ImageAt the height of the cold war, Krakow was an environmental blight. Convinced that class distinctions would dissolve if the urban intelligentsia and industrial proletariats lived in close proximity, central planners located smokestacks and heavy industry next to apartment buildings and offices. To this day the Polish city has Europe’s third most polluted air, according to EU data.

The Soviet Union and its mid-eighties satellite states didn’t have much in the way of a celebrity culture. Pravda and Tass, da; People and TMZ, nyet. At the time, Neil Young was noodling with synthesizer-driven music and endorsing Ronald Reagan. Thirty years down the road, our National Folkie is condemning the Alberta oil sands as “the largest undertaking of its kind or of any kind on the planet….the greediest, most destructive, and disrespectful demonstration of something run amok that you’ve ever seen.”

Canada is trading integrity for money,” Young insisted during his recent Honour the Treaties tour. He went north of Fort MacMurray to see the environmental cost of bitumen extraction up close, before concluding that environmental reclamation is impossible. “It’s like turning the moon into Eden. It’s not going to work,” he added.

Persistent claims of health risks to populations downstream from the oil sands are creating a PR headache for the Harper government and the oil industry alike. But this isn’t like latter-day Krakow, with coal-fired industry in your face and down your lungs. The oil sands are out of sight and out of mind for many non-aboriginal Canadians. In general, the country’s vast expanse allow transnational corporations to develop billion-dollar resource megaprojects far from the nation’s urban centres, which are strung like Christmas lights along the 49th parallel.

As a result, most city dwellers in Toronto, Winnipeg, or Vancouver enjoy all the benefits of the traditional energy sector without seeing, breathing, or drinking the ecological costs. The environmental scar from the oil sands is observable far from space, yet images from it are relatively rare in the Canadian media (an aerial photo by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky shows toxic tailing ponds just yards away from the Athabasca river).

Anyway, back to Neil. Critics say he is using his stardom to leverage hydrocarbon hatin’ into headlines. Yet with a Tory government determined to close all avenues of democratic participation other than our quarterly shuffle to the ballot box, can anyone blame some celebrity for picking up the representative slack, even one whose political stance has been as variable as his musical output?

Speaking of variable music, in December 2013 Stephen Harper sang a cringe-worthy version of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” at the Jewish National Fund’s annual Negev dinner, and repeated the performance this week at an official state dinner in Jerusalem. So on one hand you have a left-wing musician trading on his high profile to assault Canadian resource extraction. On the other hand you have a right-wing politician mining the catalogue of British peaceniks in a bizarro charm offensive. There’s some weird symmetry there.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for the prime minstrel to perform “Here Comes the Sun.” Solar energy is approaching cost parity with coal-fired electricity, and our descendents may look back on the 21st century as the last great Gold Rush by the fossil fuelish. In the meantime, Canada may degenerate further into an autocratic petrostate before civilization as a whole is dragged by necessity into the light.

Consider the other big player in the traditional energy sector, Red China. The state broadcaster CCTV recently released a dead-serious list of “unexpected benefits” from the constant blanket of smog in Beijing. First, the smog has brought the people together in their complaints about air quality. Second, it has equalized them as both rich and poor breath the same air. Third, it has made them wittier, through their dissemination of pollution-related jokes.

A print organ of the Chinese communist party “added one more advantage: the smog could bolster China’s military defences by affecting guided missile systems,” noted Jonathan Kaiman in The Guardian Weekly.

Poland long ago passed the smog baton to China. Yet Chinese solar panel production reportedly quadrupled between 2009 and 2011, outpacing world demand. For all its Pythonesque statements about air pollution, the totalitarian regime is literally banking on a solar future, following Germany’s lead. As Neil Young said, there are alternatives to a “dirty future … a door into the sunshine.”

The Vancouver Courier, Jan. 24



ImageCBC’s Fifth Estate recently presented an excellent summary of the Harper government’s approach toward basic research in Canada. “Silence of the Labs”  enumerates the many ways Ottawa is conducting a war of attrition on science.

For the past five years, “more than 2000 federal government scientists and researchers have been dismissed. Programs that monitored smokestack emissions, food inspection, oil spills, water quality or climate change, were drastically cut or shut down,” notes the Fifth Estate’s Linden MacIntyre.

The CBC report found some new angles in the Harper government’s five-year long spree of knowledge-trashing. Dr. Pat Sutherland was working on a dig on Baffin Island, uncovering some of the first interactions between the inhabitants of the Old World and New. The archaeologist’s internationally-recognized work was subsidized by the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec, but it fell afoul of her employer’s rebranding of Canadian history.

The museum had shifted its emphasis to Canada’s colonial past, sidelining the heritage of the continent’s first inhabitants. Sutherland’s archaeological project, no longer in tune with the new direction, was axed.

The federally-fun museum’s rebranding of history is in line with the welter of bicentennial advertisements from Ottawa that celebrated the War of 1812 – a national campaign that has cost taxpayers 28 million dollars. For the Harperites, Canadian history starts with the Redcoats who marched on the US capitol. It’s revisionism worthy of filmmaker George Lucas: call it The United Empire Royalists Strike Back.

After Dr. Sutherland’s dismissal in 2012, the Museum of Civilization entered into a creative partnership with a new sponsor: The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, “the high-profile lobby group that has been influential in reshaping science, now a partner in defining history,” in the words of MacIntyre.

As we know from history, the official politicization of academic disciplines comes bundled with the totalitarian impulse. In the early 20th century, Russian Stalinists insisted that science was political by nature, and they rejected entire fields of knowledge as bourgeois pseudo-science. A Marxist agronomist, T.D.Lysenko led the drive to remove geneticists from Russian academia. A leading Russian geneticist, Vavilov, was sentenced to death and perished in prison in 1943. Not just biology was under attack; quantum mechanics and relativity were also condemned as idealist fripperies.

