Archive for June, 2012

REWIND: History Keeps Repeating Itself in Europe

- June 25th, 2012

I wrote this piece in November 2011. It is a dark, pessimistic look at how the European Union and the Euro Zone were both built on fatally flawed designs that allowed massive widespread abuse and lying and cheating without penalty  and how  both structures have no built-in realistic and effective measures for dealing with the type of overwhelming  financial crisis that abuse, lying and cheating inevitably led to.

It is now almost eight months later. I would love to be able to say the Europeans have gotten their act together in that time and are now on the long, slow, hard road to recovery. I can’t. They’re still dithering and denying and backstabbing  and lying and cheating and dancing a frantic, pointless jig as the continent burns around them. Some of the players have changed, but the story is still the same.

I am, if anything, more pessimistic now about Europe’s future than I was eight months ago. The fire is spreading.

Probably the only thing I see differently now is that I believe Greece will choose to leave the Euro Zone, not be kicked out of it. But the timetable is still the same: I said 18 months in November 2011 and that makes it about 10 months from today. Next spring, in other words.

One other aspect that is apparent now (but largely unspoken in the public debate, as far as I can see) is that the contagion has spread so far and is so deeply rooted now that Germany — seen, with increasingly less confidence, as the bailout saviour of  EU members on the edge — is worried about its own future. The DNA-embedded fear of the scourge of hyper-inflation that devastated the German economy and society in the 1920s is rising to the surface now in Deutschland. Every time Angela Merkel says “No” is another tightening of the life vest.

I fear for the future of Europe and I feel deep sorrow and pity for the anguish the European peoples will be put through soon. The hard times now are nothing compared to the hard times ahead. It doesn’t take away any of the hurt and pain to say the Europeans brought it on themselves by confidently, arrogantly placing their well-being in the maws of such obviously, intrinsically, fatally flawed and criminally useless institutions as the European Union and the Euro common currency.

I would weep but I have no more tears. Here’s what I had to say in November 2011: 

 

BreakingNews

I always used to wonder how Europe — the mother of “Western” civilization — could watch itself helplessly descend into one 20th Century cataclysm after another without putting on the brakes (or at least downgearing enough to counter the slo-mo slide to disaster).

You know the litany of Europe’s avoidable 20th Century debacles:

Sub-regional rivalries and intrigue coupled with arrogance, stupidity and petty personal jealousies and hubris leading to the firestorm of World War I; then the crushing burden of massive post-war reparations heaped on Germany by the victorious allies, leading to the crippling of the German economy and hyperinflation, exacerbated  by the impact of Wall Street’s 2008-like fraud-based 1929-30 meltdown, which in turn caused the global devastation of the Great Depression; all of which led, in turn, to the collapse of hope and social structure that created the opportunity for ruthlessly opportunistic predators like Adolf Hitler to seize power; which in turn led to the willfully blind, criminally negligent appeasement policies of Britain and France through the 1930s, which in turn led to the even greater cataclysm of World War II and the Holocaust. (The tyranny, terror and mass murder of Soviet Stalinist Russia falls into this daisy-chain of avoidable disasters somewhere too, as does the nuclear Cold War which mutated European life for the last half of the 20th Century.)

war-refugees

I used to look back at that history of created chaos, self-inflicted misery, lost opportunities, and toxically craven “leaders” and wonder how, step by step, Europe could knowingly, deliberately tear itself apart time after time after time.

I don’t wonder anymore. Now I see it unfolding on a daily basis and I know what it would have been like to watch the European tragedy unfold in 1913 or 1923 or 1933 or 1943 or 1953.

Dumb and stupid and self-created and so unnecessary — but so inevitable in its slow, ponderous, irreversible course. It’s like watching lava flow to the sea or an imploded skyscraper collapsing in hang-time.

building-collapse

The political, administrative and regulatory house of cards that is the European Union and its layer cake of unaccountable  “commissioners,” mandarins, bureaucrats and parasitic dependents is incapable of slowing — let alone reversing — the course of Europe’s current slo-mo disaster.

The European Union, as an institution,  is as useless, self-serving, mendacious and malignantly hollow as the League of Nations (basically a European forum) was in dealing with the real economic, social and political cancers of the 1920s and ’30s.

European_Union

As Benito Mussolini said in 1936: “The League is very well when sparrows shout, but no good at all when eagles fall out.” The same could easily be said today of the EU.

So here comes a new century of European debacles.

The rest of the world isn’t much better (Wall Street, especially, has a habit of endlessly repeating itself — inflate financial balloon, reap unconscionable profits by rubbing said balloon, cry tears of self-pity when balloon inevitably bursts while ignoring the real-life casualties, raid the cookie jar for comfort compensation, inflate new balloon — all done with the enabling connivance of an American political establishment larded with bought-and-paid-for lackeys.)

DollarCrash&Burn

But Wall Street’s crimes have a rather direct thuggery to them — take the money and run. By contrast, the Europeans have turned self-immolation into an art form, a ghastly spectacle impossible to take your eyes off, not beautiful but mesmerizing.

EuroFlames

I sense a deep level of here-we-go-again fatalism in the disconnect between the general public in much of Europe and their governments, both at the national and larger (what they call “supranational”) EU levels.

This is, in part, because the European Union was the creation of economic and political elites that told the common people, “This is an important, necessary thing that is far too complicated and intricate for your little mind to comprehend. Just fasten your seatbelt and do what you’re told.”

The cross-over of responsibilities, powers and interests between national government and the EU infrastructure is mind-boggling (purposefully confusing, really) in a Byzantine, constantly morphing labyrinth for which no one has a map — although the governing nabobs pretend they do, much like the Wizard of Oz.

As Wikipedia puts it, “The EU operates through a hybrid system of supranational independent institutions and intergovernmentally made decisions negotiated by the member states.”

Individual Europeans get to vote for members of the European Parliament as well as for their own national governments, but the degree of general apathy felt toward the European Parliament bears a direct relationship to the uselessness and powerlessness of that body.

Because the European Parliament is really the lowest rung on an organizational ladder that is controlled more by non-elected functionaries than by democratically chosen representatives.

The principal executive body of the EU is the “European Council,” made up of the heads of government of the (current) 27 EU member states plus the (unelected) president of the European Commission (more about that body later). This group gets together a few times a year, but mainly to set vague policy goals and rubber-stamp the policy plans of the unelected mandarins.

sarkozy-merkel

Not to be confused with the European Council of government leaders is  the “Council of the European Union,”  a loosey-goosey label for gatherings of specific cabinet ministers from the different member states configured to work out policies and deals on specific areas of interest like agriculture and telecommunications and so on. There are 10 different “configurations” involving about 350 ministers for this non-elected group, which is in turn overseen by a “General Affairs Council” made up of most senior national ministers, usually the foreign minister of each member country.

