Saturday, January 23, 2010

Department Competition: The Great Green Challenge

This past week we challenged departments to go head to head testing their own personal eco-habits.  Departments were asked to volunteer to join the challenge, and almost all of them did including the main office and library.  A few words of support from the principal go a long way for this one. 

Beyond winners and losers, it was a successful idea because everyone started talking about their daily habits, and teachers started really paying attention to their actions because they knew they were being monitored.  And if they have to change, maybe that'll be enough motivation to get the kids to get them to remind kids to get with the program too.  At the start of the next term in February, we plan to run a similar event with students in homerooms. 

Here's how we did it...

We made easy to use "rubrics" with a checklist of concerns including:  lights off, monitors off, printers off, composting available, travel mugs instead of Tim's cups, litterless lunches, no recycling or compost in the garbage can, re-use-it paper box or area, and a power bar for the microwave and coffee maker that gets turned off after lunch.  Bonus marks were offered if people walked, biked, bused, or car pooled, or if they did something else extra to reduce energy or waste. Each category got a mark of 0-not at all, 1-okay, or 2-excellent.  The numbers were added for a daily score. 

We had several student volunteers go in pairs to each department every day near the end of lunch.  Each pair took the same offices so they could observe any changes over the week.  Each day, the office got a rubric tallied and stuck to the door for all to see.  At the end of the week, the scores were added and a winner announced.

The scores were given a bit haphazardly, but that's okay.  This isn't the Olympics.  The point is to get everyone talking and on board and aware of what they should be doing.   Monday we'll announce the big winners.  The winners each get an Earthfest T-shirt, but the losers will each get an even better prize:  whatever it is they need to become more environmental like a compost bucket or a set of travel mugs.  Whatever it takes.  We'll figure out where the money for prizes will come from later.

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KCI Talks With David Suzuki

It's the end-of-term busy marking time again, and I've gotten sucked into a few good books lately, but I really must write about talking to David Suzuki.  KCI won the honour after making a video-letter to Harper about climate change. Here's the video, but you have to start it at 3 minutes in unless you want to watch us nervously waiting for Suzuki to show up. 

It was pretty exciting sitting sort-of face to face with him....

I had many questions to ask but took a back seat as much as possible (the very back).  I'd like to know his thoughts on concerns with employment reduction and industry shut-downs due to environmental controls - if that actually ever happens.  But the students had a some great questions. It's unfortunate that several students got cropped out of the file they sent us. We recorded it ourselves, but didn't get much of the students in that one either.

I also watched the calls he made to the four other winners.  He gave pretty similar lectures to all of us:

* Students have to talk to politicians and tell them the importance of the environment.  Well, we all do, but students are special because they are least likely to have ulterior motives.  They just want the planet clean so they can live. 

* Students should demand of their parents:  "What are you going to do to protect the environment for me and my kids?!"  Mom and dad need to become eco-warriors for their children and grandchildren!

* Schools should challenge other schools to be more environmental.  Our Ecoschool Gold certification is our attempt at that - although many schools are getting on board with that.  We'll have to get the platinum standard at our board like they have in Toronto schools.

* Canada is more vulnerable to climate change than most developed countries because of our northern areas and because we have the longest marine coastline in the world.  The sea-level rising will greatly affect us.

* We're losing the fight "big time" and we need to focus our thoughts long term.  Education and spreading the word is key.  Our most pressing issue is how we think.  We need to keep the future in mind and stop getting sucked into needing so much unnecessary stuff. 

* Stay positive by spending time with people we love.  He told a lovely story of his father dying, happy with his memories of his family and never once speaking about things he knew along the way.  We won't be reminiscing about our cars and iPods on our deathbed.  And spend time in nature as much as possible.  "We can't afford to get worn down." 

This April 22nd is the 40th anniversary of the very first Earth Day celebrations ever.  Millions of people took to the streets to bring environmental concerns to the forefront.  It was during 1970 that Nixon, of all people, had this to say:

"In the next 10 years we shall increase our wealth by 50 percent. The profound question is: Does this mean we will be 50% richer in a real sense? Or does it mean that in the year 1980 the President standing here will look back on a decade in which 70% of our people were suffocated by smog, poisoned by water, and deafened by noise. The great question of the seventies is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations, for we still think of air as free. But clean air is not free, and neither is clean water. The price tag on pollution control is high. Through our years of past carelessness we incurred a debt to nature, and now that debt is being called."

He, and millions others, were affected by this picture taken a year and a half earlier:

Last year we were hard pressed to get 100 people to our Earthfest celebrations.  This year, we're going to have to really do it up right!  Maybe re-posting this photo everywhere will  help get the message across.  We only have one inhabitable planet.  Let's stop messing with it.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

The Best Avatar Review Yet

Check out Monbiot's blog for a solid history lesson on invasions and slavery.  It bears repeating that the most striking thing about Hitler's holocaust is that, by the end of it, most of the world decided we shouldn't do this to one another any more.  It helped that the group doing the torturous killings was also taking over some land we wanted, but nevertheless it was a good association to make and remember for ever and ever.
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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Some Christmas Leftovers

For the month of December our school ran a Free Store addendum:  a re-gifting table in the front foyer with "present-able" things on it.  It got more positive feedback than anything else we've done so far including the video.  I started the ball rolling with some scarves and soaps and lotions that were given to me over the years.  I just caught one photo of the table, but many mornings it was overflowing with stuff which was all gone by the end of the day.  I hope it put some gifts in the hands of students that wouldn't be able to give much otherwise....  

