Thursday, April 27, 2006

In The Neighbourhood Where Jane Lived

Never, never underestimate the power of high hearts when they're combined with principled, unyielding wills.

That was Jane Jacobs.

She was a free thinker, a good citizen, an urban prophet, a beloved member of the Annex neighbourhood in Toronto, and frequent visitor to Dooney’s Café, where I spent the afternoon today with Socrates and Brian Fawcett.

Jane’s death was the thing that everybody was talking about around here all week. No. That’s wrong. It was Jane’s life that people were talking about.

Meanwhile, last night I read at Hart House at the University of Toronto, from my book, with Wayne Grady and Mark Jaccard. It was pretty rousing, I thought.

We were even blessed with a brief visit from the archdruid.

Speaking of public intellectuals, here’s somebody I really like:

Stephen Toope, a world-renowned international-law scholar, and a champion of the tortured, the abused, and the dispossessed. He was the youngest dean in the history of McGill University’s venerable law school. The novelists he’s reading these days are Orhan Pamuk, Amos Oz, and Ian McEwan. Toope is only 48, but even so he looks a lot younger, and on July 1 he becomes, officially, the big man on campus on Canada’s West Coast.

Which makes him my new boss.

I write about him in my Chronicles column today, here.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

In 365 days, 188 dead workers: A Remembrance.

Struck by a falling tree. Worker was crushed by a loader. Worker fell 19 feet from a third-floor unguarded balcony. Exposure to asbestos; Meso- thelioma. Contact with power line. Electrocution. Fish boat capsized. Worker drowned. Pinned between two rail cars.

The reports go on and on, the plain prose hiding the pain and suffering of the dead and their survivors.

What also goes on and on are hand-wringing comments from governments and employers about the need to make workplaces safer.

The need is certainly there - ask the dead, year after year. But the political will is not. . .

That's from my old friend Bill Tieleman's column in 24 hours. Bill reminds us that this Friday is an International Day of Mourning for workers who died on the job.

I'll be remembering these workers, too.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Impact of Global Warming on Aboriginal People

Take away the forests, and forest cultures die: That's something that becomes painfully obvious when you look at a map of the world's disappearing forests, and a map of the world's dying languages. It's the same map. But the forests aren't all being lost to ill-considered clearcutting. In British Columbia, we've lost forests over an area the size of the United Kingdom to a beetle infestation, which is ravaging the countryside because the winters aren't cold enough anymore to keep them in check. British Columbia hasn't been this warm in 8,000 years.

I write about all this in today's Globe and Mail, here.

Friday, April 21, 2006

What Is The Meaning of This, I Wonder?

In their last epic battle with the demons that were devouring the world, the gods of old sent streams of fire down from the Himalayas. The goddess Durga emerged from that fire, and Kali sprang from her brow and triumphed over the demons. Down through the centuries, around a stone image of Kali at an out-of-the-way jungle temple on the banks of a branch of the holy Ganges, a warren of shrines arose. The place came to be called Kalighat. The fetid and splendid city of Calcutta rose up around it, and Calcutta grew to become British India’s imperial capital. Then the great river changed its course, and Kalighat was left to fester on the banks of the scum-covered Tollynalla Canal. There was a dead dog floating in it the first day I visited.

That’s from yet another published excerpt of my book, which I’m now touring, which is why I'm in Ottawa at the moment, for the International Writers Festival, among other things. The weather’s nice and warm.

Am I to take from this that Canada’s national environmentalist lobby hasn’t accomplished anything of substance since Brian Mulroney was the prime minister? Quite possibly. But this makes Mulroney deserving of such lapdances?

Meanwhile, back in the land of nonfiction, here’s an account of Emily’s Monkey, which is an aggregation of some of the writers you’ll find under the Literary Comrades links on the side of this page. “The collective is now planning a second evening, in mid-June, for aspiring and published creative-nonfiction types to get lambasted by the Straight’s Terry Glavin, and, organizers hope, to pitch Toronto agent Anne McDermid. For information on that event, e-mail” I'm looking for to this, but I promise not to lambaste anyone, despite what my colleague John says.

Here’s something else I haven’t figured out yet. But then, figuring all that stuff out is an ongoing work in progress for all of us. Here’s what I mean:

To British Columbia’s 19th-century Oblate missionaries, aboriginal people were unsaved souls. To American gold miners in the Fraser canyon, they were target practice. To Gov. James Douglas, they were loyal British subjects. To Joseph Trutch, British Columbia’s first land commissioner, they were no better than “the he-panther or the she-bear.

