Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The Thelma and Louise approach to climate change

Reading this piece on rising greenhouse gas emissions in today's Guardian reminded me of those old movie scenes where some character gives another one a good slap to snap them out of whatever foolish thinking they're engaging in.

In this case, the crazy thinking would involve anything to do with believing that the world is actually jumping on the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. Nope. Energy use last year grew at its fastest pace of the decade. It was a "golden year" for gas, with consumption up 10 per cent in the US alone. That increase alone is equivalent to the UK's entire consumption of gas in a year.

I hate to be Nelly Negative, but this does more or less reaffirm my belief in humanity's ability to respond to a life-threatening - all life, everywhere - crisis. Unlike those apocalyptic Hollywood movies where citizens dig deep into untapped reserves of strength, ingenuity and hope to save the planet, I have long suspected that in fact we'd actually just look up at the big, fiery meteor hurtling toward us and mutter, "Oh, shit," and that would be that.

This is what future historians (clearly on other planets) will note about our civilization someday - that given the challenge of reducing fossil-fuel energy use or risking climate devastation, we put the pedal to the metal and gunned it into the inferno.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Open procurement and social care: Why that should scare you

Find me here in the Vancouver Sun writing on the scintillating issue of open procurement, and other strange happenings bombarding the community-based social services sector.

While you may think that whole sentence is unbelievably dull and referring to things you have zero interest in, I urge you to read my piece anyway. People, this stuff really matters.

For those who can't or won't click, I'm just going to paste the article right here as well. That's how easy I want it to be for you to read it. Also, I wrote this as the executive director for the Board Voice Society of BC, work I do two days a week, but I am such a believer in this issue that I would have written it even if it wasn't my job.

Editorial pages of Vancouver Sun
March 22, 2019
By Jody Paterson

Open procurement policies put community social-services groups at risk

I work in the non-profit community social-services sector. If your eyes glazed over when you read that, that nicely demonstrates the kind of PR problems besetting the sector now.

We’re in all your lives, though you likely don’t know us by that “community social-services” tag. We’re your daycares, your home care, your crisis line, your social housing. We’re treatment services, counselling, mom-and-tot groups, immigrant settlement, supports for people with special needs. We’re the soup-to-nuts helpful array of thousands of local services around B.C., every one of our organizations born out of the dream of passionate people who saw a need for social care and stepped up to address it.

That sounds so warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it? Everyone loves us. Virtually everyone has a story about an amazing community non-profit they have known, and an expression of heartfelt respect for the vital work of the sector. “Good people,” as one B.C. politician summed it up in a recent meeting with me.

But it doesn’t feel like love is in the air right now from inside the sector.

The work is challenging at the best of times, what with it mostly funded project-by-project and for short periods, with the tightest of margins for operating. Right now, however, there are so many layers of other unexpected and negative developments adding to the mix that there’s a real life-and-death feeling to the moment.

Here’s where the PR problem comes in for our sector: Very few people even understand what we do, let alone appreciate that we’re the best ones to do it.

We were born to do it, literally. Every community non-profit’s birth story begins with motivated citizens identifying a need, then building a non-profit to address it. Every one of us is required to have an elected volunteer community board overseeing everything we do, and to reinvest every penny of profit back into our communities (that’s why they call us non-profits).

I mean, what’s not to like about that perfect community model?

And yet we’re losing ground. Two multinational corporations took 22 per cent of the money in the recent awarding of Work B.C. employment-training contracts. Last week, we woke up to news in the media that home-support services are moving back to health authorities next year — news that has left shell-shocked non-profit providers scrambling to figure out whether they can still keep the doors open once they lose those contracts.

An emerging issue is open procurement. In a nutshell, that involves government procuring more and more of its services through open bids that treats companies and not-for-profits exactly the same.

That might sound “fair.” But if you don’t build in points in the bidding process for the extras that non-profits bring to social care — community connection, services built on passion rather than profit, reinvestment back into community — the whole raison d’etre of the non-profit model counts for nothing. When you create larger service regions managed by far fewer suppliers, you create major financial risk that few community non-profits are prepared to take on.

And eventually, the global corporations moving into social care all around the world end up owning social care in B.C. as well.

Just last week, our sector learned that open procurement will be used to secure the next round of contracts for B.C.’s child-care resource and referral centres, established in 38 communities around the province to support families and child-care providers. Unless the scoring for that procurement includes points for the unique values that community-based non-profits bring to this work, these services as well could end up the work of multinationals.

Governments in Canada do have to manage procurement in accordance with international free-trade agreements. But do we actually want to view the social health of our communities as a commodity on the open market? Do we have any proof that open procurement is the best way to go about selecting who provides vital social-care services to our citizens?

