Monday, August 31, 2009

Worms of the world, unite!

Earlier last spring, I put my six-year old and the kid next door to work on an unusual project. We studied together a "how to" YouTube video, then we set ourselves to build a worm compost bin for my balcony garden.

The girls turned out to be awesome students. They drilled the holes in the Rubbermaid container, they shredded the newspaper to create a comfy worm bed, they placed the decomposing vegetable scraps (which they renamed the yucky food) into the bin.

The worms themselves had arrived the night before by regular mail. When I popped open the little Canada Post box and showed the girls the red wrigglers roaming through the ziplock bag, they looked at me in disbelief. What a weird dad, they thought.

Putting worms to work for one's own benefit does require some cultural adjustment. In our western collective psyches, worms are more associated with decay and death than help and work. They take our imaginations to the cemetery rather than to a basket of juicy tomatoes. My wife has already put me on notice: play as you want on the balcony, but those worms are not coming inside. I haven't broken her the news yet that at one point in the winter they will have to, or they will freeze to death. One argument at a time.

For my part, I am very fond of my worms and find them to be among the mightiest creatures on the planet. They add considerable value to my balcony garden. Without them, the sterile soil of my pots would be exhausted in a single season and I would depend on the ready made fertilizer bags found at the plant store. My worms close the circle on this tiny ecosystem of mine. To say that I am grateful to them for their invaluable work would be quite a understatement, when what I am really saying is that mankind ought to dedicate a cult to that fantastic animal.

Of course, a biologist would interject that, technically, my worms don't work. They eat. They metabolize the vegetal residues that I place in the bin for them, and their metabolic activity creates fecal waste which happens to be extremely beneficial to my plants.

"Work" is another concept altogether, quite different from a worm's daily feast, or so I am told. It is an act of the will rather than that of the stomach. As such, it is a specific attribute of man, setting him aside from every other living species. As Marx famously wrote, "a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality." Human labor, Marx added, is the only force capable of creating more value than it initially has. Nature merely provides man with the material conditions for value creation, in the form of natural resources.

It depends, I guess, on the definition one gives to value. Value defined as an exchange-value bought and sold on a market is distinctively human. Value understood as use-value however, as previously discussed here, finds its origin in nature. The value I am adding to my balcony garden is marginal. The plants combine solar energy and soil nutrients to produce protein out of thin air. The worms feed dead plants back to the living as they feed themselves along the way. Clearly, they - not I - perform the bulk of the work.

Me? I am just the middle man, awkwardly standing in the way of that metabolic miracle, levying my food tax based on the dubious claim that I am the lord of the balcony. All I do there is orchestrate a process which I comprehend and control only in the shallowest of manners. My primary contribution to this arrangement is to keep everything potted, sealed, and in my custody. And oh yeah, I throw in some food scraps and water whenever I remember.

If my balcony were a factory, I would be employed as a rather incompetent manager. The real worker on that factory's floor is the worm. I am to my worms what the capitalist is to his workers, a parasitic exploiter of labor power. You agree with my wife and daughter that I am out to lunch? Well try this. Imagine if the worms of the world went on strike. Then you would know who indeed produces value, and who really is the lord of my balcony.


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The multiple shades of 'No'

Anti-IPP rally in Kaslo, British Columbia. Photo Damien Gillis

In a previous post, I talked about BC's "independent power producer" (IPP) scheme. A column by Mark Hume in yesterday's Globe and Mail captures well the shift in the public mood regarding this river privatization business.

Hume has spent time reading some of the public comments posted on the BC Environmental Assessment Office website regarding the Glacier/Howser project in the Kootenays, and he has reached the conclusion that "people are more than a little opposed".

I myself have spent part of last weekend helping Lee-Ann Unger from the West Kootenay EcoSociety read through the thousand or so public comments posted on the EAO website regarding Glacier/Howser. We tallied the number of submissions in favor and against that project.

The batch I was assigned contained 242 letters. I counted 239 letters opposed to the project (98.8%), and 3 in support (1.2%).

Against all expectations, that work was anything but tedious. It was actually very empowering. Not because of the clerical nature of the task I was performing, but because of the material I was reading.

I didn’t know it was possible to say ‘No’ in so many different ways. They came in all sizes, shapes, and forms. Some letters were pretty long, others were two-liners, some were professional mini-reports complete with bullet points and appendixes, others were hand written on flower motif paper. Some came from seniors, students, first nations, business owners, engineers, environmentalists, doctors, local residents, city people, immigrants. It was like standing right inside the Canada census.

I invite everyone to randomly read some letters from the EAO website. Then you will know what I am talking about. And if you happen to hit one of the 3 letters in my batch that support the project, the beer is on me!

The people know about the IPP scam, they understand it, they are informed, and they are mad. And I thought I was one of a handful fighting those private river projects, when in reality there was an entire army marching with me.


