the issues I wish we cared about
Canada has just held its most expensive election ever, with the resulting seat distribution almost identical to the one that came before.
The issues we heard most talked about include (in approximate order): housing affordability, the climate crisis, Québec’s autonomy, COVID-19 response measures, health care coverage, gun control, indigenous reconciliation, and the election itself.
I don’t mean to knock any of these; each of them greatly affects somebody. I just feel that we’re thinking much too small, especially considering that this is a federal election and many of those are arguably not Ottawa’s responsibility.
That’s why I’m going to present what I think ought to be the top five issues that are consistently overlooked. This list will focus on matters which only the feds can tackle, especially those requiring international cooperation.
Although the Bloc Québécois is a federal political party, they generally do not take positions on federal matters, including international diplomacy, and so will not be considered here. Also, any campaign promises made by the Liberal Party (and to a lesser extent, the Conservative Party) should be taken with a grain of salt, as they have already had six years in government with which to make their priorities clear.
Let me preface by saying: I have never seen a computer program without bugs. Computers can generally not be trusted, as they are currently programmed by fallible humans1 — this opinion is non-controversial within the software community.
So it should send a chill down your neck when I tell you that pretty much all nuclear weapons today are controlled by computer systems.
It gets worse: much of it is likely 50-year-old COBOL code that nobody alive understands.
To me, the greatest risk is neither a misanthropic President nor a loss of control to a terrorist organization, although both of these are possibilities. The greatest risk is a simple tragic accident.
It seems miraculous that neither the USA nor the Russian Federation has accidentally deployed a nuclear weapon this far, possibly on its own population. There have been many close calls such as that time an airplane crashed in North Carolina carrying two nuclear bombs.2
There is not only the risk of a single weapon being detonated. In particular, Russia’s automatic system of retaliation malfunctioning could conceivably end humanity.
Obviously, detonating one of these in a populated area would mean thousands (at least) of immediate deaths. The fallout radiation would render surrounding region uninhabitable for years. Most destructive of all would be the effect on the global climate.
Each of our stockpiles of nuclear weapons is an apocalypse waiting to happen. International negotiations toward dismantling them all needs to be a top priority for any national government.
I don’t remember hearing any party leader actually talk about this problem, but some did acknowledge it in their documents:
- The NDP platform contains the line: “We will support nuclear disarmament”.3
- The Green Party platform states “[A Green government would] Sign and ratify the Treaty to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, and press urgently for global nuclear disarmament”.4
- Neither of the Liberal or Conservative platforms make any mention of disarming nuclear weapons.
From our cozy, Internet-connected homes, it is easy to forget that most of the world still lives in poverty. A tenth of humanity lives in extreme poverty, characterized by having a severe deprivation of food, drinking water, education, shelter, and health. Spelled out, that’s seven hundred million people who are barely surviving each day.
Global poverty is on the decline, but it’s not declining fast enough for those at the bottom.
There are over 100 million homeless children out there; malnutrition is by far the biggest factor in child mortality. In many regions south of the Sahara, typical life expectancy is only around 40 years.
People living in extreme poverty can do very little to affect their circumstances. With no education and poor physical health, they cannot generally get a job or start a business — even if businesses were viable in regions without customers. Due to exploitation, many basic utilities such as water and lighting typically cost several times more in poor regions than they cost to produce.
Perhaps most frustrating about this problem is just how inexpensive it would be to permanently solve. Due to low cost-of-living in impoverished areas, often a dozen or more mouths can be fed for the price of a single restaurant meal in Canada. Our food waste alone could feed millions! Preventing cases of malaria is as simple as installing nets around beds. And of course, immunization to COVID-19 effectively costs pennies to produce.
In case empathy is not enough reason for you, there are perfectly cold economic reasons as well. Sending financial help to alleviate extreme poverty can be viewed as an investment in goodwill.
Feeding the poor makes us many friends and no enemies.
The exact monetary value of this goodwill might be difficult to measure, but it is clearly significant. If it were to keep Canada out of a single international war, it could pay off amply.
Ending global poverty would have drastic impact on global stability. Destructive, high crime rates are fueled by those just trying to get by. Social instability brings about civil conflicts, preventing any government from effectively organizing. A desperate populace is where radicalism thrives.
If we believe in the concept of Canadian values, then it seems we ought to try to spread these values around the world. The simplest (and likely most cost-effective) way to do this is to inject money directly to the poorest economies. If our culture is so great, we can show it by contributing generously.
Although every major party platform pays tribute to international aid, I saw no mention of global poverty by any party leader other than Bernier, whose platform included ending all foreign aid.