At home every year we make a gingerbread house with a different theme.  One year it was a castle (actually a keep) with tiny catapults and cannons and a few gummi bears floating in the moat, another the Pompeii volcano mid-eruption covering gummi bears with lava, and another Survivor Gummi Island. 

This year, after making a standard house with my little one, I got more globally minded and made an Ivory Coast cacao plantation. 

The yellow, white and green gummis are the slave boys picking the cacao pods in the field.  The orange guys are the guards keeping them in line.  There's a couple on top of and in front of the building with tiny shoestring liquorish rifles.  At the left you can just make out a white guy bloodied by the whip of a guard.  In the little house are the red owners sitting around a table of cocaine - all due respects to Scarface.  Cacao pods produce chocolate while cocaine is from the coca plant, totally different, yet cash crops often fuel the drug trade as a means for producers and villagers to make enough money to feed their families.  Once people till over their fields for cacao or cotton or coffee, and no longer grow food, their standard of living tends to decrease as the corporate owners take the lion's share of the profits.  

Of course it's ironic that I used store bought Duncan Hines' chocolate icing which is not fair trade.  2010 will be the year I learn to cook using real ingredients - if it kills me.

In other Christmas news, running a string of LED lights on a timer for six hours a day uses more electricity than running them 24/7 because they're just that efficient.  Manually plugging and unplugging uses the least energy. Now you know.

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Eco-Driveways and the Big Stopper

Franke James has a great site, My Green Conscience, and she's also written a book, Bothered by My Green Conscience.  I haven't gotten to the book yet, but I love the site.  She's written extensively on how to create a green driveway.  Not only does it avoid the use of asphalt, a petroleum product, or cement, which gets a whole chapter in Monbiot's book for the emissions being created, but parking a car on grass helps filter the crap that drips off the car, and send water back into the water table.... 

When we park on solid ground, the dirt and oil and grease all run into the street and make their way to the storm drains which carry them out to the river system.  If you don't want fish swimming in grease, park on grass!   

It's a timely read for me because I'm planning to get a new driveway at my rental property.  BUT I'm not sure I'll do it.  In fact, I know I won't do it.  I'm hoping to sell this property in a few years, and I really don't think a grass-covered driveway will be a selling feature.  The bottom line is that a higher re-sale value is more important to me than fish and streams and pollution and carbon emissions. 

Sometimes I really suck as an environmentalist. 

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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Shock Doctrine

More of a social justice issue than strictly environmental, Naomi Klein's book, Shock Doctrine,  is a great introduction to the Iraq invasion, aka, Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Klein continues updates on her website. The following has been slightly augmented with another great read, Armed Madhouse by Greg Palast....  

An Extraordinarily Brief History of Iraq

Ancient Stuff

4,000 BCE – Mesopotamia (located in present-day Iraq) is the location of the first civilizations including the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians. Here, the ancients created cuneiform script; language by 3,200 BCE, evidence of first agriculture methods; first laws (Hammurabi’s Code); main breakthroughs in
civilization – food crops, domesticated animals, and preserved records; invented cotton, sandals, chess (“rook” = rukh = castle, and “checkmate” = shah mat = your king is dead), tennis, backgammon, cards, sofa, yogurt, algebra, guitar, tambourine…
1,000 BCE – domesticated camels – (invited further invasions)
559-331 BCE – Achaemenid Empire (Persia / Iran – world’s oldest continuous civilization of 6,000 years) took over the area and released all Israeli prisoners being kept by Babylonians; conquest of Babylon by Alexander the Great in 331
116 CE – Trajan, a Roman Emperor, created three provinces where Iraq lies (all Persia): Mesopotamia (between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris), Assyria (east of Tigris), and Armenia (Turkey mainly); west of the Euphrates was part of Syria then.

The Dark Ages / Byzantine Era (476-1450)

550 – Persia is divided into four provinces; the Western division, Khvarvaran, is mostly modern Iraq; the main religion is Zoroastrianism (developed in 620 BCE)
630 – Allah revealed the words of the Koran/Qur’an to Mohammad ibn ‘Abd Allah (born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia) – this marks the origins of the Muslim religion
638 – Khvarvaran is conquered by Muslims and named Iraq; a mass Arabic immigration follows, two cities are created: al-Kufah and al-Basrah

8th to 12th Centuries – the height of Arabian culture with many ground-breaking achievements in math, science, medicine (an Arabic medical text was used in Europe until the 17th century), astronomy (including knowledge that the world is round and travels around the sun - hundreds of years before Copernicus), music, poetry, philosophy – saved the works of Greek writers when Plato’s Academy was trashed; built the first planetarium (900) which is a model for all since; Christian crusades strengthened Muslim power; Arabic is the universal language of academia, had a library of 400,000 books, wrote significant world histories….

