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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for January 2021

Film Review “Everybody Flies”

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I have not flown for nearly a year. My last trip was to New Orleans, in January last year. Looking back my usual pattern seems to be about 3 or 4 air trips a year, though in 2019 there was also only one flight as we had resolved to see more of our own province. But I have been on flights when there were odd smells in the cabin. I have not personally experienced a fume event but there are many.

The air in nearly every modern jet plane comes from the engines “bleed air”. The only exception is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner which has a separate, electric powered compressor for cabin air. The air is also recirculated through a HEPA filter which removes things like germs. Unfortunately it is not fine enough to remove smaller particles and that is where the trouble starts. Every jet engine needs lubricant and every can of that lubricant carries a health warning. It contains Tricresyl Phosphate a mixture of three isomeric organophosphate compounds. The “fume events” occur when the bleed air gets contaminated by the leaking lubricant. It can also be contaminated by other fluids. The aircraft industry has known about the issue since the 1950s and has always downplayed it.

Pilots and other aircrew, flying all the time, are much more likely to experience a fume event than passengers – but there are now records of large numbers of events affecting both. Former BA pilot Tristan Lorraine had to give up flying due to ill health and retrained as a filmmaker. “Everybody Flies” is his examination of the increasing amount of evidence that the air in most aircraft is nothing like as safe as the aircraft makers and airlines would have you believe. What he presents in his documentary are the first hand experiences of crew and passengers and their subsequent health issues. There is also quite a lot of independent research now and academics saying things like “if you don’t know what the safe level of exposure is, then it should be zero”. Captain Lorraine is also spokesman for the leading global organisation dealing with the issue of contaminated aircraft cabin air: The Global Cabin Air Quality Executive (GCAQE).

The movie is gripping and the story has an eerie air of familiarity. The aviation industry is following the same playbook as the tobacco and asbestos industries used. Indeed one of the interviewees sounded like me. She had been trying to get her case into a courtroom. After 15 years she had to give up and declare bankruptcy. “They have far more money than I had” so they could spend more on delaying the process. Exactly the same message that lawyers gave me, more than once, when I felt I had a good case and a strong sense of injustice. The lawyers tended to agree that I had a strong case but “they have more money than you do.” Indeed one case was settled against me simply because that was cheaper than fighting it. There are also regulators. Usually government appointed bodies tasked with protecting the public and employees, but who have become entirely captive to the industry they are supposed to regulate. The National Energy Board protects the oil and gas industry and advances its interests, not those of society in general and certainly not the natural environment.

But the aviation industry also has to guard jealously its reputation for promoting safety. That has taken a big hit thanks to Boeing’s handling of the 737 MAX mess. Just as the automobile industry suffered from the VW cheating emissions systems – and the more recent Toyota scandal. Currently they are doing that by pretending that there is not a problem. This position is becoming untenable but has lasted 50+ years so far.

Everybody Flies” is “under consideration” for an Oscar and BAFTA. It already had a standing ovation at the Sundance Festival. Its release to theatres is delayed by COVID. I hope that it shows up on streaming services too. I feel very privileged to have been offered a review link – which, of course, I cannot share. But I do hope that you will get to see it soon. I also hope that you will click on the links I have provided for I am sure that there will be much more bafflegab and distraction before the industry as a whole moves towards acknowledging the problem and installing better air filters. Making a start on that now, while so many commercial aircraft are grounded makes a great deal of sense, but then that is never going to be the industry’s first concern.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 16, 2021 at 12:05 pm

Book Review: “Finding Our Niche”

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Okeover Arm Provincial Park
Okeover Arm Provincial Park, Lund, BC
my picture on Flickr
First Nations have been gathering oysters here for ages
They are delicious

There is a great deal of bad news around. In fact that is probably always true since conflict, drama, threats and warnings are what sell newspapers, or these days get clicks on links. And actually this review can include links to the author and his ideas, so I can refer you to those rather than rely on quotations from his text.

