Archive for the 'sustainability' Category

Life in a modern village

By Tom Read

Minor ball players and their coaches gather at the ball field in Van Anda, a de facto village commons (firehall in the background). Photo taken a few years ago.

On Texada Island we often speak of Gillies Bay and Van Anda as “villages.” A few evenings ago I happened across a book at the Texada Library entitled Life in a Medieval Village, by Frances and Joseph Gies. Their book describes the evolution of villages from antiquity, and provides great detail about the English Midlands village of Elton as it was approximately 700 years ago. Elton still exists as a modern village, but it is completely different in function from medieval times. To quote the Gieses:

In the modern world the village is merely a very small town, often a metropolitan suburb, always very much a part of the world outside. The ‘old fashioned village’ of the American nineteenth century was more distinctive in function, supplying services of merchants and craftsmen to a circle of farm homesteads surrounding it.

The medieval village was something different from either. Only incidentally was it the dwelling place of merchants or craftsmen. Rather, its population consisted of the farmers themselves, the people who tilled the soil and herded the animals. Their houses, barns and sheds clustered at its center, while their plowed fields and grazing pastures and meadows surrounded it. Socially, economically and politically, it was a community.”

The modern village of Elton still has a few farmers and sheep, but its residents make a living by commuting to jobs in cities, including London, which is about 70 miles distant. Here on Texada, our villages include merchants, craftspeople and artists, but hardly any farmers. Some of our neighbours and almost all of our teenagers commute to jobs and school, respectively, in Powell River. Like Elton, we see gardens and orchards in many yards. A few cows graze on pasture in the centre of Gillies Bay, and chickens, including roosters, seem well represented, too.

Alas for anyone contemplating an increase in local agriculture, our villages appear to be surrounded by temperate rainforest and ocean, not fertile fields. Appearances can be deceiving, however. We may not look like the Midlands, but it turns out that Texada actually has plenty of agricultural land — the island once supported so many farms that we had our own Farmer’s Institute. So where have all the farmers gone?

One of the main reasons our island and its villages lack farmers today is that local farms could not compete economically with government-subsidized agribusiness. Thus, socially, economically and politically, it would appear that our Texada villages have evolved as mere outposts of global industrial life. That’s because we depend on the same life-support systems as mainlanders for our energy, food, transport, governance, communication, etc. Yet our small population (about 500 people per village; 1,100 for the island as a whole) gives us much closer-knit communities than would be possible in the suburbs or cities. We know each other by sight and reputation if not always by name or first-hand experience.

Medieval villages were especially noted for their permanence, according to the Gieses’ research in the book cited above. English agricultural villages often lasted hundreds of years. Through cooperative efforts they were resilient enough to survive war, pestilence and famine. The modern villages of Texada Island are relatively young (about 120 years for Van Anda and 60 or so years for Gillies Bay), and depend almost entirely for their existence on a global industrial system. Maybe someday we’ll see a book about Life in a Modern Village that describes a deliberate return to sustainable village agriculture accompanied by a diverse local economy, albeit without feudal overlords.

Broken eggs a lesson in sustainability

By Tom Read

Disappointing aftermath: a broody hen who eats eggs instead of hatching them into chicks. We carry on; the wayward hen will become chicken stew.

Disappointing aftermath: a broody hen who eats eggs instead of hatching them into chicks. We carry on; the wayward hen will become chicken stew.

When we first contemplated keeping chickens here on Texada, we wanted to do it sustainably.  The two most critical elements of sustainable chicken-raising, it seemed to us, were breeding and feeding. Thus, instead of buying chicks “through the mail” we would keep a rooster and hens (Dark Cornish), and breed replacements for our flock right here at home. Further, although we would start out by feeding store-bought grain mixes, we hoped eventually to develop a chicken feed of our own, based on easy-to-grow comfrey, plus seaweed gathered from nearby Raven Bay, plus maybe some home-grown grains.

Status so far:  breeding is coming along well, albeit with a setback I’ll describe momentarily. Creating our own local chicken food is taking awhile longer. We hope to get it happening next year.

