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Advancing the Fourfold Vision Quest in 2021

As 2020 began I tried to launch what I am now calling the Fourfold Vision Quest. I don’t remember what it was called then, and it doesn’t matter. It sputtered along in small weekly bursts without gaining much momentum. Other projects demanded my attention. As 2021 begins I intend to try again.

Today I inserted into the Voyageur Storytelling web site, the focus of much of my internet attention for the past nineteen years, a few thoughts that might serve as an orientation to the quest. As I begin to transfer the locus of contemplation from that site to this, I took a screen shot of one of the panels there, to give you an idea of where they start.

The promised ‘recalled pictoverbicon’ is not here; you can see it there at http://www.voyageurstorytelling.ca, if you are curious. It is labyrinthine, cluttered, and somewhat out of date. A new version will appear here before too long.

Two ideas are worth a little more verbiage today. First, the idea of “Complex Thinking for Complex Times” is fundamental. Our news media, politicians, and advocates, do a splendid job of presenting us with a running mosaic of simplistic, one-fold impressions,—they can hardly be called visions,—usually mutually contradictory, but give us no help with integrating them into some coherent understanding of how the world is turning and what needs to be done. The term ‘no help’ hardly does justice to what they give us. They cultivate confusion, either deliberately in pursuit of their myriad single visions, or as a by-product of their clumsy, ad hoc, disorganized efforts to keep us informed. Their noisy disparation drives the mass of us, their hapless listeners, straight into the lives of quiet desperation that Henry David Thoreau so stigmatized.

The Fourfold Vision Quest is a response to this deplorable situation. It may or may not yield a method. It will yield a way of thinking, a guide to coping with the inescapable plethora of points of view arising from our contemporary life. It will do that, I promise you, although probably not right away. The Quest will require contemplation, deliberation, conversation, and the more the better.

As the next push is for 2021 which has not yet quite begun, I will simply display the pictoverbicon for the last day of 2020, and sign off, pausing only to wish you a prosperous, healthy, safe, and unfettered year. Here is the pictoverbicon:

Sincerely,

Paul Conway, Northern Bruce Peninsula, Ontario

(the background picture, by the way, is our front yard at this time of year)

“Social Experiments” and the Common Good

Today I sent the following letter to the leaders of the four parties in the Canadian House of Commons:

Respected Sirs and Madam,

I am writing in response to the Throne Speech and to recent reports of Mr. O’Toole’s stated concerns about “social experiments”, as reported this morning by the CBC.

I am writing to all of you because I am hoping that you will all embrace one political experiment, which is to work together for the common good and not try to make partisan hay out of our current misfortunes and challenges. Of course I recognize that there is plenty of room for principled disagreement about “the common good”, and that the people you serve probably hold a muddled view of what that is. Still, it’s pretty clear when you are being principled and when you are being partisan, just by the way you speak and the amount of thought evident in what you say.

Neither fulsome boasting on the part of the Government, nor carping negativity on the part of the Opposition, can be seen as principled. Those kinds of speech are clearly partisan, and have no place in the current predicament.

I would identify that predicament as primarily four-fold, at the broad strategic level:

(1) The current pandemic coronavirus, and the lively probability of future ones;

(2) Excessive waste and the indiscriminate dumping of its effluents into the air (climate), water, and land;

(3) Inequality and injustice in all forms;

(4) Violence and strong-arm tactics in all forms.

The last three, in all their diverse variations, have become firmly embedded in our ways of life and institutions, as we can see from the huge resistance we see when they are challenged. The insidious thing about those three is that while it is abundantly clear that the whole of society is being hugely damaged by them, perhaps even terminally, someone is benefiting from every single element of each one of them.

The people who are benefiting have power and voices, and do not hesitate to use them. They may even have rights, or at least legitimate interests, often broadly distributed, including the right not to have the whole basis for their lives overturned or blasted into oblivion without some kind of due process. This whole immense and complex system of resistances erects huge barriers against fundamental change.

The virus is different. It doesn’t care about our rights or legitimate interests or due process. It does what it wants, and has forced us to overturn our ways of life to an extent previously unimaginable. I don’t need to belabour that point. You all know what I mean. To a considerable extent we have made those changes, with what is actually, when you come to think about it, a commendable amount of grace. The virus has taught us something about our capacity to change, if change we must.

I suggest that the degree of change and willingness to change that the virus has imposed on us, and our success in changing, ought to give us the courage to tackle the other three in the same spirit. We can drastically reduce waste and dumping. We can address inequality and injustice. We can do away with violence and strong-arm tactics. And when we have done all that we will live very differently from the way we do now, or did before the virus.

And I would say to Mr O’Toole and those who agree with him that the way to get there is through Social Experiments, also Economic Experiments, Political Experiments, and Individual Way-of-Life Experiments of many different kinds. I would say that an Experimental Way of Life is exactly what we must adopt in order to deal with our Four Predicaments, both broadly and in detail.

I think we are doing that, to a commendable extent, in dealing with the coronavirus. More experimentation is yet to be done there, but the process is rolling.

I suggest that it has two principle implications. First, that we need not pretend that all experiments will work. I suggest two principles, adapted from the school of counselling called “Solution Focus”: If you try something that works, do more of it. If you try something that doesn’t work, don’t do more of it, do something different. Experiments sometimes fail. We must not play “Gotcha!” with the people who undertook them, or lay blame, or question their motives, or seek to take mean-spirited advantage of their discomfort, or any of the other practices so dear to us. An experimental culture must be a generous one. It will do us all much good if we simply cut each other a little slack.

