"Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it." --G.K. Chesterton

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Eco-terrorism back in the news

Eco-terrorism? I'd bet most people haven't even heard of the expression, let alone of the existence of this brand of criminal. But, with news of the arrest today in Washington State of Rebecca Rubin, a Canadian wanted in connection with the eco-terrorism-linked firebombing of a Colorado ski resort in 1998, eco-terrorism is certainly in the news.

And it was in the news six years ago in Canada too -- at least if you were paying attention. Below is the unedited version of a story I wrote in August, 2006, on a little-covered, little-noticed outbreak of eco-terrorism in Canada. The story was published in the Western Standard.

The malicious ELFs of central Canada
FBI 'Wanted' poster: Rebecca Rubin

Police are stumped as eco-zealots rampage through southern Ontario


Last January, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced that a massive police initiative code-named Operation Backfire had resulted in the indictment of 11 members of a radical environmental group known as the Family, an eco-terrorist gang which was aligned with the outlaw Earth Liberation Front* and which had been linked to 16 arson and vandalism attacks in the U.S. West between 1996 and 2001. Six members of the gang, including Canadian Darren Thurston, who was twice convicted of similar crimes in Edmonton in the early 1990s, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and arson charges in July. The rest, plus two others, are either fugitives or face trial in October.

The criminal proceedings marked an important victory for U.S. law enforcement authorities in their fight against ELF, which the FBI has called the number-one domestic terror threat in the country and which, in conjunction with its ideological fellow travellers in the Animal Liberation Front, has been responsible for attacks causing more than US$110 million in damage over the past two decades.

But even as prison doors were slamming shut on some of the U.S.’s most dangerous eco-zealots, ELF radicals were running riot in southern Ontario, burning partially-built homes and vandalizing construction equipment, all in the name of protecting Mother Earth from human development. Since June of 2005, attacks in Guelph, Brantford, London and Toronto have caused more than $3 million in damage, most of it this past summer [see list below]. No one has been injured in any of the attacks, and the incidents have stayed under the radar of the national media. But that doesn’t mean they’re not extracting a high toll.

“The unfortunate truth is that is costs construction companies and excavation companies a whole lot of money,” says Nathan Lancaster, a project manager with Lanca Contracting Ltd. of Brantford, one of whose sites was hit in mid-July. “There are so many other serious problems out there, you’d think someone would have better things to do with their time.” Vandals typically put sand into the fuel tanks of heavy machinery.

Police have few leads, but it is known that computers linked to the University of Guelph were used three times to send ELF communiqués taking credit for attacks. As well, on August 1, Guelph police charged University of Guelph environmental activist Matthew Soltys, 23, with mischief after they caught a man spray-painting the image of a red dump truck on a wall in downtown Guelph; he was also in possession of a stencil reading, “Eco-Terrorist.” Sgt. Ron Lord of the Guelph police department says he hopes the public will help solve the vandalism and arson attacks, the most serious of which destroyed the Cutten Club golf course’s clubhouse last October. “We’re at a point now where all the files are active,” Lord says. “Fires of this magnitude, I’m sure somebody will talk somewhere, some time.”

Not necessarily. It was only through undercover police work and extensive surveillance that U.S. authorities were able to crack ELF’s criminal conspiracy. Indeed, Lynn Snowden, a professor of criminology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, notes that ELF tends to be organized very loosely into independent cells; some lone wolves may even act alone, claiming ELF membership but really just operating on their own. “There’s really nothing to connect them to the movement or anything like that,” she says.

Whether acting alone or in groups, the eco-zealots are usually young, impressionable and believe that civilization is destroying the world, says author Ron Arnold of Bellevue, Washington. Arnold, vice-president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, is one of the continent’s experts on radical environmentalism. He says typical ELF recruits are aged 17 to 22, and begin lawbreaking at least as much as an expression of their generalized anger at authority as in response to their environmental beliefs. “It’s a way to get attention, a way to get even, and revenge is a very powerful motive,” Arnold says.

