Monday, 12 December 2011

Change is Hard

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”  I was reminded of this famous quote by Fredrick Douglass who had such an influence on Martin Luthor King last week. It was in an excellent New Yorker  article comparing the Occupy movement, and the effort by environmentalists to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline. (I'll post the article below).

The reasons for, and the possibility of, change in the food system were in the air last Thursday at the second M.E.A.L. (Meet Eat and Learn)  in Charlottetown. The organizers brought in an interesting mix of local food producer/activists (including organic farmer Reg Phelan, Green Party Thinker Peter Bevan-Baker, Chef Ilona Daniel,  Julie Shore of Prince Edward Distillery), former PEI agriculture minister Tim Carroll talked about regulatory measures that would give farmers more control over the food production, there was a beautiful film from documentary maker Mille Clarkes, and for me a welcome edition, some "real-politic" discussion of slugging it out in the commodity world  from Lori Robinson who heads one of the most progressive and successful potato industry enterprises in Albany (her bottom line came from her late father: no soil-no business).

There was a lot of good energy (and excellent local food) in the room,  and for a few moments it did seem possible that engaged consumer/citizens could drag a reluctant food system to something more rational, sustainable, and beneficial for all. Walking out of the Farm Centre and immediately seeing the eery green from the Sobeys Food Palace sign next door, and the busy parking lot there too, was as bracing as the cold night air. This isn't going to be easy.

So back to “Power concedes nothing without a demand". What should the demand be?  For years I've thought the major supermarkets should have a row or two devoted to local stuff at fair-trade prices (ie. the farmer isn't competing with China or Argentina, but is assured a reasonable return... maybe the provincial government could guarantee any losses). I don't think there will be. Just as Islanders stepped up to pay more for wind energy when Maritime Electric created the opportunity a few years ago, and just as we all shell out  $200 a year and clean out peanut butter jars to make the Waste Watch program work, I think given the chance enough Islanders would support paying a little more for local food IF they know the money gets into the pockets of farmers.  This won't in any way solve the financial/debt burden  carried by many farmers, but it will break the pattern of big retailers/food processors essentially saying to consumers:" Don't you worry dear about where your food comes from, we'll guarantee its quality and value, you just have to keep coming to our store to get it."

If  you have a demand you think would move the food system in a better direction let me know and I'll post it..

A piece today that reinforces how difficult change will be (including a lessening in demand for organic food),  an interesting commentary on how disengaged many people have become, and as promised the New Yorker article which is a must-read.

Grocery store wars expected to cool food prices
by tavia grant  •  Dec. 12, 2011

Hot food inflation has left many Canadians gasping this year, but the pace of increases should cool off next year as competition heats up among grocery stores.

Retail food prices are expected to rise no more than 2 per cent in 2012, a report to be released Monday by the University of Guelph says.

That’s less than half the current pace of food inflation, which is running at 4.3 per cent. Any cooling of food prices will no doubt come as a relief to households, which are struggling with high levels of consumer debt, tepid wage increases and a rising cost of living.

“It’s been a hard year for Canadian consumers in food retail stores, especially those with less means,” said Sylvain Charlebois, associate dean of research and graduate studies at Guelph’s College of Management and Economics. “2012 will likely be a year where food prices will give consumers a welcome break.”

A range of factors have driven up food prices this year – from higher feed costs to volatile weather patterns and a diminished impact from the currency. Canada is not alone – the United Nations measure of world food prices hit a record in February, though prices have since eased.

Competition is a key reason for an expected moderation in Canada. Wal-Mart Canada is opening new super-centres next year, while Target is planning on entering the Canadian market in 2013. Both moves are expected to put pressure on Canada’s existing grocers – Loblaw, Sobeys and Metro – to trim prices to hang on to market share.

“The Canadian consumer will benefit from what will likely happen in the next couple of years in the food distribution sector,” said Prof. Charlebois, who co-wrote the food price forecast with Guelph economics professor Francis Tapon. “There will likely be a price war.”

Canada’s food inflation has been running above the 4-per-cent mark for the past five straight months, a much hotter pace than the overall rate of inflation which is currently 2.9 per cent. The Bank of Canada, too, sees food inflation subsiding next year.

Any food price increases will have a bigger impact on poorer households. The one-fifth of Canadian households with the lowest income spend 16.3 per cent of their budgets on food. By contrast, the richest one-fifth allocate about 7.5 per cent to food, according to Statscan’s survey of household spending.

Canadians, on average, devote about 10 per cent of their household budgets to food, a share that has diminished considerably from 30 years ago when it was about a quarter of the budget, Prof. Charlebois said.

