Category Archives: Economics

A Revolution You Can Eat At

Your backyard provides hope for the future.

We’re pretty conspicuous when we pull up in a little silver hatchback covered with children’s paintings of carrots, flowers, and slogans like “be cool, grow veggies,” sporting a roof rack piled with enough hay bales to practically tip us over.

Nevertheless, it’s hard for me to shake the feeling we’re sneaking around like criminals. Surely we’re not supposed to be in other people’s backyards when they’re not home. Even if they said we could.

So it’s a new way of experiencing my city as we pull weeds, lay compost, roll a seeder, and harvest strawberries, nasturtiums and lettuce in yards in Victoria, Saanich and Oak Bay.

I’m urban farming with Sol Kinnis, co-owner of City Harvest. It’s part of an international movement in revitalizing food production in cities informed by organic and SPIN (small plot intensive) agricultural methods. Others do similar projects locally, like Donald Street Farms, LifeCycles, and Gorge Tillicum Urban Farmers, but with 12 loaned yards City Harvest is the largest, and co-owners Kinnis, Sharon McGeorge, and Heather Parker are the only urban farmers in BC attempting to create a financially viable co-operative company.

We break for lunch outside Parker’s own home with a half-acre yard hosting planting areas, beehives, toolsheds, greenhouse, and cold storage. Kinnis and Parker’s respective children play nearby, pets romp, volunteers and people working in exchange for room and board come and go, and I feel part of a warmly vibrant extended farm family—on Haultain Street.

Jo-Anne Lee, I’ll soon learn, has similar feelings. This women’s studies professor, who’s loaned City Harvest her Oak Bay yard, waxes on about supporting alternative economies and democratic, co-operative enterprises which provide opportunities for mothers “to have an integrated work-life balance,” but then laughingly concedes her real motives are “less theoretical than that.”

“I had this big yard that was way too much for me to manage,” she says. “Having somebody come in to garden…was just a gift.” Lee loves to turn from her computer and see people bringing her yard to life on a sunny day, then leaving her vegetables. She also enjoys feeling more vitally connected to her community. “It’s kind of neat to think that something grown in your backyard is going to find its way to a local market or restaurant…To be in that cycle, in that network.”

Yes, inside the network, I think, as Victoria’s wet spring tugs at me through the summer weeds I’m pulling. As Vancouver Island’s bee collapse makes the thick honey in City Harvest’s new beehives sweeter still. As our urban jungle springs at me when Kinnis recounts how a racoon broke into her chicken cage. “I was really shocked to see all these headless chickens with no blood. No blood anywhere. And I’ve killed chickens; I know they squirt a lot of blood.” Kinnis subsequently learned racoons often drink the blood and leave chicken carcasses “like vampires.”

As I turn compost, I feel even more intertwined with roots and branches of our community. City Harvest has drawn in compost from Victoria’s Pedal to Petal, manure from Peninsula horse farms, fruit scraps and coffee grounds from local bistros, grass clippings from landscapers, soy pulp from Esquimalt’s Dayspring Tofu, and leaves from municipal collections. It all turns into food for weekly customers, the Oaklands and Centennial Square markets, and sometimes for Cafe Bliss, Camille’s, Niagara Grocery and other local restaurants and shops.

My reverie breaks. Amidst rich, blackish, finished compost, I’m spotting reds, whites and oranges of imperishably plastic “certified organic” stickers. Neon-light announcements of our society’s absurdist hypocrisies.

I sift through, picking out stickers. Then I stand holding them helplessly. Where should they go?

Evidently, I’m also more intimately intertwined with our community conundrums. This is driven home when Kinnis takes me to City Harvest’s newest plot, behind an apartment building. Soil tests showed inexplicably high levels of lead. She’s planted particular leafy greens that will extract the lead from the soil. But now she wonders, should those toxic plants go into the municipal compost, or to the landfill, or somewhere else? We ponder how many other city areas are contaminated, and where all the contaminated plants are going. Is anyone keeping track?

In its second year, City Harvest’s co-owners earn $2/hour for their long days. Nevertheless, Kinnis says, “I love that I’m able to produce something at the end of the day that I know everybody needs.”

She’s hopeful City Harvest will grow, but worries about our society’s lack of support for labour-intensive agriculture.

“People are concerned that their food prices are too high, but most people spend 30 to 80 percent of their income on their housing,” she observes.

