Mohammed and the Media

They are hardly high art. Nor do they purport to reveal some profound truth.

The now-famously controversial cartoons of Mohammed are simply crudely drawn caricatures, some apparently designed to offend – which they obviously do superbly.

To their credit, no major Canadian paper has so-far chosen to jump on the gratuitous bandwagon of cultural insensitivity and reprint the drawings.

However, some media outlets worldwide seem not so principled. One reporter in the UK had this blunt assessment of how his paper determined what the public should see: "The ideal Daily Mail story leaves the reader hating someone or something".

By that cynical yardstick, the cartoons, and the violent reaction to them, make this story a winner. No matter where you side in this highly volatile debate, this story is bound to make you angry.

Which brings us to the highly questionable role of the media in this escalating crisis. Where is the actual “news” here? Is it news that Muslims find depiction of their Prophet highly offensive? That story is a bit stale, given that such portrayals have been verboten in Islam since the Koran was written about 1,400 years ago.

In the chorus of finger jabbing and indignation around the world, few seem to be aiming their vitriol in the appropriate direction. It was a small number of media outlets that started this “crisis” by publishing these inflammatory cartoons in the first place. Certain media in both the Western and Islamic world continue to stoke the flames by endlessly reprinting the cartoons, or reporting on the violent reaction to them.

It is analogous to locking two family members in a room and only allowing them to talk about what they hate about each other. It might make for great reality TV, but would hardly be responsible journalism.

Listening to the indignant rationales given by the publisher of the Calgary-based Western Standard, who this week chose to reprint the cartoons, only reinforced my strongly held belief that this non-debate is in many cases merely an opportunity for egotistical imbeciles to bump up the circulation on their very marginal publications.

The histrionics about free speech in this case are particularly grating given the additional danger it may put on Canadian troops, on an already dangerous mission in Afghanistan. To read an excellent post on this, please go to: http://www.cbc.ca/news/viewpoint/vp_storring/20060214.html

It is also significant that the Danish newspaper that originally published the cartoons was apparently uninterested in dialogue, which might have helped to avoid this mess. After the offending cartoons were published, local Muslims in Copenhagen requested a meeting with editors of the offending Danish paper to express their concerns in person. They were ignored.

To make matter worse, papers throughout Europe also felt the need to grab a hockey stick and begin whacking the hornets’ nest, then expressed righteous indignation when the highly predicable came to pass.

The most frequent defence of this debacle is “freedom of the press”. Very few are seriously suggesting that the press should not have the freedom to print almost anything they want.

That said, it is ridiculous to suggest that the media does not make editorial choices based on good taste and respect every day.

Does the media broadcast video of Western hostages being decapitated? Why have we not seen footage of 9-11 victims falling from the doomed towers? The obvious difference in this case is that is another culture being offended, not our own.

It has also been suggested that this controversy is an important chance for dialogue. No doubt there is a need for greater understanding and respect between the diverse cultures of the world.

There is also no doubt that highly offensive cartoons about Christians and Jews appear regularly in the Middle East media. But this is not a credible rationale for publishing equally offensive material to Muslims.

You do not start a constructive discussion with a slap in the face. Not surprisingly, what we now have instead is a barroom brawl.

With no sense of irony, some are portraying these cartoons as a principled fight against intolerance, rather than a cause for it. If that is in fact the motive, we have chosen a poor route towards mutual understanding.

Those radical leaders in the Islamic world who subsist on intolerance are no doubt delighted that they have been given such a pregnant opportunity to show that Western countries are hostile and ignorant of their religion, and apparently wish to remain so.

From the comfortable vantage point of Canada, it is also easy to forget that many people live in societies where street protest and violence is one of few options available for expressing anger.

The path to tolerance is both slow and faint. The cultures of the world move toward mutual respect against our ancient instincts of tribalism and fear. We in Canada seem to have made better progress on this tenuous journey that any other country in the world.

If this mess illustrates anything, it shows how easy it is to lose our way.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. This piece ran nowhere.


Oil and Addiction

Surrounded by billowing smoke and flaming timbers, George Bush has finally admitted the house is on fire.

“America is addicted to oil”, Bush told the world in his State of the Union address this week. While this might seem a bold statement coming from the most fossil-fuel-friendly president in history, it is hardy news to the rest of us.

The US uses one quarter of the world’s oil – an incredible 20 million barrels a day, or enough to fill the Toronto Skydome twice.

And like any addiction, that insatiable oil habit has some nasty consequences.

Last week, an international study revealed that pollution from burning fossil fuels is contributing to ballooning childhood asthma rates throughout North America. One in five Canadian boys between the ages of 8 and 11 are afflicted with this terrible condition. Worldwide asthma rates are now climbing by 50% each decade.

Bush also raised the thorny issue of America’s dependence on oil from politically "unstable" countries in the Middle East. Perhaps he is alluding to the over 2,200 American soldiers that have been so far died in Iraq, not to mention about 30,000 Iraqi civilians – the US government is not keeping count. The monetary cost of this oil-driven military adventure is $237 billion and counting.

Here at home many of civil liberties are being sacrificed on the altar of the so-called “war on terror”. This nebulous conflict has sprouted directly from dependence on foreign oil and is eroding many of the constitutional protections that define free and open societies. A recent case in point was the recent domestic spying scandal in the US that even many Republican senators are calling illegal.

And then there is the small matter of the fate of the planet. Aside from a well-known cabal of pseudo-scientists shilling on behalf of Big Oil, virtually the entire scientific community is united in the knowledge that climate change is real, is happening now and is very dangerous.