The university sees meat prices rising by no more than 3 per cent. Bakery goods, whose prices have escalated rapidly in the past two years, are seen increasing 3 per cent amid softening commodity prices.

Elsewhere, Canada’s strong currency should keep a check on import prices, limiting fresh vegetable price increases to between 1 per cent and 3 per cent. Restaurant price increases – which are typically more difficult to predict – should stay below 2 per cent.

Meantime, squeezed households will curtail consumption of pricier products, such as organic foods, in favour of cheaper conventional fare, the university said.

Food prices are tricky to predict because so many factors can affect their prices. The university’s forecast last year came close though – it expected prices would rise between 5 per cent and 7 per cent this year. As of October, food prices in stores are up 4.9 per cent, meaning it missed its target by just 0.1 per cent.

In an age without mediators, many feel left out of the political process

What do some poor, uneducated, rural, aboriginal or immigrant Canadians have in common with members of Parliament? All are outsiders.
So concludes a new study of why Canadians don’t vote. There are lessons in it for everyone who wonders how you sustain a democracy in an age of declining civic engagement.

Samara, a new organization dedicated to increasing active citizenship, conducted a series of focus groups over the summer and fall in which they asked people who considered themselves outside the political process why they felt that way. The respondents were, for the most part, less affluent, less educated, more rural or more likely to be aboriginal or immigrant, and they self-identified as non-voters. They said that whenever they tried to find a daycare space, to get into a job training program, to get a speed bump installed on a dangerously busy street – to engage, in other words, with government – they gave up in frustration.
So they washed their hands of the whole thing, including voting.
This contrasted with a control group of sorts: people who voted, who tackled bureaucracies, who set about making change, and who succeeded. These engaged citizens found the sclerosis of government no less frustrating, but they had the education, the time and the confidence to overcome obstacles.
“The political system has separated the Canadian public into insiders who have the capacity and energy to fight and remain engaged in the system, and outsiders who simply walk away out of frustration or disappointment,” the report concluded.
’Twas ever thus. But the authors noted with bemusement that the outsiders who had given up on the system used the same expressions and voiced the same sentiments as former members of Parliament who had been interviewed in an earlier study. MPs, too, had tried to engage the bureaucracy, to effect change, to influence the real decision-makers. More often than not, they left public life frustrated. Even the insiders feel like outsiders now.
The poor and less educated have always been on the outside looking in, but at least in the past the great majority of people, regardless of class, voted, which is the easiest and most visible way to engage with government. But now only between 50 and 60 per cent of voters bother to cast a ballot at federal or provincial elections, and the number continues to decline. What’s happening?
It may be that, in the past, working and lower-middle-class voters had more social levers. They had the union, or the church, or the service club, or the PTA. Their MPP or MP saw themselves as spokesmen for their constituents within caucus.
MPs still do valuable constituency work. But they have lost much of their ability to mediate between voters and the all-powerful Centre in government. Beyond that, churches are in decline, and unions, and organizations like Rotary or Kiwanis. Without mediation, society is splintering into those who have the will and skill to engage with and influence government, and those who just carry on.
The good news is that even the most disengaged voters remain, according to Samara, enthusiastic about democracy itself. “Democracy’s great; it’s the politics I hate,” is how the authors summed it up.
Maybe we need to bend our minds to finding new mediators. Who replaces the priest? What is the next Lions Club? What can an MP be, if he can no longer be simply “a good constituency man?”
There are no easy answers to this. But if you have thoughts, please feel free to e-mail ( or add a comment to the online version of this column. I’ll post, and comment on, the most thoughtful responses online later Monday.

Taking It to the Streets
by Jane Mayer

Last spring, months before Wall Street was Occupied, civil disobedience of the kind sweeping the Arab world was hard to imagine happening here. But at Middlebury College, in Vermont, Bill McKibben, a scholar-in-residence, was leading a class discussion about Taylor Branch’s trilogy on Martin Luther King, Jr., and he began to wonder if the tactics that had won the civil-rights battle could work in this country again. McKibben, who is an author and an environmental activist (and a former New Yorker staff writer), had been alarmed by a conversation he had had about the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline with James Hansen, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and one of the country’s foremost climate scientists. If the pipeline was built, it would hasten the extraction of exceptionally dirty crude oil, using huge amounts of water and heat, from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, which would then be piped across the United States, where it would be refined and burned as fuel, releasing a vast new volume of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. “What would the effect be on the climate?” McKibben asked. Hansen replied, “Essentially, it’s game over for the planet.”

