Category Archives: Opinions

It’s not as bad as it looks (but is it much worse than it seems?)

[global change, climate change, understanding, pessimism, optimism, attitude]

by Peggy Olive

In the wee hours of the morning, I listened to a replay of one of CBC’s  thought-provoking programs called Ideas. A career diplomat, Paul Heinbecker, was invited to discuss The Challenge of Peace. Among other positions, Heinbecker served as Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations, Ambassador to Germany, and Minister of Political Affairs at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. He also headed the Canadian delegation to the climate change negotiations in Kyoto.

According to Heinbecker, the real challenge is our inadequate understanding of the world we live in. “Thanks to social media, we are bathed in doom and gloom…an endless repetition of the same terrible stories. It is not surprising that people think that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, and quickly.”

He goes on to say, “In fact, the reverse is actually true. We are living in a golden age.” Canadians, and the world more generally, have never been richer, healthier, as well-educated, as well-connected, or as safe as we are now.

On hearing this good news, I felt considerable relief, but also some nagging scepticism. Could this be true? Are we really in a golden age (aside from those of us who are golden-agers)? I went to an informative source to answer this question: Our World in Data. This site is hosted by Max Roser, an Oxford economist who says, “Once you turn to statistics, it gets much harder to have a pessimistic story.”

I extracted some numbers from the hundreds of graphs on his site to emphasize the changes that have occurred over my lifetime. Heinbecker is right; living conditions across the globe have greatly improved since I was born. Had I presented the statistics for Canada, a smaller but similar trend would be seen.

So why my scepticism? I noticed that most of the graphs on Our World in Data showed an upward trend as if  this wonderful state of affairs could continue forever. We would live longer, under better conditions, become more educated, and have more abundant food, and all this would be possible as our population climbed above 11 billion.

Continued growth on a planet with finite resources isn’t possible. We will run out of raw materials eventually. Our soils and fresh water reserves are already being depleted and we continue to overload Earth’s atmosphere with greenhouse gasses that will change our climate for centuries.

Many see this happening in some distant future, and Roser’s graphs confirm that our living conditions have never been better. Even our fears of war and disaster, often exacerbated by the climate crisis, are overblown when compared to the risks of heart disease, cancer, and road traffic accidents. It would appear that we’re worrying needlessly, at least about some things. Paul Kennedy, the host of Ideas, commented briefly on the role media has played in promoting doom and gloom messages, but as Max Roser says, no one listens to the news to hear that nothing bad has happened today.

I don’t  believe that we are ambulance chasers hungry for disturbing news, or alternatively, that the world situation is anywhere near as rosy as these data might lead us to believe. Oddly, Max Roser’s own research is concerned with rising income inequality which is not good news, and does Heinbecker realize that all Golden Ages come to an end? The original Golden Age of Greece lasted only 200 years.

This left me wondering if the positive global trends in our living conditions are part of the reason we are failing to act quickly on climate change. Living in a sustainable way on this planet will be difficult if we see ourselves as better off today than a few decades ago and we expect this situation to continue. Yet there are obvious signs that the gravy train, driven largely by fossil fuels and greed, is at an end. When we recognize that there is only so much track left ahead of us, it is vital that we slow down before it runs out.

Yes, we are very fortunate to have experienced a Golden Age, but we must also recognize that this age is now in decline and it is past time to apply the brakes.


How I Do Love Oceans!

by Jill Schroder

Thursday June 8, 2017 was World Oceans Day. It seemed a perfect time to remember and appreciate my deep, early, nourishing, ongoing and rich love and experiences of the ocean.

One of my most precious memories is when, as a very young kid, my dad took me “out past the breakers” – the white breaking part of the waves. We were at Point O’ Woods, a family oriented community on the Atlantic Ocean, that is deeply connected to my love of oceans. It was palpable, and literal, that my dad had my back, that he was there as support and protection. Together we could go out into the big, wide world and have adventures. My dad passed on to me his deep and lasting love and respect for the ocean: then and there.

Apropos big adventures, another living memory was the day my brother Jim and I (then in our thirties) went out into the huge waves after a storm had raged. The waves were smooth and gorgeous. It looked like it would be so thrilling to ride those waves and feel their power. Well, it was thrilling but it was also very cold. And once out there, I was so scared, and getting colder by the minute, that I might not have made it back to shore again without Jim’s help. But we did it, and afterwards it was a great satisfaction to have experienced the ocean in this mode.

