Friday, October 31, 2008

Culture Wars, Value Wars

Please, please go forward, let this town live. All the Granola’s can go back to where they are from (not here!). We are not back in the 1800’s.
- public comment received on the proposed Davidson mine in Smithers, BC

I was reading this interesting article in the New York Times the other day ( “At Rallies of Faithful, Contrasts in Red and Blue.” It’s about the cultural differences between democrats and republicans in the US.

Obama and Biden rallies tend to be more transactional than those of their Republican counterparts. Warm-up speakers spend several minutes urging everyone to call or text-message a certain number in order to get into the “pipeline,” so the campaign can contact them to volunteer, or at least vote.

Republican speakers issue obligatory reminders for people to call their friends, make sure they get out and vote. Then they move on to the Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of patriotic songs (“The Star-Spangled Banner,” “God Bless America,” “America the Beautiful”).

After a group recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at a Palin event in Salem, N.H., this month, someone in the crowd yelled out, “Say that, Obama!”

All these elements of cultural difference—the food we eat, the way we dress, the technologies we use, how we recreate, one’s attitude toward the national anthem—are not important politically. They don’t lead to difference stances on where government should spend money, for example. But they have become markers, markers that indicate values, And the values are politically significant—for example one’s attitude toward violence as a way to resolve conflict (husband to wife, race to race, rich to poor, country to country).

We’re not in a culture war, in that it is not really culture that is warring. We are in a values war. But because we recognize our side and the other side by our cultural attachments, in a practical way it can be called a Culture War. Granolas vs. Steak eaters.

A couple of years ago here in BC there was a political debate about a possible ban on bear hunting. On the whole, people from what we call the “Lower Mainland” (read, Vancouver) were in favour of an end to bear hunting in the province. The mayor of Prince George, a rough-and-ready, resource-extracting town in the north was not; and he called his opponents “a bunch of cappuccino drinkers.” What’s important is that he didn’t fault them on their animal-rights values. He called them out for their choice of drink.

Culture wars.

The culture war is more intense now because the values war has become more intense. Political debate used to be (back into the 1970’s, for example) about political issues: where to allocate the budget, which countries to be allied with, what the minimum wage should be. Now political debate is increasingly about values, and so every value is out there for debate.

Ms. Emrich would like to attend another [Sarah Palin] rally later that day in nearby Shippensburg, but can’t. “I have to work,” she explains. “I’m a Republican.”

Ouch! She’s saying the culture gulf is so great that people on the left actually don’t work! But she’s saying it to make a point about values: she values supporting working class people, and her opponents don’t (ooh—ironic!). Note that culture stands in for values.

A Democrat might respond by calling Governor Palin, a “moose-hunting beauty queen.” This is not what political debate used to be like. Think back to 1970. Could you have made a political statement by accusing the other side’s candidate of wearing camo? Today it’s tantamount to saying someone is for the Draft: branding an individual as a hunter, and ATV driver, a—god forbid—snowmobiler.

The fact is that the values wars have cleaved American society in two, and Canada’s in a similar, if a little less extreme, boat. We used to stick to issues, and that insulated us from the raw personal reality of how our opponents related to the issues. Now we’re debating values, and it’s very raw. That’s why the political rift today seems so huge compared to three decades ago.

Every Republican cheering Mr. McCain and Ms. Palin and every Democrat cheering Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden claim to have dear friends in the other party, even family members. But the other people in the other party can seem to be in a whole other world, especially now.

The candidates say as much. “When I hear some of those Republican ads, I think, ‘What planet are they on?’ ” Mr. Biden said at a rally in Charleston, W.Va.

Likewise, it is inconceivable to Bill Howland, a McCain supporter in New Mexico, that Barack Obama could win on Tuesday. “When I think of the other side, I think of a giant troop of lemmings,” Mr. Howland said. “I see their eyes spinning while they’re walking over a cliff together.”

