Sunday, April 21, 2013

Rob Stewart's Revolution

Margaret Wente, in her latest discourse, thinks the reason the environment's being ignored is because of all the pessimists making us too depressed about it all.  She splits all environmentalists into two camps:
"But the biggest divide is really between the purists and the pragmatists, the pessimists and the optimists - between the McKibbernists, who believe we're on the brink of global catastrophe, and those who think human beings are more resourceful and the Earth is more resilient than the doom-mongers say they are."
And I ask:  Can't it be both??

Because it is.  Every environmentalist I know wavers between the two fronts or else the pessimists would just kill themselves or stay drunk all the time, and the optimists would stop fighting to be heard - AND, if optimists really believe it'll all come out in the wash, they wouldn't worry about how to frame their arguments to avoid shutting people off by being too depressing.  Follow?

This is all a lead-in to the new Rob Stewart film:  Revolution.  He walks that line all the way.  He clearly believes we're on the brink of catastrophe, but also that human beings are resourceful - that we will actually get our shit together in this generation.

Bad new first.  As a film, it doesn't quite work.  It's telling that opening weekend, it was playing everywhere, and the following weekend, even with the promise of a tree planted for every audience member, it was down to one theatre at the outskirts of town.  And I sat in that theatre with six other people.  Like with Sharkwater (which I was privileged to see when he was there answering questions), he struggles to tell a compelling story.  He's got amazing visuals and an incredible series of events to discuss, but he's not a storyteller.  Compare Sharkwater to The Cove to see the difference a compelling story arc makes.  Connected events listed in a row with some swelling music at the end, does not a story make.  Revolution is a really short film, yet I checked my watch at the 45 minute mark, shocked that there was so much left to sit through.  And I'm in the choir!  

Now the good news.  All that aside, as a call to arms, it's genius.  My squirmy 8-year-old asked if we could leave early, not just because she was getting restless, but because she wanted to go home to make posters to tell other people.  She got the message in the first half and was inspired to act on it.  Right now!  She didn't want to be beaten over the head with more of the same.  For the inspirational aspect, I'll still give it a B+ and tell people it's a must see.

Here's the message:

1. Things are really, really, really bad.  - By 2048, we'll be fished out (which of course always makes me think of this video, harkening me back to grade 9).  But even if we stop the fishing industry on a dime, today, the whole lesson of the film is that carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels is destroying the pH balance of the oceans to the extent that all life on earth could be destroyed.  You heard me.  All of it.  Is that catastrophic enough for you Margaret?

The oceans have died before.  If I got my numbers right, it was 65 million years ago, but it only took 4 million years for them to rebuild.  So that's something.  The coral is dying dramatically right now and could all be gone in twenty years, and phytoplankton in the ocean has seen a 40% decline in the past 50 years.  The oceans create half the oxygen in our atmosphere, so no ocean means not enough oxygen for us mammals out here on the ground, out cutting down trees like there's no tomorrow.  Because, hahaha, there isn't!  Not at this rate.  We're hilarious!

2. Canada particularly sucks.  - Once again, preaching to the choir.  It's shocking how far we've come over the decades, how high up we once were when it came to environmental legislation, only to lose all that ground with one monstrously short-sighted business-centric Prime Minister.  Yikes.  We've won "fossil awards", for the worst country for fossil fuel use, voted on by 400 environmental organizations, for the last five years.  We've been named, officially, the colossol fossil!  The biggest problem?  The tar sands.  According to too many people to name, the mess should be shut down right now, and all that oil left in the ground, but Harper wants to make it TWENTY TIMES BIGGER!  Because, you know, bigger is always better.  Think he's maybe compensating for something?

3. "If people knew the truth, they'd do something."  - I talk about this in class all the time.  It seems like it would be true, but I know tons about horrific slavery in the Ivory Coast, yet I still sometimes get lazy and buy non-fair trade chocolate.  Even though I know the truth, and teach the truth, I sometimes forget how important it is to act on it.  And I sometimes get depressed and decide my part doesn't matter since so few people really care.  Like Marky Mark says in I (Heart) Huckabees:  "I can stop using petroleum, but there's no way I could stop its use in my lifetime."  It's a dilemma.