Second, I suggest that this kind of process cannot carry on without catastrophic disruption and huge injustice unless our governments are heavily involved in the regulation of it. This is not an environment for unregulated “market” solutions, although ingenuity and initiative may play important roles, as they always have. If we want to cultivate experimental approaches that are effective, humane, and democratic, we must cultivate a vibrant Public Sector, which means among other things being prepared to pay for it. Resources are going to shift away from the comfortable practices of the past into new ones. The old ones are going to scream bloody murder, and we are going to have to deal with them resolutely, using due process of course.

Please notice that I assign to our governments the job of “regulation”, not “control”. Individual initiative remains a huge experimental resource and should be cultivated in the humane way we all know about but don’t always respect.

Please notice also how easily we learn when we must. We learned a long time ago to drive our cars on the right-hand side of the road. That is a severe restriction which we accept. We are learning to wear masks and keep our distance. There may be limits out there somewhere to what we can learn, but they are a long way away.

I have suggested that we are adapting to the coronavirus because it doesn’t care about our complex of resistances. With respect to the second predicament, the one caused by waste and dumping and exploitation, I suggest that Nature doesn’t really care either, although she is a lot more generous than the virus. But if Nature decides she has had enough, she will retaliate very hard indeed, and far more widely than the virus. We do well not to make her too angry. The same might be said for the victims of inequality and injustice, and of violence and strong-arm tactics.

Experiments forever!

Thank you for reading.

Sincerely,
Paul Conway
Northern Bruce Peninsula,Ontario
October 4th, 2020

Mitigating the Madness of King Us

PWC: The following article appeared on the web site “The Conversation”, https://theconversation.com, sometime this past week, along with an invitation to republish. Since the general thrust of what is said there reflects what I have been trying to say, I am doing that.

I first took part in a multidisciplinary academic project in 1971 and have, to the extent possible, been practising the approach in my own research and management ever since. Multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary is certainly better than monodisciplinary in dealing with broad humane issues, although I believe transdisciplinary or holodisciplinary to be an even higher ideal, and what senior managers of all kinds struggle to be when they are trying to act humanely. Each academic discipline has its own particular lens, ground so as to illuminate the questions that discipline likes to ask. The task of humane senior management, in all fields, is to find a lens for its questions, which are often broad and complex. Too often, in my experience, when they try to put everything together, they end up flying by the seat of their pants, without any help from the disciplines who are, in fact, often critical of their decisions, sometimes aggressively so, on the grounds that they have given insufficient weight to one disciplinary perspective or another. It is easy to state general principles on how such weighting ought to be done. They are the commonplaces of decision theory and the philosophical principles behind it. Plugging the numbers into the formulas and dealing with the stochasticities surrounding them is another matter altogether.

When I advocate for “Fourfold Vision”, I mean a way of thinking, a cast of mind, that includes and transcends particular academic disciplines to create a holism greater than the sum of their parts. Whether that can be done in any except general terms remains to be seen.

The University of Toronto’s project, described here, is commendable. Any comments I might make, interleaved in italics below and marked “PWC”, are intended to build on what the authors have said and not to detract from their ideas in any way. They and their project are on the right track, in my opinion. I would simply like them to go beyond interdisciplinary into that even higher intellectual, perceptual, and practical realm where Fourfold Vision prevails.

My comments will evolve gradually in the days ahead.

Here is the article in question:

‘How to live in a pandemic’ is the type of university class we need during COVID-19

PWC: Why only in university class? It is what we all need. The Madness of King Us, in this context, is the strident chorus of particular perspectives all trying to tell us what to do. The most common theme, in my limited viewing range, says that we should all be “kept safe”, meaning we should not catch the current virus. Whether the things we must do to achieve that in some global way do in fact “keep us safe”, or even “keep our children safe” (the idea behind much immediately current discourse) is another matter. “Safe” is one of those easy four-letter words that is a lot more complicated than appears on the surface.

Health is a complex issue that requires an interdisciplinary approach to study and teach. (Shutterstock)

Andrea Charise, University of Toronto; Ghazal Fazli, University of Toronto; Jessica Fields, University of Toronto; Laura Bisaillon, University of Toronto, and Nicholas D. Spence, University of Toronto PWC: These are the authors of this article. I salute them, and will try to contact them directly.

Currently, we are all bombarded with headlines on the latest research related to COVID-19. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that health is a deeply interdisciplinary issue, demanding expert responses from a cross-section of fields: the arts, public health, social work and K-12 education among them.

As an interdisciplinary collective of academics trained in a range of fields from the arts to social science to clinical sciences, we have witnessed first-hand a crucial problem in how health is taught and communicated at the post-secondary level. What is often missed, but is critical to contextualizing scientific findings, are examinations of the assumptions and methods used to conduct health-related research.

This omission reflects a problem in Canadian colleges and universities, which generally deliver post-secondary curriculum using a single-discipline approach. A single-discipline approach to health education does not engage the full picture nor provides the groundwork for innovative, equitable solutions in the future.