So Kate and I are hanging out at the fisherman statue at the entrance to Smithers yesterday, and while the boys are climbing on the statue I am looking at the people driving into town. The proposed mine has been on my mind a lot recently, and I am evaluating, as each car goes past, how its driver feels about the mine—knowing of course that most people are in fact unaware of the issue.

The mine is just the latest issue we’ve had here that strikes values and therefore feeds the culture wars. We had the fight over whether Walmart could come to town. We cappuccino drinkers lost that one. We had the fight over whether a big resort company could expand the ski area—the rod-and-gun-types lost that one. We had the fight over motorized access to the backcountry—us backcountry skiers lost that one. We had the fight over the Galore Creek mine up in the remote Coast Mountains—we lost that one, but it went bust anyway, so the snowmobilers lost too.

So naturally I’m evaluating the cars going by using their cultural markers. Driving a big Ford pickup truck, ATV in the back? Pro-mine, pro-development at any cost. Pulling into Canadian Tire to buy more made-in-China landfill crap? He’s allied with the first guy. Japanese car, Yakima rocket box on the roof? That must be one of our people. And so on. Culture wars. Is it fair?

No, its’ not fair. It’s not even accurate.

Later we drive by the old crappy Saan store. It has gone out of business—but before it did, it sold, if you’ll excuse my French, cheap crap to unsophisticated people who don’t know any better and couldn’t find any alternatives in this town anyway. We bought lots there—‘cause it was the only place you could get certain things. Today the new owners are putting a new sign up: The Bargain Store. Oh great. Another crap bazaar, and it feels—but is this actually true?—that the values of the valley are failing to becoming more liberal. That we are stuck in a nightmare of the religious right.

But the reality is that we just re-elected our NDP member of parliament (that’s the left of centre party for those of you unfamiliar with Canadian politics). The reality is also that some of our most vocal opponents of this mine are dairy farmers, telephone linemen and retired auto-plant workers. It would be a big mistake to think that cultural markers tell us a whole hell of a lot about people.

Here in the valley we also have a six sub-cultures, not two. There are the progressive, organic food, hybrid-driving, off-the-grid, folk-music types. There are the golf-playing real estate brokers and businessmen. There are the Christian fundamentalist Dutch farmers. There are the camo-wearing logging- and mining workers. There are the first nations. And there are the scientists, bureaucrats and consultants who, yes, grew up down south and moved up here to live on acreages and be away from the rat race.

But the reality is that most people actually fall into more than one of these groups. Weird, but it gets you thinking.

I think what I’ve got out of this is that while I might react to cultural markers, I need to be wary of them too. I know more than a few moose-hunters here, and I think I know a few girls who used to be beauty queens. They are nice people—important people. The cultural markers are fun, but they’re…misleading.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Thoughts On Google Earth

Today I observed Kate and Galen solving a geography puzzle using Google Earth. It brought to mind a couple ideas about Google Earth and how it is changing the way we see things.

The problem that Kate and Galen were working on was to go from Isfahan, Iran, “northeast, and find a capital city below the Hindu Kush, on the banks of a river of the same name, west of the Khyber Pass.” They were using Google Earth and they were having trouble doing it.

fig. 1: National Geographic's map of Central Afghanistan

This is first because Google Earth, contrary to popular impression, is not a map. It is a photograph. A map contains interpretation whereas a photograph is raw data. On a map, certain things are pulled forward, such a capital cities, and other things are pushed back (small villages). Collective features are named, such as mountain ranges and deserts. Linear features that are actually very thin, such as rivers, are named and marked. The interpretation offers you a reading of the landscape where some things are important, and others are not. A detail of National Geographic’s Asia map (fig. 1) illustrates map-making.

Google Earth in contrast offers everything in equal weight. There is little interpretation-–pretty much limited to whether there are GE icons there. Note that a GE “map” of Afghanistan (fig. 2)

Fig. 2: Google Earth, Afghanistan

is strong on point and polygon features (towns, countries) because its easy to give the computer automated ways to place labels for these. It’s correspondingly weak on linear features such as rivers, and features that don’t really have boundaries, such as passes and mountain ranges.

