New York Times columnist sees hope where others see despair: an interview with Nicholas Kristoff

COVER-Kristof2-2014-03-12T19-14-18-811462

At first blush it’s easy to envy Nicholas Kristof, maybe even resent him. He’s a graduate of Harvard and Oxford who studied Arabic in Egypt. As a journalist for the New York Times , he’s been stationed in Beijing, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Los Angeles and has covered everything from the Tiananmen Square uprisings to the conflict in Darfur. He travels the world and currently writes a twice weekly column for the Times, focused mainly on social justice issues. He’s won two Pulitzer Prizes. His seems a charmed and exciting life.

Dig a little deeper though, as Kristof would surely encourage, and you start to feel trepidation at exploring the dark corners of the world in which he finds himself. There’s Darfur, where it is estimated that over 300,000 people were killed in a bloody ethnic conflict. There’s the dashed hopes of the students in Beijing who dispersed as the tanks rolled into Tiananmen. And there’s Kristof’s hands-on investigations of human trafficking, which is one of the topics he returns to often and that he will be in Calgary to discuss as part of Conversations of unCommon Grace, an initiative of Calgary Grace Presbyterian Church to discuss larger social issues by bringing together secular and religious communities.

“I think it’s one of the leading human rights abuses, if you will, both abroad and at home,” says Kristof by phone from New York. “So that’s what draws me back to it.”

His reports on human trafficking are not merely opinion pieces culled from scanning the Internet for bits of information and statistics. Kristof visits victims, talks to their parents and exploiters —he once controversially bought the freedom of two teenage prostitutes in Cambodia and wrote about it in his column — and puts a human face on an issue that is largely hidden from public view and prosecution. At any given time, the United Nations estimates there are millions of people, children and adult alike, being trafficked across the world. It draws Kristof in.

“I’d say it’s both difficult to continue and impossible to stop,” he says. “In general, with a lot of human rights issues, I mean Darfur was sort of the same thing — that I made one trip to Darfur early on and I never thought I’d make another, and then you see people being massacred and it’s hard then to kind of tune it out and it draws you back again and again. The trafficking is kind of the same sort of issue.”

While Kristof tends to focus on sexual exploitation in human trafficking — which continues to be the leading cause of trafficking in the world — forced labour is the bigger problem in the U.S., where it accounts for over 70 per cent of reported cases. While Canada doesn’t have those numbers, the RCMP has noted that forced labour is increasing, particularly in Ontario, as well as in Alberta thanks to the oilsands and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (hard statistics are infuriatingly hard to come by).

Sexual exploitation, however, continues to be the major issue in Canada and around the world.

It’s also an interesting time when it comes to combating sexual exploitation in North America, with Canada’s prostitution laws sitting in limbo after a Supreme Court decision struck them down, and the U.S. stepping up enforcement on Johns and pimps rather than sex workers.

Kristof isn’t entirely sure where he stands on the topic of prostitution laws, saying no model is perfect.

“The problem with the legalize-and-regulate model, which I used to be quite sympathetic to, is that while you can have legal brothels with adult women who are there voluntarily, in every place that happens you tend to have a parallel market with underage girls, or with women who are coerced. So that in theory it sounds quite good; in practice it tends to be associated with trafficking as well,” he says.

The model Kristof thinks works best is the so-called Nordic model, represented by Sweden, where buying sex is illegal, but selling it is not. “In the Nordic model, essentially men can be arrested for buying sex. Essentially they’re fined, it’s not a big deal, they’re not dragged off to jail. But women are directed to social services — treatment of addictions or whatever it might be,” he says.

“Partly because it discourages the purchase of sex, it tends to dampen demand, which then lowers the price of commercial sex, which then reduces the incentive to traffic women and girls. It doesn’t work fabulously, but it kind of works okay.”

Buying and selling sex is never going to be eliminated, nor do most think it should be when it is consensual and between adults. What needs to be addressed, according to Krisof, is the larger issues that make people vulnerable to exploitation.

“I’d say the common thread is opportunity and that the foremost challenge we face is to spread opportunity, and that is good not only for those individuals who are now excluded from it, but for all of society,” he says.

