and other details that were definitely discussed in my upper-level boundary layer climatology courses, but that was 20 (ack!) years ago, and I am not as well versed as I once might have been.

Those caveats aside, the inference by Mr. Fletcher is that water vapour is a higher percentage than CO2, and therefore CO2 doesn’t matter. Nothing could be farther than the truth.

The same estimates put CO2 forcing at around 26%, based on historic CO2 concentrations (the 1990 concentration of 353ppmv was used, although the global concentration in 2015 is at least 13% higher than this). More importantly, one needs to recognize that the two gasses exist in the atmosphere in very, very different ways.

When we emit CO2 into the atmosphere, it essentially stays there until sorbed into the ocean or is made into rock through biogenic systems  – two very slow processes. Respiration by plants is, at best, a temporary storage, as the majority of CO2 that enters plants is returned to the atmosphere within a year or a decade, and almost all of the rest within a century. Stick extra CO2 in the atmosphere, it stays there for a long time.

Conversely, the concentration of H2O in the atmosphere is controlled by atmospheric pressure and temperature – because in normal atmospheric conditions H2O exists in all three phases (CO2 only exists as a gas in the atmosphere of earth- there are no conditions here where liquid or solid CO2 form naturally). Stick more H2O in the atmosphere, and it exits again almost immediately as rain or snow when the saturation level of the air at that temperature and pressure is met. If we double or treble human inputs of H2O into the atmosphere without changing atmospheric temperature, the net concentration of H2O in the atmosphere a decade later will be unchanged (notwithstanding the sheer enormity of the natural H2O cycle of evaporation and precipitation, where the most generous estimates of human inputs account for something like 0.005%).

So the only thing we can do to influence that 60% of forcing is to increase the temperature of the atmosphere (as meaningfully changing the pressure of the atmosphere, globally, is beyond our current terraforming technology). In contrast, by effectively doubling the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, we are wreaking havoc with that 26% of forcing – it is going up. And that’s the part we are talking about.

Now, onto ice those pesky ice cores. Those pre-industrial atmospheric CO2 changes over the last 400,000 years did lag behind temperature increases (by how much is a debated point, see Caillon et al, 2003). That should actually frighten us, not make us confident. It also in no way refutes the observation that anthropogenic combustion of fossil carbon is the primary driving force for the current temperature increases.

When the ice in those cores was being deposited (and ice cores are not the only temperature/CO2 proxies we have, but let’s keep this simple) it was recording long-scale shifts in global climate caused by Milankovitch cycles. Short version: cyclic wobbles in the axis of the earth’s rotation relative to the sun along with changes in the shape of our orbit give rise to 100,000-year long cycles of increased and reduced solar input. These shifts continue today, indeed we are just past a “peak” that occurred ~10,000 years ago, and are in the downward part of the cycle with solar input slowly decreasing right now. Global CO2 levels also shift in lockstep (or slightly after) these cycles, from 180ppm to 290ppm.

I cannot emphasize this enough – the historic climate effects of Milankovitch cycles occur at a rate orders of magnitude slower than what we are currently observing: Heating at a scale of 0.0005°C per year, cooling at a rate of 0.0001°C per year.

These historic shifts in temperature were not caused by changes in greenhouse gasses, and no-one has suggested they are. They are caused by shifts in the solar energy hitting the earth. So the cause of the much slower heating and cooling cycles recorded in the ice cores is not, in any practical way, related to the cause of the much faster heating today. They are two separate phenomena, operating in different ways, at different scales. To compare them is like comparing the tide coming in to a tsunami – both cause the sea to rise, but in different ways, through different processes with, different effects.

So Fletcher is right- the initial cause of warming 25,000 years ago, 130,000 years ago, 250,000 years ago, was not CO2, but that does not mean the cause of the present warming isn’t CO2. In fact, we know it is.

More problematically, the ice cores demonstrate that increases in temperature related to outside causes can (and do) result in increased atmospheric CO2, for a bunch of reasons relating to carbon storage in soils and the sea. This, in turn, creates a positive feedback loop. As the earth gets warmer, more greenhouse gasses (GHG) are released, and that increased GHG concentration warms the earth further. This is the primary reason why the cooling phase related to Milankovitch cycles operates at a quarter of the speed of the heating phase – once that GHG blanket is thrown over the warm earth, it takes much longer to cool off.

That should scare us, as should the other data from the ice cores. Even at the “peak” of the previous cycles observed in the ice cores, planetary CO2 was only 290ppm. We are now over 400ppm, and the trend is continuing up. It also means that once those GHG hit the atmosphere, their effects are long-lasting, and getting back to start gets much harder the further we move away from what I can only loosely call a “baseline”.

In the end, the reality of this information doesn’t matter. No amount of science-based explanation is going to change Mr. Fletcher’s mind about this topic. He will continue to believe that the hundreds of thousands of scientists at NASA, NOAA, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, the Royal Society, the U.S. National Academy of Science, (and every other national academy of science on earth, from Bolivia to Zimbabwe), are either pulling a monumentally complicated con only he and a few of his buddies can see through, or are fools lacking his brilliant insight into global climate systems.

His views are so separated from reality that he may as well be casting Bigfoot footprints, and should be treated as a crackpot. Instead, he is paid for his misinformed opinion, which is subsequently circulated widely throughout BC, as the lead columnist for the only newspaper that much of BC ever sees: their local Black Press iteration resulting from our era of old media consolidation.

Although the facts of anthropogenic global warming are strictly scientific, discussing these facts is unfortunately political, because the implications and any solutions to address them will require political will. By using his bully pulpit as one of the most widely-distributed columnists in the province and President of the Legislature Press Gallery to spread misinformed crackpottery about this topic, he deliberately undermines the political will required to take action. He helps relieve our leaders of the responsibility to lead. His ongoing efforts towards agnotology are a real disservice to his industry, and the public he claims to inform.


Now that we are deep enough into the Anthropogenic Global Warming crisis that only the whackiest of whackaloons are still denying its existence or the serious impacts it is going to have on planetary livability, a whole different type of whacky thought is filling the airwaves. These have to do with a variety of techniques to suck CO2 out of the sky and turn atmospheric carbon into something useful like carbon nanotubes or alternative fuels.

These schemes are no doubt possible. The problem is that they don’t solve the actual problem, which isn’t carbon in the air, it is about making energy by putting carbon in the air. To talk about that, we need to talk about thermodynamics.

The Laws of Thermodynamics are pretty fundamental science. They cannot, in the normal universe where we live, be violated. They were once summed up to me in this analogy which helps to keep track of them*:

1st Law: You can’t win.
2nd Law: You can’t even break even.
3rd Law: You can’t get out of the game.

