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15 Big Ideas from 2005

For BC, Canada and the world. Add your own!

Peter MacLeod 29 Dec

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[Part 1: Eight big ones to start with. The rest on Friday]


Peak Oil

When gas hit $1.20 in August, SUV owners finally felt the pain. By October, car dealers across North America were admitting the obvious. The bottom had fallen out of the market for America's most notoriously overweight gas guzzlers. Instead, consumers were snapping up the lightest, most fuel-efficient vehicles they could find.

Experts say that this sudden reversal of fortune is a potent prelude to the transformative power of peak oil -- the moment when world oil production maxes out and oil prices reach a threshold that the market simply can't bear.

But peak oil isn't just expensive. It's almost certainly revolutionary. And it's also at our doorstep. Forget about the production capacity knocked out by Hurricane Katrina. The real story is China, as one-seventh of the world's population begins a wild, carbon-fueled ride towards western prosperity.

Initially destructive, economists predict peak oil will ultimately be the necessity that is the mother of new invention, as major western economies retool to refuel and get serious about energy alternatives. In the process, everything from the way we design our cities to how we grow our food to the global status we enjoy goes up for grabs.

Of course, the obvious way to mitigate any future oil shock would be to start curtailing use and demanding new efficiencies while the choice is still ours. Crises inevitability produce opportunities and as the nineteenth century philosopher Joseph Schumpeter observed, in any period of creative destructive where old orders, ideas and industries are plowed under, the place you want to be is at the front of the pack.

Becoming a world leader in green energy technologies and low-carbon living doesn't only sound nice, it makes solid business sense with potentially vast profits once the economics of oil start to tilt. But first things first: eliminating the twenty percent gap between Canada's current carbon emissions and its Kyoto goals would be a good place to start.

Nano gets big

How small is a nanometer? Ted Sargent, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Nanotechnology at the University of Toronto, likes to use this rule of thumb. A nanometer is to a meter what a marble is to the earth. It's pretty small. But it's at this almost incomprehensibly tiny scale that big things are happening.

Nanotechnology is the field of science that concerns itself with the manipulation of molecules, and at the super-extreme end of the scale, individual atoms. By combining chemical concentrates or rearranging and stacking molecules like so many lego bricks, nanotechnologists like Sargent are able to fashion miniature motors, sensors, batteries, processors and new materials - an entire Lilleputtian universe than none of use will ever see, but which we may soon be unable to do without.

Not all nanotech is new. The catalytic converter in your car works because nanoscopic pores scrub the exhaust as it passes through the tailpipe. The Teflon coating on your frying pan is a kind of nanotech material that stays slippery because of its molecular composition. Most everything else, however, sounds like science fiction: nanomedicines that target individual cancer cells, smart dust that can be spread to monitor a battlefield, and solar paint you can apply to your roof to power your home.

In Britain, whose tabloid press knows how to stir the public pot, a debate has broken out over whether nano will is the next GMO: a set of technologies whose ultimate impact we don't understand and whose risks should be carefully weighed against the benefits of future research. The 1986 book, Engines of Creation, by Eric Drexler, has become a touchstone to this debate, promising a future where anything can be made from anything with the help of nanosized assemblers. He goes on to theorize what might happen if these assemblers go haywire, re-rendering life into little more than 'grey goo.'

It's probably not the image the marketing wizards at Apple Computer had in mind when they launched the latest iPod, but certainly, future micro-innovation and macro-controversy is assured.

Pneumatic Parliaments

The American military has just about everything a superpower can buy: ocean-going megacarriers capable of launching whole fleets of sophisticated aircraft, missiles we can watch on TV as they strike with pinpoint accuracy, high frequency radio jammers that can prevent detonations or even locate a whizzing bullet. Where they stumble, however, is after the bombs have been dropped and the enemies captured, then what?

President Bush has made a habit of declaring that his purpose is to "spread freedom and democracy" throughout the Middle East. Professor Peter Sloterdijk takes these words at face value, but he believes that if you're to be in the business of exporting democracy, then you need the right tools.

He and his team of researchers at the European Conference on Democracy and Community Values have proposed the one thing that the American military is without: a pneumatic parliament that can be dropped from the belly of a heavylift airplane. Within hours, claims Sloterdijk, the parliament can be unfolded, inflated and ready to seat 160 freshly-minted parliamentarians.