There are fundamental issues at stake here. And what worries me most is that we aren’t talking about them. Change is just happening, looking a lot like surprise one-offs until you start keeping a list and realize just how many unsettling and unexpected developments are going on for B.C.’s community non-profit sector.

Some of them won’t survive — and not because their services were inferior, unnecessary or unvalued. Simply because somebody somewhere changed things up without thinking about unintended consequences on community services that really matter.

Am I whining? Is this “self-interest”? Our sector always seems to get that term thrown at us when we raise issues. Sure, we’re self-interested — who isn’t? I’ve got a big two-day-a-week job without benefits at stake here.

But just because we work in the sector doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to us. Good and important services delivered by caring people who really know their stuff are at-risk as never before. A wonderful community model for delivering social care is under serious threat, and all without a word of public consultation.

Social care should be as sustainably funded, prioritized and planned for as health and education in B.C. That’s how we achieve economic prosperity. It’s how we strengthen our communities and engage people to live their best lives. We’re as committed to the government’s dream of reducing poverty, improving child care and responding more effectively to mental health and addiction as they are.

But every day is a fight to stay alive in this sector. The new threats looming on so many fronts are a painful reminder that people still don’t grasp that our work is the foundation of community social care in B.C. Our non-profit model was created for the task. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

Jody Paterson is executive director of the Board Voice Society of B.C., representing volunteer boards and senior staff of B.C. community non-profits serving the social determinants of health. The irony isn’t lost on her that March is Community Social Services Awareness Month.

Monday, March 11, 2019

In the beginning: A history of Howard the Gnome

Howard the Gnome needs a new home, not to mention $15,000 to fix his rotting base. The recent news out of Nanoose Bay, where Howard has lived for more than two decades as one of the last of Vancouver Island's classic roadside attractions, prompts me to dig out my 1999 story on the gnome, who had yet to be named Howard at that time and was in the news for a whole other reason.

When I first wrote about the big guy, Howard had yet to be moved to his current location at a Nanoose gas station, which didn't exist back then. He was a young thing then, and had been built in Ron Hale's garage out of dryer lint from the Alberni pulp mill among other odds and sods.

Herewith, my Oct. 25, 1999 article from the Times Colonist archives on the gnome, who was a fresh fella barely two years old back in those days but already raising eyebrows in the Nanaimo Regional District, where critics thought his roadside presence was distracting to drivers and breaching sign bylaws.

This article references the Hale family's long-standing amusement park, Kiddieland. But like so many of the Island's long-ago roadside attractions - the Glass Castle, Fable Cottage, Rudy's Zoo, that place with all the fairy- and nursery-tale characters at Elk Lake - it's long gone. Onward into Howard's birth story...

I think it was the first giant slide I'd ever seen. I used to drive past it and wonder whether many people stopped for a slide.

They must have, because Kiddieland -- now Gnomemansland -- is 24 years old and still going. Long after the rise and fall of roadside amusement parks, the Hale family park lives on.

Owner Bruce Hale was 14 when his dad Ron opened Kiddieland on their family property beside the Island Highway south of Parksville. These days, it has go-carts, a giant slide, mini-golf, a lovely old merry-go-round, trampolines and a room full of plastic balls; back then, it was solely a go-cart track, the Island's first and one of only a handful still left.

Bruce didn't get into the family business right away, working instead as a faller for several years before buying his father out six years ago. He has big plans over the next few years to rebuild the park around his mother Disa's unpublished book Gnomemansland, and envisages themed areas for each of the 10 chapters, all tied in with gnomes.

The first step was the raising of Gnome, a seven-metre-high elf that would grace the park entrance. Ron Hale crafted Gnome from steel, papier mache, and dryer felts from the Port Alberni pulp mill, building it in his garage. ''He did a damn fine job,'' says Bruce.

The people from Nanaimo Regional District weren't quite as impressed when they first met Gnome one day in the summer of 1997. There he was, unannounced and unapproved, towering over the Hales' driveway and bidding welcome with his enormous hands.

The fight was on. It started with Gnome's location; the figure was initially erected on a concrete block across the driveway from the park, on a panhandle piece of land owned by Bruce's brother. The regional district cited Hale for breaching the third-party signage bylaw, not to mention several others.

So Hale moved Gnome across the driveway and on to his own property. The regional district then wanted certification that it was sturdy enough to withstand the forces of nature. ''There was absolutely no structural engineering to that thing,'' says regional district development services manager Bob Lapham. ''It could have blown onto the highway.''