- The Liberal platform includes 26 uses of the word “poverty”, but its use is limited to those living in Canada. It has a fairly lengthy section titled “Help for the World’s Most Vulnerable People” which includes the promise to “increase Canada’s international development assistance every year towards 2030 to realize the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals”.5
- The Conservative Party platform dedicates more than two pages to “International Development”, outlining the many ways in which they would “reform, not reduce, international development assistance - maintaining current aid levels while increasing the effectiveness of Canadian aid and expanding engagement with the Canadian development sector, the private sector, and diaspora communities”.6
- The NDP platform includes two pages of “A better role in the world”, with such promises as “boosting Canada’s international development assistance, with the goal of contributing 0.7 percent of our Gross National Income to international aid” and to “contribute more to The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria”.
- The Green Party platform similarly aims to “Articulate a plan to meet Canada’s commitment to achieve the target of 0.7% of GDP to [Official Development Assistance] by 2030”.
- As mentioned, the People’s Party took a position which is both sadistic and short-sighted.
systemic animal abuse
If we agree to the goal of reducing global suffering, then the logical follow-up question to the previous point is: why stop at humans?
We, via capitalism, have built a system of animal exploitation on a scale beyond comprehensible to a human mind. We kill roughly 200 million other animals at a young age just for meat each day. And the indifference with which we treat their suffering is unconscionable:
Pigs and cattle are denied the ability to exercise at all in order to maximize their fat mass. They pass their entire short lives in dark cages, surrounded by feces. Dairy-producing designates are kept forcibly impregnated virtually all of the time.
Chickens are bred so numerously that they routinely exceed the capacity of the cages that confine them. Consequently, they fight with each other. To avoid potential damage to the final product, farmers slice off their beaks and claws proactively.
And fish? We care so little about fish that we don’t even bother to mercy kill them — instead yanking them out of the water en masse and allowing them to suffer a slow, torturous death by asphyxiation.
Aside from food production, we also treat animals worse than most of us treat our property through experimentation. Dogs are chosen for their friendly and cooperative demeanor, subjected to experimental medical procedures, and deliberately poisoned. Cosmetic products are routinely tested by injecting them directly into the eyes of rabbits, who do not produce tears to wash it away. In nearly all cases, these animals are killed afterward7.
Virtually everyone agrees that this is unacceptable — so why is it that none of our most popular politicians will even propose action?8
- The Green Party platform’s “Strengthening social license” section inadequately promises to “Adopt comprehensive animal welfare legislation to prevent inhumane treatment of farm animals”. It makes no mention of fishing or experimentation, and in the same section, includes the counter-productive measure “Support mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods”.
- The Conservative Party platform features a section titled “Animal Welfare” including the promise to ban “puppy mills” and cosmetic testing on animals. There is no mention of factory farming or fishing.
- The Liberal Party likewise wrote their intention to “Introduce legislation to end cosmetic testing on animals as soon as 2023 and phase out toxicity testing on animals by 2035”.
- Jagmeet Singh claims to eat a “mostly vegan” diet, although this is apparently for religious reasons rather than empathy toward other animals. The NDP platform makes no mention of animal welfare at all.
- The Animal Protection Party of Canada exists mainly to combat animal abuse.
One of the great differences in our society today and a century ago is the state of our medicine. Getting an infection in a minor wound no longer implies imminent death thanks to antibiotics, and a huge array of illnesses have been wiped out entirely thanks to vaccination.
Overall, we’re far healthier than ever before, and living longer as a result. It would be easy to get complacent, but there is more to do.
Aging-related diseases are the number one cause of death in the world. 100,000 humans are killed each day by age-related causes.
We pretend like this is normal, fine, sometimes even good (!?), but it isn’t. Plainly, most of us would like to live.
Can we do anything about it? There was a time when we thought we were powerless to stop death by infection or preventable illness. We changed that with ingenuity. Why should aging be any different? It is merely a biochemical process that can be understood.
If we value life, then we need to begin research immediately. I think it’s only a matter of time before we crack this puzzle, but every day that we delay seriously looking for the cure is a day later that we will find it — sentencing another hundred thousand people to unnecessary death.9
Then what’s next? Sleep.
We spend a third of our lives in bed; as far as we know, we need to. What if we could double the efficiency of our sleep? That would be equivalent (in hours) to increasing our life expectancy by at least ten years, and would be the single greatest medical advancement in nearly a century.
The productivity gains would be massive. The economy would see a sudden surge like never before. We would all have a relative abundance of free time to spend as we choose.
The underlying thread here is that we do not have to accept things as they are. Technology has improved our lives in countless ways, but we have a collective blind spot for the things it hasn’t. We must point our ambitions at the hardest problems that remain. A coordinated international effort is the most efficient way.
No major party’s platform makes reference specifically to aging or sleep; however:
- the Conservative Party “will invest $5 billion over the next five years” to programs including “Pharmaceutical research and production”, without stating how much of that funding will go toward medicine. The word “research” by itself is used many times throughout the party’s platform, but usually in the context of reducing regulation and almost always presenting Canada’s interest in opposition to to the rest of the world instead of working to cooperate.
