Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Memo to Stephen Harper: "Capitalism is broken"

It was incredible to see the chairman of the World Economic Forum stand up in Davos last week and admit that capitalism is broken. "Capitalism, in its current form, no longer fits the world around us," said billionaire Klaus Schwab, whose message could have been ripped straight from the protest signs of the Occupy movement.

It was equally incredible to see Prime Minster Stephen Harper stand up at the same forum and arrogantly dismiss these criticisms. At a time when the world needs new ways of thinking, Harper wants to preserve the status quo. He stood up and said economic growth is his number one priority. But not before wagging his finger at his European hosts, saying they have lost sight of how to create jobs and growth (with diplomacy like that, it's no wonder Canada lost its bid for a seat on the UN Security Council). Harper then went on to talk about his pro-business policies, suggesting other nations would do well to follow his lead. He spoke about how he remains determined to build a pipeline to supply oil to Asia despite objections from First Nations groups and other citizens. "We will soon take action to ensure that major energy and mining projects are not subject to unnecessary [environmental] regulatory delays," he said.

In the words of Oscar Wilde, Harper is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Canada is ruled by a prime minister who can't connect the dots. Harper views the economy and the environment as two separate things to be tackled in isolation from each other. But this is a false dichotomy. The economy is a sub-system of a larger and finite system, the biosphere. From the perspective of physics or ecology, permanent economic growth is impossible. An ever-expanding economy within a biosphere of fixed growth is, as Lewis Thomas put it, "stupidity on the grandest scale."

This is not an argument against economic growth. Economic growth, up to a certain point, is a good thing. It reduces poverty. It reduces the rate of child mortality. It increases opportunities for education. It increases quality of life. And it improves the standard of living.

Yet, while it's true that economic growth improves human well-being, uneconomic growth -- growth where the costs are greater than the benefits -- is making us poorer, not richer. Former World Bank economist Herman Daly argues we need a more complete measure of wealth than GDP. That's because GDP measures an economy's total output but it doesn’t take into account harm done to the environment. "Everything is added in GDP; nothing is subtracted," writes Daly in a recent issue of Resurgence magazine. He suggests the negative consequences of production (things like nuclear waste, biodiversity loss, climate change, air pollution, eroded topsoil, dry wells, depleted mines, and oil spills) should be subtracted from the positive consequences of growth. He argues these costs need to be counted and netted out against the benefits.

Unlimited growth in a limited world

Unlimited growth is an old concept, one that was created at a time when our numbers were far fewer and when we didn't recognize the earth's natural systems were finite. If we continue on the current economic path, writes Lester Brown in his book Plan B 2.0, "the question is not whether environmental deterioration will lead to economic decline, but when. No economy, however technologically advanced, can survive the collapse of its environmental support system."

Part of the problem is that ecosystem services are not reflected in the current market system. As a result, people are not aware of their importance and place little or no value on them. Ecosystem services -- things like regenerating soil, recycling nutrients, controlling floods, filtering pollutants, pollinating crops, and maintaining the atmosphere -- have no commercial value, even though they are essential for the continued survival of life.

The chairman of the World Economic Forum admits it's time to rethink traditional economic growth. More importantly, he said, we must assess the quality of growth.

"How sustainable is it and at what cost to the environment? How are the gains distributed? What has become of the family and community fabric, as well as of our culture and heritage? The time has come to embrace a much more holistic, inclusive and qualitative approach to economic development," Schwab said.

Stephen Harper's support of the current capitalist system is, in contrast, embarrassingly out-of-touch. Worse than that, it's taking us down a road that leaves us vulnerable in the face economic decline, fossil fuel depletion, and climate change. We need new ideas, not more of the same thinking that got us into this mess in the first place. If the billionaire founder of an annual capitalist love-fest gets it, why can't Stephen Harper?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Truth, lies, and the Japanese language

The Japanese language is a beautiful, maddening thing. Because it's more polite to speak in an indirect way, words become unhinged from their meanings, serving as signposts to the deeper subtext.

You have to learn that "maybe" usually means "absolutely not" or that "thank you" is a rude way to respond to a compliment. Politeness requires that you reply to a compliment by firmly denying it. Besides everyone knows that a compliment in Japan is not meant to be taken at face value. What's important is the subtext. A compliment is a foot in the door, a conversation starter, a way to express kind feelings. If, for example, you can string a few sentences together in Japanese, you will consistently be told, "Wow! Your Japanese is so good." The person saying this knows it's a lie. You know it's a lie. But you also both know the purpose of the lie is to foster friendly feelings. The words are fake but the kindness is genuine.