Meanwhile, with help from An, our mentor in all things chicken, we have successfully raised chickens using mother hens from her flock. With one exception, however, our own one-year-old hens failed to “go broody” this year. Very frustrating! So you can imagine the high expectations we placed on the lone hen who actually did start nest-sitting about a month ago. With this broody hen, at last we could complete the breeding cycle without external help, or so it seemed.

Alas, ‘twas not to be. Our broody hen started out well, with seven nicely-formed eggs under her in a comfortable, quiet and raccoon-proof nest box with ample food and water nearby. Then, about six days into her sitting, came the first warning that something wasn’t quite right: I found an egg lying outside the nest. It was still warm so I carefully put it back under her in hopes that it had merely fallen out when she rearranged her eggs. But the next day, and in days to follow, our would-be mother hen first expelled and then ate most of the eggs in that nest. Apparently, once they get a taste for raw egg, a chicken will continue to crack open and eat their own or other hens’ eggs.

Disappointing, but nothing goes to waste. Not too long from now she’ll make a nice chicken stew for us.

And I guess that’s why most people use electric incubators instead of natural mother hens for egg-hatching. Not us, however. Because we live off-grid, and rely chiefly on solar power in the summer, we don’t have the option of using an electric incubator. Thus, we are still quite determined to breed our own flock the old-fashioned way, grateful for yet another learning experience along the road to a sustainable way of life.

Celebrating our successes and recognizing our failures

By David Parkinson

Rain on sunflower petals

Rain on sunflower petals.

Any chance of real global change must start at the ground level by correcting the true sources of the problem and spread virally.
(Jeff Vail)

When Giovanni and I returned from traveling in mid-2006 and started to realize that we needed a bigger change in our lives than just moving from an American city in the Pacific Northwest to its closest Canadian counterpart, we both did a lot of reading and thinking. I started to explore the internet for information about growing food, permaculture, natural building techniques, and other aspects of a more grounded and simpler life. Somehow during that time I stumbled across Dave Pollard’s ironically-titled blog How to Save the World, which continues to inspire and challenge me.

The subject matter of Pollard’s blog wavers between personal and spiritual growth, community development, civilization and its discontents, and the development of a more natural and localized economy — with many digressions and explorations along the way. He is one of the most fearless bloggers I know of; there are not many other people blogging who are as willing to expose their true selves so openly, to take such risks in an atmosphere of easy judgment and anonymous attacks. He talks about what he is thinking about and is not afraid to write very frankly, knowing that many people who read his blog might be put off or mystified or upset by what they find there.

There are so many good posts over there that I could point to, but one that caught my eye recently is closely related to the sort of thing that I have been trying to write about here at Slow Coast: namely, trying to understand where we are as a community, where we are trying to get to (or maybe where we are being led to whether we like it or not), and how to get from here to there. Like many of Pollard’s posts, it makes its point by embedding the information content in an imaginative thought experiment: in this case, as the title of the post suggests (“2110: A Dispatch From the Future”), the post is framed in terms of a reflection from the future back onto the present. Pollard uses poetry, short stories, dialogues, and other artistic devices to talk about very difficult subjects, and this is something that makes his blog a rare and precious thing.

The main point of the post is to set out what some of the measures of success might be for a community living in the post-petroleum era, in this case a hundred years into the future. I think a lot about how we as a society reflect on what we do, and for the most part I think we do a terrible job of it. Our notions of success and failure are so far off the mark at times that they come out looking backwards, and sometimes we would do better to reward what we see as failure and to punish what we see as success. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to develop and apply meaningful standards at all levels of our behaviour, from the individual on up to the society as a whole.

As we get closer to having a regional Sustainability Charter, and as we begin to develop a local Transition movement, it is helpful to look at all the possible metrics for a healthy regional environment, economy, and community. Here are Dave Pollard’s ideas for a vocabulary with which we can talk about what is going well and what is going not so well:

Individuals’ Self-Sufficiency and Well-Being:

  • Attainment and learning of valued personal capacities: is each individual in the community acquiring the capacities s/he thinks are important?
  • Self-knowledge: does each individual understand what drives him/her?
  • Personal health and comfort: is each individual physically and emotionally healthy and content?
  • Freedom from need, stress, and anxiety: is each individual free from unmet needs, stresses (including those caused by conflict, coercion and restriction), and physical and emotional anxieties?
  • Freedom of choice: is each individual free and unconstrained in being able to think, believe, do, and not do, whatever s/he chooses, provided that does not cause unreasonable harm to others?
  • Realization of, and time and space for, personal gifts, passions, and purpose: does each individual appreciate what s/he is uniquely good at doing, enjoys doing, and what is needed in the community that s/he cares about and the exercise of which gives his/her life meaning?
  • Connection with others: does each individual have deep and meaningful relationships with others in the community?