“There are a million obstacles to opportunity — from lack of education, to poverty, to gender — but efforts to broaden that opportunity should be higher on the agenda.”

It’s a focus that has garnered criticism, at least when it comes to his view that sweatshops are a necessary evil on the road to development for poorer countries, but it’s part of a positive attitude and belief in the basic decency of human nature that he maintains despite the horrors he has seen and the stories he has told.

“I mean, in my reporting, I see some really grim things, but I also see incredible inspiration and courage and resiliency and altruism, and so, I’d say often I come back from trips and what has left the deepest impression on me is not the horrors, however real they are, but the extraordinary human capacity to do the right thing in impossible situations,” he says.

“It’s possible to come back from Darfur, or from brothels in Cambodia, actually feeling better about humanity.”

Dispatches from the front line of the war for democracy: an interview with Chris Hedges

COVER-Hedges-2013-11-20T21-25-01-397297

Immersing yourself in author and journalist Chris Hedges’ world, even briefly, is overwhelming and important. His work chronicles all that is ugly and corrupt in the corporate-controlled western world — from environmental destruction, to right-wing Christian fascism, to new-age slavery — and forces you to reconsider the spoon-fed notion that we live in a functioning democracy.

His impeccable writing, his soaring calls to arms and his prickly personality are all hard earned as a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, author and activist embroiled in the increasingly ugly fight for basic rights south of the border.

Hedges sounds tired on the phone after spending the day in a Manhattan federal courtroom where Jeremy Hammond, an activist and hacker, was just sentenced to 10 years in prison for distributing emails from private intelligence firm Stratfor, which detailed, among other things, corporate and government collusion in spying on and attempting to persecute activists.

We ask if this is what he means when he says dissent is once again a criminal act in the U.S. “Well yeah, he’s a classic whistleblower,” says Hedges. “If you don’t have Jeremy Hammonds, you don’t have a free press.”

Hedges’ most recent book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, a collaboration with illustrator Joe Sacco, is a shocking catalogue of misery in America’s “sacrifice zones” — areas essentially abandoned to corporate malfeasance and government neglect or corruption. It was an experience that took its toll.

“It was physically and emotionally pretty gruelling to do,” says Hedges. “It was a lot of work. It was two years of pretty unrelenting work in difficult conditions, so I think both Joe and I were pretty exhausted when we finished.”

It sounds odd for a man who has worked in war zones and been stationed in shattered countries to describe writing a book on the wealthiest nation this world has ever seen in such stark terms, but reading through it, and delving into his collected work on Truthdig.com , paints a vivid picture of a declining superpower that has abandoned large swaths of the country as well as those mired in poverty.

“Whether that’s in Bosnia or whether that’s in southern West Virginia, it’s painful to see, especially children, get discarded by forces that are callous to and indifferent to human suffering,” he says.

“Half the United States now either lives in poverty or near poverty. That’s the whole point of the book is that these sacrifice zones are expanding.”

It’s something that shouldn’t be seen as simply an American problem either. Although Canada is in better shape than our southern neighbours, income disparity is growing right along with the concentrations of wealth. The federal government is outright hostile to civil society groups while coddling and funding corporations, particularly those in the oil and gas sector.

“Canada is following the model. It’s a corporate model,” says Hedges. “And Canada is as susceptible to this as any other industrialized state that is taken over by corporations. You have seen now within Canada the shredding of Kyoto, the rise of the security and surveillance state, the assault against public education, the underfunding of your health-care program in an effort to kill it and make it dysfunctional so you can have capitalists run your health-care program. Canada is well on its way to replicating all of the mistakes that we unfortunately endure.”

Those dismissive of his claims aren’t paying attention.

Recent documents obtained by the independent Vancouver Observer show the National Energy Board, a federal agency tasked with regulating the energy sector, was collaborating with the very companies it is supposed to oversee in order to infiltrate and spy on anti-pipeline and anti-oilsands organizations, including Idle No More, Sierra Club and the Council of Canadians.

It’s just one more indication of a state that is rapidly shedding what remains of its accountable veneer. But still, doesn’t Hedges give too much credit to those wealthy few pulling the (purse) strings?