Other sweet recollections: doing the mile swim with the Flotsam and Jetsam Club; standing and letting the ocean sink me deeper and deeper into the sand; building sand castles, digging tunnels and seeing the water fill them up… and so much more. Take a few moments to watch these lovely minute meditations of the waves on my beloved Fire Island.

I just learned that it was Canada that made the original proposal for World Oceans Day in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The day has been unofficially celebrated every June 8 since then, and, in 2008, the United Nations officially recognized it. Since then, World Oceans Day has been coordinated internationally by The Ocean Project and the World Ocean Network. These organizations say it has greater success and global participation each year.

So … why a World Oceans Day? Here’s a really good reason: it goes back to Sylvia Earle, who is a National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence and perhaps the world’s most recognized living oceanographer. Among other things, Earle says: “I think of the ocean as the blue heart of the planet.” And she says, “We, too, are sea creatures.” And there is the fact that seen from up and above, the world really is mostly blue! Check out this cool animation where Earle urges us to think about how much we depend on the oceans, and to protect them from pollution and overfishing.



First Nations and pipelines

by Karl Perrin

Abridged from a sermon delivered May 21, 2017, to the Unitarian Church of Vancouver

Chief Seattle once said: “This we know. The earth doesn’t belong to us, we belong to the earth. All things are connected, like the blood that unites one family. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. We did not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”

We are meeting today on the unceded territory of the Musqueam First Nation.  Unceded: what does that mean? Never conquered? Never sold? Never given away? So are we guests? Perhaps we are guests of guests, of our 2- and 4-legged relations, our finned and winged cousins, the lords and ladies of the deep, the whales who inhabit this home. We owe a debt of gratitude to all our relations. Thank you.

In “A Native Hill” farmer and poet Wendell Berry wrote:

“We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world. . . .

We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. . . .  

For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.

On that very theme I take you back to 2004 when I had an insight into the spiritual rebirth of Coastal First Nations. I recall an exhibition at the UBC Museum of Anthropology entitled The Abstract Edge featuring Haida artist Robert Davidson. He had a new collection which used the Haida alphabet of shapes, myths and heraldry but which he had deconstructed and reimagined with a 21st century global sensibility.

Some pieces of his new collection featured an old shape with a new meaning. The tri-negative or tri-neg was traditionally used as a three pointed filler in negative space, i.e. the background, to add fluidity to the form lines and to simply frame the foreground. Robert Davidson’s innovation was to take the tri-neg shape and, through colour and position, turn it into foreground, i.e. into positive space instead of negative space.

At that point I had a revelation. I realized that just as Robert Davidson had demonstrated with his tri-neg space filler that foreground and background were interchangeable, so too were our cultural perceptions of the First Nations. Based on our cultural history we colonizers had seen the so-called wilderness – the heathen, dark pagan forest – as negative space. We thought it empty, devoid of Christian civilization, devoid of Europe, which was the only reality which made any sense to our collective wisdom. And the denizens of this emptiness were to us simply negative people lacking our blessings and the salvation of our Bible. We settlers saw them as un-settled.

But as First Nations broadcaster Candy Palmater has taught me: “We were not “settlers”; when we arrived this place was already settled. We didn’t settle anything!” Likewise, whenever I see old Haida representations of white men they look ridiculous. Not intentionally ridiculous, but the hats and beards seem odd as if they were copied but not understood. We were in fact lacking Haida culture. We were the negative space; we were the devoid and lacking savages.

Everyone had the same view of Captain George Vancouver on the deck of the HMS Discovery, whether it was the First Mate, a Musqueam warrior looking up to the ship’s deck, or a random eagle circling overhead. But what did the view mean to each? Captain? Devil? Friend? Foe? Disgusting? Maybe delicious? The visual information was the same, but the meaning was completely different.

As we know today only 40% of our vision is what is actually out there, the remaining 60% is what we expect to see. That’s why we have optical illusions – our biased brains just insist that our eyes must be wrong until proven otherwise. Usually we just categorize what doesn’t make sense as simply “wrong” and what does make sense as obviously “right”. Whether something is wrong or right is determined by our culture, our language, our fashion, popular history and mythology, our religion, and sometimes by what is called our “slow thinking”. Evidence and logic together make up our weltanschauung or worldview. And worldviews don’t appreciate tinkering or correction, e.g. creationist vs. evolutionary worldviews.

