Saturday, January 12, 2008

The system sucks

The Lower (formerly No) Impact Man, Colin Beavan, has succinctly expressed my current opinion on the environment in a recent post (that I also shared with you, incidentally): the system sucks. By that, he means that the ruts in the road that we normally follow throughout our lives are not designed with the environment in mind; it's the backdrop, and it's taking a beating, according a body of knowledge (including last year's IPCC report).

The example that's the centrepiece of his post is air travel, and it's also the one that forced me to look long and hard at my life. I realized that for many of the previous years, my lifestyle didn't reflect my opinions; there are all sorts of examples I could list, but by far the most damaging to the environment was my annual air travel.

Colin writes about the incentives to vacation once a year versus, say, going on longer sojourns, much of which could be done over land, and I certainly live in that world. (While he also makes some valid points about business travel, that isn't the world I live in right now.) I would eventually lose my vacation allotment were I to attempt such a drastic change in my lifestyle, so I will go a step farther and say that the system punishes that sort of behaviour.

I love traveling. And while I love the breadth of settings my country offers me - and there are still many parts of it that I have yet to explore - I love traveling far away. I have only just begun to travel the world. I can envision a time when my wife and I will be traveling somewhere warm every year, as we do now, and taking another trip to a far-off locale, in addition to our annual trip 'down East' in the summer (by car). Yes, some years that extra trip will probably be closer to home (e.g., the birthday celebrations in Qu├ębec City this year), but I certainly don't want to feel obligated to do that.

That may be selfish, but at this point in my life, I'm O.K. with that. I will use cloth grocery bags, I will buy fair-trade coffee (and drink it out 'n' about if it's served, in my travel mug if I have it, or out of a paper cup if that's the only option), I will take the stairs, I will drive a smaller car, but I will not feel bad when our annual flight down South blows all the carbon dioxide emissions I've managed to save during the previous 364 days; not for one minute.

Some of the examples I've raised bring me to my final point: Colin's right; the system can be changed. I like my analogy of ruts in the road because it communicates how deeply ingrained some of this stuff is, while indicating that it isn't immutable. On the plastic grocery bags, complaining about that in the 80s would've got you some funny looks - acid rain was the only problem in our part of the world back then, in case you weren't aware - and even just a few years ago our mayor lamented the cost of sending our plastic bags to the Far East(!) for recycling when he canned the program. Now most of the grocery stores around my house take them back, and they all sell their own cloth bags. My favourite movie theatre, the Bytowne, sells fair-trade coffee (in disposable cups), and Bridgeheads are popping up all over the place.

The key is to identify the worst behaviours encouraged by the system and make some noise about them. In the time it takes you to put your thoughts down in a forum like this, you could have a strong, personal message for your MP or MPP. (I'm not a big fan of form letters, but that may be because I don't understand the system; there's that word again.) But another key is to identify those more malleable behaviours - the shallow ruts, if you will - that could be influenced by local campaigns and, likely, local spending habits. Even if those changes don't reduce carbon dioxide emissions, I think, in the aggregate, they show people the potential for real rewards from their efforts, and I think that's a message we don't hear enough these days.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Range Voting

I just got around to reading a very informative interview with William Poundstone on voting systems. I still have a lot to learn on this subject (as some have pointed out previously), which may account for my finding the interviewer's style a bit erratic; it was an excellent read otherwise.

Of particular interest to me was the discussion concerning small political parties: in addition to being the fairest voting system - according to a study by mathematician Warren Smith that is referenced throughout the interview - the range voting system also benefits small political parties. The idea is that by assigning each candidate a value in a range (say, from 1 to 10), voters address the 'spoiler effect', or the splitting of votes amongst similar candidates, such that a candidate in clear opposition to them wins the election with less overall support: under a range voting system, voters would be able to assign similar values to similar candidates, or to their favourite (possibly 'fringe') party candidate and the best of the candidates who are likely to win, if you will. This also addresses the concept of 'wasting' one's vote in a first-past-the-post or plurality voting system.