“We have created an oligarchic system where a fraction of one per cent controls staggering sums of wealth, and like all oligarchic states, with that kind of political and economic power, their primary concern is enriching and empowering themselves at everyone else’s expense,” he says.

“You can’t run a democracy and an oligarchy. That’s not a new idea — Thucydides wrote about that in ancient Athens. That’s the problem. When you create a tiny power elite with that much power and you disempower the citizenry, then the plunder and abuse of power becomes rife and that’s precisely what’s happened.”

Which brings us to solutions, and they aren’t pretty.

Hedges is convinced that the U.S. is headed for revolution.

“Well, I hope it isn’t [violent],” he says. “I’ve been around a lot of violence and that’s something I’m working really hard to avoid. But if the court, as it did today, stands up and sentences a person of conscience to 10 years in prison for providing information that is ours, that deserves to be public, what do they think is going to happen?”

He reiterates the basic need to have information concerning the public in public hands, something that seems so shockingly simple it’s hard to imagine there are many who support prosecuting, or rather persecuting, those like Hammond who find and provide the information. Like the files obtained by the Vancouver Observer , only several times more terrifying, Hammond’s leak uncovered attempts to link non-violent activists with terrorist organizations in order to apply draconian terrorism “laws” — which includes indefinite detention with no charges — to them.

“If [dissent] becomes a criminal act, and… if none of that [reaction] can be curbed or controlled or even known, and those who expose it are persecuted, then you inevitably create a system whereby dissent devolves into violence. That’s really what we’re flirting with,” says Hedges.

An outsider’s view of outsiders: an interview with Joseph Boyden

cover-BOYDEN_Joseph_NORMAN_WONG-2013-10-09T21-34-51-457163

Joseph Boyden’s novels are all about place. They are anchored not only in the wilds of Canada (for the most part), but they are tied to the First Nations consciousness of a homeland. So it’s funny that Boyden, who lives in New Orleans, stays away from these places in order to better understand and write about them. For his latest novel, The Orenda , which has been nominated for a Governor General’s literary award, he took that notion to another level.

“The novel began in an airplane,” he says from yet another hotel room on his book tour. “I wrote the first number of chapters while travelling. Airplanes — I don’t know what it was, but something clicked. It might have been the lack of oxygen or something.

“Writing in this incredibly contemporary situation this kind of ancient tale was fascinating to me in a way.”

The Orenda tells the story of long, arduous canoe trips through enemy territory, of punishment and pride, of survival in a harsh climate and of the clash of cultures. It is the story of the Huron before they were essentially decimated in 1649, as told through the experiences of three characters: Bird, a respected Huron war leader; Snow Falls, his adopted/kidnapped Iroquois daughter; and Christophe, a determined Jesuit.

Like Boyden’s two other novels, Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce , The Orendaweaves different narratives together. In this case, we see death from three sides, we see fear and hunger from three sides, and we see how three cultures forced together will have difficulty seeing eye to eye.

Unlike his two other novels, this one is not directly linked to the Bird Family Trilogy. While they focus on a member of that family, The Orenda stands apart, sort of.

“Somebody at the National Post called it a spiritual precursor to the other novels, which I thought was a nice way to put it,” says Boyden.

“All of my books, I think, are stand-alone — that’s the plan anyways — but if you read them all, you’ll get a bigger perspective of this imaginary world.”

If there’s another thing that ties his novels together, it’s the focus on outsiders as central characters. In this case there’s Bird, whose status sets him apart in his village, his Iroquois daughter, whose culture and character mark her as different, and, of course, Christophe, the bearded white man with his strange ways and strange religion. Boyden says he doesn’t focus on the outsiders on purpose, but it’s also a part of his own character.

“I sometimes feel like a bit of an outsider, you know, with my living in New Orleans. I purposefully live in New Orleans to get a better view of my country. Much of the year I’m down there,” he says, before pausing.

“Huh, I never really thought of it, but I’m not status [Indian], but it is a really important part of who I am,” he continues. “Sometimes you can’t help but feel like a bit of an outsider.”

In The Orenda , this outsider status is either due to status in the tribe, as in the case of Bird, or it bestows a sort of strength, as in the case of Snow Falls and Christophe. At one point Snow Falls ruminates on the power that comes from causing strangers to step back and stare, but the novel seems unconcerned with whether that awe comes from oddness or status.