The “Council of the European Union” votes on EU legislation which is then passed on to the pretty-much-useless (but elected) European Parliament for debate and (usually) rubber-stamping.

Now here’s an important point: The “Council of the European Union” can constitutionally only legislate on the basis of (to quote the council itself) “proposals submitted to it by the European Commission.”

What, you may ask, is the “European Commission?”

Good question because the European Commission is the most important, most powerful body in the EU galaxy apart from the head-of-government “European Council.”

The “European Commission” is again made up of representatives from each of the 27 EU member states plus the president of the commission. Each member of the commission is appointed by his or her national government and each is responsible for one or more areas of trans-European policy making.

Although they hold the greatest degree of direct power in the entire European Union command structure, these commissioners are not elected by the people of Europe as a whole or even by the electorate of the member nations from which they come.

They are “designated” by the governments of their own countries and “confirmed” for five years terms by the European Parliament. And then they are pretty much like the gods of Greek mythology sitting on Mount Olympus — or, to put a more modern spin on it, like members of the Olympic International Organizing Committee.

Most of the commission members are hack politicians who have served their time in government in their home countries and done stints in the European Parliament (to get their pan-European stripes), who know how to accommodate and negotiate and blow hot and cold, and live off the fat of the land.

JoseManuelBarroso

At their head is the President of the European Commission, usually a veteran of the commission who has proven himself adept at serving the needs of the people who put him in office — which is NOT the general populace of Europe, since — once again — the president is selected,. not elected.

And way, way down there at the bottom of the pile is the only part of this whole complex mess that is actually elected by the people — the European Parliament, made up of 736 members elected for five-year terms by the people in their home countries.

Of course, as the only directly elected participants in the EU governmental/legislative/administrative system, the members of the European Parliament have the least input of the hundreds, nay thousands, of mandarins, peacocks and cheeseburgers who run the European Union.

They only get to discuss and approve legislation that has been handed down to them by the appointed Council of the European Union, which has in turn approved policies and legislation based exclusively on proposals put forward by the appointed European Commission.

The individual members of the European Parliament have far less power than a member of Toronto Council — if only because there are only 45 councillors, which is almost 700 fewer individual voices — and votes — than the clamouring, fractured, powerless horde of window-dressers in Brussels.

So that’s your basic European Union.

No wonder the whole place is sliding down a very slippery slope with no functioning handbrakes. Everybody involved in the process has been too busy for too long looking after special interests and cutting deals with other special interests to grease the process.

And nobody is accountable. It’s always somebody else’s fault, some other governing body’s responsibility, or some individual country’s jurisdiction.

Euro

One thing to keep in mind is the “Euro Zone” — the 17 countries using the Euro as their common currency — is not the same thing as the 27-member European Union. Some EU nations — Britain, the Scandinavians  — chose NOT to give up their individual national currencies , while others  — most of the former Soviet Bloc nations of Eastern Europe — have not yet established the capitalist credentials to qualify them for access to the Euro — and its supposed benefits.

The benefit for some members (read Southern Europe for the purposes of this discussion) was that it allowed them to piggyback on the platinum-card credit rating of other members (read Northern Europe). The benefit for Northern Europe was that the relative economic weakness of Southern Europe held the Euro down and kept in check inflationary pressure on some high-performance economies (read Germany and, to a substantially lesser extent, France).

Although the Euro isn’t synonymous with the European Union, it is still the creation of the European Union and is the responsibility of one of the EU’s financial creatures, the European Central Bank.

Now one thing you can say about the European Union is that it knows how to make rules and bureaucratic red tape. And another thing you can say is that those rules get changed or ignored or even actively thwarted when they are inconvenient to any member state that has the power, negotiating skill, blackmail material or criminal intelligence to do so.

Everyone — even the Greek government — admits now that Greece used cooked books, under-the-table, off-the-books loans from Wall Street (thank you Sachs Goldman) and bald-faced lies to candy-coat the state of the Greek economy and government spending to gain entry to the Euro Zone in 2001.

Greece was only one member of the Euro Zone — but the worst offender — to abuse the access to easier credit that was one of the privileges of membership.

It didn’t take long for all parties concerned to realize that it was a practical — if not perceptual, PR-wise — error giving Greece a free pass to the Euro gravy train, but by then it was too late.

It wouldn’t have been too late if everybody stuck to the rules. The problem was Germany and France found themselves in a bit of a cash-flow squeeze in the mid-’00s and they — Papa France and Mama Germany — would have had serious difficulty meeting the on-the-books requirements to maintain membership in good standing in the Euro club.

That wouldn’t do, of course. The Euro existed because of France and Germany.

So the rules were changed. Loosened. Actually everybody just agreed to ignore them in frilly language.

And so Greece — and some of the other less well-endowed Euro members — escaped the tightening noose of fiscal responsibility. Germany and (to a far lesser extent) France got their financial difficulties straightened out and didn’t need the fixed dice anymore. But (again mixing metaphors) it was too late to close the barn door. The fiscal-responsibility horse had already left the stable.

Now the chickens are coming home to roost (more lame, mixed-up — one might say half-baked —  metaphors) and the southern half of the Euro Zone is ablaze in a bonfire of over-extended indebtedness.

george-papandreou-greece-pm

Greece’s goose is cooked (metaphor), Portugal and Ireland are bouncing around like popcorn in a hot pot (I made this one up, I think), Spain is on thin ice (ice and fire, I guess, metaphor-wise), but Italy is the elephant in the room that everyone in the room is worried will crush them when it falls (I’m done with these stupid metaphors).

silvio-berlusconi

What’s going to happen next?

Well …

I don’t know.

If everyone played by the rules, I would have a pretty good shot at telling you.

But they don’t, so I can’t.

These Europeans (sorry to generalize, but that’s what happens when you join a Zone) are crazy and they defy — no, trample — logic. They’re fiddling while Rome burns. Literally — not a metaphor. Just wait for the riots in Rome when Italy catches fire.

So I can’t predict what’s going to happen — except that Greece is going down, kicked out of the Zone (within 18 months if not sooner), and in for some very tough times ahead. But maybe good times too, further down the road.

And — one way or another — Italy’s day of reckoning is coming, no matter how much shucking and jiving goes on in the short term. Italy’s sovereign debt load is unsupportable.

Look at this chart from Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine (Here’s a link to the English-language website).