Motive aside, police in Ontario clearly have a big problem on their hands. Brantford’s Sgt. Lord says his office is sharing information with police departments in other cities hit by the eco-vandals, but the communities have yet to establish a joint task force to tackle the problem. Perhaps they’re hoping the success enjoyed by U.S. authorities will rub off on them.

Ontario’s eco-terrorism hot spots

June 26, 2005. Arson, the Church of Our Lady, Guelph. Cost of damage, $10,000.
June 26, 2005. Arson, Zeller’s department store, Guelph. Cost, $25,000.
October 31, 2005. Arson, the Cutten Club, Guelph. Cost, $400,000.
January 30, 2006. Arson, house under construction, Guelph. Cost, $5,000.
June, 2006. Arson, house under construction, Guelph. Cost, $200,000.
June, 2006. Vandalism, construction machinery, Guelph. Cost unknown.
July 14, 2006. Vandalism, construction equipment, Toronto. Cost, $2 million.
July 18-20, 2006. Vandalism, equipment at five construction sites, Brantford. Cost, unknown.
July 21-27, 2006. Vandalism, equipment at 10 construction sites, London. Cost, $300,000.
July, 2006. Arson, house under construction, Guelph. Cost, $80,000.

*Radical environmentalists belonging to the Earth Liberation Front believe humans are destroying the world. Accordingly, they have pledged to use “direct action in the form of economic sabotage to stop the exploitation and destruction of the natural environment.”
ELF was formed in the United Kingdom in 1992 and has since spread to the U.S., Greece and Canada. Prior to this year’s epidemic of destruction in southern Ontario, ELF’s Canadian activities were mainly limited to B.C., where eco-radicals burned down a wilderness lodge in June 1995 and repeatedly vandalized a Vancouver Island golf course in 2000 and 2001.
A communiqué, issued by ELF following one of its Brantford, Ont. vandalism attacks this July, casts a light on the outlaw group’s warped mindset. It reads: “The day to day lives most of us live are killing our sweet mother earth, that which we all need to survive…Let us RISE UP and fight the machines that destroy the planet. We do not need to fight each other. Working as one we can live lives of LOVE and HARMONY for all humans, animals, plants and the planet.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Mainstream media have yet to learn suicide lesson

It's been almost  two weeks now since I wrote my blog urging caution about over-publicizing suicide. I am pleased to report that, since then, Charlie Smith, the editor of the Georgia Straight newspaper, decided the piece was significant enough to merit placement on his website, complete with a new graphic from Shutterstock, which is reproduced to the right.

Furthermore, two insightful readers of this blog added their comments to my original piece, further elaborating on the issue. I urge you to read them.

I hadn't thought I'd need to write about the subject again quite so soon, but I feel that, in light of a new controversy, some additional commentary is warranted. My concerns centre on the pulicity over the alleged "suicide pact" among aboriginal children in east Vancouver. As has now been made clear by Vancouver School Board Chair Patti Bacchus, initial news reports grossly distorted the situation, in which, in reality, only a few youngsters were actually contemplating suicide; the rest were merely involved in online commentary about the issue. A radio report of her comments, which I heard earlier today, also quoted Bacchus as saying the media must be extremely careful in reporting on suicides because of the contagion effect, of which I and, moveover, the Georgia Straight, wrote earlier. Good for Ms. Bacchus!

One would think that, of all types of stories the media cover, they would be most careful in writing about suicides. Instead, it now seems that tabloid values have triumphed..

There was a time, of course, when virtually no reporting of suicides took place. I recall very well that, throughout most of my career, editors were aware not only of the need to respect the privacy of the family of the person who had died (not the least reasons for which were because the family was often overwhelmed by feelings of shame and guilt) but also because of the recognized negative impact that such reporting has on vulnerable individuals.

Sadly, however, those standards have been eroded. A person who commits suicide is now increasingly portrayed as a victim of external forces rather than as someone who has thrown in the towel or lacked the fortitude to face a difficult time. And, rather than search for the root of the nihilistic malaise which infects all too many troubled youth, activists and politicians rush in to try to grab their five minutes in the media spotlight.