The outsiders that Boyden focuses on in The Orenda are distinct, plucked from a moment in history, but not a part of it. They are creations of Boyden’s own mind, but with a strong historical backing.

“You’re almost shackling yourself by basing a character on a real-life person,” he says. “I didn’t want to be shackled that way. I wanted the freedom to be able to do things, or to have him [Christophe] do things that wouldn’t have really happened to [Jean de] Brébeuf, for example, or to Isaac Jogues or to any of the Jesuits that were martyred, as the Catholics call it.”

Boyden, as with his previous work, jumped into the writing process without getting bogged down in research, reaching out to experts who could give him guidance and perspective when it came to historical accounts.

As with his literary license in terms of historical characters, the underlying theme of The Orendahas the ability to shift between a sort of fact and fiction as well. Orenda refers to the spirit that natives of the Great Lakes region believe infuse all things, living and otherwise — from rocks and tools, to animals and people. When the French and the Jesuits arrive with their belief only in the soul of man and the power of only one god, the lines are drawn in a spiritual battle with real world consequences.

That struggle is intended, and will be read by most, as metaphor — as the destruction of the First Nations way of life by the European newcomers — but for many it is just as grounded in reality as the novel’s historical accounts. “How I view the world is very much as the native characters in the novel do, that not just humans have soul, that everything has orenda, everything has life force,” says Boyden, who was raised Catholic. “The Ojibwa call it Manitou. I’m a strong believer in that.”

He’s also a strong believer in pacing himself when it comes to his writing, ensuring that his well is full when he decides to sit back in front of a keyboard. His experience of working with three editors to finish this book likely drained a great deal of his reserves, but he says the experience was positive, including an exhaustive line-by-line edit by Cormac McCarthy’s editor, Gary Fisketjon.

“He said, ‘you’ve got it all done, but I’ve got a few line-by-line comments,’ and every page of my manuscript was covered in his famous green ink,” says Boyden. “I found out I’m not the only one, he does this with everyone. So that was huge. It was a lot of work in a very short time from when I finished the draft to it coming out in September.”

Despite that, Boyden intends to get back to work as soon as possible, likely working on the next and potentially last tale in the Bird family lineage — a finale to his incredibly successful first two novels — although to say definitively that the next Bird family book will be the end might be a little too concrete — after all, Boyden never really intended to pursue this fictional family in the first place.

“It’s not something I planned when I first started writing Three Day Road at all, but I realized soon after that there was a lot more this family had to say. And it’s almost like they’re telling me I have to do it. I don’t have control anymore. It’s more that they control me.”

Wordfest presents Joseph Boyden as part of the Banff Distinguished Author Series on Saturday, October 19 at the Eric Harvie Theatre at The Banff Centre.

Bob Edwards: Early Calgary’s boozy bad boy

Illustration by Darcey Muenchrath

Illustration by Darcey Muenchrath

We are greatly depressed that an apparent abundance of our fellow citizens have never been blessed to know the writings of the late, great Bob Edwards. If there was a thing such as justice in this great city (without the need for the proper coinage to purchase it), those who don’t know of this Calgary precursor to the great gonzo journalists of the ’60s would be strung up and berated by their more enlightened counterparts. And what a show it would be.

Never heard of Bob? Well, for shame. He was the editor and, more often than not, the sole writer of the long-defunct Calgary Eye Opener , a feisty (semi) weekly rag, depending on his drinking, that caused no end of problems for its proprietor and those who found themselves in its crosshairs. Prime ministers, great corporations, aldermanic wannabes, ne’er-do-wells, grafters and other journalists all got their comeuppance in Bob’s pages. Think you can besmirch the innocence of a fair young lady? Think again ya scoundrel! Off to the printer it goes. Think you can roll into town and sell Calgarians a bridge? That’s Bob sitting on the stool at the hotel bar. Blamo! Your name in print. What’s that? You want advertorial for a gift? Be careful what you wish for. Yawp! Call Bob a drunk, a dope fiend and a squelcher of debts? Whoa ho! He’ll berate you to the grave and beyond. Damned right.