Community’s Self-Sufficiency and Well-Being:

  • Freedom from reliance on other communities for essential products and services: is the community self-sufficient such that if other communities failed, its well-being would not suffer?
  • Quality and sufficiency of our food, clothing, recreation, security and collective capacities: does the community live well and get what it needs, without extravagance or waste?
  • Innovation and diversity: does the community collectively surface, evolve and institute new ideas, and encourage and embrace diverse ideas and ways of being and doing?
  • Egalitarianism and generosity: is the community free from bias, discrimination, inequitable distribution of resources and wealth, and are all members of the community naturally generous and accorded equal consideration, respect and authority?
  • Peace: is the community at peace with and respectful of all life within its territory, and its neighbours’?
  • Self-management: collectively is the community competent at running its affairs and dealing with conflicts and challenges that may arise?
  • Leisure: does the work of the community allow generous time for pursuit of artistic, philosophical, non-essential learning and other leisure activities?

Community’s Sustainability:

  • Freedom from debt: does the community live within its means, never borrowing or taking from the land or others what cannot be immediately repaid or, within one migration cycle, replenished naturally?
  • Permaculture: do all gardens planted by the community consist solely of native or otherwise non-invasive species, and do they reflect permaculture principles of natural succession, variety and viability without the need for artificial fertilization, poisons or irrigation?
  • Freedom from illness: do the community’s practices help to prevent, quickly diagnose and effectively treat physical and emotional illnesses?
  • Simplicity: does the community live lightly on the land, such that no other life forms or future generations are adversely affected by its presence and activities?
  • Zero growth: is the community’s aggregate human population and use of resources substantially unchanged from year to year?
  • Adaptability and balance: does the community collectively know how to cope, and practice coping, with environmental changes and events, and work to stay in balance with all other life that shares the land to which it belongs?

Can you think of anything we should add to these?

Of course, some discussions along these lines are happening already, although some of them take place in dusty out-of-the-way corners of the community. And we are always plagued by the pervasive habit of trying to spin everything in a positive direction, even when we know that things need improvement or drastic change. Too often, if we try to start a frank conversation about the problems we face, we wil be accused of negativity, of not understanding the problem, of not knowing how things are done, of interfering in places that are none of our concern.

One of the real challenges for anyone who wants to change the world — or some little part of it — is to find ways to expose the real situation without turning people off and without being seen simply as a professional complainer. Sometimes it’s not worth sugar-coating your message, and sometimes it is. We need to get better at picking our battles and navigating the tricky waters between being honest and being heard.

One down, eleven to go

By David Parkinson

Seeds, awaiting the right moment to create new life...

Seeds, awaiting the right moment to create new life...

Last Wednesday (May 20 2009), the Unitarian Hall in Cranberry was the scene of a meeting which might end up having some historical importance. I was happy to be part of this meeting, and I’m excited to see what the next steps will be, since this was the inaugural get-together of a new group, Transition Powell River.

It seems as though 2009 is the year that Transition starts to go mainstream: none other than the New York Times published a recent piece on Transition, and even Elle magazine got into the act with a piece titled “Do Worry, Be Happy.” So what is this thing called Transition?

All it really is a set of procedures for starting out with two big realizations:

  • we are approaching — or possibly have gone past — the point of maximum worldwide oil production;
  • climate change is a real problem, largely man-made, and we must reduce carbon emissions drastically and quickly.

Little by little, these realizations are seeping in from the fringes of respectable public discourse and starting to occupy centre stage in average people’s understanding and in the decision-making of political leaders. But they are such enormous and far-reaching sets of facts which pose huge problems to us all, on an individual and community level. How are we supposed to deal with the fact that we are at the end of the era of cheap fossil fuels? How can we reduce carbon emissions quickly enough to have a meaningful effect on the earth’s atmosphere?