DerSpiegelGraphic

Here’s a simpler comparison from the Wall Street Journal:

WSJdebtgraf

It makes it fairly clear why Greece is in filch territory and Ireland should be (the British financial connection puts Ireland in a slightly different position), and why Italy is dancing on the razor’s edge.

Spain and Portugal are still in big trouble. Spain’s seemingly low sovereign debt ratio is misleading because it does not account for a huge amount of debt Spain’s cities and regional governments were allowed to run up independently of the national sovereign debt — to make up for financing Spain’s national government cut to put its own books in better light. It’s all still Spain’s debt.

Here’s a link to a very good analysis called After Eurogeddon by The Economist Intelligence Unit that spells out more clearly than I can what may happen in the coming days, months and years.

And here’s a bit of the Q&A that goes on in the Economist report:

5. Which countries would be most likely to stay in the euro, and which would be most likely to leave?

Firm predictions are tricky, but broadly a fracture between a strong northern “core” and the weaker “periphery” looks most likely. The process would, in our view, probably entail periphery countries breaking off individually to leave a “rump” of northern countries still within a currency union. Once one peripheral country (say, Greece) left, all the other vulnerable countries would probably follow. This means that Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain would leave the euro, although not necessarily immediately. Malta would probably leave, and Cyprus would have little choice but to exit as its banking system would be nearly wiped out by a Greek collapse. Up to ten countries could remain members of the euro: Germany, France, Austria, Belgium, Finland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia and Estonia (the last three all being small, open economies like Malta and Cyprus, but with healthier fundamentals).

Look, all of the above sounds like I’m bashing Europe. Well … actually, I am.

Marlene_in_The_Blue_Angel-1

I’m a spendthrift who can squander money like a drunken European finance minister, so I shouldn’t be casting stones. And I love Europe — the quality of daily life is better there than in North America, in my opinion. But I may have to change my opinion when the effects of coming austerity programmes put the boot to European joie de vivre, culture, proximity and variety, great train system, wonderful cheap wine and fabulous, affordable food in neighbourhood bistros (and five, count ‘em five, different seas, no,  six, no, seven seas — but half of them are smaller than Georgian Bay).

Things will change in Europe — for better and worse.

But no matter how much things change, they will stay the same. Royally screwed up, for the foreseeable future.

I’ll be watching it unfold close up for a while, so I’ll let you know if the view is different from inside burning Europe than from outside.

Why NDP Leader’s Oil Sands Attack Is Smart Political Strategy

- June 20th, 2012

Mulcair-in-Commons

Let’s get a couple of things straight right off the bat:

 

1. I used the word”attack” intentionally. Although Thomas Mulcair and the NDP insist they are not against the Alberta oil sands themselves (just the way the Harper government currently allows them to be operated), Mulcair’s stance is very much an attack on the status quo of the oil sands.

 

2. This piece is not about the rights and wrongs of oil sands development. Don’t come at me with long screeds on how the oil sands are the economic engine of Canada or how Big Oil and a lapdog federal government are engaging in environmental vandalism: It just doesn’t matter in this context. Oh, those issues will be debated ad naseum in the next three years, but right now I’m talking solely about whether or not it is GOOD POLITICAL STRATEGY for the NDP to attack the Alberta oil sands.

It is. And here’s why:

 

Oil-sands-Syncrude_plant

A few relatively mild comments on CBC radio last month made New Democratic Party Leader Thomas Mulcair the Most Dangerous Man in Canada™ (for a while anyway, until Luka Magnotta became a household name).

 

Mulcair must be doing something right to arouse that much clamourous indignation.

 

From a long-term strategic perspective, he is. Mulcair has picked a battleground and intends to push. The game is on.

 

That recent flurry of ruffled feathers and regional hubris was just a sideshow, but a bit of the underbrush needs to be cut back before we can clearly see what this situation will mean when it really counts — at the next federal election (tentatively scheduled Oct. 19, 2015).

 

Let’s let the CBC’s Rex Murphy lead the charge for a while. Here are a few things Murphy has had to say about Mulcair in heated commentaries last month:

 

“It is the most divisive debut of any opposition leader I can recall and potentially very dangerous to Confederation.”

 

and

 

“These remarks have been his biggest mistake since becoming national leader.”

 

and

 

“This game of playing one part of the country against another — which effectively is what Mr. Mulcair’s statements do — is of no value to anyone.”

 

and

 

“(A) deliberate, antagonizing and quarrelsome bent toward a whole section of the country … Blaming a prosperous region for the temporary weakness of Central Canada is willful shortsightedness.”

 

Joining Rex Murphy in the attack on Mulcair were (not surprisingly) members the Harper government and (perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not) Liberal Interim Leader Bob Rae, who accused Mulcair of having double standards over issues that affect Quebec and Western Canada.

 

The premiers of Alberta, Saskatchewan and B.C. piled on, appearing to deliberately misinterpret Mulcair’s direct challenge to the prime minister to take great offence on various levels of personal, provincial and regional pride.

 

What beastly, nation-destroying things did Thomas Mulcair actually say to warrant this volcano of vitriol and venom?

 

Not much, actually, and nothing he hasn’t been saying for years.

 

His basic argument was that he wants the Harper government to enforce long-standing laws it is sworn to uphold, for the good of the people of Canada now and in the future.

 

Really. That was the central thesis of his remarks to interviewer Evan Solomon which ran on CBC Radio’s The House on Saturday morning, May 5.

 

Here’s a link to the interview  (the whole programme, actually) if you’d like to hear exactly what was said for yourself. The Mulcair interview starts at the 9:00 mark and goes to 17:30.

 

Solomon brought up “the Dutch disease” issue, noting that Conservatives were attacking Mulcair for mentioning it in an article published in the March 2012 issue of the journal Policy Options.

 

The discussion swayed into the Alberta oil sands around the 12-minute mark when Mulcair said, “The point I’m making is not that we should be against development  of the oil sands, but it has to be sustainable development.”

 

And then he launched into an attack on the Harper government for not enforcing Canadian environmental protection laws in regard to the oil sands and hammered on a “Polluter Pay, User Pay” theme.

 

“The way we are exploiting and developing the oil sands is causing an imbalance in our economy,” Mulcair said.

 

The core thesis was that Big Oil should be paying more now to cover the future costs of Alberta oil sands cleanup and that, because the oil industry is not paying a realistic price to extract and sell that oil, the Canadian dollar is artificially inflated, which in turn has a negative impact on the Canadian manufacturing sector’s ability to sell our goods abroad.

