Moving Beyond: Neo-liberalism in Saskatchewan

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You can download the full pdf of the book here: Neoliberalism_in_Saskatchewan.

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WE NEED SOME HONEST REFLECTION IN THE SK LEADERSHIP RACES

BY Jim Harding

Both major parties are in the grips of a leadership race. There is a lot to discuss: our accumulating net debt, dependence on non-renewables, the gathering storm of climate change and more.

The Sask Party however, seems more concerned with rebranding, perhaps to distance itself from retiring Premier Wall. This could be an opportunity for the NDP to propose some bold, forward-thinking policies. But they, too, seem caught in their own baggage, apparently afraid to reflect on the role of past NDP governments in getting us into our present fix.

So, there’s no serious debate over our record-high carbon or radioactive footprint. Or about carbon pricing. No debate over the Line 3 pipeline from the tar sands, going through our vulnerable prairies. No debate over our dependence on NAFTA, with a “roll the dice” president in the White House. No debate about the health of our watersheds and water, on which all of life depends.

The silence is deafening. It is also counter-productive. A sustainable future is not going to come out of political party bubbles.

How did Saskatchewan end up in this political purgatory?

Did Wall perhaps step down so abruptly because he didn’t want to face the electorate again? Any way you cut it, the Sask Party failed to erase the debt, lower taxes and save for a rainy-day fund. Meanwhile the boom brought an end to rural and northern public transportation.

Perhaps Wall now realizes how vulnerable our economy has become, being so dependent on fossil fuels and the U.S. market. He feverishly promoted continental trade, travelling across the border often to promote our oil. But Trump’s ultra-nationalist, protectionism may not bode well for Wall’s legacy.

Wall was quite successful in his ideological mission. Since he took power the value of exports more than doubled from $16 billion in 2006 to $35 billion in the peak year, 2014. But most telling, half of these record-breaking 2014 exports involved non-renewables, mostly oil, at $13 billion and potash at $5 billion. And two-thirds, or $23 billion of the $35 billion in exports, went straight across the border under NAFTA.

Corporate Rip-Off

But what did this continentalist resource boom bring? What did it leave us?

While exports were doubling, Public Accounts show that the net debt grew from $3 billion in 2009 to more than $12 billion projected for 2018. While the value of exports and profits more than doubled, non-renewable resource revenues remained flat, at around $2 billion a year. And though resource exports remained at $27 billion in 2016, the non-renewable revenue to the province went down to $1.4 billion. This was lower than when resource exports were around half as valuable ($16 billion in 2006) under the previous NDP government.

You do the math on the corporate rip-off.

Even with the “good years”, the Sask Party failed to create a Futures Fund. Why might that be? While the value of resource exports more than doubled, corporate taxes, like non-renewable resource revenues, remained flat, at around $1 billion. And when the Sask Party finally confessed to its debt and introduced austerity after being reelected, it announced it would further lower corporate taxes. So, after this unprecedented resource export boom, we get debt, austerity and increases in the sales tax.

Environmental Rogue province

Wall’s legacy is becoming clear. Our provincial economy is much more dependent on non-renewables, particularly the fossil fuels that fuel the climate crisis. Cost-ineffective carbon capture and ignorant opposition to a price on carbon pollution have made Saskatchewan Canada’s environmental rogue province. The Sask Party failed to diversify the energy sector with job-creating renewables. It favoured toxic agribusiness over sustainable agriculture. Its’ policies squandered environmental health, undercut biodiversity, and further contaminated our watersheds.

This matters a lot, especially to our grandchildren. So where is the discussion? Where is the leadership?

The NDP, perhaps, hopes to regain support from growing disillusionment with the Sask Party. But political opportunism carries big risks. This won’t help the NDP prepare to inherit a multi-billion dollar net debt. This also happened when the Romanow NDP replaced the debt-ridden Grant Devine government. And what did we get then? Cuts to balance the budget and more of the resource economy status quo, which helped us get to where we are.

