Friday, October 28, 2011

History of sorrows and stumbles for CLBC

All the problems and drama at Community Living B.C. these days got me digging through the story archives this week to try to see when it was that things started going wrong for the Crown corporation.
I was prepared to be outraged. But really, I just felt sad.
I’ve often made mention here of a 1978 book I was introduced to a few years ago, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail. I’ve seen so many real-life examples of the cautionary tales laid out in that fascinating book through my work helping people with few resources push change.
The heartbreaking story of CLBC just might be the clearest example yet.
Poor People’s Movements documents the histories of four protest movements involving lower-class groups in the U.S. I’d read it in hopes of learning strategies for shaking things up around homelessness and sex-work issues, but happily discovered the book was even more valuable for understanding why good intentions so often go awry in the drive for change.
In B.C.’s community-living movement, the families and advocates of people with developmental disabilities have always been the ones driving change. If it weren’t for them, we’d still be back in the day of giant, impersonal institutions for anyone with a mental handicap, because that’s certainly the easiest model from a government perspective.
CLBC was to be the movement’s greatest triumph. For the first time, people whose lives had been touched by developmental disability were going to be the ones guiding services. Families, advocates and those with disabilities would no longer be just another category of “stakeholder,” but would actually be making the decisions.
So how sad is it to see where things have ended up a mere six years later?
The situation in B.C. feels more challenging than ever for people with developmental disabilities. It’s harder to find services, harder to hold onto them, and the certainty of being housed is no longer a given.
 During a recent visit to a local shelter, I was stunned to see how many people with visible developmental disabilities were there for services - the leading edge of a new problem that will grow much worse in coming years now that we’re giving up designated housing for this population.
People are being pushed out of their group homes and programs even while CLBC senior managers take $14,000 bonuses as thanks from government for getting that done.
Such revelations from other parts of government generally bring to mind some opportunistic, cosseted civil servant with no idea of what it feels like to be in need.
But in the case of CLBC, a number of the senior managers are the same family members and advocates who led the movement for years - people who know exactly how it feels. How did it come to this? 
If only they’d read the book. It turns out there’s a deadly phase for grassroots movements, and it comes dressed up like success.  It’s the point where the government or authority they’ve been railing at suddenly puts a friendly arm across their shoulders and invites them closer to work out a “solution.” Talk turns to joint committees and partnerships.
Movements must approach such invitations with great care, warns the book. Stepping inside the circle may look like a win, but it’s more likely to be a takeover. The goals of the movement are soon crushed beneath the weight and wishes of the new “partner,” and soon everybody’s too co-opted to complain.
CLBC was also created in total chaos. I’m a big believer in organizational culture as a determinant of how things will turn out, and by that measure CLBC never stood a chance.
Firings, investigations, disgraced ministers, delays, painful media stories about funds unaccounted for and sweet-deal contracts - it was a messy, protracted birth. Add in the constant reorgs that have swept through CLBC since its inception, and I doubt the Crown corporation has known many normal days.
And that’s not even taking into account the politics. Cutting social services has always been a top priority of the B.C. Liberals, and community living has been in their sites for 10 years now. The cost of housing people has been a particular irritant, which is why CLBC execs were up until recently being rewarded for moving people out of their group homes.
Families and advocates for this issue know how to fight, and it’s good to see them out there again. They won’t trust as easily next time, but what a discouraging truth that is. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Household income flat-lined for young families

The people at the Human Early Learning Partnership do good work, like tracking the (rising) vulnerability rate in B.C. Here's a new report from HELP that's full of facts and figures that are good to have around - informative in the moment, but very useful for comparing stats down the line as things undoubtedly worsen for younger generations of Canadians. Who would have thought that the idealistic baby-boomer generation would be the one that would leave behind a world in worse shape than when we arrived? Here's a fact sheet with more info and some proposed solutions from the University of B.C.-based HELP.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Important information or just more nameless dread?