 

Ignoring the current imbroglio and the rights and wrongs of various positions as they exist in June 2012 (because they will be long forgotten by the time the next federal election rolls around in October 2015), here’s an analysis of why Mulcair has picked a high-grade battle issue from a strictly pragmatic, real-politik strategic perspective:

 

1.  This is an issue with staying power and growth potential.

 

As Mulcair told the Globe and Mail during the May hubbub:

 

“You realize that it’s not a three-day debate, it’s not a three-week debate, it’s not a three-month debate, it’s a three-year debate … We’ll just keep coming back with what the real issue is. The real issue is polluter pay. People in Alberta believe that polluters should pay. People in Saskatchewan believe that polluters should pay. People in B.C. believe that polluters should pay. It’s a consistent thing across Canada.”

 

And this is what he told Tom Clark of Global News around the same time:

 

“This is a fight we’ve been looking for. We see this as a defining element of the next election campaign in Canada.”

 

Mulcair may be under attack right now, but his position is one that will stand up to scrutiny — not against oil sands development, just Tory mismanagement and lack of oversight — and one that can grow stronger with time.

 

2. Mulcair is focused and he’s not going off-message.

 

“My fight is with Stephen Harper’s Conservatives,” Mulcair told Global News. “So when some of them started suggesting I was anti-Western Canadian, which, of course, I’ve never even talked about, my reaction was, ‘Look — let me deal with the person who’s responsible for the problem I’m describing.”

 

“We’re leaving the largest ecological, economic and social debt in our history in the backpacks of young people and we’re telling them they’ll pay for it,” he told CTV News. “We’re going to be the first generation in Canadian history to leave less to the next generation than what we ourselves received if we continue this way.”

 

3. Mulcair really doesn’t care how his message plays in Alberta or Saskatchewan — it’s all about Quebec and Ontario … and B.C.

 

He’s making nicey-nice with the Western premiers right now, but that’s just for show and doesn’t matter — except for B.C. where Liberal Premier Christy Clark will be replaced by a majority NDP government on May 14, 2013 if pretty much every poll taken in the province in 2012 holds up (although Clark says those polls are fatally flawed). Don’t forget: B.C. is the province of David Suzuki as well as Christy Clark.

 

Mulcair was quick to add in forestry and fishing — primary B.C. sectors — as well as manufacturing when he talked about industries hit by an inflated Canadian dollar.

 

The NDP has a grand total of one (1) seat in all of Alberta and Saskatchewan (Edmonton-Strathcona). In the next federal election, the NDP could pour more money into Alberta and Saskatchewan than it will spend in the rest of Canada and it might gain them only one or two more seats. That situation is not going to change for a long, long time despite Saskatchewan’s historic legacy as the home of Tommy Douglas and medicare. So, in a strategic electoral sense, It doesn’t hurt the NDP at all to alienate Alberta and Saskatchewan — as long as that stance translates into support for the party further east (and west, in B.C.).

 

Eighty of the NDP’s 102 seats are in Quebec and Ontario. Throw in B.C. and you’re talking 92 of 102 seats.

 

That enormous, unexpected, unbelievable bulge of 59 NDP MPs from Quebec is the party’s Achilles heel — it could recede in 2015 just as easily as it magically appeared last year.

 

So a primary battle cry that is both ecologically hip and implies that reining in the excesses of Western Canada will benefit Eastern Canada is a platform that will sell well in Quebec. And, if Ontario’s manufacturing sector continues to decline over the next three years, the “Dutch disease” mantra may have a stronger resonance —it doesn’t have to be right, it just has to feel right in the gut of someone who’s on the edge of losing his or her job.

 

To put it another way, Alberta has become too successful and too single-minded for its own good. That economic power (which turned regional alienation into regional arrogance) and a blanket electoral loyalty to the Conservative Party also make Alberta a target. Because, even though Albertans now have great economic and political clout, the political power exists only because riding-rich Ontario decided in the last election to side with Alberta’s view of the world. Ontario being Ontario, the pendulum could just as easily swing to the left in the 2015 election if Ontarians think they’re being left behind economically.

 

If the NDP can make a breakthrough in Ontario and hold two-thirds of their unexpected Quebec support from the last election, you could be talking Prime Minister Mulcair in 2015, not Prime Minister Harper.

 

4. What’s wrong with divisiveness, anyway?

 

Let’s rewind Rex Murphy:

 

“It is the most divisive debut of any opposition leader I can recall and potentially very dangerous to Confederation.”

 

Let’s rewind even further to 2000, when Stephen Harper had this to say:

 

“I, too, am one of these angry Westerners … We may love Canada but Canada does not love us … Let’s make (Alberta) strong enough that the rest of the country is afraid to threaten us.”

 

Well, maybe fear is a legitimate basis for a good relationship — but I think even Rex Murphy would have trouble defending the paranoia of that 2000 Harper statement as less divisive than “Polluters Pay.”

 

Harper also advised then-premier Ralph Klein to build a “firewall” around Alberta to protect it from the depredations of ROC ( that’s the Rest of Canada if you don’t remember Alberta’s 1990s separatist rhetoric.)

 

But regional tension and economic envy and sibling rivalry have always been part of the Canadian mosaic. It’s nothing new, it’s constantly evolving and — so far — we’ve survived and thrived (relatively speaking).

 

5. The unspoken element of jealousy.

 

This is a subtext of the “divisiveness” issue. Nobody will actually talk about it (at least in public) but regional jealousy will always be there in the national debate: You have more than I do, I want what you have, and I don’t like you because you have what I want.

 

It’s a terrible worm in Canada’s gut but to deny it is to deny reality. The best leaders in Canada’s history recognized it was there and did their best to control it (none ever did completely) by trying to get Canadians to think in terms of national good instead of provincial and regional well-being. But when the divide between haves and have-nots (in both economic and political terms) becomes too great, the worm turns nasty.

 

We’ve seen Quebec use its electoral numbers to lash out in that situation. And Atlantic Canada would have done so over the past half-century if it could — but it just didn’t have the political numbers and so was forced to suffer in sullen resignation. The Conservatives are now in power in Ottawa because Harper was able to harness that worm in the West over the past decade and subdue it, at least temporarily, in Ontario. It’s hard to think of used-to-have-it-all Ontario in those terms, but the worm is there now.

 

If that worm is still in Ontario’s gut in three years time, the big numbers there spell trouble for Harper and Alberta. In Quebec, the NDP could very well ride a wave of resentment and jealousy into another strong showing. Nobody will actually talk about something as petty and base as jealousy, but recognizing (and accommodating) that unspoken element could be the hidden key to the NDP retaining a substantial part of its very fragile support in Quebec and making gains in Ontario.

