Zoe Cormier is a freelance journalist and science writer from Toronto, Canada and now based in London. She has been shortlisted for the Canadian National Magazine Awards twice. With a background in biology, she now specializes in covering environmental issues and is the resident ‘alternative science’ blogger for the NI. Her work has featured in Nature News, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, and The Ecologist.
Zoe Cormier is a freelance journalist and science writer from Toronto, Canada and now based in London. She has been shortlisted for the Canadian National Magazine Awards twice. With a background in biology, she now specializes in covering environmental issues and is the resident ‘alternative science’ blogger for the NI. Her work has featured in Nature News, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, and The Ecologist.
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Climate change is no joke

The global theatre of climate change politics is starting to feel a bit like a sickening annual episode of déjàSad Clown painting  vu.

Another climate conference has come and gone which, yet again, wasted everyone’s time and amounted to precious little. The UN’s 18th plodding Conference of the Parties COP took place earlier this month in Qatar, currently the world’s highest per-capita emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. At roughly 50 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person per year, this is nearly three times what cheeseburger-eating, bumper-to-bumper-traffic-enduring Americans produce per head of population. After towering reams of reports, hours of speeches and the inevitable signing of the political napkin, the toothless annual agreement amounted to nothing other than a commitment for everyone to meet and come to an agreement again next year, in an annual ritual of procrastination.

While political progress continues to crawl along at a glacial pace, all signs indicate that the planet continues to warm faster than previous predictions had thought possible. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report last month pointing out that even if all countries met their emission reduction targets ‘under the strictest set of rules’, by 2020 we would still be emitting at least eight gigatonnes of greenhouse gases more per year above the figure which would cap the global temperature increase at 2ºC. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions continue to climb, up from 40 gigatonnes a year in 2000 to 50.1 in 2010. It’s pretty clear, according to the World Bank, that we have a one in five chance of experiencing a 4ºC temperature increase globally, and the consequences will be dramatic.

Already, the markers of change are happening faster than anyone once thought possible. In September, Arctic sea ice shrank to its lowest size since recordings began and Arctic tundra is melting even faster than predicted, raising fears that a tipping point could be crossed if the sodden peatlands begin to release their carbon.

Yet pursuit of conventional dirty fuels continues unhindered. A staggering 1,200 coal-fired plants are slated for construction worldwide, and the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that coal will overtake oil as the world’s number-one energy source by 2017 – and that’s just your bog-standard conventional coal. With that supply in shrinking finite amounts, the race for shale gas, polar oil, tar sands and other emission-intensive residual fossil reserves continues apace.

It’s hard to feel anything but that the times change and the story stays the same. The following ‘solutions’ would be funny, if they weren’t so serious.

‘Solution’ #1 We can store carbon dioxide underground!

Geologists have been hard at work for decades on Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too solution to greenhouse gas emissions. More than 1,000 coal-fired plants on the horizon? No problem! We’ll just flush the emissions underground. No muss, no fuss.

Now, there’s an even better benefit to the Faustian bargain. We can use the injected CO2 to flush out deep reserves of oil! Called Enhanced Oil Recovery, this use for CO2 will help us nab pockets of liquid oil that previously have been too expensive or too difficult to reach. With this new tool in our arsenal, we’ll be sure to really pursue renewable energy solutions like never before.

‘Solution’ #2 We could engineer the planet!

Geo-engineering ideas have always been good for a chuckle. Everyone laughed at the idea of putting giant mirrors into space. But, to be fair, very few people in the geo-engineering community take this idea seriously. They are far too expensive and, frankly, far too silly for any scientist or politician to consider. So, no giant space mirrors for now. But that doesn’t mean our intrepid species doesn’t have other plucky ideas up its sleeves that, even if never given credence, will make for a funny headline now and then – such as wrapping Greenland in a white blanket.

‘Solution’ #3 Or, we could engineer our babies!

No planetary scheme could be quite as entertaining as the idea that we could simply engineer our babies instead. S Matthew Liao of New York University and Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache of Oxford University suggested earlier this year that, if ‘ordinary behavioural and market solutions [are] not sufficient to mitigate climate change, we [could] consider a new kind of solution to climate change: human engineering’.

We could induce ‘pharmacological meat intolerance’ in our children, forcing them to feel nauseous if they ingest meat. Or we could genetically screen our children to be smaller. (Smaller people eat less food, require less fuel in their cars, need less fabric in their clothes and wear out their furniture more slowly.) And, for a nice hat-trick of enhancements, we could programme our children to have higher levels of empathy and altruism, by dosing them with the ‘cuddle chemical’ oxytocin. Cuddly, tiny, vegetarian eco-babies. What’s not to love?

‘Transhumanists’ have always been a bit adorable. Whether asserting that we could programme ourselves to live forever; should seek to improve ourselves by embedding our bodies with bits of computers; or that one day we will achieve an unimaginable level of super-intelligence by marrying our minds to technology, anything they put forward has the inevitable effect of inducing insurmountable giggles.

But the concept of actually modifying our own children is clearly crazy. Liao and his co-authors say so themselves: ‘Perhaps the most obvious objection to our suggestion is that human engineering solutions should be considered is: it’s a preposterous idea! … We are well aware that our proposal is outlandish, and we have made no attempt to avoid provoking this response. We wish to highlight that examining intuitively absurd or apparently drastic ideas can be an important learning experience.’

Indeed. The lesson we can perhaps take away: the fact that anyone is thinking about such a silly idea at all indicates just how out of control the entire situation has become. 

Illustration of sad clown by Erik Cleves Kristensen under a CC Licence

The Arctic will burn

Arctic sunWhen it comes to climate change, there are many things of which we can be certain. Though until recently the popular emphasis – both in mainstream media and in politics – stressed what we don’t know, we now know enough to be very, very certain of a number of things.

Climate change is real, and it is happening right now: temperatures are rising, glaciers shrinking, and this year summer Arctic sea ice reached a new low. The examples are endless.

The UN process isn’t working. The insipidness of the treaty signed at Durban was predictable. And as evidenced by Canada’s official departure from the Kyoto treaty, signatories cannot be counted on to keep their word anyway. Even faithful adherence would amount to little: the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) reports that by 2020, even with perfect implementation of current pledges under the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), there will be a six gigatonne gap between what is required to limit global temperature rise to 2°C and actual emissions.

So, we can expect a 2°C rise in global temperatures – maybe even 4°C. But what – exactly – is going to happen? This seems to be the only question left worth asking.