This time the NDP would inherit a precarious high-carbon economy and dependence on revenue from toxic non-renewables. How would they transition to a sustainable economy? This requires some serious, candid public debate.

It is necessary to understand what the Sask Party has left us. It is also necessary to critically scrutinize past NDP governments that helped lay the ground for Wall’s rise and fall.

Leadership requires honest reflection. Both the Sask Party and the NDP could use a big dose of truth-telling. We need for some truth and reconciliation with the overall electorate. Time is running out for this in the leadership races.

Jim Harding is a retired professor of environmental and justice studies. He is active with the Qu’Appelle Valley Environmental Association. His newest small book, Moving Beyond Neo-Liberalism in Saskatchewan, will be published in January 2018.

 

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THE WRITING WAS ON THE WALL IN SASKATCHEWAN

BY Jim Harding
Retired Professor of Justice Studies,
University of Regina

There have been tongue-in-cheek phrases shared on coffee row and social media as Premier Wall’s support declined. “Up against the wall”, comes to mind. With Wall now leaving the premier’s job, it was “written on the wall” will now be in vogue.

But there is a very serious side to what happened under Wall’s premiership. The Wall government was careful not to table a budget until after it got re-elected in April 2016, and then in 2017 it gave us the real news. Simply put, they kept us in the dark, behind a “wall of deceit”. 

Grass-root “Read-Ins” succeeded in rolling back the $4 million-dollar cut to libraries, but that was easy when the province’s net debt is on its way to $12 billion. Rural and northern communities have lost their public bus system (the STC), the Sask Party is now selling off low-income housing, and privatizing utilities is in the works.

WALL’S REASSURANCES

In Vision 2020 and Beyond, Wall said “non-renewable revenue received by the province will continue to pay down the debt”, and Saskatchewan will become a “debt-free province.” Then “after the province’s debt has been fully retired, the government will establish the Saskatchewan Heritage Fund.Vision 2020 and Beyond, reassured the people of Saskatchewan that “The purpose of growth is to build a better quality of life for all Saskatchewan people”?

Wall talked this way for years. In the 2011-12 budget, he coined his favourite slogan “defining the Saskatchewan advantage.” The 2012-13 budget talked of “maintaining lower debt and historic tax deductions.” The 2013-14 budget talked of balancing “growth with social progress” and the next two were about keeping Saskatchewan “on the path of steady growth”. And after living so long in “Next Year Country” many liked to hear all this up-beat bragging. 

GROWTH, DEBT AND TAXES

So, what happened? 

Certainly “growth” happened. From 2006, when the NDP was last in power, to 2014, the value of exported commodities more than doubled: from $16 to $36 billion. Even with the 2016 “bust” it remained $29 billion.

But what happened with the resource revenue that was to take us out of debt? 

Budgets are largely political documents; Public Accounts tell a more truthful story. Provincial non-renewable revenue went from $1.7 to $2.3 billion from 2006-08, but then, even with the doubling value of exports, the revenue didn’t rise. Corporate-favouring royalties kept revenues around $2 billion-dollars right up to 2015-16, and then they dropped to $1.4 billion, which was lower than when the NDP was still in power.

The only exception was 2008-09, when this revenue rose to $4.1 billion, much of it from potash sales. But, the year after the global financial crash, this revenue dropped sharply to $1.4 billion.

So, what happened to Wall’s promise to retire the debt? While net debt did go down to $3.5 billion in 2009, it rose steadily after that. By 2016 it was larger ($7.9 billion) than it was when Wall was first elected, and it is now projected to be over $12 billion by 2018. So much for Wall’s extraction economy!

And what about Wall’s promise to reduce taxes? We know that, while corporate taxes went down in the 2017 budget, the sales tax went up. We have new taxes on insurance, including on supplementary healthcare. Small businesses are feeling it; we are all feeling it. But the revenue from the sales tax has been steadily rising all along; it went from $.99 billion in 2007 to $1.3 billion in 2016. And what about personal income tax? The amount of revenue here, too, also rose; from $1.9 billion in 2007 to $2.5 billion in 2016.

