It has been some time since my first observations of Canadian cycle-culture and my tires have traversed a lot more kilometers since then. Each morning my trustworthy steel steed delivers me safely at my office, despite some precarious situations involving cars that turn without signalling or decide to park themselves in the middle of the road. During the weekends, I leave Ottawa behind to survey nature surrounding the city, though it often requires quite the ride to finally exit the (sub)urban sprawl that is so common to North American cities. Still, the bicycle infrastructure around the city is remarkable and certainly begs the question why the same level cannot be reached within the borders of the city. I suppose it is easier to clear some grass and trees to lay down a nice pathway for recreationists than to convince automotive Americans to sacrifice some precious asphalt for a bicycle lane to commute. Nonetheless, each morning there are many who take only two wheels to the road instead of four.
As real as some dangers of the high roads might be, to my surprise other threaths lurk in entirely different corners. Whether it is out of resentment for the times when cyclists take to the sidewalks or from unfamiliarity with bi-wheeled individuals, some pedestrians seem to have a genuine disliking of cyclists. This wouldn’t be much of in issue, weren’t it for the fact that many pathways are shared between bikers and people on foot. Some of the latter have the quaint habit of taking a seeminlgy random course on their path, whereas others apparently wait hidden behind trucks, busses or other obstacles until a cyclist appears they can throw themselves in front of. Perhaps this is the reason why most Canadians take good care to wear a helmet, even when they use paths where no car could ever come.
The helmet is a somewhat more contentious issue though, with both its advocates and opponents. Ottawa’s city council would be rather happy if you wore one, but as a Dutchman with some twenty odd years of experience riding a bike I have so far cordially declined, with some disapproving looks from fellow cyclists as a result. Admittedly, the idea of spending more on a helment than on by bike also didn’t really appeal to me. Though the discussions I had on this topic remain few, it has become clear to me that the helmet issue is among one of the more contentious disputes dividing the cycling community. While some merely disapprove, others regard being helmet-less almost as grave as having unsafe sex with someone you’ve never met and only just now paid a few dollars. On the other hand, it is argued that drivers due to some perverse psychological effect keep considerably less distance from cyclists wearing a helmet, making it actually unsafe to have one. Then again, if my memory serves me right and half of the accidents here consists of cyclists falling over without any help from others, wearing a helmet at all times might not be such a luxury after all.
Having said this, Ottawa’s environs remain great cycling territory, whether one wears a helmet or not. With weather conditions fine and friendly company on the road, I could think of no better way to explore Canada.
I would never have guessed beforehand, but one of the more interesting discoveries here in Canada has been my choice of supermarket. Called the People Food Co-op, I’ve nicknamed them my Marxist grocery store. The name applies well both to the rather pre-’89 name and the communal spirit in which the shop is run. To quote their own flyer:
“We are a non-profit worker’s co-operative providing healthy food and ethical products at a reasonable cost”.
Ever since I accidentally found it through the website of Canada’s FairTrade organization, I have been in love with this little store. Though it would probably fit more than twenty times into the nearby Loblaw’s supermarket, it has everything I need. Which illustrates the point that having over fifteen types of peanut-butter is hardly a necessity of life.
Though I initially chose the store for its focus on organic produce and FairTrade products, I realized my loyalty to the shop is based on more than their range of items. Perhaps the primary reason is that my customer loyalty is directly rewarded by personal treatment by the staff. Not only do they know my name (and customer-number), but I get personalized cooking advice and usually spent a couple of minutes chatting with them as well. No bonus-cards, ‘personal savings scheme’ or uniformed greeter at the entrance can substitute for this. Instead of being treated as a mindless drone whose only purpose in life is to consume and buy as much as possible, here I am actually recognized as a human being.
Another thing is the range of products. Because the shop is small and depends on local suppliers, there is considerable variation in the available items. But instead of being frustrated by the sometimes limited number of products, I’ve discovered how relaxing it can be to tune one’s eating habits to an external supply. Instead of being bombarded by choices and endless aisles of products, these limits make buying food simple and easy. If there’s no eggplant this week, I’ll buy tomatoes or carrots instead. And the funny part is, regardless of the exact inventory, there is always sufficient food for a divers and healthy diet. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it is that there’s so much stuff I don’t need to buy… On the other hand, there are also things I’d probably not have bought in an ordinary supermarket. Consider for instance a yam, quinoa, almond milk and soy-yoghurt, to name a few.
