Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Carbon Bubble

The Carbon Bubble: What Happens to Us When It Bursts Jeff Rubin Random House Canada 2015 $32.00 305 pp ISBN 978-0-045-81469-2 Jeff Rubin was the Chief Economist at CIBC World Markets for over 20 years. What we hoped seems to be coming true: At the same time as the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) predicts that we can continue to burn carbon at the rate we’re doing it now, for 27 more years before we raise the global temperature by 2 degrees, Rubin points out that the precipitous drop in the price of oil has given humankind a natural incentive to adapt. It’s nature’s way of telling thickheaded humanity that the carbon-burning age is over, it’s time to advance to the next stage-the green economy, green power. Rubin says, “….conventional, easy to access, low cost oil peaked about a decade ago….All recent increases in global supply have come from high-cost unconventional sources such as oil sands, shale formations and deepwater wells.” “As we’ve seen, the rapid expansion of the country’s high cost oil sands is simply unsustainable in today’s marketplace.” As a banker Rubin advises people that green investment is replacing coal and oil investment. This is to emphasize that Canada’s future is not, as Harper’s government insisted, to be found in exporting tar sands products to the rest of the world. Rubin says, “For years we have been warned that switching to green energy sources reduces economic growth. In the past, going green came at the expense of economic growth. In a carbon emissions-constrained future, the greener the economy, the more room it has to grow” Rubin also tells us that a Canadian, Dr. Abraham Gesner, first developed a process for producing kerosene from crude oil. Up until then it was used for tar pitch to pave roads. The first oil well drilled in North America was drilled in SW Ontario, in Oil Springs, Ontario, a year before (1858) Col Drake drilled his well in Titusville, Penn. “Canada’s tar sands (the Alberta government spent millions of dollars in a PR campaign to change the name from “tar sands” to “oil sands”) are one of the most emission-intensive and costly sources of oil in the world.” At $100 a barrel, the oil sands are a huge untapped reserve, at $20 a barrel, they’re not worth the bother. USA and European oil consumption is falling. The recent Paris Conference emphasized that we must switch to renewables from carbon–burning based technologies. Rubin was one of the first unapologetic public figures to call Canada’s insistence on tar sands development, “Dutch Disease”. This naming of Canada’s economic dependence on oil was laughed off by the Harper Conservatives when Dalton McGuinty and Thomas Mulcair mentioned it but it proved to be true. Dutch disease, not to be confused with the disease which is killing elm trees, is the unintended pushing up of the value of the Dutch gilder in the 70’s when Holland discovered it possessed a hitherto unknown supply of offshore natural gas. The rising value of the gilder rendered huge swaths of the country’s manufacturing sector uncompetitive. In order to transport bitumen from the tar sands of Alberta to the east coast so that it can be exported or refined, the bitumen (with the consistency of a hockey puck) must be diluted to flow through a pipeline or to be loaded onto rail cars. The company, Enbridge, in this case, has offered to build a pipeline for the purpose which it will finance by charging the captive residents of Ontario exorbitant prices for its natural gas. Since the US president has rejected a pipeline, the alternative is to transport the bitumen by train. Coincidentally, the fourth richest man in the world, Warren Buffet, just bought the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway for $34 billion, a freight railroad network which owns over five thousand kilometres of track across the western two-thirds of the US. In a related purchase the year before, he bought Union Tank Car in the US and Procor Ltd. in Canada, the companies which manufacture the DOT-111 tanker cars used to haul oil from booming shale plays like the Bakken in North Dakota and Montana to refineries in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New Brunswick. In the early 1950s Donald Baker, a planning engineer in the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, visualized a huge water diversion which would solve the Californian irrigation-drought problems. It was based on a plan which would redirect the water flow of Alaska, the Yukon and British Columbia into huge reservoirs. Environmentalists on both sides of the border were horrified by what implementing the plan would do to the watersheds of the Pacific Northwest. Thankfully, the scheme was too expensive at the time and never got off the ground. The Prime Minister of Canada at that time, Lester Pearson, as well as the Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, were both enamoured of the plan. In 2008, Peter Lougheed, the former premier of Alberta, told the Globe and Mail, “With climate change and growing needs, Canadians will need all the fresh water we can conserve, particularly in the western provinces…I hope when the time comes, Canada will be ready. The reality is that fresh water is more valuable than crude oil”. The oil sands used 170 million cubic metres of water in 2011, an amount equivalent to the yearly domestic water usage of 1.7 million Canadians. This book touches on the important points which we are all thinking about. Even those of us who deny the reality of climate change must finally face the facts that put tar sands extraction firmly in the territory of financial impossibility, impracticality. As Canada’s temperatures rise, more and more fertile soil combines with longer and longer growing seasons