This is the kind of story that makes me crazy. 
I mean, if high levels of BPA really do cause problems in-utero for girl babies, hey, let's ditch the stuff. I'm perfectly happy with my metal water bottle. But stories that just float a little information out there are decidedly unhelpful on issues like this, and mostly just add to all the nameless dread that builds up in us from a steady diet of vague stories like this one.
 What exactly ARE "higher levels" of BPA, and why did these women have more in their system than others? In fact, how much BPA is OK to have in your system, and what's a typical amount you'd see in an average person? What are the lessons to be learned for future mothers-to-be so they can avoid hyperactive baby girls - or shall they just add BPA to the long list of possibly bad things to worry about when pregnant?
And note that you'd have to search for the actual study if you wanted to see exactly how many more toddlers got hyperactive due to higher levels of BPA in their moms, or even for a clear definition of the behaviours that researchers saw more of.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Pine beetles a lesson in messing with nature

It’s 2001 all over again in forestry news these days now that those nasty little mountain pine beetles have worked their way into Alberta.
The story in the Edmonton Journal this week about the beetle infestation could have been lifted from any B.C. newspaper a decade ago, when the insidious insects first began upping their game in our own lodgepole-pine forests.
More than 17 million hectares of B.C. pine forest have been affected since then. The province has spent more than $750 million so far trying to mitigate the damage.
Here in the land of Douglas fir and cedar, the pine beetle invasion tends to feel like old news. But forestry-dependent communities elsewhere in B.C. are all too aware of the ongoing impact the ravenous bug is having.
The province gave another $9 million this past spring to the three community coalitions set up to identify and fund mitigation strategies in the hardest-hit areas: Cariboo-Chilcotin; Omineca; and Southern Interior.
The beetle explosion created a boom in B.C. forestry for a few years, when the government cleared the way for more intensive logging to make use of all the dying pine trees.
Government didn’t have much choice about that, as beetle-killed trees would have rotted on the ground if they hadn’t been harvested. Might as well make some money and create some jobs from all that lost forest.
But the short-term bump in harvesting has left a long-term problem: Much smaller - even non-existent - harvests for many years to come in forestry-dependent communities. They’re left waiting for a new generation of pine forest to grow large enough to log, which will take 40 years or more.
 “Stakes in beetle invasion are enormous,” said this week’s Journal headline. Indeed. Having recently travelled through the beautiful pine forests of the Rockies, I can’t imagine the landscape without them.
Then again, I drove the Princeton highway this summer and noticed that the devastation of a few years ago is barely visible through the new growth.
That’s a marked change over the way things looked in a previous road trip, when red, dead pine trees were all you could see. The heartening thing about nature is how forgiving it can be of our transgressions.
And the invasion is definitely about our transgressions. Pine beetles have been infesting pine trees for centuries, but climate change and past forestry practices created ideal conditions for the bugs.
We planted monocultures - great swaths of nothing but pine, which is not how Nature would have it. We fought forest fires with vigour to protect forestry revenues, only to discover that by suppressing fires we had weakened forest health and created dense stands that made it easy for pine beetles to migrate from tree to tree.
Warmer winters have contributed to the problem. A good, long cold snap is the only real defence against the beetles. But we haven’t seen too many of those in recent years.
The beetles kill a tree by burrowing into its soft tissue and cutting off the water supply to its upper branches. The bugs also spread a blue fungus (remember “denim pine,” a branding exercise aimed at putting a positive spin on the faded-blue colour of beetle-killed wood?) that also speeds the tree’s death.
You’d think in this age of a chemical for everything, there would be a remedy for death by beetle.
But aside from the removal of infected trees and some hasty thinning, nobody has come up with a real solution. In the U.S., the pine beetle has already destroyed 16 million hectares of forest in Idaho national parks. The forest service is busy in Montana parks right now thinning stands in hopes of staving off more devastation.
The lesson learned from all this? Mother Nature knows best. There’s a reason for bio-diversity, and for leaving forest fires to burn. Woe to any culture that tries to trump nature.
Oops. I confused my watts in a column last week on China’s Three Gorges dam. As an astute reader pointed out, it would take five million projects the size of Three Gorges to generate the 100 billion megawatts of hydro power I said the dam was capable of.
Make that 100 billion kilowatt hours. Still a heck of a lot, but nowhere near the staggering amount I erroneously suggested. When the project’s 32 turbines are all up and running (29 are currently in operation), they will in fact generate about 22,400 megawatts.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bed bugs an expensive house guest for BC Housing

Here's a story to get you itching: A Sun piece on the $720,000 that BC Housing spent in a year fighting bed bugs in the buildings it owns.
The story makes the point that having a bed bug infestation isn't a sign of poverty or poor housekeeping. The little critters are just everywhere now, and extremely hard to get rid of.
My daughter came home covered with bed-bug bites after a stay in a three-star San Francisco hotel. I got bitten down the backs of my legs after sitting in a Mexican cab in shorts; the bugs had set up shop in a rip in the seat fabric.
What's with the seeming epidemic of bed bugs? Turns out we'd all but eradicated the bug by the 1940s, but they came back with a vengeance in the mid-1990s and for all kinds of reasons have now become part of the hotel/housing landscape. Check out the Wikipedia entry on bed bugs for more info, although I'm already scratching just from having to write this.

