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J'Accuse! Sauvez la Terre!

I accuse our officials of failing to protect our future.

By Rafe Mair 14 Aug 2006 | TheTyee.ca

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Zola's defence weapon: his pen and public opinion.

An article entitled "J'Accuse," by Emile Zola, the great French novelist, appeared in a Paris literary newspaper, L'Aurore (The Dawn) on Thursday, Jan. 13, 1898. It has been called "an essential date in the history of journalism." And it was.

It dealt with one of the grossest abuses of authority ever known -- the court-martialling of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jew who was, in a frame-up, found guilty of selling secrets to the Germans. He was sent to the horrific tropical prison Devil's Island off the coast of South America.

Zola, three weeks after his article, was tried for criminal libel, convicted in a farcical trial and sentenced to a year in prison, causing him to seek asylum in England. Some years later he was cleared on appeal and returned to France.

Here is how the French establishment of the day behaved, according to Wikipedia. "At the time of the arrest and trial the army officers responsible for the prosecution truly believed Dreyfus was guilty of the crime charged. By 1896, however, they knew they had made a catastrophic mistake. Still, high-ranking officers on the army's general staff and officers in military intelligence, fearful that public exposure of the injustice done Dreyfus would embarrass the army, engaged in a gigantic cover-up which featured perjury, forgery and obstruction of justice. The conspirators, including at least eight generals, even protected and assisted Commandant Ferdinand Esterhazy, the army infantry officer who, as they knew by 1896, had actually committed the crime for which Dreyfus had been wrongfully convicted."

His story is told, incidentally, in the book Dreyfus -- A Family Affair; 1789-1945 by Michael Burns.

I accuse

I don't recall Dreyfus to illustrate anti-Semitism in Canada as there was in France, but to demonstrate the truism that governments and establishments only do right by accident. Not only do they permit wrongs, they encourage them. Dreyfus showed that no matter what the issue, the government and the ruling oligarchy will do all things necessary, very much including telling falsehoods, to avoid doing what's right.

I accuse the governments, federal and provincial, of deliberately covering up environmental degradation that will, given just a little more time, make this world unlivable.

I accuse the governments of gross dereliction of duty.

I accuse the governments of pandering to the wishes of the Canadian establishment, the captains of industry and the comfortable crust of society rather than performing its fundamental task of protecting the environment for the generations to come.

Ignoring conveniently

As at the time of Dreyfus, the government and upper crust of France were happy to live with an evil distortion of the truth and support perjurers, so the governments of British Columbia and Canada deliberately and stubbornly ignored the warnings of those with uncomfortably true convictions, from Rachel Carson (whose Silent Spring was first published in 1962) on to Canadian heroes like David Suzuki, Paul Watson and Alexandra Morton.

The generals in the Dreyfus case are in this case the industrialists of the world, all too often aided and abetted by organized labour. The industrialists don't see themselves as having any obligation to be good citizens. After all, their duty is to shareholders; labour unions too often put jobs before all other considerations. The governments, like the French government in Dreyfus's time, are enablers and apologists and by their inattention to duty encourage the ongoing desecration of our environment, our legacy to future generations.

Timid politicians

Because Dreyfus was a Jew from what was after the War of 1870 part of Germany, the government feared public disapproval if they stood up to the military. Because even a tiny bit of environmental common sense will offend the affluent and comfortable, governments knuckle under to industry. The public, misled at best, lied to at worst, is disorganized as on each and every environmental issue the government bobs, weaves, dissembles and outright lies.

The fight to save ourselves seems unwinnable, so our motto seems to be "let's have a bit of peace and quiet and hope nothing bad happens."

We've reached the point where the oceans are becoming cesspools with bacteria and jellyfish all that is likely to survive, the ice caps are disappearing, our atmosphere comes closer and closer to unfixable degradation, and our governments do nothing.

My imitation of the great Zola's "J'Accuse" is directed to us: you and me who will always reject harsh reality if there's a Pollyannish argument to be made. We let it happen bit by bit as we feel helpless while industry and government dart away from the truth and, like the inkfish, cover their trail.

Alarms were warranted

Day by day in 2006 we're learning that those who were concerned about farmed Atlantic salmon in our waters were right -- indeed the situation is worse than was thought. Yet the government continues to help the industry lie through its teeth. The recent opinion of Special Crown Counsel Bill Smart demonstrates that biologist Alexandra Morton has been right all along.

We have a government that invites environmental rapists, dressed as if they just stepped out of an Eddie Bauer catalogue, to open up our wilderness so that wealthy Europeans and American hunters and fishers can not only intrude on that wilderness but walk away with taxidermic evidence of their manliness.

When the public ventures a complaint, governments and their apologists in the media claim that their policy will open up the wilderness so even senior citizens can get in on the act.

Yeah, sure. The saga is endless and, mercifully, this column is not. I am, then, about to reduce the issue to where we can see that a solution only awaits our willingness to adopt it. I'm speaking of what the lawyers call the "onus of proof."

Precautionary principle

Does it not strike you as strange that the fish farmers have never had to prove that their industry is environmentally sound but that individuals like you and me, scattered about doing other things, must take on the onus and fight those who would rape our precious outdoors? Isn't it more than a little odd that we must show the dangers from sea lice, escapees, fish turds, chemicals and dyes while industry, hand in hand with cabinet ministers and bureaucrats, denies the obvious and does as it pleases? Why must we rely upon dedicated citizens to demonstrate these dangers and to enunciate the obvious?

What I propose is not some "way out" solution no one's ever heard of. I speak of what scientists (those not paid for by the governments or industry, that is) call the "precautionary principle."

Simply put, this means that before we introduce any program into the environment, we assume a stance of caution and say to the fish farmer, for example: "You are introducing into the oceans something very new, a foreign species, in the hundreds of thousands, in cages. Experience in Norway, Scotland and Ireland tells us that we can expect large numbers of escapes, millions of sea lice attracted to these tightly contained hosts and a lot of dangerous drugs, excess food, colorants and other crud onto the seabed. Before you get a license, you must establish that you will do no harm."

It's all ass backwards. The government takes the side (and some shekels besides) from industry, shills for that industry and hopes that by the time a disunited public sees what's up, it will be too late.

I use the fish farm issue because it's current and we can all see what happens when we leave the safety of our waters to Gordon Campbell and Co. But it happens throughout the public process. Whether its pharmaceuticals, foodstuffs, or use of the environment, the onus is thrust upon the public and those who, pro bono, work on their behalf to demonstrate harm instead of industry proving safety.

Safety first?

Let me close with this thought. Why do we insist that commercial airlines, big and small, constantly prove the airworthiness and safety of their planes?

Right wing philosophers would argue that companies will always police themselves because it's just good business. But we know that's not true. Left to their own devices, companies will fudge, take just a little bit of a chance, have that pilot fly just an hour or two more.

Airlines don't like the involvement of government, i.e. the public, because it sets standards that, to the industry, seem unreasonably high. But governments, with the public behind them, demand that the "precautionary principle" be adopted and the onus be on airlines to constantly prove their safeness and not on the public to demonstrate the opposite.

That principle must apply to government and industry that use the environment to ply their trade.

The hour is late. Perhaps it is past. The public must rise as one and say "we are not going to sell out, for short term gain, our heritage. Enough, we say, enough! Henceforth the political party that does not acknowledge and pledge to support the 'precautionary principle' will not get our support."

If we don't do this, all will be lost if it isn't already.

Rafe Mair writes a Monday column for The Tyee. His website is www.rafeonline.com.  [Tyee]

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