13th C – Mongols (Asia) took over Iraq (Genghis Khan); murdered a million Muslims, took others as slaves; defeated briefly by Mamluks (mainly Turks) in 1260-65 who chased out Christians too; many Mongols absorbed into Muslim culture in Iraq; Ghazan Khan became Muslim in 1301

Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Modern Periods

1299-1922 – Ottoman Empire (Turkish rule – Muslim) controlled much of Southeast Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. During this period Iraq was ruled by the Turkmen (14th and 15th), the Ottoman (16th), Iran (17th), the Mamluk (from Georgia 1747-1831), and the Ottoman again (1831-1917)

1914-1918 – World War I – Ottoman sided with Germany, and Britain took over, captured Baghdad in 1917 with the help of the Arab revolt against Ottomans in 1916
1921 – First King of Iraq - Faisal
1923 – Current Iraq border is created by the British and French; they lumped three groups into one country (Sunnis, Shias and Kurds), but officially supported Sunni rule
1927 – massive oil fields found near Karluk. Control went to the IPC, Iraqi Petroleum Company (a British company despite its name)
1932 – Iraq independence from Britain (limited)
1933 – Faisal dies and his son, Ghazi, rules
1939 – Ghazi dies in a car crash and his son, Faisal II, is King, but he’s only 4, so his Uncle Abd al-Ilah rules
1941 – Britain invaded Iraq (Rashid Ali al-Gaylani coup / Golden Square / Anglo-Iraqi War), occupation until 1947; Iraq wanted full independence, Britain said “no”
1945 – Iraq joined the United Nations
1948 – war against Israel
1956 – Baghdad Pact – an alliance was created between Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and U.K., formed to challenge Egyptian ruler Nasser
1958 – Kasim, Iraqi military officer overthrown in a coup
1963 (February) – Kasim was assassinated, and Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party took power (Ahmed Hasan al-Bakr); it’s a center-left secular Arab Nationalist party
1963 (November) – coup against Ba’ath by the Abd al-Salam Arif and his brother who
spent 90% of the Iraqi budget on arms
1967 – six day war between Arabs and Israelis; USSR arms Arabs, US arms Israelis; Israel victorious over Egypt, Syria and Jordan – (seen as invincible until 1973)
1968 – Arif died; al-Bakr takes over again as President of Iraq; top priority is Iraqi industry and agriculture;
1970 – Kurdish autonomy law created to grant partial independence within Iraq (boundaries around the region are established, but area still controlled by Iraq)
1971 – Iraqi government nationalized oil production into the Iraq National Oil Company
1973 – Arabs impose an oil boycott on all Israeli supporters and associates (the west); reduce sales by 5%/month and increase prices by 50% overnight until Israel withdraws and recognizes rights of Palestinians; US starts arms sales to Arabs
1974 – Israel troops to withdraw; heavy fighting in north Iraq as Kurds reject the autonomy law – led by Mustafa al-Barzani, receive arms and support from Iran briefly. When they withdrew support in 1975, the Kurds couldn’t keep up the fight
1978 – Iran took 60 US embassy employees hostage; US starts selling arms to Iran
1979 – al-Bakr stepped down (possibly forced) and Hussein, his cousin and the Vice-President, took over – immediately had some top Ba’ath members executed, and ruled that it’s now illegal to form any opposing political party
1980-88 – Iran-Iraq war; Iraq invaded; US helped Iraq; both accepted UN resolution
1990 – Gulf War (Aug 90 to Feb 91) - Iraq invaded Kuwait; UN imposed an embargo on Iraq and the US liberated Kuwait; Operation Desert Shield (Aug 90) was to prevent Iraq from invading Saudi Arabia; Operation Desert Storm (Jan 91) brought air missiles into the game

March 2003 – Operation Iraqi Freedom: US invasion; banned Ba’ath Party and bombed Baghdad severely; Dec. 03 Hussein captured, executed Dec. 06; Mar. 08 – U.S. exit?

Freidman’s Free Market Trail of Destruction

The Mission: Privatize, Deregulate, Make Cutbacks, Bust Unions

• remove all rules and regulations standing in the way of the accumulating profits
• sell off any government assets that corporations could be running at a profit
• dramatically cut back funding of social programs (no minimum wage)
• destroy dissention (unions)
• flood the local market with imports
• start with a sudden, jarring shift to alter expectations, then make changes quickly
• use torture if necessary: “the precise pain in the precise place”

Milton Friedman: “Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change when leaders are liberated to do whatever is necessary.” “Price controls are a cancer that can destroy an economic system’s capacity to function.”
Mike Battles, CIA: “For us, the fear and disorder offered real promise.”

In every country where Chicago School policies have been applied over the past three decades, what has emerged is a powerful ruling alliance between a few very large corporations and a class of very wealthy politicians, with an ever-shifting line between the two groups. The rest of the country is often left hungry or dead. (Naomi Klein)