The reason is that there’s no easy way to tell a computer how to label such features–where do you put the river’s name along the river, and how many times? How do you arc words to suggest the imprecise yet very real bounds of the mountain range? It’s this kind of labelling that human cartographers do well: each label is put on with love (which is why it’s unwise to rush a cartographer, or the love disappears).

The answer is Kabul, Afghanistan. It’s so easy to see this on the Nat Geo map, which identifies the Kyber Pass and the Hindu Kush, and so hard on the GE photo, which does not. At first it’s tempting to say that the Nat Geo map is therefore better. However, I’d suggest that the reason the quiz question was phrased the way it was is because we are used to looking at maps, not photos.

GE photos are strong on point features and coordinates, so you wouldn’t describe a place as “below the Hindu Kush, on the banks of a river of the same name, west of the Khyber Pass.” You’d say it was at latitude 34.5541N, longitude 69.1594E, elevation 1890m above sea level. Also, fFrom a quiz point of view there’s not much fun in that.

My speech at the HBMN forum, October 1st, 2008

Address to the Hudson Bay Mountain Neighbourhood fundraiser and forum, by Morgan Hite. October 1st, 2008, the Old Church

I’d just like to start by reviewing the basic parameters of what Blue Pearl is proposing here:

  • We’re looking at an 11 hectare industrial facility on the road to Twin Falls, visible from all over the valley in what is otherwise a forested, undeveloped area
  • We’re looking at 50 trucks a day to Endako and back, with all the noise, dust, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that that implies
  • We’re looking at a new road being pushed north along the base of the mountain from the Twin Falls area to Evelyn
  • We’re looking at—or listening to—noise that will always be audible to Glacier Gulch residents, sometimes audible in town, and certainly sometimes audible across the valley
  • We’re looking at wastewater being discharged into the Bulkey carrying enough heavy metals, and organic compounds to require a provincial permit
  • 125 jobs

Now the place I’d like to start talking about this is that these are nice people. I’ve been involved with Hudson Bay Mountain Neighbourhoods for about three and a half years, and I’ve been to countless PLC meetings with Blue Pearl and Rescan.

They are friendly and civil, and, incredibly, they seem glad to see me when we meet. So we don’t have a problem with the proposed mine from that point of view.

I imagine you’ve all had the experience, though, that sometimes groups of good people can bring forward bad plans. So I want to talk a little bit about the process that appears to have generated this Application.

If you were at the Open House last Wednesday, the most telling moment was when Randy MacGillavry, the senior Blue Pearl representative, put up a map of the 11-hectare loadout facility, and someone asked him to point out the road to Twin Falls on the map. The road to Twin Falls runs right by their facility, but he didn’t know where it was. It took him a minute to find it.

It spoke volumes about the level of awareness that Blue Pearl has about what goes on here in the Bulkley Valley.

They did not ask themselves, “What are the daily uses people already have for these areas we want to appropriate?” These parts of the landscape and the soundscape, and the aquatic environment, let alone whether we’re attached to what the identity of the town is like at present.

They asked themselves, “How can we put a mine in here?”

  • Their plans were not shaped by how we take visitors to Twin Falls.
  • Their plans were not shaped by the 40 households in the Glacier Gulch neighbourhood that draw water from a surface well.
  • Their plans were not shaped by a desire to fish the Bulkley
  • Their plans were not shaped by driving highway 16 every day.
  • Their plans were not shaped by the pleasure we take in that clean and pretty mountain.

A few moments later Randy said he also hadn’t actually read the Application, that they had hired Rescan to write it.

Which is the way their business is. But I know a bit more about that story. I spoke to the president of Rescan, Clem Pelletier, in 2005. He called me because he was upset about some things we said about Rescan on our website, and he explained to me, “We want to do the best job possible, but we can only do what the proponent hires us to do.” In other words he was saying to me, Don’t be tough on me—it’s not my fault.