Almost every week comes another disturbing study showing that our oil addiction is putting the life support systems of our planet at risk. This week’s installment came from British government researchers who found that the Greenland ice sheet is very likely going to entirely melt, raising global sea levels by seven metres – enough to obliterate such well-known landmarks as Florida and Bangladesh.

While this massive melt may take up to 1,000 years, scientists made it clear that the time to act is now. The authors warned a delay in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, even in the next five years "could be significant".

Also released this week was a chilling sequel by scientific icon Dr. James Lovelock, of Gaia hypothesis fame, called “The Revenge of Gaia”. His disturbing message: global climate change is already too far-gone, and civilization is very likely doomed by the end of this century.

He believes that the US, China and India will not curb their oil addiction soon enough to avoid the Earth’s climate reaching an irreversible tipping point in the next few years..

Dr. Lovelock believes that runaway climate change will leave the living organism of our planet with a “morbid fever” that may last as long as 100,000 years, and leave humans dying by the “billions” by the end of this century.

Dr, Lovelock ‘s logic is both horrifying and compelling. I must say it is difficult to imagine a plausible scenario where we collectively choose to leave remaining oil in the ground. Given our past and present behavior, we seem to know already how much oil we will burn, and when we will burn it: all of it, and as fast as possible.

That said, humans are curious creatures. Long before civilization, our ancestors dispersed from the tropics and thrived in every ecosystem on the planet. We may be the most adaptable species that has ever evolved. That remarkable adaptability is something we urgently need to beat our oil addiction -not just for our own survival, but for every species on the planet as well.

Moving quickly to an oil free world will take courage, vision and leadership. George Bush’s record thus far on dealing with climate change is nothing short of disgraceful. It is noteworthy that he did not mention climate change once in his State of the Union address.

That said, the first step in dealing with an addiction is admitting you have a problem. His admission this week regarding our oil addiction was small progress, but progress nonetheless.

Now that we know the house is on fire, perhaps we should focus on putting it out...

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. This piece ran nowhere.


Clearing the Air

Smog sucks.

I am paraphrasing, of course, but that is the gist of an exhaustive report released last week by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) on the effects of pollution on our children’s health.

Children’s Health and the Environment in North America” found that air pollution such as ground-level ozone, particulates and pesticides are leading to ballooning rates of childhood asthma throughout North America.

In some parts of the US, the incidence of childhood asthma had increased four fold in last 20 years. Here in Canada, one in five boys between the ages of 8 and 11 now suffers from asthma.

Our children are more at risk because they spend more time outdoors, are more active, and proportionately burn through far more air than adults. Their developing lungs and immune systems also put them at additional risk. Worldwide asthma rates are now climbing by an incredible 50% each decade –linked to declining air quality.

This is not just a human tragedy, it is an enormous economic burden as well.

Asthma costs the Canadian taxpayer a whopping $600 million each year in direct medical expenses. It is the leading cause of emergency room visits to our beleaguered health care system – an incredible 146,000 each year. Asthma is also the leading cause of absenteeism at school, and the third leading cause at work.

The asthma epidemic is not the only problem with our skanky air.

According to the CEC report, there is emerging evidence that poor air quality is also linked to host of other health issues, including miscarriages, premature births, low birth weights, and impaired lung development later in life.

The Ontario Medical Association (OMA) estimates that provincial air pollution causes 60,000 emergency room visits, 16,000 hospital admissions, and 5,800 premature deaths each year. Smog is estimated to cost the provincial economy a staggering $7.8 billion each year and rising.

What can we do? Plenty.

Transportation is the largest single source of air pollution in the country. Yet recommended efficiency standards for cars in Canada have not been changed for the last twenty years.

In a triumph of corporate lobbying, the largest SUV’s remain exempt from efficiency standards altogether even though these automotive monstrosities spew out 47% more pollution than cars.

Car ownership in Canada is also going in the wrong direction. The number of vehicles in Canada has more than doubled since 1970 - many of these additional vehicles being gas-guzzling SUVs.

As far as the major components of asthma-causing smog, Canada has a particularly dismal in limiting the chemicals that are poisoning our children.

Out of the 28 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Canada ranks third last for limiting emissions of nitrogen oxides, second last for sulfur dioxide emissions, and second last again for volatile organic compounds – a major contributor to ground-level ozone. Our sulfur dioxide emissions are more than double that OECD average per capita.

Energy generation is another problem. Last year the Ontario government announced that it was delaying the closure of the massive Nanticoke coal-fire generating plant on Lake Erie until at least 2009. This bitumen-burning behemoth spews out fully 14% of the airborne particulates in the entire province -a leading cause of asthma.

Canada also ranks towards the basement in terms of the efficient use of pesticide. Of the 28 countries in the OECD, only five use more pesticide per capita than Canada. Accurate Canadian trends are difficult to track we are one of the few countries in the OECD that does not track pesticide sales.

Stephen Harper, a self-described life-long sufferer of asthma, can appreciate the importance of moving quickly on improving Canadian air quality.

Perhaps the first order of business is to improve air quality monitoring. The CEC was unable to compare information on local air quality with relevant population data because we simply don’t keep such records.

We need mandatory emission standards on Canadian vehicles – something this country should have enacted years ago rather than continuing to coddle the auto industry with utterly ineffectual voluntary targets.

Government s need to invest in transport options other than continuing to pour tax dollars into infrastructure for the almighty auto. And of course, individuals really need to lay off the commuting alone in their cars every day.

We need to improve emissions from industrial polluters rather than continuing to tolerate having one of worst records for toxic emissions in the developed world.

Lastly, we need to focus on green energy and conservation so we can finally shut down the coal-fired dinosaurs that are turning our air blue.

Smog sucks. We can do something about it. Let’s get on with it.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. This piece ran nowhere.