Put another way: just how worried should we be? Predicting the future is never an exact science, and there will always be a certain degree of uncertainty. Some places may change little, such as desert interiors. Others will become unrecognizable – or vanish entirely, such as Alpine glaciers and small islands in the Pacific.

One region we may regard as a barometer for change is the Arctic, because it will warm more than regions at lower latitudes – the planet as a whole may warm up by 4°C, but the Poles could warm up by 12°C. The changes will obviously be more extreme.

What will this look like?

While most of us probably picture moist, foggy, tepid bogs, research indicates that large portions of the region may dry – and burn. As counterintuitive as it may seem, fires may become an important feature of the Arctic landscape.

Already there are signs that this is happening. From what we can glean from the geologic record, the Arctic tundra rarely experienced fires 100,000 years ago. But for the past century fires have sparked with increasing regularity and severity. The Anaktuvuk River fire in 2007 burned more than 1,000 square kilometres of tundra, in one flush doubling the amount of Alaskan tundra that has burned since 1950.

This could be just a prelude to things to come, says Dr Philip Higuera, Assistant Professor in the College of Natural Resources at the University of Idaho, who published new research this month in the journal Ecological Applications.‘Our work illustrates that some tundra regions can burn frequently, implying that future warming could certainly result in more frequent tundra burning,’ he explains.

Of crucial importance: fires could lead to more fires, and the Arctic itself may become a driver of climate change. In other words, an actual contributor to global warming, rather than a cooling refrigerant sitting atop the planet.

Burning on the tundra exacerbates climate change in several ways: fires release carbon that has been stored in the soil and vegetation to the atmosphere; the protective insulation above the permafrost is lost, leading to melting and drying; exposed, blackened earth absorbs more heat, leading to more warming and drying.

In a continuing cycle of positive feedback, fires could beget more fires, accelerating climate change the planet over, onwards and upwards.

But this is just one scenario – it is also possible that higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (the raw material of photosynthesis, after all) could fertilize the growth of more trees in the region, which would soak up carbon from the atmosphere and act as a brake on climate change.

To better understand how the landscape might respond to burning, Dr Higerua and his team looked at how various parts of the Alaskan landscape reacted to fires over the past 2,000 years.

‘The bottom line in our new paper is that tundra fire regimes are more diverse than we previously understood, varying with subtle gradients in climate and vegetation, and likewise their ecological and physical consequences will likely vary widely as well,’ says Dr Higuera. ‘Tundra fire regimes are more varied than some media (and science) coverage suggests. But ultimately it’s the classic scientist line of “we need more research”.’

The picture is complicated, and nobody really knows what will happen. Dire predictions for the future, and phrases like ‘catastrophic climate change’, can seem so alarmist that they almost render us complacent – surely the truth can’t be so extreme that the Arctic itself would blaze.

But the very fact that it is a distinct possibility shows just how much our world is bound to change – in ways that few of us have ever thought possible. 

 Photo by US Geological Survey under a CC Licence

Sencity: more than a Deaf rave

‘Aroma jockeys’ at a Sencity night in the Netherlands.  Photo by Heikki Kynsijärvi.

Clouds of fragrant smoke wafted from the stage, crafted by the ‘aroma jockeys’ with bubbling vessels of frozen nitrogen and futuristic fans, blasting the audience with heady mixtures of bergamot, lavender and sandalwood.

Hula hoops twirled round waists. Light shows twinkled. And the dance floor vibrated – literally –from an array of mechanised transducers synchronized with the (very) loud bass.

You’d easily mistake Sencity, held last month in London, for simply an opulent club night – until you saw the hands waving in the air. Everywhere the crowd bristled with conversations, fingers dancing as their owners looked expressively at each other, speaking with their eyes. Animated conversations were undisturbed by the music booming from the speakers.

Sencity, born in the Netherlands in 2003 – and which has since held nights in Brazil, Sydney, Spain, Jamaica, Finland, South Africa and Mexico – is a night tailored for the needs of the Deaf: around 35 per cent of the crowd is profoundly deaf, and another third are hearing impaired to some degree.

With music nights geared for those who cannot hear, Sencity claims to ‘make the impossible possible’ – and challenges what the rest of us might think about the Deaf community. Most Deaf people can still perceive some level of sound, and all still have the capacity to appreciate music. But even those who live in a fully silent world can still experience the tactile qualities of sound (especially when the bass is cranked up).

But Sencity is not, its organizers stress, to be confused with a ‘Deaf rave,’ which is designed solely for the Deaf community. Those, say Sencity’s London promoter Timothy Bonham-Carter, simply reinforce divisions that exist between the Deaf and the hearing worlds.

‘The idea is to bring the hearing and Deaf communities together but not in a way that is deemed exclusive,’ says Bonham-Carter.

With the tagline ‘see, hear, feel, taste, smell the music’, the result is an event that caters to everyone’s senses – and which can hopefully break down perceived barriers not just between the Deaf and the hearing but also within the Deaf community itself.

‘Sencity is about making the impossible possible: people often live in a protected environment and therefore do not look at what they can achieve with their talents,’ says Bonham-Carter.

Take the night’s top-billed performer, Finnish rapper Signmark, the first Deaf person in the world to be signed to a major international record label. According to his website: ‘With his music Signmark wants to change attitudes towards the Deaf… he feels that the society should not treat the Deaf as handicapped, but as a linguistic minority with their own culture, community, history and heritage.’

Rapper Signmark at a Sencity night in the Netherlands. Photo by Heikki Kynsijärvi.

This desire to be recognized as a linguistic minority runs throughout the Deaf community: one of the aims of the British Deaf Association is to achieve legal status for British Sign Language as an indigenous minority language in the UK. This, they state, would ‘lead to an equality of opportunity for our Deaf community through the protection and promotion of our language’.

This need for protection is essential, say campaigners, due to the rise of cochlear implants, which have been promoted for thirty years as a ticket to the world of sound.

‘The debate for cochlear implants rages on,’ explains Bonham-Carter. ‘The Deaf community at large resents them due to the way they are eroding their cultural identity. The main problem is that if two hearing parents have a Deaf child, they are swiftly advised by the medical fraternity to give the child a cochlear implant without being informed that their child will be alienated from the sign language majority of their community.’

Moreover, implants are not a ‘cure’ for deafness, and do not restore normal hearing to the recipients. Their hearing will be dim and imprecise. Children given implants will still require intensive speech therapy in order to develop the language skills necessary to converse with hearing people – but this secondary support is frequently absent or inadequate. Implanted children may find themselves disadvantaged twice over, lacking the capacity to converse with either the hearing or the Deaf.