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by questions like these. And in a society which tends to keep us all separated from one another, we all feel as though we are dealing with this on our own. Should we buy the recycled toilet paper? Change our lightbulbs? Start bicycling to work one day a week? Ditch the car altogether?

So we start from the two big assumptions and add to them (as if they weren’t enough) the geographical isolation of the Upper Sunshine Coast. So now we’re facing an ongoing and accelerating decline in the availability of fossil fuels, leading to ever-higher prices. And the need to sharply reduce carbon emissions. And to deal with the fact that higher prices for gas and oil mean higher prices for all goods shipped to us from outside the region. And maybe we need to start seriously planning for occasional disruptions in supply.

And so what are we supposed to do with this litany of seemingly insurmountable problems?

This is where the Transition movement comes in (and not a moment too soon). The main idea behind creating a transition to a future of limited fossil fuel supplies and reduced carbon emissions is that we need to harness the creative energy of the whole community in order to have the greatest chance of success. Here are some of the questions we need to start answering:

  • How are we going to feed ourselves as the costs of oil-dependent agriculture and transportation rise?
  • How can we travel around the region more efficiently?
  • How can we heat our homes as oil, natural gas, and electricity become more expensive?
  • What will the basis of our regional economy be?
  • What are the expected effects of climate change on our water supply and on our capacity to produce food regionally?

What attracts me most about the Transition approach is what it is not. It is not something for our political leaders to sort out. Nor is it something that individuals are expected to cope with (which would almost certainly mean: through their choices as consumers). Instead, it is a community-based approach to coping with some very heavy realities and coming up with solutions and mitigations which make sense to the community.

The City of Powell River is still engaged in its effort to create a Sustainability Charter for the region. At the point of writing this, the City is looking to hire a consultant for the final phase of creation of the charter, which will be a brief document outlining some goals and policies for making the City more sustainable (however that is defined). This is a good thing, but it’s not clear how regular citizens will engage with the outcome of this charter — for all we know, the resulting policies may have much to do with lowering the City’s consumption of fossil fuels and overall carbon footprint and not so much to do with helping all of the inhabitants of the region to reduce their individual and collective footprint. Governments are good at some things, but galvanizing activism is traditionally not one of them.

So one of the nice things about this Transition Powell River effort is that it belongs to us. It was started up by one local person, Kevin Wilson, who read The Transition Handbook and got fired up with enthusiasm. He contacted some friends and put the word out through a few local email lists and in Immanence magazine. And so we met last week and started the ball rolling; you can read Kevin’s brief summary of the meeting here.

And that brings me to the title of this week’s column: “One down, eleven to go”. This refers to the twelve steps to Transition, which are a good introduction to the whole idea. If you take a few minutes to read through them you’ll get a good sense of how loose and organic the process is. Transition is not a set of rules and formal procedures for getting from here to there; they’re designed to be more like a set of attitudes and approaches which allow the genius of the participants to find expression. Like the twelve principles of permaculture, which I discussed last week — what is it with the number twelve anyway? — they are ways of thinking about a tough problem and maximizing the chances of coming up with good solutions. I am very drawn to problem-solving strategies like these, since they allow for the greatest amount of human creativity and freedom. Any jackass can follow a set of rules, but only a community of people focused on a common task can converse, debate, argue, disagree, and eventually (we hope) work towards the best overall solution — which may be no single person’s preferred solution, but one that everyone can live with and contribute to.

And so the “one down” is the very first of the twelve steps: “Set up a steering group and design its demise from the outset”. Which is what we did last Wednesday. The slightly funny part of this step, of course, is the second clause: “… and design its demise from the outset”. Why is that a critical part of the formation of a steering group? The idea, as explained in the twelve steps document, is that one of the first actions for the steering group to get going on is to start forming working groups which will tackle specific areas of concern, such as food supply, water supply, housing, energy, transportation, etc. Once a few of those groups are up and running, the steering group dissolves and a new group is formed by appointing a delegate from each of these working groups.

We have a lot of work ahead of us. Success depends on bringing more people in and getting them involved in making a real impact on our region’s resilience and capacity to withstand some coming challenges. It’s scary stuff sometimes, but better faced as a community than as a bunch of isolated individuals. Interested? If you want to know what’s going on with our Transition effort, email Kevin Wilson and keep an eye on the Transition Powell River blog.

