The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: priorities

Why Can’t Canada Feed Itself?

the war against hunger is truly

NOT EVERY PERSON IS HUNGRY, BUT MOST hungry people are poor. There’s no way around it; a person with too little nutrients finds life an ever-greater challenge. “We have to eat to live,” said Marty Rubin, “and that’s our timeless tale of tragedy.” In the modern West, this is becoming increasingly so.

Speaking to Global News a short while ago, Priscilla from Saskatoon put out the stark choices that consistently drive some to hunger: “If I attempt to eat healthy, bills wouldn’t get paid. And most of the time I’m balancing what’s more important – a roof over our heads or the ability to eat healthy – or even eat three meals a day.”

How can it be that one of the richest nations on earth, and that exports vast quantities of food overseas, ends up in a place where an increasing amount of families can either afford a place to live or healthy food, but not both?

Food bank use across the country never relented, even a number of years after the Great Recession supposedly ended. But there is one subtle though critical development: a larger number of food bank clients are working, many are highly educated. Yet at the end of the day, this still can’t afford to effectively feed their families without cutting other important aspects of living.

According to recent studies, four millions Canadians are living in some form of food insecurity. That’s a lot, and it continues to climb even though job numbers have increased marginally. Historically, Canada has rounded off the rough edges of poverty and hunger through a national form of social safety net, but that net now has huge holes in it, leaving entire families to drop out of security and into poverty.

A compelling recent study by a McMaster University professor, Atif Kubursi, concluded that Ontario’s local food supply would create thousands of more jobs in the province, including some seven thousand in Hamilton, Ontario alone. At the same time it would be better for the environment and allow citizens healthier choices.

One troubling finding of the report, titled Dollars and Sense: Opportunity to Strengthen Ontario’s Food System, is that Ontario actually doesn’t produce enough food to feed itself, though it would easily have the potential to do so.

In a strange twist of globalization fate, Ontario residents prefer the look of imported fresh produce from the Florida area over home grown foodstuffs. And yet Florida residents prefer Ontario’s produce. Go figure. Understandably, consumers have become highly selective in what they want to eat, but that doesn’t mean they are highly educated as to the choices. Ontario fresh produce is every bit as nutritious as Florida’s, but most don’t know that.

Another finding in the study is that, although Ontario imports $20 billion worth of food products each year, over half of that amount could be grown in the province directly if there was just the will to put it together. At the moment, Ontario imports twice what it exports.

Kobursi’s conclusion of all this was revealing: “Ontario is missing regional economic development opportunities to enhance and support the production and distribution of local food.” We all sense this to be true. The Canadian healthy living guidelines on food have been well researched, and if we were to eat according to those recommendations, consumer demand would drive change throughout the province’s entire food industry, creating more employment opportunities in the process. That says something in an industry that already employs over 767,000 people in the province. That’s 11% of our jobs.

What is true in Ontario is frequently mirrored across the country. Somehow we have permitted a vital industry to largely bypass the hungriest of Canadians. And maybe that’s the problem. As singer and celebrity Bono put it: “If you want to eliminate hunger, everybody has to be involved.” At present we have the knowledge and the research to teach us how to reform and revitalize our food systems so that can Canada could feed its own as well as the world, creating prosperity in the process. We need to find that formula and it will have to be consumers that drive it forward because governments, at least at present, show little inclination to tackle poverty in any serious fashion.

Social justice in any nation is vital to its future credibility, but if low-income Canadians only have enough food to last them for a few days, all those aspects of social justice, from housing to health, from employment to equality, have to take a back seat while hunger itself devours their hope and opportunities in just a few days. No nation can survive intact that permits a growing number of citizens to remain in poverty even as the economy supposedly improves.

Back To The City

CITY

WE TOOK SOME DOWNTIME LAST WEEK TO CELEBRATE OUR ANNIVERSARY, but since our return I have been struck by all the conversations that have been going on about our city and its future. I shouldn’t be surprised. Since the very beginning of recorded history, the places where we live, cooperate, and occasionally contend, together have dominated human thoughts.

It is proof again of American philosopher, John Dewey’s, observation: “The local is the only universal, and as near an absolute as exists.”

But somehow, along the winding and sometimes frantic pace of our civilization, power moved away from where we live to other places – parliaments, world organizations, financial bodies – that at the moment seem farther away from us than ever. The challenges that we presently face are real, but the decisions as to how to deal with them are concluded nowhere near us.

However it happened, things got away on us. Everything began local and for millennia it was all we knew. Then came empires, technological advances, massive movements of populations, remarkable developments in transportation, and before we knew it, decisions about finance, government, legislation, even how we farm, were no longer formulated in our midst, but likely in our absence.

