Is This Progress? This Is Progress.

What Is Kaputall?

Oxford defines Kaput as "broken and useless; no longer working or effective" - similar to our unbalanced economic system. This is a page dedicated to the intersection of capitalism and social, political, and environmental problems.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Capitalism, Environmentalism, and Agriculture

You've probably heard the adage that there's more than enough food in the world for everyone, but that the real problem is distribution. This statement, beyond actually being true, is very revealing about Western culture. For modern, industrialised countries, great profits from agriculture - not providing for communal survival - are the goal.

Thus, the explosion of agriculture is an integral part of the world economy. In fact, in Karl Marx's Capital, he explains the notion of value with grain as an example. Since the late 19th century agricultural products have been traded internationally and have been major parts of national revenues. Grain was a staple of the Russian Emipre (and later the Soviet Union). The massive investment in grain allowed the state to trade with Germany and England for steel, which was then used for infrastructural "modernisation".

In the 1920s and 1930s, the emphasis moved away from the state, and toward the corporation, as the engine of the economy. Moreover, since the postwar period, there has been a gradual deregulation and liberalisation of trade. The result has been "globalisation", which is a nebulous term to say the least. Although most disagree about what this word actually means, broadly speaking, it implies two important realities. Firstly, the freedom of capital to move more freely, which creates economic imperialism. Secondly, the proverbial closeness, which has resulted the imposition of Western culture on the rest of the world.

Agribusiness is an excellent example of this. Although there are many outstanding sources that go into great detail on economic imperialism, I am going to focus briefly on the outcome - the proliferation of Western culture. Western cultures have not historically eaten much meat, but the technological advancements made over the twentieth century, combined with huge government subsidies, have created an environment where meat has become inexpensive and plentiful. Various heavyweight companies from North America have set up throughout the world, introducing diets rich in meat to millions of people annually. As a result, more and more livestock are being raised on less and less quality farmland. In fact, much of the deforestation in the Amazon is caused by cattle ranching. It should be quite clear that our current agricultural production, which is centred on meat, is simply unsustainable.

If it is clear that there is a problem, then there needs to be action taken. And here's where there are some significant divergences of opinion. Many advocate for removing products that come from animals from our diets. While this is a noble cause, I disagree that this will create the positive change that we need. Many other agricultural products, particularly soy, cause atrocious environmental destruction - even those who are deemed to be "organic". Beyond pesticide use, industrial farming of vegetables and fruit also creates monocultures, resulting in the loss of biodiversity. Irrigation schemes, such as those of the Southwestern United States have caused natural watersheds to virtually disappear. And to top it off, the average food item purchased at the supermarket has been trucked approximately 3000 km.

This is all to say that a more sensible response to agribusiness is localism. Already, the local movement has been coopted by supermarkets who sell "local" produce. Instead of buying local food from a large conglomerate grocery chain or distributor, we would ideally be purchasing it from a local market. But there are many roadblocks. The first that comes to mind is climate - because nobody in Canada wants to eat rutabaga, carrots, and beets all winter. Just as daunting, there isn't an apparatus available to provide local food in many of the largest or most remote communities. Thankfully, there is technology available such as greenhouses, and there are many initiatives such as community gardens. I would also argue that potentially the best feature of local agriculture is that the livestock are part of smaller herds and are far better cared for. It is important to keep in mind though that meat consumption has to decrease. I recently became a flexitarian - someone with a predominantly vegetarian diet who drastically limits meat consumption. It would certainly be good news if everyone made this positive step.

There are clearly many challenges going forward, but with cooperation and awareness, sustainable agriculture may be closer than we think.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

On Bike Tax

Recently, I started reading articles on a new site called GOOD. I was surprised to find this ridiculous proposition here. The logic is essentially that since bicycles are vehicles, riders should pay taxes for upkeep. While it is true that in North America car owners pay certain registration fees and taxes that fund public roads, there are several reasons why this is simply unacceptable to impose on cyclists.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, a tax on bikes would disincentivise commuters to ride to work as well as people to ride for pleasure. This is very damaging to a positive trajectory in sustainability. Even in a crucial era where making environmentally-conscious choices is absolutely imperative, it is not surprising that there are debates around "foreign" ideas like investing in infrastructure outside of suburbs and SUVs.

For many environmentalists, the answer to the ecological crisis is more technology and more capitalism – a theory known as ecological modernisation. And since there are no great profits for corporations to make, no massive repair and certification industry, and no jobs that are dependent on the manufacture of on bicycles, this sustainable effort is viewed as backward - and dangerous. Considering that the automotive industry, its lobbyists, and its supporters and consumers make up such a substantial number of North Americans, it is not surprising that government is leery of change. James Gustave Speth, an environmental writer and former politician, wrote on the supremacy of the economy (read: jobs), he characterises as “the shared cause of all people on Earth” (read: Americans).