It's a funny idea - the kind of agitprop that has been notably absent as the war in Iraq drags into its fourth year. If the fashion for regime change goes unabated, Sloterdijk thinks he could have a viable business plan manufacturing parliaments as a key component of America's strategic arsenal. Forget the grassroots and civil society, or the slow aggregation of democratic values, this is instant democracy as delivered by FedEx and the U.S. Marines.

Of course, with tens of thousands of Iraqis dead and more than 2000 US soldiers killed in combat since the president landed on a flight deck to declare "Mission Accomplished," we can only wish it were so easy.


Toronto had SARS, Quebec hospitals continue to battle the aptly named C. Difficile virus. BC has quarantined chicken farms, while in China mass poultry culls have attempted to prevent a major outbreak of avian flu. Among the panoply of global threats -- from climatic warming to nuclear terrorist strikes - the threat of a global pandemic creates a special chill.

Sudden, deadly and without a vaccine or antidote at hand, a newly mutated virus or superbacterium could kill millions as it spreads around the globe. As with too many things, a pandemic would be most deadly to those most poor, but rich countries too would incur heavy casualties, especially in metropolitan areas, where today most of us live.

Unfortunately, experts agree that it's a matter of when, not if. The Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918 killed 20 million or, by some estimates, five times that. Throughout human history, such pandemics have arrived at uncanny intervals and medical researchers acknowledge they are racing to forestall the next.

But the science of pandemics also raises ethical questions concerning everything from the validity of medical patents and the threat of corporate profiteering, to who will receive the first doses from government stockpiles. Now we live in a world where Tamiflu sits next to Viagra as the latest pharmaceutical must-have.

Smaller outbreaks like SARS have had one upside - they have encouraged public health authorities to get serious about preparing for the worst. Old fashioned practices like quarantines are being re-evaluated as contingency plans are updated. A growing global infrastructure dedicated to detection and cure is slowly being put into place. Think of a NORAD system for transmissible disease, where researchers stand ready not for incoming missiles, but the night flight from Sydney or Bogota.

Web 2.0

The Valley is humming again. Buoyed by the billion dollar Google IPO and the growing ubiquity of high speed and wireless internet access, the dotcom crash in late 2000 is looking more and more like a speed bump along the road to the new economy.

This year saw the maturation of a suite of new technologies that are changing the way people use the Internet. It's not just blogs (80,000 created every day) or wikis (850,000 articles posted to the English language Wikipedia), but products like Skype, a free piece of software (nearing one quarter of a billion downloads) that turns an ordinary computer with a microphone into a telephone capable placing a call to any other computer, land line or cell phone, anywhere in the world.

It's also Flickr, a nifty piece of software for posting, organizing and annotating photos (60,000 new photos added by members each day), and the new Swiss Army knife of cartography, Google Maps, which elegantly combines geographic survey information with satellite imaging.

With Google Maps, you can peer down on you childhood home as easily as you can plot the route to a remote fishing camp. It's also given rise to a renaissance in amateur mapmaking, as geonerds comb the Google archive to spy on clearcutting in BC forests or military installations in former Soviet states. In fact, so comprehensive is Google's geodata, that the company has recently begun to respond to requests from governments to obscure certain sensitive locations. You can't zoom in on the White House, for instance.

But others are finding different, more radical uses for this kind of connectivity and surveillance: one Chicago website overlays the street grid with publicly available crime statistics. Others are using mapping software to create personal geo-histories: tours of hometowns and paths traveled, or customized responses to everyday needs, like the location of the cheapest gas or nearest bus stop.

This year proved that though the web's novelty may have worn off, it can still delight and amaze us. The digital revolution is still just getting underway.


Minority Government

The funny thing about minority governments is that constant squabbling aside, they have a habit of producing surprisingly good legislation with real options and debate. Without the legislative monopoly that majority government ensures, parliament regains its vitality as a genuine marketplace of ideas and alternatives. Sure the politicians might hate it, but Canadians, especially centrists and those on the left, have been well served by the 38th Parliament and should be sad to see it go.

Of course, right now every party has an interest in portraying the past eighteen months as unproductive. Give us the reins and we'll show you real progress, they claim. But should we?

As when the Pearson government brought in the medicare system, a reliance on the NDP has allowed today's Liberals to push further and faster then they would normally go. Same-sex marriage rights and a national daycare system will be the two most visible legacies of this reluctant partnership. New federal dollars for social housing and public transit also belong in the plus column.

The minority has even been good for the Tories - now looking and acting more like a responsible government-in-waiting then a divided regional party anxious only to throw spanners and brick bats. And the Bloc? Well, they too have been useful in their own way: voting pragmatically in the interests of Quebec and, in the process providing, a useful challenge function on behalf of all provinces against federal over-reaching.