1973 – Chile – coup, put in Pinochet and the “technos” (Friedman and other Chicago School economic advisors) – called a Caravan of Death (3,200 people executed, 80,000 imprisoned, 200,000 fled). After 10 years of increasing poverty of the people, Pinochet added price controls, a food program for children, etc., yet Friedman called it proof that a free market works
1973 - Uruguay – junta takeover “clean-up operation” included book burnings and banning strikes and political meetings.
1973 - Indonesia – coup, put in Suharto and the “Berkeley Mafia”(the CIA had received direction to “liquidate” the former president) – “transformed into the most welcoming environment for foreign multinationals in the world”
1976 – Argentina – took out Peron, a junta took over; before the takeover, there were fewer in poverty than in France or the US; after, entire neighbourhoods had no water or power. It was called a “planned misery.” Vehicles supplied by Ford, and Ford funded Latin Americans’ Chicago School education. 30,000 people
were executed, mainly between 16-30, including students who protested rising bus fees (they were infected with Marxism). Later Menem sold the oil fields, phone system, airline, trains, highways, water, banks, the pension plan, zoos…
1984 – Britain – Falkland War / “Operation Corporate” (ignored UN) – destroyed unions through surveillance operations and brute force of 3,000 extra police, finally 966 remaining striking miners were fired (Reagan fired 11,400 striking air traffic controllers), then privatized communications, gas, and airways
1985 – Bolivia (Che’s last stand) –three month state of siege by government (Paz) who said, “If it doesn’t work…I can catch a plane and flee.” – the poor started growing coca (cocaine)
1989 – colonization of the IMF by the Chicago School in “the Washington Consensus” which decreed that “all state enterprises should be privatized” and “barriers impeding the entry of foreign firms should be abolished.” Illegal to subsidize industry or raise minimum wage or control prices in any way.
1989 - Trinidad and Tobago - Davison Budhoo, who quit the IMF in 1988, made it public that the fund “invented, literally out of the blue, huge unpaid government debts” that made the islands seem less stable than they really were.
1989 – Poland – overnight eliminated price controls and sold off state mines, shipyards and factories to the private sector regardless of Solidarity government’s socialism
1989 – China – Deng and People’s Armed Police – Tiananmen Square massacre and arrest of thousands freed the government to convert the country into a sprawling export zone
1993 – Russia, Boris Yeltsin sent in tanks to set fire to parliament and lock up leaders opposed to privatization (spun as a hero); sold the oil company, nickel, and weapons factories. In ‘89, 2 million lived in poverty, by ‘98, 74 million did in the “transition towards democracy” (all before Putin attacked Chechnya).
1994 – South Africa - ANC (African National Congress) ignored its own Freedom Charter and created an independent banking system (not controlled by the state) to be run by bankers previously in charge under apartheid (And then severely poverty-stricken doubled from 2 to 4 million, and unemployment rate doubled from 23% to 48% and by 2006, more than 25% of South Africans live in shacks without water or electricity.)
1999 – Yugoslavia – NATO bombed Belgrade not because of Milosevic’s human rights violations, but because of its resistance to the trends in economic reform
2001 – US – Rumsfeld ordered every government department to immediately slash its staff by 15%. He made the announcement on September10th, and it didn’t get much media coverage in the states. “The job of government is not to govern but to subcontract the task to the more efficient and generally superior private sector.”
2004 – Sri Lanka tsunami – used the atmosphere of panic to sell off the coastline of fishing villages to entrepreneurs
2005 – New Orleans’ Katrina – one developer remarked, “I think we have a clean sheet to start again. And with that clean sheet we have some very big opportunities.” Pre-Katrina, there were 123 public schools, after, only 4; the rest were privatized using money allocated for rebuilding homes. Teachers’ union contract was shredded.

Who didn’t get caught up in the free market insanity? (yet)

1993 – Canada – The newspapers and TV insisted we were in the midst of a financial catastrophe and our credit has run out and soon investors would pull out. But then journalist Linda McQuaig spoke directly with Vincent Truglia, the senior analyst in charge of issuing Canada’s credit rating at the Wall Street head office. He told her he had recently come under pressure from Canadian corporate executives to issue damning report, but he refused to because Canada was in an excellent position financially.

Canada was so far beyond its means that our credit rating was going to be dropped significantly, and all foreign investors would pull their money from Canada. The only solution: radically cut programs such as unemployment insurance and health care. Chretien followed suit. The fact that Canada kept getting the highest possible bond rating, A++, made it difficult to maintain the apocalyptic mood. Truglia got fed up with the stats coming out of Canada that he issued a special commentary that aimed some veiled shots at the dodgy math practiced by right-wing think tanks. In 1995, John Snobelen (minister of ed) was caught on video insisting that a climate of panic needed to be created so he could make cuts to education. He called it “creating a useful crisis.”

Iraq and the Free Market: It’s not all about oil.

“After the crusade had conquered Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia, the Arab world called out as its final frontier.” - Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine

George Bush Sr. responds to accusations that his son invaded Iraq to open up markets for US corporations: “I think that’s weird, and it’s nuts. To suggest that everything we do is because we’re hungry for money, I think that’s crazy.”


Massive profits have been made by industries that include political figures as major shareholders. This breeds a serious problem of conflicting interests:
Halliburton provides products and services for oil and gas exploration – Dick Cheney, Vice-President
Health Net, a private health care company, made 7th in the Fortune 500 from treating returning soldiers – Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense
Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor, had shares jump 145% after the war started – Bruce Jackson and many others are involved in the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq (including Lynne Cheney, Dick’s wife)
• the Carlyle Group makes robotics systems and defense communications systems, they made $6.6 billion in the first 18 months of the war - James Baker, chair of the Iraq Study Group (an advisory panel)
Bechtel collected $2.3 billion to reconstruct Iraq – George Shultz heads up the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq
Fluor, one of the biggest reconstruction contract winners in Iraq – Henry Kissinger, advisor to Cheney and original chair of the 9/11 Commission
Trireme Partners – products and services relevant to defense – Richard Perle, chair of the Defense Policy Board
Crisis Consulting Practice – a counter-terrorism company – Paul Bremer, top envoy to Iraq and head of the CPA, Coalition Provisional Authority (the official transitional government from April 2003 to June 2004)

A New Bridge Strategies (Joe Allbaugh, ex-head of FEMA) partner admitted, “Getting the rights to distribute Procter & Gamble products in Iraq would be a gold mine. One well-stocked 7-Eleven could knock out 30 Iraqi stores; a Wal-Mart could take over the country.”