What does any of this have to do with the Kinder Morgan pipeline? It all depends on how you look at it. Does another oil pipeline mean development and jobs, or does it primarily mean tar sands exploitation, more corporate colonization, plundering our common ground, killing our Mother Earth bit by bit by bit? It all depends on how you look at it, your weltanschauung.

I won’t review here the litany of smallpox, addiction, residential school cultural genocide, and social fragmentation which has maimed First Nations since George Vancouver first appeared on the horizon. I do want to point out the prevailing, cumulative, corporate colonialism represented by the industrialization of Burrard Inlet, the Fraser River and the Salish Sea. Where was the “free, prior, and informed consent” to pollute this unceded native land? Where was the respect for the Tsleil Waututh clam beds and the Musqueam fisheries? Where is the invitation from First Nations to dredge Burrard Inlet for huge dilbit tankers?

As we approach the 150th Anniversary of Confederation we can remember what Tsleil-Waututh Chief Dan George said 50 years ago at the 1967 Canadian Centenary: “When I fought to protect my land and my home, I was called a savage. When I neither understood nor welcomed his way of life, I was called lazy. When I tried to rule my people, I was stripped of my authority”

What did John A. MacDonald, our first prime minister, say about Indians in 1879?  “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

My goal in terms of stopping the Kinder Morgan (Trans-Mountain) pipeline expansion project is to speak truth to power. The Unitarian fourth principle encourages free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and the seventh principle is to respect the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. My goal is to fulfill my vow to my son and to his generation that I will do EVERYTHING in my power to prevent his premature death due to global warming.

So, take courage my friends. The way is often hard, the path is never clear, and the stakes are very high. Take courage, for deep down there is another truth: You are not alone.

Looking for Hope in a Hopeless World

by Jim Stephenson

Earth Day Sermon 2017, Unitarian Church of Vancouver

Earthly prospects seem less hopeful in 2017 than on previous Earth Days. The window of opportunity for an orderly transition off fossil fuels is rapidly closing, and recent election results offer little promise of timely action. The whole idea that our species has and uses rational decision making is now questionable. In the face of this, how does one find hope and live a life based on purpose, morality, and optimism?

Since the first Earth Day in 1970 environmental movements around the world have had many successes and many failures.

Ten years ago my friend Rex Weyler gave the Earth Day sermon from this pulpit. Things were still cautiously optimistic 10 years ago. Today, however, things have changed. A proposed budget reduction of 30% for the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. is but one of the many symptoms. The problems are not limited to what’s going on in the US; recall the recent reactions in Canada to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s suggestion of an eventual phase out of the oil sands.

How bad are things?

It’s been known for some time that the sooner humans started reducing their CO2 emissions the easier and less costly it would be to reduce the risk of global warming. One estimate was it would require only a 3% per year reduction if we started in 2005. Starting in 2015, on the other hand, would take a 6% per year reduction, while waiting another 10 years until 2025 would require a 15% per year reduction. This increasing cost of waiting is what we refer to as the closing window of opportunity.

Some are more hopeful. James Hansen, regarded as the father (or now perhaps grandfather) of the effort to recognize and stop global warming, was the first to testify before the US Congress about the problem. Hansen has a new plan calling for a 6% per year reduction in CO2 emissions starting in 2021 which, his calculations show, would keep us below a 2o C rise in global mean temperature, and perhaps even closer to 1.5oC. Why does his plan not start until 2021? That’s after the next US presidential election.

Regardless of which estimates are correct, there is a window and it is closing. Whether we can solve the problem with a 6% reduction rate or we really need a 10% reduction, the fact remains that in our world today emissions are still increasing.

We’ve known about the problem for quite a while. The basic science of climate change due to CO2 emissions was known in the 1800’s, demonstrated in the 1950’s, and reported to President Lyndon Johnson as far back as 1965. It was with the testimony of James Hansen before a congressional hearing on June 23, 1988 that global warming finally received international awareness. Hansen spoke of a “99% confidence” in “a real warming trend” linked to human activity. If humanity had acted on that warning at the time our prospects would have been much brighter at a lower cost. But instead many of our leaders either denied the facts on global warming outright, or simply expressed concern but took little action.