Of course, not all of what Bob wrote was true — that was his beauty. He made up social announcements (“Miss Myra Jennings has gone east to visit friends. We always thought something would come of that picnic to the lake last summer.”). He made up lasting characters (see Peter J. McGonigle, the shady, hapless fictional editor of the fictional Midnapore Gazette, or the fictional squelcher Albert Buzzard-Cholomondeley who penned letters to his father asking for money). And when there wasn’t news, or one of his favourite targets hadn’t done anything wrong, he would skewer them with non-news (“Not a life was lost or a buggy smashed at the CPR crossing last week”).

Bob, or Uncle Bob to his readers, was a satirist, a spewer of opinions, a muckraker, a boozer of the highest degree, a fearless editor and, for a brief time before his death, an independent MLA in the Alberta legislature. He was a larger-than-life character who used his fame (he was read across Canada) to shed light in darkened places, whether they be public offices or his own struggles with alcohol.

A WEE BIT OF HISTORY

Bob was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, orphaned at a young age, and raised by aunts. Despite his disdain for fancy education, or at least many of the people with fancy educations (“An educated fool is more foolish than an ignorant one”), Bob attended a posh private school at St. Andrew’s and studied at Glasgow University, but to his undying credit he failed to graduate (there is some disagreement over his university years, with some alleging he never got up to so much high-falutin’ nonsense). He departed for warmer climes and landed in Milan before striking out for France.

The continent proved unsuccessful, or perhaps unfulfilling, or perhaps too filling, for Bob. He set out for the wild lands of the United States, at one point owning an Idaho farm with his brother, before wandering the country. “The only really useful knowledge we possess today has been obtained while knocking about the continent and the United States — broke,” he wrote.

He eventually brought that knowledge to Canada, settling in Wetaskiwin, of all places, where he established the Wetaskiwin Free Lance paper, already displaying his irascible wit. After that escapade, he established the Alberta Sun in Leduc, then moved back to Wetaskiwin and published the Wetaskiwin Breeze before finally starting the Eye Opener in High River in 1902.

Now, if you go in for rumour — and when it comes to Bob, we most certainly do — he was chased out of High River for running afoul of the methodist minister, calling him a “misfit man of God.” Needless to say, he soon found the confines of our southerly neighbour perhaps a little to confining after that, and he packed up and moved his nascent publication to Calgary. There it remained until his death in 1922.

Of course, he accomplished many other noteworthy things aside from his constant chipping away at Calgary society. Uncle Bob managed to get himself elected to the Alberta legislature, largely on the promise of overturning some aspects of prohibition — Bob wanted whisky to remain banned, but he wanted a five-cent glass of beer, damn it.

THE MAN, THE FOLLOWING

Bob was a popular man in his day. His splendid local rag was read across the country and, according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, had a circulation in 1908 of 18,500 copies. In 1906, Bob gloated that the Eye Opener had a circulation of 10,000 and “reaches and is read by about 40,000 people.” Regardless of numbers, there’s no doubt that he was a kind of celebrity in his day and he greatly relished his (in)famy.

Although the boozer was said to be quite shy in his daily life, his pages are stuffed with bragging, taunting and self-congratulation. He would tell tales of criminals facing the gallows with a smile on their face because they had just read a particularly witty bit of writing in his paper. He would regularly apologize for not publishing the paper after being, ahem, sick, or to make amends for the quality of a given issue: “The editor of this paper has been laid up by a severe illness for the past five weeks and is far from himself yet. Readers of this paper are therefore asked to overlook the shortcomings of this exceedingly bum issue.” On these occasions it often meant he was on a bender, or trying to dry out.

But with fame, and with his fearless style, Bob also engendered his fair share of enemies, and didn’t waste a damned minute in shifting from lighthearted raconteur, to fiercely aggressive attacker. He was banned from CPR trains, at one point banned from having his paper distributed in the mail, and he was sued twice.

When the editor of the Calgary Daily News , the dastardly Daniel McGillicuddy, penned a letter in his paper denouncing Bob as a “‘four flusher,’ a ‘tin-horn’ and a ‘Welcher,’ where poker debts are concerned,” that pushed Bob over the edge. He sued for libel and won, but was also censured by the jury and warned that if he didn’t clean up his act, his paper should be “suppressed.”