The Stalinists were also masters of erasing the past. Politburo members and apparatchiks who fell out of favour with “Uncle Joe” Stalin had their faces literally airbrushed out of official photographs.

For their part, the German Nazis condemned “Jewish science,” which also included quantum mechanics and relativity theory (Einstein, seeing the writing on the wall, decided to leave Germany in 1932). Party members were parachuted into prime university positions, while the occult-crazed SS leader Heinrich Himmler launched his Ahnenerbe research institute to explore the beginnings of the Aryan race and the outer fringes of reason. Under the blessing of Hitler, the Ahnenerbe dispatched Nazi archeological expeditions in 1936 in search of The Ark of the Covenant and in 1938 to find The Holy Grail (the former theme was explored decades later in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark).

The “1000-year Reich” lasted only 12 years, in large part because the Fuhrer was not a big fan of the reality principle, which came in the form of increasingly unwelcome reports from the German High Command.

Perhaps I have encountered the print version of Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” Let’s just say the German leader was a historically unique lunatic who wrecked the brush moustache for everyone. That said, totalitarianism from the left or right respects no borders or eras. One of its defining signs is a contempt for factual information and a mania for reinventing the past. As George Orwell observed in his dystopian novel, 1984, ‘”He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

The Fifth Estate episode didn’t even broach Ottawa’s recent “consolidation” of nine, world class libraries at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, with the permanent loss of decades’ worth of scientific material. Our corporate-captured government seems determined to not let an idea get in the way of ideology, an observation in the way of an oil pipe, or a fact in the way of fracking.

The Vancouver Courier, Jan. 17 and 22


I’m an aficionado of questionable federal spending. Not that I like tax dollar bonfires and boondoggles more than anyone else, it’s just that I find them useful for satirical material. And surely nothing is more worthy of satire than a recently revealed program by the Canadian Department of Defence.

A short study from October asked 150 subjects whether superheroes can “fly through the air, see through walls, hear whispers from miles away, become invisible, and walk through walls.” $14,000 were spent to “help the Canadian Forces win the hearts and minds of the local populations it faces when deployed overseas, such as recently in Afghanistan.”

This work will not only allow cultural scientists to better understand the spread of non-natural and religious concepts but also allow the Canadian Armed Forces … to design messages that are more memorable for their target audiences,” according to summary of the study. Considering most of the world already consumes American pop culture like GI-dispensed candy bars, your guess is as good as mine about how this psychological operations monkeywrenching is supposed to work. (Wolverine figures painted on the sides of Halliburton trucks?) This brings me to a scoop of my own. A little bird just forwarded me an internal memo from the PMO to Tory insiders:

To: Conservative Contact List

From: The Privy Council

Subject: Confidential Survey – Superheroes as Federal Appointees, Members of Parliament, Contractors, and Temporary Foreign Workers

Please answer all of the following questions to the best of your ability.

ImageMR. FANTASTIC: Assume that Reed Richards, leader of The Fantastic Four, actually exists. If the scientific genius agreed to stay away from oceanography and anything fishy, would you like to see him head the National Research Council? Should he invent a sleeping gas for use in the parliamentary press gallery? (Mr. Fantastic’s stretching powers are not under consideration, as the Wright/Duffy debacle has demonstrated the PM’s unparalleled elasticity.)


AQUAMAN: Once more assume this superhero, a fixture of DC comics, is real. Would you like to see him lead the privatization of the defunct Kitsilano Coast Guard operation on the West Coast? (Aquaman is based in the Atlantic, but he has weak telepathic command over Pacific jellyfish and sea cucumbers).


MAGNETO: Do you think it’s wise or unwise for us to deal with supervillains as government contractors? If the truly evil are properly compensated, do you believe their lack of conscience will make them less inclined to be whistleblowers? In any case, X-Men arch-enemy Magneto has telekinetic power over metal objects. If the government were to spend billions on F-35 jets that turned out to tarmac installation art, do you believe Magneto could direct them safely in flight?


THE INVISIBLE GIRL: After Pamela Wallin’s failure to fade into the wallpaper during the expenses scandal, do you think Senator Sue Storm could use her powers of invisibility to good effect on Parliament Hill?


TWO-FACE: Considering the double digit percentage of Torontonians who still support mayor Rob Ford, how many do you think would vote for a mayoralty candidate with literally two faces?


THE INCREDIBLE HULK: The state of Israel has no finer friend than Foreign Minister John Baird, who regularly turns red with rage at United Nations decisions. But what about a diplomat who turns green with rage, batting jets like whiffle balls and crushing minarets like Triscuits? Imagine it: “Hulk smash Iran! Hulk smash Syria! Hulk share bottle of Cristal with Benjamin Netanyahu!”


THE MIGHTY THOR: A magnificent mane of hair, a strong jaw, and a hammer that can reduce infrastructure to rubble. Or instead of Rona Ambrose, would you prefer Odin’s son as Minister of Health?


STORM FROM THE X-MEN: Let’s say Halle Barry’s bootylicious mutant became Conservative Member of Parliament for Gander-Nippleworth. Would she be too distracting to the Opposition during Question Period? Would that be such a bad thing from a Tory perspective?


DR. DOOM: Would you approve of the brilliant, disfigured psychopath as Minister for Industry? Or would his legendary rivalry with Mr. Fantastic cause too many problems in First Class during junkets to Europe?


BIZARRO SUPERMAN: Since many Canadians believe the federal government is already operating from Bizarro World, would you support Bizarro Superman as the next Conservative candidate for Prime Minister?