 

Most voters wouldn’t admit the motivating factor of jealousy even to themselves. But if it’s there, they will find an issue to support, even an excuse, to feed that worm. And make themselves feel better, if only for a while.

 

6. It’s now a two-way fight between the NDP and Conservatives. The Liberals have been marginalized in the debate.

 

I’m not sure what Bob Rae was thinking when he joined the attack on Mulcair for being somehow anti-West. One or two or three years down the road, this debate is going to clarify along the lines of Big Business Profit versus Common Canadian Good (if the NDP has its way — and I think they have a good chance of pounding home their message.)

 

The Conservatives are going to be on the big business side of the proposition because that means prosperity, jobs and security. The NDP are going to be on the other side of the equation because the oil sands offer enough financial leeway that they can sell a game plan offering (less) prosperity but ecological and generational responsibility at the same time.

 

And where are the Liberals in all this? Nowhere. Yapping around the edges of the debate without a clearly defined profile.

 

If environmental responsibility and a legacy mandate become the central issues of the 2015 election, the Liberals will be left in limbo, trying desperately to create a relevant position. They sure aren’t doing that right now.

 

7. And it all comes down to how the economy is going in 2015.

 

We’re not talking about the well-being of corporations or Charles CEO — we’re talking about Johnny and Jacques Paycheque. The bottom line of the oil companies and the banks won’t matter. What will matter will be the bottom lines of Canada’s working families — especially in Quebec and Ontario.

 

If the economic engine of the Alberta oil sands is not able to create jobs and security in Ontario and Quebec over the next three years, then the NDP message is going to find fertile ground in those riding-rich provinces.

 

And that is why Stephen Harper is afraid of Thomas Mulcair — or should be, if he isn’t already.

 

If the Conservatives could form a majority government in 2011 with less than 40% of the popular vote and only five of the 75 seats in Quebec, surely it would be possible for the NDP to form a majority government in 2015 with only one or two of the 42 seats in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Thomas_Mulcair_wiki

The next federal election will be determined by whether the Conservatives can hold on to their gains in Ontario and/or the NDP can hold on to their gains in Quebec while improving their position in Ontario.

 

One way or the other, the Alberta oil sands are going to determine how voters in Ontario and Quebec cast their ballots in 2015.

 

If, in the end, the 2015 election boils down to something as crude as the Conservatives representing the dreams and power of the West and the NDP representing the fears and needs of the East, then the numbers favour the NDP.

 

No matter what, Thomas Mulcair did not make a political blunder by attacking the Alberta oil sands. Whether you agree or disagree with him, you have to admit it makes perfect political strategic sense for Mulcair and the NDP to stake out that position.

 

It will be an interesting three years.

 

REWIND: Popcorn Sutton, Moonshiner

- June 16th, 2012

I wrote this piece in May 2009, shortly after Popcorn Sutton died. I hadn’t thought about Popcorn for a while, but recently a few people who knew Popcorn have stumbled across the original blog post and added comments which got me thinking about the tough old moonshiner again. Here’s looking at you (again), Popcorn.

NOTE: There are some significant updates at the end of the original piece.

Popcorn Sutton at Misty Mountain Ranch B&B
Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton stands on the front porch of Misty Mountain
Ranch B&B near Maggie Valley, N.C.
/Photo courtesy of Peter and Karen Hessian

 

I first heard about Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton on a train rolling through the mountains of North Carolina one evening last June (that would be 2008).

Jim Harbin, who was working for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad at the time, told me about this legendary old moonshiner from Maggie Valley, N.C., who had just been busted again by federal agents for distilling illegal alcohol.

I had to be in the low country the next evening, but I determined to track down Popcorn Sutton, moonshiner extraordinaire, if possible in the short time I had.

Jim warned me to be careful: “I hear he can be a mean man. Hard and mean. Hey, he runs shine INTO Tennessee. You’ve got to be hard to do that.”

The only leads I had for finding Popcorn Sutton were that his base was in a small town (the aforementioned Maggie Valley) near Great Smoky Mountains National Park and that a friend of his, Stuart, worked at a campground somewhere on Balsam Mountain, near where I was staying.

The next morning I started going up one side of Balsam Mountain and down the other looking for the campground and Stuart. I finally found Moonshine Creek Campground down on Dark Ridge Road, way down in a valley at the foot of the mountain.

Well, I never found Stuart but I did find a woman named Cathie in the campground office who knew Popcorn — and, amazingly, I also found some of Popcorn’s honest-to-goodness moonshine there.

Cathieupright

Cathie with some of Popcorn Sutton’s moonshine

Cathie: “I know Popcorn’s out but I don’t know where he is. I’ve heard he’s over in Tennessee.”

Me: “A fella told me last night he was in Maggie Valley.”

Cathie: “Yeah, might be. I’ve heard Maggie Valley. I’ve heard Tennessee. He might have just decided to go to cover for a while.”

And that’s when I noticed two liquid-filled mason jars on a shelf behind her.

Me: “Is that what I think it is?”

Cathie reached up to bring the jars down: “Yes, that’s genuine Popcorn shine. I got it as a birthday present and I just keep it around to give the campers a thrill.”

She unscrewed one of the lids. “You can smell it but don’t drink none.”

With the fumes of that raw alcohol spirit still clearing my sinuses, I headed for Maggie Valley.

Popcorn Sutton’s “antique shop” — more ramshackle garage than anything — was there but closed up tight.

Again, I met people who knew Popcorn — a second-cousin-once-removed and a couple of fourth cousins.

Everyone said roughly the same thing: “He’s over in Tennessee” or “I think he’s still in jail.”

I stopped for lunch at Salty Dog’s Seafood and Grill, where grey-bearded bikers were waiting out a rainstorm drinking beer and eating oysters on the half-shell. (Salty Dog’s, by the way, is the best and cheapest fresh-seafood-far-from-the-sea mountain eatery I’ve ever been in — a dozen fried shrimp and fries and three draft beers for a total of $11.06, tax included.)

And of course the waitress was related to Popcorn Sutton.

Me: “He’s got a place here, doesn’t he?”

Waitress nods.

Me: “Can you tell me where.”

Waitress: “No, Popcorn wouldn’t like that.”

Me: “I won’t tell him where I got the address.”

Waitress: “Well, I don’t know you and I don’t know what you would or wouldn’t do. But I’ve known Popcorn since I was a little girl and I sure do know what he’d do if he found out I’d told you something about him.”