Meanwhile, the televised handwringing and gnashing of teeth ends up having the effect of teaching troubled kids that suicide can guarantee a moment or two of fame for them, too, even if it's postumous.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Personal but not political support from the Minister

It appears that my voter-encouragement idea, which would have seen the provincial government enact legislation to allow communities to more fully publicize the names of citizens who vote, has run into another obstacle.

This is because I've just received a letter (the first page of which is reproduced here) from Bill Bennett, the Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development, suggesting to me that, while he sees some merit in my voter-encouragement idea, the best route to legislating the change would be for me to persuade Coquitlam council to support the idea and then seek support for the initiative from the Lower Mainland Local Government Association and the Union of B.C. Municipalities.

But, of course, I couldn't persuade my council colleagues this past September, and so my motion went no further. After that council vote, I wrote a letter to Attorney-General Shirley Bond , who had appointed a panel to look into online voting, asking her to look into my idea too. Ms. Bond referred my letter to Mr. Bennett and he has now declined to pursue the matter any further.

But while the matters is stalled now, I'd still like to respond to a few things Mr. Bennett said. He wrote: "My professional advice is that your proposal would present significant challenges in relation to: the cost to local governments of publishing voter names; the absence of a newspaper in many communities in British Columbia and the limited online presence of other municipalities; and, concerns regarding their right to anonymity in the electoral process. I still like the idea, however."

Regarding Mr. Bennett's concerns about the high costs and lack of outlets for publicity, I must point out that my idea would be to allow municipalities to more widely publicize the names of those who vote, not to force them. Communities with no budget to buy newspaper supplements or who have primitive websites would not have to publish the names if they didn't want to.

And on Mr. Bennett's expression of concern about voters' "right to anonymity in the electoral process," I must point out that no such right exists. The names of people who voted are already published after each election, and are available for public viewing for six weeks; however, the publicity is very limited, as it is restricted to a printed list and is available only to those who have the time and ability to visit City Hall in person. And, even then, the list cannot be reproduced mechanically.

To me, this represents something from the Dark Ages. Surely, if publicity is good in principle (as it clearly is, otherwise we wouldn't have the limited publicity that is in place now), then steps should be taken to apply it equitably, and not to limit the exposure--of the names of those who voted--to those who can spend several hours a day for weeks on end viewing and transcribing the names at City Hall.

Nevertheless, I thank Mr. Bennett for his response and for his personal support of my idea.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Youth suicide calls for careful response

Graphic from teensuicideprevention.org
Amanda Todd’s suicide touched many in our community, and rightly so. If it’s true that the death of even one person represents a loss to all humanity, then the death of a young person such as Amanda amid such troubling circumstances might be seen as an even greater loss.

That being said, we must be careful in how we respond to this case. Yes, it should serve as a clarion call for greater awareness of the impact of cyber-bullying. On this point, and on the related issue of what can be done to stem the tide of cyber-bullying, everyone seems to agree.

At least as important, however, is the overall issue of youth suicide for whatever reason. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among teens after motor-vehicle accidents, according to this online source. Furthermore, this page from the Canadian Children’s Rights Council’s website has some important information about how common the phenomenon is and what can be done about it.

Interestingly, another page from the same site contains the following declaration: “Curriculum or school-based programs which focus on increasing awareness, risk identification and community resources are not effective, and may, in fact, stimulate imitative suicidal behavior…”

This statement leads directly to an event of some interest that took place in Vancouver earlier this week, and that was the provincial government’s Erase Bullying conference—the reporting of which tended to focus on the fact that officials with the Ministry of Education had not invited Amanda Todd’s mother to attend “over fears her presence might upset some of the event’s young speakers.”

I think the ministry made a good decision. Not to diminish the sadness associated with Amanda’s death, I am worried that there has been altogether too much publicity surrounding her suicide. Talk-show hosts, politicians, community leaders and legions of social-science experts have all weighed in, as is their right. But it is also their responsibility to weigh their statements and actions carefully, with their primary concern being the effect of those statements and actions on young people. The “contagion” aspect of suicide is real and everyone in a leadership position must recognize this.