‘It is all well and good one being able to hear, but it’s no good if they cannot respond as a person who has full use of their residual hearing and vocals,’ says Bonham-Carter.

Threats to their language and their culture are very real to the Deaf community, especially with technological improvements to the batteries of the implants and the potential for couples undergoing IVF treatment to select against having Deaf children. This issue is extremely controversial: clauses in the Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill that were perceived to be discriminatory were labelled as ‘eugenic’ in the United Kingdom three years ago.

The future for Deaf language is uncertain, at least in developing countries where the capacity to create hearing children is economically feasible. Cochlear implant devices cost roughly £16,500 ($26,000), but this balloons to £60,000 ($96,000) over thirty years when rehabilitation and maintenance are factored in, according to Deafness Research UK. One cycle of IVF costs around £5,000, ($8,000) although many cycles may be necessary.

For the organizers of Sencity, the solution is not to create a gathering solely for the Deaf, but to create something that would bring the rest of us into contact with deaf people in a way we seldom (if ever) are.

‘Safe for use’ – but not in Canada

Last week a delegation from the Asian Ban Asbestos Network, including cancer victims and widows, travelled from their homes in Indonesia, India and elsewhere to ask the Quebec government not to revive a dying industry that has brought cancer and death to millions of people around the world.

‘We felt the best thing was to give these victims the chance to appeal to the Quebec government as human beings, face to face,’ says Laurie Kazan-Allen, founder of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat based in London, one of a number of advocacy groups that provided financial support to help the delegation make the trip to Canada.

Among those victims was Jeong-Rim Lee, suffering from mesothelioma, an incurable and fatal cancer of the lining of the lungs which she developed after living near a factory which used the material in South Korea. You can listen to an interview with her and another delegate, Anup Srivasta, on CBC radio here.

As Asian delegates met with Canadian officials and journalists in Quebec and Ottawa, the IBAS held a small protest in front of the Canadian High Commission in London, England, while anti-asbestos groups held their own protests in Paris, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo, London, Mumbai, Delhi, and outside Canadian diplomatic offices around the world.

There is now barely a week remaining before the Quebec government decides whether or not to guarantee a $58 million loan to the Jeffrey Mine – the announcement is set to be made between 20 and 30 December. This would occur during the annual low point in media activity – hardly a coincidence, say critics.

The possible reviving of the mine – one of the last remaining in Canada – has incited anger and controversy all year. Demonstrations like last week’s were seen in front of Canadian consulates worldwide on Canada day, 1 July, in the hopes that the country would finally cease exporting the mineral and funding the ‘scientific’ studies that support its use. In August this year it seemed that the mine was certain to close, but then in September the owner was given a $3.5 million line of credit by the Quebec government to allow the mine to operate long enough to court new investors.

Investors were found, and if the Quebec government matches their financing with a $58 million loan, the mine will expand and increase its output ten-fold up to 250,000 tonnes a year – roughly a tenth of all global trade. For the next quarter century Canada would continue to export asbestos to China, India, and other fast-growing economies in the Global South.

The key word is ‘export’: the Canadian government does not allow the mineral to be used in construction projects in its own country. Though Canada (and other developed nations) once used various forms of the mineral in thousands of applications, almost every white fibre is now exported.

The World Health Organization estimates that asbestos is responsible for one in three work-related cancers worldwide – a sad truth that is unlikely to change, given that more than 120 million people are still exposed every single day at work around the globe. All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and there is no ‘safe limit’ for exposure.

Yet the Chrysotile Institute, based in Montreal, promotes white asbestos as ‘safe for use under controlled circumstances’ – a claim ridiculed by all medical experts, including the Canadian Medical Association, which describes this as a ‘shameful political manipulation of science’. The prestigious British medical journal The Lancet drew attention to Canadian ‘hypocrisy’ last week.

Just days now remain before the announcement is made. ‘This really is the last stand,’ says Kazan-Allen.

Peasants cool the planet!

Photo by Amigos da Terra Bresil under a CC Licence

Today thousands of people are expected to take to the streets of Cancun in Mexico as part of the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice, partly co-ordinated by La Via Campesina (the International Peasant Movement), to protest what they perceive as a lack of respect for human rights at the 16th Conference of the Parties (COP) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Under the banner ‘Peasants Cool The Planet’, they will demand that more attention be given to matters of social justice – such as the transfer of $30 billion in aid from developed nations to developing ones, a pledge that was made last year that rich countries now appear to be ready to drop. La Via Campesina, the Indigenous Environmental Network and other NGOs from around the world are also extremely concerned about the emphasis at the talks being given to measures such as REDD (Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) which they contend only undermines human rights by transferring ownership and control of forests away from the people who depend on them.

Photo by Amigos da Terra Bresil under a CC Licence

The turnout at the demonstration today will no doubt be dwarfed by the 100,000 people who marched this time last year in Copenhagen – largely because the UN conference last year drew far more attention in the run-up to December. Many described COP15 in 2009 as our ‘last chance’ to seal a binding and effective international accord to prevent dramatic climate change. Hopes were high.

But after last year’s unambiguous failure, this year’s conference has utterly failed to rouse the same level of enthusiasm. Press coverage is scant in comparison. Few politicians, journalists or activists believe much will come out of COP16 but more hot air, late nights, and meaningless pieces of paper.

Yet again, little more but sound and fury – both from politicians proclaiming that progress is afoot, as well as angry activists, understandably frustrated by the inability of all United Nations Climate Change Conferences to halt the global rise in carbon by even the tiniest degree. Two decades of jet-fuelled meetings have achieved nothing but a steady rise in global greenhouse gas levels, and steady shrink in forests (and other carbon sinks), and a seemingly inexorable march towards dramatic climate change.

Thousands of demonstrators and NGOs have converged on the city, yet their impact on the conference is likely to be even less marked than last year, due to the cosy confinement of the delegates inside the complexes of the Mexican beach town, a cotton-woolled resort that has long secluded wealthy tourists away from Mexico’s slums. The barricades around Copenhagen’s Bella Centre pale in comparison.

Nonetheless, activists and NGOs from around the world are still making the trip to Mexico to make what stamp they can. One of those is the Polaris Institute, based in Ottawa, Canada, who last week made their way towards the beach resort town from the small community of Cerro San Pedro, 500 kilometres north of Mexico City. Travelling southwards in a collection of caravans, they are meeting with a dozen communities that have been affected by massive industrial projects, such as those near Cerro San Pedro which have been coping with impacts created by huge mines operated by Canadian company New Gold.