There is no rational basis for denying global warming

What is logically required to reject the science of global warming? One has to reject either (1) that humans, through burning fossil fuels and deforestation have emitted gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere and oceans, or (2) that the measured buildup of this CO2 does not produce a greenhouse effect and warm the earth.

Have humans emitted CO2? We actually have a year-by-year accounting of human CO2 emissions. Between 1850 and 2007 emissions totalled 384 gigatons from fossil fuels and 160 gigatons from land-use changes. Of the fossil fuel emissions, 48% came from coal, 36% from oil, 13% from natural gas, 2% from cement production, and 1% from flaring. Of the total emissions 54% were absorbed by the oceans and soil, and the rest stayed in the atmosphere to raise the CO2 concentration from 280 ppm to 390 ppm by 2007. By 2016 mean global CO2 concentration had reached 405.1 ppm.

Does higher atmospheric carbon dioxide create warming? To me the most persuasive evidence of the effect of CO2 on the greenhouse effect is how the CO2 concentration is measured. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has been monitored daily at the top of Mona Loa in Hawaii since Charles Keeling started these measurements in 1953. To measure CO2 concentration, you pass an air sample through a tube with glass windows on each side. Through the windows, you shine infrared light radiation (like that radiated from the earth’s surface). You can precisely measure how much of the infrared light passes through and how much is absorbed by the CO2. If CO2 gas in the atmosphere didn’t absorb infrared light radiation, this measurement simply wouldn’t work. And yet, it’s been precisely calibrated under laboratory conditions.

Despite the closing window and the continuing denial we shouldn’t give up hope

First – we probably still have time to avoid the worst consequences as reflected in Jim Hansen’s latest plan.

Second – it is possible for political inaction to quickly change.

Think back to 1983 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in accordance with Reagan’s guidelines, stopped all research on ozone depletion. On September 16, 1987, (just four years later, while Reagan was still president), 24 countries including the US, Japan, Canada and EEC nations signed the Montreal Protocol, pledging to phase out production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) . One reason for the quick turn-around was that there was a ready technical fix in the form of an alternate, less damaging chemical (hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs)) to replace CFCs. Another factor was that a giant hole in the ozone had been discovered over Antarctica and it showed up on NASA satellite images. World citizens responded to the disturbing visual and factual evidence.

Third – a lot of good things are happening. Click here to learn why 2016 was a good year for humanity on a number of fronts.

But: humanity is behaving irrationally when it comes to global warming

Stopping global warming has never been a question of whether it was possible to do so, or even if it could be accomplished without unreasonable sacrifice of our modern lifestyle. It’s always been a question of whether humanity would recognize the science and organize internationally to make it happen. That is seemingly easy for a species which has developed modern medicine, transportation and communications. Perhaps its not so easy given the results of recent elections. Today it’s an election in France.

The failure to act on global warming has called into question the whole concept of humans being rational and having the ability to use foresight. As rational humanist Unitarian Universalists it seems so straightforward to recognize a problem, analyze options, and then implement a solution. It’s hard to understand how so many, particularly those in power, can deny the problem and reject any solution offered. What can they be thinking?

One plausible answer is related to the free-market dogma and a preference for reducing the role of government which has gained such ascendancy in some countries in recent decades. Addressing climate change requires greater government action, more regulation, and more government involvement in the market. Think carbon taxes to correct price signals, regulation of emissions, and promotion of green energy over fossil fuels. Is it any wonder that those opposed to increased government action will be tempted to deny a problem whose solution requires more government action?

If we’re going to understand and respond to this irrational behavior, we should turn to psychology

Jonathan Haidt is a psychology researcher who has scientifically studied how people arrive at their values. He has published a number of books and given some TED talks, which I highly recommend. Some of his research has examined the differences in values of liberals and conservatives.

Haidt has identified five foundations of morality: Preventing Harm, Ensuring Fairness, Loyalty, Respect for Authority, and Purity or Sanctity. Everyone on the spectrum agrees about Harm and Fairness, but only conservatives value Loyalty, Respect for Authority, and Purity/Sanctity. Liberals are 2-channel, Conservatives are 5-channel.