We dry-washed greens for tomorrow’s market through an outdoor washing machine’s spin cycle. My mind wanders into our community’s likely futures: A post-peak oil, climate chaos? Financial collapse? Same-old, toxically degenerating? Capitalism, socialism, tyranny or anarchy, whatever we’re envisioning, it comes to me, we’re going to need this. We’re almost certainly going to need more local resource recycling, and more land and people engaged in local food production. Organizations like this need to survive, and thrive. For all of us. Urban farming is a revolution at which everyone can dance and, even better, eat.

Later, Lee and I brainstorm how urban farmlands like hers could be protected in perpetuity. A city agricultural land reserve? Legal covenants? Municipal designations like those for heritage homes, giving owners tax breaks for donating their yards as community foodsharing assets?

In the meantime, City Harvest seeks new backyards, customers, and volunteers for everything from skilled labour to occasional weeding and harvesting. Contact Kinnis at 250-382-2124 or www.cityharvestcoop.com. And you can buy their produce at the Sunday Market in Centennial Square, 11 am–4 pm until September 25.

Rob Wipond discloses that he received some free lettuce and tomatoes while working on this article.

Captains of Local Government Plotting New Course?

A recent conference of municipal planners and politicians in Victoria revealed a suprising undercurrent of sustainability radicalism

 

 

Fifteen minutes in, the discussion on “Engaging Your Community in Sustainability Initiatives” turned unexpectedly—and suddenly, everyone became much more engaged. The Capital Regional District, currently trying to engage politicians and the public in its own Regional Sustainability Strategy, would do well to take note.

It wasn’t that the first speaker that February morning in the Victoria Conference Centre had been boring. In fact, the delegates to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ “Sustainable Communities Conference” attending this forum—about two hundred of them—had seemed quite attentive. Satya Rhodes-Conway, an alderperson from Wisconsin, had spoken with thoughtful bubbliness about local governments taking the lead on making buildings energy efficient, handing out cameras to schoolkids to document a city’s most unappealing areas to walk, and giving mini-grants to non-profits to do education and outreach. “If you engage the people,” she’d said, “they will make it happen.”

Then Sevag Pogharian started talking. Immediately, bursts of raucous laughter and spontaneous applauding were ripping off the veneer of polite optimism we’d all evidently been holding onto. Continue reading

Forget Chickens; Invest in Eggs

Our general belief that jobs are created by businesses needs a little refinement

 

When Mayor Dean Fortin began proposing a gradual reduction of the business tax rate in Victoria relative to the residential rate, he argued it would help protect and create jobs. In resounding endorsement, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business agreed it would help companies “hire more staff”. A feature in the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce’s “Business Matters” magazine, “Local Government’s Role in Business Prosperity”, similarly endorsed this idea.

When federal finance minister Jim Flaherty announced the Conservatives’ latest corporate tax cuts, he explained that this would allow Canadian businesses to “create jobs”.

When the Smart Tax Alliance coalition of BC businesses came out swinging in defence of the Harmonized Sales Tax, chairman John Winter’s primary argument was that the eased tax burden on businesses would help them “create jobs”.

When discussing the Wisconsin state government’s now infamous efforts to squash public sector workers’ rights while giving tax breaks to corporations, Kevin Gaudet, national director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, explained on CBC radio that even in times of public financial crisis we should be cutting taxes for businesses because “they’re the ones that put in place the jobs that people get paid for”.

It’s a statement that constantly re-emerges in federal proclamations and provincial debates, local community discussions and dinner-table arguments: Businesses create jobs. The phrase has spread throughout our culture like a viral “meme”, the term evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined to describe ideas, beliefs, symbols and other cultural information being passed around like genes between breeding rabbits. Continue reading

The Health Care “Crisis” Con

While journalists help the Liberals drum up hysteria, health spending has actually remained relatively stable for decades.

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It was one of those articles that makes me think, “Wow, I’ve been so stupid.”

I love reading those.

We’ve all heard alarms about health care gobbling 40% of BC’s provincial budget. Our Liberal government asserts that, at current growth rates, health care will be mainlining 100% of BC’s budget by 2040. You can’t help but start screaming with the expanding mob, “More cuts! De-fund Viagra! Privatize! Unplug the elderly!”

But The Tyee‘s Will McMartin analyzed thirty years of BC health budgets and completely dispelled such claims. It’s worth the read (I checked the numbers); however, McMartin’s central point was simple: Don’t forget the BC Liberals have repeatedly cut taxes and the budgets of most other ministries. ­The end result in a quick analogy: While the government spent $2 on health care and $8 on other ministries decades ago, today government spends a bit over $2 on health, but barely more than $3 on all other ministries. That’s the primary way health care has gone from taking 20% of the budget to taking 40%.