‘We want to highlight the social and environmental destruction that is created by these huge projects,’ says Richard Girard, Research Coordinator from the Polaris Institute. ‘In Canada a few small populations are impacted by the tar sands, but our same companies impact millions of people in Mexico, and their voices are not heard.’

The Canadian government as well is a target for impacted communities – Canada was named last week by the Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres as one of three countries (together with Russia and Japan) trying to kill the Kyoto Protocol, the only international accord on climate change to date with any bite. This comes as little surprise – Canada was again named the Colossal Fossil last year in Copenhagen for obstructing progress at the talks, in large part due to massive expansions in the Canadian tar sands.

‘Though the local populations in Mexico and around the world see their local battle as a regional struggle of their own, on a larger scale the degradation and pollution that comes about from these projects is part of the whole process that is causing climate change,’ Girard says. ‘A lot of the NGOs who come to talk about climate change are only thinking about polar bears and trees – they are not familiar with how people’s lives are impacted. This is something that is, unfortunately, often missing from the broader environmental movement.’

A lethal injection

The Quebec government in Canada has given a life-saving injection to a bankrupt mine so it may continue producing one of the most dangerous and carcinogenic substances ever known.

The Jeffrey mine, one of two remaining mines in the country, has been given a $3.5 million line of credit by the Quebec government to allow it to operate for a month – long enough to attract crucial investors from London and India, who are touring the mines now, according to the Montreal Gazette.

Though Canada restricts white asbestos – also called chrysotile – it was the world’s fifth largest producer in 2009, mining 153,000 metric tonnes of the material. More than 95 per cent of this was exported, primarily to Indonesia, China, Mexico, and other fast developing nations in the Global South. In such nations the mineral apparently can be used ‘safely’ though it is tightly restricted in developed nations, and banned outright in over 50 countries (including the entire European Union).

As sales of the mineral declined in Europe and North America, producers shifted their attention to developing nations, such as Mexico and China. Now sales in the West are nonexistent, but business in the developing world is booming – Indian imports of the mineral have risen 83 per cent since 2004.
Documentation of construction workers wearing handkerchiefs and hauling sacks with their bare hands can be seen freely online in the CBC documentary, ‘Canada’s Ugly Secret.

Health officials describe India as fostering a ‘ticking time bomb’ of cancer, set to explode later this century (just as Western nations are still dealing with one).

Though an extremely useful material – once considered a miracle substance – handy for such applications as insulation, electrical resistance, and reinforcing cement, the wispy fibres of every form of asbestos are notoriously carcinogenic. More than 100,000 people die every year from asbestos-related diseases, it is responsible for one in three occupational cancers, according to the World Health Organization, and 120 million people are still exposed every day in the workplace.

Death from mesothelioma, an incurable cancer in the lining of the lungs, is slow, intractable, and incredibly painful. Every other form of the deadly mineral is banned worldwide altogether – only one form remains in use: chrysotile, or white asbestos. It is classified as carcinogenic by the International Agency for the Research of Cancer, yet promoted as ‘safe for use under controlled circumstances’ by its producers – most notably the Chrysotile Institute, based in Montreal, Canada, which has been funded by Canadian tax monies to the tune of $20 million for the past quarter century, according to an investigation by the Centre for Public Integrity. In turn, the Chrysotile Institute provides funds to the Indian lobby group the Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association, which promotes asbestos as entirely safe.

Though Canada remains a small producer of the mineral on a global scale – Russia is both the largest producer and consumer, followed closely by China – its role is utterly integral to the continued survival of the global trade.

Canadian support provides legitimacy to a lethal product, as documented by the New Internationalist a year ago.

Canadian lobby groups have been integral in blocking the addition of white asbestos to the Rotterdam Convention, a UN-kept list of hazardous substances. The Canadian Medical Association Journal has lambasted this as a ‘shameful political manipulation of science’ and Kathleen Ruff, Senior Advisor on Human Rights to the Rideau Institute in Ottawa, says: ‘Our government should not be funding this manipulation of science – Canadian scientists should stand up because this is scientifically indefensible as well as morally indefensible.’

Though Canadian global influence is considerable, the domestic industry is marginal – unnoticed by most Canadians. Just two mines remain, both of them in Quebec. Struggling to survive, the Jeffrey mine – once one of the largest asbestos mines in the world – is gasping for breath.

The end of the Canadian asbestos industry seemed certain two months ago – Bernard Coloumbe, owner of the mine, declared the mine would only be able to stay open with a $58 million loan. The Quebec Medical Association – for the first time in history – joined the Canadian Medical Association in calling for the government to stop funding the mine and the Chrysotile Institute with federal cash and to put an end to Canadian asbestos mining and export.

Public demonstrations on 1 July (to mark Canada Day) by asbestosis victim support networks in Australia and Asia demanded that the mines be shut.

The Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia issued a press release on 16 August expressing relief over the news that the mine seemed certain to close, declaring: ‘For the Canadian authorities to even consider in this day and age subsidizing the export of death for the sake of about 200 Canadian jobs is just appalling.’

Two days later the Asia Regional Conference on Asbestos, Jakarta, issued a similar statement, demanding that the exports cease and adding: ‘Canada portrays itself as a defender of human rights, while continuing to export deadly chrysotile asbestos to Asia.’

Yet now it is an entirely different story: investors from India and London are touring the Jeffrey Mine, being courted for the necessary funds to reopen the mine and breathe life back into a dying, and deadly, industry. The Canadian Cancer Society calls this ‘deplorable’.

Do you agree? Sign the petition asking Canada to end the trade in asbestos.

Workers of the world, relax

A smiling worker from Lehman Brothers hits the street minutes after the bankrupt company closed its doors, September 2008.

Joshua Loft / Reuters

This economic crisis has left us with many memorable images: vast tent cities in the US, the richest country in the world. Hunks of marble hurled by angry anarchists beneath the Greek Parthenon, the birthplace of Western democracy. But one image sticks out as particularly memorable, if simply for its sheer quirkiness: newly laid-off employees from the bankrupt financial firm Lehman Brothers – one of the first to fall – leaving the building, office trinkets boxed up. And smiling.

Along with razed rainforests and Shanghai skyscrapers this could become one of the defining images of our era: employees happy to be ejected from their well-paid jobs.

This strange combination of joy and loss forces us to ponder a very serious question: why do we work the way we do?

We have come to see a 35-40 hour working week not only as normal but also as essential for a thriving society. But the Commissioner for Health with the UK Sustainable Development Commission begs to differ. Anna Coote argues that long work hours are linked to extreme gaps in wealth, environmental degradation, climate change and lots more besides.