Sometimes the difference is what we apply the value to. The political right may be criticized for its moralizing about sex, yet the political left moralizes about the purity of food.

Liberals speak for the weak and oppressed. They want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos. Conservatives speak for institutions and traditions. They want order, even at a cost to those at the bottom. Haidt postulates that righteous minds were “designed” to unite us into teams, divide us against other teams, and blind us to the truth.

We may not be so rational ourselves

What we want is a passionate commitment to the whole truth. Unitarian Universalists pride ourselves on possessing this commitment. But do we practice it?

James Hansen, in a recent address to the Vancouver Institute, suggested that speaking truth to power these days is pretty much a one-way street. He views nuclear power as playing an important role in the carbon-free economy. He thinks of the typical environmentalist opposition to 2nd and 3rd generation nuclear energy as “religious dogma”. Many of my Unitarian friends seem more willing to have an objective discussion of religion than of nuclear energy. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima: these were all shocks to our emotional systems which make rational analyses and discussions of nuclear power difficult for us.

There were various nuclear reactor designs proposed 30 years ago. While molten sodium and molten metal designs have some obvious advantages, boiling water reactors were chosen, apparently due to the US preference for this design in nuclear submarines. The safer designs shut themselves down if they overheat, produce much less and easier-to-manage waste, are less susceptible to proliferation and fuel theft, and would not require any additional uranium mining for more than 2 centuries. Bill Clinton shut down research into these designs under pressure from environmentalists.

Nuclear power might not be chosen in an unbiased, rational analysis, but it seems to me that it was not rationally considered by most environmentalists. Now Germany, the poster child of green energy, has closed its nuclear plants and replaced some of that capacity with coal, which has led to increasing CO2 emissions.

What Makes Us Happy?

Besides exploring the increasing divide between the political left and right, Jonathan Haidt has written a book titled The Happiness Hypothesis in which he examines the factors leading to greater happiness. One finding is that each person appears to have a happiness set-point. Some people tend to be happier than others independent of circumstances. He regards those with a high happiness set point as winners of the genetic lottery. While good or bad fortune may temporarily change one’s level of happiness, over time we return to our set points. If one person wins the lottery and another is paralyzed in an auto accident, within a year both will be back at their happiness set point.

The second main conclusion in The Happiness Hypothesis is that happiness comes from social connections with friends and family more that from material possessions. This is the wisdom we all seem to know rationally but keep forgetting as we pursue material success and go shopping. This point is relevant for preventing global warming, because the sources of true happiness are low carbon activities, while travel, shopping and status seeking, which do not lead to true happiness, are carbon intensive. We’re destroying the environment for all the wrong reasons.

So, where does this leave us in our hopeless world?

First – it’s probably not too late, but it will be before too long. So, this is a great time to work for a solution. If it is too late and we are destined for run-away global warming, we will need the teachings of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on the 5 stages of grief. In the meantime, we should follow the guidance of Joanna Macy. In her book Active Hope she is adamant that we should be realistic about how dire the situation is, but not allow despair to be incapacitating. Joanna Macy’s four-part spiral of the Work That Reconnects includes coming from gratitude, honoring our pain for the world, seeing with new eyes, and going forth.

Second – the enemy is not evil. They’re different, but they’re as rational as we are. Which isn’t saying much. If we’re going to stop global warming, they will have to be brought on board. Marveling at their stupidity isn’t a very effective way of getting them on board. We actually have to befriend them, respect them, and understand and acknowledge their concerns about loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity. We may well have to consider the purity of both sex and food. No one wants to destroy the future of their grandchildren, not even conservatives. This may be our most urgent need for befriending the “other”.

Third – we need to enhance our happiness by living simpler, more sustainable lives with lower carbon footprints. You will be happier, whether or not your simple lifestyle filled with meaningful human interaction leads to a successful world-wide effort to save our environment.


Seeking a spiritual foundation for an environmental renaissance in these trying times

by Stan Hirst

I have occasionally heard some of the Suzuki Elders refer to our group as a Unitarian/Anglican conglomerate. It’s meant as a flattering reference, although statistically its not quite true. A mental rundown of the sombre faces around the Council table indicates that neither group is in the majority and the combined number makes up just half the total Council membership. The remainder of the Council membership seeks formal spiritual attachment through a wider range of channels.