This contrasts with corporate taxes paid by companies. That revenue was lower than from either sales or income tax. It barely went over $1 billion in 2011 and then dropped to $.85 billion by 2015. It was just $1 billion in 2016, before the rate was cut to 11.5% in 2017. And the Wall government has announced that the corporate tax rate will be lowered further, to 11%, by 2019. 

The resource boom was supposed to take the province out of debt and reduce taxes, but the opposite has happened. Neither resource revenue nor corporate tax revenue increased during the boom and now it is ordinary people that are expected to pay off the rising debt. And, to also endure severe cuts to environmental protection, education, health, and housing, while paying even more.

But there is more. To make the accumulating deficit and debt seem smaller, Wall has been selling off crownland at bargain basement prices. From 2008-16 the Sask Party government sold over $2 billion dollars of crownland. This is one-time money and these sales continue to erode the commons. And now there is Bill 40, which reneges on Wall’s promise to hold a referendum before any utilities are privatized. Selling up to 49% will also be one-time money, but the cost of privatized gas, power and communications would go up for us all. Again, we have to pay for the Sask Party’s pro-corporate legacy debt.  And the province will forever lose this source of future revenue from the utilities.

HERITAGE FUND

In 2012 Premier Wall commissioned a report on “a permanent Saskatchewan Future’s Fund…to become a lasting source of wealth while stabilizing government use of these volatile resources.” The Sask Party government could have started socking away resource revenue earlier, e.g. in 2008, when it hit a record $4.1 billion. A Heritage Fund could have even helped Saskatchewan transition towards renewable energy, to lower its extremely high carbon footprint. During Wall’s “boom years” Saskatchewan surpassed Alberta as having the highest per capita carbon footprint; 68 tonnes per year, which is over three times the Canadian average.

But, no, Wall stubbornly stuck with coal-generated electricity, opposed carbon pricing, embraced bitumen pipelines, and even flirted with costly and toxic nuclear power. He has sunk billions into questionable carbon capture. His government was hit with hundreds of millions in unbudgeted costs from extreme flooding and mega-forest fires, linked to changing climate, which Wall ignores. He started an exorbitant bypass and global transportation infrastructure on borrowed money. He kept corporate royalties and taxes low during the good times and spent like crazy. And now the rest of us have to pay. And now he’s leaving, some might say “bailing”, so he doesn’t have to face the electorate in 2020.

NEO-LIBERAL BUBBLE BURSTS

What happened to Wall’s reassurance that “The purpose of growth is to build a better quality of life for all Saskatchewan people”?

People outside Saskatchewan may be wondering whether we became a gullible people. Rather than keeping our healthy prairie skepticism, did we start to believe what we wanted to hear? And was the small NDP opposition a bit hoodwinked by all the talk of being a resource-rich have-province? Did most everyone get pulled along by the neo-liberal myth of trickle-down wealth?

Wall likes to contrast himself positively with former NDP governments. But a similar scenario occurred during the Blakeney NDP years of resource expansion (1971-82). That government also spent all the non-renewable revenues it had socked away in its short-lived Heritage Fund. It, too, spent resource revenue to build the infrastructure for more extraction of toxic non-renewables, including for the uranium industry. 

But one thing differed; the NDP did not leave the province with a huge debt. That came with Grant Devine’s Conservatives, which followed the Blakeney NDP, which the Romanow NDP had to address when it took power in 1991.

Wall worked with the Devine Conservatives, and even though he helped rebrand the Sask Party, the province has ended up in an even worse place. This time we not only have a fiscal debt but a huge energy and environmental one, which the next government will inherit. Wall’s cavalier politics has left our land, air and watersheds at greater risk. Anyone looking closely would have seen that the writing was on the Wall.     