Friday, October 14, 2011

China's enormous environmental experiment

One of the many "instant" cities that have sprung up since China flooded out communities for the Three Gorges Dam project. This is Feng Du, now located across the river from the original city. 
For better or worse, I’m an experiential learner. I try to stay on top of the current events of the world, but it’s getting up close and personal with the issues of distant lands that really works for me.
So it was that I could have a headful of knowledge about China’s massive Three Gorges dam project from years of hearing about it, yet still find myself gaping at the altered landscape along the Yangtze River from a cruise-ship window last week in the realization that I didn’t actually know a damn thing.
I’d read the articles, of course. I’d seen the documentaries. Long before our family trip to China, I got that the Three Gorges project was a mighty big deal.
At stake: The promise of 100 billion kilowatt hours of “clean” hydro power for a country still burning coal. The relocation of 1.3 million people flooded out by a dammed river.  An end to the huge seasonal floods that have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. A potential environmental disaster.
But what it would feel like to sail on a river that had been so dramatically changed, in a country full of people whose lives were turned completely upside down by the project - well, it just hadn’t hit me before. We spent three days travelling the Yangtze as part of our tour, and I can’t stop thinking about it.
The cruise departed at Chongqing, a city that has swelled to a staggering 32 million in recent years. It’s a knockout, as were all of the big cities we visited in our two-week holiday.
Sure, you peer through a haze of air pollution to see any of them. But underneath the “fog” (as our guides liked to call it), China’s cities are feasts of clever, unique architecture; great food; interesting people; and a neon nightscape that’s to die for if you’re a night-light aficionado like me.
 A two-week trip is hardly enough time to understand a place, or explore why Communist countries are invariably hotbeds of capitalism at the level of the people. But an extended stay isn’t required just to notice the impact that economic progress is having on China, in ways both good and bad.
We toured a few Chongqing hot spots on the day we arrived, including an odd little exhibit in a city park featuring a detailed, winding mural of the Three Gorges region painted along a concrete passageway.
The artist had depicted the towns that lined the river’s edge before the dam, and then sketched in the new water line in red. It was remarkably effective at bringing the issues home.
Our young guide walked us along the painting, her tone of voice studiously neutral as she talked about the massive human impact.  When we gasped at the sheer number of people uprooted, the cities and heritage sites washed away, she observed sagely that “the coin flips both ways.”
She’s right. For China to be an economic leader - for its citizens to have the same standard of living we enjoy in North America - it needs the hydro power, the flood control and the huge transportation savings that the Three Gorges project created.
But what a price its people paid.
They didn’t just lose their riverside homes, they lost centuries-old towns and traditions. Many were relocated to unfamiliar regions and assigned to unfamiliar jobs. The government built them new housing - generally more upscale than they’d previously lived in - but at a cost of flooding their farm land and family histories under more than 150 metres of river water.
Seen from the cruise boat, the new shoreline looks unnatural, especially in the spots where abandoned farmland now runs straight into the water. Above the new water line, “instant” skyscraper cities and massive, dazzling bridges have sprung up to accommodate the displaced - they, too, look out of place.
Like so much of what we saw in China, the altered landscape is beautiful in its own way. You can’t help but feel the energy and growth in China, the sense of possibility.
But it’s hard to imagine any government getting away with such a bold manipulation of nature. Reports of environmental degradation since the dam was built bear that out.
As for the toll on the million-plus “emigrants,” China isn’t a country that talks about such things. I can only hope that in the end, the coin flipped the right way for them.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Paying bonuses to have our services cut

Back from my travels in China (wow, what a place!), struggling with the muzzy-headed feeling of jet lag. If anyone knows of a cure for jet lag, please send it along. I try this, I try that, but no matter what I still come home to several days of cloudy thinking and weird sleeping habits.
Must admit, I've enjoyed having a break from the news these past two weeks. I woke up to this morning's headlines in the Globe and remembered why I needed the break - so much of the news makes my blood boil, and who needs that first thing in the morning when they can't think straight to begin with?
Here's the one that got me going, detailing the bonuses federal civil servants stand to get if they can cut public services sufficiently. How crazy is it for us to be paying our taxes to government so that they can give themselves handsome bonuses for cutting our services? We can presume this is some strategy taken from the books of the big corporations, but it makes no sense when you're talking about a taxpayer-funded structure.