to produce bigger and bigger crops of corn, soy beans, wheat and even wine grapes. At the same time former arable land will become less productive as prolonged droughts and less precipitation result in the loss of moisture in the topsoil. Canada’s rising temperatures will eventually make it into one of the earth’s breadbaskets. Temperatures in the High Arctic are the highest they’ve been in 40,000 years and possibly, in 120,000 years. In just the past 50 years, temperatures have risen 4 degrees in the Canadian Artic. A ship sailed from Dalian, China to Rotterdam, using the Northern Sea Route (as the Northwest Passage is known in Russia), shaving off 24,000 nautical miles with attendant fuel savings and shortening the trip from 48 days to 35. A month later the ship, Nordic Orion, sailed from BC to Finland through the Northwest Passage, saving 4 days and 1,000 km with attendant fuel savings. The Carbon Bubble states clearly that Canada’s economic future will be found in hydropower, which we possess in abundance, food production, with arable land extending further north as the planet warms up and shipping goods through the Northwest Passage.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Urn

It wasn’t that he was depressed by death but Simon had won millions in the lottery and was diagnosed with a disease which gave him a year to live, in the same day. He knew that a person couldn’t live a life without music, but could without tv sports. And yet, they were equal in his former life, life before the tumour and the lottery. It wasn’t something anyone would wish for, that day. He was an instant celebrity among the medical community who dealt with brain tumours. Out of five hundred per year on which they operated at that hospital, his tumour was the first of its kind. Doctors even flew in from the States and Europe to join the throng of scientists and students. They wanted to see this tumour while he was alive, carrying it around in his brain. He was inconvenienced by the hours spent laying still while the machinery showed the crowd his brain tumour. Sometimes he felt like a pioneer, letting the doctors study the thing. Other times, it was a depressing pain in the ass. He called it, “Tommy”. Tommy the tumour. He checked the lottery number the day of the first catscan, out of habit, won twenty million Canadian dollars. The World Series was on, an exciting one, the NBA was starting up, the NFL was having a good season, the CFL was finishing and the NHL was dormant. There was a lockout. No NHL in Canada that winter. That was the only push he needed away from inactivity which was his usual state during winter. No National Hockey League on tv. Sitting in the basement, in front of the tv for another winter, was out. It took some time to get around to actually doing something about it. The idea came slowly at first, then, one morning, he rolled out of bed with it fixed in his mind. He would face death. He would plan for his own. There had been cremations and holes dug for graves as long as man had been around. The idea of honouring the dead didn’t seem outlandish to him. The existence of death as something unknowable was comforting in a way. He decided to investigate urns. Greta, Simon’s wife, sat in front of the wood stove with the blue spot in her hand. She stared at the morning talk show on tv then she looked at the blue spot. Simon saw from behind her that she had cut the blue spot from the tabloid on the footstool before her. Simon knew that she had had one a few years ago. Greta believed in the good luck of blue spots. “Blue spots again?” he said. She looked around with a dreamy grin. “Says you can get a laminated one” “Hmph. Laminated one” Simon walked slowly down the basement stairs to retrieve more wood for the stove. There was new snow to shovel, urns to consider He knew that he had a year to live. And that he had twenty million dollars to spend. Urns seemed to be the place to start. He remembered the guy at the hockey pool who nodded to an urn containing his mother’s ashes on the mantle. “That’s Mom there” Simon remembered toasting the urn of the lady who’d been around the hockey pools from the very beginning. It stuck in his mind. There were all kinds of urns on the internet. Like caskets, they varied in price. Simon wasn’t sure if it mattered what kind of urn his ashes should be in. There was an online discount catalogue on the Happy Cremation website. They had pictures of the urns in several groupings. They were made of bronze, copper, acrylics, hardwood, and marble. There were personalized, engraved urns, miniatures and jewelled ones in which one could carry around a pinch of ash. There were special ones for land and sea in the scattering collection. Winning the lottery entailed legal and media demands but Simon managed to keep he and Greta away from the bright lights. At first, they were flooded with requests for interviews and money but they held out against the pressure. By the time the requests finally petered out, they had adjusted. Simon gave Greta half of the twenty million, tried to figure out what to do with his half. There was the tropical paradise fantasy where he paid everyone’s air fare and accommodation for a two week party. Everyone he knew or had ever known. Even some he didn’t know. Then, there was the world travel in first class fantasy. Much more fun to do alone, Simon thought. Yes, Greta’ll have to find something to do with her money then. Something to keep her busy. The funerals of close friends and family had eventually worn Simon down. There was so much sadness and bravery and secret bleeding. So much suffering. Eventually, it wore him down. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the ceremonies of death in the religions, the evolution of the funeral industry, they appeared phony and superficial at the same time as they seemed to hold the real answers. He couldn’t quite equate any of it with his own death. He expected depression when he contemplated death, but it never came. In front of the computer, poring over the books, watching programmes on death and euthenasia on tv, none of it brought the negative feelings he expected. The cremation sites said that the human body was reduced to a three pound pile of dust and bone chips after cremation. They put a certain amount in the urn, or, if an urn was too expensive or not desired, the portion of dust was retained in a plastic cylinder until somebody picked it up. The kind of urn, the urn itself, in fact, should be picked out in advance. There were helpful articles for every contingency on the funeral websites. The doctors urged Simon to experiment with new, untested but promising treatments. He thought about it and rejected it. With ten million to spend in a year, it just didn’t seem right. He knew he would be expected to live with doctors’ appointments, hospitals, needles, unknown treatments, all of the things which he hated about being sick. They even appealed to him to act as a guinea pig for the sake of others, for the sake of future generations. None of it swayed Simon. When the most insistent and persuasive forced him, he would make almost the right noises. As soon as they were gone, he returned to his normal state. He realised that it was his death they were talking about. And he wasn’t sacrificing it. Why Greta should still care about the good luck of the blue spot when she had ten million dollars to spend was a question to which Simon didn’t know the answer. A person should be able to amuse themselves with ten million. How much more good luck did she need? Simon considered the pain which would be felt at his permanent departure. He decided that those affected would get over it. He read an eleven hundred page novel which outlined the history of London, England, spanned generations and centuries and put his existence and death into perspective. The courier delivered the package. Simon unpacked the urn, put it on top of his basement tv, watched it. It was a marble container, handsome in itself, tastefully and strongly made. He didn’t debate the choice for long. In fact, marble was the first material Simon saw on the cremation website. It didn’t matter whether it was made of an acrylic material or bronze or some kind of hardwood, it was an urn, a container of the ashes of human remains. In this case, his. Simon sat on his couch in the basement and watched his urn. It was tequila day for Greta and her friends. Every month they had a day dedicated to a designated drink. Now that she was rich, they could really indulge their little get togethers. Greta paid for the taxis and all the booze. Every one of them had a blue spot in her purse, some were shown openly. The various tequila drinks which were being mixed and consumed, urged them on to tear jerking, nostalgic flashbacks. Greta made up her mind, bought everyone a return flight to Dublin, expenses included. They took off at the end of a crazy, drunken day. Simon was left behind after his first refusal. No one insisted. They left him alone. He sat in the basement of the old house staring at the urn. The new house was being built on one hundred acres on the river, to the west. Custom tailored, every detail overseen by Simon and Greta. They didn’t have to, they could afford not to, but they were interested. The remains of a person can fit into that urn, Simon thought. Even if it’s kept dusted, eventually, it’ll be pushed further back on the shelves. It’ll probably end up in a garage sale in fifty years. Maybe in twenty. Simon took it for granted that Greta would want a casket, preferably made of metal, to keep the worms out as long as possible. She would demand a plot and a headstone. She would resent his being different. But Greta was wrong on this one, Simon thought. The final act was no one’s but the person’s who was dying. They had the final word. Simon picked up the smooth, heavy urn, sat down to contemplate it. It was a little like a portable grave. Whoever found the urn worthy of keeping could retain his ashes for a while. Simon knew that he didn’t really care because he was convinced that such a small detail will be forgotten when the change from life to death is complete. It won’t be important enough to matter and he won’t care. It is better, he thought, to leave others behind with as little muss, fuss and bother as possible. He found the messy suicides and killings which were reported every day on tv and in the papers, selfish and inconsiderate. When the house up the river was finished he would be able to sit in his hot tub with all the Jacuzzi jets and watch the big screen tv above it, at the foot of the indoor pool. He’d be surrounded by the thirty foot windows. Now he sat on the couch in the basement in front of the small colour tv and tried to put his hand into the urn. Three fingers and a small portion of the twisted hand was all that would fit in. He replaced the top and put the urn back on the shelf beside the tv. Greta arrived home with her girlfriends, frazzled and worn, but in good spirits. She joined Simon on his trips up the river to watch the construction of the house until his travel arrangements were made. Simon travelled around the world, first class, with his urn. After Bejing, Hong Kong and New Delhi, he’d had enough of the East and settled for Amsterdam, Paris and London for the remainder of his trip. Where he had once walked, a member of the unwashed millions, he now was driven by taxi or limo. Things he couldn’t afford, decades ago, when he travelled, Simon bought, played with and discarded, now. Fewer waits, shorter lines. The urn was given a central spot in the expensive hotel rooms. There