Contact author at: djharding@sasktel.net

 

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More Discussion of Diversity Is Needed:

Open Letter to The Sunday Edition, CBC Radio, December 22, 2016
BY Jim Harding Ph D

Your recent radio panel on diversity just scratched the surface. This is important stuff so please do more.

It was predictable that you would get some blowback, for most of us are still using terms that come from racializing other people. Even the victims of racialization can inherit this way.

Language matters and it, too, has to evolve for diversity, multiculturalism and human rights to become the global norm. And I am not talking about being “politically correct”.

For example, while we know that there are no “races”, only the human race, we are still talking in terms of “race relations”. Even Obama does this. We are all still somewhat caught, even a bit trapped, with the baggage of language that arose from colonizing and racializing (othering) people.

We are still very much immersed in this language. Just today, as I wrote this to you, two news stories revealed this. One was on CBC TV’s The National. It spoke of South Africa’s Apartheid system “separating white from other races”. But there is no “white race” and there never was; nor has skin colour explained anything about people’s ethnic and cultural heritages. Just because the Apartheid regime used racism to maintain oppressive control does not mean we should still talk in these terms. Who was overseeing that CBC story?

Certainly, collective heritage that involves the racializing of colour can become part of a cultural or political identity. Black Lives Matter is a response to brutal policing that stems from the history of the racialization that persists from slavery and segregation. But we’d never refer to everyone else as being “non-black”, from a black supremacist perspective? There is no “black race”, just like there is no “white race”.

Continuing to talk of a “white race” or any race at all just confounds discourse and encourages supremacism.

DNA research will continue to show our common and overlapping heritages, regardless of skin tone or any genetic variation that affects appearance. Lots of identity politics is going to go the way of the Flat Earth Society. All supremacists of whatever “shade or colour” or ethnic nationalism should take a DNA test to find out their evolutionary roots. It’s an exciting time, a time to wake up.

But the racializing language can be subtle.

There was also a story about how a Mohawk community has banned “non-indigenous people” from living there. If a woman or man considered Mohawk married a person who is not of Mohawk background, they can’t live there. Offspring will be shunned, as were those of Metis heritage in Canada’s darker history. This is a reactionary reversion.

Referring to people as being “nons”, never works. We won’t tolerate the use of the term “non-white”, but somehow being referred to as “non-indigenous” is in vogue. Hopefully this is just a stage in embracing Reconciliation. It would be much more fruitful to call all of us, indigenous and settler, from all continents, as Treaty People. That would be the language of inclusion, not othering.

None of us can be respected or understood if we are treated as a “non”. To get past the colonializing, racializing language we all need to be referred to in direct terms, not as an “other”.

Being referred to as a “non” or “the other” is a path to ethnocentrism and even chauvinism. It reinforces the dangerous “us and them”. We presently see the Conservative Party grappling with whether it is going to continue to play the Trump-like politics of “us and them”, regarding “Canadian values”. This can become a path to protecting the “purity” of one’s culture or nation or even “race”. This will go nowhere good. Canada needs to keep moving on.

I refer to myself as a settler, as my great grandparents all came from Ireland or Scotland. If asked I explain I am of Celtic-Canadian heritage, though DNA tests will likely reveal much more. Our self-identity as a “Canadian” already acknowledges the relationship of us all to indigenous history (“Kanata” was an Iroquois-Huron term for “village”).  I am not “non-indigenous”, or “non-English”, for that matter. I am not a “non-anything”, any more than someone from an indigenous or visible minority background (not a very revealing term) is “non-white”, or “non-Anglo-Saxon” or non-anything.
Supremacy and chauvinism can be two sides of a coin. All of us have to shed the baggage.

Perhaps we can also learn from the Kiwis. Their citizens who have European, so-called foreign ancestry (it was mainly English at the start) are often called Pakeha, which is a Maori term for people who came by boat from afar. They are not called “non-Maori”. Many street signs in New Zealand’s capital have Maori-indigenous names; we should do a similar thing here.