Needless to say, our man didn’t take it lying down, berating McGillicuddy relentlessly and not stopping even after the libeller was in the grave. When the Daily News shut down, Bob was all over it. “The old hypocrite, of course, was not fitted to conduct a newspaper, but was admirably equipped to run an obscene and libelling sheet for shameful purposes,” he wrote in 1910. Two years later, when McGillicuddy died, he was as angry as ever. “Hell got a new settler last week,” he wrote.

SOCIAL CONSCIENCE

We must here admit to feeling a bit guilty. We’ve painted Uncle Bob with a harsh brush, perhaps focusing too much on his dark side. It’s not the full story, and for that we are heartily remorseful. Bob wasn’t just a boozer. He wasn’t just vindictive. He wasn’t just funny. He tackled the issues of the day and showed a social conscience that was lacking in many others during Calgary’s early days.

His favourite rallying cry was against government graft. The man could not, would not, tolerate public officials on the take, and he felt free to call them out on any perception of it. But he also stood up for the poor, railed against the abhorrent conditions of Calgary’s new prison and condemned the mayor of Vancouver for authorizing excessive force against strikers. On the Calgary prison, he wrote: “The aggregation of so-called Christians — or bunch of rummies, whichever you prefer — whom you elected to run this city, are busy constructing a stronghold of police tyranny and cruelty compared with which the Bastille and the Black Hole of Calcutta were joy palaces.” Whoa ho!

He warned his readers of shady land speculators and bellowed loud and far about the inequitable treatment in local hospitals, appearing an early advocated of our universal health care system. “As the General Hospital has been run, it is little more than a hotel for sick people — rich sick people. There has been a place for paupers, but for the great mass of self-respecting people who will not accept charity and yet cannot afford to pay fees of $14 to $35 per week (which is about 60 per cent of the population), no accommodation is available,” he wrote in 1918.

THE PRESENT

As we said before, Bob isn’t as well-known as he should be. Sure there’s a school named after him, there’s a building at the Mayland Heights SAIT campus named after him, the CBC Calgary morning radio show throws him a nudge and, as you can read on this page, there’s an annual award given out in his honour, but it’s largely his name that catches the eye, rather than his writing.

But he has his acolytes. This writer, for one. We know for a fact that former Fast Forward Weekly staff writer Jeremy Klazsus is mightily chuffed by the old man’s writing. And then there’s Mr. Smutty. Remember him? For longtime readers of this rag, the name ought to be familiar and we’ll leave it at that. Anyway, his real name is James Martin and he edited a collection of Bob’s writing that we relied upon heavily in this article called Irresponsible Freaks, Highball Guzzlers & Unabashed Grafters. You should probably read it.

“I always knew the name, as most Calgarians probably do… and in my basement there was my grandfather’s copy of Grant MacEwan’s Eye Opener Bob with a bunch of other books that as a kid always looked really boring,” says Martin, who now calls Montreal home.

“I was an arrogant 20-something and this thing that I’d always dismissed as dull and not worth reading without having read it, was actually worth reading.”

Martin’s book collects a great many highlights from Bob’s career and, for the first time, prints the full text of his one speech in the legislature as an independent MLA. “The reason why whisky — good, bad or indifferent — finds such a ready sale, is due entirely to the inaccessibility of beer,” he lamented.

Researching Bob, however, was difficult. “There are many missing issues of the Eye Opener, or we think missing. One of the frustrating things about researching him is because he was a drinker and a binger, that he didn’t pay a lot of attention to the numbers that he put on the newspaper, so it’s actually hard to know if there are missing editions, or just because sometimes he’d give something the same number, two consecutive issues, (if) he skipped one but there wasn’t actually a missing issue.”

His mystery years while cavorting in the U.S. are also hard to pin down, but that’s really just part of the charm and part of the mystery for those who still cherish Bob’s writing. It sets him up as another of Calgary’s tall tales, of which we are a fan.

We’ve tried to emulate him a bit here (he always used “we” in case you’re wondering), but have largely failed and ask forgiveness for our terrible lack of skill. And there are others that take up the mantle, for better or for worse. The Sun ’s Rick Bell comes to mind. Hell, the Dinger (does anyone call him that anymore?) even ran for mayor, as Martin points out. We like to think thatFast Forward Weekly is a muckraking weekly in the Eye Opener ’s spirit, but that might be giving us too much credit.