PWC: Health is of course only one element in the complex of contemporary human needs and desires which I believe to usefully expressed by the following tetrad: Prosperity + Health + Security + Contentment. These authors are dealing with the complexities of diverse perspectives about health. Each of the other elements in the tetrad present the same order of complexity, and can be approached in a multi-disciplinary way with equal validity. The larger human problem is to put all the elements together, with all their complexities, in order to decide how to live, and how best to conduct public affairs.

Multidisciplinary approaches

At the post-secondary level, for example, a microbiology course might focus on lab-based methods used to diagnose whether someone has developed antibodies to a disease like COVID-19, while a typical public health course might focus on the mechanics of contact tracing.

Deeper understandings of health require a co-operative investigation of the various frameworks, techniques and assumptions that guide research practices and how they are communicated.

Universities must fundamentally change their approach to teaching health-related knowledge. It is time to commit to what we call “radical interdisciplinarity”: a sustained inquiry into interactions between biography, arts, culture, history and societal organization that contributes to debates about political, social and economic determinants of health.

Complex issues, complex research

From local to global health issues, traditional, single-discipline approaches are inadequate training for our future carers and health workers. Along with the specialized, deep knowledge that characterizes most undergraduate education, we need to train students studying health issues to respond to the interdisciplinarity of health itself.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic can be used to illustrate this radically interdisciplinary approach; such an approach informs a new team-taught course, “How to live in a pandemic,” being offered at the University of Toronto Scarborough’s department of health and society.

Quantitative approaches, which focus on numeric data, are suited for research focused on the development of treatments using experimental designs, particularly randomized controlled trials. Projecting the number of infections and deaths resulting from the virus is done by statistical models of infectious disease, using secondary data.

Qualitative approaches, by contrast, are best suited for examining the experience of, for example, racialized women working as front-line service providers. In this case, one-on-one in-depth interviews capture the meanings and interpretations of their circumstances, particularly in light of the impact of systemic racism on health.

Beyond qualitative and quantitative approaches, arts-based health research methods are gaining traction. Creative arts — including music, theatre, writing and visual arts — have been increasingly integrated into more conventional forms of health research and education.

Canada’s first undergraduate program in health humanities was launched in 2017 at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Integrating these insights with arts-based methods can further illustrate the diverse expression of these issues in the creative lives of everyday people.

Social distancing and health inequity

One of the challenges of the current pandemic is addressing how COVID-19 is experienced differently by individuals and communities. Lessons from previous epidemics show that we are not created equal in terms of exposure to and consequences of disease: racialized, poor and sexual minorities are examples of communities that have suffered disproportionately.

It is crucial to disentangle the social, environmental and economic influences of the COVID-19 pandemic across different age, gender and class lines. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing, self-isolation and other practices aimed at controlling viral transmission may have a particular impact on the mental health of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, two-spirit and intersex (LGBTQTSI+) people.

Members of LGBTQTSI+ communities are particularly vulnerable to the negative consequences of social isolation. These contribute substantially to higher reports of mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and acts, self-harm and controlled substance dependence.

Sociological and public health research indicates LGBTQTSI+ people have less access to socioeconomic resources, employment opportunities, health care and other forms of social support that are available to their cisgender heterosexual peers.

Better understanding the impact of responses to COVID-19 on the mental health of LGBTQTSI+ people can help ensure that all members of our society — regardless of sexual and gender identity — receive culturally appropriate and inclusive care.

Living and learning in a pandemic

As university-based health researchers and educators, our approach to the study of COVID-19 differs from conventional health education approaches. We lead with the principle that it is valuable, and in fact ethical, to commit to radical interdisciplinarity inside and outside the classroom.

A basic understanding of the research methods generating the body of pandemic scientific knowledge is essential to critically appraise the evidence, by recognizing the methodological strengths and limitations of any specific disciplinary approach.

Universities must find ways to model the multi-sectorial, interdisciplinary solidarity required to face the escalating complexity of 21st-century global health. The COVID-19 pandemic gives us a moment in time to overhaul health education — and perhaps to teach us all how to better prepare to live in the midst of this and future pandemics.

Andrea Charise, Associate Professor, Department of Health & Society, University of Toronto; Ghazal Fazli, Lecturer, Interdisciplinary Centre for Health and Society, University of Toronto; Jessica Fields, Professor and Chair, Health and Society, University of Toronto; Laura Bisaillon, Assistant Professor, Interdisciplinary Centre for Health and Society and the Social Justice Education Department, University of Toronto, and Nicholas D. Spence, Assistant Professor, Sociology and Health and Society, University of Toronto

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Madness of King Us: Liberty

A recent article by John Stoehr on the web site Agence Global (https://agenceglobal.com/2020/07/27/are-americans-rethinking-who-they-are/) talks about that moment in recent history when Americans began to “think of themselves more as consumers and taxpayers, instead of free and responsible citizens.”

“Thinking of themselves as consumers and taxpayers — instead of citizens endowed from birth with rights, liberties and responsibilities — lent itself to thinking about the federal government as separate from the citizenry. “Government” was something done to people. It wasn’t of, by and for them.”

Mr. Stoehr believes that the present “crisis” may be presenting the opportunity for Americans to revert to an earlier, more generous vision of themselves, as “citizens who consume and who pay taxes” because, “as citizens, we are much more than consumers and taxpayers … we are the ultimate sovereign. … The confluence of national and constitutional crises seems to be forcing some people, perhaps most people, to rethink how they think about themselves.” Americans will be fortunate people indeed if subsequent events reveal that Mr. Stoehr knows what he is talking about.

