Gifts That Matter

Gifts That MatterThis time of year when we’re all a bit stressed over the holiday shopping it might be worthwhile to consider some alternatives to the standard “shop ’til you drop” thing. For example, Gifts That Matter, run by CHF (which calls itself “formerly the Canadian Hunger Foundation” and is one of Canada’s longest standing non-governmental organizations) uses your donations to buy life sustaining “gifts” for people in developing countries around the world.

For example, for $50 you can buy a pair of goats for an impoverished family in Bangladesh. Feeling a bit more generous? $100 buys the gear required to provide a rural Vietnamese family with a source of clean water. For $500 (less than the price of that crappy ACER laptop you’re considering) you can buy a whole camel for a family in Ethiopia.

The idea is that you buy one of these gifts for someone in a developing country, and Gifts That Matter sends a greeting card (in a style you choose on their Web site) to someone on your Christmas list. That way, a family who really needs it gets something, and your Aunt Mabel doesn’t have to clear space for another box of doilies.

Although I couldn’t find anything about it on the Web site, as far as I know your gifts are tax deductible. So? What are you waiting for?

Pilot Project Fail

The STM is running a pilot project at the Berri-UQAM Metro station. On the platform for the Côte Vertu-bound train (orange line), they’ve put some markers on the floor to indicate where the doors for the Metro cars will be when the train comes into the station. The idea is let to you know where not to stand, to enable people to get off the car before the waiting throng pushes its way on.

Here’s what it looks like: on the left is a door location indicator. On the right is a sign explaining (with jaunty typefaces) what it’s all about:

STM pilot project Berri-UQAM

A close up of the sign:

STM pilot project Berri-UQAM

Translation: Avoid the confusion. The yellow markings on the ground indicate the location of the doors. Thanks for leaving this space free in order to facilitate the departure of passengers. Your opinion is important. To respond to the survey: Pilot Project.

Nice idea. There’s only one problem: This is Montreal! A city notorious for its self-absorbed, mindless public transit users. A place where people regularly push onto the cars without waiting for those inside to get out first. Where guys wearing huge backpacks take one step into a half-empty car and come to a full stop, preventing anyone else from boarding. A place where people sprint across a crowded platform, knocking people over, so they won’t miss that rush-hour train – even though another one will be along in (literally) two minutes. (Dave spells it out rather nicely, here.)

This project has FAIL written all over it. Let’s be clear on something: in Montreal, to point out where the Metro doors will be and then expect people not to stand there is like writing NO MOTHS on the bulb that lights up your patio. FAIL.

No Vice President Job for Hillary Clinton

Unless you’ve been living on the moon, you’re aware that we’ve recently seen the end of a five year battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to secure the Presidential nomination for the U.S. Democrats. (OK, it was actually about 16 months, but it felt like five years.) Although the campaign itself was excruciating and felt endless, it was in theory an amazing and historically significant race. The U.S. has had neither a black President nor a female one, so those who were looking forward to something really different could see it as a winning scenario, no matter who won.

But oh, that campaign. After all the sniping, with each side taking swipes at the others’ experience, judgment, and credibility, Obama has emerged the winner. The burning question that immediately arose is whether he will offer Clinton the opportunity to run with him as Vice Presidential candidate.

A lot of people think that would be a great idea, that together they’re be a juggernaut of difference and change. However, hope is fading for those who think so, as Obama immediately distanced himself from Clinton as soon as he clinched the nomination. And frankly, I can’t say I blame him.

After all, they both – although Obama in particular – campaigned on the idea of keeping things “real,” of not just playing the same old Washington political games. While most of us saw through the bull and recognized that virtually everything each of them said was 20% “real” and 80% campaignspeak, the fact remains that in the midst of all this “keeping it real” they spent a year and a half tearing strips off each other. Clinton’s campaign was particularly guilty of this, to the point that Democratic party members are reportedly concerned she has provide a goldmine of anti-Obama ammunition to the Republicans.