The one we are most worried about here is the 2nd Law, which essentially says that any time energy changes states, there is a net increase in entropy. In other words, every time you use energy to do something, you lose a bit of energy. It is the 2nd Law that makes perpetual motion machines impossible.

Relating this to schemes to pull carbon out of the air and make it useful, it is important to realize we don’t just toss CO2 into the air for the fun of it. For the most part we do it to use the energy released when you combine carbon with oxygen, be it energy to drive our cars/planes/ships or energy to generate electricity. We do this because the act of combining carbon with oxygen releases energy in the form of heat (which is a whole different chemistry lecture we should save for Beer Friday). We can do the same thing backwards, strip the oxygen off of the carbon, but that takes energy, and (this is where the 2nd Law comes in) a little bit more energy than it produced during the original combination.

So all of those schemes you see that will turn CO2 into something useful, no matter how efficient they are, will require more energy than we gained when we created the CO2 in the first place. So it makes way more sense to simply not produce the CO2 in the first place. instead, we could use the energy we would dedicate to sucking it out of the air and making carbon nanotubes out of it back into doing whatever job we wanted to do with the energy we gained in the first place when we added the oxygen to the carbon. As a bonus, we can still make the carbon nanotubes out of any of a zillion existing carbon sources we have on the planet, be they plants, rocks, or hydrocarbons, without the need to waste a bunch of energy stripping oxygen off of the carbon.  That way the carbon stays out of the atmosphere, we use less energy, and we are all better off.

The reality is that the “technological fix” of climate change is nothing shocking, cutting edge or freaky; it is in our hand right now. It is no more complicated than stopping the taking of carbon out of the ground to combine with oxygen for cheap energy when there is an abundance of alternatives available. But it starts with recognizing this “cheap” form of energy is a false economy, as is betting the future on big fans and diamonds from the sky.

*there is a 4th Law, but since it was developed later, and then determined to be more fundamental, the physics community called it the “0th Law”, just to reinforce those points. In the analogy above, it would be translated as “We are all playing the same game”

Disappointing, not surprising.

The announcement that Fraser Surrey Docks had been approved to ship crappy thermal coal from the Powder River Basin through the Fraser River was not really a surprise, but it was disappointing. During these long drawn out policy discussions, it became clear then very few people in British Columbia agreed with the plan. Every single Municipality that responded to the project, from the US Border to the Fraser River to Texada Island, was against it. Every First Nation that expressed an opinion was against it. Academics, economists, even our regional health officials; people were lining up to raise concerns about this project. This is one of those rare occasions where James Crosty and I agreed on something*. How did it get approved?

Someone suggested that this project “fell through the cracks” between Federal and Provincial Environmental Assessment legislation and the other checks that might have allowed meaningful public input. That is not true. There was no “falling” involved. It was instead jammed firmly into a huge crack that was ripped into the legislation meant to protect our fisheries, our air quality, and our climate in such a way that no amount of public outcry could close the crack again. This was not a mistake or an oversight on the part of the Federal Government- this was part of the plan.

This is also an example of why the public no longer trusts public consultations. Unlike recent consultations by TransLink over the Pattullo Bridge, the Port’s consultations were not meaningfully reported out. They admitted that had received feedback from thousands of people, but they won’t admit that vast majority of that feedback was in the form of opposition to the project for a variety of reasons. Yet somehow the project was approved after these “consultations”. Why even bother asking?

Coincidentally (except it probably isn’t a coincidence), there was other coal news this week, likely just as important, but with much less fanfare here in BC. Turns out yet another proposal to build a coal terminal in the Pacific Northwest to move Powder River Basin thermal coal to jurisdictions where it is still legal to burn it has been rejected by state legislators, after significant political pressure from local Tribal groups, fishers, environmentalists, and community persons who are starting to feel the ethical debate around Climate Change. This brings to a half dozen the number of terminal proposals rejected or indefinitely delayed in the last few years in the Pacific Coast, none of them in Canada.

This is, of course, putting pressure on American coal producers, and is creating some interesting adaptations. For example, American coal industry giant Cloud Peak Energy just last week signed an agreement with the Canadian coal producer Coal Valley Resources, where Cloud Peak pays their Canadian competitor $37 Million to ship the Canadian product north through Prince Rupert. This would free up space at Westshore terminals at Port Metro Vancouver’s Roberts Bank terminal that was allocated for the Canadian coal, so Cloud Peak’s dirty Powder River Basin coal can be shipped through Canada. No Environmental Assessment needed.

It was only a few days ago that the New Westminster Environmental Partners had Kevin Washbrook from Voters Taking Action on Climate Change give an inspiring talk at the stunning Aboriginal Gathering Place at Douglas College. He spoke eloquently about climate change as a moral imperative. The message was clear: Climate change is happening right now, we are causing it, and the results are unpredictable, but almost certainly dire. The more detailed message was about “now” means we keep blowing past the worst predictions of the rate of change we while governments blithely let pass their own commitments to act; how “we” is the richest nations on earth, with Canada and Australia embarrassingly leading the charge; and how the most dire consequences are already being felt in the poorest nations that cannot afford to adapt, and had virtually nothing to do with creating the problem.

But that wasn’t all that took place, because we had a group of a few dozen people who discussed the problem, and talked about the solutions they can see, some in the far distance, some accessible right now, some we are already well into adopting. There was talk of hope: not the type of hope where you sit and wish something would happen, but the kind of hope that if you and everyone around you gets to work, it is inevitable that it will happen.

At this point, with global CO2 blowing through the 350ppm, then 400ppm barriers, the idea that we can limit climate change to a planet-altering 2 degree Celsius warming has gone away; at this point we need to stop much worse levels of warming. No-one is suggesting we can fix the problem anymore, we are now working on how to limit the problem so the impacts are manageable by the next and not catastrophic.

It is late, but not too late. The challenge is real, but it is doable. And British Columbia is one of the most important fronts in this battle. British Columbia is choosing (and yes, it is a choice among many other possible paths) to become a conduit for the acceleration of carbon into the atmosphere. We are seeing pipelines, coal ports, and massive increases in natural gas extraction: all with the intent of making burning carbon for all of our energy needs more affordable through lax regulation and unaccounted environmental impacts so that the practical and reasonable alternatives that exist will not be exploited. For a shitty few jobs (and yes, the Carbon Economy in British Columbia is less that 3% of our GDP, and accounts for less than 1% of our employment) we are helping a few profiteers rake in cash by making the world a less safe, less stable, less liveable place for the next generation.

We need better leaders. We need more accountable Governments. We need a vision to stop destroying the future and start building it.

*James and I have some fundamental differences about the reasons for opposing this proposal, and I took a bit of a humourous dig at his comments in an earlier version of this footnote. In hindsight, it was an unnecessary and not very nice, so I retract. 

