Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Wearing Down of America

My Minden Times Column This Week

People continue to shake their heads and ask how Donald Trump, the vulgarian who inherited all his money, got to be a U.S. presidential contender. The answer will not be found by studying the man. The answer lies within the millions of Americans who support him.

His supporters are citizens most hurt by America’s decline. They lack the education or skills needed to stay afloat in these changing times. They feel voiceless with little understanding of, and no say in what their government does.

These are people who believe America is losing, and they are correct. America is a decaying empire that is losing on many fronts.

Consider these findings from a study published last year by Dr. Hershey Friedman of Brooklyn College:

  • China at the end of 2014 overtook the U.S. as the world’s largest economy. China accounted for 16.48 per cent  of the world’s purchasing power-adjusted Gross Domestic Product. The U.S. figure was 16.28 per cent. 
  • The U.S. ranks 35th best of 157 countries with people living below the poverty line. And, 25 per cent of U.S. children under age five live in poverty. 
  • The U.S. also has one of the world’s highest levels of income inequality. The Chief Executive Officer-to-minimum wage worker pay ratio in the U.S. is a shocking 774:1. 
  • The U.S, is 17th among 36 countries ranked for overall happiness about life. 
Professor Hershey’s report appears to lean toward socialist political movements but his sources for data cited appear legitimate.

At any rate, it is a fact that millions of Americans are angry about poverty levels, income inequality, lost economic opportunities and a decline in world stature and power. They just don’t feel good about themselves anymore. Thus the clamour to join Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign.

America has been in decline for several decades now. I follow it back to Viet Nam, the lost war that followed the lost war in Korea. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Stop the Commies from overrunning Asia. Stop the dominoes from falling before the last one lands on the U.S. doorstep.

It didn’t seem like such a good idea after 60,000 young Americans and tens of thousands of Vietnamese died in the steamy Southeast Asian jungles and the U.S. had to admit defeat. More U.S. war losses followed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia (remember Blackhawk Down?).

Then there has been the War on Poverty declared by Lyndon Johnson in 1964 when the U.S. poverty rate was 19 per cent. Forty-nine years later in 2013 the poverty rate was down to 14.5 per cent but poor Americans still numbered 45.3 million, the same as 1964. Another failed war.

In 1971 President Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs. The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that in 2013 an estimated 24.6 million Americans had used an illicit drug in the previous month. Yet another failed war.

Americans now are fighting and losing a war against Islamic extremism abroad, and at home. So far at home they’ve seen 9-11, the Boston Marathon and San Bernardino.

With all that weighing them down, who can blame Americans for not feeling good about themselves and their future. Germans felt much the same way following the First World War, so they elected a Fascist to make them great again.

Donald Trump seems like a good idea to a lot of Americans. He won’t get to lead them, however. He likely won’t win the Republican nomination and if he does, he won’t win the presidency. Americans elect their presidents from the centre, not from the extreme left or right wings.

Whoever does win will try to better American life, and likely will achieve some small successes. He or she will not be able to stop the empire from crumbling.

Empires come and empires go. There were the Greeks, then the Romans, and the individual European individual state empires. In the Americas, the Aztecs and the Incas.

Empires are like mountains that break through the earth’s crust and rise to majestic heights over time. Eventually wind, water and other elements grind them down to foothills.


Thursday, March 24, 2016

Good Wood from a Bad Situation

Evidence continues to stack up proving that trees are among our best friends who help us to enjoy healthier and happier lives.

Trees give us better air to breathe because their leaves draw in carbon monoxide and other toxic gases and pollutants such as sulphur dioxides, nitrogen oxides, and even particulate matter. Scientists say that a single tree can absorb 10 pounds of pollutants every year.

That’s all stuff that trees save us from breathing into our lungs. A U.S. Forest Service study calculated that trees prevent 670,000 incidents of acute respiratory problems and save 850 human lives a year.

There’s an unfortunate flip side, however. Another study, this one published by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, which says that the loss of millions of ash trees to the emerald ash borer has increased respiratory and cardiovascular illness in some U.S. states. Fewer trees, less air filtering.