My thoughts regarding this are also guided by something the great American essayist Peggy Noonan once noted when discussing unmarried mothers: “That which we celebrate, we encourage.”

With this in mind, I think we need to be cautious about this Sunday’s memorial and birthday tribute for Amanda. Yes, her family and friends have every right to mourn her passing. Nevertheless, such an event has the potential to add fuel to a fire which, I fear, has already grown far too hot.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Why Canada went into Afghanistan

In the weeks leading up to Remembrance Day, veterans of the wars in which our country has fought visited many schools and community organizations to describe their experiences. I've learned that, in at least one of those presentations, participants expressed considerable confusion about exactly why Canada entered the fray in Afghanistan. To clear things up, here's the edited text of a feature story I wrote for the Western Standard's March 13, 2006 issue. (DND photo at right shows Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay meeting with Afghanistan's President, Hamid Karzai, in November 2007.)


Shhhh....we're nation building: Canada has assumed a critical role in rescuing one of desperate parts of the world. So why is Ottawa keeping so quiet about it?

By Terry O’Neill

Western Standard Senior Writer
[Page 41-44, March 13, 2006 issue of the Western Standard]

Within a week of winning the Jan. 23 general election, Stephen Harper talked with Peter Harder, the country’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, and, as Harder recalled in a speech a week later, told him “to stay the course” in Afghanistan. Coming from a politician who had pledged to beef up the Canadian military so it could better “project Canadian values abroad,” Harper’s expression of support for Canada’s mission in Afghanistan was not surprising. A reversal of the former Liberal government’s strategy in the violence- and problem-plagued country would have been unthinkable given Canada’s international commitments and the Conservatives’ robust defence and foreign affairs policies.

Nevertheless, while it seems that there’s currently broad political support across all party lines for Canada’s Afghan strategy, Ottawa has so far been fairly taciturn about why exactly our troops are there —especially compared to the kind of cheerleading we’ve seen from the White House when it reminds U.S. voters, almost daily, why American troops are far away and in danger. By comparison, how many Canadians can claim to be aware of the full nature of the country’s multi-pronged approach to the strife-ridden state—an approach that involves far more than the 2,000 Canadian troops now being deployed in the dangerous Kandahar region?

It’s a role that easily can be described as nation building—though it’s somewhat understandable that, given the imperialist connotations the phrase carries these days, politicians have been reticent to call it that. While Canada’s burgeoning military presence—and the attendant risk to our soldiers—deserves a high profile, we’re also spending hundreds of millions of dollars on development assistance to Afghanistan. The country is now our largest aid recipient, and Ottawa has launched scores of other programs designed to help rebuild what is commonly referred to as a failed state.

The engagement embodies Ottawa’s relatively new “3-D” approach to international engagements—diplomacy, defence and development. The approach was formally enunciated in the former Liberal government’s International Policy Statement, made public April 19, 2005. You might have missed the announcement that day, since it was the same day the Vatican elected the new pope, overwhelming all other news coverage. But the policy, and its Afghan manifestation, are of paramount importance to Canadian foreign policy. Indeed, the Afghan mission, and a similar 3-D engagement with Haiti, mark the first big tests of an international policy that, if successful, will set an expensive and risky template that could last for decades.

The lack of public awareness notwithstanding, Canada’s role in Afghanistan has been growing since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Canadian troops (most famously, members of the elite Joint Task Force 2) fought in the American-led war to oust the al Qaeda–friendly Taliban from power. Canada was also a signatory to the Bonn Agreement of December 2001, designed to help reconstitute a government in Afghanistan. Ottawa ramped up its development aid, increased its military presence, opened an embassy in Kabul, and launched programs aimed at, among other things, fostering democracy and rebuilding the economy.