In the Gulf War (1991) there was one contractor for every 100 US soldiers. By the fourth year of the Iraq invasion, there’s one contractor for every 1.4 US soldiers.

Beyond the direct cost benefits of war, Paul Bremer started auctioning-off Iraq’s state assets (airports, etc.) to numerous corporations including Bechtel and ExxonMobil a few months into the war.


Invasion through an initial bombardment designed to erase the canvas of the nation, then occupation to build the nation into a true free market model.

The Invasion:

In the first six weeks, the US dropped 30,000 bombs and 20,000 precision-guide cruise missile on Baghdad, the equivalent of seven Hiroshima bombs, to “render the adversary completely impotent.” But they didn’t bomb the Ministry of Oil, they bombed the museum holding 170,000 priceless objects, the national library, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs, thus removing the memory of an entire culture (killed 16,500).

The Occupation:

Before the invasion, Iraq had the best education system in the region with the highest literacy rate in the Arab world (89%). Its economy was anchored by its national oil company and 200 state-owned companies which produced the staples of the Iraqi diet and raw materials of its industry. The majority of Iraqis (65%) wanted a secular government.

The first thing Paul Bremer did at the helm was to fire 500,000 state workers to “De-Baathify” Iraq. His next step was to try to privatize all 200 national companies. By 2004, unemployment was at 67%, half the population lacked easy access to drinking water, electricity was rationed to two hours a day, less than 40% of children were attending school, 15% (4 million people) have been forced to leave their homes, and crime was rampant. Only 15,000 Iraqis were hired to work for the new reconstruction. A poll found that 70% of Iraqis now wanted Islamic law as the basis of the state.

Bremer lowered the corporate tax rate from 45% to 15% and allowed foreign companies to own 100% of Iraqi assets. Owners would not be required to reinvest in the country, and they would not be taxed. Investors could sign leases and contrast that would last 40 years. Then the US printed a brand-new currency for the Iraqis. And, even though Iraq had a clear and usable constitution, created in 1970 but largely ignored by Hussein, Bush decided to draft a new constitution for them. Bremer handpicked the members of an Iraqi Governing Council and insisted all local leaders had to be appointed by the occupation. The US stopped any public election processes because the process could put the “wrong” person in power.

Bremer on democratic elections: “I’m not opposed to it, but I want to do it a way that takes care of our concerns. Elections that are held too early can be destructive.” One concern is that, when polled, only 4.6% support a party that creates more private sector jobs and only 4.2% wants a party that will keep coalition forces until security is good.

The US economists didn’t privatize the oil reserves while they privatized everything else (it would be seen as an act of war against the Iraqi people), but they did take possession of $20 billion worth of revenues from the national oil company. Billions disappeared in sub-contracting scams in which one job might require four sub-contractors who each took a piece of the profit. $186 million was allocated to build 142 health clinics, but only 6 were built.


The US administration thought that the Iraqis would be so stunned by US firepower, and so relieved to be rid of Saddam, “that they could be easily marshaled from point A to point B” (Richard Armitage, former deputy secretary of state). Instead, even while being bombarded with explosives, the majority of Iraqis strongly rejected Bremer’s program and demanded a say in the transformation of their country. They were unshockable.

Rumsfeld was running the military like a corporation, cutting back 300,000 government employed soldiers from the battle. The private sector was left to fill in the gaps at every level. Blackwater’s original contract was to provide private security, but later it engaged in all-out street combat and even assumed command over active-duty US marines in battle with the Mahdi Army. According to CEO, Erik Prince, “We’re trying to do for the national security apparatus what FedEx did for the postal service.”

Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Shia rebellion, was a force to be reckoned with. He denounced the constitution as illegitimate and compared Bremer to Hussein. He started building up the Mahdi Army after peaceful protests had no effect. (Mahdi is the name of the final imam; Shias believe he will return to Earth as a saviour one day.)

Contractors started pulling out. New Bridges Strategy conceded that “McDonald’s is not opening any time soon.”


Washington responded by ordering personal attacks. An estimated 61,500 Iraqis were captured and imprisoned, often tortured. In August 2003, Captain William Ponce, and intelligence officer, sent an e-mail to fellow officers in Iraq: “The gloves are coming off gentlemen regarding these detainees…we want these individuals broken.” Then Major General Geoffrey Miller, warden of the Guantanamo Bay prison (Gitmo), was brought to Iraq, and new interrogation procedures were authorized including humiliation, exploitation of fears, sensory deprivation and overload, and stress positions. Military lawyers determined that the Iraqi detainees were not protected by the Geneva Conventions. After being “detained,” Iraqis were freed, and 70-90% were told their arrest was a mistake. In May 2007, 19,000 Iraqis still remained in custody. An estimated 300 academics have been assassinated by death squads.

In December 2006 (after almost four years), the US started to get Iraq’s state-owned factories running and made efforts to employ more Iraqis. It seemed like they were going Keynesian. But while they were letting go of control of some minor businesses, they were starting to privatize oil.