However the pages of this site attest to the fact that spirituality is a deep-rooted facet of the Elders’ group. Karl Perrin has written “… faith, my long term spiritual discipline, is in seeking truth and offering service.” Don Marshall makes a case for spirituality as a part of building resilience to the psycho-social impacts of climate disruption. Guest contributors Sally Bingham and Anneliese Schultz  write eloquently of the strength of spiritual traditions and communities in supporting our ongoing efforts to care for Creation. Paul Strome writes of the importance of his spiritual connections to Inuit communities in the North. A review of Pope Francisencyclical Laudato Si published just 16 months ago on the website has to date attracted 2500 readers.

Apart from personal convictions, why should we be concerned at all over spirituality and its role in the activities and future of the Suzuki Elders? For one thing we need perhaps to draw on spiritual convictions to highlight the growing importance of connecting personal, social and political transformations in the public realm.

It is rapidly becoming evident that the world is changing very rapidly and not at all for the better. Global climate change has become the norm along with all its consequences – deterioration of terrestrial, freshwater and marine resources, widespread social unrest, political instability and economic imbalances. The world’s existing and emerging challenges seem to be so complex, contested, interrelated, urgent and exacting that technocratic and technological solutions are unlikely to be enough. They often seem to compound problems, not reduce them.

Canada, and especially British Columbia, have policies and procedures in place to try and manage and ameliorate the conflicts of exploitation and extraction. Planning and assessment guidelines, environmental and social assessment requirements, and mandatory consultation procedures have been in place for close to half a century. Most of them have been adapted and upgraded with experience over the years, yet major conflicts between proponents and opponents continue to be the norm. Oil and gas pipelines, marine transportation of fossil fuels, hard rock mining, hydroelectric dams and marine aquaculture, all commonly deemed indispensable to a modern economy, are prime conflict zones. Why?

One major issue continues to be the deep and sometimes widening divide between, on one hand, corporate interests and their political supporters who drive resource exploitation and economic enhancement and, on the other hand, communities and groups who stand to benefit economically from such activities but who also bear the burgeoning environmental and social costs and losses.

There is a growing sense that more importance be attached to spirituality as a source of motivation, meaning and creativity. A revised understanding of human nature and our relationship to the earth and its bounties would help us reconceive the nature and value of spiritual perspectives, practices and experiences.

The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in the U.K. speaks of the unfortunate fetishisation of economic growth as a panacea and global competition as the only game in town. Some in the political sphere point out that citizens need to be the subjects of social change, not just the objects. Spiritual perspectives play a role in shaping and expressing the roots and values of democratic culture. They deepen the vision and lend structure and texture to human development and maturation. The overarching societal role of spirituality should be to serve as a counterweight to purely utilitarian thinking.

Many of the world’s environmental conflict zones already have ‘spiritual’ elements. They are a key pillar of First Nations’ defence of their territories and resources against the inroads of fossil fuel and other extractive exploitation from outsiders. Non-native society by comparison seems unprepared or unwilling to acknowledge a spiritual dimension, and is unwilling or not equipped to seek common ground at such a fundamental level.

Spirituality is ambiguously inclusive by its nature and cannot be easily defined, but at heart it is about the fact that it is we who are alive at all, rather than our personality or status. It’s about our “ground” rather than our “place” in the world. It is possible and valuable to give spirituality improved intellectual grounding and greater cultural and political salience. The primary spiritual injunction is to know what you are as fully and deeply as possible.

Genetically engineered crops: discord in the public square

by Stan Hirst

Image-front-cover_coverbookpageIn his recent book I’m right and you’re an idiot author James Hoggan describes the ‘public square’ as a literal and symbolic place where people meet to discuss important community matters and governance, and to participate in democracy. He notes that the modern public square, especially in relation to environmental concerns, has become toxic and polluted. Participants in public dialogue are typically strongly divided over issues based on background, belief, social situation and a host of other factors, and true dialogue and consensus-building suffer accordingly.

