Thursday, May 21, 2015

Four directions on this map, but only going one way

I take pride in my sense of direction, always knowing which way is north, south, east or west, especially in a city whose streets follow a nice grid pattern, like Toronto or Windsor. This sense probably developed out of my teenage role-playing hobby: hours spent poring over and memorizing maps of medieval dungeons and cities, then creating my own versions. The geographies of the real world (modern and ancient) and of imaginary lands like Middle Earth or Hyboria came naturally to me. So I rarely get lost or turned around, which was especially handy living and teaching in South Korea, whose system of streetnames and addresses runs from idiosyncratic to downright random.
There's four directions on this map
But you're only going one way... Due South!
Living in Windsor for a couple of years, it took a while to get used to residing south of the United States’ border, Detroit directly to my north, but at least it reflected reality, unlike many places in Korea which use English direction names for their foreign-sounding cachet, not because they are accurate descriptors.
That’s why one of my pet peeves in Barrie is how so many businesses seem to use directional names like they did in Korea: by a random assignment that doesn’t match where they actually are. For years I’ve wanted to unload, so this week it’s finally going to happen.
Barrie has a very clear sense of direction and region – there is a south end, a west, north Barrie and the very social east end. But although we have two East Side Mario’s restaurants, neither is on the east side: one is in the north end and the other in the south. We have a South St. Burger Co. in the south, but also one on the northern tip of the city. Ditto for Ol’ West Wing, one of whose two locations is on the west side of town; the other lies in the south-east. Westside Furniture Warehouse began on the west side of the city, but moved to a south-end location before suddenly going bankrupt; perhaps due to confusion about where they actually were?
A tony local eatery is called The North Restaurant, which has always been located on or near Dunlop Street downtown, the traditional center (not north) of the city, although I guess they are on the north side of Dunlop, which presumably justifies the moniker. Of course, downtown added to the confusion when it tried rebranding itself as “Uptown Barrie”.
An avant-garde condominium on Kempenfelt Bay calling itself The West was planned; ironically, located to the east of downtown. Perhaps that contributed to this proposal’s collapse into recrimination and lawsuits?
The other passing Allandale Veterinary Hospital I did a double-take, because it was on Caplan Ave, way down in the south end. Surely Allandale doesn’t stretch that far?
But I must admit to some personal involvement in this problem. Barrie grew too large to be a single federal electoral district (riding), and was split in two. Before official names were established, the new ridings were referred to as “Barrie North” and “Barrie South”. And that’s where the confusion comes in, because our candidate for Barrie south is named Bonnie North. That already caused a mix-up in at least one news story, so hopefully everyone will know what’s what (and who’s where) by the time the fall election comes around!

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Sense of direction needed to navigate Barrie"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Brown is the new Blue, while Blue is the new Green

