Monthly Archives: August 2006

Reuters Photo of Argentinian Upsala Glacier Retreat

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Andean Glaciers are Melting

In case you were wondering, global warming is still happening and affecting more and more regions of the world, as well as their people. An article in The Guardian reports that the Andean glaciers are melting so fast that they are expected to disappear within the next 15 to 25 years “denying major cities water supplies and putting populations and food supplies at risk in Colombia, Peru, Chile, Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina and Bolivia.” Because the glaciers represent sources of water for South American populations, their impending disappearance is of deep concern to officials in the region as it would present a severe loss to those dependent on them.

Not only that but the melting glaciers affects the habits of local farmers in ways that have an even more negative and cumulative impact on the environment.”The [drastic melt] forces people to farm at higher altitudes to grow their crops, adding to deforestation, which in turn undermines water sources and leads to soil erosion and putting the survival of Andean cultures at risk,” says the report by the Working Group on Climate Change and Development.

And in what is becoming an increasing trend the groups associated with the Working Group on Climate Change and Development in South America are calling on rich countries to drastically reduce their carbon emissions and to take responsibility for the negative impact they have had on less developed regions of the world. Juan Maldonado, the former environmental minister of Columbia and president of the UN convention on biological diversity has gone as far as to say that “The only option we have, apart from demanding that developed countries take responsibility for the damages that climate change is causing, is to try to neutralise the adverse impacts that are [already] upon us. It is time to rethink the model of international aid”.

One wonders whether the tension between the developed and developing world will escalate as the environmental and social impacts of climate change increasingly make themselves felt. With each new environmental disaster in a developing region the impact does serious damage to poor communities who are already struggling to survive. It would not surprise me to hear more and more voices speaking on behalf of these impoverished communities and demanding more accountability from the international community. The question is how will the international community respond? I also wonder, while I agree with the criticism being lobbied, whether the “us against them” dynamic being established between the developing and developed regions is the best way to approach and negotiate the challenges of climate change.

Stay tuned.

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A Degree of Assimilation

I visited Juan’s Global Culture blog. A blog I like to visit for current opinions on the state of world culture and in some ways the tension between the globalization of culture, and the staunch need of the individual to retain cultural uniqueness. Juan was born and raised for the most part in Mexico, but moved to Toronto Canada as a professional, and he now looks at the immigrant experience for clues on how we are dealing as a society with cultural change and adaptation.

One of his latest entries:

In our western societies people from all over the world can live with certain degree of respect for each other. The minority groups are accepted or at least tolerated. The same liberty is sometimes missed in our countries of origin. In the Muslim, Latin American and other regions, tolerance to other cultures is less lenient. Being non-Muslim in Middle East is very uncomfortable at best. In Montreal, Radio Maghreb à Montréal (CPAM Radio Union 1610 AM) conducted a poll asking if Algeria should pursue a policy of accepting people from different religion than theirs. The results were that the majority of the callers declared that Algeria should remain a pure Muslim country, denying to the prospect immigrant to Algeria the same liberty that they enjoy in Canada. This may be a red alert that cultural assimilation is not taking place. Reaction against our chosen home culture is what may produce these western-born terrorist.

For me this raises the question of intent. When we move to a new country, why are we really leaving our old home, and why are we claiming a new one? I think for some immigrants the move is political. They leave their homes fleeing persecution. For others it is economic. They anticipate jobs and a better environment to raise their offspring. And for others, it is pure cosmopolitan curiosity. It is the thrill of the new. It is the chance to absorb and live within a different culture. But perhaps we have not completely been honest with ourselves if we think that when an immigrant moves to a new country, it is with the expectation that they will fully embrace their new home’s culture.

The reasons listed above for moving to a new country are varied and mixed. And not one of the reasons listed suggests that the immigrant experience expects to completely dissolve their former connections to their homeland. Why is it that we are surprised then to observe immigrants walking amongst us still dressed in their cultural “uniforms”? At the same time I cannot get away from the apparent discrepancy that a newcomer could see the openess of a country like Canada and celebrate its freedoms, but then turn around and expect a rigid adaptation to one system of thoughts and beliefs in their old culture. It seems a conflicted response. But perhaps that is part of the immigrant experience.

You are always split between your old and your new world. You never feel like you quite belong in one place. And the natural place to turn to for cues is not one political or standardized body but a collective community with different voices and opinions. Not something I usually identify with a government agency, so I am left to wonder whether the government is the best place to house integration into a new country? And what is the difference between tolerance and acceptance? Juan raises this early on in the paragraph above. As a multicultural society can we live with one, or the other? Or do we need both to truly function as an extended multicultural community? Are we in fact kidding ourselves if we just tolerate each other? Tolerance seems to imply a base acceptance. Tolerance represents a degree of acceptance as opposed to full-out rejection. Acceptance, however, suggests an understanding of the cultural cross-currents and an acceptance that while they are not our own view of the world, they are an alternate and plausible view.

It would be an interesting exercise for countries to evaluate their own integration mechanisms and policies around immigration. Are the underlying pillars structured on tolerance…or acceptance. Two very different outlooks on immigration.

