The Parallel Parliament

Glen Pearson

The Devastating Ironies of Our Global Food System

Posted on June 14, 2018

People have to eat, so it’s everywhere.  The massive global food industry, powered and frequently controlled by only five international conglomerates, touches virtually every nation and most markets.  It’s so big that even the late Anthony Bourdain noted that he couldn’t get his head around it.  And because food and water are the basic elements of all life, we are affected in ways we hardly understand.

And there is a price to pay for that ignorance.  We want food everywhere and demand vast varieties and quantities at the same time.  It seems to just appear in supermarkets, restaurants, and now increasingly online.  It just is– immediate, relatively cheap, and in copious amounts.  That familiarity and ease of access comes at a cost – a burden we actually can’t bear.  Here are just five ways in which the food industry threatens the same people that it feeds, with stats gleaned from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Department.

In order to have food there has to be water and with the global demand for foodstuffs growing exponentially the risk to our water supplies grows right along with it.  It’s not only climate change that threatens the world water ecosystems but the insatiable desire for things to eat, of which we have no understanding how it is produced.  Today, unlike 50 years ago, we learn that a fifth of the global population live in regions of water scarcity, with another 500 million people about to be added to that number by the end of this century.

Yet, it’s even more complicated than that, since 1.6 billion people live in areas where there is no water infrastructure – there might be water but no means to get it.  And here’s the tough part: the United Nations states that water use has been growing at a rate more than double the rate of global population growth.  A little over a decade from now, demand for water to grow food is expected to exceed supply by some 40%.  It stands to reason that as demand for food grows at a fantastic rate, such pressure will drastically deplete the world’s water supply, leaving half the world to face water shortages in the next century.

Consumption of meat is threatening the planet in ways we have yet to comprehend.  Near the turn of the new Millennium, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization informed us that 30% of the world’s land is used by the livestock industry – a figure that must be higher by now.  That was a radical shift from earlier times, when eating meat was a luxury enjoyed mostly in affluent nations.  It shouldn’t surprise us to learn that 15% of global carbon emissions originate in the agricultural industries.  The demand for meat is expanding and the effort to respond to that pressure is causing the food industry to ramp up its efforts in ways that might bring severe threats to our overall environmental welfare.

What happens when food supply can’t keep up with demand?  Food reserves haven’t been this low for decades, which leaves our world in a dangerous situation when famine and environmental crises come along.  This especially applies to grains – primarily corn, wheat, and rice.  Such harvests make up the bulk of food exports and any shortage could leave the world unprepared, unleashing a series of famines across the world that would have devastating results.  And what happens when global food supplies are low?  Food prices rise as a result, leaving millions – billions even – in poorer lands unable to afford supplies even if they were available in local markets.

This massive increase in food production is leading to alarming rises in obesity.  This is no accident.  People want more food for consumption than ever before and are ending up not only eating more than normal but downing non-nutritious products that only exacerbate the problem.  Slightly over 25% of the developed world is now obese (the global figure is 15%) and that’s leading to increases in diabetes, heart disease and other life-threatening ailments.  In America, 70% of the population is obese or overweight.  In Latin America and Europe, we’re talking 60%.  Such rates are unsustainable and represent a real danger to people, communities, healthcare systems and the future of the planet.

Food waste has become a huge issue. Worldwide, enough calories are produced that can overfeed the planet’s seven billion people, and yet significant portion of the world remain underfed.  One-third of food produced goes to feed animals and another one-third is tossed into the garbage or landfill.  Most of us know about this or have heard of it and yet these patterns continue unabated.  The global food production system is hugely inefficient but is rarely confronted or revolutionized.

 

Unless something is done about issues such as these (and there are many more related to food), our planet will be put increasingly on edge. Conflicts over food resources will climb.  The environment will continue to take a direct hit until it can no longer cope. Millions more will become obese every year.  Methane from rotting food in landfills will grow significantly.  These are just some of the tragedies we risk unless we consume less, plan better, grow food more efficiently, and vote for better policies for the sake of ourselves, the hungry around the world, and our planet. Presently, few lawmakers appear to be listening.

 

 

Photo credit: Reuters

The G7’s Troubles Started Long Before Trump

Posted on June 12, 2018

It was hardly much ado about nothing.  In fact, there’s been nothing like it in decades.  Donald Trump’s erratic utterances before, during and following the recent G7 meetings effectively kept the world attentive and coming unglued at the same time.  The irony of the American president wanting a chair at the table for the Soviet Union while one of his key advisors called for a special seat in hell for Justin Trudeau wasn’t missed by anyone.