So there’s the complete picture: neither party really has to take responsibility for the quality of what’s proposed in the Application. And of course that’s a great way to get a good end result.

So we have an Application where:

  • the loadout site and haul road are cited as having a potential visual impact, and mitigation is proposed; but the so-called development rock storage pile, far higher on the mountain and lying in a saddle at 1000 meters easily visible from all over the valley is not.
  • You have the haul route options being evaluated with a somewhat progressive formula, where they quantify the costs and then weigh the socio-community and environmental costs each 45%, and economic costs only 10%. But when we come to evaluating the alternative loadout locations for this side of the mountain, they use a very different method, ranking them in categories, and then summing the rankings. When we get to evaluating the alternative of putting the loadout on the west side of the mountain, first they sequester it away in its own special section, and then provide no kind of quantitative analysis save the mention of a cost of some $18 million.
  • You have a situation where although the loadout is carefully designed so that all surface water is trapped and treated, the sewage treatment plant itself is located outside the capture and treatment area, on it own in the Glacier Gulch watershed.
  • You have the number of stream crossings of the proposed haul road being 9 in the Application, 6 in Appendix C11, the “Haul Option Report,” and 7 in Appendix Q2, the Davidson Project Stream Crossings Memo.
  • You have an application where it’s unclear whether the risk management procedures were designed for 10 years or 30 years.

It’s tempting to conclude that when this Application was put together, the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing, and sadly it indicates exactly the kind of deal we’re being offered—a deal where even Blue Pearl isn’t sure of all the details.

If you give us money—and this is a fund raiser—this is what we will spend it on: hiring experts at CSP2—Center for Science and Public Participation—in conjunction with GGWG to examine the Application and analyze what aspects of it are unacceptable.

We’ve got three things every citizen can do.

  1. We would really like you to write a letter to the EAO—the Environmental Assessment Office. Talk about the issues that matter to you. Do this by November 12th. The address to send it to is on our website at
  2. Ask for a ‘panel review.’ A panel review will cause the details of this Application to come far more out into the public eye. Hearings would be held here. Independent experts would be summoned. Blue Pearl would come under far more scrutiny, and not just by regulators who might be under pressure to find a way for this mine to work.
  3. Copy your letter to us at HBMN. We’re collecting all the issues people have raised.

Lastly, let me say a few words about the game we’re in. The EA process is a bit of a rigged game, and I don’t want to encourage unrealistic expectations of what may happen.

In the EA process mines almost always get approved. Only a mass popular uprising here in Smithers could stop it—and of course that could happen. It’s still our first choice.

But barring that, the next best thing we can hope for is that public criticism of the plan is so overwhelming that the company is sent back to the drawing board to make significant changes.

I don’t mean window-dressing changes like changing the haul route: I mean revising the mine completely. Throwing out this current proposal that Mayor Davidson has aptly termed ‘old school’, and turning Rescan loose to design the state-of-the-art-mine, the 21st century mine, the mine the valley deserves—the no carbon footprint, silent operation, no need for a permit to pollute the Bulkley, not in somebody’s watershed, not next to a neighbourhood, no trucking, no airshed concerns way to get the Davidson molybdenum out. Remember, this deposit is worth hundreds of millions in profit. It’s just a matter of money.

But, we may not even get that. With moderate public input about unacceptable elements of the plan, we’re probably looking at the Application being approved, but with some conditions imposed on it by the EAO to safeguard the local environment and quality of life. There would be improvements to the plan, and some of those would matter. They are worth asking for. The mine would probably go right where they want to put it now, but it’ll be somewhat less of an ill-thought-out mine.

The worst thing that can happen—and I want to spend a minute on the real disaster scenario—is that we let the negativity of all this get to us. We take it all so seriously that we become depressed, stop smiling, become resentful. We become the not-fun people. Then it won’t matter if this project gets sent back to the drawing board or not—because the damage, the real damage will have been done.