It was a colourful week in politics. Brown is the new Blue: Barrie’s (former) Member of Parliament Patrick Brown won leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party.  Although many felt he didn’t have the experience, depth, or public profile to seize victory, I always knew it was possible. Brown has repeatedly demonstrated his special talent for signing up members, getting out the vote, pushing past the old guard, and defeating incumbents with more experience and endorsements. He did this repeatedly at the council, nomination, and riding levels, so there was no reason to believe he couldn’t flex those same talents in the provincial leadership race. The real question is whether he can extend those skills beyond self-promotion, using them instead to get other PC candidates elected across Ontario. That’s a different skill set, one we don’t yet know he has. Meanwhile, with both new Barrie ridings incumbent-free, and a local history of swing votes, media will flock to this region during the fall federal election.
Shifting hues, blue is the new Green, as Green Party leader Elizabeth May created a tempest in a teapot by “dropping the f-bomb” at Ottawa’s annual Press Gallery dinner. I can’t believe the ruckus this caused; it must be a slow media week in Canada, with lack of real news leaving room to debate such a minor gaffe. Many claimed this blue language was inappropriate, disrespectful, and unbecoming; these people don’t seem aware of the tone of press gallery dinners: a roast of the political and media class that regularly feature salty talk. A couple of years ago at the Ontario press dinner, PC leader Tim Hudak used the f-word at least 40 times in his remarks, to total media silence. A decade ago, in his pre-recorded remarks to the same Ottawa dinner, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney told his tattletale friend Peter Newman to “go f… yourself!” Swearing is thus nothing new in this venue, but it is new for May, which was actually the joke she was trying to make.
May goes incognito with a Layton 'stache.
You see, Elizabeth May is known to her colleagues and the press as the “goody-two-shoes” of Parliament. She doesn’t swear, she doesn’t heckle, is always civil and polite. When heckled in the House, she waits quietly until they return the floor, rather than shouting over them. So her idea was that by throwing in a bit of uncharacteristic salty language, she would be mocking her own image.
Sadly, her attempt at humour failed. Having gotten only a few hours of sleep in several days, fighting a flu, after two long flights in coach, with a dose of Nyquil and a glass of wine at dinner, and coming on stage near 11 pm, she lacked her normal poise and timing. Despite that, the rest of her speech,
delivered alternately in English and French, did make some good funny points. But her final gag based on the remedial class sit-com pun “Welcome Back Khadr” fell flat, and although she has apologized repeatedly and explained it was only meant as a joke, there are still many who think she was being serious. But if you knew her as I do; if you had seen her put in 20-hour days all week without pause, work through illness, and maintain a scrupulous civility, you’d know that not to be the case.
Everyone goofs now and then; if this wee gaffe is May’s worst sin, then we can certainly do worse for political role models.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Brown and May add a touch of colour to politics this week"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Thank May for May tax deadline, among other things

Did you file your taxes? You may have appreciated the May 5th extended deadline. Last week I mentioned that Elizabeth May played a role in this; here’s how.
Last year, Canada’s Revenue Agency allowed a 5-day extension after the Heartbleed computer virus wreaked chaos. This year on Friday, April 24, they erroneously re-sent last year’s extension message to thousands of accounting firms, who with a sigh of relief took a normal weekend instead of working through it. Then on Monday, April 27, CRA issued a retraction; suddenly all those firms were behind the 8-ball, now sure to miss important deadlines, costing clients millions of dollars in late penalties. One accountant immediately contacted his Member of Parliament, Elizabeth May, informing her of this looming disaster. Receiving his message on her BlackBerry while sitting in the House of Commons, she immediately had it printed, added a cover letter, and walked across the floor to Minister of National Revenue Kerry-Lynne Findlay, with whom she shares a good working relationship. Hence, within 15 minutes Minister Findlay knew of the issue and that same afternoon announced the mistaken missive would be honoured, extending the tax deadline 5 days.
Ah, Greens; even our slogans are more polite.
Now, you may say that any MP could have done this, and in theory, that’s true. But in fact only a minority of MPs are in attendance any given Monday morning, while May, with the best attendance of any party leader, is there at least 85% of the time, far better than my own backbench MP’s bottom-of-the-list record. Another factor is how quickly a constituent’s urgent concern reaches an actual MP, rather than languishing on the staffer’s desk at the local office. Only a most diligent and well-connected MP could finesse this immediate turnaround. Perhaps that’s why May was voted Best Constituency MP (not to mention Hardest Working MP).
This demonstrates just how effective a single MP, in a caucus of one or two, can be. When elected in 2011, critics declared May would have no noticeable impact. But since constitutionally, all MPs in Parliament are equals, May knew she could have significant effect, and has. She has been the only vote blocking unanimity on a couple of problematic motions, the only opposition MP to attend international climate negotiations, and recently her amendments were accepted into a government bill. This latter event is extremely rare under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, but proves an MP needn’t be in the governing or official opposition party to improve legislation. Green MPs proved they can represent their local district first, rather than always bow to the dictates of a party whip. Imagine if we had more MPs like this!
We don’t have to imagine, we can witness. Two Green Party MPs now sit in the House, both very active on local and national files. Meanwhile, Greens were elected to provincial seats in BC in 2013 and New Brunswick in 2014, and just this past Monday, PEI’s Green Party leader Peter Bevan-Baker was the first Green sent to Charlottetown, with the province’s largest lead and highest voter turnout. Step by step, Canadians are learning that rather than having no impact, even a single Green MP or MLA has disproportionate influence. Later this year, we’ll witness the power of a whole Green caucus, as Canadians send a dozen new Green MPs to Ottawa.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Thank Elizabeth May for extended tax deadline"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Springtime means taxes and tapes