The attempt by the other G7 leaders to keep everything from unravelling was commendable, but there remained this abiding sense that the global order which has prevailed over much of the world since World War Two was in the process of unravelling.

Something is wrong and, in many ways, it has nothing to do with the bombastic American president.  In reality, the arrangement between the key powers in the G7 hasn’t been all it pretended to be.  Long before Trump, quiet deals were being assented to that saw to the growing disillusionment of Western citizens that would eventually turn into an angry populism and which would defy traditionalists and pundits alike.  Donald Trump isn’t its source, only it’s progeny.

The list of failings is long and casting an extended shadow each successive year.  The American Congress hasn’t passed any kind of comprehensive budget since 1994.  The average American feels relentlessly squeezed out by a Washington that entertains 20 registered lobbyists for every member of Congress.  And most of those lobbyists are there for one particular reason: to keep government from providing relief and prosperity that could threaten the elite financial consensus of the well to do.  The global wealthy had enough resources, enough smarts, and enough threatening power to override the normal politics and the politicians elected to protect the middle and working classes.

In the developed West, it’s becoming increasing apparent that governments themselves have in fact protected a global financial order that rewards wealth over work and is content to see profits soar for the financial class while stagnating for the rest.  And now the average person is catching on to the ruse and taking his or her anger out on not only one party or another, but on governments themselves.  If the political elites will no longer protect them, then they will no longer protect the political and economic order that prevailed for decades.  And they will elect those who naively promise to protect jobs and incomes.  But, hey, what else can they do, when the prevailing system no longer works for them?

This is what is creating the chaos that turns a belligerent Trump into a hero for millions.  The president intuits this dissatisfaction to a remarkable degree, even though he has no idea how the middle class or the poor live.  That’s not the point – he champions them when governments no longer seem to care.  Whether true or not (it is), this is now the rocket fuel that is driving modern democracy.

The link should be clear to all the G7 leaders: unless they fix the global economy in ways that bring prosperity once more, then the international order that has survived for decades will itself require radical repair.  Climate change is important, as are millions of refugees and terrorism.  But these take a back seat when jobs disappear, wages are stagnant, when the rich are protected and the rest left largely defenseless.  Agree or not, this is the perspective that matters and the G7 leaders can feel its searing heat.  A global order largely held together by an American economy that is failing its people and the rest of the world is feeling the pain.

The same governments that helped to bail out the financial industry by the billions following the 2007 fallout could have taken a good portion of those funds to create jobs and infrastructure and poverty relief and educational assistance, but they didn’t and now the gig is up.  Politics might have moved on but the people remember and in that collective memory is power enough to overthrow any government that remains aloof.  Canada, which often seems an oasis in this global turbulence, is hardly immune, as the election of Doug Ford attests.

Before all this descends into a kind of democratic madness, governments have the option of going after much of that wealth and the elites who once benefitted from democracy and the global order but have since abandoned it.  This is the choice that awaits them:  get wealth and prosperity to the people or get ready for a quick removal from office.  Politics works best when citizens are economically protected.  When they aren’t, no one is safe.

The Fight to Vote

Posted on June 9, 2018

It’s Election Day in Ontario and many remain as confused as ever as to the choice they must make.  Too many have said that they’re not heading to the ballot box this year because elections themselves no longer provide the outcomes people hope for.  There’s a lot of truth to this, and should be acknowledged.

The problem is that, while elections increasingly frustrate us, there is as yet no clear alternative to someone heading into a private area, marking their choice, and then living with the result.  There are numerous ideas of how to rank ballots or prioritize them, but there is still no substitute for the act of a private citizen voting.

Sometimes votes aren’t about choices at all, but a choice.  There are those occasions when we vote for the system we believe in as opposed to any particular candidate.  We are all smart enough to know just how much pain and struggle entire sections of our population had to go through just to gain the right to mark a ballot, especially women.  Our vote today is in affirmation of that struggle and their eventual triumph, whether or not our candidate choice is clear.  What would they think of our temptation to abandon our short trek to the polling station after their centuries-long sojourn to win that right?  At the very least, do it for them.

And let’s do it in recognition of just how far we have come.  Yes, our present version of democracy, and the elections that come with it, are showing signs of dysfunction and ineffectiveness, but that was the way our democracy was in the first place, before it was refined, enhanced, empowered, and emancipated.  Initially it was only the white privileged males, blessed with property, who could make their choice.  Those days are gone and even the most marginalized or poor, even homeless, individuals have a right to choose their representatives.  It doesn’t mean that they will, but history has not given them that choice.