Sunday, August 9, 2009

Beautiful work

Photo Isabelle Groc

Gardening, as any fellow gardener will confirm, is pretty hard work. It is also one of the most joyful activities of my week.

People ask me why I like gardening so much. My preferred cynical response is that gardening is the only type of activism where my work actually makes a difference. For the better and for the worse, my labor – or lack thereof – usually shows in my garden.

Gardening redefines my relation to work. For a few hours per week, I escape the complex servitudes of wage labor and I become the owner of my means of production. It's not just that I own my gardening tools and seeds, which are really too cheap to meter. But I control the whole process of production of my vegetables, from planning to weeding to planting to watering to harvest. And of course, during those few hours I am also the owner of my time.

The rest of the week, I am employed to write someone else's software from a cubicle and a computer which I don't own. I share with millions of other workers the uncomfortable knowledge that I must sell my labor power on the market every day, or starve. Famine is a somewhat remote and theoretical threat living in an affluent society such as ours and holding a good job such as mine. I am definitely at the top of the workers' food chain. But I am a worker nonetheless, and as such liable to starvation by joblessness, because I do not own my means of production nor my labor time. Except for those few hours per week when I am in my garden.

The labor that I expend in my garden undoubtedly produces value, in the form of something useful to my family and myself, vegetables. It produces use-value. The vegetables that I harvest over the summer would not have existed without my work. Left to its own device, my garden would have merely produced weeds. No doubt, those weeds are quite essential to a rich ecosystem which I mindlessly destroy through my constant weeding. But they have no place in the simpler, edible ecosystem that I am trying to establish in my garden through all my hard labor. The use-values – the veggies – coming out of my garden are literally a crystallization of my own labor. As Marx once wrote, value is indeed congealed human labor.

The labor that I expend in my cubicle produces something that is hopefully useful to someone else. But it certainly has no use-value to me. I have absolutely no use for the software applications that I am writing in there. I am getting something out of it of course, but of a different nature. I am exchanging my labor power for a paycheck. That labor power which I am giving away in exchange for money is a commodity which can be bought and sold on the labor market – an exchange-value. The resulting software is also a congelation of my human labor.

On a typical month, the money that I earn from my employer is used to live on until the next paycheck. I'll pay my rent, bills and credit cards, buy some food and other stuff, download a movie or two on my iPod, and if I'm lucky lay some of it aside for retirement, but probably not this month. That money will essentially allow me to stay in shape as a functional software programmer through the next pay period, hopefully preventing me from getting fired, and giving me the right to earn another pay check.

Those two forms of labor don't have much in common, yet they are both work. Or are they? Maybe I'm deluding myself entirely with my garden. Indeed I am only there when I am off work, on my “leisure time”. They say that gardening is a form of therapy, and perhaps indeed this therapy is part of my personal process of getting back into shape for the next pay period and earning that next paycheck without getting myself fired. Perhaps the hard work that I expend in my garden is merely hard play. Damn. And I thought I was doing something meaningful there, such as turning my life around and gradually breaking free from the complex servitudes of wage labor. That wouldn't be the first time I have deluded myself. I'll think about it next time I am in my garden.

The other problem is this: what about all the labor that I am not the one producing in my garden? I am the one doing the weeding and the watering, but I certainly am not the one doing the growing. It's true that I expend labor in my garden for a few hours per week. But it's also true that nature works totally for free the rest of the week, and somehow seamlessly combines its forces to mine to produce my vegetables. When I sleep or idle around aimlessly in my apartment, my veggies still grow. Conversely, I could labor day and night in my garden, if nature did not provide such simple things as the process of photosynthesis which is tantamount to black magic to me, there would be no vegetables in my garden, nor any weeds either for that matter. Tomorrow, the forecast for Vancouver is rain. Good, this means I don't have to water. The following day, the forecast is sun. This means that my veggies will do their black magic thing and grow, whether I show up in the garden or not. How does one account for the free work that nature performs for me? How is all of nature's own free labor congealed into the use-values of my garden?

The big guy Marx says that you don't need to worry about the congealing of nature's work because it all comes down to human productivity. If nature is helping out in my garden for free, then my garden will produce a greater amount of veggie use-values in the same amount of my labor time. So labor time, not the forces of nature, is the important factor here. Nature can thus be safely discounted in the labor theory of value because all the free work it provides is recaptured once I put my slumbering powers to work in my garden for those few hours per week. And that, according to the big guy, is all there is to it. Do I sound convinced? Hardly. One more thing I will have to think about next time I am in my garden.

Meanwhile, I will chew on this beautiful quote by a Cuban urban farmer who, when asked if he liked working in his garden, replied: “Este es trabajo bonito”. This is beautiful work. And at the end of the week, that is all there is to it.