Proponents of electoral reform frequently argue that a new proportional system that favored smaller parties would make minority and coalition governments the norm, rather then the exception - as they are in many European countries. Among them, few of these divided parliaments could really be considered efficient stewards of legislation. For better or worse, Stronachian dramas are another norm that tend to accompany weak government.

Still, most Canadians are content to excuse these histrionics, preferring instead to see their elected officials in whichever configuration simply get on with their work. Only 17 percent of us wanted to have this election now. Minority government? Here's hoping for another.

Disaster Relief

It began in Indonesia, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka where, only a day after Christmas 2004, an underwater earthquake produced a devastating tsunami. By the time the water had receded, nearly a quarter of a million people were dead.

Within days, the Canadian government joined the international community in pledging first tens, then hundreds of millions, then initiating a scheme to match every dollar donated by citizens. Ultimately, some $425 million was committed to reconstruction and relief.

Eight months later, Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast. On August 29, its storm surge breached the levee system that protected New Orleans from Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River. In all, some 1,300 lives were lost and one million people were displaced in the costliest and most destructive disaster in American history.

Again, Canadians dug into their pockets to help. The federal government deployed three warships, while 1,000 RCMP and military personnel began the difficult work of looking for survivors, maintaining order and distributing aid.

Then in October, another earthquake struck, this time in Kashmir, a politically sensitive and impoverished border region between India and Pakistan. At least 85,000 people perished. Some 3.3 million have been left homeless. A week later, Canada's DART team was again readying for deployment. It returned to base in Trenton, Ontario earlier this month after distributing 500 tonnes of humanitarian aid supplies and providing medical treatment to nearly 12,000 people, including 7,000 who were airlifted by Canadian helicopters to emergency clinics.

Amid the many crises and calls the action, 2005 was a year that showed us another dimension to rapid globalization: the imperfect, but wholly decent instinct and growing ability to marshal tremendous resources to alleviate sudden suffering half a world away.

Of course, at the point where the fate of millions and tens of billions of dollars intersect, there will be politics. Some, like those urged by Bob Geldof or Bono to make poverty history, or Stephen Lewis, who reminded us in his Massey Lecture, that AIDS is our greatest scourge and that the failure to meet the UN Millennium goals represents an unconscionable failure of moral responsibility, should inspire us.

Other, smaller politics - nitpicking the details of relief operations, linking aid to religious imperatives and reproductive health - can only disappoint and do real damage.

Perhaps there's an opportunity here for Canada to turn its better instincts to even greater ends, to be a Canada not only in the world, but for the world - a fragile and calamitous place where DART personnel are looking more and more like tomorrow's peacekeepers.

Same-Sex Marriage

It was the big issue that split along generational lines, cut cities from countryside, divided parties and ultimately parliament, passing the House of Commons in a relatively narrow 158 to 133 vote in June, and causing some MPs to bolt from the Liberal caucus. But the decision to legalise gay marriage was never really in doubt. Courts in British Columbia, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Yukon had already sanctioned the practice and a December 2004 decision by the Supreme Court cited the obvious: same-sex marriage was a charter issue and prohibiting it was discriminatory.

With the tabling of the court's decision, the usually glacial pace of social change switched into high gear. By May, even the Canadian Forces had digested the new status quo and issued fresh orders to its chaplains. That month, two enlisted men were married in the chapel at Nova Scotia's Greenwood airbase.

Trudeau's dictum that the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation had found its natural extension, confirming that the state has as little business dictating who can and can't walk a wedding aisle and take a vow of mutual fidelity. But the Supreme Court also used the occasion to prove the Charter a nimble, if compelling instrument, not the blunt club caricatured by its opponents. Gay weddings may be legal, but churches remain free to oppose and reject them, according to their liturgy and the wishes of their congregations.

For all the talk of recalcitrant provinces invoking the notwithstanding clause, gay marriage has passed peaceably into the canon of Canadian law. At last vanished from the front pages and leader columns of the dailies, it's hard, less than a year later, to remember what all the fuss was about. Now Canada can rightly claim to be among a handful of progressive nations that recognize the rights of gays and lesbians to wed.

Tomorrow: eight more big ideas, most of them for BC.

Peter MacLeod writes the ReState column on new ideas in governing for The Tyee. He is a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics and convenor of The Planning Desk, an evolving studio for public systems design.

Please add your own suggestions for big ideas of 2005 by posting a comment below.  [Tyee]

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