Humans struggle with allocating losses

Canada seems to have a weird atmosphere of being in a recession, but without that term being used and without the definition (in terms of GDP growth or contraction) being met.

This starts to make more sense when you see that the GDP growth is largely the result of population growth and growth in the labour supply – not increased output per worker. GDP per capita was $58,304 in Q1 of 2020 and $58,111 in Q4 of 2023. Meanwhile, according to the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator, inflation has averaged 4% per year over the span, so C$100 in 2024 buys what C$85.48 would have bought in 2020. The average Canadian is getting poorer, even with all the stimulus that was given out over the pandemic and with all the new debt which has been accumulated. I personally think governments have been pulling out all stops to keep asset prices (especially stocks and houses) high since the 2008 financial crisis, with very little consideration of what those measures are doing to the non-affluent and those in future generations.

This is worrisome both in the immediate context and as a broader signifier. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow stresses how people experience gains differently from losses, and find a loss of any size more aversive than they find a gain of that size pleasurable. He comments on the social and political implications:

If you are set to look for it, the asymmetric intensity of the motives to avoid losses and to achieve gains show up almost everywhere. It is an ever-present feature of negotiations, especially of negotiations of an existing contract, the typical situation in labor negotiations and in international discussions of trade or arms limitations. The existing terms define reference points, and a proposed change in any aspect of the agreement is inevitably viewed as a concession that one side makes to the other. Loss aversion creates an asymmetry that makes agreements difficult to reach. The concessions you make to me are my gains, but they are your losses; they cause you more pain than they give me pleasure. Inevitably, you will place a higher value on them than I do. The same is true, of course, of the very painful concessions you demand from me, which you do not appear to value sufficiently! Negotiations over a shrinking pie are especially difficult, because they require an allocation of losses. People tend to be much more easygoing when they bargain over an expanded pie. (p. 304)

Globally, this pattern is alarming too. Humanity is choosing to persist in activities which we know will cause catastrophic climate change, loss of wealth, and unprecedented damage to the natural world which sustains us. We are also massively failing to invest enough in non-fossil energy sources to retain our current standard of life. This is setting us up for brutal inter- and intra-national fights over allocating losses.

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Peter Russell tributes

In January, my friend and mentor Peter Russell died. His son Alex invited me to give remarks at his funeral reception: Remarks at the funeral of Peter Russell

Yesterday, I spoke at Innis College’s memorial event: Remarks about Peter Russell at Innis College

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Canada’s origin in fraud

Over the next few years, as I got to know the Dene better, I learned about how emissaries of the Canadian government had first entered the Dene lands and the conditions under which they negotiated Treaty Eight in 1899 as the queen’s representatives and Treaty Eleven as the king’s representatives in 1921. These treaties had about as much to do with the queen or king as they did with your great grandma or grandpa. The mission of the Canadian treaty party in 1899 was to secure a safe shortcut for Canadians on their way to the Klondike goldfields, and in 1921 to prepare access for the oil industry to the petroleum discovered at Norman Wells, a way down the Mackenzie River.

These treaties, like the other numbered treaties before and between them, were designed to gain access for settler industries to resources in areas that had been Indigenous nations’ homelands for centuries and in which Native peoples were still by far the dominant if not the only population…

Sovereignty is not mentioned in these treaties, nor is the queen or king referred to as sovereign. But the text of the treaties, written in Ottawa, in English, in advance of “negotiations” and not translated into the Native people’s language, contained some killer language. In return from some up-front money and small annual payments of a few dollars to every man, woman, and child, flags, medals, suits for the chiefs, sometimes fishnets and farming equipment, plus some small parcels of their former homeland to be assigned to them by the queen or king as “reserves,” the Native owners are purported “to cede, release, surrender and yield up” all rights and priveleges to all of their territory. This language is in all the numbered treaties. It is what the lawyers call “boilerplate.” At the so-called treaty negotiations, the Crown’s representatives did not use those killer words at all. Instead, the Indigenous signatories (who may have lacked authorization to sign anything on behalf of their nation) were assured that they would have access to their traditional hunting grounds as long as the sun rises and the rivers flow.

When you read the treaty texts and think about the actual treaty process, the most apt word that comes to mind in answering the Dene’s question about how the Queen got sovereignty over them is surely trickery. And that is a polite way of answering the question. Fraud is closer to what actually occurred. The First Nations had not been conquered, and while there was a strong interest in establishing a peaceful relationship and getting some tangible benefits, no Native people was so desperate that it would knowingly sign away its rights and make itself totally dependent on the largesse of the white man.