In our search for post-colonial identities of self and mutual respect we still get stranded by terms that have racializing-othering connotations. To learn to live with our evolving diversity we will need to move on to find terms that affirm all of us; that build our relationships, as one race, the human race, and can steadily move us towards reconciliation.

Perhaps you could explore this aspect of “diversity”; it will bring more of us into the important conversation.

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INSIGHTS FROM OUR SPLIT BRAIN: Part 2, EVOLUTION, NEUROSCIENCE AND OUR QUEST FOR SUSTAINABILTY

BY Jim Harding Ph D

We now know that our evolved brain is somewhat split, with a right and left hemisphere. Interconnected and always communicating through the corpus callosum, these hemispheres nevertheless nurture different qualities of consciousness. The right hemisphere is more linked to visual and spatial orientation whereas the left is more linked to thought and speech. Meanwhile, each hemisphere coordinates the other side of the body; it is an exquisitely evolved system.

RIGHT AND LEFT HEMISPHERES

Without oversimplifying this, our logical and more linear left hemisphere tends to nurture awareness of individual identity, including our orientation through time. This can shape a consciousness of separation, which in turn leads us to query or makes assertions about “I”; “What am I? I am what?”?” For simplicity let’s call this the “existential hemisphere”.

The right hemisphere tends to nurture awareness about the present moment, to process the sensory explosion and field of energy within which we all exist. This can shape a consciousness of connection, which leads us to query or hold beliefs about “this”; “What is this? This is what?” Again for simplicity let’s call this the “environmental hemisphere”.

After brain scientist Jill Taylor suffered a hemorrhage in her left hemisphere she watched her awareness of the separate “I” disappear and finally had to surrender to the cosmic “we”. After surgery it took her eight years to recuperate. See her 2008 Ted Talk “A stroke of Insight”.

AVOIDING EXTREMES

Our self-awareness about our unique existence can take us in very different directions; it can go from “I am nothing” to “I am everything”. Both extremes are dangerous to us as individuals and to our communities. Whether we separate or merge our identity, we are setting ourselves and others up for surplus suffering. Compassionately respecting each other’s human rights is very different than dissociation or, on the other extreme, merging with totalitarian-like rule.

Right hemisphere awareness is more free-floating and thus linked to music, creativity and belonging. We have always needed awareness of our tribe-community and our habitat and this awareness can keep us from being self-absorbed. In an evolutionary sense we have clearly needed both kinds of awareness – as a vulnerable, individual organism and as an interdependent social being.

Once we evolved into a fully mobile, bi-pedal social animal we had to scan the immediate environment for food and danger and to build and maintain our essential social support networks. However, the human infant is the most vulnerable and dependent of any primate and must be cared for at length while our “big brain” grows and develops. Without our big brain we can’t become fully human; in that sense our big brain and our need for society are inextricably linked.

Yet as a highly socialized animal we are also vulnerable. Rather than having an open, probing, scanning awareness, we can become conditioned to believe that “this is what the groups says it is”, or “this is what authority says it is”, or “this is what the belief system I was born into says it is”.

HUMANITARIAN WISDOM

The combination of the two brain hemispheres created the capacities for human survival, expansion and the quick (60,000 year) colonization of the planet. However, this also created the conditions for subservience and mass delusion. Climate denying is one big example. The crucial question now is, can the revolution in neuroscience encourage the self-awareness and self-regulation required to be sustainable as a species?

Wisdom can be seen as finding balance in the orientations – the verbal and visual, the logical and artistic. I think it is helpful if we think of this as balancing the existential and the environmental. This is not at all straight-forward, for the reactive or reptilian brain and the emotional and memory-shaping mammalian brain are always influencing our thoughts and behavior. While we are inclined towards existential and environmental awareness, we are also being pulled between arousal (amygdala) and foresight (neo-cortex). It is indeed quite a balancing act.