We have come a long way and we have fallen back somewhat, but the gains are still there and provide the only channel through which we can fight through to a better day.  Every meaningful and costly journey meanders through difficult terrain and now is not the time to call it quits after so much has been discovered and achieved.  Each preceding generation struggled to straighten out that path; let’s not abandon their daring and their accomplishments.

We are talking about the fight to vote here and not just the right.  Too much has been sacrificed, so many have been lost in the struggle to get us to this point only for us to pack it in because we are having trouble locating the meaning in our present political order.  We would never turn back after Vimy, or Passchendaele, Dieppe or Helmand province because we know just how much was sacrificed to just give us the right to march down the street and put pencil to paper.

This isn’t just about a political system that is floundering, but about those who do the electing, and the confession that citizens, too, have contributed to our malady through their own divisive bias, hyper-partisan blindness, or just an outright “I don’t give a damn” attitude.  We are not only democracy’s warriors; we can also be its weakest point.  Should we give up, the entire system comes crashing down, and the generations who fought to build it lower their eyes in disillusionment as it becomes clear to them that we have not appreciated their collective sacrifice.

We are in danger of forgetting that voting isn’t just important to democracy but isdemocracy itself.  We might believe that citizens no longer matter in the political process, but our lack of voting locates the blame for that on us, not our leaders.  We must always fight, must always believe in our collective ability to alter our course, and we will validate that conviction by performing the most simple, yet profound act – filling out a ballot.  Fail to do that and we will surely confirm that none of it matters.

The office of citizen is the most powerful in the land and its chief defender and advocate is the vote.  It is what decides if we fail or succeed.  It remains the citizen’s ultimate protection and the politician’s final validation and fear.  Take it away and neither one matters.  It is all decided by who shows up.  See you at the polls.

Do Elections Work Anymore?

Posted on June 5, 2018

I admit to being purposely provocative here, but the question arises from a place of sincerity.  It’s simply this: in an age when democracies are struggling everywhere for legitimacy, do elections still make sense?  Writer David Van Raybrouck ruminated on this a number of years ago and wrestled with the answer.

Doubts have been driven by radical democratic moments in Europe, Brexit, the great chaos that is the American political system today, and now the troubling turbulence of an Ontario campaign due to be settled(?) this week.  The campaigns of this modern era result in more confusion, not less, once concluded. Buyer’s remorse emerges the moment a campaign has concluded, the ballots have been counted, and organized chaos ensues.

These days almost everyone talks about politics and yet increasingly distrusts it.  This regularly results in anger, rank partisanship, verbal and personal attacks. The citizenry is more easily riled or, more likely, turned off altogether.  Decades ago people were less excited by politics, leaving the democratic state more stable.  Now, everyone has some kind of response and democracy itself is in trouble.

Just how complex this has become was revealed a few years ago when a World Values Survey interviewed 73,000 people from almost 60 countries, and 92% concluded that democracy was still the best way to manage a country. Sounds good, until we read that a good many of the respondents desired some kind of “strong leader” who could just lead without worrying about parliaments, elections, or process.  In other words, it’s about leadership and not elections as the best way to get the people what they want.  This describes the present experience of many democratic nations today, most notably America.  As disillusionment grows, we are increasingly seeing situations where leaders get elected while still losing the popular vote.  This wasn’t the way we perceived democracy even just a few short years ago.

Three centuries earlier, political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was already questioning the validity of elections for getting the average people what they wanted:

“The people of England deceive themselves when they fancy they are free: they are so, in fact, only during the election of members of parliament: for as soon as a new one is elected, they are again in chains, and are nothing.”

This is indeed a troubling outlook, when many looking back regard Rousseau’s era as the beginnings of modern democracy.  But looking at recent elections in the West, is this not what the public has come to?  They believe their vote makes little difference, that it will result in the same-old, same-old, and that nobody really cares about the average person. They look for the “strong man” or “strong woman” to break up such a system of elite mismanagement and, for wants of a better term, “drain the swamp.”

If the process of voting doesn’t get us what we want, and if half the electorate opts not to vote anyway, then just how effective are the elections that crop up every few years?  When someone responds that it’s the only method of legitimacy that we have, then what does it say about the system itself that it seems incapable of overcoming our greatest challenges?  If racism, bigotry, gender debasement, and outright hatred are making a comeback in our world, someone could be forgiven for asking just what all those elections were for if this is what we get.

