Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Climate change: Somebody ought to do something about that

For a while there, we could all write about climate change as if it were still coming and might possibly be avoided if people were exhorted sufficiently to do x, y and z to reduce their carbon footprint and governments were urged to own up to their policy paralysis.

I miss those days. Now it all feels just so much more right-now, a black cloud of fear and dread carried on waves of intense media coverage of weird weather events everywhere in the world. How does an average writer contribute helpfully to the dialogue once things have reached this state?

“What solutions would you propose?” a Facebook connection asked me recently after a post I did on the crappy legacy we Boomers are leaving behind for coming generations.

Well, isn’t that just the million-dollar question? Who DOES have the solutions for the gigantic issues of these times? And how will they ever be enacted in a world that seems incapable of taking collective action even as existential crisis looms?

We have wasted so much time already, first debating whether climate change even existed and then splintering into our various belief camps as to who was the most to blame and how they should be made to atone. As usual, we have let politicians use our longing for solutions that don’t require anything of us to take us down a number of garden paths during these years of finger-pointing.

The cost of inaction is staggering. Ben Parfitt and Marc Lee write that in 2021 alone, heat, fire and floods cost the BC economy at least $10.6 billion, and possibly almost double that. 

At this point, does it even matter how we got here, other than to give us context for prioritizing action? Sure, rich countries are rightly going to have to be on the hook for more money into the communal pot after enjoying decades of guilt-free emissions that fueled our economic dominance, but let’s just presume that and get going. What we really need to talk about is how we’re going to stop this train wreck.

I take heart from the scientists, because they’ve been studying this one for years even while the rest of us were still arguing about whether climate change even existed.

Devin Todd, Researcher in Residence at the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions at the University of Victoria, wrote in the Globe and Mail recently of the need to keep the pressure on around reducing emissions from fossil fuels while also figuring out a plan for emerging “negative emission” technologies that can remove and neutralize greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The technologies are fascinating: machines that suck carbon dioxide from the air with chemical sponges; changing ocean chemistry so it draws down more C02; direct-air capture with the C02 then stored deep underground.

I read about what the scientists are coming up with and feel hope, sort of like you do at that part in the epic disaster movie where the brave astronaut-physicist-miracle person is heading into space to stop the asteroid from striking the Earth and destroying every living thing. Please save us, heroic scientists.

But then I look at the glacial pace of climate action at the hands of so many of the world’s governments and the deeply compromised agendas of pretty much everyone, and wonder how the fraught and fragile democracies of the 21st century will ever get it together to make any plan, let alone execute it.

Not that it’s all on government. This historic period of climate change is about us, the eight billion people who divide up into people who buy stuff, people who make stuff, and people eagerly awaiting a day when they can do either of those things if they can only get out of poverty.

Those of us with money and those of us with cheap labour have entangled our needs and wants through unfettered trade. As Crawford Kilian noted in a recent Tyee column, Canada’s coal fuels China’s manufacturing, which then comes back as imports of all the stuff that Canadians can’t stop buying. Think of all the emissions that vicious circle of want costs the world.

So here we are, collectively entangled in the climate crisis, hooked on economic growth, wishing with all our hearts that someone’s going to pull a rabbit out of the hat and we’ll all get back to normal. Except when everybody’s wishing and nobody’s acting, not much gets done.  

Are we even capable of acting collectively? It’s not a hopeful sign when our countries can’t even come out of a global climate meeting with a few cheery accomplishments to lift our spirits. Perhaps poor countries think it was a win to extract a vague promise from rich countries to give them more money as climate change tears everything apart, but that is hardly a climate-change solution.

How do we come together as a world when so much sets us apart? It’s the question for these times. But if we’re still thinking that somebody else is prepping a hero for the big save and the rest of us are fine to cruise along like always, best to give that one up.

The world will do what it does, and I guess we’ll see if that’s anything at all. But what will YOU do?

Monday, November 21, 2022

Let me tell ya, kid, back in my day...