It seemed a moment when, literally, a line had to be drawn in the sand. Crossing it, environmentalists believed, meant entering a more perilous phase of “extreme energy.” The tar sands’ oil deposits may be a treasure trove second in value only to Saudi Arabia’s, and the pipeline, as McKibben saw it, posed a powerful test of America’s resolve to develop cleaner sources of energy, as Barack Obama had promised to do in the 2008 campaign.

But TransCanada, the Canadian company proposing the project, was already two years into the process of applying for the necessary U.S. permit. The decision, which was expected by the end of this year, would ultimately be made by Obama, but, because the pipeline would cross an international border, the State Department had the lead role in evaluating the project, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had already indicated that she was “inclined” to approve it. Both TransCanada and the Laborers’ International Union of North America touted the construction jobs that the pipeline would create and the national-security bonus that it would confer by replacing Middle Eastern oil with Canadian.

The lineup promoting TransCanada’s interests was a textbook study in modern, bipartisan corporate influence peddling. Lobbyists ranged from the arch-conservative Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform to TransCanada’s in-house lobbyist Paul Elliott, who worked on both Hillary and Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaigns. President Clinton’s former Ambassador to Canada, Gordon Giffin, a major contributor to Hillary Clinton’s Presidential and Senate campaigns, was on TransCanada’s payroll, too. (Giffin says that he has never spoken to Secretary Clinton about the pipeline.) Most of the big oil companies also had a stake in the project. In a recent National Journal poll of “energy insiders,” opinion was virtually unanimous that the project would be approved.

McKibben concluded that the pipeline couldn’t be stopped by conventional political means. So, in June, he and ten other activists sent an open letter to the environmental community saying, “It’s time to stop letting corporate power make the most important decisions our planet faces. We don’t have the money to compete . . . but we do have our bodies.” Beginning in August, the letter said, volunteers would be needed to help provoke mass, nonviolent arrests at the White House. The activists called for civil disobedience, with the emphasis on the “civil”: “Come dressed as if for a business meeting—this is, in fact, serious business.” Waves of neatly outfitted people started showing up at the White House, and by the time the action ended, on September 2nd, more than a thousand had been arrested at the front gate for trespassing.

Still, the protesters didn’t feel that they were being taken seriously, so, as the last of them were being handcuffed and led away, McKibben met across the street with a senior White House official. He said that although the environmental movement had supported the President, wherever he went now demonstrators would be there, too. “We’re not going to do you the favor of attacking you,” he said. “We’re going to do the much more dangerous thing of saying we need to hear from the Obama who said those beautiful things in the campaign. We expect him to do what he promised.” In other words, where the Tea Party took inspiration from the Revolution, the anti-pipeline activists would draw from “Lysistrata”; instead of going to war against the President, they threatened to get out of bed with him unless he shaped up. Knowing that Obama wanted their support in 2012, they would attract his attention by playing hard to get.

In the following weeks, while the President was on his jobs tour, he was confronted at practically every stop by people wearing Obama buttons and carrying signs that quoted him saying that we can “be the generation that finally frees America from the tyranny of oil.” Major environmental groups, who had been working against the pipeline from the beginning—among them the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and the Natural Resources Defense Council—led a broader campaign. Volunteers swarmed Obama campaign offices in almost every state, and placed calls to the finance chair of the Democratic National Committee. Ranchers and indigenous people—cowboys and Indians—whose lands would be affected united in opposition at public hearings. Nobel laureates denounced the project. The Republican governor and both senators from Nebraska, whose vulnerable water supply stood to be crossed by the pipeline, sided against it. So did the Dalai Lama. Meanwhile, the environmental movement was not without its own deep-pocketed heavy hitters, who now played an inside game: some Democratic funders, like Susie Tompkins Buell, the founder of the Esprit clothing company, signalled that they would withhold support from the President’s reëlection campaign.

On November 6th, exactly a year before the election, the protest returned to Washington. This time, twelve thousand people encircled the White House. President Obama was reportedly out, playing golf, but the message evidently got through to him. Four days later, he issued a statement saying that the decision on the pipeline permit would be delayed until at least 2013, pending further environmental review. In addition, in response to claims of conflict of interest, the State Department’s inspector general launched an investigation into the permit process. Since then, TransCanada, which previously insisted that no other pipeline route was feasible, has announced a new route through Nebraska. “There are no final victories in a fight like this,” McKibben acknowledged.

Yet the Occupy movement could do worse than to learn from the pipeline protest. The difference between the focussed, agenda-driven campaign fought by the environmentalists and the free-form, leaderless one waged by the Occupiers, the historian Michael Kazin says, is that the environmentalists grasped the famous point made by Dr. King’s political forebear, Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” ♦

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