- the Liberal Party’s platform contains a lengthy section called “Innovation, Science, and Research” but it is relatively light on details. Among their specific promises are to “Reform the Scientific Research and Experimental Development Program to reduce red tape and the need for consultants, better align eligible expenses to today’s innovation and R&D and make the program more generous for […] companies”. International cooperation is not mentioned.
- the NDP platform’s coverage of the topic is shorter and even less detailed, promising vaguely to “work with universities and health professionals to make sure that public research on critical health issues continues to flourish”.
- the Green Party’s platform has the section “Scientific Innovation” which promises to “Increase funding for the granting councils to $2.3 billion”, explicitly including the Canadian Institutes for Health Research as one of several.
I said above that antibiotics was one of the great advances in medicine. They have saved countless lives from bacterial infections. Here’s the problem: they might not work much longer.
We take it for granted that we can kill virtually all bacteria with a small dosage of an antibiotic. As we use our antibiotics more and more, bacteria that can survive are gradually evolving. They are getting wise to our ways.
This is not a theoretical problem, nor a future problem. Microbes resistant to several drugs (multidrug-resistance) have been found on every continent, including in Canada. Ineffective antibiotics are estimated to be responsible for around one million deaths annually worldwide, and that number is rising steadily as these bacteria spread.
The World Health Organization, Health Canada and the Centers for Disease Control all recognize antibiotic resistance as one of the most urgent threats to public health.
We cannot avoid the problem with development of new drugs indefinitely: already, new treatments are becoming rarer.
Like the above issues, this is a global problem that will not be constrained to any country’s borders. Major contributors to the problem are inappropriate use of antibiotics via over-prescribing and their use in farm animal feed10. We need to use our diplomatic tools to globally regulate the use of the antibiotics that still work. We will also, of course, require research and development funding.
Developing new antibiotics and managing their use can only hinder the bacteria. Infections need to be prevented before they happen with vaccination and other prophylactic public health measures.
Unfortunately, nearly all parties are apparently totally unaware of this growing threat:
- The Green Party intends to “support the phase-out of prophylactic antibiotics in farming to […] preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics for human medicine”.
- No other major party uses the words “bacteria” or “antibiotic” anywhere in their platform.
honourable mention: fair representation in Parliament
I find it challenging to assess the significance of this one.
Unlike the others, it would be unlikely to gain much immediate international attention, nor would it mean a sudden change in domestic policy.
On the other hand, interrupting governance every time the governing party is feeling ambitious is not conducive to progress.
Forcing parties to work together on legislation capable of surviving a change in government is the only way we’re going to be able to pursue long-term goals. Allowing governments to plan more than five years in advance would likely facilitate all of the other items on this list, potentially making this a far-reaching reform.
It might be the case that we cannot make enough progress on any of the above issues without a democratic system that makes votes matter and encourages the public to involve itself the political process.
As I have written about before, the current Liberal government promised to address this two elections ago. Then, in the final days of this campaign, Trudeau stated that he could still support electoral reform — but only to change our disproportionate system to another disproportionate one.
- The NDP platform contains a section on “Making every vote count – for real” which makes clear their intention to “bring in mixed-member proportional representation […] in our first mandate in government.”
- the Green Party platform’s section “Better elections” claims that “[a Green government would] Always support modernising our electoral system, to be based on Proportional Representation”.
- The Conservative party, despite being cheated out of seats in the last two elections by disproportionate representation, apparently makes no mention of it in their platform.
I hope you have enjoyed reading, and maybe give pause to consider some of the items I have listed. This post took considerable effort; cross-referencing the party platforms by itself took many hours.
The list is not exhaustive; I could talk your ear off about numerous other subjects as well.11 For me, these five (six) represent some of the most under-appreciated topics in our media and political culture.
Not to mention cosmic radiation.↩︎
John Oliver joked that that’s why there are two Carolinas.↩︎
which honestly is probably best for them at that point.↩︎
Animal farming has a close connection to tackling extreme poverty. The meat we eat is enormously costly on at least three different axes: land use, water use, and energy use. Soil fertility is decreasing with use, and much of its produce is being wasted by the process which feeds farm animals in order to feed us indirectly. Clean water and fuel are routinely denied to destitute communities, but the wealthy are willing to spend them on self-indulgence. Overall, reducing our consumption of animal products would save us so much money that could then be shared with those who need it most.↩︎
Further reading: The Case Against Aging by Nick Bostrom.↩︎
in case we needed another reason to end factory farming.↩︎
I wanted to include artificial general intelligence, but frankly I have no idea what should be done about it. If AI is indeed the threat to us that we speculate, then I don’t know whether anything can be done about it.↩︎
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