BALANCE DESIREABLE

If a child grows up to feel and believe that “I am threatened” and “this is a dangerous place”, then finding balance will be much harder.How society is ordered, one’s formative experiences, and the depth of the human support one has, will all shape how one feels about “I” and “this”. We can all be distracted and even immobilized by strong beliefs about the “I” or the “this”. And yet, as we learn more about our complex selves, our interdependence and how the two brain hemispheres can work together, we can all move towards balance.

Our beliefs matter. We can tend towards the narcissistic and/or delusional. We are always being challenged to maintain our orientation in time (mortality) and space (presence); our personal and communal wellbeing depends on this. The power of the “tribe” can lead us to merge the “I” with a restrictive view about what “this is”. We can racialize or demonize others, relegate others to another status, gender, class or nation. And we can even embrace and violently defend such limiting self-other identities. We see this aggressive parochialism in our midst; I’ve seen it in local politics.

CARRYING ON

But our two brain hemispheres somehow got us to where we are. Deepening our awareness about these evolved capacities, and how we can go off the rails, is vital for our sustainability. Even in the midst of the turmoil in the present world, clarity about how our complex brain operates and can pull us in differing directions, can help us steer ourselves in a more careful way.

We are always somewhere between arousal and self-regulation, between animalistic survival and curious inquiry. When we are shut down and resigned to habitual beliefs about what “I am” or what “this is” we become more self-annihilating. But we all know that we have a higher capacity, upon which we can continue to build. Mindfulness and compassion, together, can be seen as a way to balance the existential and the environmental awareness that comes with the push and pull of the left and right brain hemispheres. The prospects are exciting.

In Part 3 I’ll explore what we can learn from our hominoid ancestors.

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EVOLUTION, NEURO-SCIENCE AND THE QUEST FOR SUSTAINABILITY

Part 1 in a Series

BY Jim Harding, Ph D

There’s a new TV series about “the enlightenment”. It’s not about the renaissance and the rise of science after the Middle Ages in Western Europe. It looks back further, to the changes in worldview that occurred across many cultures in the ancient world, around 400-500 BC.

It takes Buddhism out of the context of comparative religion, where it is often placed because of its origins in Hinduism, and places Buddha alongside Socrates and Confucius, associating them all with the growth of reason, insights into natural law and growing awareness about the responsibilities that come with this emerging awareness. All three philosophers lived within expanding urban environments where people were being challenged to outgrow their parochial roots. The new realities gave birth to different versions of what came to be known as the Golden Rule.

This is timely, for our path to sustainability will rely on this ongoing enlightenment. Some believe we are re-entering such a period as we grapple with the challenges of diversity and sustainability, though it’s hard to see this with all the ecological, cultural and religious blowback we are facing. Some political tendencies, especially nativistic nationalism, make it seem like we are in a period of regression and reaction. The desperate migration of humans escaping warfare, failed states, climate change or burgeoning inequality certainly doesn’t seem to display much human enlightenment.

The present clash over whether Britain should or should not, stay in the European Union (EU) reveals the desire of many to consolidate and restrict identity and immigration in a period of growing human encounter. It’s is very different to say “I am and want to stay English” than to say “I am European”. It’s probably time we simply said “I am human”.

If we look beneath all this, we could be on the edge of a leap in human species self-awareness. As in the time of Buddha, Socrates and Confucius, this requires letting go of fixed identities. This time we likely have to discover why we need and how we form identities and to learn to do this in more peace-loving ways. The global human rights movement is a good beginning. There are no guarantees, but if we don’t embrace the enlightenment in our midst, the leap to a more sustainable life will be much harder to make.

PSYCHOLOGICAL ROOTS

In the mid-1960s when I was studying psychology, the field was in a fast transition into physiology. We had a joke at the time that “first psychology lost its soul, then it lost its mind and now it is having trouble with its behavior.” Psychology was leaving behind religious “explanations”, Freudianism was discrediting simplistic views of human consciousness, and many naively thought that we were primarily a bundle of conditioned behavior. The physiological model was still mechanistic, asserting that the “mind” could be explained by brain function and function was mostly reduced to brain structure.