Right now most of the world is facing a pandemic. And one of the reasons that we are not coping with it well so far is that the people who make the decisions in our society are trying to keep the economy going no matter what impact that has on human mortality. Humans are naturally gregarious. Work is normally arranged around everyone being in the same place and communicating face to face. Yet at the same time the more we gather indoors, the less care we exercise on the distance we keep, the more we share the pleasures of eating, drinking and talking to each other, the more successful the virus becomes: spreading, mutating, infecting. Economy and human health are in conflict.

This has to some extent replaced coverage of the other great threat, not just to humanity but all life on earth. Global warming. In our province (BC) we have produced plans to reduce the use of fossil fuels, but we are actually trying to increase our production of them for export. We know we need the forests to store carbon from the atmosphere yet we are cutting them down faster than ever, especially the old growth forests which store the most carbon. Canada has declared a climate emergency but has just approved three more offshore drilling sites. We bought a pipeline, one that was clearly a future financial liability – otherwise it would not have been looking for a buyer. It is based on the least likely scenario, that more countries will want to buy diluted bitumen, when renewable energy producers like wind and solar are now cheaper than fossil fuels. Saving the planet conflicts with the economy too.

Clearly what we have been doing is not working. Add to that the near collapse of democracy in the country to the south of us, and it is no wonder we are pessimistic. So books that look at better ways of dealing with the place where we live should have a ready market.

The problem is that we have bought into a whole load of ideas which are either outright lies or at least wildly misleading. The Tragedy of the Commons, for instance is based on the misrepresentation of history. The commons were not over exploited by the overall greed of society in general, but rather the greed of the already wealthy and powerful. There were regulatory measures in place, managed by the community, to protect the commons for use by all, but a few had the ability to overturn that for their own benefit. Yes there are some very greedy, dangerous people, but we are not all like that nor do we behave like that whenever we get the chance. Terra Nullius was a lie too. America wasn’t fenced but that did not mean it was not owned by anybody. Just like Australia, or New Zealand, or the South Pacific Islands. There were lots of people there before “us” – Europeans. We didn’t actually discover anything (other than our own ignorance of their existence) and the people there were not savages.

In fact the societies that existed in those places were remarkably successful even if they did not adhere to our current preference for measuring GDP or possession of precious metals as measures of success. Philip Loring is an anthropoligst and ecologist. He is an academic at the University of Guelph, Ontario and this is his first book. It is based around the knowledge that people who have thrived in places for millennia have obviously understood their environment better than the people who have not learned the lessons that the industrial revolution ought to have taught us. We are also still in thrall to people like Thomas Hobbes, who coined the phrase “nasty, brutish and short” for life when it was in a state of nature. And Adam Smith who may hold the record as the most widely misunderstood economist of all time.

The ideas that Loring discusses are common to all indigenous peoples – all of whom have learned over very long periods of time what works in their places to make life better for everyone. We now know, thanks to academic research and archaeological evidence that the places Europeans colonised had been occupied by humans for thousands of years by people who were not just hunter gatherers, but who managed their resources carefully and adapted themselves and the places they occupied to be more productive. Many developed advanced civilisations, and there is also much to be learned in why they collapsed. But the people were still there after these collapses, and their lives were a great deal less stressful.

Indigenous knowledge is inextricable from place. And therefore is not only complex and interwoven with that place but also guarded by those people carefully. Actually the greatest loss of human knowledge might not be the loss of the library at Alexandria but the burning of all but ten of the books written by the ancient Maya. What Loring does is distill some of this knowledge into a remarkably small number of general principles. In fact his chapter headings are all single words. Keystone, Engineers, Pristine, Novel. There is very little of the usual verbosity of American academia. It is much more about storytelling. And he has some great stories. Some familiar – the clam terraces of the Salish Sea – and some new to me. The reasons the Hindus revere cows, for instance. And how life is possible in North Western Mexico even though the Americans have used up most of the water in the Colorado River.