On Enbridge, and editorial failures.

I haven’t said much about the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline semi-announcement. Frankly, there have been too many column inches wasted on this story already, as the project is a non-starter. After all is said and done, the millions of dollars wasted by Enbridge and our Federal Government to promote an ecologically and economically indefensible project will be just one of the sad legacies of the Harper years.

So this post isn’t about Enbridge, it is about another monumental failure: this “Editorial” in one of the local Post Media Serious Newspapers of Note (which itself has become the AM Sport Radio of Print Journalism). There is so much wrong in this very short 250 words that it needs to be addressed line-by-line:

“Setting aside, for the moment, the tremendous economic opportunities and wealth creation that resource extraction has always meant to B.C. and this country…”

Point 1: We cannot simply set aside the economic opportunities of the Northern Gateway, or other resource extraction activities in BC, because that is what this entire issue is about. From the start, the people up and down the coast of BC have been critical of this project specifically because of the risk it poses to their economic reality and the threat it poses to the very resources that their economy relies on, while providing almost no offsetting economic benefits to the communities most at risk.

Point 2: By lumping in an oil pipeline in with “resource extraction” is to be disingenuous to the real concerns here. Yes, BC and Canada were built on resource extraction: furs, mines, forests, fish, and energy. But not all resources are the same, and they do not contribute equally. Some are renewable, some are not. Some we extract high value with value-added industries, some we don’t. Some we balance against significant environmental harm, some we do not. By any measure, an oil pipeline transporting diluted bitumen for immediate export through our parks, watersheds, forests, shorelines and seas provides the least extracted value from a non-renewable resource with virtually no value added, few jobs, and a potentially huge environmental impact. When compared to Canada’s largest-value of exports (automobiles and machinery) Oil and all hydrocarbons pale in comparison, both in the GDP contribution to our economy, to the amount of trade dollars, and in the amount of employment income derived by the industries.

Canada’s exports by sector, a proportion of GDP. Click to enlarge.

“Resource Extraction” built Canada, but manufacturing and services are our future.

“…when it comes to the Northern Gateway pipeline Canadians had better start asking themselves a very fundamental question: Are we going to be a nation of citizens who respect the rule of law, due process and democratic governance or are we going to descend into anarchy and mob rule?”

Wow. I mean f***ing wow (sorry Mom). The false dichotomy and broad-brush idiocy of this statement is one thing, but it’s the inherent hubris that makes me want to swear. To be lectured by cheerleaders of this project about “due process” and the “rule of law” when the proponents had many of the laws that would have provided said due process stripped away, when the persons employed by the Government to provide the scientific basis for that process have been fired or silenced, when the scientific community comes out with a comprehensive list of the ways the process was not based on scientific review of its own criteria, is, I think, a little offensive to those who believe in democratic governance and science-based policy to be accused of being an anarchist mob.

To suggest that people in a democracy, standing up for injustice, speaking their minds, providing opinion, ideas, and (yes) criticism of the government is akin to “mob rule” or “anarchy” sounds like the hyperbole of a totalitarian state – or just the regular missives of a Petro-State, I suppose.

“The decision by the Harper government Tuesday to approve the pipeline — critical to unleashing vast wealth for Canada by allowing Alberta oil to be delivered safely to world markets — has been met by predictable opposition.”

The parts on the outside of the dashes read like a reasonable comment, and are about the only truthful part of this entire editorial. The part in the middle is just more Petro-State approved gibberish. Because it paints over the reasons the opposition exists. Some suggest this pipeline is not “critical” to the ongoing development of the Bitumen Sands, it only serves to accelerate their development and make the entire operation less sustainable. Some further suggest too much of the “vast wealth” is currently going to multi-national corporations and state-owned oil companies from Norway to Malaysia, and not to the people of Canada who own the resource being rapidly depleted and exported. Mostly, people are concerned that this project will not in fact get the product “safely to markets”, but will spread a little too much of it around valuable natural resource territories, and on lands never ceded by the aboriginal inhabitants.

“In a democracy, this is healthy. But the too-common rhetoric from some quarters of taking direct action against the decision of a democratically elected government is appalling, especially after years of public process into the merits of the project and the imposition of 209 conditions to ensure the environment is as protected as is possible.”

Read that again. A major newspaper is suggesting that the Majority of Canadians who didn’t vote for the Conservatives, or even those who are part of the plurality who voted for someone other than them, you should just shut the hell up and take whatever you are given. You may say the process never demonstrated the merits, and are not assured the conditions are sufficient or will be met, but it is “appalling” that you would question a duly elected government.

“Critics talk of the need for “social licence” for projects like the pipeline, a new term created by people who can’t win elections, but think they have some right to run the country. They don’t.”

Since I am one of the majority who did not Vote for Harper’s band of thieves, perhaps I should defer to their greatest shadow-organizers, the Fraser Institute on the topic of “Social License”. You see, according to the oft-quoted free-market “dink-tank”, that term was not a term “created by people who can’t win elections”, it was invented by a successful Canadian Mining Executive, and it is described very well in this Fraser Institute article under their ”MiningFacts.org.” astroturf organization:

Allow me to quote extensively: “[social license to operate (SLO)]…is an essential part of operating within democratic jurisdictions, as without sufficient popular support it is unlikely that agencies from elected governments will willingly grant operational permits or licenses. The SLO can be revoked and it should never be taken for granted. The Social License to Operate refers to the acceptance within local communities of both mining companies and their projects. Social acceptance is granted by all stakeholders that are or can be affected by mining projects (e.g. local communities, indigenous people) and other groups of interests (e.g. local governments, NGOs). The SLO does not refer to a formal agreement or document but to the real or current credibility, reliability, and acceptance of mining companies and projects. The SLO is granted by stakeholders based on the credibility of a mining company and the type of relationship that companies develop with the communities. Stakeholders tend to grant an SLO when they feel that their values and those of the company are aligned.”

Typical Fraser Institute radical lefties. I wonder how Enbridge is doing on that Social Licence thing?

“Opponents will take heart from the demonstration in Vancouver that occurred Tuesday or from petitions with several thousand names criticizing the pipeline’s approval. But they need to remember that most British Columbians who support projects like the pipeline aren’t generally available mid-afternoon to express it. They’re working, but they do vote.”

What a load of bullshit. The Province was there, and should know that protest was held, and reached it peak, on a Friday evening – the largest numbers appeared well after the close of business Friday – and I know several people who went down there AFTER WORK to assure their voices were heard. And these people vote. And the unemployed and underemployed vote.