We have now learned about what’s called our neuroplasticity: our ability to relearn brain-body functions damaged through strokes, diseases or accident. In our unequal society, not all patients have equal access to the medical-therapeutic programs required for this profound rehabilitation; I have a friend who suffered from encephalitis who didn’t have access to timely, persistent recovery-rehabilitation. Our new awareness about neuroplasticity, that what “fires together wires together”, is however already inspiring us to try new ways. Insights into PTSD, mindfulness training and advances in neuroscience have all mushroomed. This deepening knowledge has immense implications for us moving forward.

NEUROSCIENCE

We have discovered much about our evolved brain. We don’t have different brains, as some allege, rather our central nervous system has co-evolved through different species-stages. We could say we have a reptilian brain, a mammal brain and a primate brain all wrapped up in our human body.

The reptilian brain is associated with the cerebellum, and is tied to regulating bodily function. The mammalian brain is associated with the limbic system and is tied to memory and emotion. And the primate brain is associated with the neo-cortex and is tied to thought, language and imagination.

We couldn’t be fully human without all these capacities. Our so-called higher functions, which we associate with culture and science, require memory, emotion and bonding, and none of this would be possible without a self-regulated body. Our capacity for sentience and for compassion depends upon this interwoven “whole”. I can’t help wondering why traditionally-religious people sometimes seem reluctant to learn about how such an intricate, interwoven web-of-life has evolved on this planet.

Our interwoven brain has a long and continuing history. The first brain developed with fish starting about 500 million years ago, the second came with small mammals about 150 million years ago and the third came with our primate ancestors only about 2 or 3 million years ago. This interwoven brain has evolved into an integrated system with inter-connected neural pathways. It’s no wonder that we sometimes feel caught between animism and having delusions of human separation and supremacy. Neither view of human nature or human prospects is sustainable; it’s time to let go and move on.

SELF-REGULATION

With this new knowledge we seem able, though probably not quite ready, to better understand what and who we are. Romanticized and other delusional views will continue to erode. And we can become much more content with who and what we are as a human species if we more fully accept how we ended up with, and learn to live with, our capacities and vulnerabilities.

We don’t want to misunderstand or mystify the interwoven brain as though it is like a programmed computer; it is not. We are a hormonal, social and spiritual being all at once and we are highly challenged straddling all these dimensions. We sometimes “go off the rails”. We know that we can go off the rails collectively, as we’ve done with genocide, preparing for nuclear war or with climate denial. Our increasingly interdependent species, which has the technological and economic prowess to alter the bio-physical processes of evolution itself, now clearly needs to make a big leap.

Next time I’ll explore what our “split brain” may suggest about our species’ capacity to become more sustainable.

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THE FORT McMURRAY MEGA-FIRE: WE ARE WAY PAST WAKE-UP CALLS

By Jim Harding, PhD

Nearly 90,000 environmental refugees in once oil-rich Alberta; who would have imagined? A seemingly endless cavalcade of frightened people in vehicles spewing more carbon as they escape an inferno! And the outpouring of support from fellow Canadians, who might have once believed that Alberta was going to be the engine of Canada’s economic future.

By Mother’s Day there were already 200,000 hectares of forest turned into more carbon going into the steadily warming atmosphere. The fire zone was doubling daily. There were huge oil-storage tanks at the tar-sands which some worried were at risk of exploding. Memories of Kuwait!

No science-fiction here.

The mass media naturally focused on the human drama and largely ignored the climate crisis, comparing the devastation, with 2,400 buildings gone up in flames, to a “war zone”. The only war here is on nature with humans everywhere now facing blowback from human-induced, evolutionary-scale changes occurring on the planet.

Fly-in journalists look for compelling stories of crisis, courage and compassion. One oil-worker who had escaped the flames simply said, “we’ve got some good clean air to breath today, that’s all you need”. This was his animal self talking. Another woman calmly said it’s “the scariest thing in my life” and described the “mad panic, the panic on everyone’s faces” as people drove ferociously to get through the fire. There will be much trauma along with damaged lungs.