The issue aroused considerable passions in the community for a few months. Supporters of a man's right to erect whatever the heck he wants on his own land slammed the regional district for its bureaucratic strangling of free enterprise. Detractors lamented the sullying of their fair Island with a tacky giant gnome with glowing green eyes.

Hale and the regional district have declared an uneasy truce of sorts these days, although Lapham says the district is still waiting for official proof that Hale has met requirements. ''He's still deficient on a building permit. He hasn't given us a location survey, the verification of all that was to happen.''

Hale says satisfying the regional district has cost him $10,000 - 10 times as much as it would have cost to leave Gnome at the first site. Nonetheless, there is no question that Gnome is an imposing sight in his new location, his massive hands welcoming travellers in. A passer-by can't help but gape. Maybe it proves Lapham's point: he argued all along that the way those hands are gesturing made the whole figure a sign, and thus subject to the restrictions of the district's sign bylaw.

It's hard to say whether Gnome lured in that family from Texas this summer, but long-time park employee Howard Newall says the number of American visitors is definitely up. In a good year, the amusement park can attract as many as 25,000 people.

Rumours of Hale's expansion plans have already made their way back to the regional district, which anticipates being surprised again one of these days. ''He's the kind of guy who, instead of coming in for the proper approvals, builds it first and then eventually complies,'' says Lapham.

Out here in Gnomemansland, that's the way it's done.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

The immensely irritating but effective way that climate-change deniers do battle

I'm seeing a pattern in my social media spaces right now, where I post some article or opinion piece on climate change and a climate-change denier emerges to comment in that way that the deniers always comment - which is to say, via distraction.

It's a technique that people used regularly to try to shut me down back when I was writing newspaper columns and they didn't like what I was saying. 

Men and women tend to use the strategy differently in my experience - a man typically diverts by repeatedly asking questions that have nothing to do with the matter at hand, while women will go to an emotional argument that is hot-potato-personal, like the weeping women who called me up after I questioned soaring Caesarean-section rates in Greater Victoria demanding to know if I was suggesting that their babies should have died.

It can be surprisingly effective as a tool to completely divert an issue into an irrelevant and useless direction that ultimately ends with the respective parties getting more and more het up until they finally yell some version of "Oh, yeah? Well, fuck you!" by which point all the reasonable people who the writer had set out to engage have been scared off. (Or, in the case of Caesarean sections, a writer vowing never to touch that issue again in the fear of yet another long week of being called out by emotional moms as a baby murderer. And the rates just keep rising...)

The strategy nicely destroys any hope of enlightened dialogue on the original subject matter. All the other readers are soon running like rats to avoid being caught up in the ugly mess, and any politician passing by reaffirms his or her position that this is a "hot button" issue best either left alone or manipulated for personal electoral gain.

The fundamental premise of the strategy is to ignore the point at the centre of the piece in question and instead, make some random observation related to one tiny aspect; raise a rhetorical question; fast-forward to the most extreme interpretation; or pick at a spelling/grammatical error that will require the writer (or poster, in this case) to divert their energies into heated dialogue about something that has almost nothing to do with the actual subject at hand.

Then everybody fights and the reasonable people flee, and any chance that thoughtful action might arise from the conversation is lost. Again.

So here's the latest case in point, in which random Facebook dude Carew Martin plays the role of disruptive climate-change denier. (Find the full version of the thread here, set to "public" for all to see even if they aren't on Facebook.) I'm currently enjoying time away in Honduras right now and specifically stated earlier in the thread that I wasn't going to waste any time engaging with climate-change deniers when I ought to be holidaying. But in truth, I find that a near-impossible position to stick to because deniers are so effective at getting under my skin.

Jody posts this Guardian opinion piece headlined "Remember the days when we weren't freaked out by freak weather?" and comments: Oh, I so feel this: "I used to find wild weather exciting, but now it evokes the apocalypse of climate change." Who could have predicted in halcyon days of yore that what would alarm me most one day would be the world's weather news? As the writer concludes, few things are more important now than that we all take individual action in "the desire to be a worthy ancestor."

Carew: If anthropogenic climate change is real, why does it not stand up to reason?

Jody: So the stacks of carefully considered scientific research don't count as "reason"?

Carew: No, studies are not logic, they are data, logic is asking questions like, why was the name changed from global warming to climate change?

Jody: Gotta say, that sounds like a lot like the kind of question people use to divert the conversation from what matters and get everybody wasting time and energy talking about some issue that has no relevance.It's what I think of as the "Look over there!" tactic. And was the name actually changed? I think of it as global warming causing climate change.

Carew: You can think of it however you like but the fact is, in common parlance the name changed from global warming to climate change and what you've just done is a diversionary tactic by not answering the question, hypocritically. So why was the name changed?