Another problem is that it is unrealistic to ask for cyclists to pay for road upkeep because, generally, roads are maintained for cars and trucks. Very few roads are made to accommodate bikes with dedicated lanes, special paths, or wider shoulders. How are municipalities to collect from cyclists and then invest that money directly or proportionately into amenities for bikes. And frankly, what's next, a tax for pedestrians? According to a variety of lists of bike-friendly cities in North America, even some of the best locales such as Ottawa, Phoenix, Chicago, or Montréal have a mixed bike/car infrastructure at best, but generally favour cars. Regardless, there is still the construction of good infrastructure, like Ottawa's 220km of trails and Montréal's bixi programme.

With respect to enforceability there are some pretty significant problems. While all cars that change hands are recorded by the state, this isn't the case for bicycles. In general, there is no equivalent to pulling a bike out of someone's roadside trash, the prevalence of theft, or getting a barely functioning handmedown from a distant relative. Obviously, we are now in the territory of insurance. Details records are kept on cars because insurance is such an enormous component of the industry - and of course there is no need to regulate the bike industry with safety or insurance measures. And keep in mind that many who ride their bikes already have drivers licences and own cars.

Although the perspective of taxing cyclists is absolutely absurd, it does mean that state and capital are taking cycling far more seriously. Hopefully in the coming years there will be many more locales in Canada and the United States that have transit systems like those in Western Europe. In the meantime, it's worthwhile trying to find ways to make our lives less dependent on cars - whether through public transit, ridesharing, or getting on a bike.

Monday, 18 April 2011


Despite how important elections are to a functioning democracy, many Canadians will abstain from the 2011 General Election. Because we are socialised to believe that one vote doesn't count, voter turnout in Canada has been on decline since the end of the Second World War. There are many who contend that there is absolutely nothing wrong with voter apathy and this unnerves me. The problem is that the majority of citizens who do not vote are people who belong to a group that is marginalised somehow in our society, whether because of language, age, gender, ethnicity, religion or many other identity markers.

This upcoming election may well be one of the most pivotal in decades, although there are many voices in national media, in business, and of course the Harper Government, who suggest otherwise. The spectre of a coalition is framed as "dangerous". Naturally, it is completely untrue that coalitions are bad. Not only are coalition governments the status quo in many countries around the world, when polled most Canadians have called for more cooperation on Parliament Hill. I can't say that I am surprised by Harper, as he has consistently shown that he doesn't expect the average Canadian voter to be informed. Can he seriously deflect answers and still expect votes?

Ultimately, there are many messages that can be sent with the upcoming election. Whether through increased participation or a vote for a political party that will roll back neoliberal reforms, numbers are important. Elections are not the start or end of phases of democracy in a society; they are simply moments in an ongoing project where issues come before the people for discussion. Harper has made it clear that he doesn't respect the democratic institutions of our nation. Take, for instance, transparency. Even though the Conservatives have only held a minority, there has never, in the history of Canadian democracy, been a federal government who has been more secretive and opaque. When charged by opposition leaders about failing to be transparent, Harper's response was that Parliament is nothing more than an inconvenience to getting things done, playing on a stereotype that many Canadians have of politicians as "bickering".

A Conservative majority, therefore, has the potential for dictatorial rule by shutting down avenues of dissent against the government - and that is extremely undemocratic. Keep in mind that Harper also wants you to vote and then forget about politics until the next election. I think that Harper says it most clearly when he mentioned at the English Language Debate that he wants no more Canadian elections in the near future, claiming that elections are expensive and not good for our economy. Moreover, elections help to shape the framework for discourse until the next election. A Conservative minority has proven an ineffective place to bring up questions, such as gender equality, and until there is a change in the makeup of Parliament many critical concerns will continue to be ignored.

An important question that voters need to ask is "how we want to construct our future?" If you don't know, or aren't satisfied with the information you've been given, then familiarising yourself with the myriad issues both debated and ignored is the most important place to start. If you feel comfortable, engage friends and family in a conversation about where they stand on issues - and challenge yourself and others to dig deeper.

In the end, if you don't feel at the end of it all that there is a party that you want to vote for, don't retreat from politics - get involved in other ways. Volunteer for causes that mean something to you, get involved in lobbying, try to change the electoral system, or focus on politics at more local levels. There are many options to make change happen - don't delude yourself into thinking that voting is the be all end all. I hope that every Canadian will take some time to uncover what they believe in and follow it, because there is a lot riding on this election.