The ideal of “smaller government” is less popular in Canada, although certainly not absent. We have a highly developed sense of governments at all levels as engines that ought to be doing things for us: providing us with goods and services, protecting us from the myriad evil effects of our economic and social practices, and even changing people’s minds on basic issues of social justice. I live in a deeply conservative part of the country. I often marvel at how quickly my neighbours demand government action when something occurs that they don’t like. I even recall one entrepreneurial person who insisted that the government, having provided infrastructure that made the family enterprise possible, now “owes us a return on our investment.” That is a sweeping assignment of responsibility indeed!

We in Canada are blessed indeed with the range and variety of political and social ideals we have inherited through our diverse ancestry. We can, quite legitimately in accordance with our history, pursue the American ideals of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”. Stephen Leacock himself urged these upon us in his probe into The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, and quite justifiably so in my opinion. These are noble pursuits. The British bequeathed us with “Property, Stability, Conformity”, perhaps not exactly in those words, but quite effectively. The French gave us Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, perhaps not as effectively. We ourselves added Peace, Order, and Good Government. All these add up to a fine portfolio of ideals for individual and collectual well-being, and we would be ill self-served if we ditched any one of them.

If anyone pointed out to me that we do not live up to those ideals,—and someone would surely do that,—I would reply, as I said earlier, that ideals are made to be flawed. The virtue lies in believing in them, and striving for them. The grotesque short-comings that we see all around us come from those who do not believe and do not strive. The outcry against “systemic racism” and all movements of similar weight seem to centre on demands that governments do something about them. I put “systemic racism” in quotation marks not in any judgement against the movement, quite the contrary, but because I have quibbles about definitions that are of no importance to the victims. They may have importance when it comes to taking action.

The late prophet Isaiah Berlin opened our minds to an understanding of two types of Liberty, or Freedom,—he explicitly used the two words interchangeably. He called the two types “Negative Liberty” and “Positive Liberty”, complex ideas encapsulated briefly and respectively by Michael Ignatieff, in his biography of Isaiah Berlin (p. 275) as “freedom of action or thought”, and “the capacity to develop [one’s] innermost nature to the full”.

When I was a young research director working for a government and agency that I will not name, I commissioned what came to be called “the problems study”. This was a deliberately naive piece of work, viewed only as a starting point, arising from the frequently voiced observation that the people in the field where I was working faced many problems. Exactly what are those problems? I asked, and was authorized to find out, as systematically as possible within the budget approved. After a duly diligent process of selection, I sent two qualified people out into the field to find out what the problems were by asking people whose job it was to deal with them. Fortunately for my reputation, career prospects, and self-respect, I added a sufficient number of in-person household interviews to verify the perceptions of the professionals.

The results were consistent: the doctors and nurses said that illness was a huge problem; the addiction workers said that addiction was a huge problem; the police said that crime was a huge problem; the child protection workers said that too many children were being abused or neglected; the social workers said that family life was problem-ridden, and the schools backed them up; the financial counsellors said that money problems were everywhere; the clergy said that spiritual problems were rife. And so it went, through the entire panorama of the helping professions. Everyone said their agencies needed more money. The households interviewed, on the other hand, while acknowledging that not everything was rosy for everybody, said that on the whole life was pretty good, and that most people coped well enough with the hardships of the region, which was a northern one. Later on, in some subsequent research, we were able at least to sense the situation accurately. The number of people on the wrong side of the “problem” divide ranged from 5% to 15%, depending on situation and demographics, and appeared to be distributed randomly. It was the visibility of the “problem-laden”, especially to their articulate helpers, not the number, that created the perception of a society in serious trouble.

I am wondering how to apply the lessons of that research, and its successors, to the two big demands of our immediate present: that the authorities conquer the Covid-19 virus and mitigate its effects, and that they do away with “systemic racism”.

In trying to think and talk about all that, I am finding that Isaiah Berlin’s terminology, while admittedly useful to the understanding of what he meant, inhibits a clear conception of what it means we should do. Both terms contain double negatives. To speak of expanding or contracting negative liberty is confusing. Is it the negative or the liberty that is being expanded or contracted? Positive liberty in any social situation clearly must connote a strong element of moral choice and self-constraint. It is time, I believe, to invent some words, and for that it is traditional in the English language to turn either to the Latin, or to the Greek.

In this case the honours go to the Greek, I believe. I propose that negative liberty be called “adeia”, or more simply “adea”, from the Greek word for “permission” and related things, and that positive liberty be called “eleutheria”, or “elutheria”, from the Greek word for “liberty-freedom”.

This adjustment in terminology will allow us to consider dealing with Covid-19 unambiguously and positively through pursuit of a higher rather than a lower “adealism”, and “systemic racism” through “elutherial” rather than punitive measures. In both cases we would therefore be talking about mitigating evils through positive instead of negative measures, by expanding rather than contacting something, by moving forwards rather than backwards. If we think and pursue that way, we are less likely to incur harmful side-effects, or to emerge from the endeavour with our society in even worse shape than it was before.

As to what all this might mean in practical terms, I promise that I will continue along these lines and report progress as I go along.

I write this article as part of the Fourfold Visions Projectile (see http://www.voyageurstorytelling.ca), out of my beliefs in complex thinking about complex matters, and in the positive usefulness of diverse points of view, openly expressed.