The best part of about that protest was the numbers that showed up after work on a Friday of a sunny weekend on very short notice – there were more people at that protest than there are jobs promised the people of BC for the entire Northern Gateway Project. To me, that is a sign of a healthy democracy, and the Province’s Editorial board is a demonstration of a failure of journalism in that democracy. Not because I disagree with them, and not just because of the specific problems above, but because of what their approach is to the entire topic, in light of the role of journalism in a functioning democracy.

What does it mean when the “Fourth Estate”- they who are meant to hold Government and Corporate feet to the fire and assure that oversight was provided outside of government in the service of the people – read too much from the government play sheet? Read this opinion piece above, and ask yourself who is being protected, and from whom? Here we have the media telling people who do not agree with the current federal government and the few corporate interests that are proposing this project not that they are wrong; not that they are factually incorrect; not that their concerns are misplaced; but to SHUT UP, YOU LOSERS!

Of course, we can’t be sure it is their editorial position at all. Considering the history of PostMedia newspapers selling advertising space to Enbridge proponents while making them look like editorials.

I used to think the dead-tree large corporate media were no longer relevant to our democracy, now I am starting to suspect they are actively trying to undermine it.

Green Drinks and Food Security!

I’ve mentioned the Southwest BC Bio-Regional Food System Design Project (SWBCBRFSDP – my acronym, not theirs!) on this blog before, but it was tied in with a bunch of bummer complaining about lack of government support for protecting the ALR, so the good news might have been buried in all that whining. So this is the “good news” follow-up post. Folks in the know are coming to New West on Tuesday to tell us about this really cool project.

Recognizing the need to support more robust local food systems, the researchers at Kwantlen’s Institute for Sustainable Food Systems are applying their significant expertise, and partnering with a diverse community of business, governance, and agricultural experts, to bring about change in how we source our food.

There are a lot of words in SWBCBRFSDP, but I like the idea of showing why every word is relevant:

SWBC: Southwest BC is defined by the project as the area from Hope to Powell River, and from Delta to Lillooet: an extensive area that ties the lower stretch of the Fraser River to the Sunshine Coast, and essentially comprises the mainland Canadian portions of the traditional lands of the Coast Salish People.

BR: A Bio-Region is and area defined by a common topography, climate, plant and animal life, and human cultural influence. In this sense, the watersheds of the Salish Sea from the desert of Lillooet to Howe Sound has a diversity of eco-zones, but are tied together by bio-cultural heritage and geography.

FS: This project is not just about farming and protecting the ALR. Yes, preserving farmland when we can will be an important part of the food security equation, but we also have to consider the other major food inputs, such as the salmon we catch from the river, and the traditional food-gathering that many of us are separated from, but are still an important part of the region’s culture. However, there is much more to food than having profitable local Agri-business farms (how many cranberries do you eat in the average year?). A Food System would support the regional economy by connecting together food sources with processors, warehousing and retail, delivery systems from Farmers’ Markets to restaurants and standard retail. A true system would even connect our disjointed organic waste stream, to bring the nutrients in our food waste back to the farms and better manage in the industrial-scale waste sometimes produced in Agri-business. Ultimately, every step in the food cycle should not just just feed British Columbians, but employ, include, and benefit British Columbians. That is how local economic resiliency is built.

Design Project: This project will start by performing an actual, science-based evaluation of what the food potential of the region is – can this region actually meet its own food needs? And if so, how? They will also be evaluating the critical needs and opportunities for our local food systems to get the food we produce to our local plates. The eventual plan is to create a series of science-based policy papers and best practices reviews that decision-makers in municipal, regional and provincial government can use to help bring a more sustainable local food system into existence.

This project hopes to realize that building a local food economy is about more than just Food Sovereignty (our ability to feed ourselves domestically and not being overly reliant on volatile global markets), but also supports economic development for the region. Every bit of food we import is a bleed on the local economy – it is a flow of our wealth to other places that we could instead use to fuel our local economy. If food is grown in BC, processed in BC, sold in BC, and the waste recycled in BC, we are creating jobs at every step, we are having a smaller environmental impact on the planet. It also brings our communities together by bringing us closer to the people who provide us our nourishment.

At a time when many of us feel bombarded by bad news and general malaise about the future of sustainability planning in our communities / province / country, this is a good news story – a positive look forward towards a better future.

At this point, the project is still being set up, and the proponents are trying to tie stakeholders together. The proponents are putting on a bit of a travelling discussion about the project and food security, which is why I am talking about this here and now – because Dr. Kent Mullinix and Sofia Fortin from the SW BC Bio-Regional Food System Design Project are coming to Green Drinks in New West!

The NWEP is moving it’s every-second-month-or-so Green Drinks to the Terminal Pub (where there is a new menu, many excellent choices at the taps, and a cool new room) on June 10. Green Drinks is always fun, casual, and no-stress. You get to chat with a wide diversity of New Westies and people from a little further afield. The formal program is kept short to give you lots of chat time, and there is no need to drink if that isn’t your thing. It’s mostly just a social gathering of folks concerned about sustainability issues, socializing, talking, and having some fun.

This time, you get a chance to talk to the folks from the above-raved-about project (and ask Kent about pruning your trees- I took a pruning course from him a few years ago and learned more than anyone should ever need to know- the guy is a font of knowledge on all things growing!)

Join us! It’s Free!

The future of farming or a future without farms?

I’ve been thinking about the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) and the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) a lot recently. For several reasons.

Caveat: Although dealing with ALR issues is a (very small) part of my job, nothing I write here is related to actual experiences on the job, nor do I does it relate whatsoever to the opinions of my employers.

We were out on our regular every-Sunday-morning-in-a-month-without-an-“r” Fraser River Fuggitivi ride to Steveston, and a friend starting asking me about farms in Richmond. Among the topics: “wow, farmers must be rich, these huge houses!” and (in response to some signs on a farm) “is illegal dumping a really an issue?”

A second reason it has been on my mind was my recent short tour of Urban Digs Farm in Burnaby. We were there to buy some locally-grown and humanely raised pork, but got an impromptu tour and learned a lot about the realities of small farming in the Urban ALR.

Thirdly, I recently saw a presentation by Kent Mullinix about the Southwest BC Bio-Regional Food System Design Project. This is a science-based collaborative investigation of the BC food system, with an emphasis on the sustainability of the inputs (soil, water, nutrients) and outputs (waste) of our local food supply.

All of these ideas were entering my already-addled head, because they entered in the context of the current discussion happening in Victoria about changes to the Agricultural Land Commission. The more I learn about this topic, the more concerned I am about the erosion of our ability, as a society, to feed ourselves, and the ripple effects that will have in our local and regional economy.