The borer, a fairly recent immigrant from Asia, bores under ash tree bark and sucks the life out of the tree’s vascular system. This tree killing beetle was discovered in Michigan in 2002 and moved quickly into Ontario. It has killed tens of millions of ash trees in 24 U.S. states and Ontario and Quebec.

The Emerald Ash Beetle has not been reported yet in Haliburton, says James Rogers, the county’s forest conservation officer. He says the county is watching for early signs of an infestation and urges residents to report any suspected sightings through the Invading Species Hotline at 1 800 563 7711.

The larvae of the borer have white worm-like bodies and feed just under the bark of ash trees. The developed insects emerge in summer as iridescent metallic green bugs which feed on the trees’ leaves. They are very pretty to look at.

The EAB, as professional tree folks call the borer, is an ecological and economic disaster. It is estimated to have killed in the U.S. and Canada more than 100 million ash trees, which have to be felled and disposed of before they fall down and damage power lines, property and people.

There is some good news in all of this. It is about how some bright people have come up with innovative ideas for disposing of downed ash trees. Ideas that make use of the wood, create some jobs and save taxpayer dollars.

When millions of ash trees started dying most municipalities felled them and ran them through machines that turned them to mulch.  Grinding ash trees into chips for mulch costs roughly $8 a tonne, plus as much as $100 a tonne to haul it to landfill sites.

Some municipalities now auction, or donate, the trees for other uses. Ash boards are as strong as oak and can be used for furniture, decks and flooring. They can be used to make park benches, landscaping timber, playground equipment – pretty well anything that is made from wood.

Dead ash trees have value because the larvae boring is just beneath the bark and does not affect the rest of the wood.

Ash lumber also is being donated to school woodworking classes and prison shops where it helps people learn woodworking skills and brings in a few dollars from finished product sales.

Revenue from ash wood sales can be used by municipalities to help pay the huge costs of removing dead ash from public places.

In Illinois, hit especially hard by EAB, it has been estimated that reclaimed ash wood could meet 30 per cent of the United States’ hardwood needs, or roughly 3.8 billion board feet.

If and when EAB arrives in Haliburton it is not expected to be as much a problem as in more southern areas like Toronto. James Rogers notes that Haliburton forests have a lower percentage of ash than Southern Ontario and the loss will be more ecological than economic.

These tree plagues are sent to try us. We have seen over the years chestnut blight, Dutch elm disease, beech bark beetle and other lesser epidemics. All sad, but it is heartening to see the initiatives being taken to make use of good wood felled by a bad situation.


Thursday, March 17, 2016

Canadian Drama at its Best

We’ve seen the final episode of Downton Abbey, but the finales of two real-life Canadian dramas will be aired within the next few weeks.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Window

It was one of the those wood frame windows they built into 2 ½-storey family homes 100 years ago. Perhaps four feet tall, and 2 ½  feet wide with a push up lower sash that allowed cool air to flow in during summer.

My grandparents had their kitchen table set beside that window so they could  watch the weather and whatever else might be happening outside.

There wasn’t a whole lot to see because of the house next door, which had a similar kitchen window directly across the driveway separating the two houses. You could see a bit of both back yards and a glimpse of downtown, which started just a block or so behind the houses.

It was the window through which my grandfather saw the moose arrive one day after lunch. The big beast trotted between the two houses and stood surveying the back yard.

My grandfather kept his legendary .38-.55 deer rifle on a rack in the cold room just behind the kitchen. It was the rifle he boasted could “knock a deer down, clean it and pack it out of the woods with one bullet.” Within a minute or so the old man appeared on the clothes line stoop, .38-.55 in hand, and dropped the moose stone cold dead with one shot.

It probably is not the best idea to shoot a moose just a couple blocks away from downtown. It is decidedly a bad idea to bag a moose in a backyard only a stone’s throw from the Department of Lands and Forests (now Ministry of Natural Resources) northern headquarters.

I didn’t get all the details of what happened when the police and conservation officers arrived. I was told that my grandfather was not charged with anything, that the moose was hauled away and the .38-.55 was back on its rack when I got home. Times were different back then.

There were other scenes viewed through that kitchen window but none as exciting as the day the unfortunate moose decided to visit. There is one other, however, that pushes into my memory more these days as the U.S. presidential race becomes increasing absurd and sad.