Paul Conway, July 31 2020

 

The Unsolved Riddle of Everything: Thoughts on the withdrawn Teck Resources Oil Sands Project

Today, when I heard about the company’s withdrawal, I wrote an e-mail to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta’s Premier Jason Kenney. It said:

Dear Prime Minister and Premier,

I am writing to congratulate you both on the happy outcome of this matter. It is difficult to see how it could possibly have worked out better for both of you.

Mr. Trudeau, you have been saved from the need to make a decision about a project that did not yet exist except as an idea. It is difficult to see how you could possibly have made any decision that would not have caused trouble. I did think it odd that you and your colleagues, on behalf of the Canadian people, were being asked to approve a project that was entirely hypothetical. What could you possibly have said, except that years from now, when the company provides details, you, assuming you are still the government of the day, promise to look at them very carefully with due regard for benefits, costs, and the net public interest? I am delighted you been rescued from this necessity, although possibly not as delighted as you are.

Mr. Kenney, while I sympathize with your loss of this particular dream, I am sure you are aware that the people of Alberta have many dreams that you can help them pursue. They may not be as big as this one, but they are within reach as this one never was. I speak from experience, because I was an Albertan myself for twenty-five years, as my children and grandchildren remain. I always found Alberta to be fertile soil for my dreams, which took me from the Cypress Hills to the Crowsnest Pass, from Rainbow Lake to Fort Chipewyan, and just about everywhere in between, talking to people in their communities as they tried to understand what was happening and to make decisions.

I make no judgement as to whether there should or should not be another massive oil sands project on the lower Athabasca. I was there for Syncrude, and know something of the complexities: technical, economic, environmental, social, cultural, and political. It was my job at the time to know them. Of course circumstances may have changed, but I suspect the underlying reality has not: that the benefits of these massive projects are immediate and ephemeral, and some of their very real costs slow to reveal themselves and possibly permanent. I also believe that they bring opportunity costs with them that may never be directly observed, because they are the things that did not happen as the massive project took all the attention and money, and did not leave them room.

I believe there will always be an oil economy in Alberta, because that’s where the oil is, and because oil, in some form, is such an amazing gift of Nature that people will always be able to find uses for it, no matter what happens to specific uses along the way. My experience tells me, however, that producing raw bitumen and shipping it elsewhere in bulk for low margins is an extreme form of the Old Oil economy, and that dreaming, and inventing, and investing, ought to focus on the New Oil economy and all the potential it offers. I don’t pretend to know exactly what the New Oil economy looks like, but I suspect it will be more creative, more value-added, more human-scale, more beneficial, with fewer costly externalities, than any mining and shipping of raw bitumen can ever be.

The people I met in the resource industries of Alberta were very smart people indeed. I suspect they know that the Old Oil economy and way of thinking is going to be replaced by New Oil, and they passionately want to be part of it. I respectfully urge both of you, Prime Minister and Premier, to get behind those people and to help them put Old Oil out to pasture, along with the people who cannot see beyond it. We can argue about the past merits of Old Oil, and whether its huge accomplishments out-weigh its ultimate costs, but the evidence now seems overwhelming, for many different kinds of reasons, that its day is done.

Out with Old Oil, Old Politics, Old Journalism, Old Thought. In with New!

Thank you for listening.

A few subsequent thoughts:

1. I do not blame the company for this decision, but I do for having kited this project in the way they did, and getting Premier Kenney and others all worked up about it. I do congratulate them on having the grace to withdraw it. I suspect, however, there is a strategy of some kind being played out. I have no reason to believe that a company of this stature would truly offer Canadians a pig in a poke, and expect anyone (except Premier Kenney perhaps) to want us to buy it. Teck Resources has done us all a favour. I wonder what the quid pro quo will look like, when they present that.

2. I see no future in massive energy projects. They are intensely political, and the politics have become bad. They have always worked on the assumption that their short-term economic benefits matter, and that their environmental and social costs do not. Anything and anyone that gets in their way can be pushed aside. They hold governments and peoples hostage: do what we want, or we’ll pull the plug. Fortunately this company did that long before they had even started to fill the tub. That is refreshing and unusual. The usual phalanx of loud supporters who would have invested in expectation can surely not have got around to it yet, at least on any large scale. Few should be hurt by yesterday’s decision.

3. We should not get trapped into thinking that huge projects are the only possible channel for investment, even in energy projects. While controversy may swirl around large projects, making them highly visible, smaller ones are going on all the time. We just don’t notice them. Statistics Canada does. We need to pay more attention to the macro-statistics and to understand what they are saying.

4. We should not get trapped into thinking that there are pat solutions to the Unsolved Riddles of our time, which are legion. A recent CBC opinion column spoke of people’s impatience with the inability of the Federal Government to articulate a policy that would occupy the space between the contradictory extremes of our Unsolved Riddles. Policy can clarify the extremes, and specify their relative importance. The space between them cannot be generalized. It is discovered, issue by issue and project by project, through the application of human ingenuity and conversation, a continuous creative process.

5. A little patience and understanding would go a long way towards lowering the pressure, on all sides.

Charging Membranes, Atmospheres … and What Else?

Sixth Week of the Leacock Anniversaries, Wednesday May 1st, 2019. May Day. Or is that MAYDAY! MAYDAY!