Spring means two things in my household: tax time and top-to-bottom spring cleaning.
In my family I’m the “tax guy”; since I have the software and it does up to 20 returns, I end up doing everyone’s taxes. But this year it’s been a bit harder to meet the April 30 deadline; for over 3 weeks I’ve had a bad cold sapping my energy.
Luckily, my friend Elizabeth May, Green Party MP and leader, has managed to get me a filing extension to May 5 – and the good news is, it applies to all Canadians! So if the looming tax deadline was stressing you, now you’ve got a bit more breathing space. More on how this happened in next week’s column.
But despite 3 family members having versions of this cold, spring cleaning continues. This year, we’re tackling the dozens of old VHS tapes gathering dust on the bottom shelves. Years ago I had a VCR-DVD combo that could copy them over, but with everything else going on, never got around to doing it, and now that machine has gone the way of e-scrap. Yet there are still important memories to transfer: ultrasounds, family TV appearances, the full local broadcast of Live 8; things that need to be saved before the tapes are ditched forever.
These are not actually my tapes.
And that’s the tricky part: what to do with discarded VHS tapes? They can’t go in the blue box, yet we don’t want them clogging up landfill. And it’s not a trivial issue; more than 2 billion VHS tapes lurk in Ontario, a veritable mountain we can either bury or recycle.
That’s where Project Get Reel comes in. A Toronto start-up, this social enterprise aims to solve several problems at once, by hiring people who face barriers to employment to disassemble and recycle VHS tapes. There are a variety of metals and plastics inside each tape, each of which goes to a different recycling stream, but first each tape must be opened by removing, by hand, 5 metal screws. This kind of simple, hands-on work is an ideal job gateway for people whose physical or mental issues are career stumbling blocks, or who have personal situations (like needing child care, or being a new immigrant) that get in the way of most entry-level jobs.
There is still time, but just a few days, for you to personally help launch this project by visiting their crowdfunding site at indiegogo.com/project/project-get-reel, but only until Sunday May 3. With this funding they will get things ramped up by July. And to help, a supporter has just pledged to match all donations, so your money will count double!
So hold onto your VHS tapes just a little longer – don’t throw them out, recycling is just around the corner. Visit ProjectGetReel.com and sign up to receive information on how you can drop off your tapes. In the meantime, start transferring any important memories over to digital media so you can park it in “the cloud” where it can never get lost, so they say. There are many tape transfer services in town, if you just have a few, or if you have a whole library to convert, you can get the right software and connectors to hook your VCR to your own computer and convert them yourself. Let’s clear out those tapes, and recycle them!