The long-standing dispute over genetically engineered (GE) food crops (=genetically modified (GM) or the commonly used acronym GMO’s [genetically modified organisms]) is an excellent example of such polarization leading to discord in the public square.

monsanto logoOn one side of the GE stand-off are the biotech multinationals Monsanto, Syngenta, DowDuPont and others who have monopolized the GE seed industry in North America and in many other parts of the globe. Their signature GE crops (also termed ‘biotech’ crops) are now grown on more than 180 million hectares globally. Over 40% of these are in the US, the remaining 60% are spread among 23 countries. Biotech multinationals are hugely profitable (e.g. Monsanto had gross revenues of $15 billion in 2015, with profits of $8 million), but these gains have come after decades of expensive genetic research and massive investments in biotechnology.

The application of GE crops is growing rapidly. More than 80% of soybeans, 75% of cotton, 29% of maize and 23% of canola cultivated globally are now GE. Seven other food crops – apples, sugar beet, papaya, potato, squash and eggplant – currently have varying proportions of GE modified plants in their annual harvests. Four GE crops are widely grown in Canada (canola, corn, soy and sugar beet. We also import small amounts of GE papaya, GE squash, GE cottonseed oil and some milk products made with the use of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone.

What attracts farmers to GE crops over conventional varieties? The most commonly quoted reasons for US farmers who grow such crops are economic and environmental benefits – lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides, and better yields. One of several economic assessments puts the global farm income gain from GE crops from 1996 through 2014 at $150 billion.GO_Soybeans

The opposing factions in this public square comprise hundreds, possibly thousands, of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), various international organizations and groups, and many private and public groups and individuals. Their concerns are multifaceted and have been summarized by the FAO (Table 1).

Table 1
  • genes potentially being passed on to other members of the same species or even to other species;
  • genes potentially mutating with harmful effects;
  • potential destabilization and mutations in receptor plants;
  • “sleeper” genes potentially “switched on” and/or active genes “silent”;
  • potential interactions with wild and native populations;
  • potential impacts on birds, insects and soil biota and other non-target species.
Human health:
  • potential transfer of allergenic genes;
  • potential mixing of GE products in the food chain;
  • potential transfer of antibiotic resistance.
Socio-economic effects:
  • loss of access to plant material;
  • biotechnology products and processes potentially preventing access to public-sector research;
  • “terminator” technologies preventing farmers saving seeds for future seasons;
  • imposition of huge financial risks and burdens on peasant and family farmers in third world countries planting and harvesting GE crops.
Corporate behaviour:
  • corporate secrecy surrounding gene and crop research;
  • control and censorship of data and technical publications on GE.

Corporations typically counter the allegations by defending their legal right to protect their proprietary [and very expensive] biotechnical assets gained over many years as a result of extensive research and testing and associated high expenditures. They emphasize that their GE products are approved for sale and use by local, state, federal and international authorities, and that they comply with all laws, regulations and requirements levelled at their research, testing and marketing of GE products.  Both assertions are verifiably true.

There is a third set of players in this GE public square. These are groups, organizations, commissions, panels and the like which are established on the basis of academic or judicial credentials, have no vested interest in the commercial benefits or costs of GE foods, and are thus able to express unbiased observations and opinions.

One such group, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) appointed a Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops in 2014 with the objectives of examining the evidence regarding potential negative effects and benefits of currently commercialised genetically engineered (GE) crops and the potential benefits and negative effects of future GE crops. The Committee comprised 20 highly qualified scientists from universities and research organisations in the U.S. and abroad, plus seven professional support staff. The Committee heard presentations from 80 people with expertise and experience with GE crops, and read more than 700 comments and documents submitted by individuals and organisations. The Committee’s draft report was reviewed by 25 specialists from academia and government, both in the U.S. and abroad, and was published in final form in 2016. Their summary findings are shown in Table 2.23395-0309437385-450

Table 2
Agronomic and environmental effects of GE crops
  • Inconclusive evidence to connect GE crops and their associated technologies with adverse agronomic or environmental problems.
  • Some GE crops containing Bt toxin increased yields when insect pest pressure was high, but there was little evidence that GE crops resulted in rapid yearly increases in on-farm crop yields compared to the period before GE introduction. Use of Bt crops is associated with a decrease in insecticide applications but the evidence is equivocal for herbicide resistant crops.
  • Evolution of resistance to Bt toxins in GE crops by insect pests was associated with the overuse of a single herbicide.