On Feb. 1 of this year, Canada signed the Afghanistan Compact, the successor to Bonn. The new accord establishes a framework for “international community engagement” in Afghanistan over the next five years. The conference at which the agreement was reached took place in London, and it was there that bureaucrat Harder revealed details of his chat with politician Harper. Harder’s little-publicized speech also reminded the international community of the extensive role Canada has played in Afghanistan for more than four years and of its vital goal. “None of us can afford to allow terrorists to ever again find haven in Afghanistan,” he said. “None of us can afford to ignore the desire of the Afghan people to rebuild their country.”

Harder reminded the international audience that nine Canadians have died in pursuit of peace and prosperity in Afghanistan, including eight soldiers and one non-combatant, Glyn Berry, the political director of the Canadian provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in Kandahar, who was killed by a suicide bomber on Jan. 15. “Three Canadian soldiers were seriously injured in that heinous attack,” Harder said. “Canada is not, however, a fair-weather friend. Kandahar remains for us, in Glyn Berry’s own words, ‘the right place to be.’” The reconstruction team of which Berry was a part is an important manifestation of Canada’s 3-D strategy. The PRT comprises about 250 soldiers who work with civilian police, diplomats and aid workers to reinforce the authority of the Afghan government in and around Kandahar, and to stabilize the region. “To achieve these goals, the PRT conducts security patrols, contributes labour and resources to local reconstruction efforts, supports local governance institutions, and facilitates reforms in the security sector,” according to National Defence documents.

In addition, there are all the programs funded by the foreign aid that Canada has been pouring into Afghanistan since 2001. Prior to that year, Canada typically sent about $10 million annually to Afghanistan for basic human needs. Before the Taliban’s ouster, there were rampant shortages of food and medicine (made worse by the Taliban’s blockage of aid workers who were Christian or female).

Since then, Canada has spent or committed a total of $616.5 million, until 2009. The money means, according to CIDA statements, that Canada has taken “a lead role” in several initiatives, including: helping the Afghan government collect and store 10,000 heavy weapons; providing savings and micro-loan services to 140,000 clients; and helping with the destruction of landmines and ammunition stockpiles.

And there’s the Mounties. Supt. Philip Campbell at the RCMP’s headquarters in Ottawa says there are three Mounties in Afghanistan, two serving with PRTs and one involved with the UN mission in the country. “We’re a small cog in a big wheel,” Campbell says humbly.

And it is big—and expensive. In addition to the $616 million in funding from the Canadian International Development Agency, the Canadian Forces say they spent $1.34 billion on Afghan operations to the end of last year, and estimate they will spend an additional $374 million on operations Athena and Archer by the end of this year, for a total of more than $1.7 billion. National Defence spokesperson Cathy Huth explains these figures are “incremental costs” that are above what the Department of National Defence would have spent for personnel and equipment had they stayed in Canada, rather than being deployed to Afghanistan.

The Department of Foreign Affairs was not able to provide any figures for what it has spent on its diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan. But spokesperson Kim Girtel says the department increased the size of its diplomatic presence in Kabul by almost 50 per cent last September, to a total of 20 Canadians. “Strengthening our presence in Kabul reflects an economy of effort and a consolidation of expertise that enables effective Canadian leadership,” Girtel states. “Why are they there? They are there for the same reason [the soldiers, the PRT and CIDA are]. They are there to help Afghanistan become stable, democratic and self-sustaining. It’s the same goal and purpose.”

So, while the soldiers may get most of the public notice, Canada’s personnel deployment in Afghanistan involves much more than uniformed troops. “Our diplomats, our development officers and our civilian police have helped Afghanistan rebuild, retrain, restart,” Harder said in his speech. “These unheralded men and women are on the front lines of the future of Afghanistan. Their dedication to service merits our utmost respect.”

They clearly have a big job ahead. Although its economic outlook has improved markedly since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, the country is still, for the time being, a basket case. “Despite the progress of the past few years, Afghanistan remains extremely poor, landlocked, and highly dependent on foreign aid, farming, and trade with neighboring countries,” according to an annual assessment by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. “It will probably take the remainder of the decade and continuing donor aid and attention to significantly raise Afghanistan living standards from its current status, among the lowest in the world.” Indeed, the CIA calculates the country’s unemployment rate at 40 per cent, with 53 per cent of Afghans living below the poverty line.