As co-author of the New Economics Foundation (NEF) report 21 hours, Coote proposes that a 21-hour working week should be the norm. In some respects, it already is – each person in Britain already works an average of 20 hours a week if you spread working hours evenly across the population.


It all comes down to what we consider ‘work’: what labour we think is worth paying for. If all the time spent in the UK on unpaid labour – raising children, cooking, household chores and so on – were paid at the minimum wage, it would account for 21 per cent of the country’s GDP. ‘Informal carers’ who attend to the sick and the elderly without pay already ‘save’ the British economy $125 million year.

Rather than allowing that labour to remain unaccounted (and unappreciated), we could ‘redistribute paid labour, reduce the differential between paid and unpaid work, and make better use of human assets,’ says Coote.

Halving the normal working week could solve a litany of social problems: it could slash unemployment (as well as the attendant crime) and reduce state benefits and other social costs. Providing more free time to workers would create space in their lives to exercise, play, sleep and – put simply – enjoy life. Studies consistently show that more leisure means more productivity to boot. Health costs from stress-related illness – one of the greatest burdens on developed nations – would plummet. And gender norms could even improve: men could take on more of what is considered ‘women’s work’ – and fathers could spend increased time with their children.

Such a drastic shift couldn’t happen overnight. Changes would need to be brought in gradually – an increased minimum wage, progressive taxation and slow reductions in legal working hours. ‘This is intended more as a provocation: we want people to consider what society could look like,’ says Coote.

There will be obvious hurdles: ‘We don’t want to dump on communities that already suffer from a lack of paid work.’ Nonetheless, the report is making waves. ‘It really seems to have struck a chord,’ she admits.

Reducing unemployment and giving the overworked more free time makes intuitive sense. But on a global scale the maths becomes truly interesting: reducing working hours could be one of the keys to solving climate change. On a country-by-country basis there is a direct correlation between the average number of working hours and per capita greenhouse gas emissions.

The Washington-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research estimates that if Americans were to work the same number of hours as Europeans (who work up to 300 hours less per year) they would reduce their carbon footprint by up to 30 per cent. Less time spent at a factory or office translates into less time spent driving to work, less energy consumed in the building or on the road, and fewer materials used in production. For example, when the state of Utah brought in a mandatory four-day working week for state employees to avoid layoffs in the wake of the 2008 recession, carbon emissions fell by 4,535 tonnes in one year. Driving public vehicles three million fewer miles cut fuel consumption by 744,000 gallons and saved $1.4 million.

Other jurisdictions have also brought in shorter working weeks as emergency measures to reduce unemployment. In 2008 France adopted a 35-hour working week and the slogan, ‘Work less, live more.’ Hard-hit Canadian auto companies have experimented with shifting to four-day weeks to avoid job losses.

Frequently, employees are extremely hostile – at first.

‘Families are working way longer than they were in the 1970s and going deeper into debt to buy bigger houses and fill them with fancier gadgets – they are on a treadmill of consumerism that is hard to get off,’ says Andrew Jackson, National Director of Social and Economic Policy with the Canadian Labour Congress. ‘But we have found that once people have moved to shorter work weeks, they are reluctant to go back – they start to live their lives in a different way.’

Once he cut his working hours Conrad Schmidt, a former software developer and founder of the Canadian Work Less Party, never looked back. ‘My life was so much better with less money but more time. I wanted to introduce other people to the idea of ‘voluntary simplicity’, he says. ‘This is not about working less – it’s about doing different kinds of work and more important kinds of work.’

Schmidt sold his car to reduce his ecological footprint and suddenly found himself saving $400 a month. ‘I could have spent this on a computer or some other gadget. In other words I could have just consumed more. It was wondering what to do with my extra cash that introduced me to the Jevons Paradox,’ he says.

The 19th century British economist William Stanley Jevons found that improvements in efficiency and lower prices actually spur consumption and resource use. For example, increased gas mileage in the 1970s in response to skyrocketing oil prices led to people driving their cars more. So our working hours have only lengthened when academics and politicians believed labour-saving technologies would free us. In practice, increases in energy efficiency have historically translated into increases in energy use.

‘It is efficiency that got us in this mess in the first place,’ says Schmidt. Rather than see gains in material efficiency translate into higher consumption (or mass unemployment and demoralizing automation), we could see technological innovations and increases in efficiency do what they were supposed to: liberate us from labour.

The Work Less Party has no illusions. The goal is merely to get the message out. ‘We’ll never win a seat – but we always win the debates,’ says Schmidt.

Which makes sense, says John de Graaf, founder of the Take Back Your Time coalition. ‘All our surveys consistently show that people are most dissatisfied with two things in their lives: time and financial security – not stuff,’ he says.

Since 2004 the coalition has advocated for people to reduce their working hours voluntarily in the US. ‘There are no laws regarding paid vacations and about half the workforce took less than one paid week off last year,’ de Graaf says. ‘And yet look at Denmark – they went on a general strike to raise the legal paid vacation time from five weeks to six.’

He believes that the recession combined with the ecological crisis and widespread unhappiness in wealthy countries – the subject of his film Affluenza – could lead to a dramatic paradigm shift in how we think about work.

Changing our working week ultimately means changing the way we think about work – the question of how many hours we should work strikes at the very heart of ‘work’ itself. Is work growing a potato? Minding the kids? Fixing somebody’s bathroom sink? Organizing somebody else’s day? Putting words into a series of ones and zeros and sending them across the globe in a second? For many of us, what we do as ‘work’ is inseparable from our sense of self worth.

‘A lot of who we are has so much more to do with how we feel our talents contribute to our community and how valued we feel, rather than our ability to make lots of money,’ says de Graaf.

And that is the point, says Anna Coote. ‘One of the key findings of the 21 Hours report is that the amount of control you have over your time is almost as important as how you use that time – possibly even more important,’ says Coote. But our time, like our labour, has become commodified, she says.

Wresting back a bit of control over both would go a long way. ‘We want people to understand that this not about slacking – this about balance,’ stresses de Graaf.

More Time, Less Stuff poster

More time outdoors, more time to play musical instruments and rediscover our creativity, more time with our kids, fitter bodies, reading more, cleaner air, less worrying about the fate of the planet – what’s not to like? Throw in less disparity between the rich and the poor, a more affordable standard of living and less corporate control over our time, and we approach what some might be tempted to label utopia.

But how to achieve such a society?

