Have we become completely desensitized?

In December 2011 a Twilight Zone-like miniseries out of the UK called Black Mirror premiered. In the first episode a man was forced, through public will, to violate himself on live television.

The gross act, as well as the circumstances surrounding it could have happened in real life, but are not likely events. The horrifying reality of the episode was in the reaction of the fictional public. For over an hour they watched unflinchingly, judgementally, amused by this man’s torture.

I know for a fact that this is reality. I’ve seen it for myself.

Last week police in Daveytown, South Africa strapped Mido Macia’s hands to the back of their van in a crowded street and dragged him until he was dead.

As we’ve come to expect, the incident was caught on video by several camera phones. Subsequently, it was broadcast worldwide, first on video sharing sites and then network television.

On the weekend I took a break from the cold to go inside and have a coffee at a local chain restaurant. There, on a television, a Canadian news network was broadcasting one of those videos in its entirety.

I was horrified. I hadn’t heard the story yet, and was reading the text at the bottom of the screen as I saw the man, his arms stretched over his head against the van’s bumper. Because it was only a glance, I had no warning. I got up to leave, thinking I’d saved myself from the unnecessary anguish of seeing his last moments. Instead, I saw something much worse.

When I stood to get my coat, my back was toward the television and I was facing the row of tables in front of it. Each table was full. Each patron was staring unflinchingly at the television.

And, as they chewed their fast food meals, each face had a passive smile on it. These people were watching a man’s terrible last moments, and they may as well have been watching Saturday morning cartoons.

Once upon a time, decades ago, when television news broadcasts were starting to go global and figuring out how to be our window to the whole world, there was a lot of controversy over the use of images of dying children and soldiers. There were discussions about it. Would this footage help any cause? Or would it just desensitize us?

Today everything that happens in this world can be broadcast within minutes. Through the blurry, gonzo-style film footage that is modern technology, we see every gory detail before it has the chance to pass the eyes of anyone who has taken a course in the ethics of journalism.

And so the networks must report it. What choice do they have? Follow the masses or risk becoming irrelevant.

Journalists are seen as vultures and so we are, picking at the remains of YouTube videos because they’ve already been seen 500 thousand times.

But the question of desensitization has become clear, at least to me. Not one of those eyes I scanned showed anger. Not one face twisted in disgust. Not one person questioned why the police in any country, charged with protecting the people, could do such a thing in public. No one stood up and shouted, “Put down the damn camera and stop them!”

Black Mirror’s creators chose to reference the Twilight Zone as an influence. That series was about going beyond the imagination and into alternate realities. But this reality is ours.

As Rod Sterling used to say, “You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance… you’ve just crossed over into the Twilight Zone.”

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People vs Wind

The industrial wind farms issue has caused turbulence in many rural communities. This week it is awaiting a ruling by a panel of three judges.
The panel heard evidence in Toronto Monday from Prince Edward County resident and wind turbine activist Ian Hanna, represented by environmental lawyer Eric Gillespie. He brought his case against the Ministry of the Environment before the superior courts of Ontario.
The Ministry of the Environment’s policy about wind turbines states that they can be built a minimum of 550 metres away from residential buildings.
Developers have already bought land to build wind farms. All over Ontario, plans for generating wind energy have been put in motion.
All that may soon grind to a halt.
If Hanna is successful, a long-debated question will have to be answered with scientific certainty: Does the noise and vibration from industrial wind farms affect human health?
Both parties made reference to medical studies in the hearing. The trouble is, to this date, there has been no controlled, peer-reviewed studies on the effects of wind turbines on human health.
Gillespie argued that studies proving adverse health affects were available but employees of the ministry who were not qualified to review those studies dismissed them.
“There does not appear to be anyone who has the requisite qualifications to provide recommendations to the minister,” Gillespie told the panel.
Hanna’s evidence included a study by Dr. Robert McMurtry. An orthopedic surgeon, McMurtry has been dean of medicine at the University of Western Ontario and was once policy advisor to the Minister of Health. McMurtry is also a resident of Prince Edward County.
He interviewed a group of people living within 1.5 kilometres of wind turbines and a group living five kilometres away. The study was not controlled and did not include a review of medical records. He concluded that people living within 1.5 kilometres of an industrial wind farm are more likely to suffer from hypertension, sleep disorders and anxiety issues.
Sara Blake, counsel for the ministry, argued that McMurtry’s study is biased and inadmissible. Blake said McMurtry is a member of an anti-wind turbine activist group and his study is anecdotal, not peer-reviewed.
Blake referred to a study on night noise conducted by the World Health Organization. The study suggested that in order to be safe for humans, a structure emitting noise at the frequency of wind turbines must be set back at least 350 metres from a residence. The minimum setback prescribed by the ministry was 550 metres; Blake said this was a conservative amount.
The WHO study does not make any reference to wind turbines. It is a study of acceptable noise levels in residential areas.
In the absence of any study that scientifically confirms or discredits the harmful effects of wind turbines, Gillespie evoked the precautionary principle, which says that in the absence of scientific proof, policy should err on the side of caution.
The ministry, however, feels that they have been sufficiently vigilant in creating their policy.
“We believe we have put in place a protective and cautious approach to developing renewable energy in Ontario,” says Kate Jordan from the communications branch of the Ministry of the Environment. “Our approvals are based on science, modeling work and jurisdictional comparisons.”
The panel has not yet made a decision on the matter.

Dam beavers

poplars damage beavers wellington beach

Dozens of stumps of young poplars stand on the dune at the Wellington beach.

Vandals at the Wellington beach may be facing the death sentence for their crimes.

Three weeks ago, Parks and Arenas Manager Andrew Morton got a call from a resident, concerned about some damage a beaver had caused to the trees at the Wellington beach.

Morton went to the site of the beavers’ dam, but he failed to see anything unusual. He forgot about it, until he received a second phone call the next day, telling him 20 more trees had been toppled.

On Morton’s second trip, he discovered what the resident had seen. A patch of poplar trees growing on one of the beach’s sand dunes had been ferociously attacked. Morton found that 74 trees had been toppled—all by rogue beavers who were turning Wellington’s forested beach into a winter smorgasbord. A count last Friday saw the number rise to 83.

The beaver, which lives in a dam at the west end of the Wellington harbour, had developed a taste for the young poplars that grow alongside the boardwalk put in by the Wellington Rotary Club. It has been harvesting the youngest shoots to keep around its dam, under the ice, for food during its hibernation.

Poplars themselves grow in abundance, and neither the tree nor the animal is an endangered species. But Morton’s concern is that as the beaver removes the trees, it will put the dune they grow on in jeopardy of erosion. It would also interfere with the County’s obligation to maintain the area.

“This is a part of the beach and this is the service that I’m supposed to be offering here, is a forested beach,” said Morton.

“When they start interfering with our interests, that’s when people start to think, yeah, we have to do something about this,” said Quinte Conservation naturalist Terry Sprague. “And they’re not wrong in thinking that.”

Morton called up the Ministry of Natural Resources to find out how to proceed. At first the provincial agency, which owns the land, told Morton to let the animals be. They suggested that the trees be meshed with a fine chicken wire, to stop the beaver chewing on them. But Morton pointed out that the painstaking task of meshing hundreds of trees might just tempt the beavers to cross the road and vandalize trees on private property.

When he explained his concerns they agreed to allow the County, which manages the beach for the MNR, to contract a trapper. They gave no direction, however, about whether to livetrap and relocate  the beavers, or just to kill them. The trapper Morton hired, who is based in Picton, didn’t enlighten him on the issue.

Sprague says that while relocation might seem like the humane thing to do, a territorial animal like a beaver, displaced into a habitat that may already be home to another of its species, could end in a fight to the death.

“It’s a kind of a sensitive issue, really, what to do in cases like this. I am always of the belief that you leave nature alone. However, when you get to the point that beaver is doing some damage in a park where every tree is important, you have to take measures to remove it,” Sprague said.

And whether the beavers are killed or relocated, Sprague pointed out, a new family will likely fill the void. “You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”