I will also confess that I have a couple of difficulties which are not dealt with in the book. For a start, who gets to be regarded as an aboriginal? Obviously not me. I come from East London, England and my ancestors come from all over the place. Secondly the thing I learned about some of my ancestors is that they were fabulists. Great storytellers too, but the “histories” they told were far from the truth, though as all great myths and legends are, based on true events. So people who rely on oral histories, in my experience, have not been a reliable source – even though I am sure they were trying to pass on wisdom. Then there is the problem of how stories are guarded. There is one story that Loring says “is not mine to tell” – but then he does produce a precis of it.

Here is a story of mine. I was part of an environmental assessment of a proposed development on Vancouver Island. The development was opposed by the local First Nation, who hired a woman of European extraction to assist them in presenting their concerns. At one meeting she started to explain the use that the FN applied to part of the site, at which moment the head of that group objected. “That’s not your story to tell!” he said to her, angily and the meeting promptly broke up. It is difficult enough for me, with my background, to trust oral histories. It is even more difficult, I think, for aboriginal knowledge and wisdom to be passed along to people who need it, if the owners of those stories are not willing to share.

There are also three anecdotes in the book which illustrate the same point. He was trying to do something and someone else seemed to block him but without giving a reason. A bit like a teacher I heard of who told his student “You’ll figure it out” rather than actually explaining what he was talking about in a way that the student could understand.

But even so I recommend this book to you as it is thought provoking and it does carry a message that is hopeful and may help you feel a bit more optimistic. You can read more about the book here, and more about the author here.

Finding Our Niche: Toward a Restorative Human Ecology

by Phil Loring, Arrell Chair in Food, Policy, Society and Associate Professor of Geography at the Department of Geography and Arrell Food Institute, University of Guelph.

Publisher: Fernwood Publishing

ISBN-10: 1773632876

ISBN-13: 978-1773632872

Available from wherever books are sold

Written by Stephen Rees

January 14, 2021 at 4:40 am

We don’t all feel the same.

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Sign seen at the North End of the Arbutus Greenway
January 3, 2021

“Everybody on Earth is feeling the same way as you” asserts a sign posted recently in the City of Vancouver.

When I saw that sign my first thought was “What makes you think that?” I suppose it must be some reference to the current pandemic. But my experience tells me that not all of us think the same way about the events we are living through. And this assertion seems to me to be quite easy to disprove.

I posted this image to Twitter and then added a number of thoughts of my own. I seem to have made a mess of the threading process and it got a bit derailed by a misunderstanding with a commenter, so I thought I could set matters straight here.

Here is a very far from comprehensive list of those who definitely are not feeling the same way as me:

There is a small group of highly privileged people who feel now is the time to travel to warmer climes.

There are a large number of people who are very anxious about when they will get the vaccine.

There are people who have made lots of money thanks to the pandemic.

There are people who feel it is really important to try and reverse the result of the last US presidential election

There are people who are utterly certain that there is a God, and that he is an old white male who prefers them over everyone else.

There are people who feel that by driving a Tesla and installing solar panels in their summer home that they have done more than enough to qualify as environmental activists.

There are people who are optimistic about the future of humanity on this planet.

There are people who are more concerned about ducks than you or me. “Foie gras is produced by force-feeding ducks”. [From an email I got from one of the petition generation sites.] No it’s geese actually.

I am pretty sure if I had conducted a survey of my Twitter readers I would have got a very mixed bag of “feelings” – and if you think you can add something feel free to comment below. One thing I know for certain is that everyone carries their own bag of hammers (credit Michael J Fox for that one) and their feelings are going to be very different on any subject you choose. I know of individuals right now whose feelings have very little to do with the pandemic but very much on their recent experiences. The loss of a mother to suicide. The surprising recovery of a husband not suffering from Covid but a very serious condition indeed: we thought that he was going to die and he is getting better.

There are also people who seem convinced that Covid won’t hurt them. The blithe certainty of a family we know that seems to think that many “bubbles” can overlap with no risk. The people who gathered in downtown Vancouver – and elsewhere – to protest the requirements to wear masks.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 4, 2021 at 11:40 am

Posted in Pandemic