With all the religious fighting within Iraq (1,000 Iraqis were killed every week), Iraq was now seen as a security risk, and the Bush administration deemed it necessary to draft a new oil law for Iraq which would allow companies like Shell and BP to sign 30-year contracts in which they could keep a large share of Iraq’s oil profits (hundreds of billions of dollars). The law placed no limits on the amount of profits foreign companies can take from the country, and it prevents Iraq’s elected parliamentarians from having any say in the terms for future oil contracts ever. This in effect sentences Iraq to perpetual poverty since, formerly, 95% of government revenues came from oil. Iraq’s cabinet (hand-picked by the US) adopted the law in February 2007. The Federal Oil and Gas Council was created to be the ultimate decision-makers on all oil matters, and to be advised by “an appointed panel of oil experts from inside and outside Iraq.”

In 2004, the U.S. State Department launched a new branch: the Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization. It pays private contractors to draw up plans to reconstruct 25 different countries that may one day find themselves the target of U.S.-sponsored destruction. Corporations and consultants are currently lined up on pre-signed contracts so they can act as soon as disaster strikes.

Current Iraqi Demographics (2006 figures):
Population: 26.7 million (Canada – 32.8; U.S. – 303.3)
Infant mortality rate: 48.6 deaths/l,000 live births (Canada – 4.8; U.S.- 6.4)
Fertility rate: 4.1 children/woman (Canada – 1.6; U.S. - 2.0)
Life expectancy: 69.0 years (Canada – 79.8; U.S. – 78.0)
Median age: 19.7 years (Canada – 39.5; U.S. – 35.3)
Ethnic groups: 78% Arab, 17% Kurd, 5% other (mainly Assyrian and Turkmen)
Religions: 97% Muslim (65% Shia, 32% Sunni), 3% other (mainly Christian)
Shi’ism / Shia / Shi’ite – ruler must be a direct descendant of Mohammad
Sunni (majority of Muslims, except in Iraq and Iran) – ruler can be any person
elected by a majority;


1. What are the groupthink ideas about the war in Iraq (and/or some other incidents you might know about) being promoted by mass media?

2. Using your knowledge about the psychology of conformity, explain why the US expected to be able to get total conformity to their plan after bombing the Baghdad?

3. Using your knowledge about the psychology of conformity inoculation, speculate on why the Iraqis are “unshockable”? Why didn’t they conform to the US authority like so many other countries did?

4. In what way is Chomsky’s idea of manufactured consent necessary to free market methods? How can we avoid this phenomenon?

5. What makes Canada different? Consider Linda McQuaig’s work as well as Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke’s success in stopping the MAI.

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Monday, January 4, 2010

No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart

This book has been very helpful in explaining the psychology of our choices when it comes to continuing to shop at stores that are exploiting people, animals, resources or just opportunities.  Can we be ethical consumers without threat of punishment?  Here's the handout I use.  I used to hand it out, have them read it and answer the questions, but that wastes a lot of paper.  Now I read it to them and work through the questions together, making a few notes on the board as I go.... 

No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart, by Tom Slee, in a Nutshell

We think allowing people free choice and a free-market will keep everything running smoothly, but a reliance on individual choice has rendered the poor even worse off and given more power and wealth to those already at the top of the heap. How and why do we do this to ourselves? How can we stop making choices that end up hurting us?

Clashing Economic Theories

Keynesian (John Maynard Keynes)
– Government spending can carry economies through recessions and depressions. We must allow the government to stay in control of the market to make sure it works for everyone. (This sounds like a bad idea to a libertarian like me, but it actually makes a lot of sense.)

Chicago School (Milton Friedman, game theory)
- We must have a free market and allow individual consumer choices to dictate which stores are best for the people; the people should be in control. All decisions are the product of self-interested rational individual choices. The market is the pathway to prosperity and growth. Therefore – privatize and deregulate the market. The role of government is to get out of the way. (Q1,2)

In a free-market economy, corporations are not in charge, consumers are. People vote with their feet. It suggests that a bad company can’t possibly stay in business for long, and people must like what they choose, or else why would they choose it. (Q3)

Harmful companies often do well. Individual choice often fails to give us what we really want in the long term. And choice is only useful if it helps us to get what we want.

[I understand this as a common phenomenon in behaviour modification theory: People will always choose an immediate reward with a distant punishment, over a distant reward with no punishment. In other words, we have a lack of ability to resist short-term minor rewards that come attached to far away punishments to others, in favour of long term larger and more equitable rewards that are sustainable over the long haul. (Plato referred to this as the inability to adequately measure pleasure and pains in our lives. Measurement is the most important skill.) We need to keep long-term prosperity in mind every time we make a consumer decision. We need to learn to measure better.]

For example: If Jack shops at WalMart he gets cheaper products. It’s a wise decision for the short term. But over years of shopping at WalMart instead of supporting independent downtown stores, his downtown gets run down, his neighbours lose their jobs, and his life is adversely affected for good. He might even end up moving somewhere more prosperous not realizing the effect his choices had on this degradation. Not so wise now!

But Slee argues that Jack’s choices were actually perfectly sensible. Individual choice is not a guarantee of a happy ending. Choices are rarely made in isolation. They become quickly and intricately tangled, and their outcome is often not what we intended or hoped for. Jack made the best choices, but the choices ended up making him unhappy.

Our preferences are tangled; there’s no such thing as true individual choice (see below). We can make sense of the world by making the respectful assumption that people generally make the best choices they can in the circumstances they find themselves.

E.g.: Divorce – should two people be conciliatory in their pursuit of property and avoid a legal battle, or should they be aggressive and pay a lawyer to take the case to court?  This is the standard prisoner's dilemma.