My mind is full of questions this morning about the verb “to charge”, and whether it may make some potential difference in the hunt for the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. Now there’s a blast from the past that just popped into my mind as I typed that sentence: potential difference. It came, I think, from my second-year physics course at the University of Toronto, a subject from which my degree of disengagement was exceeded only by thermodynamics. As far as I was concerned at the age of nineteen, electricity and magnetism, on the one hand, and heat, on the other, could do their thing in whatever way they pleased. Their decisions to flow, or not to flow, from one body to another were none of my business.

The idea of potential energy, however, perhaps related if memory serves me, could be my business now, depending on definition; especially the idea of something being charged with potential energy. We sometimes speak of a charged atmosphere; let’s borrow that. Let’s remember that we breathe the the contents of an atmosphere, either the natural one around us, or an artificial one from a tank or controlled environment. BW Powe has recently brought into the perceptual discussion the idea of a charged membrane. Let’s borrow that. Then let’s imagine the situation we may be in.

Let’s imagine two different atmospheres, one conducive to Social Justice, and one not conducive. Let’s imagine them mixed in the same breathing space, just as the natural atmosphere is a mixture of different gases, and as an artificial atmosphere can be made to be. Then let us imagine a membrane that is charged to allow one type of atmosphere through easily and to inhibit the passage of the other. The question then becomes: what kind of a membrane is it, and what kind of charge?

Is it a natural membrane, or do we “facture” it, as in manufacture, or mentafacture if there is such a word? If natural, then our approach to it will have to take one kind of form, if humanufactured, then another. The same goes for the charge. Is the membrane global, enveloping us all like some great blanket, or is it more like a face mask that we can put on or remove at will? And are these questions the essence of what we mean when we call Social Justice an Unsolved Riddle?

I am thinking out loud here, but make no apology. That’s the purpose of this blog. I invite you to think along with me, because I have grave doubts about my capacity to do it on my own.

I have not yet read B.W. Powe’s new book, The Charge in the Global Membrane, but am on track to do so. Based on his books that I have read, I expect to find it both informative and, perhaps more importantly, suggestive. For example, the other day I was reading Outage: A Journey  into Electric City, and was struck by the following line: “I’d been striving for a clear unattainable outside position [concerning information and electronic effects], and I was resisting the deeper and tangled path, the emotional core.” And a few pages later: “A passion for the end may be a passion for breakout and renewal.” What happens to  us if the global membrane is so charged that it filters out the passion for the end that we call Social Justice? How much of what is thought and said about it represents a striving for a clear, unattainable outside position when we should be taking another path, be it ever so deep and tangled?

Stephen Leacock, in 1943 at the very end of his life, in the last paragraph of his last book called While There Is Time, concluded that: “Everything depends on the work of the spirit on the honesty and inspiration of the individual.” He is suggesting that the membrane is a mask that we can individually put on or take off and thus change the atmosphere we breathe. The idea of a global membrane would seem to disagree, or at least suggest that we would have to deal with it even if we each did take off the mask.

I don’t pretend yet to have caught the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, let alone tamed it, but I am coming to believe some things about it. Most importantly, I believe that we can control the spirit we bring to our individual and collective lives, despite the efforts made by all manner of interests to control them for us. These may try to whelm us perhaps, but need not overwhelm. We can choose the deeper and tangled path, and may well find it not nearly as deep and tangled as we fear it is going to be. If it enabled us even to shed some of our anxieties, we might indeed find it quite pleasant.

If we charge the global membrane head-on, can we reverse its charge?

Toward a Truly Humanistic Economics

January 17, 2018

When I was a pale young graduate student I drifted by a peculiar path into the study of economics, or rather into the study of ways of thinking about economics and describing economic realities and relationships. I didn’t really study those phenomena, I simply studied how to study them, and in particular, how to think about them, leading into ideas about how to measure them.

This led me into many a merry adventure, the stories of which I may tell some day. Most recently, through an intensive immersion in the ideas of Stephen Leacock even as I watch carefully what is going on in the world around me, I have come to the conclusion that the field of economics needs thorough overhaul in its ways of thinking. This is not a new idea. Stephen Leacock had the same one back in the 1930’s.

I have come to believe that economics, properly conceived, is a field of the humanities, quite possibly the most important one. It’s as if the world today has become an extraordinarily complex work of art — verbal, literary, visual, sonorous — that needs to be examined and understood by methods appropriate to its nature. Economics are not rational, although they contain some rational elements, nor are they natural, although they contain elements that science can illuminate. They are human, and thus potentially within the embrace of the humanities.

This work of art is of course not an artifact in the usual sense, however. It is organic. Perhaps the best analogy is a garden. If we could imagine a garden, a work of art, that is at the same time partly wild and partly cultivated, that includes not only all the plants contained therein but all the creatures that live among them and the natural forces at work on them which are also built into the work of art — if we had a rigorous way to think about that work of art then we might have begun to find a way to think about economics. I put no limits on the potential of the human intellect. I think we can do it. But we have to think properly about the job, and not underestimate it, or pretend that by taking on only part of it — inevitably the easy part — and treating it as if it were the whole wonderful creation we can properly understand it.

Stephen Leacock never wrote a book called The Unsolved Riddle of Economics, although he certainly said much on the subject. He did write one called The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. I think that economics are about the Unsolved Riddle of Individual and Social Justice, the Unsolved Riddle of how to pursue both at the same time and with the same energy, and the myriad sub-riddles all unsolved that constitute the whole.