Jody: Sorry, I am not doing this. You go ahead and talk to people who want to talk about that, and I'll stick with my plan to actually change the things I'm doing so that there's something left for my kids, grandkids and on down the line.

Carew: So you're either unable or refuse to use logic when discussing climate change.

Facebook friend Diane McNally weighs in: That's not logic, that's sophistry and I'm not doing it either .

Carew: Sophistry is not the same as logic which is why I never understand why people consider it a good thing to be sophisticated. Regardless, Jody, weren't you a journalist? I kind of thought a big part of that job is asking questions.

Then comes a series of heated comments between Carew and a friend of mine, Glenn Phillips, who I have known since elementary school and who takes the approach that damn it, nobody ought to get away with saying stupid stuff without being challenged every step of the way. I admire his commitment but personally am done with wasting my time with people who are resolutely unconvinceable.

Irked by the journalist comment, even though I know I'm just rising to the bait, I return with this final long comment, which always seems to happen and leaves me thinking damn it, I'm wasting my energy on this ineffective thread being read by maybe three people when I could be blogging and being read by at least three times that many (ha ha):

Jody: Yes, Carew, I'm a journalist, and here's the question I always have for climate-change/global-warming deniers - why is it so important to be against the science? Why do you want to deny it? Is it because you want to keep using fossil fuels with abandon? Is it because you're a person who always goes up against whatever the majority of people have concluded after much careful thought and research, because you always need an argument? Is it because you genuinely think that all of us are wrong and being duped by people who have conspired to use fake science to extrapolate a false argument?

Here's the thing: If we're all wrong about this and you're right, then nobody would be happier than me to see you have the last laugh. I would genuinely love the deniers to be right, Carew, and that this unusual weather, storms, polar melting, etc we are observing on a planet whose atmosphere has warmed dramatically since the Industrial Age just turn out to be coincidental one-offs.

Unfortunately, I am a responsible person with maybe 30 years of life left if I'm really, really lucky, but I've got eight grandkids and one more on the way who I want to have a good life - one not torn apart by food and water shortages, massive displacement, war, wild and unpredictable weather, bigger and bigger storms. Just my grandkids who are alive right now need 100 more years. But they're going to have their own kids and grandkids, so they're going to want much longer than that by the time they reach my age, because they'll be in my same position.

So I look at all that as a logical, problem-solving kind of human being who has much respect for science but also does her own research and observes with eyes and ears wide open, and I say to myself, Jody, what's the best course of action for you to take to benefit the most number of people for the longest period of time?

And my answer is to consider my own carbon footprint and reduce it. To look at other Canadians' carbon footprints and provide them with the facts that they can use to understand that this issue is about ALL of us, and that they can reduce their carbon footprints as well for the sake of the planet. To keep a metaphorical knife at the throat of the politicians, who are all far too influenced by the sweet whisperings of wealthy capitalist structures that bring them money, and to push back hard at those same capitalists whose short-term, get-it-all-before-it's-gone mentality is quite likely going to kill us all. (The single best way to battle capitalists is to quit buying their stuff. Just quit, people.)

And if it's all for nothing because climate change/global warming is all just a made-up thing like you believe, then what the hell, at least I lived a less extravagantly consumptive and resource-intensive life. It certainly doesn't hurt the world to reduce my carbon footprint, does it? That really just means I will live a simpler life. Drive my car less. Consume far fewer goods. Be mindful of my energy use at all times. Destroy less species through kinder, sustainable habits. Waste less of my money.

And here's the other thing, Carew - you can quit wasting YOUR time posting on the Facebook threads of people who believe as I do, because as passionately as I feel about all of this, I'm a realist who sees with much sorrow that it's your side that's winning. Here in Canada, we are buying more new trucks to drive than ever before, and they aren't hybrids or even close to it. We aren't changing our habits. We're Nero, fiddling while Rome burns.

We aren't reining in the capitalists, or slapping down the politicians who promise us everything and deliver nothing. Around the world, global temperatures continue to rise because we just can't stop consuming and consuming and consuming.

So however old you are, Carew - and I'm guessing you're at least my age, because climate-change deniers skew significantly toward older men in my experience - you just go on to live out whatever years you have and get on with dying, while the rest of us do what we can to make sure there's something left for future generations.

And what's to be learned from this? As a veteran of many obfuscations, I just want to pull back the veil on this common strategy, which is alarmingly effective. Just see it for what it is - distraction. White noise. The real damage is done when we shy away from important topics for fear of having to deal with these disturbers, who exist solely to cast doubt and scare away the reasonable people.