Thursday, October 1, 2009


[Production Note: no copyright music this week]

Everything in the techno-capitalist society forms us into separate atoms. We demand our own space, travel in personal metal boxes, and struggle as individuals.

When disaster strikes, hardly anyone remembers how to respond. How will your community react to a major threat? Will it fall apart, or grow stronger? Is there anything you can do to prepare?

This is Radio Ecoshock. I'm your host Alex Smith.

It's a real shock when those lonely atoms, conversing through electronic screens, realize their real community is endangered, or falling apart.

The cause may be economic. A major employer, or a whole industry like the auto sector, shuts down. Or maybe gas prices collapse real estate prices in a former commuter haven.

Communities can also be hammered by a climatic event: long-term drought, burned over by fire, drowned by super-floods and storm surges, or hit by a devastating storm. The disaster can even be environmental. A nuclear plant or a pesticide plant blows up, or a super-tanker spills it's oily guts.

Not to mention the possibility of a terrorist attack, like a dirty bomb or a biological release. Did I mention earthquakes?

In this program, I'll interview Riki Ott, THE Exxon Valdez spill expert. Her town of Cordova Alaska became an early case study in how a community reacts to disaster. Still fighting the big corporation who ruined their fishing industry, and split the townsfolk, Dr. Ott has developed a program to help damaged communities anywhere in the world. She gives us practical tips you should know BEFORE your community gets hit with the unexpected.

We'll follow up with a speech by Dr. John Helliwell. He's an economist called in to an audience that included mayors of towns experiencing near total loss of employment, after major forest mills shut down. I expected a pep talk about business plans and government rescues. Helliwell surprised us all, with a new way of looking at success - one not based on wealth and more production. Instead, John Helliwell is part of a growing consensus that our economic emphasis is all wrong. We should be aiming for Gross National Happiness. An economist who sees the community links becoming more valuable than business, a voice long overdue.

First, let's talk with Riki Ott.

[Ott interview]

I want to add to Riki's Ott's response about the role of women when communities hit a calamity, whether it's natural or human-made. Riki explained that women took up a leadership role in organizing not just meetings, but the networking and re-organization that helped partly heal the community. Women tend to be experienced in both communication and working co-operatively.

The darker side is this: when things go badly, women can also be further victimized by the despair and rage felt by men. I've lived in a town where the mine closed. I reported on the increased domestic disputes, growing alcohol and drug abuse, and outright beating of women by their spouses. If a factory or a mill closes, or natural events wipe out jobs - the community will have to increase services for women, at the very time when there are fewer municipal resources to go around. A women's shelter, or at least a network of safe-houses, may be needed quickly. Keep that in mind.

In an ideal world, both men and women would find some kind of counseling for the loss of value which accompanies unemployment. Without a job, many lose their sense of self definition and worth. We can't count on higher levels of government to provide this. People need to self-organize to talk to one another.

It's my observation that larger governments are beginning to fail. They spend themselves into bankruptcy, and over-build into huge bureaucracies that are unable to respond in any meaningful way. This is true in the most advanced countries, as the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Mississippi showed. If your community is struck, don't wait around for the government to save you. Organize and act locally.

There are also a few cases where the community fails, and nothing can really save it. There are plenty of ghost towns where a big mine closed, and the economy shut down with it. People just moved on.

I can foresee similar situations coming from the developing economic meltdown, coupled with climate disruption. Take the Ohio rust-belt, where heavy industries fled overseas. Former CIBC investment guru Jeff Rubin predicts they will rebuild, because soaring oil prices will make shipping from China too expensive. Others calculate that ocean shipping will remain far cheaper than trucking, so imports of Chinese products will continue.

I say the Ohio and Indiana area will not re-industrialize because they are 95 percent powered by coal. As climate change becomes too obnoxious to deny, and carbon pricing clicks in, new industry will only locate where renewable power is available. The Mid-Western states will either have to enter a crash program to find carbon-free power, or face a permanent loss of population.

Sometimes communities do survive to find new and safer economies. It's happened many times, in many places. In some cases, though, it's better to get out, no matter what your loss in real estate, hopes, or good memories.

Let's get into a different kind of optimism, built from a different kind of economic world view. This speech by Dr. John Helliwell was recorded by film maker Clancy Dennehy on September 17th, 2009 at the Forestry building, University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. While it contains some references to B.C. towns devastated by mill closures - this speech is really about a global movement to redefine what an economy is. Does it produce happiness?

The introduction is by Jack Saddler, Dean of the UBC Faculty of Forestry.


You have just heard the 2009 Forestry Lecture in Sustainability, presented by economist Dr. John Helliwell. The speech was organized by the University of British Columbia Faculty of Forestry on September 17th, 2009.

The lecture was followed by an eminent panel including two top government officials, Doug Konkin, Deputy Minister of Environment, and Dana Hayden, Deputy Minister of Forests and Range. Plus Don Roberts, Managing Director, CIBC World Markets, offering a business critique.

You can download a full one hour presentation, which includes the panel comments, from the Brownbagger radio show archive, located at That's a free mp3.

My thanks to Clancy Dennehy for his recording. Look for Clancy's upcoming art film simply titled "Vancouver".

So what have we learned?

If a major disaster strikes your community, at some point you have to decide whether it's time to pitch in and rebuild - or to leave. There's an old saying, which is only true half the time: "The strong give up and move on. The weak give up and stay." I'm just saying.

If you decide to fight on - don't wait for an outside savior. Big government can't create community. Lawsuits can take 20 years before they let you down.

Big corporations can leave or fail. Build a local economy.

Redefine who you are, and include everybody. Listen to each other. Organize. And if you can, it before disaster strikes.

I'm Alex Smith for Radio Ecoshock. Write me any time. The address is simply radio at

Thank you for listening this week.

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