When I was a kid and got too whiny about some little difficulty in my life, I'd get shaken back to reality by a parent or grandparent with a version of one of those Walked Five Miles to School in a Blizzard stories from their own childhoods. 

The examples varied, perhaps invoking a time when there was nothing but shrivelled potatoes to eat, or comparing my comfy bedroom to the mattress on the floor that they remembered sharing with some ridiculous amount of siblings. 

But the moral was always the same: this parent/grandparent had known deprivation, and I should be so glad and eternally grateful for living in different times.

It struck me the other day that the Boomer generation that I'm part of just might be the first generation in Canada whose own stories will instead be of how good they had it compared to their grandkids. 

Let me tell ya, kid, back in my day we had houses for people. We didn't even have a word for homelessness, and you camped for fun, not because it was that or nothing. We burned through natural resources like there was no tomorrow. (Turns out that last part was true.) 

Back in my day, we made real money, and if we hit a bad spell, could fall back on employment insurance that actually covered most of a person's bills. We had doctors. Weather was just weather, not an ominous portent of end of days. 

Sounds a bit like a tall tale at this point, doesn't it? In fairness, not everything has gotten worse in my lifetime. 

Rights have improved significantly, at least on paper. We are woke, more or less, to the cruelties and inequities around race, gender, sexual preference and disability. We appear to be finally getting real about addressing the historic theft of Indigenous lands. 

Crime in Canada is half of what it was at its peak in the early 1990s, and the number of people living in extreme poverty around the world has declined by more than a billion people since 1990.

But while rights, personal safety and a little less global poverty are vital components to a good life, so is purchasing power and hope for the future in a world that at times feels dangerously close to losing it.

 And on that front, my generation can only hang its head in shame.

I've told the story of my 17-year-old newlywed self many times, so apologies for dragging it out again for this post. But it's just so perfect for summing up what has happened over my lifetime when it comes to the growing social decay we see around us and the deepening struggle to achieve the basics of a good life.

In the late 1970s in Courtenay, I was a stay-at-home teenage mom teaching a little piano on the side and my then-husband worked at the Campbell River paper mill. He made around $28,000 a year, which the Bank of Canada inflation calculator tells me is equivalent to $105,000 in 2022. Pretty decent pay for a couple of kids starting a life.

We bought a cabin on the water at Royston for $10,000 when we got married in 1974. We had two cars, and regularly holidayed with the kids to the Okanagan and Disneyland. We moved on to a bigger house a couple of years later and had a small, manageable mortgage and no appreciable credit card debt, possibly because it was hellishly hard to get a credit card in those days.

When there was a five-month strike at the mill that really hurt, we caught and ate so much salmon that I couldn't eat it again for years. Because our seas were full of salmon.

Fast forward 50 years and it's an entirely different life for a young couple with kids anywhere on Vancouver Island or the Lower Mainland. 

Not only is the thought of ever being able to buy a home out of reach for many of them, they can't even count on staying put in a rental home if the property owner opts to "renovict." They certainly can't count on easily finding another place to rent at a price they can afford. 

The number of two-income families in Canada has doubled since the 1970s, during which time purchasing power has fallen far below what it once was. Forget the dream of a two-income family able to participate more fully in the economy. What has actually happened is a flat-lining in wages that now requires two people to work just to earn the same amount that one person once earned. 

The average hourly wage in Canada in 1975 was just over $10. Today, it's $20. Meanwhile, inflation has risen almost 470 per cent in the same period - which means that the hourly wage in 2022 ought to be $47 to have maintained the same purchasing power. 

The rich get richer and the not-rich lose ground. Canada's wealthiest 20 per cent of households now hold two-thirds of all assets in the country, while the least wealthy 20 per cent hold just 2.8 per cent. That top 20 per cent is the only quintile to have increased its share of national income over the years; all the others have seen a loss. 