Slow the economy!

By David Parkinson

Beautiful, practical, self-regenerating, self-regulating... the natural economy is everything the human-made one is not.

Beautiful, practical, self-regenerating, self-regulating... the natural economy is everything the human-made one is not.

The problem is, of course, that not only is economics bankrupt but it has always been nothing more than politics in disguise… economics is a form of brain damage.
(Hazel Henderson)

The economy is falling apart. Why? When will it hit bottom? Can we get back to normal?

I don’t want to get back to normal. The economy which surrounds us, and which we accept as inevitable — although it isn’t — is a shambles. Even when it’s operating as it’s supposed to, it produces endless amounts of waste, destruction, and misery. And the smart-ass comeback to complaints like this is supposed to be something along the lines of “Well, let’s see you do better”, or “But the only alternative is communism, and look how that turned out”, or similar platitudes.

The fact of the matter, as far as I’m concerned, is that what we call ‘the economy’ is best seen as a huge and sprawling system of social networks which dictate how wealth is created, stored, and transferred. The economy is intimately connected to a similarly huge and sprawling  political system which determines how power is created and deployed. Political power roughly means the ability to make decisions about who gets what share of wealth created in the economic system and always comes backed up with a monopoly on the use of violence to enforce its decisions.

The people who are attracted to power — which is to say, the people who enjoy being on the inside, in the backrooms where the real decisions are made — end up being the people in charge of deciding how the economy is configured. And so naturally the economy becomes a tool for consolidating their power. If that sounds like a conspiracy theory, try to imagine how it could work out any other way. You don’t need a conspiracy to make the inevitable happen; you just need time. It’s a simple recognition of the truth of political power. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith, in his 1983 book The Anatomy of Power, describes three types of power:

  • compensatory power, which asserts itself by purchasing submission;
  • condign power, which asserts itself through violence or the threat of violence;
  • conditioned power, which asserts itself through persuasion.

According to Galbraith, power originates with personality, property, or organization. So, for example, the power of a government is expressed largely as condign and conditioned power, since it has the ability to threaten to punish those who go against its wishes (the wishes of a government are called ‘laws’), and it uses conditioned power in the form of patriotism, allegiance to local norms and ‘decent behaviour’, and so on.

But a government also expresses its power — to be more precise, the power of those who control that government — in the form of compensatory power. Access to power is access to the rules by which wealth is generated. And therefore, without serious checks and balances, this is a classic positive feedback loop: those who have the power to determine how the economy functions can steer it to their advantage, thereby creating more wealth and more power for themselves. Again, not a conspiracy theory so much as an honest observation of the how the world works.

What we’re seeing lately, in the ongoing implosion of the economy, is that some of the more interesting and creative ways for wealthy and powerful individuals and groups to turn wealth into even more wealth were simply bogus. And as time goes on, we see the extent to which governments were colluding in this fictional economy. I don’t find it very useful to consider the government as separate from the corporations and other parts of the economy: increasingly over the last few years the two have merged more and more. Governments are really the public-relations and enforcement sector of an all-encompassing economy which takes everything in and leaves less and less space for people to live simply, according to ancient and honourable traditions. The right to gather and produce food and plant medicines is hemmed in by laws and regulations which are supposedly there to protect us, but which always end up favouring large centralized corporate interests. (As if by accident.)

Even worse, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the preferred solution to this potential catastrophe is simply more of the same. As long as the people who stood to gain from this massive fraud are the same people who control the mechanisms of condign state power, there will be no real punishment, no stock-taking, no accountability. Ask yourself: if you were powerful, would you allow the law to come down on your head just for doing what everyone else is doing? Not bloody likely.

And the real problem is that even when the economy is working it’s a nightmare for much of the planet. Everyone knows that we are devastating natural systems like fish stocks and aquifers. Everyone knows that human activity, much of it frivolous, contributes vastly to greenhouse gases. Everyone knows that species are going extinct at ever greater rates. Everyone knows that the food supply is threatened by climate change, changes in weather patterns, and disruptions often caused by wars and other man-made conflict. Everyone knows that we are in danger of running out of easily extracted fossil fuels, which will be simultaneously a tragedy and a godsend. The scale of human activity cannot be sustained by the natural world.