I have a lot of reading to do, and as I do it I will talk about it here. Thank you for paying attention, and please stay tuned.

Personal Thoughts for July 1 2017

I run two other blogs besides this one, identified as http://mariposabyconway.wordpress.com/ and https://playstephenleacock.wordpress.com/. The other two are associated with the Stephen Leacock Project, and will evolve as it does. This one is more personal.

I like the idea of celebrating the country, although I will do so today in my own way. When the rain lets up I will take a celebratory walk. The rest of the day I will enjoy my family in a quiet way and attempt to contribute to their enjoyment. That should be enough. Normally, or even obsessively, I avoid crowds. When they gather I will not be there. And as for fireworks, for me they add nothing to the beauties of the silent darkness.

I have been following the comments, both for and against, about our Sesquicentennial. I understand the negativity, although I do not share it. I think that, on balance, Canada’s story is remarkable and well worth celebrating. That there remains much work to be done, and that there are no guarantees about the future unless we work very hard for them and with somewhat more of the enabling virtues than we customarily display, does not for me detract at all. The story remains remarkable, and I will always tell it that way.

I view Canada as a political entity, in the best sense. Our politics are an expression of our community and I am proud of what they have accomplished over the years. Not uncritically proud, of course; that would be stupid. In a country as diverse and multi-point-of-viewed as this one politics are bound to be messy. Maybe that’s as they should be. A man I know likes to say that Nature likes a mess. Maybe Humanity likes a mess too, because mess leaves room for creativity. Too much order stifles the spirit. Canada is a spirited country, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

At some point in the colonial past we stopped being administered and became political, that is, began to generate important decisions out of our own conversations and processes instead of having them generated for us from head office or its appointees. It is difficult to pin-point a date. From the time when two people faced each other on the distant shore some kind of negotiation began, explicit or tacit, and that is always a political act regardless of the context. That process continued between local and authoritative voices throughout the colonial era. At some point, however, the balance of power shifted and the local voices became too strong to deny, regardless of the preferences of the formal authorities and their friends. I would put that point somewhere in the movement towards Responsible Government, and thus in the  1840’s. It became obvious in 1848, first in Nova Scotia, then in the Province of Canada.

What Responsible Government created, however, was not a country, or even the intention of a country. These colonies — Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Canada East (Lower Canada), Canada West (Upper Canada) — were separate entities, each with its own history and intentions, although the situation in the Province of Canada was more complex. If it was not a country it was, at least in some respects, beginning to behave like one, and had been since 1841.

I think the country of Canada was born, that is, popped out of the egg and started to breathe on its own on September 7, 1864, when those delegates from Maritime Provinces met in Charlottetown to discuss a union and were joined by delegates from Canada with a proposal for a wider one. If you think September 7th is premature, then try October 27th when the subsequent Québec Conference closed, having adopted the Seventy-Two Resolutions that became the British North America Act.

There sit the delegates, and f they are enjoying the contemplation of the fruits of their labour it would be hard to tell from their faces. And not a woman or an indigenous person or a black or brown face among them. I wonder what the Seventy-Two (or more) resolutions would have looked like if they had been there? Something quite different, no doubt. Better, no doubt, although that’s no reason to despise what we have. These men did the best they could with what they had, and that accomplishment is never to be despised.(Photo from Library and Archives Canada under the reproduction reference number C-006350 and under the MIKAN ID number 3623086 through Wikepedia: Quebec Conference 1864.)

QuebecConvention1864.jpg

Therefore: Sorry, all you celebrating folks. The sesquicentennial birthday, if we must have one, was over three years ago. Say October 27, 2014. I, for one, missed it. But I won’t miss the 153rd this Fall. If all goes well, Leslie and I will be in Winnipeg that day. For the reason why, try http://www.voyageurstorytelling.ca

It took another 67 years to sever the umbilical cord completely by means of the Statute of Westminster, or rather, the negotiations that produced it, but that’s another whole raft of stories, all worth telling. (I know that hatchlings from eggs don’t have umbilical cords, of course. A mixed birthing metaphor is appropriate. Call it an umbilical chord: the tune and rhythm matter more than the words.)

And the work continues. The women and indigenous are now at the conference table for sure, along with the more recently arrived peoples from the four corners of the Earth. It’s high time. What Confederation looks like from now on will be something quite different, no doubt. Better, no doubt. Needing improvement, no doubt. That’s Canada. That’s what I celebrate today, and every day. All of it.

Back After the Break: Parties, Tweets, Polls and iPolitics

My last entry here, three months ago, asked: Whither this blog? It might appear, on the surface, to have whithered away entirely, which is only partly true. The blog has been silent, indeed, but I have not. My somewhat sparse political observations have been directed through the comments sections of some stories that caught my attention.

I read those again this morning, and will up-date and post them here when I have time. They talk about some of the issues I specified in my post of January 4th.

The past few days offered three stories that I think are worth passing comment, perhaps more.

The first concerns the Liberal Party’s continuing efforts to turn itself from a political party in the old style to a “movement” in a new one. See http://ipolitics.ca/2016/04/03/trudeau-promotes-wide-open-liberal-party-no-more-membership-privileges/ I take this as an initiative under the general heading of “doing politics differently”.

