Thursday, February 27, 2014

The question of leadership

Now that's my kind of Leader!
Much ado was made this week about Liberal Party leader and (perhaps) Prime-Minister-in-waiting Justin Trudeau’s gaffe of a failed Olympic hockey joke in reference to the ongoing civil unrest in Ukraine. Of course other parties jumped all over it, turning an insensitive remark into major fodder for domestic attack politics, completely divorced from any actual concern for the Ukrainian plight which continues unnoticed among our own recriminations.
The narrative is that if Trudeau can say something so offensive, then clearly he isn’t fit to lead the country. Because a true leader must always say the right thing and make the right decisions, and quickly, too, or we all suffer. Right?
Well, I guess that’s the case, if your model of leadership is a single person who makes all the key decisions himself and does all the talking for us. But is that what we really want or need in a leader? Do we want to put all our eggs in one basket, and leave everyone else out? Not me. I live in a nation growing in size and diversity. As we do, it becomes less possible for any single person to represent us all at once, to take into consideration all our many and diverse needs and interests and decide our course for us. Good decisions are group decisions.
We truly do need better leadership than is on offer, but not in the one-for-all fashion these narratives suggest. The best decisions aren’t made by the single wisest, most mature, most experienced, or most charismatic leader; they are made when many of us share concerns and find consensus together. Our political system is actually designed for this, with each far-flung community electing their own local spokesperson to take their concerns to Ottawa, to gather with over three hundred other such local spokespersons and find, together, the solution that works best for all of us. This isn’t supposed to be lightning-round, either; laws are meant to take days, weeks, months or even in some cases years of careful deliberation and revision before being imposed, sufficient time for these hundreds of local representatives to examine all sides, see all views incorporated, correct mistakes and redress omissions. To talk until everything has been said, then decide.
I don’t want one person to make the one, right decision in every situation and then tell me what it is. That’s not a leader, that’s a dictator. I want someone to listen to my concerns, and your concerns, make sure all stakeholders are part of the process, and help us make the best decisions together. The leader’s job isn’t to decide, but to make us decide. Ensure that important issues (like, for instance, the climate crisis) are discussed and dealt with, not ignored or left for future generations. Make sure experts, taxpayers, citizens, victims, benefactors, and all other stakeholders take part in deciding. Then the leader carries out that decision.
With that vision of leadership, what matters most isn’t experience or knowledge or a confident voice to drown out the rest, but a commitment to process and an ability to listen and ensure everyone is heard.
Sadly, this kind of leadership is neither supported nor rewarded in our current hyper-partisan winner-takes-all approach to politics, so none of the major parties currently offer that kind of leader, nor does it look like they will any time soon. And that’s the real leadership failure: the kind we need most of all is the kind we’re least likely to get.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "None of the major parties offer ideal leadership"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Is nuclear power an alternative to climate change?

Put on a happy face.
Recently a friend asked me about the role of nuclear power in addressing climate change, an issue that divides the environmental movement, and one worth examining. On one side is the traditional opposition of environmentalists to the staggering scale of harm that can occur from a nuclear accident. Plus, the civilian nuclear power industry is inextricably linked to the nuclear armament industry, which is why there is so much international opposition to Iran or other nations developing domestic nuclear power programs that could foster their creation of nuclear weapons.
On the other hand, the single greatest looming threat to human society’s ability to thrive on the planet is global climate change, driven primarily by our transfer of greenhouse gases from under the earth into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. Since splitting atoms doesn’t release fossil carbon, nuclear is described by some as a “clean” or “green” energy source, even though there are some carbon emissions in the mining and processing of nuclear isotopes, and in the construction of nuclear plants, as well as other toxic or radiation issues.
Does that mean nuclear is the way to avoid climate change? For that to be so would require replacing all our fossil energy sources – coal, oil, and natural gas – with nuclear energy, in the process converting our transportation system from relying on gas to using electricity to drive cars, trucks, and trains. Certainly it’s technically possible. Instead of batteries to power electric cars, we could use electricity to make hydrogen fuel. And switching to a renewable future also requires changing how we power our vehicles and heat our homes.
The question then really comes down to cost and time. Climate change is a slow but inexorable process; we don’t have to change overnight (which is good, because we can’t) but we must start moving in the right direction now and build momentum. We can’t afford to wait to start later, and we have only so much money to accomplish what needs be done.
That’s where the red flags go up. A nuclear renaissance is slow; if we dive in today, it will be a decade before the new plants come on line. In contrast, new renewable energy can be installed steadily in the meantime, and be producing more energy each year, starting from year one. So a switch to renewables is a better fit for the time pressure we face.
Then there is the money issue: the costs of existing nuclear technology are huge, many hidden behind government subsidies or relaxed insurance rules. By putting all our eggs into a nuclear basket, we would run short of funds to implement existing and new technologies of efficiency and conservation to reduce energy demand, or improve and expand renewable generation. Quite simply, we can’t afford to do both.
These time and cost issues remain a problem whether considering existing nuclear technologies, prospective next generation ones, or the switch to thorium that some propose as an alternative. Thorium, a somewhat cleaner or less risky fuel than uranium, is still unproven at the commercial scale, still presents weapons proliferation risks, and still would take years or decades and cost huge sums to establish. Too little, too late, for too much.
I don’t object to researchers studying better nuclear power ideas, and I certainly don’t think we should shut down operating nuclear plants before their retirement dates. But looking forward, nuclear seems too slow and costly a path to redemption, while renewable energy is already established, becoming steadily cheaper, and ready to go right now.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Nuclear power running out of juice"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Snowstrip One: where Ignorance is Strength and Elections are Fair.

Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels famously criticized English leaders for telling big lies and sticking to them, describing the “Big Lie” tactic used by the Nazis themselves and many other governments of all political stripes before and since. It’s now also popular with many pundits and columnists, as I’ve pointed out in previous columns.
But in 1949 writer George Orwell took this a step further, describing a perfect totalitarian government which deliberately made statements directly opposite the truth, instead of spinning partial truths, as a way to suppress disagreement. And strangely enough, this Orwellian approach is also something we see in the 21st century, if we look carefully.
A case in point is bill C-23, the Fair Elections Act, which not only does little to make elections more fair, but actually goes the other way! First, the government claims they consulted with Elections Canada on the proposed changes, yet Elections Canada has clearly stated such consultations never took place.
Next, the government claims this act “closes loopholes to big money” yet instead it relaxes election spending rules, allowing huge fundraising campaigns outside the limits, while upping the individual contribution limit 25%, and letting leadership candidates to put more of their own money into their campaigns. It also cuts out personal loans to local candidates, forcing borrowing only from financial institutions, so decisions about campaign financing will be made by private banks instead of individual citizens.

The bill kills the ability of neutral Elections Canada to educate voters or encourage them to vote, particularly groups that vote the least. The current Conservative government even has the gall to blame Elections Canada for lowering turnout, when the real and documented reasons are factors like the tighter voter ID restrictions and unprecedented increase in attack ads we’ve seen under this government. Of course, this bill also removes Elections Canada’s ability to do any further embarrassing research into why people don’t vote. In effect, voter encouragement is now left up to political parties, magnifying the unfair advantage that better-funded parties and their backers already have.
Changes to enforcing election rules are weak or counter-productive. MPs under investigation will now be notified up front while the public are kept in the dark, and can continue to sit in the house until they are convicted and have exhausted all appeals. This means in effect that cheaters can sit for a whole term of government, or longer, before their illegitimate win is overturned; we will have no way to know about it in the meantime, even as the candidate stands for re-election.
The government has often complained that Elections Canada treats the Conservative Party more harshly. Yet the reality is that although all parties have violated some election regulations, it’s the Conservatives who respond differently when discovered. Other parties, when notified they had transgressed, opened their books to Elections Canada and made restitution. The Conservatives tried to hide their contributions or expenses, denied them, even went to court to drag out the procedure as long as possible until forced to comply.
Of course to top it all off, the government has moved to cut off debate on this bill in the House of Commons, despite having the majority to pass it anyway. It’s almost like they only want the public to know about the bill’s Orwellian name and their own spin, not hear about it from any detractors.
Heaven knows we need fairer elections rules, given the kind of cheating and systemic flaws that have created our current all-powerful “majority” government supported by less than a quarter of registered Canadian voters. But this Act not only doesn’t help, it appears to make things worse, to weaken our already ailing democracy. Can we heed George Orwell’s prophetic warning?
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Fair Elections Act makes things worse"

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Ride this year's horse to the rescue

Which of these horses is a community volunteer?
That's easy, the one that's worth it's weight in gold!

The New Year is often a time for making resolutions for personal improvement, such as giving up bad habits like smoking or developing good new ones, like exercise or better diet.
Well, now we’re at Chinese New Year, and in honour of one of the world’s oldest civilizations, perhaps this is a good time to make some resolutions that relate to the community and wider world.
One thing our community can always use is good, dedicated volunteers. Many things that society desperately needs seem to fall through the cracks of the capitalist market economy or fail to draw funding from vote-hungry governments. Yet the need is real, and the value you create by volunteering your time is incalculable.
As I write this, I am doing my overnight shift for Barrie’s Out of the Cold program, providing overflow space for men and women who find themselves without a space at any of the permanent shelters. It’s genuinely a life-saving program, because spending the night outside in the kind of winter we’ve been having can literally be a death sentence. The program runs 7 days a night for almost 6 full months, requiring about 1400 volunteer spots.
Although most positions are filled when the season begins, the overnight shift is always the hardest to keep staffed, and there remains a need for replacements and substitutes, male and female. It’s a pretty quiet shift; usually you can get some work done, or some reading. The breakfast shift also needs more people. If you can help out even just once a month, please find the online application at
Another program always needing more volunteers is the Barrie Free Clothing Centre, which provides for the wardrobe needs of people who can’t afford to shop at the mall. Four-hour daytime shifts on weekdays or weekends are available, where you can help sort, fold, hang, and distribute clothing to the over 600 regular clients. To get involved with this project, visit, email or call 705-252-6005.
Another worthy Lunar New Year’s resolution is to live more lightly on our Earth. As I was replacing a broken-down CD player last week, I noticed the new eco-fee on the bill. This is applied to new electronics based on their weight class, designed to cover the cost of recycling them at the end of their working lifespan. It’s a lot like the deposit you pay on beer, wine, or liquor bottles, or that we paid on pop bottles in my youth, except that instead of bringing your empties back to the store, you bring your old electronics to a licensed e-waste recycler who pays you for them, drawing upon the funds put into the stewardship fund with new purchases.
To make this process easier for you, we are excited to be hosting our 5th annual Earth Hour Super-Drive on March 29th in support of Off the Rack Barrie Free Clothing Centre and the Elizabeth Fry Grocery Assistance Program. Bring your old electric items (anything with a chip, plug, or battery) and we’ll weigh them and pay you cash by the pound. We’ll also be accepting clothing and food donations. Watch this column or visit for more details.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Keep those resolutions and start volunteering"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation