Sunday, June 5, 2011

I get all the news I need from the business report*

*Not entirely true, just a bad play on a line from the Simon & Garfunkel song "The Only Living Boy in New York"

Newspaper readership is on the decline. I still subscribe to one even though I probably shouldn't, given the environmental costs of cutting softwood trees, making the pulp, mixing it with recycled pulp, pressing it, printing it and then having it driven and delivered to my doorstep at 4am. There are three main reasons why I don't cancel my subscription. One is that newspapers still make a disproportionate share of their revenues from the print run, and I feel it's important to maintain a healthy and viable newspaper sector of the media. Newspaper reporters are still the most capable members of the media when it comes to identifying, describing and interpreting what's going on in the world, and I'd hate for us to lose them. So, buying a subscription is a more effective way of supporting newspapers than reading their online content.

A second reason is that, even though I could read most of the same content in the online version of the newspaper, the reality is that I won't take the time to do so, and as a consequence, I'll be less informed of current events. As a teacher, it's as important that I be up to date on current events as I am on the latest research in my field. And so the third reason, which is related to reason number two, is that the print version of the newspaper I subscribe to, the Globe, has an excellent business section.

If you want to know what's going on with respect to global environmental issues, you'll find that many significant events appear in the business section days or weeks (sometimes months) before they make it to the main news sections. Worried about oil spills or tar sands issues or aboriginal views on pipelines? You'll learn first and most in the business section. What mining companies are up to in developing nations? Ditto. Food security issues? Water issues? Likely government policy directions with respect to resources, air pollution or forestry? Ditto, ditto, ditto.

Yes, it's true the business section also contains reams of useless advice on stock trading that only a rube would follow, and treacly material recycled from press releases and publicists' pitches saying what a great company Acme Widgets is. But there's much to be learned directly and indirectly. For example, Canada's cultural diversity is apparent in every other section of the paper, from front page to sports to the food section, but in the business section, the mug shots of Canada's high flying lawyers, accounting executives and board appointees show a Canada that is lily-white, mostly male, and graying. Sure, there's regularly a feature story on some hip entrepreneurial person with a different background, but the majority of the corporate herd is much the same culturally and demographically as it was fifty years ago. So it's not altogether surprising getting them to tread lightly on the environment as they make their millions is an uphill struggle.

One of the leaders of the herd is a guy named Gwyn Morgan. He writes the occasional op-ed piece for page 2 of the business section, and the tone of his column suggests he's always irritated about someone or something. He's a very thoughtful and forceful writer, and articulates hard core, small-c conservative values with precision and clarity. He's a retired pipeline executive, and it's pretty clear he sees the world in terms of things that are good for building pipelines and corporate wealth (inherently good) and everything else (inherently questionable). I enjoy reading well-reasoned writing that challenges my own values and presumptions of how the world works; there's nothing worse for the gray matter (brains, not hair) than reading the same old stuff that tells you what you already think you know. Morgan is a tonic.

But the main reason why the business section is so helpful for staying abreast about environmental issues is that it's written for people whose income depends on knowing the quality, quantity and accessibility of those aspects of the environment that are treated as commodities. That's why information on forests and food gets reported there first, why it's a great place to learn how environmental policies work or don't work, and see what risks loom over the horizon. For example, yesterday's business headline reports that the US economy is faltering, joblessness is rising, and home prices are sliding. What it does not say, but which can be inferred, is his that greenhouse gas emissions in the US are for the moment not growing as fast as they were a year ago, and that demand for Canadian lumber will remain lower than it was a few years ago (the US homebuilding market is a big destination for Canadian conifers).

Interested in global forest issues? Yesterday's feature story is about a run on the stocks of a company called Sino-Forest Corporation, one of the biggest forest companies traded on a Canadian stock exchange. The company's main business is the management of commercial forest plantations in China (plus one in New Zealand), the buying and selling of logs harvested elsewhere, and making plywood and flooring products. Accusations have been made that it has been fibbing in its corporate reporting, and that its forest plantations are actually not as significant as claimed. Yet, the company has still been ringing up operating profits. If true - and I should take great pains to point out this these are only accusations, made by a Toronto-based investment research firm that specializes in studying China-based companies - the question becomes one of where the logs used by Sino-Forest originate. If I ever do find out, I suspect the first place I'll read about it is in the business section, on newsprint made from the fibres of dead Canadian trees.

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