But following three centuries of such a dizzying pace, things are coming home to roost – climate change, conflicts, rising economic inequality and unemployment, and political and financial dysfunction. And now an intriguing movement is getting underway – the important decisions and vital aspects of life are returning to our cities and the places where we bring up our families and learn to cooperate together. As global, state, and regional governments seem increasingly incapable of cooperating to solve our great dilemmas, citizens are making their own moves to build a better world. The “city” movement is picking up steam like few other organizational innovations. Some of our most intriguing politicians are some of our mayors and reeves – with a few difficult and embarrassing exceptions.

Yet with all this new attention on the “local,” we have to repeatedly ask ourselves if we are up to the challenge that community self-government will require? For all those centuries where others handled things for us, from monarchies to empires to representative democracies, we were provided little opportunity to learn the skills of self-governance. Yet that door is now opening to us, or, as Jane Jacobs put it:

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

The focus of humanity has come back full circle – local has become universal again, and with that change we take on a new importance as citizens. Maybe that’s what folks are sensing, even in the lazy days of summer. Important days are ahead – elections, the setting of priorities, new exercises in civic engagement. History has come back to where we live. Now our task is to shape it.

The New Breed

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THE MORE ONE EXAMINES IT, THE EASIER IT IS TO CONCLUDE that politics of the heavily partisan nature is quickly losing its appeal to the average citizen living in a community and just desiring a good place to live and opportunities for their children. Previously we let political parties formulate their policies on various parts of the political spectrum and then citizens could select their priorities and vote from there.

In many ways it all functioned well: communities were offered choices, parties drew on supporters, and politics involved rigorous debate that clarified the issues. What we have been witnessing in the past two decades is the breaking down of that model for two key reasons.

The first arises when people don’t really know what political candidates and their parties really stand for anymore. America is currently going through a crisis in this regard, where Republicans actually have more in common with Democrats than they do with the Tea Party that operates under the Republican banner. Democrats who supposedly believe in evidence-based policies, government help for the poor, and the protection of qualified bureaucracies, nevertheless undercut welfare programs and permitted the key financial culprits who instigated the greatest financial crisis since the Depression to walk away unscathed.

And what of Canada? Are parties that once occupied the left-centre-right wing of the political spectrum moving collectively to the right, or is everyone cramming into the middle in pursuit of votes? It’s not only difficult to know who the players are anymore, it involves great perplexity attempting to understand their teams. The pursuit of power has led to a great free-for-all that witnesses every party rushing whichever way the pollsters tell them are an abundant crop of voters. Practical ambition has taken the place of principled policy and voters are left in a daze trying to figure it all out.

Our communities quickly arrived at the point where they just gave up. Watching such antics, the average citizen concentrated on their immediate existence instead of their collective life because politics was no longer capable of drawing them together and empowering the communities in which they lived.

But that’s now beginning to change as citizens have begun the process of casting off partisan practices in favour of common goals. For our respective communities it couldn’t come a moment too soon. Political parties, by morphing into whatever it took to capture more voters, no longer hold much appeal. Worse still is the increasing practice of pulverizing other parties in order to secure supporters. To the average citizen, politics looks more like a Game of Thrones episode than a respectful appeal to the intellect of citizens.

The word partisan itself was first used in 1555 in Tuscany, Italy, where it referred to someone who was “part” of a group or sect. Ironically a second meaning emerged within a few years where the term was used for a weapon with a long shaft and broad blade. In 21st century Canada, both of those meanings have become synonymous and Canadians have had enough.

Which leaves communities with a problem: if our politics is based on a battle of “parts” that no longer practice respect or pursuit of common principles, then how can communities come together collectively under such a paradigm? The truth is that they can’t.

It is time for a new breed of politician, especially at the local level – the woman or man who respects their community when it collectively desires something different, and fights for that place. This kind of politics isn’t about left or right, but the way forward based on community will.

London, Ontario has now become a battleground for this new kind of politics. Our mayor has stepped down and a new interim replacement is to be selected. Some of those interested in the position have acted in ways that directly conflict with the ReThink London citizen engagement plan that saw thousands of citizens coming together to talk about the kind of community they wanted. Yet none of those individuals who oppose ReThink have the courage to just say, “You know what citizens, you’re wrong and I’m right. I’m smarter than you, so give me your vote.” Of course they can’t utter such words because it’s difficult to gain office by insulting the voter.  Beware the charlatan.

I have spoken about the French writer, Alexis de Tocqueville, many times in these pages. One of his most poignant observations can be found in his brief phrase, written in the 1850s: “There are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle.” This is exactly the point to which most Canadians are arriving.

