These houses are the source of a great many problems in the world

I was driving by a new housing development in Brampton the other day and I just had to pull over and take a picture. I’ve seen big houses before, but these ones just blew me away. I mean, just look at the size of this thing. It’s more like an institution than a house. (You can look at the double garage in order to get a sense of the scale.) Also, even though you can’t see it very well in the picture, these houses aren’t spread out on one or two acre parcels. It’s a dense development (as these things go), I would guesstimate that they’re building over a hundred of them.

big house

I haven’t written much about consumerism lately, mainly because I have it worked out to my own satisfaction, and there doesn’t seem to be very much new on this front. And yet seeing houses like this reminds me of how central the problem of competitive consumption is, how it lies at the root of so many other problems in the world that we live in.… Continue reading

Carbon pricing sets the stage for real performance: Cap-and-trade is a start

On April 29, I published an opinion piece in Ottawa Citizen (here).

The piece is a reflection on Ontario’s decision to go ahead with a cap-and-trade system. The decision is a good one, I argue, not because cap-and-trade is the key to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but because of a different purpose it serves. It is but a necessary condition for everything else that is needed for a low carbon economy to develop.

The “everything else” part is yet to be imagined and developed, and now that a decision has been made on cap-and-trade, a new terrain opens up for developing the building blocks of a low carbon economy.

But why is it a necessary condition? It’s because carbon pricing creates an institutional tapestry, upon which a whole range of additional policies and initiatives can be built, linked, and scaled up. Cap-and-trade is a way of achieving this. It is not the only method.… Continue reading

Ontario chickens out, chooses cap-and-trade

Like many people, I was encouraged to see the Government of Ontario finally stepping into the breach and taking action on the climate change issue, but I was very disappointed to see them choosing to go with a cap-and-trade system rather than a carbon tax. Prior to yesterday, there were two models out there: B.C.’s carbon tax and Quebec’s cap-and-trade system. Ontario joining Quebec probably represents a tipping point that will push the country as a whole in the direction of cap-and-trade, which is, as far as I’m concerned, a second-best outcome.

How did we wind up here? This is all a consequence of what I consider to be the most important political shift to have occurred in Canada in the past two decades, which is the near-total collapse of moderate conservatism. Indeed, it’s not a surprise that the major spokespersons of the centre-right in Canada – Andrew Coyne, Tasha Kheiriddin, etc.… Continue reading

Naomi Klein postscript no. 2

Reading This Changes Everything put me in a somewhat nostalgic mood, bringing back memories of the good old days, over a decade ago now, when No Logo and Adbusters were all the rage, and Kalle Lasn was declaring that “culture jamming will become to our era what civil rights was to the ’60s, what feminism was to the ’70s, and what environmental activism was to the ’80s.” It also reminded me of the fun that Andrew Potter and I had calling bullshit on all this.

My nostalgia was partly due to a passage in the introduction to This Changes Everything, which expressed with absolute clarity the fundamental difference in worldview between Klein and myself. When it comes to understanding the major problems of our age, one of Klein’s central convictions is that the people are innocent. As far as my own view is concerned, I guess I’m more inclined to think that the people are guilty.… Continue reading

Naomi Klein postscript no. 1

There were a number of things that struck me while reading Naomi Klein’s most recent book, This Changes Everything, which were somewhat tangential to my main line of critique, and so I left them out of the response piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago. Nevertheless, some are worth mentioning, particularly those that connect this book up with her previous work, including The Shock Doctrine and No Logo. (One of the annoying things that we academics like to do is read all of someone’s work, then ask pesky questions like “how does it all fit together?” Some people tell me this is unfair, when dealing with the work of non-academics, but I guess I just can’t help myself.)