That’s from an essay of mine, “Neolithic Hippies Revised As First Farmers,” here.

Meanwhile, in response to my essay here, Doug Hopwood, of Vancouver, writes:

Thanks for your great article on global warming [“Global warming”, April 13-20]. However, you didn’t mention that although Americans are the number-one producer of greenhouse gases, Canadians are responsible for very nearly as much, per person. Also, if everyone lived like the average Canadian, we’d need 4.1 Earths to sustain us all.

Your figure that we need to reduce greenhouse gases by 70 percent to “avoid calamity of apocalyptic proportions” is spot-on. But most people are unaware that the Kyoto Accord asks for countries to reduce their emissions by only six to 12 percent. Canada’s figure is a pathetic six percent, and we can’t even agree on that. So lets take matters into our own hands!

Visit to calculate how much global warming you are personally responsible for and to get ideas for changes to reduce your impact. Car usage is not the only problem. Eating a meat-centred diet uses approximately 50 times more fossil fuels, 50 times more water, and far more land than a vegetarian-centred diet. Methane emissions from livestock farming contribute significantly to global warming. Taking plane trips has a huge environmental impact. Visit, and to calculate how many trees you need to plant to offset your lifestyle.

Even small changes such as choosing one day of the week to not eat meat or use a car would reduce a person’s emissions contributions by 14 percent. Transportation of goods accounts for one-eighth of all world oil consumption, so try always to buy locally produced goods.
So, please, let’s pull together to stop this before it’s too late. We are each personally responsible, and if the politicians won’t do it, we can.

Good one, Doug.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

On to Ottawa! Toronto! Oshawa! Hamilton! New York!

What's the big idea?

In Ottawa, at the International Writers' Festival, Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington Street, Saturday, April 22, 8 p.m.:

BIG IDEA #2: Our Unnatural Relationship with Nature and the Future of Life on Earth featuring Wayne Grady, Terry Glavin and Elizabeth May $15 / $12 Student or Senior / $8 Festival Member.

Three of Canada's finest minds examine our relationship with nature. Wayne Grady's Bringing Back the Dodo delves into the forces of evolution and extinction that shape the living world. Terry Glavin's Waiting for the Macaws chronicles the history of extinctions and the human struggle to conserve living things and Elizabeth May's How to Save the World in Your Spare Time gives us the tools we need to protect our communities and the planet. "A wonderful observer of the complex and mysterious."- Canadian Literature on Wayne Grady. "Wise and eloquent...urgent, important, and well said." - Ronald Wright on Terry Glavin. "A compelling case for an urgent national debate"- Ottawa Citizen on Elizabeth May.

That's what they say, anyhow. I promise to be well-behaved (Keefer took in the Vancouver reading I mentioned here a couple of days ago). This time, no Jameson's.

Big Idea #1 is this: Is God A Man? With Tim Ward, Anne Hines and Tom Harpur. But for me the bigger idea for earlier in the day Saturday would be my pal Karsten Heuer who reads from his new book Being Caribou, and also Tim Flannery, who will be reading from his tremendous The Weather Makers, which features prominently in an essay of mine that's just shown up at Dooney's Cafe.

In Toronto I'll be reading at a University of Toronto Readings Series event, again with Wayne Grady, and this time also with Mark Jaccard, on Wednesday, April 26th, 7:30 pm, at the Hart House Library, Hart House Circle.

It's free, and here's something that's just too weird: Jaccard and I are not only from the same high school (Burnaby South. Go Rebels!), we're both recipients of the alumni award. Small world or what.

I'm not sure what I'm doing in Oshawa or Hamilton. I don't know what else I'm up to in TO yet but I'm told the week's pretty packed. Then Yvette's flying out and we pick up Zoe (take in her Readable Ink gig at Rancho Relaxo, 300 College St., doors at 8:30 p.m., cover $5) and then it's off to New York to hook up with John Parsley, my editor at Thomas Dunne, who is also an editor at Lost Mag, about which New Yorkers read about today here.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Easter Morning 90 Years On: The Debate Continues

Was it needless death after all?

William Butler Yeats asks this question in his poem, Easter 1916, and there’s an unholy row going on about all this, on this 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916.

Sunder Katwala answers Yeats’ question this way: “Ireland and India would have become nations without General Maxwell overseeing summary executions in Dublin castle, or General Dyer firing on crowds in Amritsar.” But he says a lot more, and you can read it here.