McMartin contrasts this by calculating health care spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), a more common standard for comparing public expenditures across governments and decades. GDP represents the overall economic activity and tax base from which a government can draw for funding public services. Government data show BC’s health spending has fluctuated steadily around 5-7% of GDP since the mid-80s (See here, especially page 106, table A 3.5, and the GDP numbers here). Essentially, relative to our overall economic strength, health spending now is in line with where it’s always been. So, while we can still improve our health care system, clearly, we needn’t be acting as if we’re having a financial near-death experience.

This eye-opener made me wonder, ‘How is it I’ve read innumerable hysterical articles about BC’s health care budget, and have never heard this simple counterpoint?’ (According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, as a percentage of GDP, BC is actually at the lower end of spending nationally. See here and here for details.) Intrigued, I revisited how local media have handled the issue the past two years.

Most coverage was typified by Rob Shaw’s Victoria Times-Colonist news story: “Health care continues to devour money and accounts for 42 per cent of the entire $40-billion budget,” wrote Shaw. He quoted Premier Gordon Campbell: “[I]t’s really important for people to understand that the costs of our health-care system are staggering, frankly.”

No other point of view on health spending was quoted. While Shaw seemed guilty of simply lazy journalism, others seemed more manipulative—or manipulated.

T-C staffer Jack Knox wondered how much we’ll “shovel into the gaping maw” of health care’s “ever-growing, insatiable appetite”. Interestingly, he related health spending to GDP, but only in one specific context: “Health spending has been outstripping the economy for decades…” Knox wrote.

I soon spotted this imprecise but alarmist refrain reappearing ad nauseum like a Republican talking point on Fox TV. No articles cited BC’s low health spending relative to GDP; however, many roared menacingly about the high growth rate of BC’s health spending relative to GDP.

“[B]etween 2001 and 2005, public health expenditures have grown faster on average than total revenue…” wrote public administration professor emeritus Jim Cutt in an opinion article about the approaching “financial brick wall”.

T-C news columnist Les Leyne parroted the same idea being spun by BC’s previous Liberal health minister: “Abbott said health spending grows twice as fast as the GDP and has done so for 20 years…”

It does sound terrifying. And it’s terrifically misleading. That’s because the growth rate for health spending is relative to a much smaller dollar amount than the growth rate for GDP.

Why is that significant? Well, if I spend $5,000 on consumer goods this year, that’ll be 400% more than five years ago. In that same time, BC’s GDP increased by a measly 17%. So now ministers and journalists are crying, “Rob Wipond’s increases in frivolous spending have been outstripping the increases in productivity of BC’s entire industrial base thirty times over! Stop Rob Wipond before he consumes the whole province!”

Sound absurd? You bet. Rob Wipond’s consumption still represents just 0.0000025% of provincial GDP.

To abandon ludicrous comparisons, then, and examine the numbers: BC GDP was $79.35 billion in 1990 and $197.93 billion in 2008, an increase of 150%. Meanwhile, BC health spending was $4.4 billion in 1990 and $14 billion in 2008, an increase of 218%. And that slight (hardly “twice as fast”) difference in growth seems significant, until we calculate that it merely means health spending was 5.5% of GDP in 1990 and 7% in 2008—within its normal fluctuation range. Much of that recent rise isn’t due to health spending increases, anyway, but GDP drop-offs after Wall Street meltdowns.

Spinning the tale the other way, though, the BC Liberals make it sound like they’ve been dramatically increasing health care funding. And in the atmosphere of crisis, they can justify privatization—something they’ve shown a propensity towards with hospital and nursing home operations, facility ownership etc.

What’s staggering to me personally is how I fell for such bafflegab for several years. I console myself that, when I actually write about a topic or take a political stand, I do some research first. But now I’m disturbed about what other illusions I have yet to dispel.

Though I guess that makes us humble, and not quick to parrot what anyone tells us. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

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Originally published in Focus, August 2010.

Sorry, Computers are Not “Green”

Is the world becoming greener, or are some of us just becoming more prone to seeing it that way?

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You’ve heard of “green-washing”, where companies make their products sound more ecologically friendly than they are. Well, I keep seeing something more insidious: green-tinted glasses.

Green-washing is propaganda; it’s easy to spot and dispel. Like ads BP runs about its commitment to environmental responsibility, while the largest, most unprepared-for oil spill in North American history spreads from their Gulf of Mexico well.

But green-coloured glasses are a personal choice. And once you’ve put them on, you don’t see anything’s true colours anymore.

I got thinking about this when I received emails from a government employee and a university administrator with similar signatures: “Think about the environment before printing this email.”

It reminded me of several companies who’ve been bothering me to switch to electronic billing because it’s “green”.

And I thought, ‘Seriously?’ Continue reading