* If both are conciliatory with no lawyers, they divide all 50/50
* A lawyer will take 20%. If one of them is aggressive and the other conciliatory, the
aggressor will get it all less their lawyer’s fee (80%).
* If both are aggressive, they’ll split the property evenly, less each lawyer’s fee (30%).

Generally, it’s always better to be aggressive, or someone might screw you over! We can only be conciliatory with absolute certainty of the other person’s potential actions. But Jack and Jill would actually have been better off without a choice at all, if the government just divided their stuff up for them 50/50. Similarly, if we had no choice about shopping at local, independent stores for a certain percentage of our products, then our societies would be better off. But are we prepared to give up free choice? (Q4,5)

Choice Vocabulary

Externalities – the impact that a person’s choice has on others. This effect of one
player’s actions on another creates a lack of alignment between choice and

Preference and Best Replies – When choices are interdependent, then what we prefer to
happen is often not a true option for us. Our preference is the cause of our choice,
but not the outcome of it. Therefore, choices do not reveal preferences, but only best replies. People don’t really choose what will make them most happy, but just make a best reply to the world and the actions of others around us. If we make choices that harm people and the environment, it doesn’t mean we want to harm.

Equilibrium Outcome – When participants can’t improve their own outcome by
their actions alone. The end result of good individual choice is an equilibrium
outcome, but there’s no guarantee than this is the happiest outcome for each
player. (Q6)

Free-riding (Tragedy of the Commons)

[From a cultural anthropology view, free-riding is an instinctual drive towards survival of the individual at the expense of survival of the species.] Shopping at big box stores to the detriment of independent stores, the vitality of the downtown, and the local economy is like littering in your favourite park. We rely on others to live differently than we do. My one piece of garbage hidden behind a bush in the park has little effect, so I keep littering. But when we all do it, soon my park is a mess. This is free-riding. We benefit from our actions hoping that others will act differently.

It’s a similar situation to the effect of public vaccinations. We need a significant number of kids to be vaccinated for a disease to be stopped. If we rely on people to choose this route, most will rely on others to do it, and the disease will win. So it’s compulsory. So are helmets, seatbelts, and sober driving. Environmental protection is not, so it suffers.
Because we can’t control others or really know what they’ll do, we act in our own best interest. If a line of soldiers is to advance, many will run away instead to save themselves, and more will die, unless they know this behaviour will be punished. (Q8)

Curbing Free-riding
We need to legislate fines for pollution in order to save the environment. We need to legislate fines for the shift towards shopping at big box stores in order to save cities. We need governments to end urban sprawl. We need unnecessary solo car-travel to be heavily taxed or fined.

If we leave it all up to public choice, the market will not ensure that we get what we want in the long run. Individual choice often leaves us miserable and baffled by the outcome.

[But aren’t governmental officials just people too who are working for their own benefit (even if, in theory, they shouldn’t be). How much power do we really want them to have? Can the public be shown possible outcome scenarios and vote on these restrictions in a series of public referendums? But even then, how will we vote?] (Q9)

Urban Sprawl
Free-market theory suggests that cities evolve to reflect preferences of their inhabitants. Do we all really want car-centered suburbs that render it difficult to have effective public transportation, make services expensive, encroach on farmland and protected natural environments, affect ground water supplies, and decimate the city center?

If everyone took busses to work, the roads would be empty, and the busses would move faster, so everyone would get to work faster. But if most people are on the bus, a person can get to work even faster still by driving a car (and free-riding on others’ bus habit), and there’ll be plenty of parking. Everyone thinks like this, so everyone drives – slowly. If (as happens in Central London) every private driver on the city streets between certain hours in the morning and afternoon were to be fined for every trip, then the costs would begin to outweigh the benefits for many people and traffic would diminish. Fines and taxes eliminate the ability for people to free-ride.

Big-Box Stores

The Consumer:
Shopping at large stores at the outskirts of town results in an erosion of the city center and increases traffic and pollution throughout the city. Many think that the success of big-box stores is the voice of consumer sovereignty speaking, and to prevent the growth of power centers would be to restrict freedom of the companies and consumers. But, many people who shop there might wish the stores didn’t exist. They’d shop in town if they didn’t think there was a huge savings to be had elsewhere. But even though they don’t intend to neglect the downtown, once its population slips below a critical point, the whole infrastructure can unravel.

The Suppliers:
Since Wal-Mart has a large portion of the market, it’s an essential customer for suppliers. So it can dictate terms to them and get discounts. The suppliers are stuck. In order to undercut other suppliers and get the Wal-Mart account, they have to cut costs, pay workers less, and use sweatshops. If all the suppliers hold out, Wal-Mart would have to back down. But it’s in the short-term interest of each supplier to try to offer the best deal. So all the suppliers lose. (Chapters did even worse – it created it’s own supplier.) (Q10)

The City Council:
Big-box stores need land to be rezoned by city councilors. If they say no, the store might be positioned just outside their boundaries in a neighbouring district, taking citizens farther away from the core, in which case the original city loses business but gains no property taxes. It would be best for all cities to prohibit power centers, but it’s better for each city to get the power center than have it established next door. (Q11)


Why we need so much new stuff. (The Arms Race Analogy)
As soon as one person has something newer or nicer than we have, we get shifted down the social hierarchy. We need to keep consuming in order to just maintain our place as others keep consuming. Even non-conformists have to evolve away from the norm once people adopt non-conformist attire. If we all agreed that clothes, car, houses, etc don’t really matter, we could stop. But, because we can’t trust one another, that will never happen. An SUV is safer on the road if all other vehicles are small cars (even taking into consideration their roll-over problem). As soon as everyone drives an SUV, they’re no longer safe. Then the safest vehicle will be a Hummer, until everyone drives Hummers. It never ends.