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Water Abstract by flickr

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World Water Week August 20-26 2006

It is World Water Week in Stockholm, and it couldn’t come a day too soon. This a few days after the fact that the WWF has released a report “Rich Countries, Poor Water” detailing the water stress affecting many parts of the world, and not just within the developing economies, it is also affecting big cities in the West like Houston. While I have to admit Water World always recalls images of Kevin Costner in his ill-fated rubber wetsuit fighting to keep himself and his career afloat in a world of Hollywood fabricated water, it is much less of a laughing matter that the CIA predicted that by 2015 almost hald of the world’ population will be stressed for water. And while we may laugh at Costner’s portrayal of a society of people fighting each other for the last drops of drinkable water, water stress does inevitably lead to conflict and water wars as exhibited in Dafur.

According to the WWF report, in London leaks from ageing water mains are wasting 300 Olympic swimming pools’ worth of water every single day. And southern Europe is becoming drier as a result of climate change and further north Alpine glaciers – a significant source of water – are shrinking. A water crisis is expected to impact India and China hardest as they are among the world’s most populated regions and as the fastest growing economies are feeling the squeeze for energy resources.

If we are currently feeling the heat of oil prices, I can only imagine a future escalation in water prices. I have already seen private investors in the US being quoted in the media for calling water the “next liquid gold” as they anticipate the scarcity of water pushing up its value. You can always count on the private sector to find the silver lining in any crisis. Water included.

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16th International HIV/AIDS Conference

“Abstinence is often not an option for poor women and girls who have no choice but to marry at an early age. Being faithful will not protect a woman whose partner is not faithful. And using condoms is not a decision that a woman can make by herself; it depends on a man.

Another promising approach is male circumcision. One new study found that it could significantly reduce the spread of HIV. This is exciting — and if male circumcision truly is effective, we should make it widely available.

But, like using condoms, circumcision is a procedure that depends on a man.

That isn’t good enough.

We need to put the power to prevent HIV in the hands of women.

We need tools that will allow women to protect themselves. This is true whether the woman is a faithful married mother of small children — or a sex worker trying to scrape out a living in a slum. No matter where she lives, who she is, or what she does — a woman should never need her partner’s permission to save her own life.” Bill Gates

Why aren’t we getting these life-saving tools to the people who need them?

There are many reasons — financial, logistical, political, social. But there is one reason I want to emphasize today, and that is stigma.

The simple fact is that HIV is transmitted through activities that society finds difficult to discuss — activities that are infused with stigma — and that stigma has made AIDS much harder to fight..

Stigma is cruel. It is also irrational.

Stigma makes it easier for political leaders to stand in the way of saving lives. In some countries with widespread AIDS epidemics, leaders have declared the distribution of condoms immoral, ineffective, or both. Some have argued that condoms do not protect against HIV, but in fact help spread it.

This is a serious obstacle to ending AIDS. In the fight against AIDS, condoms save lives. If you oppose the distribution of condoms, something is more important to you than saving lives.

Melinda Gates

This week there has been a lot of media talk surrounding the the 16th International HIV/AIDS 2006 conference going on in Toronto from the 13th thru the 18th. Major headliners such as Bill Clinton, Stephen Lewis, and the formidable power duo of Bill and Melinda Gates have lent their influential presence in order to raise awareness around the epidemic and to co-chair the event. Bill and Melinda gates have a foundation dedicated to bringing innovations in health to global communities, within that is the search for better preventative HIV measures.

One key message that emerged from Mr and Mrs. Gates has been preventative; the need to empower women by giving them access to sexual contraceptive devices. Currently the worse group affected by HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa are women between the ages of 16 to 24. And marriage is not a sure protection against the disease, as many women protract the disease while in long-term commitments. Mrs. Gates also addressed the key issue of stigma, which was something I was told about during my spring trip to South Africa this past year. One of the greatest challenges and what is doing severe damage within communities already affected by the epidemic is the simultaneous but more silent attack of stigma. It is just as cruel, as Melinda points out, as the virulent disease and leaves people on their own to fight the physical and emotional trauma. I for one am glad Mrs Gates brought up this significant issue.

Bill Clinton criticized abstinence-only AIDS programs and call for a more realistic approach to the epidemic. As usual he created a little bit of controversy by telling the audience that politicans need to overcome their squeamishness and self-righteousness act. He also called on public-health officials to act on the evidence that male circumcision can help reduce the risk of HIV/AIDS transmission. He went on to critique pharmaceutical companies over the high cost of AIDS drugs for children and even demanded that politicians who pilfer AIDS dollars for their own personal gain be sentenced to jail. In what could be considered a culturally and religiously risky statement Clinton invoked God and announced to delegates that HIV/AIDS was a “gift from God” and humanity’s biggest test in modern times.