Russell, Peter. H. Sovereignty: The Biography of a Claim. University of Toronto Press, 2021. p. 4-5 (italics in original)

How should we feel about Canada now, if we acknowledge that its origins were fundamentally illegitimate?

In practical terms, does sovereignty mean anything other than armed control over a population?

Our leaders are killing our kids

Oceans of ink have been spilled arguing that social media and smartphones are the reason young people around the world are not doing well.

While there may well be truth to that, to me the whole discussion seems like an evasion of the real issue: we are living in a world where our leaders are killing our kids, because they are unwilling to act on climate change even though it could bring about the end of our civilization. We live in a world where the people in charge are willing to condemn everyone who follows them to torment and destruction, all because they are unwilling to give up the conveniences of fossil fuels. The ‘leaders’ who are doing this are committing history’s most egregious crime against future generations and the natural world, yet our media and society keep treating them as the best of their kind: deserving of praise, wealth, and fancy state funerals when they reach the end.

The lesson that sends to young people is that the system does not value them in any way, and is happy to sacrifice their most vital interests for the sake of further enriching those who benefit from the fossil fuel status quo – which is not just billionaire fatcats, but billions of consumers in rich societies who take it for granted that big trucks and airplanes are the way to get around and who insist on political leaders who pretend to care about climate change, while being privately committed to keep supporting the fossil fuel industry.

Even the RCMP – an institution that sees itself as an ally (p. 41) of the fossil fuel industry – is warning about how our societal disregard for the interests of the young is fueling instability:

There is a notion of the social contract in which each generation is obligated to consider the interests of those who will come after. This covenant has been totally broken, with the almost inescapable consequence that intergenerational conflict will become more and more severe as the damage we have done to the Earth keeps destroying our ability to provide the well-off with what they feel entitled to.

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New moon walk and celestial navigation

One of the most remarkable walks I have ever taken was around Tommy Thomson Park on November 6th, 2021.

It was the night of a new moon, and I got to the park entrance around 10pm. I decided to use an exhaustive search algorithm to explore the penninsula. I would begin walking around the hand-shaped penninsula clockwise, starting at the ‘wrist’ and visiting each ‘finger’ one by one. At every junction between paths, I would choose the one on the left if I had not already taken it. That way, I would explore every dead end and follow every path.

When I got into the park, lit only by starlight and city light reflected across the water, I began to perceive the stars above me as a gigantic compass. In the eastern sky, I could see just the right shoulder of Orion rising. As I walked around the penninsula, with my eyes having adjusted to hours of darkness, I could see by starlight alone. At one point, I was startled when a darker part of the shadow ahead of me moved and scampered off the path, but in less than a second I understood that it was a surprised skunk who had been taking the same path in the other direction hastily getting out of my way.

As the night went on, more and more of Orion was visible until the whole constellation rose about the horizon and up about 30˚ into the southern sky. The whole experience was an accidental but effective tutorial in celestial navigation. With the city visible, I had help orienting myself, and by keeping track of Orion I could make sense of which direction I was moving within Tommy Thomson Park’s suprisingly hard to navigate layout. It looks simple from the air, but since all the parts are equally low and beside one another, it can be very hard on the ground to know exactly where you are and which direction to go to reach somewhere else.

By 2am I was back at the park entrance. I will never forget what it was like to see by just the stars and the glow of the downtown core about 4 km away across the water, and I will never forget the feeling of when my brain flipped inside out to see the sky like a spherical compass which I was inside of, helping me to orient myself, plot a straight course, and explore.

Canada’s 2023 fires

Oliver Milman writes in The Guardian:

The impact upon the world’s climate will be even more significant than this. According to data from the European Union’s satellite monitoring service, more than 1.7bn tons of planet-heating gases have been released this year by the enormous fires – about three times the total emissions that Canada, a major fossil fuel-producing nation, itself produces each year.

Such huge emissions, eclipsing in a single year any measure, however ambitious, to cut pollution from cars or factories by a country like Canada, are a major drag upon efforts to stem the climate crisis. The majestic boreal forests, much like the Amazon rainforest that now emits as much carbon as it sucks up and is tipping towards becoming a savannah, suddenly appear to be a danger to the world’s climate rather than a key safeguard.

The world has ignored the imperative to stop worsening climate change through fossil fuel use for at least three decades now. The planet is starting to gravely reflect that mistreatment, and doing so in ways that worsen future disruption.