Elsewhere, Yeats also asked: Did that play of mine send out certain men the English shot?

Yes, answers Danny Morrison, but as it is with the photograph that accompanies this post, all is not as it seems. “Does this commemoration of ours justify the men who shot the English?” Morrison asks. Yes to that as well, but Danny also asserts that no one owns the Rising’s legacy, and Mick Fealty wonders whether a preoccupation with those events in Dublin 90 years ago is helpful to the purposes of reconciliation.

Along those same lines, Remember Scullabogue, as Colm Toibin did when he considered these questions, and others, reaching back to the Rising of 1798.

Then there’s this auld miseryguts who makes good points in spite of himself.

And here you’ll find a whole Easter Sunday’s worth of reading about it all, in a splendid example of public-service journalism.

Meanwhile, another row that raises related questions about the silliness of certain kinds of nationalism is taking place in Italy at the moment, where the Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders observes that this weekend’s banjaxed election result is the consequence of a fascist idea that defines eligible voters “as anyone with a continuous line of male descendants going back to a man born in Italy.” Now everything’s hooped. Blame Canada.

Friday, April 14, 2006

And Then A Fine Day For The Hair of the Dog

You’ve been working too hard. You haven’t had much sleep. You’ve been doing readings and radio interviews and television shows all week, trying to sound like you know something about what you’re talking about. But now you’re among friends. You’ve had a couple of drinks.

The Ironworks is packed with some of the best and brightest writers and poets and journalists that you know, which suddenly makes things even more nervous-making. As you head up to the stage and everybody’s cheering you on, your old pal Alex hands you a bottle of Jameson’s, one of those two-thirds-size ones. You grab it.

It fits perfectly in the breast pocket of your leather jacket, which means you don't have to worry about how to balance a plastic water bottle on the little sheet-music stand of a podium up there, plus you can be a bit of a ham, reaching into your jacket for the bottle now and then, when your mouth gets dry.

And so you draw from it this way, every few pages. And you think, this is so much better than water. Then you find yourself reaching for it every few paragraphs, and you’re thinking, oh, this really is a proper whiskey. Then every few sentences.

In today’s Vancouver Sun, Stephen Hume wrote his column about my new book, and he was inordinately kind. It’s not on-line for free, so here’s just an inkling to show just how generous Stephen was: “I don’t have the space here to do full justice to Glavin’s poignant personal odyssey from his verdant Irish valley to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, from the jungles of Central America to windswept islands in the North Atlantic, from the Central Asia of Genghis Khan to a remarkable village in the Himalayas; you’ll have to discover that for yourself. But I will say that for all the ominous portents, he’s no apocalyptic environmental Jeremiah fired with misanthropic zeal. He’s an optimist. He has faith in humanity. He sees glimmers of hope already coalescing in the gathering storm. What to do? Take the helm, Glavin says.”

And in this month’s Vancouver Review, which just came in the mail, John Vaillant is every bit as generous: “The result is what I imagine you’d get if David Quammen and Joseph Campbell had teamed up to write a Blue Guide (guide bleu) to the Apocalypse. . . in so doing, it inspires a fierce hope – the kind that makes you want to throw open the window and call the world in.”

Which is exactly what I was hoping the book might do.

Meantime, I don’t think I slurred my words much last night, at least not for the first half. I do remember that when I was finished reading there was much clapping and back-slapping. But I can’t remember much about what happened after.

So thanks, to everyone who was there.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

What Stephen Harper Doesn't Want You to Know

Buried deep within a 6,916-word “regulatory impact analysis statement” that appeared quite suddenly on an obscure federal public-registry web site, at the very end of the business day in Ottawa last Friday, was this:

North Atlantic cod - overfished by more than 99 per cent, and about as close to extinction as it's possible to get - will not protected under Canada's endangered species law. Not the Laurentian stock, not the Maritimes stock, and not the Newfoundland and Labrador stock. The decision to deny Atlantic cod stocks the protection of the Species At Risk Act (SARA) was a cabinet decision. That same cabinet decision denied SARA's protections to Interior Fraser coho salmon in British Columbia. You can look it up.

I write about it in my column today, here.

Prime Minister Harper has abandoned the National Press Theatre, and has taken to staging weird White-House-like press conferences, and he's gagging his own cabinet ministers. His holding cabinet meetings without telling anyone where or when the meetings are. He's demanding the right to choose which Ottawa press gallery journalists will be allowed to ask him questions.