So now what? If Obama offers the Vice Presidential candidate position to Clinton, it won’t say “I’m burying the hatchet” or “we’ve made up and now we’re a great team.” It will say “I’m swallowing bile for the sake of getting votes.” Clinton, if she accepts, will be shouting “I’ll hold my nose and put up with him; anything to get me closer to that Oval Office!”

And ultimately, running together will destroy the credibility of both. Think about it. How could Clinton legitimately support Obama and his ideas after spending the past year or more trying to slay them? How could Obama legitimately embrace Clinton as a running mate knowing (and knowing she knows and we know) the things she said about him?

Talk about awkward!

On the other hand, the answer is easy; by putting on a show of mutual support (emphasis on “show”) and by shouting out a bunch of well-timed, five second sound bytes, it would probably work, at least on some level. (U.S.ers are notorious for their short political memories, especially when sentiment enters the equation.)

But the cost of that false camaraderie is the loss of the thing we wanted most from both of them; something different. Something real. A break from the old Washington political games.

You can argue that I have a small sense of history; that I’m not thinking of the historical significance of having a President and Vice President team that cross ethnic and gender barriers. Maybe so, and I admit that I have more concern for what happens over the next few years than for someone’s legacy and their place in the history books.

I am concerned that a Democratic administration in which the two principals not only dislike each other, but have a public history of disliking each other, would be a poor and ineffective team. It would be a Presidency mired in conflict and back stabbing. We would all suffer.

The sad thing about it is that Hillary Clinton would, I think, have made a fine President or Vice President. But that campaign, that mud-slinging, attack dog campaign, ruined it. It ruined her. The style of that campaign was Hillary Clinton’s one big error in judgment. It was her Monica.

Biofuel Solves the Wrong Problem (and Creates Others)

Today is “Earth Day.” In honor of that, I am posting the following exposé on biofuels. I originally wrote this last year, before the looming global food shortages threw the whole biofuels question into the spotlight. I didn’t post it, however, as I wanted to do more research. But perhaps today is a fitting day to expose my thoughts on the biofuel fraud. My only regret is that I didn’t post this earlier, when fewer people were talking about it. It would have given me serious “told ya so” points. But I’ve been saying this privately for more than five years, so it’s time to get it out there.


Years ago, when people first started talking about “biofuel” as a “green” fuel source for cars, I responded with skepticism. My basic idea at the time was that food should be used to feed people, not cars (biofuel is made from plants, usually grains such as corn). Now, with biofuel being pumped from many gas stations across North America, my position has changed – I am no longer skeptical; I’m flat out against it.

Biofuel is popular among a lot of ecologically minded people because it is touted as “green” due to its being renewable. Every year, with every harvest, a new batch of biofuel is cooked up to drive our cars, which is supposedly much better than pulling oil – a limited and rapidly depleting resource – out of the ground to do the job. The fact that biofuel comes from plants makes it seem highly ecological.

Not so. Ecology is a complicated science, and one that is interwoven with other sciences. Just because something is “green” (read: comes from plants) doesn’t mean it is a desirable solution to our complicated ecological problems.

What it comes down to is this: biofuel addresses one problem, does nothing for another problem, and makes a third problem even worse. That’s not a very impressive resumé, especially since the one problem it does address (but does not even solve) is a political problem not an ecological one.

Biofuel Addresses One Problem

The only real problem than biofuel addresses is the problem of depleting oil reserves and the associated problem of U.S. dependence on oil from the Middle East. It’s no coincidence that ethanol production gets more attention – and financial backing – from the U.S. Government and oil companies than any other ecological initiatives. The corn-based biofuel business is really just a home-grown replacement for oil from abroad, and by painting it green the government(s) can do it with full buy-in from the public.

Biofuel Does Nothing for Another Problem

From an ecological point of view, the primary reason for using alternative fuel methods is to cut down on pollution and greenhouse gases. Pumping biofuel into your Hummer’s gas tank does nothing to address this concern. Burning fuel is burning fuel, whether it comes from a Saudi oil field or a Nebraska corn farmer. Combustion of oil creates polluting smoke and gasses. Full stop. (More on this below, under “Further Reading.”)