Ultimately however, the reason I will keep coming back for the remainder of my stay is the idea that buying my food has more meaning than merely finding stuff to consume. Nor is it only the convenience of having organic, sustainable and fair products nearby. People Food is more than just a store, it is also an idea. It gives me the opportunity to enjoy my organic ‘Treehugger’ orange juice, while simultaneously supporting a community of people who want to make the world a better place. It has taught me that where you buy can be as relevant as what you buy. For me, all the ‘convenience’, superabundant choice and luxuries of an enormous retailer cannot hope to beat the simple satisfaction I beget from my small, idealistic, Marxist grocery store.
Quite recently I wrote about the presence of ‘delegates’ from the business community who were present at the G20 to form the so-called ‘B20′. A club of CEO’s and other important business figures from the G20 countries that had their own summit alongside the G20 with the aim of providing the world leaders with ‘candid and useful advice from the front lines of global commerce ‘. I expressed concerns about the extent to which this advice would be fair and balanced enough to warrant the total exclusion of other interest groups from the summit. Now this article in the Globe and Mail does not at all make me less worried.
To pick two, not altogether random, quotes from the article:
“Executives told politicians that the private sector is willing to step in and pick up much of the responsibility for future economic growth”
and from South-Korea’s Finance Minister:
“We should open an era of grand co-operation between the government and the private sector. I sincerely hope the business summit can serve as a platform for public-private collaboration and the starting point of the new normal in global economic architecture.”
Now, although I certainly see the benefits of involving the private sector in deliberations about the global economy, I have some reservations with envisioning the past summit as a blueprint a ‘global economic architecture’. There are four arguments I have against such a grand private-public alliance as the cornerstone of future economic summits, or even the entire global economic structure.
My first point, albeit minor, is the role in which the private sector is being cast at this summit. Though I do not regard corporations as the epitome of evil, I do not see them as the shining heroes charging to the rescue of embattled governments either. Presenting the private sector as a deus ex machine panacea to our economic woes means ignoring the role this same sector played in creating them. Likewise, it apparently denies the influence and position of governments, consumers and workers, who are all an integral part of the economic process. A true ‘global economic architecture’ should aim to represent all these visions and not limit itself to one or two.
A second consideration is that while the private sector may now garb itself as the savior of the global economy, it does not do so primarily out of charitable reasons. The price governments will have to pay for the private sector’s ‘support’ will probably include many of the measures we have become acquainted with over the past years: liberalization, deregulation, tax cuts and deductions and decreased labor protection. While these measures might indeed increase economic performance, their social impact often leaves much to be desired. In effect, nations are left to compete for the favor of corporations by offering the better economic and financial policies, even though these might not always be desired by their own populations. There is a definite risk the argument of ‘economic necessity’ will be used as a pretext to adopt otherwise vastly unpopular measures.
Thirdly, the aim of companies diverges widely from that of national governments. A company seeks to make maximum profit, while a government is necessarily an amalgam of many (popular) interests. While this has led the private sector to accuse states of being often too fickle and unpredictable, it has no unblemished record itself either. Disregarding any pledges of being ‘engines of the economy’, corporations are bound to change business practices whenever that would be more profitable. This could include out-sourcing or relocation, colliding with the interest of the country where the company would be presently located. As a consequence, while companies drive the global economy, this does not instantly make them suitable partners on a national level.
Finally though, my major concern rests with representation and accountability. As I wrote before, the UN and other international bodies made up of national governments are, despite all their flaws and faults, at least to a certain extent accountable to the citizens of the world. In contrast, companies are only accountable to their shareholders and are not subject to any form of popular control. Involving them as part of a global economic architecture means introducing an element that is absolutely not representative of the world’s citizenry and moreover, feels no immediate obligation towards it.
Ultimately, I do not object to any involvement of the private sector on the international level. After all, many corporations are international actors and might have yearly revenues exceeding the GDP’s of minor countries. The United Nations also involve companies in certain programs, as do a number of other international organizations and summits. What I deplore is the exclusivity that corporations now seem to enjoy, at the expense of other actors. This is even true for the private sector itself, as the interests of large multinationals need not necessarily coincide with those of national small or medium-sized enterprises.
In an era where the actions of a few can influence the lives of many, we should try to rid ourselves of models of negotiation that involve only the powerful stakeholders. Crafting an economic forum of the G20 and a B20 consisting of large multinationals means leaving major decisions to a rather small sub-selection of the world’s stakeholders, even though they hold over 80% of the world’s wealth. Since their decisions directly influence the lives of billions of people across the globe, it seems unfair not to involve those who will be asked to bear the burden of the economic reconstruction. In the West, expanding franchise beyond only the powerful and wealthy is seen as one of the major victories of our democratic system. Would we do less on a global scale now that we ourselves are the powerful and wealthy?
Note: I would like to deviate from my previous posts in explicitly inviting (counter-)arguments, thoughts or other comments. Since I am by no means an expert, a more interactive dialogue would be even more interesting than merely sharing my own thoughts.