It was my generation that inked the free-trade deals that have tied the world together so tightly for hungry global capitalists and consumers eager for cheap goods that now we're dependent on distant countries for everything. When a relentless drought grips California farms and the rivers get so dry in China that the freighters can't run, it's our store shelves that sit empty.

It's my generation that's sitting fat and happy on our investment portfolios, rooting for growth to continue unfettered every quarter so we can live in grand comfort. Those who come after us will live with the fallout - crashed pension plans, climate change, unattainable dreams of a home to call your own, weakening social benefits. "Populist" governments to come will worsen every crisis with their self-serving agendas, even while their meaningless rhetoric acts as a siren's call to the disaffected and disappointed.

Let me tell ya, kid, that is all so very wrong. Wish I could tell you that we're working on it, but I don't think we are. Think of it this way: You'll have some great stories of deprivation to tell your own grandkids.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Drugs don't kill people, poisoned drugs do

BC's crisis of poisoned street drugs is hitting men in the prime of their working years the hardest. Three-quarters of the 10,000 deaths in BC from poisoned illicit drugs since 2015 have been men ages 30-59.

As this fact-filled story in The Tyee today highlights, one in five of them was working in the trades or transportation when they died. But while this information matters, it's not where we're going to find solutions for BC's poisoned street drugs. 

There are many reasons for why tradespeople are dying from using drugs, as the piece explains. The manly-man culture of the trades, the chronic pain of injury, crazy shifts, intense working conditions, long stints isolated in work camps, reluctance to reach out for help and risk looking "weak."

But BC is a resource province, and we've had manly men working in pain, isolation and wild working conditions throughout our history. They have used drugs to numb all that - or as a reward at the end of a hard day -  for as long as rough jobs have existed. Those of us who grew up with our eyes open in any BC resource town can attest to that.

Admittedly, such men have probably been dying at a much higher rate than the rest of for all this time; we just didn't think to measure those deaths in relation to the type of work the dead man was doing at the time. But they weren't dying like they're dying now.

So what's different this time? The drugs. They're poisoned. How and why they have ended up poisoned is a story I'm still waiting to read, but it seems pretty obvious that we won't slow this crisis until we figure it out. 

The standard how-why responses for illicit drugs having become so toxic tend to focus on suppliers using cheaper substances to increase profits. Street drugs are being cut with fentanyl, benzodiazipines and other weird and deadly stuff because it allows a much greater profit for the supplier and seller.

But cutting drugs with weird stuff to increase profits is also a time-honoured tradition in BC. The crisis in toxic drug deaths that we're seeing now is very specific to the last 10 years, and strangely specific to BC. 

The United States has its own drug crisis going on with opioid overdoses, now killing more than 1,500 Americans every week. But an overdose is not the same as poisoned drugs. The people who are dying in BC aren't dying because they used more drugs than were safe, they're dying because the drug supply is toxic.

This is an important distinction. You can't set about fixing a problem until you fully understand it, and it's important for us to let go of this wrong idea that people are dying just because they used drugs (a belief that lets us fall back on moralizing and dismiss this crisis as something that "good people" don't have to worry about). 

Were you ever a kid who gulped down street drugs without a second thought? Because I was. Happily, I grew up in the 1970s, when the drugs that a kid could access mostly weren't going to do anything worse than send you into a gas station bathroom to barf your guts out, or get you in trouble with your parents. 

Had I been a teen in today's world, I'm pretty sure I'd be dead. 

The Tyee's story notes that the employers of tradespeople have a lot to answer to, from inhumane shifts and their own culture of denying anything is wrong in their industry. But understanding why tradespeople need drugs to hang in at their jobs, while important, will not solve the toxic drug crisis. That won't be solved until we no longer have a poisoned drug supply.

The judgment we feel about the use of any drug other than alcohol so quickly sends us off into pointless and meaningless conversations about why people use drugs. (We use drugs because they make us feel better.) But addressing this toxic-drug crisis has to focus on the poisoned drugs, not the users. 