So if I can put in a word for the dark side, make sure you Don’t Have Fun. Whatever you do, however you get involved in trying to change the course of this big cruise ship entering our valley, writing letters, or talking to your neighbours, or phoning your political representatives, whatever you do don’t let yourself smile, don’t giggle occasionally, don’t make jokes, don’t stop for a break and don’t go out and take a walk.

That’s why we’ve invited these musicians here tonight, to remind us of the big picture.

We’re going to be dealing with this deposit and the miners it attracts for a long time, and we’d better start getting good at doing it in a way we can keep up our spirit for years.

Thank you.

Most Miserable Homeschoolers Ever

We’ve been homeschooling for four years now, and so you might expect that we know something about what we are doing. Most parents whom we talk to who are considering homeschooling say they lack the confidence to figure out how to do it. But in truth, the challenge is not figuring out what to teach or how to know if your child is doing well–it’s figuring out how to get your child to listen to you.

Yes, here we are at the key topic–the “compliant children.” If you read the blogs of various homeschoolers, (and we homeschoolers seem to have a lot of blogs) it sounds like home schooling is so easy. Just keep your kids home from school and –voila!–they will become interested in a million topics, keep you awake at night with their unceasing learning (”absorbs knowledge like a sponge!) and generally outperform the school system.

It’s ain’ t like that. Those are the compliant children, the ones you can suggest things to. With those children, if you say, “here, let me show you how fractions work,” they listen. They may not care, but they listen. If you say something like that to our children, they laugh at you and run away. They are defiant children.

We don’t homeschool because we thought the school would do a bad job, or because we wanted to inculcate our kids with religious values. We homeschool because we couldn’t get our son to go to school. How pathetic is that? What kind of miserable, spineless, mushy parents are we who could not even face the basic challenge of parenting (after figuring how to get your baby to go to sleep): being firm and saying, “Yes dear you do have to go to school?” Well, that’s exactly what happened: screaming, couldn’t sleep, afraid all day at school–we couldn’t do it, and we kept him home and said we’d teach him ourselves. Now it’s four years later, and little brother is also being homeschooled because he saw that older brother did not have to go to school.

But Galen is not one of these confident, well-rounded homeschool kids who goes out to a dozen programs and makes friends and invents creative ways to have birthday parties. He’s a reclusive, intellectual, computer nerd who would rather sit at the computer and play Flight Simulator than do just about anything. At ten, he is the prototype of the lazy young man who plays video games all day. We worry about him, miserable homeschoolers that we are, but when the visiting teacher comes from the school district to check on us he consistently wows her with his performance, his ability to present and the quality of his work. Okay, he can barely write his name, and his spelling is three grade levels behind.

Our other son is no high-flyer either. At grade two we are calling him grade one, and he can barely read although he’s about to turn 7. He has no interest in academics. Math facts like 2+2 do not stick to him. Word’s like ‘the’ have no place in his memory. He lives for playing games, doing arts and dressing up. An following his older brother around. And talking about how stupid the computer is.

If this were not miserable enough, we are that most undeserving-of-sympathy of homeschooling families: the two-parent homeschoolers. That’s right, where most families have one parent who is homeschooling, while the other one holds down a job, we have BOTH parents homeschooling. Each children has a one-on-one tutor. And we still can’t pull it off. I compare us to a family here in the valley with twelve children all of whom are homeschooled by the mother. We look upon them with complete envy–apparently they are all organized into doing farm chores, and they pull their own weight, and we’re lucky if we can even get our kids to pick up the clothes they dropped on the floor.

We fear Galen will become an undisciplined recluse who cannot take a course because he is afraid to be away from his parents, and whom no one wants to be friends with because he is so self-centred. Will is going to be a happy-go-lucky gang member whom the other kids will get to do bad things. How can we pull ourselves out of this rut, and save our children?