And while the dishonesty and restraint inherent in this style of speaking can be frustrating, it makes for a fluid, creative way of communicating. Japanese is dynamic in a way that English is not. English communication takes place on the surface -- what you see is what you get (unless the person is lying, of course). Words are not used as signposts to guide the listener toward a deeper meaning. Words are used to directly express what the speaker is thinking and feeling. English speakers define "good" communication as being clear and unambiguous. We chastise politicians for the way they speak because they carefully chose their words to dance around the subject, never confirming nor denying, using vague terms to avoid saying what they really think. Our politicians are masters of the polite Japanese style of speaking.

I'm equally fascinated by the way Japanese businesses appropriate English words to sell their products in a Japanese way. A billboard for a coffee company that reads "Good coffee smile" cannot be taken literally nor is it meant to be taken literally. The words allude to the way coffee makes you feel. "Good coffee smile" is a paradox: it makes no sense and yet it makes perfect sense. It's poetic. (Of course, this misuse of English can also be hilarious.)

Another one of my favourite differences between Japanese and English is the use of sound symbolism. In English, we limit onomatopoeia to words that refer to sounds ("oink" "bang" "pop"). But in Japanese, there are mimetic words for things that don't make noise, like glitter (kira kira) or slime (neba neba). Procrastination has a sound (guzu guzu), as does a dress covered in sequins (pika pika), as does a basket full of fluffy kittens (fa fa).

Its fluidity is what makes Japanese beautiful and its ambiguity is what makes it maddening. It's difficult to know what people are really thinking, which, in turn, makes it difficult to form close friendships. How can you get to know someone without open and honest communication? My closest female Japanese friend is a woman by the name of Sachi, who, upon meeting me for the first time, blurted out, "Wow! Your Japanese is terrible."

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Heated maxi pads (and other ways to stay warm in Japan)

Winter can be particularly cruel in Japan, a land without central heating, insulation, and double-glazed windows. Paper-thin walls and flimsy windows conspire to let the cold in and the heat out. As a result, an entire industry has sprung up around keeping people warm indoors.

Winter in Japan is all about the heated toilet seats, canned coffee, high-tech underwear, hot water bottles, space heaters, heated carpets, electric blankets, hand warmers, fleece blankets and, my personal favourite, the kotatsu. There's nothing more snuggley than a kotatsu (a kotatsu is basically a coffee table with an electric heater screwed to its underside. A big, fluffy duvet goes between the frame and the table-top. You sit on the floor with your legs under the table and the lower half of your body covered by the duvet, which traps the heat from under the table. It's a lovely womb-like contraption.)

This year, there is one more way to stay warm in Japan: heated maxi pads.

The thinking behind this product is that warming up your crotch will also warm up your core. Sort of like peeing your pants but without the odour and wetness.

The pads use the same technology as disposable hand warmers. A thin hand warmer is attached to the underside of the maxi pad, which produces heat when the iron inside it is exposed to air. The manufacturer warns against sitting for extended periods of time while using the pads (to avoid burning your lady bits). And even though they're maxi pads you're not supposed to use them when you're on your period. They seem to be getting good reviews from the Japanese ladies but I think I'll stick with more conventional ways to stay warm.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Old-school quote of the day

You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, "Look at that, you son of a bitch."

-- Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut, People magazine, 8 April 1974

Sunday, January 08, 2012

How to cure a cold for less than $1

The quickest way to kill a cold is to drink home-brewed ginger tea. I don't know how it works or why it works. All I know is that it works. Period. I have been using this recipe for about six years now, and it has blown the cold out of my system every single time.

All you need is a huge chunk of ginger (the bigger the better), half a lemon, some honey, a medium-sized saucepan and about 1.5 litres of water. Start by peeling off the ginger's skin and then slicing it into thumb-sized strips.

Fill a medium-sized saucepan to the brim with water. Add the ginger slices. Crank up the heat as high as it will go and bring the water (with the ginger in it) to a boil.

Once it has reached a roiling boil, turn the heat down to medium-high and let the ginger boil uncovered for 15 to 20 minutes.

You might want to open a window while you're letting the ginger boil because the air inside your kitchen is going to get pretty spicy. In the meantime, slice half a lemon into three pieces. This recipe yields about three large mugs of tea, so you'll want to squeeze the juice of one lemon slice into the mug each time you refill it.

After 15 minutes of boiling, turn off the heat and pour the liquid into a teapot with a strainer. If you don't have a strainer, you can just scoop out the ginger slices with a spoon before pouring it into a teapot or a mug. This recipe ends up making enough tea for one teapot plus a mug. So I just fill the teapot to the brim and then pour the rest into a large mug. Add about two teaspoons of honey and the juice of one lemon slice to each mug. Do not share. You must drink all three mugs for optimal cold-killing results. Best enjoyed in bed or bundled under blankets on the couch. (Caramel waffle cookies are optional but highly recommended.)