‘It’s all in how you package the message,’ reckons Erik Assadourian, Director of the Worldwatch Institute’s State Of The World: 2010. ‘The Take Back Your Time movement is a perfect example: instead of telling people they should want less money, tell them they should want more free time. Who on earth doesn’t want more free time?’

Telling people to buy less stuff is hard. But offering more time is easy.

‘This is the beauty of our message – rather than being gloomy and negative, “sacrifice for the sake of the planet”, we’re offering people something that they will genuinely enjoy,’ says de Graaf.

Nonetheless, re-engineering our culture won’t be easy. The biggest challenge isn’t economics or technology – it’s psychology.

‘That is the million dollar question,’ says de Graaf. ‘How to change our consciousness and our culture? Other than educating people that this is not about slacking but about balancing, nobody really has the answer yet. It will boil down to having to make the choice: time versus stuff.’

And while we can always make more stuff, we can’t make more time – each of us only has so many grains of sand in our hourglass. As difficult as our mortality may be to contemplate, we each need to learn that our lives are not going to get longer – and in fact, the stress of punishing schedules and sedentary jobs can shorten them.

There is only one way to manufacture more time: to learn how not to waste the amount we already have.

Take a break

To keep employment at the same level while productivity increases means producing more, consuming more or throwing people out of work.

• Many people work longer today than 30 years ago. Since 1981, in Britain, two-adult households have added 6 hours to their combined weekly workload.1
• The average American works 200-300 hours more every year than the average European. Reducing US working hours to European levels could cut energy/carbon use by 20-30%.1
• The Dutch have one of the shortest working weeks in the world and Holland has the highest percentage of part-time workers.2
• In Canada, the average work week increased from 44.6 to 46.3 hours from 1998 to 2005, while leisure time declined from 31.5 hours to 29.5 hours.3
• According to the International Labour Organization, 22% of the global workforce, over 620 million people, work more than 48 hours per week.

1 21 hours, www.neweconomics.org
2 State of the world 2010, ‘Reducing work time as a path to sustainability’, John de Graaf, www.worldwatch.org
3 ‘Leisure Time on the Wane in Canada’, www.irpp.org/newsroom/archive/2007/020107e.pdf

See UK Sustainable Development Commission, www.sd-commission.org.uk; Take Back Your Time, www.timeday.org and Worldwatch Institute, www.worldwatch.org

Shell shut down

The most significant point of the day was, perhaps, when the driver of a red Ferrari tried – and failed - to cross the picket line.

With giant red signs reading CLOSED, banners strung from the roof and very noisy drums, activists shut down a Shell petrol station in Islington, North London for a few hours on Saturday. The point? To protest the oil company’s ongoing expansion in the Canadian tar sands, as well as its never-ending destruction of the Niger Delta in Nigeria, and its attempts to build a pipeline despite community opposition in Ireland, days before its annual general meeting.

This petrol station is closed!

The Ferrari driver did not understand at first that he would not be able pump any gas – one of very few motorists to make such a mistake that afternoon. Halting with his shiny red car on the driveway, it took several minutes for him to realise that he would suffer the inconvenience of having to drive several minutes down the road to refuel.

This was the second time activist groups, including Rising Tide and UK Tar Sands Network, shut down a gas station in the British capital. They did it to a BP terminal in west London a month ago in the same fashion: loud samba, rippling flags, and ‘CLIMATE CRIME SCENE’ yellow tape wrapped around the pumps.

Responsible for three to five times more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil, the tar sands are the primary reason that Canada’s emissions rose 26 per cent from 1990 levels (and why the country is such an obstinate hurdle at international climate change negotiations). They are also the main reason that Canada claimed title as the largest supplier of foreign oil to the US in 2007.

Though it was thought that Alberta crude never flows to Europe, only south to the US and east to Asia (and China in particular), Greenpeace Canada recently disclosed that oil from the sands is in fact filling European engines as well.

The Shell demo coincided not only with the company’s AGM, but also with a tour by Alberta’s Environment Minister Rob Renner across Europe to promote the province’s ‘clean energy story’ (the significance of that last word, ‘story’ not being lost on the keen of eye).

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the tar sands are being promoted as a clean and safe alternative to offshore drilling – a laughable comparison, considering that tar sands extraction produces giant tailings ponds through their normal course of operations, rather than as a matter of accident.

No Tar Sands
Moreover, the Canadian government is quickly inking plans for the construction of an Enbridge pipeline to pump crude direct from the sands to the Pacific for Asian markets by 2015. Tankers twice the size of the Exxon Valdez are slated to ship oil through the narrow and rocky waters around the Charlotte Islands – routes that would be a nightmare for such large ships to navigate, say local communities. ‘We could suffer a disaster that would make the Valdez look like a walk in the park,’ said Chief Ha’eis Clare Hill, Eagle Clan Chief-in-waiting of the Gitga’at First Nation on British Columbia’s coast, visiting London last year to raise awareness about the proposed pipeline.
At a time when expansion of the sands looks more certain than ever, some feel the need to express dissent more necessary than ever.

The public reaction was undeniably warm. Older people paused to congratulate the demonstrators for ‘putting their feet down’. Children joined in the dance, to the bemusement of their puzzled mothers, glancing over flyers. Even the most jaded would have found it impossible not to enjoy the rousing crescendo of noise raised for a passing wedding party – and the delight the new couple took in the cacophony of samba clanged just for them.
Nonetheless, the jaded would invariably question the purpose of such a protest and perhaps label it futile and insignificant. Granted, a tempting characterization to make given the economic and political power of the Alberta energy industry, the second largest reserve of oil in the world, responsible for one in nine jobs in the province, and increasingly host to energy and extraction interests from every corner of the globe.

Which brings us back to the age-old question: what’s the point in protesting anyways? What does a noisy rabble or a quiet sit-in accomplish in the face of power on such a scale? Was the action intended to stem the tide of Canadian tar flowing into British motors? To permanently damage the station? Or to make even the tiniest dent in Shell’s considerably sizable profits that day?

Of course not. Sometimes, the point is that the point needs to be made. Even if the momentum behind the tar sands seems unstoppable, the political power insurmountable, some will let it be known that they, at least, are neither ignorant nor wilfully complicit. And sometimes the goal is even more basic, and more immediate: to spread the word about a project that is both the largest in human history and yet so pervasively unknown.

Even if most Britons do not know about the sands, their financial contribution and the presence of its products in their engines, anyone passing by that day would have found it hard to avoid noticing the point a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens were trying to make.

Except for the man in the red Ferrari, incredulous that anything could prevent him from filling up his tank, oblivious to the world around him.

I’ll die doing this

Cancer alley: George Poitras addresses protesters outside a Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers Conference.