If Canadians want to ask what specific impacts global warming is likely to have on sea levels, or crop productivity, say, you will want to turn to a federal agency known as the Canadian Climate Impacts and Adaptation and Research Network (C-CIARN). And if you ask anything of that agency, now that Harper is Canada's prime minister, this is the kind of answer you'll get: "I'm not supposed to talk to you."

That's the answer I got the other day when I called Robin Sydneysmith of C-CIARN. He'd just been advised that the entire C-CIARN program—and even the drop-in-the-bucket “one tonne challenge” initiative, designed to convince individual Canadians to voluntarily pitch in to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions—had been suspended, on Harper's order. I write about that in a feature essay about global warming on the cover of today's Georgia Straight.

The Globe and Mail has done a great job today in exposing just how backward and stupid and unconscionably reactionary Canada's federal government has become in these matters, now that Harper, an oilpatch republican, is in charge.

If you want to hear me give out of myself about these kinds of things, and about my new book, and about the state of the world in general, Joseph Planta interviews me today at The Commentary.

In the meantime, I'm still on the road (see previous post for my whereabouts). Monday's SFU lecture was packed. Tuesday's Victoria crowd was great. One media thing after another; Fanny Kiefer was a lot of fun this morning.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Magical Mystery Tour Begins Today

The first sign we were approaching the ruins of Isin in southern Iraq was the motorcycles that came buzzing down the dirt road in the opposite direction. Each one carried a driver, a passenger, and a bulging saddlebag draped over the back fender. A few bicycles came along, each with a rider, his head wrapped in a scarf, and more saddlebags. Then a big cattle truck trundled by, carrying a pack of men in the flatbed in soiled white robes and holding more bulging sacks that swayed as the truck bumped along. . .

That's from the opening of a heartbreaking essay by Roger Atwood, appearing in this month's Lost magazine. It's actually an excerpt from his book, Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World (St. Martin's Press).

Speaking of books, I'm going to be busier than usual over the next few days, touring Waiting for the Macaws. I was chatting it up on CBC's Quirks and Quarks on Saturday, which you can listen to here, and tonight I'm giving a lecture in Vancouver as part of Simon Fraser University's "Speaking of Science" series. Guess I'd better figure out what I'm going to say. . .

I'll be giving a reading tomorrow night (Tuesday, April 11, 7 p.m.) at Bolen's Books in Victoria, which is in the Hillside Mall.

On Wednesday, April 12, from 11 to 11:30, I'll be on the Bill Good Show, on CKNW. I'm also taping a CBC Almanac segment with British Columbia's beloved Mark Forsythe, but I don't know when that's airing. Ditto for an Omni Television's "The Standard".

I'll be live on Fanny Kiefer's TV show Thursday morning, between 9 and 10.

Thursday evening is the official launch party for the book, at the Ironworks, in Vancouver (235 Alexander Street) on Thursday, April 13, at 7 p.m.

I'll be reading at the Ottawa Writers Festival on Sunday, April 22, with comrades Wayne Grady and Elizabeth May, and I've got a variety of interviews and events in Toronto the week of April 24 (which I'll try to post here if I get the bloody time), then it's off to New York.

I haven't known peace and quiet for so long I can't remember what it's like.

- Robert Zimmerman

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

At Least This Guy's Honest

In the current issue of The Nation, that ancient American magazine that has grown more adolescent with age, Ronald Aronson, author of Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It, puts a very interesting proposition to the American left. It's neatly captured by his essay's headline: The Left Needs More Socialism.

Here's why I think he's honest. He admits, even though mostly in an indirect fashion, that the American left is "stumbling around in the dark corners of American politics," that it has lost its soul, that it has "no vision," and that this has caused it to be "doomed," because it has been utterly incapable of articulating a vision sufficiently compelling to cultivate the affections of the American people.

But then, he blames the "right" for this. He singles out the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Francis Fukiyama, and Thomas Friedman. One might have thought Aronson would have been just the tinest bit harder on the American left itself, which, he correctly observes, has categorically dismissed socialism in favour of identity politics, specifically "feminist, antiwar, progay, antiracist, multicultural, ecological and community-oriented identities."

And then he turns for inspiration to Bolivia's Evo Morales, and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, and proposes that American lefties should regard the World Social Forum as the contemporary version of the 19th century International Workingmen's Association.

Not to give advice to the American left or anything, but do look before you leap, lest you end up looking like complete idiots.