So let’s go back up to topic #1: The economics of farming in parts of the Lower Mainland. The reality is that some people are making money farming in the Lower Mainland, but they aren’t building mansions. Well, a few are building mansions because they are the very few large landowners and leaseholders growing cranberries or blueberries at a scale and scope that they can tie into the globalized agri-business model. Most of the mansions you see on agricultural land are not owned by the farmers of the land, but people who want to build a 20,000-sqft house, and a 10-acre piece of farmland is the most affordable way to do it. The farming that occurs on that land is not by them, but by someone else (usually the agri-business conglomerates) that lease the land, allowing the person who can afford the 20,000-sqft mansion to avoid paying too much tax.

There is also a fair amount of good farmland in the Lower Mainland that is sitting idle – not being farmed because it is owned as a long-term investment. Occasionally, someone decides the land has to be raised to grow crops (often, a dubious argument) and gets approval to bring fill onto the land from the ALC. That can be very lucrative, as it is surprisingly difficult to find somewhere to put all of the dirt you dig out of the ground when you build a high-rise tower in Burnaby or Surrey or New Westminster. Occasionally, this fill is contaminated or contains construction trash or debris. Since the ALC currently does not have an Enforcement Officer in the Lower Mainland, the chances of anyone getting in trouble for dumping this non-farm-use soil on ALR land are pretty slim. Very occasionally, unknown people dump large quantities of fill of unknown quality or origin on unoccupied farmland. See the part above about “Enforcement Officer”.

The third category of farmland use in the Lower Mainland is the small farmer trying to grow crops for local markets and maybe trying to latch onto the side of the global agri-business train. For them, the work is hard, and the economics dire.

Part one of the sketchy economics are land prices. Large tracts of ALR land in the Lower Mainland can be had for $100,000 acre, if you are buying a very large piece out in the far reaches of Langley or an unimproved piece of South Surrey. If you want to buy a smaller 5- or 10-acre ALR lot closer to urban areas, your land price can get up to $1,000,000 per acre. When the vast majority of BC Farms make less than $100,000 in annual revenue, there is simply no opportunity to support that land value.

So why is the land so valuable if it doesn’t deliver revenue? See the two examples of ALR land use above. If you want 40 acres upon which to build a 20,000-sqft mansion, $6 Million seems like a bargain, especially as you can lease 75% of the land to an agri-business and save on your taxes. Add to this the speculation that all ALR (especially the stuff near urban development) has the potential to turn into extremely valuable commercial or industrial land, if you can only convince the ALC to let it out of the ALR. The speculative value of the land is so much higher than its monetary value as farmland.

The second half of this sketchy economics discussion is the globalized agri-business industry in BC as a whole. According to Kent Mullinix, Food agriculture on BC made about $2.5 Billion in revenue last year, but the industry as a whole lost $87 Million. That is only a 3% loss on revenue – an industry can rebound from this type of temporary setback – except it is not temporary, it is systemic. The trend is downward, with no plan to recover.

The trend is going that way because the North American agriculture system is becoming less sustainable. It relies on uncertain hydrocarbon markets to fuel it, it is overtaxing the soil, in some places depleting the ground and surface water that sustains it, in other areas polluting the water running off from it. It is becoming more reliant on a few large Corporations that own all of the seeds and the pesticides that the seeds have been genetically modified to tolerate. The meat is overloaded with antibiotics that are creating a resistance problem, and grown in such concentrated conditions that the entire Fraser Valley has a “nutrient glut” – they can’t find anywhere to put all the shit they are generating. If, god forbid, there is a bumper crop, the Global Market, in all its invisible-hand wisdom, causes prices to dive and the farmer still struggles to break even. Margins are so tight that an entire industry of indentured servants temporary foreign workers had to be developed to allow the money-losing crops to get to export.

This contrasts completely with the approach the good people at Urban Digs are taking. They have leased a few acres of land in the last remnants of farm land in Burnaby, and use it to grow higher-value vegetable crops, organic free-run chickens (for eggs), ducks (for meat), and pigs. They may grow other things, but those what was on site when I visited.

I first met Julia from Urban Digs when we both presented at the same PechaKucha event at the River Market. I babbled on about rocks, but she gave a compelling talk about the farm that struck a nerve when she discussed the ethics of meat eating. She spoke of raising, nurturing, and caring for animals before you slaughter them for meat. Short of becoming an ethical vegan, this seems the least cruel way to manage our meat supply. Also, because they are not stressed, are free to roam, and have healthy balanced diets, the meat simply tastes better. Yes, this meat is a little more expensive than the foam-platter plastic-wrapped slab of flesh at Safeway… but I’ll address that issue later.

That’s MsNWimby meeting her meat at Urban Digs. 

Urban Digs are like pretty much every successful small-business owner I have met: They bust their ass every day to keep things running; They hire a local assistant when they can afford it and need arises to share in the hard work and they pay them for it; They rely on an integrated network of local supports for the bulk of their supplies; They are constantly reaching out to expand their local customer base and innovating to find new ways to serve their market. They contribute to their community, and every dollar they make is returned to the local economy. They are not getting rich, aren’t building a big house on their acreage, but they are getting by, doing good, honest work right here in our community.

This to me is the fundamental point that speaks to the real issue behind farming in BC: they can make enough revenue on a few acres of rich ALR farmland to make a (hard) living, but they can only dream of making enough to pay for the actual land they farm, hence the short-term lease.

So the big operators are scratching by, or losing money, riding the globalized agri-business  train, and the small operator is scratching by, but cannot afford to settle on a piece of land by providing better food to local people. At the same time that the majority of the food we grow, and the majority of the $2.5 Billion in annual revenue agriculture generates leaves BC, we in British Columbia spend more than $6.3 Billion on food, and watch our own farmland sit idle, or get redeveloped into tilt-up slab industrial land. Why?

A new crop of tilt-slab light industrial buildings in Burnaby.

Because agri-business food is cheaper.

That’s it – that is the only reason anyone can give for why that slab of antibiotic-laden, nutrient-reduced, potentially-diseased, tasteless flesh wrapped in plastic at Safeway is the better way to feed ourselves. However – and this is the important point – this is a false economy.

The compromises we need to make to our food security to save that little bit of money at the check-out counter are huge, and piling up, and they don’t represent real savings, they represent offsetting costs. The reliance on increased petrochemical inputs, on overtaxed soil and contaminated water systems, on increasing livestock influenza epidemics and moving food in gigantic steel boxes across the ocean when it can be grown in our own backyard. When almost all of the money we spend on that “cheaper” food leaves the Province, and the large agri-businesses operating in BC are losing money – is this really the cheaper option? Or are we being penny wise and pound foolish.