Democracy is predicated upon one principle above all others: the people hold the ultimate power. Right or wrong, they decide. It is time “principled” dealings with one another descends to citizens themselves. Overt partisanship has had its day and it’s now played out. Effective or not, it is now the time for citizens to learn the intricate machinations of politics and prove they are capable to living a collective life while honouring individual pursuits. E Pluribus Unum – out of the many, one.

 

 

 

 

Continuum

awww-img-irw_awww_taxes_631px330“An economist,” Laurence Peter says, “is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn’t happen today.”  He was the famous inventor of the Peter Principle – the belief that once a labourer rises to a position over his head, he will become incompetent.  Many of our modern day economists have been around a while, long enough for us to begin to question the present direction of modern capitalism, our financial markets, and the need for political systems to depend increasingly on economic growth for their validity.

For a long time the belief that each successive generation can be more prosperous than the last has driven much of the policy and financial apparatus in everything from interest rates to social programs.  It was never an exact science – perhaps best displayed whenever frequent recessions dashed our economic prospects with cold water for a time.  Yet we always seemed to bounce back and, over time, became more adroit at both predicting and preventing the worst of recessionary times.  It’s a continuum – perpetual growth – that has infused almost every major institution with the idea that economic expansion is a natural as breathing.

Well, these days we’re panting pretty hard.  For decades, even as global economies grew at dynamic rates, we were slowly coming to the understanding that the future of employment wasn’t a sure thing anymore.  Poverty, and the cost of maintaining it, was becoming a growing concern.  Even in the heyday of the environmental movement (it’s had a few), we were never able to land on firm policies or resolve how to reign in climate change because we were constantly being barraged with economic analyses claiming we couldn’t afford it.  The decline in middle-class purchasing power was largely masked by the flood of cheap products filling the global marketplace, but we are now coming to terms with the reality that consumption depends more on income than the prevalence of cheap items and with unemployment running at all-time highs, the middle class can’t spend like it used to.

Occasionally certain economists, like John Kenneth Galbraith, or more recently Paul Krugman or Robert Reich, have questioned policies structured on the belief of endless growth.  In the main, economists promote minimalist roles for governments.  That’s why we’re seeing the endless rounds of calls for austerity measures on both sides of the Atlantic, and occasionally across the Pacific.  The best way to stimulate economies, the traditional rationale goes, is to decrease public debt, relax regulations, and permit the free market to do what it does best.

Well, what is that exactly – its best effort, I mean?  The economic meltdown from this last recession still leaves a bitter taste in our mouths and the massive financial institutions still remain the easiest targets.  Ironically, trillions of public dollars were used to bail out financial institutions that showed little care for communities or the welfare of citizens.

But it goes deeper than that.  Small and medium-sized businesses are experiencing significant problems getting started or keeping going.  While parents still leave generous legacy gifts to their children, they have also left a public policy wasteland behind that provides decreasing investments in public holdings and institutions.  We have yet to see any credible environmental policies enacted by governments even as global warming attains a tighter grip around our collective throat.  Many companies that are actually leading the way in environmental reform nevertheless call for increasingly limited roles for governments in the climate change challenge. 

Businesses are permitted to acquire massive debts while at the same time calling on governments to tighten their purse strings.  Yet the irony of all this is slowly coming in from the periphery among citizens and their traditional trust in prolonged progress or even the advice of economists is becoming increasingly suspect.

And yet we go on.  In a world where billions of dollars are accumulated in mere hours we can no longer afford university, catastrophic drugs, higher employment, carbon taxes, even a home.  There is no longer a sense of confidence that the usual set of rules imposed on financial systems can generate similar outcomes to those of the past.  We have grown out of work, out of environmental sustainability, out of health, education, welfare, and precariously out of time.  We have grown and grown to the point that we no longer create the kind of jobs that can generously purchase commodities.  We have grown so much in the historic model that we have an abundance of supply that can no longer be purchased on the demand side because they can’t be afforded.  And in that one area where supply is increasingly limited – oil – we have no effective plans of what to do when supplies run out or when fossil fuel emissions alarmingly limit the possibilities for our children.

We have filled our world with growth concepts until we have run out of room to expand.  Economists ask us to hold tight, don’t borrow so much, pay off our debts, limit our public expenditures as a people, and collectively tighten our belts.  Yet they often fail to turn their sights on a corporate world that is draining the very resources we require as a people to tackle our greatest problems.

Worst of all, political parties across the board can’t break with that narrative, and this for one key reason: citizens vote against their own best aspirations.  The continuum drags on, with modern citizens the only ones who can bring about change but who refuse to bring economics back into the peoples’ hands lest it cost too much.

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