So that was that. One last question for the waitress: “How old’s Popcorn.”

“Oh, he’d be 55-56, somewhere’s around there.”

What? This “mean, old SOB” (as people had been describing him) was younger than me? Great.

So that ended my day of searching for Popcorn Sutton in the Great Smoky Mountains. I headed to the lowlands through rain that turned mountain roads into rivers and lightning and thunder that sent wild turkeys racing madly through the woods.

I did find Popcorn a few months later, but not in person — I talked to him on the telephone in September (again, 2008).

And he was nowhere near Balsam Mountain or Maggie Valley. That was a wild goose chase. He was across the state line, under house arrest in his other home in Parrottsville, Cocke County, Tenn.

I found Popcorn through Peter and Karen Hessian, two of his longtime friends and supporters, who own the Misty Mountain Ranch B&B near Maggie Valley. Popcorn was a regular visitor to Misty Mountain, where he would often play the banjo on the front porch for guests.

That was the nice side of Popcorn. The “mean, old SOB” side of him explains how he got his nickname. One evening about 40 years ago Sutton was trying to get a dime’s worth of popcorn out of a dispensing machine in a bar. The vending machine ate the dime but did not produce the popcorn — so Sutton killed it. Depending on who tells the story, he either shot the machine with one of the pistols he carried around at the time or he beat it to death with a pool cue.

And thus the legend of “Popcorn” Sutton began.

Popcorn was arrested, of course, and had to pay to replace the vending machine.

It wasn’t his first brush with the law. Popcorn had already been convicted of moonshining earlier in the 1970s. It was a family business. Popcorn learned the trade from his father and grandfather. He learned to do it right, with the finest equipment (costing about $10,000 per still, Popcorn reckoned) and best ingredients, and he sneered at amateurs who produced deadly rotgut on the cheap.

Here’s the link to a video interview with Popcorn Sutton that Johnny Knoxville posted on his jackassworld blog in February. If the site tells you the video is not available, try again in a few minutes and it will be there. It’s hit or miss.

As a legendary moonshiner, Popcorn became something of a celebrity in the mountains. He wrote a self-published book entitled “Me and My Likker” that sold out and was the subject of a TV documentary, as well as the star of several YouTube videos showing him making moonshine.

book cover

Customers began asking Popcorn to autograph their liquor purchases, so — in true Popcorn Sutton fashion — he took to signing the lids of his jars with this slogan: “F*** You — Popcorn Sutton.”

I was relieved to find out Popcorn really was older than me. When I talked to him on the telephone last September, he was about to turn 62 — although you can see by the accompanying photos that the grizzled, elfin old codger could easily pass for someone in his 80s.

popcorn booking photo
Popcorn Sutton’s March 2008 police booking mugshot

Popcorn was under house arrest at the time, with a tracking device on his arm that kept him within 100 feet of his house, awaiting sentencing on alcohol and gun charges. Federal agents had seized three stills and 850 gallons of moonshine on property he rented in March 2008. He was still on probation from a 2007 moonshining conviction at the time.

He pleaded guilty to the new charges last April.

The gun offences were Popcorn’s biggest concern because, as a previously convicted felon, that meant federal prison time. Popcorn knew he could not do a long spell in prison. He spent 10 days in jail in Greenville, Tenn., after his March arrest and that nearly did him in.

“I almost died from those 10 days in that dungeon in hell. I’m sick, I’ve got three bleeding ulcers, I can’t eat regular food, and I’m addicted to cigarettes. It drove me out of my mind not having my cigarettes those 10 days. That jail wasn’t fit for a dog. And that ‘s nothing compared to the penitentiary. I won’t live two weeks in penitentiary.”

Federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents had Popcorn under surveillance for some time before his arrest, but they also had an undercover agent posing as a biker get close to the old moonshiner.

“He bought liquor from me two or three times. I trusted the wrong damn one there. And I make a real mistake showing him my guns. They’re old antique pistols that I kept locked away in a safe — real collector’s items. I never carried them around or anything. They’re just real beauties and I was proud of them, so I made the mistake of showing them off to this fella. Now they want to put me in prison for that.”

Popcorn was living with his fourth wife, Pam, in Parrottsville as we talked. He said he had been “run out” of Maggie Valley, his hometown, the previous year after a falling out with the woman he had lived with there the previous nine years.

And he was flat broke, living on donations and what money his wife earned working three days a week.

“I used to have money. Now I don’t have a dime.”

In his flush days, Popcorn looked to the future and bought himself a fancy coffin, which he kept in his bedroom awaiting the day it would be needed.

For a scrawny little old man with a bushy hillbilly beard, Popcorn always seemed to somehow attract women. And he had a very unique perspective on the kind of women he favoured.

“I like big’uns — 250, 270 pounds, the more the merrier. I like them big legs wrapped around me.”

Popcorn was nervous talking about his case and did not want me to quote him directly while his public defense lawyer tried one last-ditch manoeuvre — an appeal to then-president George W. Bush for a presidential pardon.

“You can’t get a letter to Bush, can you?” Popcorn asked me on the phone in September.

I couldn’t but I told him I would do what I could to help. I let Popcorn down. I got too involved in my own life and put his on the backburner. I should have done more to help a sick old man stay out prison and I didn’t.

Popcorn was not on the Bush end-of-term pardons list.

Two weeks ago, I got a cryptic e-mail from photographer Melody Ko, who had also taken an interest in Sutton. “Did you hear about Popcorn?” was all the message said.

I Googled “Popcorn Sutton” and found out the bad news: The old moonshiner had killed himself the week before.

On Friday, March 13, he finally got the notification to turn himself in at a federal prison in Georgia on March 20 to begin serving his 18-month sentence.

Popcorn thought about it over the weekend.

On Monday, March 16, while his wife was out of the house, Popcorn hooked up a hose from the exhaust to the interior of his old green Ford Fairlane.

Pam Sutton found her husband dead when she returned home. Two days later she buried him in the mountains near Maggie Valley, N.C., in the coffin he had bought many years before.

“He couldn’t go to prison. His mind would just not accept it. … So credit the federal government for my husband being dead. I really do,” she told The Associated Press a few hours after burying Popcorn.

I will visit Popcorn’s grave when I get back to North Carolina, to say goodbye and apologize for not having done more to keep him alive.