Photo by itzafineday

It seems painfully obvious that the tar sands are causing cancers in Fort Chipewyan. Upstream from this small community sits one of the largest industrial zones in the world. What are perhaps the biggest structures ever created – the vast tailings ponds – hold back waste water from the extraction process that is deemed too toxic to release back into the river system.

But this heavy-metal soup of arsenic, mercury and cadmium, mixed with carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic compounds, isn’t fully contained by the sandy bottom of the so-called ‘ponds’. Industry and government long contended that leaks were marginal and actively managed – but we now know that at least 11 million litres of toxins flow into the Athabasca River every day.1

Communities all over the Athabasca rivershed are exposed to whatever flows downstream – and none more so than Fort Chipewyan. This isolated town is made up of just over 1,200 members of the Mikisew Cree, Métis and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations, who live on the shores of Lake Athabasca, the tail end of every leaky tailings pond.

For years, people worried. Fish were caught with tumours on their sides, or with deformities as extreme as two mouths.2 Duck meat didn’t taste quite right. Moose livers were covered in lesions. This would be disturbing to any community – but especially to one that still hunts, fishes and traps as regularly as the people in Fort Chipewyan. Moose meat and walleye fish aren’t occasional rustic treats for weekend cottagers. Many in Fort Chipewyan eat them every single day.

They noticed people growing sick – much sicker than they had been in the past. Immune diseases. Diabetes. Lupus. And cancer – not just in the old, but also the young. Rare cancers that should not be occurring in such high numbers in so small a community. Dr John O’Connor, the local doctor, was so worried that in 2006 he decided to go public with his concerns, unleashing a battle to get to the truth that is still continuing today.

Cancer cover-up

The federal government’s first response was to rush out a study which concluded that the community did not have higher than average cancer rates, and claimed that contaminants in the river were not at levels that should cause concern. Soon afterwards, to the deep consternation of the community, Dr O’Connor was placed under formal investigation (see box below).

Nobody in Fort Chipewyan believed the government’s findings. They commissioned their own study of the rivershed from Dr Kevin Timoney. Published in 2007, it found ‘worrisome’ levels of many heavy metals and carcinogens in the water and wildlife – for example, some 90 per cent of male whitefish exceeded mercury levels that were safe for consumption.3

A fish with a tumor is found close to Fort Chipewyan.


Bowing to pressure, the government agreed to conduct a more thorough analysis. Towards the end of 2009 it published a study that concluded that the rate of cancers in Fort Chipewyan was 30 per cent higher than expected – but, to the community’s frustration, stopped short of concluding that the tar sands might be a factor.4 

‘The argument over whether or not the cancers in Fort Chip are caused by the tar sands is ridiculous,’ says Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, a young woman from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation who has become a prominent anti-tar sands activist. ‘The increase in health problems has coincided with the increase in development of the sands.’

One of the leading voices calling for a comprehensive baseline study into local pollution and its health impacts since 2003 has been George Poitras, former chief of the Mikisew Cree. ‘It is like pulling teeth,’ he reveals. ‘The government doesn’t want to resource anything that will act as an impediment to their ability to exploit the tar sands.’

This lack of resources has meant paltry monitoring of the state of the downstream rivershed since extraction began in earnest. Another independent study, by Professor David Schindler of the University of Alberta, found ‘serious defects’ in the government’s monitoring programme. The analysis, published in December 2009 in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that pollution in the river was up to five times higher than government figures had stated.5 

These findings just scratch the surface of how the community could be being affected. Little is yet known about how the different toxic metals and petrochemicals interact, or how their effects could be magnified given that the flow of contaminants into the rivershed during spring melt coincides with when fish fry are growing.

What Fort Chipewyan needs, argues George, is a comprehensive, baseline health study that would do a thorough analysis of the entire community, and then track changes in the future based on that. Unfortunately, the lack of good information from the past means that the baseline would have to consist of current data – 2010 at the earliest. He acknowledges that it wouldn’t be able to show changes to Fort Chipewyan over the past 15 years. ‘That is disappointing – but we can’t go backwards in time. The next best thing we can do is to determine people’s health now and monitor as we go along.’

Considering that the government has a 50-100 year plan for increasing output from the sands, there will be plenty of monitoring to do.

The Athabasca River winds peacefully through the boreal forest.

Photo by david dodge / canadian parks and wilderness society

Licence to spill

Meanwhile, the government continues to grant new licences to any company looking to expand its operations in the region. ‘Our communities are given no part in the decision-making process when licences for exploration are granted,’ says George, who until recently held the role of consultation co-ordinator with government and industry for the Mikisew Cree. ‘First Nations are kept totally out of the loop. We are only consulted at the application stage for specific projects.’

The oil company said that either our leaders would have to silence me somehow, or the Nation would lose contracts

In many cases it is not the provincial government which consults but a third-party entity, and usually the consultation is no more than tokenistic. ‘Industry has its hand in the pot that pays these groups to make sure consultation is done,’ claims Eriel – who works as a campaigner with the Rainforest Action Network, because ‘when I first saw the devastation of the boreal forest, I knew I had to devote my life to preserving my beautiful homeland’. She has experienced these sham ‘stakeholder engagements’ first hand. ‘In many cases, they only consult when they already have the bulldozers lined up. They simply come in, give a presentation, and tick off the box saying they’ve consulted.’

Even more suspicious, she feels, is the groundwork that industry lays down in advance. ‘They will come in and sponsor things like ice rinks and playgrounds and computer labs – then come in a month later for their consultation process. They will dangle the carrot of a few jobs – it is clearly manipulative. These are communities with deplorable living standards and a severe housing crisis. These corporations know exactly what they are doing.’

But in many cases it works. The oil industry has been active in Alberta for 40 years, and, says George, ‘it has given the impression to the local communities that this is the only industry people should rely on – so they’ve become very dependent on it. Young people see the sands as the be-all and end-all in terms of careers and vocations. It has become a blinding force.’

Speaking out: Eriel Tchekwie Deranger at a protest outside the Canadian Embassy in Copenhagen during December’s climate summit.

Photo by Daygot Leeyos

Yet, as with any economic boom zone, many social problems are now plaguing the industrial heartland of Fort McMurray and spilling over into communities like Fort Chipewyan all over the Athabasca region. ‘Drug addiction, crime, prostitution, domestic abuse...’ lists George. ‘We are only now starting to deal with these problems head-on, because the cancers have forced us to – we’re just at the tip of the iceberg.’