And meanwhile, as always, there is a smaller and quieter economy ticking away, doing what it does in harmony with its natural surroundings. Wendell Berry has a lovely essay about this where he refers to the ‘Great Economy’, by which he means the Kingdom of God, although he observes that other notions such as the Tao cover the same meaning. He makes the point that we can never hope to create a truly lasting human economy which does not respect the laws and ways of the Great Economy. Berry points to five principles of the Great Economy:

  1. Completeness: “It includes everything; in it, the fall of every sparrow is a significant event”;
  2. Orderliness: “Everything in the Kingdom of God is joined both to it and to everything else that is in it”;
  3. Ineffability: “Humans do not and can never know either all the creatures that the Kingdom of God contains or the whole pattern or order by which it contains them”;
  4. Autonomy (in the literal sense of creating and obeying its own laws): “Though we cannot produce a complete or even adequate description of this order, severe penalties are in store for us if we presume upon it or violate it”;
  5. Infinitude: “We cannot foresee an end to it”.

I believe that many people, and more all the time, are starting to understand that we cannot continue to tinker at the margins of an unsustainable economy, serving the needs of a blind and swinish political culture. We need to work our way back to the fundamental principles of sustainability, only now we must do this as a conscious choice, and against powerful forces in the political and economic systems. And a genuinely sustainable society must revolve around a genuinely sustainable economy, and that economy must rest on principles as lofty and as all-encompassing as Berry’s. Sorry, but that’s just the way it’s gotta be now.

Traditional cultures lived according to Berry’s notion of a Great Economy because they had no choice; they respected the implacable laws of the world because not to do so meant needless suffering and death. We have created an economy which is the wonder of human evolution, which makes possible unimaginable technical feats, which is able to reduce and in some cases eliminate deadly diseases, hunger, and the other traditional sources of human misery. But the downside of these advances is the massive over-consumption of resources; the buildup of toxic wastes which threatens our air, water, and food; worsening resource wars; famine; poverty; early and preventable death. Our technical abilities are amazing, but we have no clear sense how to use them to advance the cause of all life on earth.

We have been faced all along with tough choices, but we haven’t had to recognize them as choices. We didn’t know that we could choose not to pull all the oil out of the earth’s crust and burn it up. We didn’t know that we could choose not to build cities in deserts and bring water in from hundreds of miles away, depleting watersheds and draining aquifers. We didn’t know that we could choose not to covert forests to grasslands to monocultured farms in order to produce more meat than was healthy for us or for the planet. Etc. Well, some of these choices are becoming clear in retrospect; and we will always be faced with future choices. Perhaps we can start to recognize them for what they are, and not blindly rush into anything that looks likely to make the powerful more powerful and the wealthy more wealthy.

How can we get from here to there? How can we create a functioning local economy which takes advantage of our increased technical abilities and yet does not endanger all life on earth? How ca we learn to recognize real choices and decide wisely?

Of course, I don’t have the answers to those questions. I’ll do my best to think through them in future columns, and I’ll report on some of the cutting-edge thinking going on out there. My personal preference is to look for answers in the last places where the technocrats and bureaucrats and well-paid consultants would have us look: in the practices of traditional cultures; in the pasts of the various cultures which make up North American industrial society; in the odd corners of the alternative universe where things like permaculture and gift economies are slowly but surely proving their worth as ways of organizing human labour and creativity and producing genuine (not phantasmagorical and life-destroying) wealth.

It’s funny (if you like gallows humour) to see so much fuss and fervour about sustainability these days, as though this is something that only we — the highly evolved citizens of the greatest society ever known — could have devised; when in fact it is this culture which has devised the need to talk about sustainability as though it is something to be added onto what one already does, like a condiment for industrial capitalism to make it yummier and more healthful. And that is because it is we who have strayed from the path of human history by inventing and practicing unsustainability on a massive scale, making it synonymous with prosperity, and letting it spread throughout the world like a virus.

It’s ba-ack

By Denise Reinhardt

North Harbour and Millennium Park: Should we borrow $7.43 million? Who gets to decide?