The first thing that many Klein fans will notice about This Changes Everything is the huge tension that exists between this book and The Shock Doctrine. Indeed, to the casual reader, it might seem as though Klein is taking back most of what she said in the previous book.… Continue reading

Naomi Klein: This Changes Everything

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading all the books that have been selected as finalists for the Shaughnessy Cohen prize for political writing (not including my own), and writing up my reactions — mainly to promote conversation. Today we have Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.

Readers of this blog may know that I’ve been having an entirely one-sided argument with Naomi Klein for over 10 years now (since the publication of the book that I co-wrote with Andrew Potter, The Rebel Sell, which despite having only 5 pages or so criticizing Klein, was widely seen as a “response” to No Logo). It is certainly the case that I have spent years of my life trying to get the left in Canada to stop writing books like the ones that Klein writes. As a result, the success of This Changes Everything represents, in a very real sense, the failure of one of my more important life projects.… Continue reading

Cynicism or stupidity? the eternal question

The other day, speaking in Davos, finance minister Joe Oliver expressed his commitment to maintaining a balanced budget in Canada. He described it in the usual terms, as an “ethical issue” having to do with intergenerational fairness. “We think it’s wrong to burden our children, our grandchildren with expenditures that we’re incurring today…”

Now as most educated people know, this is an economic fallacy. It’s not as though we’re eating in a restaurant en famille, then when the meal is done the parents skip out and leave the children to pay the bill. When the government borrows money, it creates both an asset and a liability, both of which get handed on to future generations, making it a wash as far as “our children and grandchildren” are concerned (e.g. some inherit the Canada Savings Bonds, and the revenue stream that goes with them, others inherit the tax liability associated with paying out that revenue).… Continue reading

Hobbes’s difficult idea

One of my favorite Paul Krugman papers is called “Ricardo’s difficult idea” — on why people have such a hard time understanding the concept of “comparative advantage.” Although the situation is not quite as bad, I’ve been struck recently by how much difficulty many people have trying to understand the concept of a “collective action problem.” Although that idea has a bit more history to it, I don’t think it’s too much of a distortion of the record to call this “Hobbes’s difficult idea.”

I was prompted to think about this a couple days back, when James wrote in the comments:

I think everyone can understand free rider problems, but almost no one bothers to think of the world in that way.

Sad but true. One of the things I’m constantly amazed by in discussions over climate change is how elusive the basic concept of a collective action problem remains, and how unintuitive it is for many people (whether to grasp, or just to apply, as James suggests).… Continue reading

Last note from Lima UNFCCC

Climate negotiations at the UNFCCCC continued in Lima overnight Saturday, December 13. The atmosphere was very tense over seemingly irreconcilable rifts, largely between developed and developing countries over the terms of the proposed architecture of the post-2020 global climate regime. Most of us were starting to worry about the likelihood of any meaningful outcome.

The Co-Chairs of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) and the COP presidency worked into the late hours of Saturday night, in order to prepare a text that meets the contending views somewhere in the middle. Around midnight on Saturday, a penultimate draft was proposed. Agreement was secured later in the night, giving rise to the final text. This is the text that will be taken to Paris in November-December 2015.

The agreement is called the Lima Call for Climate Action. The text can be viewed here:

Most will be inclined to think that the end result is not good enough.… Continue reading

Rough guide to finding our way in Paris: Notes from Lima

from Lima, Peru, co-authored with John Kelly

In case this has escaped anyone’s attention, Canada does not enjoy a good reputation at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the multilateral platform for international climate agreements. It is, after all, the only country that has officially withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol, although it was one of the signatories back in 1997.

The country’s reputation at the climate talks was not always this bad. In fact, Canada used to have a fairly respectable standing as a powerful economy and a major player in the negotiations. But the Conservative government’s delegation has increasingly made itself known as one of the obstructionist parties at the climate talks. This is a sorry state of affairs on several accounts, but in particular because the UN climate negotiations are currently at an important juncture. An entirely new global climate agreement is being negotiated.

The new agreement currently being developed has a fundamentally different structure than the previous one.Continue reading