I’ll be interested to see if his gravestone has the words he wanted on it:

Popcorn
said
“F***
You”

________________________
UPDATE:
Only a few months after Popcorn Sutton took his own life to escape the malicious persecution of the United States federal government, the state of Tennessee passed a law allowing micro-distilleries — legal moonshine stills, in other words.
Before he died, Popcorn sold his whiskey recipe to a motorcycle racer named Jamey Grosser and the two set up a partnership. With Popcorn’s death, his share of the partnership passed to his wife, Pam. And after micro-distilleries became legal, they brought in a third partner as financial backer — country music singer Hank Williams Jr., who had shown up unannounced at the public memorial service for Popcorn in 2009.
In November 2010, Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey went on sale. Among those attending the launch party in Nashville were Travis Tritt, Martina McBride, Kid Rock, Tanya Tucker and Rodney Atkins. They did Popcorn proud (although he probably would have been a little flumoxed that his “likker” was now legal).
popcorn-whiskey
As for his grave, I haven’t visited it yet. I’ve been back in North Carolina once since then, a flying visit for a family funeral, but I didn’t have time to get up into the mountains. But others have and I’ll pass on what I know from their visits.
Pam Sutton had originally buried her husband in his home state  in the middle of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border. But in October 2009 she had his coffin relocated to the grounds of their home in Parrotsville, Tenn. And that’s when the public memorial service attended by Hank Williams Jr. took place. And that’s where Popcorn Sutton’s grave is today.
As you can see from the following photo, posted by David Morgan on Popcorn’s www.findagrave.com listing, the words Popcorn wanted on his headstone aren’t there.
Popcorn-headstone
But, son of a gun, they are on the footstone at his grave. We’ll let Popcorn have the last word.
Popcorn-footstone

Colin Powell Killed Call Me Maybe (But Not In A Good Way)

- June 13th, 2012

CarlyRaeJepsen

That minor pop culture phenomenon known as “Call Me Maybe” died a horrible death Wednesday morning.

 

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell killed it. Live. On television.

 

As you’re aware, “Call Me Maybe” is B.C. singer Carly Rae Jepsen’s great little pop song — hummable, strummable and danceable — that has reached No. 1 on the music charts in Canada, the U.S., Australia, Britain and half a dozen other European countries at various times over the past six or eight months.

Combo

But it’s bigger than that. It’s become the punchline of jokes, the inspiration for a variety of used-to-be-intriguing calling cards (Hint: If you didn’t do it two months ago, don’t even think about doing it now), one of the most popular ringtones in the world and — most importantly — the starting point for an ever-growing crop of terrific cover versions on YouTube.

 

Actually, I don’t really mean “cover” versions — I mean smart, original pantomimes set to Carly Rae’s singing.

 

The first one — probably the most important one — was done even before the “official” song video was released.

 

That would be the one that early fans Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez did back in January in a house-party version with a bunch of friends. The Biebs cover was posted on YouTube in February and now has well over 40 million hits on YouTube.

Bieberversion

Carly Rae’s official “Call Me Maybe” video was released in early March. Thankfully it’s had twice as many hits as the Bieber-Gomez version — about 82 million the last time I looked.

officalcarly

But, even though I like it, it’s not THE favourite of my favourite versions.

 

My MOST favourite version DOES feature Carly Rae singing, but it’s a live version recorded with nine people crammed into a small dressing room just before she appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon a couple of weeks ago.

JimmyFallonversion

There’s Carly Rae and there’s Jimmy and there’s the entire Roots house band crammed into the dressing room. And they’re playing goofy elementary school  instruments like triangle (Carly Rae) and tambourine (Jimmy) and bongos and ukelele and mini-xylophone. And it’s great. Really, really great.

 

My second most-favourite version would have to be the 2012 Harvard University baseball team version. You know the one, with these straight-faced, straight-arrow ball players popping up and down and lip-synching the song while they’re driving to a game in a maxi-van.

HarvardCoverVid

Then came the rebuttal from the women’s rowing team of Southern Methodist University (better known as SMU) in Texas. It’s great too — but not as great.

SMUrowing

That opened a floodgate: Every university sports team in North America did their/its versions — but we just don’t care about them. Sorry. Too many. Too late. (Just like the “Call Me Maybe” calling/business cards — I’m telling you: Don’t do it.)

There was even a Photoshopped (or whatever the video equivalent is) version featuring Barack Obama and Mitt Romney mugging the song in a van. I have too much pride to link to it but here’s a framegrab.

romney-obama

And then came the end. Armageddon. The grisly, awful death of “Call Me Maybe.”

 

WARNING: If you haven’t heard this version of the song and want to still hum it in your head on occasion, don’t read any further.

 

That terrible event came early Wednesday morning when Colin Powell, Secretary of State in the first George W. Bush administration, appeared on CBS This Morning for an interview with Charlie Rose.

 

During a commercial break, Powell began singing “Call Me Maybe” — terribly. Which would have been okay if it had stayed a private moment of personal embarrassment. But it didn’t.

NOTE: I’ve buggered something up so the above link goes to the SMU vid again — and I can’t change it. But here’s the right link to bad, bad Colin Powell.

ColinPowellCallMeMaybe

Somewhere in the CBS techtronic empire, someone recorded the riffing Powell from the raw network feed of the morning show. And posted it on YouTube.

 

And that is how “Call Me Maybe” died.

 

It doesn’t matter if Carly Rae blows the audiences away on the Bieber “Believe” tour this fall and winter.

 

It just doesn’t matter. Because nobody who ever hears Colin Powell sing “Call Me Maybe” — like your tone-deaf Uncle Phil’s karaoke version of Copacabana — will be able to get that audio and visual nightmare out of his or her head.

 

So thank you very much, Colin Powell. Why couldn’t you have just kept your mouth shut? Sort of like you did when W. invaded Iraq.

 

Were City Councillors In The Bag When They Voted For Plastic Ban?

- June 7th, 2012

Plastic shopping bags are bad — and good (relatively speaking).

In voting to ban single-use plastic bags come Jan. 1, Toronto City Council has chosen to chase optical illusions rather than focus on realistic environmental responsibility.

There was almost no debate and absolutely no input from environmental experts or legal advisers or, God forbid, ordinary citizens.

A few months ago I would probably have applauded such reckless bravado. But in March I looked into the whole issue of shopping-bag environmental responsibility.

I was shocked to discover that the production of paper and cloth shopping bags leave far bigger carbon footprints than the production of so-called single-use plastic bags.

Granted, plastic bags must be used responsibly. I think I do. I use every plastic bag at least twice, often three or four times. I don’t use many of them but I do use them for a variety of purposes in my daily life, quite apart from just hauling groceries home from the store.

A paper bag, by contrast, HAS to be used at least three times to be on a carbon-equal basis with a plastic bag that is used just ONCE. When was the last time you used a paper bag more than once?