When the California Central Valley, where most of our vegetable crops come from, is seeing its third consecutive year of critical drought; when the Ogallala Aquifer, which irrigates 1/3 of grain crops in North America, is showing signs of failure; and when the world is moving past peak phosphorous (Cripes! That’s a thing!?), there are many signs that the era of all this “cheap food” is fleeting. The system is too big, too unyielding, and relies on too many critical paths. The globalized agri-business food industry in 2012 is starting to look like a Soviet corn or cotton plan from 1960, and it is just as doomed. The economics are shifting.

If this system is breaking, what will replace it? That is what the team from the Southwest BC Bio-Regional Food System Design Project are going to try to calculate. Now this post is running very long already, so I leave it to you to go to the website and get more detail about this very interesting program (and maybe I’ll Blog more about it later). Short version: A group of researchers from Kwantlen’s Institute for Sustainable Food Systems is working with a broad group of partners including Local Governments from Hope to the Sunshine Coast and groups as diverse as the ALC, Real Estate Foundation of BC, the New Westminster Community Food Action Committee, and the Surrey Board of Trade to study the food system that nourishes our community.

Here is a quote form their website:

“The team is using a bio-regional approach to design an integrated food system that respects the boundaries and leverages the opportunities of an ecological and cultural region beyond the conventional delineations of municipal and regional boundaries. Our planning horizon is 2050. What is the potential for a revived and re-localized food system in BC; how can we respect and incorporate Indigenous harvest and hunting practices in the food system; how many jobs can we create; how much can we contribute to the regional economy; what kinds of ancillary businesses can emerge and how can this kind of food system reduce GHG emissions and address serious environmental concerns? These are some of the questions the ISFS team is trying to answer”.

This is an interesting project, in its infancy, but inside here may well be found the systems that need to be developed that will allow businesses like Urban Digs to provide food in a sustainable way to our community, and pay themselves a living wage while doing it.

Our Provincial government is also aware the ALR system is broken, but instead of fixing it, they seem intent on scattering the pieces about to prevent it’s repair. I present to you Bill 24 – Amendments to the Agricultural Land Commission Act.

The first step (and it can’t be the only one) to repair the disconnect between farm land value and its cost is to end the speculative investment in ALR land, which starts with a Government standing up and saying “This Government will not undo the ALR, and will not allow lands to be removed from the ALR”, like every other government of the last 40 years has done. Even showing the kind of commitment for the ALR that they demonstrated during the election last year would be nice. Look at their 2013 Campaign Platform, and the Agriculture section was 400 words with three strategies and 10 actions, and no mention of changes to the ALC. Actually, the platform suggests it will help with a Buy Local campaign and promote 50- and 100-mile diets, an idea that is best supported by strengthening the ALC.

This Act does quite the opposite, and opens up the door for exclusion on the whim of local politicians. The cost of farm land in the lower mainland will be going up when this bill passes, hand in hand with the pressure on local councils to open it for development.

With apologies to the most stunningly non-partisan of all Canadian scientists, this Government seems to never see a problem so bad that they can’t make worse.

Bill 24 is a potential disaster for BC food security, because it entrenches the unsustainable, failing business model that is our current globalized agri-business based food system. It not only fails to prop that business model up (as the land price equation change is going to hurt them as well!) it runs the risk of ending any hope we have of building the sustainable model that may replace it, at the very time when we are seeking to understand better what that system looks like.

APEG-BC and Climate Change

I’m an Environmental Geoscientist. That means I went to school and studied geosciences (in my case, a degree in Physical Geography and one in Earth Sciences), and practice in the area of environmental geology. To call myself a “Geoscientist” in B.C., I need to belong to a professional association, the same one as those who want to go around calling themselves “Engineers”. That organization is APEG-BC. For the most part, I am happy to belong and receive both the scrutiny and the protection of a professional body regulated by a Provincial Law.

However, Engineers and Geoscientists are a diverse group of people. People designing your smart phone (or apps for it), people designing airplane wings and others making sure they don’t fall off, people building roads and others inspecting dams, people exploring for new oil and gas reserves in the province and people working to make a pulp mill work more efficiently or a power grid more robust. A few of them are scientists in the traditional sense of exploring and testing new ideas to expand the world’s body of knowledge, but most are applied scientists doing their best to apply the existing body of knowledge to solve immediate problems. The difference can be subtle to the lay public, but think about the difference between a medical researcher dedicating their life to finding a cure for disease, and a doctor who spends her career helping people feel better.

Nowhere is the difference between research science and applied science as practiced by most engineers and geoscientists better demonstrated than on the topic of Anthropogenic Climate Change. Simply put: the vast majority of scientists working in the relevant fields of climatology, atmospheric sciences, ecology, ocean sciences, Quaternary geoscience, etc. are convinced by the body of evidence that the climate is changing at a rate unprecedented in human history, and that the change is caused by people putting greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere at a faster rate than natural systems can remove them. It appears, from both the academic and popular press, that those that apply science for a living are less convinced.

I have no statistical evidence to support this claim, only my totally anecdotal impressions from following the “controversy” in the media (as any good scientist can tell you, the plural of “anecdote” is not “evidence”). I suspect that the majority of engineers and geoscientists are convinced of the reality of anthropogenic climate change, but whenever a group of climate change “skeptics” pops up, the crowd seems to comprise an unrepresentative number of engineers and geoscientists.

The problem became more apparent recently when my professional organization approached the subject of Climate Change. After what I have been told was a lengthy internal discussion, APEG-BC released a policy paper on Climate Change this spring (which you can read by following that link).

I have a problem with the result.

The Position Paper is 1,000 words long, but is more notable in the many words that do not appear: carbon; greenhouse; gas; warming; anthropogenic. It is the softest, most equivocal position paper on the topic I have ever read. It is actually hard to figure out what the “Position” is.

Lucky, our organization has multiple internal communications systems, and the letters to our professional magazine “Innovation” is one of them.

So here is my letter to the Innovation, published in the March-April 2014 edition:

As a professional geoscientist, I was pleased to see APEGBC issue a policy paper on climate change. However, I was disappointed reading the actual document. In stating that “APEGBC recognizes that the climate in British Columbia is changing”, the document appears so equivocal as to be meaningless.

That our local climate is “changing” is not up for debate. The more important issue is that the current global rate of atmospheric and ocean warming caused by anthropogenic activity is unprecedented in human history, and in the history of engineering and geoscience practice. As a profession, we must acknowledge that the unpredictable (and potentially catastrophic) results of this warming are a problem that challenges our ability to protect human health, built infrastructure and the planetary ecosystems that support us. Re-evaluating our assumptions about local weather effects in light of changing climate is useful, but not nearly as important as recognizing that some activities performed by engineering and geoscience professionals may exacerbate the problem.