Imagine for a moment that more and more infant formula coming into Canada was turning out to be poisoned, and babies were dying. 

We would not address that with a public awareness campaign about breastfeeding, would we? We would not call it a solution to distribute pharmaceuticals to new moms so they could inject their babies and stall off the effects of the poison long enough to get to the hospital. We'd just dig in to figure out why the formula was poisoned, and how we could ensure a safe supply.

Where are the big drug importers in this conversation, and what could they tell us about how those imports, or their own practices, have changed? Where are the policy makers who can put aside political qualms and posturing to act bravely in the name of saving lives? 

We are stuck, and so many people are dying. This is so wrong. 

Friday, November 11, 2022

I will remember


Clockwise from top left: My father David Paterson; my aunt Joan Hepburn, solo and with her mates; my grandmother's brother Jack Feica; my uncle George Chow and wife Fan from a newspaper clipping after George's dramatic escape from a Japanese internment camp; my uncle Bill Chow; my uncle Pete Chow; and my grandmother's brother Tom Feica.


The benefit of being one of the people in your big extended family who hoards photos is that when struck by the thought of whether you could pull together a quick photo collage for Remembrance Day of relatives who served our country, there they all are.

This little collection certainly doesn't represent all of my relatives who have served, just the ones I have photos for. But even this handful reminds me of their bravery and commitment to a better world, putting their lives on the line for democracy and freedom. 

For my mom's brothers in particular, serving in the Second World War couldn't have been an easy choice, what with Canada still rejecting Chinese-Canadians until things got so desperate that they had to shift racist policies. My mom and her siblings were mixed race - Romanian and Chinese - but that was not enough to shield them from brutally racist times. Chinese-Canadians didn't get the vote until after the war, and even then it was a fight.

A person can get weighed down by the headlines of today, when it feels like we spend far more time warring with our fellow citizens and savaging the political leaders of the day than we do standing up for what's good and right about Canada. 

I am awed by my relatives' belief in this country as worthy enough to lay their lives down for. May we come together for the good fight again now that the enemy most capable of wreaking havoc is the contentious issues that divide us. 

Wednesday, November 09, 2022

Falling B grades signal community decline

Few things visualize the impact of the pandemic and the sad slide of social wellness in Greater Victoria quite so pointedly as the 2022 Vital Signs survey results.

Take a look at these charts highlighting findings from the Victoria Foundation report. 

What caught my eye was the one that compared 10 years of survey data where participants grade a dozen "key areas" that together make up a healthy community - things like belonging, arts and culture, the economy, health and wellness, standard of living, etc.

Straight As are a lot to ask for, but a B grade ought to be achievable for a Canadian city of privilege and wealth in 2022. Respondents are asked to give a B grade if they think a particular key area is good but could use some improvement. In years past, a majority of Greater Victorians responding to the survey ranked most of the key areas at B or higher.

But that was before. Vital Signs 2022 compared B grades across 10 years' worth of surveys, and what is revealed is a community that fell hard in the pandemic and has yet to find its way back out. Scores for every one of the 12 indicators fell significantly in 2020, and most are still falling. 

Sure, we're talking a global pandemic. Excuse us if we're not back to normal yet. But take a moment to mull over that decade of numbers and you'll notice how little improvement we were seeing in any of them since well before the pandemic got us. We've been "good but needs improvement" for years on key measures of community wellness, and now we're not even achieving that. 

If you've lived in Greater Victoria for any length of time, your own eyes have probably been telling you that for some time now. Mine certainly have. It's disturbing to see that housing has consistently scored poorly at least back to 2013, and yet each new year comes and goes in worsening crisis.

So yeah, could be it's the pandemic messing with our community wellness and things will be good again soon. Or not.

I pulled out five key areas to highlight in this graph below. They've seen the most dramatic decline, and yet are such necessary components of a healthy community. Belonging, getting started in the community, health and wellness, housing, safety - those are the foundations of a good life. These falling indicators are telling us that all is decidedly not well. 