However the two main messages that seem to keep cropping up in the Canadian national papers are: keep it simple, and empower women. Part of the challenge for governments, well intentioned NGOs and volunteers is to ensure that the money and the resources are going to the right places. HIV/AIDS has many groups that lobby on its behalf but if the current HIV/AIDS stats are any indication, the epidemic shows no strains or signs of slowing down. Sometimes even hearing or reading the quotes of intelligent world leaders shows a gap between their culturally-biased good intentions and the people on the other side they are trying to help. How will Sub-Saharan Africa respond to a call to empower women? Will husbands and wives ambrace the initiative? And what about circumcision? Is this something African men are aware of and if so, are they interested in undergoing the surgery? And if neither party is interested in our “solutions” where do we go from here? And what are we going to do to address the destructive effects of social stigma?

While more solutions are being helpfully suggested by world leaders, it also inevitably raises more questions that need to be discussed and resolved, if we are to make real progress against this epidemic.

Some Facts:

The Global Fund is active in 131 countries. It gets HIV drugs to more than half a million people. It provides access to testing and counseling to nearly 6 million people. It offers basic care to more than half a million orphans.

For each new person who got treatment for HIV, more than 10 people became infected.

Right now, nearly 40 million people are living with HIV.

The lowest price for first-line treatment drugs is about $130 per person per year; in many cases the cost is much higher. And the cost of personnel, lab work, and other expenses easily exceeds another $200 per person per year.

The annual cost of getting treatment to everyone in the world who is HIV positive would be more than $13 billion a year, every year.

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The Marrying Life

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The Unmarrieds

It would be hardly overstating the fact to say that lately I have taken an interest in the shifting status of professional, single women. Many articles have been written to either berate single women for failing to meet their responsibilities as “nurturers” or some books such as Watters “Urban Tribes” have written chapters in order to try and understand the cultural nuances surrounding the transitions. Naturally I gravitate more towards the latter but try to balance my perspective by reading anything I can get my hands on.

McCain seems troubled that young Americans seem indifferent to traditional notions of marriage and morality (as though the two are naturally connected), whereas Watters seems curious and considerate about his treatment of the rise of single women putting off marriage. It is hard not to notice the split among my own friends. While many of my female friends have married, many have also not gone to the altar. And I would have to say that for the majority who have not walked the aisle in white, it is not a political or religious choice. It has just not come up. I hesitate to use the word “yet” at the end of the sentence because it makes it seem like the only alternative to single, professional women. But it would also not be entirely true not to include the three-letter word because in speaking with my single, female friends (be they black or white or of mixed ethnic origin) there is definitely an interest in meeting the right person, marrying and starting a family.

But the facts do speak for themselves – to some extent. While married couples with children comprised 43% of households in 1950 they only accounted for 24% of households in 2000. The largest growing non-family household is the single household and single women are increasingly becoming owners – not feeling the need to wait and justify their longing for a home or their financial investment. Women living alone represented 67% of one-person households in 1970. And while by 2003 men were closing the gap, women still represented more than half (58%) of one-person households.

While McCain would like to describe this shifting scenario as a “titanic loss of family values” (as the title of his article would suggest), I would opt for the US Census Bureau’s explanation that the “number and type of households are influenced by patterns of population growth, shifts in the age composition of the population, and the decisions individuals make about their living arrangements”. Demographic trends in marriage, fertility, and mortality also affect family and household composition. As a general rule women live longer than men. It is also a pretty well known fact nowadays that a women’s education level tends to affect marriage. The more educated the women, the later she tends to get married.

And let’s face it our values and expectations of marriage have also changed. I highly doubt that in my mother’s day she was told to look for a good “partner” in life. A 1965 survey found that 3 out of 4 women would marry a man they did not love if he fit their criteria in every other way. 90% of women now say they want to marry their soul mates. The fact is we can afford to delay marriage. The fact is we don’t need the economic altar of marriage. But the truth is most of us would still like to meet someone who meets our ideals and make him our partner in life in whichever ways suit us as individuals – whether as cohabitation partner, common law or marriage partner.

And this seems to be the case with most changes between generations. As my father used to say, “Plus ca change, plus ca reste le meme”. And while some individuals such as McCain would decry the delay in marriage and the shift in households and family structures as the end of “family values”, I would suggest that it simply suggests a change in cultural values and in our expectations of institutions and societal roles. In the future Watters suggests that “what will seem weird to future generations is that we lived during the brief moment in history when we perceived the personal and professional accomplishments of women as being in conflict with their hopes of finding happy marriages.” Ultimately not much has changed.

photo courtesy flickr

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City Surf

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Urban Audio Tour

A friend of mine recently started up his own self-guided audio walking tours business. It is currently only in Toronto, Canada but he will soon be expanding to Montreal and Vancouver. I love seeing friends act on ideas. The audio-tours are full of rich local knowledge, hints and advice on where to go and not-to-be-missed spots, and even tips on where NOT to go. Guides usually don’t say much about that. I also happen to like the fact that it’s called City Surf because it evokes images from Spike Lee films in which protagonists seemed to be on an urban fairy tale ride of NYC concrete.

Although I do wonder whether this will actually act as an aid for people in the “urban jungle” or whether it will lead to more confusion between distracted pedestrians and equally confused onlookers. Hmmm.

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