were other classes of rich people travelling around in insulated comfort above him but they didn’t inspire envy in him. He was happy to visit the old haunts and return home. Greta and Simon had long ago reached an agreement by default. Whichever one was unhappy would leave. Rules were relaxed for the once in a lifetime experience of winning the lottery, they acted like mature adults. Both kept their indiscretions to themselves. The new house was completed when Simon returned home. Greta and her friends had resumed their routine of liquor days once a month. Simon noticed Tommy demanding more attention as he settled in to watch sports on the big screen tv above the hot tub. The nerves which were affected by the growth of the tumour in his brain, controlled balance and physical coordination, on one side. He caught himself losing his balance more often, noticed more of a pronounced tremor in his right hand. The urn sat under the screen where he could drop his eyes to it. Greta and her friends were observing vodka day which led them to be driven to Montreal for smoked meat. There they bought return tickets to St John’s to watch the dawn and Victoria to beat it across the country. They found Simon dead when they got back. He was sitting in the hot tub below the big tv screen, the urn beside him. The note made it clear that Simon was aware of the increasing symptoms and the approaching ETA of death. He couldn’t see having people look after him, no matter how well they were paid. He knew that he wasn’t willing to go through a lot of painful suffering. The remains of the joints sat in the ashtray beside the empty beer bottles. The two pills had been washed down with the beer. They produced the desired end; drowsy, sleepy, painless. Everyone knew it was coming but it was still shocking and, somehow, sudden. Greta had Simon’s remains cremated and placed in his urn. She put it under the big tv screen in the pool room, beneath the thirty foot windows which looked out on the river and the sky above it. There were hardwood trees surrounding the house, birds in the bush beyond in all four seasons. At times, the largest nieces and nephews, when they were visiting Greta and using her pool, produced a huge splash with a cannonball from the second story of the pool room beside the water slide. Occasionally a drop flew over the hot tub and landed on the urn. Greta always thought of Simon as too lazy and disinterested to dress up, but he wasn’t a total slob. She knew, in his way, that he liked a bit of cleanliness in this disordered, messy world. She gave the maid strict orders to dust the urn every day until the garage sale.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Canadian Perspective

There were only four of us. It was autumn and we had succumbed to the temptation which beckoned us every year - raking. The death of summer warmth and the prospect of freezing winter ahead combined to produce a longing, a yearning which could only be satisfied by the smell of burning leaves. Of course, the football season was in full swing and the hockey season about to start and we all had wives and kids and responsibilities but we couldn’t help it. Next year the sons would be old enough to accompany us to this hidden meadow deep in the forest. A father would pass onto his son the various techniques of raking, the various kinds of rakes. Secret knowledge. We each took a side and worked our way into the middle. The fire was in the middle, fed frequently by rakers with dry wood and colourful leaves. Maple leaves, oak leaves, elm leaves, you name it, this forest had it. I must have dozed off beside the fire on a rest-break. I don’t know how it happened but the next thing I knew I was wandering through crystal hallways, unsure of where I was going but determined to get there. Darkness descended as I entered a huge amphitheatre. It was outdoors, illuminated by flickering lights of green and blue. I continued straight ahead towards a huge stage over which a canopy arched. I realized that there were thousands of others seated facing the stage as I walked down a central aisle and found the only seat left in the front row. Suddenly, in the flick of an eye, a woman appeared in the centre of the stage. A spotlight of changing colours shone on her. She wore a flourescent gown, simple but form fitting, Her hair was short and shiny. When she moved, a light remained where she was a second before, then disappeared so that though her movements were smooth and graceful, they appeared stuttery. Her face was beautiful one second, plain, the next. It changed as fast as the spotlight. A melodious sound came from her throat while she waved the wand in her hand and looked directly at me with fire in her everchanging eyes. Merlin’s wife? One of the Harry Potter people? It was obvious that I was in the presence of a female wizard. Ethereal music swelled, then there was silence. A silver rake filled my hand as she spoke. “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. Love is the law. Love under will” Then I was walking up the aisle toward the exit. Oohs and ahhs came from the audience. Soon I was wandering down crystal hallways trying to see my reflection in the shiny tines of the silver rake. I must have woken by the fire and resumed raking my quadrant. I remembered the mysterious woman and the silver rake and was about to tell my neighbour but saw that my rake looked the same as it always had with colourful leaves and little pieces of green hanging off. When dusk was upon us we hid the rakes, dirtied our rifles and hunting vests to look authentic and made our way in the four by four to the farmer’s barn. He had the moose steaks and choice cuts of venison ready to be picked up. All the way back to town that night I wondered if my son would believe the silver rake story next year.