As our Code of Ethics requires that we “Hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public, [and] protection of the environment,” we must go beyond merely evaluating impacts, and we must make the move towards reducing then eliminating the root cause of anthropogenic global warming, through technological innovation and best practices, as part of our regular everyday professional practice.

APEGBC is a public body charged with protecting the public interest. It is our responsibility to recognize risks that may result from our practice, and be clear about the management of those risks. Forthright disclosure based on the best scientific knowledge is the basis of the trust placed upon us by our clients, the general public and our governing legislation. To be equivocal about the cause and potential impacts of anthropogenic global warming is to belie this trust.

I was heartened when the letter published next to two other letters from Professional Engineers in BC saying pretty much the same thing. The letter that followed mine only surprised me in the tepidness of the retort.I think APEG-BC will get it right, this was just a false start.

I’m with Neil

Canada is trading integrity for money” – Neil Young.

Let’s start with disclosure: I am a Neil Young fan, to the point where being a Neil Young fan has done much to shape my taste in music. To explain that, I need to go back to the late 80’s when I was sharing an apartment on Royal Ave with my brother.

I was raised in the Kootenays on a healthy diet of classic rock (although at the time we just called it Rock) and “Metal” (in quotes, because at the time that referred to a strange amalgamation of Zeppelin and Glam that went by names like Poison, Ratt, Quiet Riot, et al. my god.) because that was the playlist of the only real FM Rock station we could hear – “ROCK 106! KEZE!” out of Spokane, Washington.

When I moved to New West, CFMI was still Top-40, and one of the AM stations (CHRK 600) decided to go Classic Rock (probably the first time I heard that phrase in the context of 60s and 70s Rock music). Despite the hopeful WKRP-feeling of the whole enterprise, it was risky. AM came with questionable sound quality and more onerous Canadian content rules. This last requirement made for some difficult programming choices. All that BTO and Guess Who was bad enough, but the seemingly hourly appearance of the Whiner in D Minor caused me to turn Classic rock off. So safe to say Neil Young entered my consciousness in a pretty negative way.

A year or two later, I was sitting in the Quad at college and “Rocking in the Free World” came on the TV (tuned to MuchMusic, of course), and my opinion changed.

Looking back, it is a hard to understand how powerful that song was. Perhaps this has something to do with “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” by Milli Vanilli being #1 on the charts the day that Young’s Freedom was released. Here was this old rocker, screaming angry lyrics about the fate of the world as America was plundering the depths of Bush I Conservatism. Between scenes of LA viewed through the eyes of a homeless man, we see Young standing in a dystopian junkyard beating the living shit out of his guitar – a solo so angry and violent that the strings were stripped off the instrument. The feedback and distortion are perfect for the angry chaos of the song. It might have been a Rock anthem, but it was more punk than Punk. The lyrics of the bridge (edited out of the video for MTV) lay the blame for the ills of the world on no-one but us:

We got a thousand points of light, for the homeless man
We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand.
Got department stores and toilet paper
Got styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer
Got a man of the people, says ‘keep hope alive’
Got fuel to burn, got roads to drive.

A quarter-Century later, in a post-grunge era, the distortion and chaos of the song sound pretty tame. At the time, it was stunning in mainstream rock, and this album was my (admittedly late) gateway drug to Sonic Youth, Dinosaur (Jr.), Fugazi, and the Pixies. But that’s a whole different story.

I bought Freedom on cassette, and became a pretty big Young fan at that point. Such that I can look back at where I was and what I was doing by Neil Young concerts: Solo acoustic at the Spokane Coliseum (I was working at a ski shop in Trail); with Crazy Horse at the Pacific Coliseum (undergrad at SFU); with Booker T and the MGs (around my Brother’s wedding, working in a bike shop, living on Hastings street); etc. His album “Harvest Moon” even played a significant role in my courting (or being courted by) Ms.NWimby.

The question is why am I such a fan? His rock music is pretty straight-forward, even derivative. His ballads are simple – 3 verses and chorus. His vocal style is distinct, but not particularly elegant. He is pretty good at the guitar (if you like extended one-note guitar solos), ok on the piano, and probably should avoid future banjo work. His styles change like the wind, and for every work of genius like “After the Goldrush” there is a “Trans” or an “Everybody’s Rockin”. However, with all the ups and downs of his discography, there is one thread that runs through: integrity.

He has spent a life surrounded with chaos (broken childhood home, 60s folk scene, 70s drug scene, etc.), and, when he occasionally found himself flirting with middle-of-the-road success, he once famously said:

Traveling there was really boring so I headed for the ditch“.

Every seemingly-strange fork he took in his long career (Trans, Shocking Pinks, Greendale), he did with purpose, and because he felt it served his creative drive. He has never been afraid of being unpopular – he was once sued by David Geffen for making records that didn’t sound enough like Neil Young (Geffen lost). He seems to have limited interest in the machine that feeds him – rock and roll stardom. A lesser-known song on “Freedom” talks about the state of the music business at the time when Milli Vanilli was #1 on the charts:

“The artist looked at the producer, The producer sat back
He said ‘What we have got here, is a perfect track
‘But we don’t have a vocal, so we don’t have a song
‘If we could get these things accomplished,
‘nothing else could go wrong.’
So he balanced the ashtray, as he picked up the phone:
Said ‘Send me a songwriter, who’s drifted far from home
‘Make sure that he’s hungry, make sure he’s alone
‘Send me a cheeseburger, and a new Rolling Stone.'”
                            -Crime in the City (Sixty to zero)

He more famously (clumsily, unkindly) lampooned corporate ownership of music and using music to shill products:

Young’s integrity doesn’t stop at his music, though. He has, for more than 20 years, run an annual benefit for the Bridge School– a school for kids with communications challenges related to various disabilities (his own son is non-verbal with cerebral palsy). He worked with Willie Nelson to develop the Farm Aid movement. Just as he has never shied away from musical experiments, he has never been bashful about his political opinions, from “Ohio” to “Living with War”. I don’t know if he is right in his opinions, I’m sure we can all pick opinions of Young’s that we don’t agree with. However, when he speaks about something politically, we can be sure it is coming from him. You cannot doubt his sincerity, or his integrity.

So why Tar Sands? Why now?

Hearing his interviews since this whole thing started, the answer is easy to find. Young is a tinkerer, and has always expressed ideas around sustainability. Exploring his film-making side, he decided to drive his electric car to Fort McMurray and see what all the fuss was about. I take him completely at face value when he describes getting out of his (electric) car, smelling the air in Fort Mac, and recognizing something was amiss with the boreal forest. Being a life-long advocate for aboriginal rights, he connected with local first nations, and was told of their concerns. Clearly they made an impression, because he made a commitment to help them out if he could. Turns out he could.