Still, Canada’s nation-building efforts in Afghanistan have provoked detractors on the left. For instance, researcher and analyst Anthony Fenton of Vancouver, whose work has appeared in several left-wing journals, including Regina’s Briarpatch magazine, says Canada should pull all its troops and end development projects that, he argues, are designed less to help indigenous people rise above poverty than to
“foster better conditions for neo-liberalism and the type of globalization that powerful countries are pursuing.” Fenton believes Canada’s image as a benevolent peacekeeper is a lie; the truth, he believes, is that Canada is creating conditions that will leave Afghanistan open to being exploited by multinational corporations.

Douglas Goold, president and chief executive officer of the Toronto-based Canadian Institute of International Affairs, rejects the arguments, and believes they come only from the far-left political fringes. But, he admits, it’s hard to make any broad claims about Canadian public opinion since there has been “very little” in the way of public debate over Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. “So, does that mean we should have a debate about this in Parliament?” he asks. “It absolutely does. We need to explain to Canadians and to debate in Parliament why we’re there with such a presence.”

In the end, Goold is convinced that the case for being there will win out. “This is a country of strategic importance that is tremendously unstable, that can cause a lot of damage to the rest of the world through terrorism or other means,” he explains. “To the extent that we can help it establish a better infrastructure, establish more stable institutions, end the drug trade, which directly or indirectly affects all of us, then I think that’s a good thing.” (Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium.) “My sense of when I was there was, regrettably, that Afghanistan is a failed state that is going to keep on failing. The problems are so vast. They’ve had 30 years of warfare, the country’s basically ruined. The illiteracy rate is as high as 75 per cent. They’ve got drug lords. They have very limited control of outlying areas beyond Kabul. For all the will in the world, and all the money in the world, it’s going to be very hard to turn that around.”

In other words, Harper may inevitably find himself faced with some hard choices as both our funding and our troop commitments are scheduled to sunset over the next few years—funding commitments are good to 2009, and Canada’s command of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Kandahar is good for about nine months. And without a clear understanding from voters of why we’re there and what the plan is, his options may be limited by public ignorance.

If Canada relents, says Goold, it’s proof that our work in Afghanistan was less about actually trying to rebuild the country, and strictly about offering a make-good gesture to an ally, the U.S., which was disappointed in Canada’s failure to join the “coalition of the willing” in the invasion of Iraq. There are some who believe Afghanistan’s future hangs in the balance. Sima Samar, an Afghan doctor who served as the country’s deputy prime minister after the Taliban fell, is urging Canadians to stay for the long term. “Helping Afghanistan is not just about helping the Afghan people,” she said, on a visit to Canada in February. “It is helping humanity, including Canadians. If we have problems in Afghanistan, the other parts of the world will not be safe also.”

That’s how Canada’s top soldier, Lt.-Gen. Rick Hillier, put it to the Western Standard in a November interview. When western countries, such as Canada, neglect the opportunity to rebuild failed states, such as Afghanistan, Hillier said, “the instability that results will cause the growth of all those things that we see all the time in failed states: organized crime; the potential for pandemics to develop; refugee columns that pour out of those countries; and a place where terrorism can grow. [Those] results will indirectly affect our nation because of the impact it has on international stability.”

For now, that seems to be the view in Ottawa, too. Our current military presence in Afghanistan is larger than any deployment since the Korean War, our aid package is our most generous, and our overall diplomatic and development commitment unprecedented. Peter Harder said in his speech that Canada will continue “moving forward” and will not be dissuaded by difficulties and deaths. “The struggle for stability is not a choice,” he declared.

That may be. But if Canadians aren’t fully on board when the going gets tough—even if it’s just because they’re unaware of the depth of our commitments in Afghanistan—who’s going to tell them it isn’t?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Doing what comes naturally

If a completely natural event like an earthquake disturbs the completely natural habitat of a rare animal, is it something we humans should care about, or should we simply stand idly by and observe nature unfolding?