My grandfather and I were finishing bowls of his famous Mulligan Stew one evening when he looked out the window and exclaimed: “There, they’ve turned it into a bootlegging operation and gambling den.”

I peered out and saw people next door sitting at their kitchen table playing cards. There was a jug of homemade wine on the table. A day or so later he announced with disgust that he had seen them dumping garbage on their back lawn.

We learned later that they were ‘foreigners’ the first newcomers to a neighbourhood where houses almost never changed families. It was an established  neighbourhood where everyone had an Anglo-Saxon surname. But times were changing.

Not long after, I finished school and moved to another city where my work as a young reporter took me into what was known as Little Italy. I met a girl there and soon was invited into homes where families played cards in the evening and usually had a jug of homemade wine on the table. They also gathered up their kitchen garbage and piled it in their back yards where it rotted and became rich soil for their luxuriant vegetable gardens.

I married that girl and wherever we lived we had a backyard where we composted kitchen waste for nourishing our vegetable garden. And we usually had a jug of homemade wine on our table.

My grandfather used to shake his head and mutter when he stared out his kitchen window and saw the goings on next door. That was because his view was limited to what was offered through a single window.

Every time I see one of the Republican debates on U.S. TV I think about my grandfather’s kitchen window and its limited view. Politicians today have a view of the whole world through panoramic picture windows, yet they see only what they want to see. Too often what they choose to see matches what they believe will get them elected.


Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Next Revolution

A malaise – that vague sense that something is not right – has us in its grip.

It’s not the March malaise that accompanies the weariness of winter and yearning for spring. It’s a malaise that has been growing for some time, and it is shared by others beyond our own confines, in fact throughout the western world.

This malaise is a deep uneasiness about our economy, our political systems and our way of life in general.

Feelings that something is not right with our lives are not uncommon. They are part of the tides of life, flowing and ebbing on the tragedies and triumphs of living. They usually are chased away by optimism that things can and will get better.

I hope I am wrong with this one, but I don’t believe that things will get better. At least not for a long time. There is a evidence that we are stuck in this one and only revolutionary change will begin to move us forward again.

We have lived with a stagnant economy for years, either in or skirting the edges of recession. New full-time jobs are not abundant and job security and long-employment are relics from the last century.

The growing inequality between the rich and the so-called middle class is obvious. Many of us have a harder time keeping up with costs than we did last year. More of us are working long past when we expected to be retired.

A growing number of people now believe that life for their children and grandchildren will not be better, or even as good, as theirs.

Listening to all the high-tech sales people out there you would think we are living in a life-altering revolution. We are not. The much touted information technology revolution has not changed the basics of our lives. In fact, real changes in living have been few over the past 50 years or more.

Sure, medical advances have increased life spans but almost all of our modern advances are built on discoveries and inventions made many decades ago. The only genuine new thing is the Internet.

My home today is much the same as my grandparents’ home of the late 1950s. Turn a tap and water runs. Flick a switch and lights come on. There is a TV in the living room and an automobile in the driveway. The only thing I have that they did not is a personal computer, which allows me to do things much more quickly, and unfortunately sometimes with less thought.

Shapes, colours and the general quality of our stuff have changed, but the basics have not.

Nowhere is the malaise more obvious than in the U.S. where this year’s presidential election race sees voters turning to outsiders such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Noam Chomsky, the famed American academic, said in an interview last week that economic uncertainty and loss of social cohesion are driving more people to right wing leaders.

“People feel isolated, helpless, victim(s) of powerful forces that they do not understand and cannot influence.”

However, the political outsiders are not going to help them. Neither are the establishment insiders.

Our governments are ad agencies rolling out fantasies that life is getting better for all. Whatever you need, whatever you want  they are going to get it for you because they cannot exist without your vote.

It is easy sometimes to think of our politicians as corrupt, or just plain stupid. In most cases they are not. They are just people like us, but who spend too much time in meetings convincing each other they have discovered brilliant new ways to change anything.

Our world has stalled and will stay stalled until we realize that we must change a system that demands more building, more production, more profits, and more of everything. We are going to have to learn to live happily and comfortably with less.

How we get ourselves and our politicians to realize and accept that presents a huge challenge. How we manage to achieve it after accepting it is another.

Changing our systems of living is where the next revolution lies.