[There is no evidence of cause-and-effect relationships between GE crops and environmental problems, but the complex nature of assessing long-term environmental changes makes it difficult to reach definitive conclusions. Declines in monarch butterfly populations was a case in point. Detailed studies of monarch dynamics failed to demonstrate adverse effects related to increased glyphosate use with GE crops, but there was no consensus among researchers that the effects of glyphosate on milkweed has not caused decreased monarch populations.]

Human health effects of GE crops

Research with animals and on chemical composition of GE foods reveal no differences that implicate a higher risk to human health from GE foods than from non-GE counterparts. Time-series epidemiological data do not show any disease or chronic conditions in populations that correlate with consumption of GE foods. The committee could not find persuasive evidence of adverse health effects directly attributable to consumption of GE foods.

There is some evidence that GE insect-resistant crops have benefited human health by reducing insecticide poisonings and decreasing exposure to fumonisins.

Social and economic effects of GE crops

Existing GE crops have generally been useful to large-scale farmers of cotton, soybean, maize and canola. Benefits to smaller-scale farmers have varied widely across time and space, and are connected to the institutional context in which the crops have been deployed. Small-scale farmers were more likely to be successful with GE crops when they also had access to credit, extension services and markets, and to government assistance in ensuring accessible seed prices.

So, how are we to explain the huge discrepancies between what GE food opponents say about the issue and what emerges from a (hopefully) cool and rational appraisal of the data and the facts?  Three items stand out from a long look at Table 1 above (possibly more if one keeps looking).

The words ‘potential‘ and ‘potentially‘ appear many times in the list of environmental and public health issues. Translation = it appears in the text books but nobody has been able to prove it in real life.  That is not all that remarkable for something as intricate and complicated as a gene and the way it expresses itself in nature.  The NAS found no conclusive evidence of a linkage between a GE food and a human health issue, but the general public seems a long way from understanding that.

I’ve heard the view from Elders that researchers are prevented from examining the GE-health issue because they’re denied access to the modified genes which are ‘owned’ and ‘protected’ by the multinational biotech companies.  The companies do indeed hold patents to their modified plant genes, but a researcher interested in searching for a link between a GE food or substance and human health doesn’t need the gene, they just need the genetically modified food, and that’s available from the supermarket.  Another Elder asserted that there is no money available for such research. Possibly true, but I note that Canada is hardly short of money for other public health research, e.g. we spend $400 million per year on geriatric drug research.

Multinational biotech companies have become notorious for their corporate behaviour, including secrecy, use of patent laws to protect their seeds and products, no reluctance to use legal strong-arm methods against opposing groups, and inept public relations (all well summarized by Lessley Anderson) The name ‘Monsanto‘ has become a label for negativity, and that does (but should not) obscure the true facts surrounding genetic modification of crops and public health specifics.

One seldom hears the same negative tones about GE crops from farmers (who actually plant and harvest them) as from environmental activists and the general public who generally get their information from the internet and the popular press. When farmers focus on the negative issues of GE crops it involves the extra costs involved and the fact that they have no propriety rights to any seed harvested from GE crops planted on their lands.  The latter issue has been a huge stumbling block for GE crop deployment in Asia and Africa.

GE corn

In his book James Hoggan summarizes a number of key learnings on public discourse, dissonance and advocacy gleaned from many specialists in the field of communications, sociology and public affairs.  He stresses the need to break out of the advocacy trap and to steer well away from self-justification.  All the points in the book have some bearing on the understanding of the discord surrounding GE crops and foods.

On the basis of what I’ve read about the whole subject of GE crops as well as what the hopefully objective experts in the form of the U.S. Academy of Sciences have to say on the issues, I suggest there is one missing item of cardinal importance in improving the quality of discourse – public understanding.

Genetics is a technically difficult subject to understand from the public perspective, and becomes even more convoluted when moving to the technicalities (and language) of genetic modification.  Throw in more technical issues in the form of ecological explanations of  things like chemical weed control, lots of economic arguments around who wins and who loses when GE crops enter the competitive market-place, and lots of mistrust around who is responsible for approvals and vetting of GE crops, and the dissonance pot boils merrily away.  I doubt there is a stronger case to be made for seeking common ground between proponents, opponents and the public than in this subject.


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