An anonymous comment suggests the story is “unbalanced”, because it contained no “critical comments” and made “snide remarks” about the Conservatives, who appear to be moving in a contrary direction for what appear to be good reasons. Under the general heading of “doing political journalism differently”, might we ask whether “balance” means that every story must contain both positive and negative comments? If our government, or a party, or politician, does something good, may we not say so? Must we always add a negative comment, in the interest of balance? If we do take that as a standard, then are we not perhaps encouraging a general political culture of carping negativity, and what is the large effect of that?

Obviously we don’t care for seemingly objective news media who simply become propagandists for the government or any side of the political debate. One could hardly accuse iPolitics of being that, especially given Michael Harris’s column yesterday, blasting current policy on some parts of the Plethora of Middle Eastern Questions. See http://ipolitics.ca/2016/04/03/dions-blunders-undermine-trudeaus-claims-that-canada-is-back-on-international-stage/

I think I would interpret the first target of Harris’s rage—Global Affairs Minister Stephane Dion’s tweet—somewhat differently. Presumably the minister was under some pressure from somewhere to make that kind of statement. Can any form of ministerial statement be more trivial than a tweet? If M. Dion had wanted his opinion to be taken seriously, he would have used a more serious mode of expression. A tweet is an insignificant verbal gesture. The medium is the message.

As for the rest of Harris’s column, I think it states one side of a couple of questions well enough, and is fair comment. I would suggest, however, that the Plethora of M.E.Q.’s constitutes one of the most complex and difficult of conundrums that our or any government has to face, both morally and practically, and that actions put in place by the previous government, wrong-headed though they may have been in some respects, cannot brusquely be set aside without consequences. Was it Bismarck who said, of some foreign policy issue, that only two people ever understood it: he himself, who had forgotten it, and a professor, who went mad thinking about it? Thinking about the Middle East these days could definitely become fodder for madness. These are the murkiest of waters, and when we try to see through them, or comment on policy, we should treat them accordingly.

My third issue concerns another recent iPolitics story, coming out of the EKOS polling firm. I am referring to http://ipolitics.ca/2016/04/03/trudeaus-nuclear-honeymoon-now-fading-ekos-et/. The story itself, by Elizabeth Thompson, seems fair enough, but the headline is terrible, because it reflects one of the two polls reported—concerning the “direction Trudeau is taking Canada”—and not the other—concerning how people would vote at present. And the whole “direction” question respondents were asked, with the method used (a “high definition interactive response poll of 2,019 respondents”) must make this one of the most useless polls ever taken. What kind of statistical nonsense is that?

Ms. Thompson assures us that the poll is “considered accurate within 2.2 percentage points (I love the specious precision!) 19 times out of twenty”! Well folks, I will put my statistical credentials up against hers any day, whatever hers may be, and I don’t consider this stupid poll accurate within the maximum possible number of percentage points even once, nor worthy of any comment except instant dismissal. And as for the regional comparisons, yikes!

Surely if we want to see politics “done differently” we should ask our polling companies to get on board, and stop obfuscating the conversation by glib and careless work. A little training for the iPolitics headline writers wouldn’t hurt either.

I think iPolitics does a good job within a few percentage points most of the time, and I appreciate their work. But the quest for “politics done differently” must include them, and all journalists. There, am I being balanced?

Thoughts on the Morning of Election Day: End of this phase of my blog: Excelsior!

Monday, October 19: Election Day

Well folks, here’s hoping: a minority parliament, with all parties prepared to try to make it work. I do not expect them to give up their differences of opinion. I expect them to negotiate in good faith, and not to exploit the situation for partisan advantage.

The business of the country must get done, and expeditiously. We have tried a series of short-term near-dictatorships, to that end. And now look at the mess we are in. Let’s try something different.

For too long we have allowed our legislators and governors, at all levels, to manipulate the political system for their own partisan advantage. Let them use it for our advantage, for a change. And if they cannot agree on where that advantage lies, then let them negotiate, issue by issue, in good faith, and with an understanding that they must come to an agreement (which is not the same thing as agreeing) with whatever urgency the situation requires.

In other words, a Parliament of Creative Negotiators, not a hung parliament.

Professor Pam Palmater of Ryerson University participated yesterday in a panel discussion on CBC Radio, and said a wise thing. She said that October 19th is not nearly as important as October 20th. That’s when the work begins.

On Election Day, I wish to repeat two ideas that appeared earlier in this blog:

First, that we will be governed by the mind-set of the people with the power, and not by any catalogue of details they may have spoken or published during the campaign. The latter are clues to the mind-set, but not definitive. By “mind-set” I mean something wider than “values”, although values are important.

Second, when systems are failing, the supervisors of the system have to take some responsibility for its failure. True, the participants are responsible too, in this instance, quite significant responsibility. But if our political system has been failing, then we have to take our share of the responsibility, and the media on which we rely for our information have to take theirs. And taking responsibility means doing the work to make that effective.

And that, for us, the people, means ceaseless agitation: writing to our MP’s, MPP’s-MLA’s-MNA’s, municipal counsellors, and our news media, telling them what we think and what we want them to do. It means being engaged, being involved, and being prepared to invest the time and effort necessary.

The recent election campaign has made me resolve to do that better than I have in the past. Tomorrow the work begins.

Anything I write to politicians and journalists will appear also on this blog.

All the best to all my readers, and many thanks for your interest.