Democracy is in trouble again in Powell River. Last November, City voters approved the borrowing of $1.43 million for the land under Millennium Park and $6.0 million to rehabilitate the North Harbour. The Municipal Finance Authority is the provincial agency that sells bonds for capital projects like these, and we might think that the City could just go to the MFA and borrow the money, after its citizens agreed to the borrowing.

Not so fast. Under the rules of the MFA, Regional Districts must consent to a municipality’s borrowing, so the City needs the Regional Board’s guarantee for the borrowing of the combined $7.43 million. The City asked the Regional Board to issue the standard “security issuing bylaw” containing that consent, and the bylaw was on the agenda at the last Board meeting, without any previous discussion by the Board. At that meeting, the bylaw was referred to the Board’s Committee of the Whole for discussion and it will probably be sent back to the formal Board meeting for action on April 23rd.

There, the security issuing bylaw will probably pass, because the City’s two directors can outvote the five rural directors. If the City defaults on either or both of the loans, the rural citizens of the Regional District will be on the hook for up to $7.43 million for these projects without ever having the chance to say yes or no to the borrowing. And the voices of caution in these times of financial uncertainty may never be heard, except at two upcoming meetings of the Regional Board.

How is this possible that the City can outvote the rural areas?  Because the provincial rules established for Regional Board voting say so. In the Powell River Regional District, there are five rural directors, from:

  • Area A, north of town;
  • Area B, immediately south of town;
  • Area C, south of Area B to Saltery Bay;
  • Area D, Texada Island; and
  • Area E, Lasqueti Island.

The City has two municipal directors who sit on the Board. For many matters, the votes are unweighted. But for some issues, chiefly decisions on money matters, votes are weighted. City directors only vote on matters that affect the whole Regional District, including the City, as this security issuing bylaw does.

The weight of votes is based on “voting units” of up to 2,000 people here in Powell River. So, because Area C has over 2,000 voters, its director gets two votes. All the other rural directors get only one vote because they all represent areas with fewer than 2,000 people in them. The rural directors thus have a total of six votes. The City’s population of over 13,000 gives the City directors seven votes. So, unlike in most Regional Districts, one municipality can determine the financial health of taxpayers of the whole Regional District.

In contrast with City taxpayers, the taxpayers of the Regional District will not have a vote on whether they want the Regional District to borrow almost $7.5 million. There is little opportunity for public debate. Still, Regional District taxpayers will most likely end up as guarantors of this huge amount of borrowing.

Many of us think that there are open questions about the City’s projects. The City has not given the Regional District any North Harbour business case or forecast of the users they assume will pay moorage fees to cover debt service on the $6.0 million loan. Some of us see the North Harbour venture as an updated version of a cargo cult — if the City builds it, they will come from Alberta and dock their big boats. But when desirable moorage is going begging in Nanaimo, a harbour that is far friendlier to the boating community, why exactly would people come here? What are the predictions of North Harbour use when people are losing jobs and investment funds at record rates, and no one says that recovery is near? Is building our local economy on carbon-spewing power-boat tourism a good contribution to sustainability?

We are living in most uncertain financial times. The MFA model was developed in times of steady growth of our economy. Under MFA shared liability, if the City defaults, the debt belongs to Regional District property taxpayers. If the Regional District defaults, then the debt belongs to all BC property taxpayers. That means that we should think about big borrowing in context of existing debt and financial outlook. Locally, the Regional District’s existing MFA debt for 2008 was $556,222 and the City’s was $3,554,464, for a total of $4,110,686. The City’s principal, $158,836, and interest, $234,746, will total $391,584 due from taxpayers for 2009. Regional District taxpayers will pay $82,660 for MFA debt in 2009, almost evenly divided between principal and interest.

The Regional Hospital Board, which covers the same area as the Regional District, also is already carrying debt that we all must pay. Additionally, it has committed city and rural taxpayers to pay back a loan of $18 million, as its share of the construction of the facility to replace Olive Devaud. The north side taxpayers will be paying for over $800,000 for a new fire hall. Is this really the time to take on whopping new debt?