The Collective Action Problem
Because we’re all tempted to free-ride, it’s difficult for groups to act collectively towards a common goal, even if the goal is brief – even to save a life. (It’s similar to the bystander effect and mob mentality or groupthink. We hope others are more altruistic.)

Game-Theory Solution: Tit-for-Tat (Q12)
After the first move, act co-operatively. If someone acts aggressively, act equally aggressively. If they start to co-operate, forgive them and respond co-operatively again.

Co-operation Examples
Small communities tend to co-operate more than big cities, and thus keep out big-box giants, and have smaller homes and vehicles because they don’t compete with one another as much. But this conformity also breeds intolerance and discrimination.

We all agree with Kyoto, but because of free-riding, nobody’s really implementing it. Canada signed up, hoping to cut greenhouse gas emissions in 1990 by 6% by 2012, but by 2004 emissions rose by 20% instead due to failure of individuals to choose to act.

Time destroys our ability to correctly deduce costs of our actions: (Plato said this too.)
If we’re trying to lose weight, but there’re chips in front of us, eating the chips gives us pleasure rated at 2/5, but not eating them is a greater pleasure of 3/5. Yet we almost always eat the chips. The pleasure of not gaining weight from eating chips is delayed. The delay cuts the pleasure value in half: 1.5/5 instead of 3. So we eat them. And so we drive to the store, and don’t bother to turn off lights, and crank the heat or A/C. And we don’t vote.

Since many people will shop at Wal-Mart because they believe their individual purchase won’t make a difference (free-riding), collective actions such as publicity campaigns and boycotts are needed. If their fate is left to individual actions, corporations will always get an easy ride. Publicity helps us realize that each choice can make a difference because others are choosing this way too, and by bringing peer pressure to bear on individuals. Starbucks in BC sell a lot more fair trade coffee than the company in Ontario just from activist campaigns that ask consumers to always ask for the fair trade coffee. (Q13)

BUT whoever cares least about the world or their neighbourhood, wins. If you just follow the path of least resistance until that path is closed off, and let others fight these battles, then you can ride on their coattails all the way to the end. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem, but it’s more personally cost effective that way.


We think that popular stores are the best or else they wouldn’t be so popular. But that’s because we mistakenly believe the best option is the most public option. It’s survivorship bias that implies the highest performers are the most visible. But often, stores are popular by chance, and that chance popularity keeps them expanding. We don’t hear about the great ideas that gained no popularity; we don’t consider the whole sample, just the winners who won the way people win lotteries not due to merit, intelligence, hard work…

Predictability trumps quality. Once we know a product, we’ll choose it over an unknown product with claims of superiority. In this way we’re in the market for lemons (poorly-made products). We’ll support a company we know even when the quality of the products goes downhill and an alternative is available. We want to do what’s popular.

As partners in an exchange move from equality to inequality the exchange moves from bargaining to exploitation. Whoever has fewer needs of the other, wins. Exchanges between unequal parties call for altruistic actions, not bargaining. (Q14)


1. What are two pros and cons of governments controlling the market (corporate decisions around growth, location, pricing, pollution, working conditions, etc.)?
2. In your opinion, how much power should governments have over corporations? Should they have total control, or get out of the way of big business?
3. What is “marketthink”?
4. Why do people make choices that harm them in the long-run…
a. according to behaviour modification theory?
b. according to Plato?
c. according to Slee?
5. Why is it hard for people working together to be honest and helpful of one another (conciliatory)?
6. What does Slee mean when he says our choices don’t reflect our preferences?
7. What is free-riding?
8. Give three current examples of the government preventing free-riding.

9. How would you vote on each of these issues if this were a real vote?

a. Corporations will no longer be allowed to build at the outskirts of town.
b. Corporations must pay all workers worldwide a living wage.
c. Consumers must buy at least 60% of all products from downtown stores.
d. Fines of $15 will be given to anyone driving on a city street between 7-10 am and 3-7 pm unless shown to be absolutely necessary (can’t bus).
e. All children must have complete vaccinations before starting school.
f. Fines of $150 will be given to anyone caught littering in a public place.
g. Anyone caught driving under the influence will lose license for a year.
h. Companies caught polluting the air or water will be fined $6 billion.
i. Citizens using more than 600 kWh of electricity monthly will pay triple on energy used over that amount.
j. Voting in all elections is mandatory.

10. If all of Wal-Mart’s suppliers got together and decided they wouldn’t negotiate lower than 8 cents for a product. What is likely to happen when negotiations begin? Why?
11. Why do cities often allow urban sprawl from power centers at the outskirts of town?
12. Give an example of the tit-for-tat solution working to stop an “arms race” for new stuff. And explain a situation in which it wouldn’t work at all.
13. Why do you think the west coast is so much more environmentally concerned than here?
14. Analyze these scenarios:
a. Jill fell down an abandoned mine, and Jack happened to wander by. He offered to get her out for a price of $10,000. Why do we see this as a corrupt bargain?
b. Is trading organs for immigration papers (from Dirty Pretty Things) a free-exchange bargain or exploitation? Explain.
c. The IMF offers loans to struggling countries in exchange for profits from privatized health care and education. Is this a free-exchange bargain?

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