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Now's the time to clear out those VHS tapes"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

You can have too much of a good thing

Water is truly the stuff of life. Each living thing needs it; all life arose from oceans, which still provide a huge amount of our food. Fresh water is like gold, a resource we struggle to conserve and keep clean, even as corporations sell overpriced tap water with imagery of pure glacial springs.
So how could water itself be pollution, if it’s something we all need? Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? To answer that, just ask my friends whose pipes burst, causing destruction and disruption. Ask someone who lost a loved one to a tsunami, or their farm to a flood. Ask a person being waterboarded (in between questions about if they are, or have ever been, an Al Qaida member) how they feel about the water of life which is threatening to choke the life out of them. Ask a citizen of a low-lying island whose very nation may soon pass below rising seas forever.
Wait, are those chemtrails?
So yes, you can have too much of a good thing, even water. And the same is true of carbon dioxide (CO2). As a Climate Reality presenter, I help people understand issues around global warming and climate change. But I repeatedly encounter an odd line of climate denial based around the assertion that CO2 is “plant food”, a healthy natural substance we all exhale, therefore can’t possibly be considered pollution, and would be ridiculous to tax with carbon pricing. Should we bill ourselves for breathing? Do we want to starve plants of their food?
Of course, this is a facetious line of reasoning. Climate scientists, and Climate Reality presenters, know quite well the role of CO2 in natural cycles. In fact, the charts of atmospheric CO2 levels we display, like the one in Al Gore’s Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth”, show CO2 fluctuating up and down yearly, due to higher uptake when the northern hemisphere (which has more land mass) has summer. We all learned about photosynthesis in grade school, after all. Yet climate deniers act like this is some revelation, some basic fact we totally overlooked. Nope, not the case!
It is certainly true that CO2 is one of the ingredients plants use to grow. Farmers even pump extra CO2 into greenhouses, to grow flowers or vegetables faster. So pumping extra fossil CO2 into the atmosphere must help, too, right?
Wrong. Plants need water, sun, soil and CO2 to grow. In a greenhouse, plants are given extra of all four, including CO2. But in nature, the amount of sun, soil, and water are constant, or even diminishing, so extra CO2 can’t help forests or crops grow better. In fact, open-air studies show higher atmospheric CO2 helps pests and weakens crops’ natural defenses. This means CO2 itself threatens our food supply, and that’s before we look at the higher temperatures, drought, fires and flooding caused by increasing greenhouse gases like CO2.  
There is no question: without atmospheric CO2, plants could not grow and our world would freeze. But that doesn’t mean more is better; having boosted the amount of atmospheric CO2 over the past 2 centuries from 280 to 400 parts per million, higher than ever before in human history, cannot fail to have significant effects. It’s a huge, uncontrolled, risky and irreversible experiment, one we must curtail as soon as possible.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Extra CO2 isn't what our planet needs"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

25 years in the making, a celebration you won't want to miss

Sometimes, when a few citizens get together to try and improve the world, it creates something bigger, with more lasting value, than any of them imagined. That’s certainly been the case with Environmental Action Barrie (EAB), now known as Living Green.
This home-grown charity started in 1990 is about to celebrate a full quarter-century of good work with a 25th anniversary gala on, appropriately, Earth Day (Wednesday, April 22, 7 pm). Thanks to our generous sponsors, especially Organics Live, tickets are only $25 each and will admit you to meet special guests including keynote speaker marine ecologist Peter Sale, author of “Our Dying Planet”. As he will relate, our planet does not have to die, but action is needed, and soon!
25 years has given us a lot to celebrate. EAB ran a volunteer recycling depot before household blue box collection, then took the plastics the blue box didn’t, until eventually blue box collection expanded to all plastics. EAB, partnered with the City as Be Green Barrie, also ran a retrofit program to install low-flow faucets and toilets across the city, giving Barrie one of the lowest per-capita water consumption rates in Canada. 
EAB helped connect the lead sponsors of the Spring Into Clean event, now a huge annual cleanup run by the City of Barrie. Alongside other initiatives too numerous to list here, we’ve helped educate on and reduce pesticide use, supported groups like Transition Barrie, founded FruitShare Barrie and run the Barrie Free Clothing Centre – Off the Rack.
So help us celebrate 25 years of protecting our ecological health – tickets are available online at https://tr.im/organicslive.
Another coming event is hosted by Simcoe County KAIROS, a group fairly new to our local community. At the national level, KAIROS has been uniting social justice work of 11 different churches and Christian organizations for 40 years. You may have first heard of KAIROS in 2009, when they lost their federal funding because Canada’s government decided to tie aid to poor nations to Canadian mining interests. Undeterred, KAIROS drew strength from its grassroots donations, and continues to work for good at the national and international level, but also right here in our community.
Since forming in 2012, Simcoe County KAIROS has supported Aboriginal rights, protection of drinking water, social justice, peacemaking in Palestine, and related initiatives. In keeping with that theme, they will be hosting Gimme Shelter: The Right to Housing on Saturday, April 18th at Grace United Church.
Access to housing is a major concern in our region; according to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Barrie is second only to Toronto for core housing need. That not only means some people are homeless, but that many more are precariously housed, unable to find suitable or affordable housing for their families.
So join us for a morning of information and discussion with keynote speaker Michael Shapcott of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness and panelists Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman, United Way’s Carla Dermott, and David Busby Street Centre executive director Sara Peddle. The event runs from 9 am until noon and will feature refreshments. Attendance is free, but pre-registration is appreciated by contacting emegareau@hotmail.com or calling 705-252-3459.
Yeah, a storm is threatening my very life today; If I don’t get some shelter, LORD, I’m gonna fade away – Rolling Stones, Gimme Shelter.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Home-grown charity celebrates 25 years"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Community land values could replace all taxation