Biofuel Makes a Third Problem Worse

Above, I mentioned that my early concerns about biofuel were based on the idea that food should feel people, not cars. My worries were not groundless. Due to the huge amount of corn that is being diverted into biofuel production, the cost of corn for food on the market has risen significantly. People in Mexico, in particular, are feeling this, as corn-based products are a staple of the Mexican diet. In the past two years, the price of corn-based food products in Mexico has shot up dramatically at the supermarkets. According to this Washington Post article, the price of tortillas has tripled or even quadrupled in some areas. (According to Marginal Revolution, tortillas provide about half of the calories and protein for poor people in Mexico.)

Then there is the matter of food aid for the developing world. It used to be that surplus grain from Canada and the U.S. was sold to their respective governments and used as food aid for poor people around the world. But the rise of biofuel has corresponded to higher food costs and less food for developing world food aid. It’s a classic supply-and-demand thing – supply is up, but demand is even “upper.” As a result, prices go up and the grain goes to the highest bidder – the biofuel producers. In other words, food aid is taking second place to biofuel production.

So there you have it. The business of biofuel production is ecological tricksterism that causes hardship among the poor people of the world. That doesn’t mean we should just keep on driving our cars and fueling them with petroleum-based fuels. Rather, we should address the real problem: the heavy and prolific use of the internal combustion engine. Specifically, the dwindling resource and the pollution its consumption creates.

Dwindling Oil Reserves

Personally, I think the fact that we’re running out of oil is a good thing. It means we’ll finally stop burning that oil and clogging up our atmosphere with greenhouse gases. We’re being forced to consider other energy sources, but we should focus on sustainable and non-polluting ones.


The solution is to move towards engines that do not rely on internal combustion. Basically, that means electric. Partnered with this is the need to generate electricity via methods other than coal- and oil-fired generating plants. Wind, tides, water; there are many renewable and sustainable resources that can be exploited.

Short Term

In the short term, pumping biofuel into your car does nothing other than maintain the status quo of our reliance; not so much on oil as on internal combustion. Instead, the short term solutions are to (a) drive more fuel efficient cars, and (b) drive them less, (c) encourage investment in alternative, non-combustion based transportation.

Further Reading

The American Coalition for Ethanol claims that ethanol (a commonly used biofuel for cars) creates 29% fewer greenhouse emissions than does regular gas, but according to this CBC report, scientists at Environment Canada say the difference is insignificant. Quoted in the article is Bill Rees, a professor of ecology at the University of British Columbia:

“People are being conned into believing in a product and paying for it through their tax monies when there’s no justifiable benefit and indeed many negative costs.”

Rolling Stone magazine did a big exposé on the issue last year: “The Ethanol Scam: One of America’s Biggest Political Boondoggles.” really tears the cover off ethanol with this article: “Corn-to-Ethanol: US Agribusiness Magic Path To A World Food Monopoly.” To quote the opening paragraph:

“Eight years of Biofuels policy and legislation has cemented in place the first world wide food cabal, which promises a humanitarian disaster, a famine more serious than those caused by any tsunami, earthquake or drought. This crisis is not in the dim future, it is here.”

The article is somewhat bombastic in some of its claims, but it lists some of its sources at the end. There’s a lot of talk about costs, subsidies, and other numerical stuff, but it’s a worthwhile slog.

Regarding the question of food aid, the New York Times has a good story; “As Prices Soar, U.S. Food Aid Buys Less.” has similar news in this awkwardly titled story: “Africa: Food Prices Buoyed By Biofuel Affect Aid.” The Cherry Creek News takes a kick a the story here: “More Ethanol, Higher Food Prices.”


Bolivia’s President Evo Morales says biofuels are a serious problem for poor people (Reuters).

Oxfam and Greenpeace say that biofuels cause more harm than good (Bloomberg).

GreenEcoFriend says “Biofuel Production Starves the Poor.

Market Research Analytics: “Biofuel Production Affecting the Price of Food.”

Happy Earth Day!