Meanwhile satellite images showed the smoke rising from the 200 foot flames already making it to Florida. I checked to ensure I had some good masks here in the Qu’Appelle Valley to be able to walk our dog and work in the garden if we were to get a smoke inversion, as we did for nearly a week last summer from the northern fires.

POLITICAL BUBBLES

Is this going to be our new normal? There shouldn’t be anything normal about not being able to take clean air and water for granted. What have we done? And why is it taking so many people so long to catch on?

The bubbles of many Albertans were already bursting when the price of oil collapsed. Some political bubbles have also burst, most importantly around Harper’s centralized control of the Canadian state. No one saw a NDP government coming in Alberta. No one saw the Leap Document moving to the political mainstream as social democrats, easily mesmerized by their own version of “jobs at any cost”, started to seethe bigger picture.

NOT A SURPRISE

Environment Canada’s senior climatologist didn’t respond with naïve shock when asked if he was surprised by the scale of the wildfire. He simply said “not really” and reminded us that in the prairie provinces it’s been an all-time record dry winter, an earliest ever and record dry spring and that the winter was the 2nd warmest on record. He referred to the conditions as “desert like”.

We can’t attribute any particular fire to climate change, and El Nino and Alberta’s aging forests increased the chances of such a catastrophic wildfire. But, let’s not be naïve, for these influences all occur with the backdrop of steadily rising global temperatures.

Meanwhile politicians from Edmonton to Ottawa will continue to express solidarity and promise support. There will be much praise for the volunteerism; already over $80 million has been raised for the Red Cross, to be matched by both levels of government.

And there will be some heart-felt identity politics: “It’s a tough day for Albertans but we will persevere”, said interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose.

But our special identities aren’t going to matter much or save us from the path we have placed ourselves on. It’s going to take something much deeper than reactive care or talk of “returning and rebuilding”. If the billions spent rebuilding is done in an ecologically-responsible way it will expand renewables to make Fort McMurray less dependent on fossil fuels. Then we’d know that Premier Notley means business.

NOT KARMA

Alberta’s mega-fire might surpass Quebec’s 1998 ice storm as our all-time record insurance bill. Calgary’s 2013 flooding is also on the short list. Alberta is clearly getting more than its share of the blowback from the extreme weather that is coming with fossil-fuels and global warming.

One NDP member got into trouble for tweeting that the firestorm was karma for the tar-sands. Not really; climate change won’t punish high-carbon areas as it devastates and traumatizes humans and other creatures on the planet. Most of the environmental repercussions will occur in low-carbon, impoverished regions of the world. Whether you blame El Nino, climate change or more accurately, both, the droughts presently ravaging east Africa and interior India are creating millions not thousands of environmental refugees.

The compassion for the Fort McMurray refugees may yet grow into global compassion and understanding, such as occurred over Syria’s refugees, many of whom were environmental as well as war refugees.

We continue to see new, high global temperatures and recently, each month the rise has been edging upward. Once climate changes become non-linear and the “feed-back loops” kick in, like more mega-fires releasing even more carbon, we are going to be in greater trouble. Reactive crisis management, even with great waves of compassion, will not be enough; our resilience needs to be shored up with awareness and commitment to make big changes. Unfortunately there are still a lot of people in denial, making ill-conceived incremental decisions that contribute to the crisis.

Simply put, we do not have a lot of time to face up to what greed-oriented industrial growth is doing to undermine the conditions of complex life on a planetary scale. We are well past the time of wake-up calls.

Perhaps outgrowing our nationalism and parochialism and waking up as a species is what is now required. And it must happen quickly.

Next time I’ll start a series on how neuroscience and our growing knowledge about evolution may help us get on a more sustainable path.

Posted in Climate Change, Ecology, Human Impact, R-Town News, Sustainability | Tagged , , , ,