Provincial and federal budgets loom: taxation is a hot topic. The price of living in a modern, civilized nation, it nevertheless rankles when part of our earnings are deducted leaving less to spend on our families, every purchase incurring sales tax making life more expensive and shrinking our purchasing power, every enterprise paying what feel like fines for success. Some pundits even perennially complain of being taxed into the poorhouse despite driving fancy convertibles or building their own hobby studios.
Despite undeniable benefits of high-quality accessible education, health care, and transportation, it seems hard to find a direct connection between taxes paid and benefits received. I just read a book that turns this entire topic on its head, suggesting we could have our modern, progressive society without paying any taxes at all!
In “Land,” Martin Adams demonstrates how the value we receive from owning land is created by the community rather than ourselves. He then makes the eminently fair proposition that we pay for the value the community creates and gives us, while keeping for ourselves the wealth we ourselves make or earn. In practise, this would mean paying about 80% of the annual rental value of our land in “community land contributions” that would fund all the public services we have come to expect, in exchange paying no tax for owning buildings, earning a wage, producing a good or service, or buying and selling. All taxes would go away, replaced by a single payment in direct proportion to the economic benefits we receive.
But could such a system be fair and progressive? By George, yes! As Adams shows in his analysis of progress and poverty, taxation puts unhealthy burdens on the average income, while empowering those with large land or resource holdings to collect rent from the rest of us largely untaxed. Yet they didn’t create what our rent is buying: they didn’t make the land or the resources under it, they only claimed it as their own, while the surrounding community made that location desirable. Even though we were all born to this planet and, in all fairness, the Earth belongs to everyone, some people make us pay them merely to live on this planet, holding real estate for ransom. Our supposed capitalist free market is actually a predator culture of rent-seekers.
Paying land rent to the community instead of to private landlords would not cost any more for anyone who rents land, it would just change who receives the payments. And it would end the inefficient misuse of land, including things like urban decay and sprawl, because it would penalize wasteful land use, rewarding efficient and productive enterprise. Each person or business would only want to own as much land as they actually needed; this would have the side benefit of reducing the stress our expanding cities put on the natural world.
As shown in the book’s charts, appendices, and links, this measure would make housing more affordable, end the boom/bust cycle by designing a depression-free economy, and unleash innovation and ecological living. It would truly provide a better way of sharing the earth, perhaps even be the silver bullet for most of the woes of the modern world. If you find these goals worthy, then I highly recommend getting your own copy of “Land” to learn how it’s all possible.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "There is another way we can live off the land"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.