Perhaps we were fooled too easily into believing that our highest civic duty was to vote.  Any action that occurs only once every few years doesn’t hold much of a chance of keeping the individual engaged in the process once they marked their ballot.  Maybe new ways have to be found at engaging citizens themselves in the democratic process in a fashion that isn’t just about tweeting anger or blind partisanship.  They can remain this way because little is expected of them following their vote.  Perhaps elections themselves are on the lower end of the spectrum, not the highest, if they only result in a lack of involvement once concluded.

Are elections worth it when parties can say one thing while on the hustings and something else altogether when in power?  Do they really count when half of citizens don’t participate, and much of the rest don’t understand the issues?  If elections increasingly become about what people are against as opposed to what they are for, where will our political stability come from?

These are questions asked during one of the most confounding elections in Ontario’s recent memory.  Other than the party loyalists, those who vote are more likely to be fed up and confused than they are informed and purposeful.  Have elections themselves, like marriage proposals or business partnerships, any credibility left if too few are willing to keep the relationships going after they sign the paper?  We are in the process of learning that elections can’t work in a democratic system where the people themselves no longer care to do the work necessary to find compromise and a collective way forward.  The way ahead isn’t to get rid of elections but to make them more accountable once more.

It All Comes Down To Us

Posted on June 3, 2018

And, so, it has come down to us – citizens – just as it always has. An election isn’t just about winners and losers; it’s also a kind of scheduled checkup on the health of our democracy.  So far, the vital signs aren’t good.

To be sure, there are indications that people remain committed to the political process and its importance to how we carve out our future together.  But not as many of them, and not nearly with the sense of confidence required to restore the optimism that was once part and parcel of our daily lives.

Something about this particular provincial election is deeply unsettling.  It’s hardly a secret, as people all over the province express a deep sense of disquiet over the manner in which political parties, their representatives and citizens in general have behaved.  Only the kind of people who thrive on politics feel pumped about electoral politics at the moment.  The rest turn their heads away in either disgust or shame at what is becoming of our political class.

Many wonder when sanity will prevail again.  Promises are made that can’t possibly be fulfilled but which are nevertheless trotted out in the hopes that voters are too dumb or too distracted to even notice.

And what of the attacks against female candidates that have become particularly acute in our city?  They are malicious, demeaning, and frequently border on the edge of hatred. For any particular party or candidate that uses such malevolent voices for their own twisted ends, there can only be one conclusion: that the political “win” warrants such practices, even if they bring down community in the process.

We are perhaps the last generation that will remember what life was like before the Internet.  For those who have lived through that transition, there is this troubling understanding that its potential to undercut and destroy the societal trust that once held our populace together is real and powerful.  Used in the right hands it can restore democracy, bring communities together, and help us believe in one and another and our collective potential again.  But elections are the optimal time for seeing what the online world can become when people will do anything, say anything, and believe anything as long as it cuts a path to power.  We have forgotten that, for all that the digital world has done for us, it demanded something from us in return – to be open-minded, fair, humble, always learning, and ready to speak out against intolerance and bigotry where they are found. We overlooked that part of the bargain, leaving our politics in a state of dysfunction just as we most require it to tackle our great challenges.

There are credible candidates running in this election, and there are sound policies from which to choose.  But makes no mistake, our politics is changing.  It’s not some kind of add-on to what has gone before.  It, instead, seeks to blow up what preceded it if that’s what it takes to win.  It will never rest until it can divide us sufficiently enough to gain power.  This will go on and on, election after election, until our democratic estate, like Humpty Dumpty, can’t be put back together again in some kind of manageable way.

What will we carry forward into the future should we, as citizens, continue to tolerate this kind of shame in our public life?  Are we honestly willing to put behind us what once made our democracy respectful, human, and malleable, despite its shortcomings?  We are proffered simplistic solutions instead of reasoned questions about how we should all live together.  And that’s because some who seek our vote think that’s all we as citizens care about.  Are they right?

The highest political office in the land isn’t in Parliament or Queen’s Park.  It is that of the citizen.  Only citizens can remove from power or deny power to those who would seek to weave a demeaning discord among us.  We are at our best when, despite our differences or party affiliation, there is a sense of respect and compromise for journeying into our future.  To tolerate the politics of bigotry, racism or outright hatred is to demean ourselves beyond the point where democracy can help us.

When we make a choice in a few days, let’s not just vote by our opinion alone, but with the sense that, whatever the electoral outcome, we are still left with the task of building our communities and our province together.  Let’s not burn the bridges we all need to cross in order to come together once the election is over.  Surely we can do better than what we have tolerated in this election.  It all comes down to us – citizens.

Read this post in its original London Free Press format here.

 

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