And a canvas or cotton shopping bag HAS to be used 131 TIMES to be on an equal footing (carbon-footprint-wise) with a single-use plastic bag.

Want to know more?

Here’s a Nosey Parker blog post from March 20 on the whole issue.

I’m NOT a big fan of plastic bags but I was surprised — and sometimes shocked — by what I discovered when I opened this bag of monkeys. Read on.

celebrity-shopping

Some celebrity bags: Plastic? Paper? Cloth? Decisions, decisions.

 

I’m half in the bag right now.

 

Half in the plastic shopping bag, that is. And I’ll probably stay that way for a while.

 

First of all, let me say that I hate plastic bags with a passion. Discarded plastic bags are a blight on the urban and rural landscape, a menace to the environment and most living creatures, and they’re often too flimsy to do their primary job properly in the first place.

 

But I also love plastic bags. I don’t have to lug reusable bags all over town if the grocery store is my last stop in a busy schedule. If I’m delivering something (anything — a book, a sweater, a bottle of wine, a cake), I just pop it in an anonymous plastic bag and leave the bag behind (for the recipient to deal with). I store everything from other plastic bags to old notebooks to nuts and bolts in plastic bags at home. And I would be lost without plastic bags for garbage pail liners and animal waste disposal.

plasticbag

(I know, I know, I could pay extra money for biodegradable plastic bags specifically designed to catch garbage, cat litter or  dog doo — but why, then, aren’t the grocery store’s plastic bags biodegradable? And there’s a serious downside to biodegradable plastics — they produce carbon dioxide, methane and/or other greenhouse gases when they decompose.)

 

So there’s a place for disposable plastic bags in my universe. That place just isn’t blowing down a sidewalk or waving madly from a tree branch or clogging a storm drain.

 

Now I’m not preaching here (except the part about not letting plastic bags blow around the countryside like toxic dandruff or clog the oceans). I’m just explaining my starting point as I try to figure out the facts — which seem to be pushing me in a particular, surprising direction.

 

The surprising part is that there seem to be a couple of bag villains bigger than plastic — and I naively used to think they were the good guys.

brown-paper-bags

We’re so used to being hit over the head with the propaganda that all plastic bags are bad that it’s hard to accept that the most environment-friendly alternative to a plastic bag might be … a plastic bag.

 

Really.

 

And this spin isn’t coming from the Save The Plastic Bag Coalition (yes, there really is such an organization in California).

 

Jurisdictions around the world from San Francisco to Rwanda to Bangladesh have already banned one-time-use plastic bags. Italy last year banned non-biodegradable single-use plastic bags. Other jurisdictions from Ireland to Toronto (despite Mayor Rob Ford’s antipathy) try to reduce their use by imposing a charge or tax on each disposable bag.

 

The European Union, despite its preoccupation with keeping member states solvent, is currently considering a total ban on the bags as it tries to cut back on the 100 billion plastic bags Europeans go through every year. (That’s nothing compared to the 120-billion-plus plastic bags used annually by Americans  and Canadians — and Europe’s population is almost 50% bigger than the United States and Canada combined).

 

As it moves ponderously forward in its decision-making process, the European Union has amassed a lot of facts and figures for consideration.   And Britain’s Environment Agency last year published  a “Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags.”

 

Thankfully we have the BBC to sort out all that confusing data for us. Here’s the BBC’s simple graphic to explain the comparison.

One-use-graphic

 

In other words, the production of a paper bag cause three times as much greenhouse gas emission as the production of a plastic bag. A heavy-duty, reusable plastic “bag for life” causes four times as much greenhouse gas in its production. And the production of A REUSABLE COTTON SHOPPING BAG SPEWS 131 TIMES AS MUCH GREENHOUSE GAS INTO THE ATMOSPHERE as the production of a single-use plastic bag.

canvas-grocery-bag

So, although a reusable cotton or canvas carryall seems BY FAR the best choice for an ecologically conscious shopper, you would have to use that bag 132 times before you outweighed the damage to the ozone layer caused by the use of plastic bags. How many people are really, truly going to use that ratty old cotton bag after, say, the 90th or 100th time?

 

 

What’s a carbon footprint?

 

According to the UK’s Carbon Trust, a non-profit organization created by the British government to help that country reduce its carbon emissions,

 

“A carbon footprint measures the total greenhouse gas emissions caused directly and indirectly by a person, organization, event or product. The carbon footprint considers all six of the Kyoto Protocol greenhouse gases: Carbon dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4), Nitrous oxide (N2O), Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), Perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and Sulphur hexafluoride (SF6).”

 

 

Different studies produce different figures. A report produced for Los Angeles County when it banned plastic bags last year concluded a cloth bag would have to be used 104 times before its greater environmental impact (compared to a plastic bag) was neutralized. The difference seems to be that one study was looking at just carbon footprinting and the other was considering the full spectrum of environmental impact. Given the after-effect of plastic-bag garbage, I’ve got to believe the overall environmental impact is understated.

 

But using just the UK Environment Agency figures, here’s an example:

 

If I have six cloth shopping bags and I use two of them at a time to go shopping three times a week, it would take me MORE THAN 7-1/2 YEARS to be on the carbon-footprint upside of disposable plastics bags.

 

As for paper bags, who re-uses a paper bag even once, let alone two times? What am I going to re-use a paper bag for, apart from storing mushrooms or as fire-starter?

LCBObags

I used to feel quite virtuous when I walked out of the LCBO carrying my paper bag(s) of booze. Not anymore.

 

The difference becomes even more pronounced when the “one-use” plastic bag is reused. Here’s the BBC’s graphic comparison:

 

3-reuse-graphic

 

Sooooo, by far the best alternative to a plastic bag (in my books, anyway) is a plastic bag — a heavy-duty, reusable plastic bag with handles (the kind the supermarkets sell for $1 or $2), the so-called “bag for life.”

Bag-for-life

Even if you don’t keep it hanging around for life, you’re way ahead of the carbon footprint game within a few weeks and every usage after that is a bonus.

 

So I’ll keep the cloth bags I have and keep using them until they rot or rip, but I’ll never buy another. And I’m going to stop having my LCBO purchases brown-paper-bagged. The booze goes in my backpack now and the groceries go in a “bag for life” (if I have one with me).

sobeysbagforlife

And I’ll still get some one-use plastic bags on the occasional shopping expedition because I still need ‘em.

 

As for anyone carrying around a designer canvas shopping bag like the one below (by Anya Hindmarsh), stop it. You may not be a plastic bag but you are being a complete hypocrite.

canvas-bag