Did Young then contact the Canadian Association of Petroleum producers to get the “other side of the story”? Did he surf over to Suncor’s website to see the myriad benefits of oil extraction? Did he read the most recent International Energy Agency forecasts for recoverable reserves and cross reference against human rights abuses in other petroleum producing nations? Possibly. More likely, he looked in the eyes of his Athabasca Chipewyan hosts, smelled the bitumen in the air, and said something along the lines of “this shit ain’t right”. Then he set about doing what he could to help raise the profile of the issue, and maybe raise money to help people he saw as needing some help.

The reaction from the Oil Industry and their shills was predictable, alternating between obscuring the point he was making to ad hominem attack on him as a “Rock Star”, “Aging Rocker” or a “Bad Canadian”. Perhaps the most ham-fisted rebuke of Young’s statements was made by Harper Government spokes-flaks. A response easily and compellingly retorted by Young. Watching that exchange, it is clear which side is speaking with integrity.

To Ezra Levant and his astro-turf shills behind “Ethical Oil”, who have started an anti-Neil Young website, I ask: Where is your integrity? They call Young a “drug lifestyle icon” after the man has been public about his sobriety, and some of his most poignant songs are about the friends he lost to drugs. But if the quality of Young’s “lifestyle” is to be questioned, we should start by looking at his 40-year body of work, his commercial, artistic, and critical success. One might conclude that we all would benefit from a little more of whatever Neil is on.

They further criticize Young for not protesting against OPEC dictatorships, while also suggesting he shouldn’t meddle in Canada’s politics, as he doesn’t live here (try to square that circle). They never address the actual points that Neil Young is making, and the entire issue of the Constitutional rights of First Nations – the centre of all of Young’s arguments – is conveniently ignored by those interested in “Ethical Oil”. Instead, they then call Young a hypocrite for fueling his “rock star lifestyle” with oil, not realizing that they are making his point. They are correct that Neil Young is reliant on fossil fuels; We are all reliant on fossil fuels. That is the fucking problem!

Um… sorry, got a little heated there. I know I should be used to it but now, but I’m still surprised when it is suggested that our society may need to think about reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, and critics react by arguing “but we NEED fossil fuels, we can’t live without them”, as if that is a counter-argument, and not just begging the question. If this isn’t addiction, what is?

I’ve seen Neil Young talk, and I’ve heard his critics. I’ve seen Neil Young walk the walk and put his time and money where his mouth is. I see a person raising a conversation about the largest industrial development in the history of Canada’s hinterland, and I hear critics telling him to shut up. I see a person standing next to First Nations leaders and trying to help a community who feel powerless against global Multinationals and the government that covers for them. I see the Government trying to reassure an increasingly suspicious public that everything is fine: “Got fuel to burn, got roads to drive”, indeed. I see an aging rocker legendary artist, humanitarian, and Officer of the Order of Canada using his name not to fill his crib, but to raise a conversation about an issue that is important to the future of the planet, important to the nation of his birth, and important to a small community in eastern Alberta that touched him. I see one man acting with integrity, and taking the slings and arrows that often follow those that choose that path.

I’m with Neil.

Can we start the AirCare discussion now?

I’m amazed it has taken until now, but it appears that people other than me and free-enterprise spokes-creep Harvey Enchin are starting to notice that the current government of BC wants to kill Air Care, for no good reason.

If you haven’t been paying attention (and why would you, as there has been virtually no public discussion on this topic?), the region’s only transportation air quality program is under the knife because the Premier has decided it doesn’t work anymore. She has no actual evidence that it doesn’t work. In reality, every time there has been an external audit or analysis of the program it has returned evidence that the program is effective (and will be for at least another decade), cost efficient, provides significant economic benefits for small business, and has spin-off benefits for automotive safety and health care savings.

The only argument against AirCare seems to be that it is kind of inconvenient. Apparently, requiring less than 50% of BC’s car owners to go to a testing centre once every two years, spend 15 minutes and pay $45 to demonstrate that their >10-year-old car still has functioning emission controls is a great big hassle, and for that reason our PR-savvy Premier wants to ax the most cost-effective air quality protection measure in the Province.

So at the risk of repeating myself, here are the reasons we should all be against the shuttering of air care:

Local governments: Metro Vancouver has already passed two resolutions asking that the Province not end the program. This makes simple sense: AirCare demonstrably reduces air pollution in the region, and makes our cities cleaner, healthier, more beautiful, and more liveable, while costing local governments nothing. The same goes for the Fraser Valley Regional District, who have been only tacitly in favour of AirCare, despite the disproportionate impact that vehicle emissions have on their communities. Hopefully, our local governments themselves will also join in and request that the Provincial government re-assess this move.

Unions: Some argue this is about 110 union jobs, and that is why this story is currently in the news, but that is a small part of the story. The AirCare program is run by a private contractor, with only a few government employees. There is an administration level, but the majority of the $19 Million program cost does not go to union wages.

Small Business: Auto Repair division: According to independent economic analysis of the program, there is an annual $35 Million economic spin-off effect to the automobile repair industry from AirCare. These are not predominantly Big Union jobs, but mom-and-pop operations across the City, along with a few of the bigger players like Canadian Tire. Simply put, end AirCare, and these people lose income.

Small Business: New Car Dealer division: Because Air Care has resulted in a measurable updating of the domestic car fleet (and this has been measured against other jurisdictions with similar socio-economic settings but without such a program). In other words, people have bought more cars, and according to external audit, this has resulted in an annual $19 Million in benefit to the New Car Dealers of BC. Where are they on this topic?

The Ministry of Health: The measured effects of AirCare on the health of British Columbians – both in reducing air pollutants and in providing for a newer, safer fleet of cars – could add up to $77 Million in health care savings province wide.

Everyone who doesn’t drive, or drives a car newer than 2008: Because the program is 100% self-financing, you get all the air quality, health, and livability benefits of the program without it costing you a dime. Although administered by TransLink, the program neither draws money from the TransLink Budget or provides revenue to it. It is, despite the protestations tax-opinionater-for-hire Jordan Bateman, no tax money is used to run AirCare, this is not a Government cash cow.

Government has been creating some bafflegab about replacing AirCare with a system to get smoky big trucks off the road. We in New Westminster know as well as anyone about the impacts of diesel truck exhaust, and reducing it is a noble goal, but the introduction of such a program does not preclude the existence of AirCare. Instead, Air Care, in it’s proven efficiency, cost effectiveness, and self-funding model, may be the best template upon which to build a heavy truck program. To suggest both cannot run in parallel is to suggest we have a provincial government that cannot walk and chew gum at the same time.

I expect more from a government.