One thing is for sure: this city needs to be more aware of a pioneering writer who pushed societal bounds well past their breaking point at a time when supplication was more the norm. He suffered for his craft. He suffered from the bottle. But in the end, he gave us a history of troublemaking that we should all be proud to call our own. Yawp!

You are a slave owner: Andrew Nikiforuk on energy consumption

COVER-Nikiforuk-2012-11-11T16-39-21-940511

As the oilsands continue to expand — clearing forest, digging earth and pooling effluent — there’s more than just nature that is being shunted aside. According to journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, we’re also burying debates about what it all means in the process. And so, in his new book, The Energy of Slaves , he revives some old ideas that remain fresh and takes them to an exhaustively researched new starting point.

“If there’s any place in Canada where we should be having wide-open debates about energy — its character, its nature and its development — it should be here,” he says over coffee in Calgary. “And what happens when anybody raises even a question about the pace and scale of development in the tarsands? ‘Oh well you’re fucking Greenpeace, or you’re this or you’re that.’”

Peppering his conversation with expletives, it would be easy to paint Nikiforuk as an angry ideologue, but that’s simply not the case, in person or in print. His latest book takes us from the use of slaves in building society to the present-day use of energy slaves, slurping up oil and gas in order to give us a level of societal opulence never before seen. The arc is presented matter-of-factly and helps to illustrate the gooey bind we find ourselves in.

“We’re locked into high energy living, which is really high carbon spending too,” he says. “We have all these freakin’ slaves, we’ve become fat and lazy and extremely comfortable, and like the slave holders of old, we don’t even want to have a discussion about this.”

Nikiforuk blames this silence on the fact that Big Oil dominates the conversation, but he also acknowledges that the comforts afforded by oil and its mechanical slaves are a balm for people not wanting to address the inevitability of change. He calls the oil age “a hell of a joyride.”

From a historical arc, Nikiforuk takes us on a journey through our increasingly complex world, from the politics of the petro state (Alberta is textbook in this definition, save for the military spending), to the absurdities of economics, to Japan’s energy crisis and what it means for the rest of the industrialized world.

These are not new ideas, at least not all of them. There are astute observations about the dangers of mechanical slaves and the new capitalism that date back to the 19th century, but Nikiforuk has skilfully weaved these old ideas into the contemporary sphere in an attempt to create a concise metaphor for a larger discussion about where we need to go.

His logic is sharpest when he focuses on the rate of energy returns and the changes that have occurred in efficiency since the early days of oil. Our rates of return are diminishing and the high returns that led to our complex world of luxuries are gone.

“We can argue and rail against the tarsands in terms of carbon emission and pollution, but the thing that’s going to get us there are how poor those damn returns are,” he says.

“Big Oil can make a lot of money off that, but civilization can’t run on this shit for long. It is not providing the surplus. We haven’t had that conversation at all.”

Those waiting for the big sales pitch on renewables from Nikiforuk will have to hold their breath a while longer. Although he thinks that we need to invest heavily in cleaner forms of energy, he doesn’t see it as a panacea. He says that if we do renewables the same way we’ve done oil and gas, “we’re going to be really fucked.”

“They thought the transition would be glistening windmills and solar panels in their front yard, when in fact the transition begins with an economic dislocation and disruption,” he says. “The same way the industrial revolution began.

“Unfortunately I think going down the energy ladder might be a lot harder than it was climbing up the energy ladder.”

So, the book and the author aren’t the most optimistic, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Yes there will be shocks, but there is only one conclusion to be drawn, according to Nikiforuk: we have to use less energy and give up some of our slaves.

“That doesn’t mean that everything will be bad,” he says. “I mean, I think relocalizing food production, I think that’s a good thing; getting more people involved in agriculture and farming, that’s a good thing; reducing the complexity of having to deal with so many mechanical, digital, electrical slaves in your life, I think most people are going to welcome that and, in many ways, are looking for that, because they can no longer cope with the complexity of machines in their lives.”