What can be done? A lot. But how it will get done is the burning question. On housing, I hear the same conversations now that were going on 15 years ago. They are getting us nowhere, even while the tents and the chaos and the poisoned people and the abandoned grocery carts keep piling up along Pandora Avenue.

We are paralyzed by political cycles, shifting priorities, clashes in opinion and perspective, and a general feeling that "somebody ought to do something about that" without anyone actually thinking it's them. 

These are the crises of our times. If we are unable to figure out how to take action collectively across long-term, difficult issues that are really going to hurt to fix, our problems can only deepen. How many bad things in your own life have ever gotten better because you ignored them?

Yes, our region is a beautiful place and life is pretty good for most of us. But it's quite awful for others of us, and it's getting worse. We either get on that for real or it gets worse for everyone.

Tuesday, November 08, 2022

Blog site, awaken!

I'm emerging from almost five years of largely ignoring this 15-year-old blog of mine with a plan to get back to more writing. Here's a photo of me and my partner on a bit of a crazy horseback trek this past summer, just to put me back in the minds of those who once read me.

I like writing about things that catch my attention with some element of weirdness, wrongness, out of syncness, or some other quality that can be broadly summed up as "Things that make you go, 'Hmm.'" 

I am not a funny writer, so don't expect that. I did write one piece 10 years ago when we were living and working in Honduras that I continue to find quite amusing, but that's pretty much it. I am also not a muser about things in the 'hood, people I know, foods I like/hate, or all that softish lifestyle stuff. 

(An exception might be some unexpected opportunity to share eye makeup tips for aging women, because that is a long-standing interest of mine and I have exactly one friend who I can talk to about that. I wish I could write about my low-histamine diet as a wonder cure for my allergies, too, but I've already seen just how glazed people's eyes get when I try bring that subject up.)

I expect to be writing a lot about sex work and that we're way past time to decriminalize it in Canada. That issue is my No. 1 hobby horse. 

To that end, here are a couple of pieces I wrote recently for the blog of a long-time friend who runs an escort agency here in Victoria, BC. These take a look at two men with significant disabilities who hire sex workers when their fixed incomes allow for a bit of a treat. Find Frankie's story here, and Vinnie's story here. 

Other hobby horses include climate change, the very obvious decay in BC's ability to support all the citizens who need help, and various hypocrisies that emerge in the headlines from time to time and drive a right-thinking person mad. 

I do a little amateur video work on occasion because I find it an intriguing story-telling medium; to that end, I grabbed some charts from the BC Centre for Disease Control report on the impact of BC's poison drug supply and made up this little two-minute video, astounding for what it reveals about just how profoundly we are failing on this issue. 

So sometimes I'll mix some of that issue in here, because the fact that 10,000 British Columbians have died since 2015 from taking poisoned drugs is pretty freaking astounding. I'm still waiting to read The Story that answers how the hell we got to this point and why we can't seem to fix it, so maybe I'll just go see what I can find out.

This is not my first rodeo with a blog, and I go into my site's revival with low expectations of  readers, who will be scarce and likely still strangely obsessed with a long-ago post I did saying I didn't like David Suzuki much, which has inexplicably been read by more than 22,000 people. 

As for those who leave comments on my posts, they will mostly be spambots inserting links advertising Mumbai escorts and treks in Nepal. 

Occasionally a real person will post a genuine comment, and some of them will say something really trollish and horrible. But I've been out there as a writer in the public eye since 1982 and have skin of a rhino after all the terrible things said to me over the years. (OK, I admit that I'm still stung by the random dude who saw me doing a newspaper promo on TV way back when while I was at the Victoria Times Colonist and called up to tell me I looked like "a blowsy biker chick.")

There's something to be said for just having a place where your thoughts can be thrown out into the world - a place that I can rely on as well to help me rediscover some past insight I remember having rather than realize that I put it on Facebook instead and it's now lost to time.

 And so, dear blog, I bring you back to life. Let's go see where a closer look might lead us.