Nevertheless, Eriel believes it’s easy to understand why some communities do deals with the oil industry. ‘The communities often feel as though the companies already have the permits. They could spend 10 years fighting them or just strike a deal. The leaders will do what is best for their communities when they need food and jobs, and they figure: “Well, they’re going to destroy our land anyways so we might as well get some money first.” I don’t blame them,’ she says. ‘This is all part of a subjugation tactic by the Canadian Government. If people no longer have the ability to rely on the land, their only choice for an economic base is industry offering them deals.’

Fight for treaty rights

However, as the social, environmental and health impacts of the tar sands bite, more and more indigenous communities are taking a position of opposition. In 2008, chiefs from across Alberta and the neighbouring provinces of Saskatchewan and British Columbia came together to call for a moratorium on all new tar sands developments, and threatened to back this up with legal action.

This poses a genuine threat to the long-term future of the project. All tar sands developments in Canada are taking place on the traditional territories of indigenous First Nations. Most of them signed treaties with the crown in the 19th century giving them certain legal rights, including the right to consultation on new projects that would infringe on their abilities to hunt, fish and trap in their traditional territories.

This is one topic, says Deranger, that the mainstream media in Canada has brushed over in its coverage of the tar sands. ‘The Government of Canada has recognized native treaty rights in the constitution, but actually going forward and recognizing what those rights mean hasn’t happened in this country yet. It would open a Pandora’s box of issues – this is just not something the Canadian public is prepared for.’

The concept of ‘free prior and informed consent’ – in other words, the right of indigenous peoples to say ‘no’ – to any new development on their lands was recently enshrined in international law through the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But its application has been conspicuously absent in Canada, which has refused to sign the Declaration. Many leaders of First Nations and experts in aboriginal law believe it may be the enforcement of these treaty rights through legal challenges that stands the best chance of stopping further expansion in the tar sands.

However, getting treaty rights taken seriously by the Alberta government is proving to be a challenge. George suspects there may be a racist component to the way Fort Chipewyan’s concerns have been treated. ‘It’s hard to prove racism, but I suspect they see us as a predominantly aboriginal community “so to hell with them”.’

Charges of environmental racism are not new in Canada. All over the country, indigenous communities have been affected by industrial developments, from mega-dam projects flooding reserves in Quebec, to reckless uranium mining near Inuit communities in the Northwest Territories, to the construction of petrochemical refineries on land ceded from First Nations in Ontario. The resulting loss of land, health and traditional ways of living – from hunting and fishing to even swimming in lakes – can be summed up in two words, according to Eriel: ‘cultural genocide’.

School’s out: George Poitras looks on as children in Fort Chipewyan school protest when tar sands operator Syncrude comes to their town.

Photo by Daygot Leeyos

I will not be silenced

The sidelining of critical indigenous voices can have serious consequences for the individuals involved, as George found late last year when he was forced by the oil industry to step down from his position as consultation co-ordinator with the Mikisew Cree First Nation.

‘The president of the longest-running company in the tar sands met with our leadership and in no uncertain terms said they did not like that I travel internationally [to raise concerns about the tar sands in Europe and the US] on Mikisew time to bring negative media attention to the tar sands industry,’ he explains. ‘So, they said, either the Mikisew would have to terminate my employment or somehow silence me, or the Nation would lose contracts.’

This, he says, is standard practice. ‘In a nutshell: penalize the First Nation when they are showing a lack of support. We are simply identifying concerns related to tar sands development, but apparently we are not allowed to do that.’

George admits he found the experience shocking. ‘You would expect that kind of treatment of indigenous peoples by multibillion-dollar oil companies and corrupt Third World governments where indigenous peoples have no voice whatsoever. But this is Canada, a developed G8 nation! It is 2010 and we are still dealing with the same old issues.’

After fighting the tar sands for five years, and leaving his job as a result, has he had enough? ‘The thought of giving up did enter my mind, of living my life and having a garden at the back of my house,’ he muses. ‘But only momentarily. Actually, it’s had the opposite effect. When Dr O’Connor was first charged, it lit a fire in me to show to the rest of the world what was going on. This has made that fire much stronger. And now I am able to speak up much more freely.’

His plans now? ‘This will be my full-time vocation,’ he announces. ‘And as long as they have a 50-100 year plan, you can be sure we have our work cut out for us. I’ll die doing this.’

Zoe Cormier is a Canadian freelance writer and science journalist based in London.

  1. ‘The Tar Sands’ leaking legacy’, Environmental Defence, December 2008
  2. ‘Mutated fish alarms delegates at northern Alberta water gathering’, CBC News, Edmonton, 18 August 2008
  3. Kevin Timoney’s full report can be downloaded here: http://bit.ly/ajW0qu
  4. Full report can be found here: http://www.albertahealthservices.ca/500.asp
  5. Report available at http://bit.ly/aWHeOD

How to vote responsibly

For a lot of British voters their choices in the upcoming national elections aren’t very appealing – and this country lacks the option of spoiling your ballot and having it count (which is a considerable gap in the democratic process here). But if disillusioned Brits still want to vote responsibly they can choose to not have to decide at all – by donating their vote.

Give Your Vote, a new online campaign, pairs British voters with citizens in Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Ghana – three countries particularly affected by Government policies in the UK. Bangladesh, a low-lying coastal nation, will be severely affected by climate change as sea levels rise – most of the small country could end up underwater. Already the shoreline is shifting and small islands are vanishing. In Ghana, heavily subsidized and thus unfairly priced British exports are forcing small-scale farmers out of business. And for Afghanistan British military policy is truly a matter of life and death. 

In those countries the mirror campaign, Use A UK Vote, will also give people the chance to ask questions of British parliamentary candidates via constituents in the UK. 

‘It is a crazy idea – but that’s because the reality of democracy in a globalized world today demands it,’ says May Abdalla, co-founder of the campaign.  

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has endorsed the campaign. ‘[This is] exciting, brave and emphasizes our common humanity,’ his endorsement reads. ‘[In apartheid South Africa] we didn’t fight for hand-outs – we fought for an equal voice and for the power to make our own choices. And we are now facing a global apartheid in which the richest dominate global decision-making, often to the detriment of the poorest… We need to rethink our politics for today’s world.’

The recent climate negotiations in Copenhagen, says Abdalla, was a profound example of decisions of global importance being made ‘by people representing the countries that would be the least affected’.

Do they think the campaign will have any effect on the outcome of the British elections?

‘Of course not,’ says Abdalla. ‘But this is meant to shift people’s perceptions of democracy over the next six weeks.’

‘This isn’t about who wins – it’s about who votes.’


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