Friday, August 7, 2009

Damien Gillis explains run-of-river

Bute Inlet. Photo Damien Gillis

The BC Utilities Commission, the province's independent regulatory agency for gas and electricity, has just rejected BC Hydro's 2008 call for power. This effectively brings the entire "IPP" river privatization scheme championed by the Campbell government down to its knees.

It's not game over yet for the transnational corporations involved in those projects, but it certainly is a strategic victory towards the protection of Bute Inlet and other BC rivers and watersheds. Plutonic Power's stock, for example, crashed a whopping 24.5% on the day after the announcement.

I am posting a must-hear radio interview by Damien Gillis, one of Vancouver's most talented environmental documentary makers and a personal friend. He talks about this groundbreaking BC Utilities Commission's decision, as well as "run-of-river" private power projects in general.

In less than 15 minutes Damien lays down in plain English all we need to know about the Campbell government's agenda to privatize BC's rivers and what is so wrong about it.

His eloquence is quite contagious. Simi Sara, the radio show host, is altogether baffled at how advanced some of those private projects are ("I had no idea") and worked up about taking action.

This decision is a key milestone in what promises to be a very long struggle. The Campbell government is reported to be preparing a counter attack that could potentially involve overriding the BCUC's decision, something that would be tantamount to an act of war against the independent regulatory body.

To be continued, obviously.


Between equal rights, force decides

Juvenile pink salmon infested with sea lice. Photo Alexandra Morton

The following letter was published in the Campbell River Courier-Islander, July 8, 2009 under the title "Civil disobedience may be the next step for British Columbia":

Alexandra Morton's victory in her epic battle against salmon farming giant Marine Harvest and the BC government appears to have been short lived. Rafe Mair reported the following in the Tyee, July 6:

"I have been reliably informed that the provincial government has already made the necessary bureaucratic moves to transfer this file back to the tender mercies of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and that Marine Harvest abandoned the constitutional part of their appeal having been assured that nothing would change."

This is a chilling reminder that our legal system is an instrument of power, not of right. Something that I have personally learned the hard way as I observed and occasionally helped Betty Krawczyk in her heroic yet unsuccessful court battles to assert our right to public participation.

You lose in court? Tough luck. You go to jail and get stuck with the court costs, as did Betty.

You win in court? Who cares. The power elites quickly work out backroom deals among themselves to cancel your victory, as with Alexandra Morton.

Those two remarkable women perform an essential public service, one through her repeated defeats and the other through her deceptive victory.

They expose the nature of the beast. They demonstrate that the so-called "representative" democratic system in which we live is a fig leaf for the elite class to assert its power over the people.

The elite class, this strange hybrid of the government and corporate spheres, does not give a damn about the rule of law. They simply use it when it suits them and treat it as irrelevant when it does not.

Marx (not Groucho, the other one) once wrote that between equal rights, force decides. Most normal people believe that they have the right and duty to protect the commons against corporate recklessness. The elite class believes that it has the right to accumulate money whatever the cost. Well, here you have it. Between those two rights, force indeed decides.

In the latter part of his Tyee column, Rafe Mair illustrates an essential point, that force does not necessarily have to equate violence. It can also take the form of peaceful resistance. Today, the West Kootenays are pretty much in insurrection mode over the privatization of their rivers, yet their show of force has remained non violent. Rafe Mair is predicting a wave of civil disobedience in our province, Clayoquot style, and I see it coming too. Indeed, it is the next logical step once one has lost confidence in the ability of the courts to protect the people from corporate thievery.

Ivan Doumenc
Vancouver, BC


Thursday, August 6, 2009

Green shoot

After I completed the registration of this new blog on Blogspot, I watered my balcony garden like I do every day.

As I picked up the watering can, something unexpected caught my attention.

I have a garbage bin tucked in a corner of my balcony. It's an ugly black plastic Office Depot bin which I use to store potting soil. It was almost empty. Down there, in the darkness and bone dry soil, a little green bean shoot had emerged.

It had probably germinated a couple days earlier from a bean dropped there by accident some weeks ago. Unnoticed and unplanned, the shoot was stubbornly doing what shoots do, working hard to stay alive and grow.

I immediately proceeded to move this unlikely survivor to a more favorable ecosystem - a real pot with abundant water and sun and the companionship of thriving vegetables. I have no idea if this little bean plant will live or die, but now I'm attached to it and I'll keep monitoring its every little progress. Perhaps, who knows? this fall I will get to harvest from it.

How fitting, I thought, to have discovered this vegetal baby minutes after launching the digital one. Talk about grass struggle! This blog too has emerged out of nowhere, unexpected and quite unplanned. It may live or more likely it may die, but until it does it will stubbornly do what blogs do - work hard to earn the right to live and grow in the sun for a while.