A story now appearing on the CBC's website (about a bat's birthing habitat that has been adversely affected by the Haida Gwaii earthquake) implies that we should be concerned. But I'm wondering about the grounds this concern is based on.

After all, to listen to most of the mainstream talk these days, the "natural order" is sacred. If so, then we definitely should not be disturbed by one part of nature (an earthquake) affecting another part (the bat's habitat).

But if we are supposed to be concerned, are we then to believe that the earthquake was some sort of mistake made by Gaia? But how could that be in a belief system that holds that all "nature" simply "is."

A better way of thinking about this is that the "natural order" should not be the ultimate standard by which we judge our planet's affairs. And, this being the case, if we humans value the diversity of species, and if one of those species is now more endangered because of an earthquake, then we have every right to to be concerned.

Funny thing: such compassionate concern for little critters seems to be an entirely natural characteristic of the most successful creature here on Earth--we humans.

Sailing into hot water in the Pacific

It's likely that most folks wouldn't have heard of the controversial idea of seeding water with iron filings (to boost the growth of plankton, thus helping feed fish and also capturing carbon) until the recent news about the scheme involving the waters around Haida Gwaii.
However, I wrote about this fascinating issue in one of the last pieces I filed for the now-defunct Western Standard in the summer of 2007. Here's the text, as I submitted it to the editor:


Pumping up Pacific plankton

By Terry O’Neill

Canwest News Service photo of Haida Gwaii
Somewhere off the shores of the Galapagos Islands in the South Pacific Ocean, a lowly phytoplankton needs a boost of iron. But, according to Planktos Corp. of San Francisco, plankton living in this environmentally important area of the sea can’t get enough of their daily iron dose, a problem that’s causing the population of the minuscule sea organism to collapse, adversely effecting all sea life in turn. But Planktos, a publicly traded company that employs controversial Vancouver financier Nelson Skalbania, has a solution: dump 45 tons of iron filings into the ocean, thus not only pumping up the carbon-dioxide-gobbling phytoplankton but also reducing global warming in the process.

Save the seas and cut global warming at the same time? Planktos says it’s feasible, but its plan hinges on eco-sensitive corporations, individuals and governments paying the company to spread the iron dust in the ocean to offset their greenhouse-gas producing activities elsewhere. But while the company and its European subsidiary, KlimaFa (which specializes in reforestation), churn out press releases promoting their carbon-offset work, critics say the company’s science and business plan are both questionable.

Shares of the company were trading on the risky OTC Bulletin Board in the (US) $1.30 range in mid-July, compared to eight cents last fall. Critics have noted that Skalbania was charged in 1997 and ultimately found guilty of stealing $100,000 from an investor. He was also involved in several stock-market ventures of dubious integrity.

The centerpiece of Planktos’ activities is a ship called the Weatherbird II, which sailed from Washington, D.C. last spring but by mid-summer was still in Florida taking on 10 tons of iron, along with supplies and scientific equipment to ready itself its test-run “voyage of recovery” to the South Pacific. “Our real goal this year, more than any of the business experiments,” spokesman David Kubiak says, “is to try to get some public awareness, to put plankton right up their with penguins and polar bears, the poster kids of planetary distress.”

Stirring words, but they’re largely falling on deaf ears among environmentalists. "This is an irresponsible and unpredictable venture by purely profit-driven individuals," Elizabeth Bravo, of Accion Ecologica of Ecuador, said earlier this year. "It threatens our climate, our marine environment and the sovereignty of our fisherfolk and it should be stopped."

Nevertheless, the acting leader of the B.C. Green Party, Christopher Bennett, says he is intrigued by the Planktos plan. “My gut reaction is that polluting the ocean can’t be the way to clean the ocean or the planet,” he says. “But I’m open to new ideas.” In the meantime, he’s calling for the formation of a voluntary association to assess all companies’ environmental claims.

“Based on my own experience over the last two to three years,” says the former corporate public-relations consultant, “30-40 per cent of businesses are making claims about their environmental record that are false, that are probably not entirely accurate at all.”

Will Planktos end up in this group? Only the plankton know for sure.