We also need to look beyond our parochial interests. The MFA has top ratings from investors’ services, because the liability for loans is spread throughout the province and the risk to lenders to the MFA has historically been low. High ratings mean money is available to the MFA at low interest rates, which it can pass on the its borrowers. But there are rumblings in the financial community that the MFA’s paper could be downgraded, because of the concentration of two-thirds of debt to the MFA in Metro Vancouver and TransLink and the overall financial state of BC, Canada and the world. This could lead to higher interest rates throughout the province, and therefore higher property taxes.

What is more, even the MFA admits that our current financial situation is unprecedentedly bad. Just because there has never been a default on an MFA loan does not mean there never will be one, especially as the financial future looks so bleak. The MFA can raise provincial property taxes to cover an actual municipal or Regional District default or even a threatened default. We may end up paying for all that Lower Mainland debt. Perhaps it is time to ask whether an overheated economy has led us already to overextend our borrowing. Shouldn’t we, like consumers everywhere, be thinking about reining in our debt?

We have two last chances to speak out on this borrowing. The Regional District’s Committee of the Whole can discuss this new borrowing in the context of the entire financial situation, including existing debt and the economic forecasts of no growth or “negative growth”, as well as consider other important questions. The Regional Board will take the formal vote on the security issuing bylaw. That vote should not be a rubber stamp. We can tell the Committee of the Whole and the Regional Board whether we think it is wise or sensible to borrow $7.43 million for these projects now, and bear witness to what the Board members do.

If you think you might want to speak at either or both of these meetings, you can ask to be a delegation by calling (604) 483 3231.

Committee of the Whole: Thursday April 16, 2009 at 4:15 PM
Regional District Offices, 5776 Marine, Townsite (Powell River)
(parking at the rear via Birch Street)

The meeting room holds very few people. If the Regional District thinks that many people may attend, they may move the meeting location, so check at (604) 483 3231 to be sure.

Regional Board: Thursday April 23, 2009 at 7:30 PM
City Hall Council Chambers, 6910 Duncan St., Powell River

See you there.

The oft-repeated S-word can be cynical flim-flam

Malaspina Strait from Stillwater Bluffs, where forest meets seashore.

Malaspina Strait from Stillwater Bluffs, where forest meets seashore.

When a forest of say 75 acres is destroyed by clear-cut logging, eliminated are countless, perhaps thousands of birds, mammals and amphibians — from canopy-dwelling thrushes to tree frogs to bats and squirrels — and gone is the habitat that supported them. The sheer number of individual critters bumps up a few orders of magnitude when the insects, slugs, centipedes and spiders are counted. Then there are the micro-organisms in the millions, and billions of bacteria and similar life forms.

Now consider the plant life. Thousands of towering trees are executed and trucked far away to be converted to money and other useful things. Pulverized in this primary timber harvest are the epiphytic ferns, lichens, fungi and mosses which drape on, cling to and beautify the trees where they find moisture and sustenance for life. Ground down and ground up are the shrubs and berries of the under-storey and the wildflowers of the forest floor in their hundreds and hundreds of species. These plants of the forest have evolved by necessity to be shade-tolerant and moisture retentive.

British Columbia has the greatest diversity of plants in Canada. B.C. has up to 800 identifiable species of moss, alone. How many of them were growing in that 75 acre forest that is now the silenced and flattened landscape left behind by the BC loggers today? Could any but a very few survive the glaring sun and harsh exposure of an instant clear-cut? Nature will do her best to heal the wounds and restore a balance over years and years of time. But how many ‘crops’ can be harvested before a healthy forest cannot recover? How long can land subjected to take-it-all and no give-back endure the one sided equation? How can the destruction of an ecosystem be called sustainable forestry? Yet that’s what is claimed by the BC forest industry in the double-speak world we live in today.

It is time to put the term ‘sustainability’ in its proper context: buzzword of the decade. As such, it has a diminishing shelf life and one day it will be regarded as quaint and naive. Sustainability, as a concept, has caught the popular imagination, which is understandable, but it is a sort of inflated myth, destined to fall to earth as the uncertain future progresses. I’m not saying the notion is worthless; it’s just that a ‘sustainable’ plan of action or set of policies assumes a future level of stability or predictability that simply doesn’t exist. The skills most needed by an ever-changing society will be adaptability and a complex of survival strategies.


Post facto

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