But what does help is constant reminders.  We need films like this to wake us up over and over.  Like racism and homophobia, we stop talking about it because we think it's getting better, then we get a backlash.  These things have to stay on the front, solar-powered burner forever.  So really, it's not just about telling the truth, it's reminding people of it in different ways all the freakin' time.  BUT the corporations own the media, and I'm not convinced they'll be on board with our little scheme, so this could be a costly affair, EXCEPT, we've got that most anarchist of media on our side (so far in our land of the free): twitter and facebook.  Go nuts!
4.  Finally, the kids will save the day.  - Once we get money and a nice home, we get complacent.  Stewart doesn't say that, but I think that's part of the problem.  Kids see the long term because they haven't settled yet.  They're still in flux sufficiently to become impassioned about their future.  We codgers think we're all safe and cosy, so what's all the fuss?  The youth of today (and many old folk thank you very much) are taking to the streets already, protesting over and over until they're in tears for the frustration of not being heard.  There are some small successes here and there, and that can keep us going.  Someone said, "We thought we had to save the polar bear, but now we know we have to save our future."  Kids want this to change so they can flourish.  They don't have a car, so they don't worry about their hummer being taken away.  They're not there yet.  They're still willing to go without so we can all live.  We have to stop using fossil fuels dramatically, and we have to protect wilderness.  Go!

George Monbiot has a new book being release soon.  One reviewer sums it up,
As a species, he argues, we’ve made enough calamitous mistakes to learn from, and gathered enough experience and evidence down the ages to draw a new and challenging conclusion: huge swathes of wild places, on land and sea, teeming with life that is largely outside our influence, are necessary not just for the diversity of life on earth, but for the spiritual nourishment, perhaps even the social stability, of mankind. And we can create such magical, life-affirming places with a radical new environmental management plan: leaving them alone.

The way I see it, we have to stop acting like a virus eating our way through everything we see.  We have to reclaim what it means to be part of humanity: to use our big brains to cooperate sustainably  instead of competing and growing exponentially.  It's suggested in the film with the story of the cycle of lynx and hares.  Every 14 years the lynx population declines because they ate too many hares, then the hares populate again, and then the lynx flourish again.  I've witnessed the same with the fox and mice populations up north.  But people don't do that in quite the same way.  We build empires that are too big, then they collapse horribly, and another one begins.  But now that our empire is global, there might not be another ever after.

I'm so thrilled that Rob Stewart made this movie and that's his films are so inspirational to so many people.  I hope he continues to run this circuit.  He's an amazing cinematographer.  But maybe he should think about hiring a writer - and maybe even a better narrator.  We can't all be good at everything.  And this is too important not to be the very best it can be to get beyond the congregation and into the streets.

I mentioned to a friend recently that I've told my children not to have any children - not because children aren't a joy.  They are.  And not because of overpopulation which is a story for another day.  But because there's nothing worse than watching your children suffer.  I'm on Wente's doom-monger side when I say that I believe that if my children have kids, they will watch them suffer a fate nobody should have to endure as we cope with the heat, endless drought, and oxygen-shortage.  My friend laughed, "Of course it will all work out somehow."

 Of course it will.

Cross posted at A Puff of Absurdity and at Random Thoughts on Film.

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Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Crisis of Environmentalist Faith

A couple of sentences from Matthew Altman (from "The Green Onion") have been weighing on me for days:
Ironically, environmentalism itself can become a means of advancing our own selfish interests, as when we barely adjust our lifestyles in order to feel a disproportionately strong sense of smugness....If a well-intentioned environmentalism does nothing for nature, it only has ["morally bankrupt"] anthropocentric value:  its contribution to the environmentalist's sense of self-satisfaction.
Is the smugness the bigger problem here or the uselessness of the pursuit?  If I do all sorts to try to save the world, and still feel devastated because I recognize what little impact I have, I'm still doing precious little for nature, and then my acts don't even have anthropocentric value.  My "Sisyphean" efforts do little to actually prevent global warming.  My letters and petitions aren't being acted on in parliament.

I know I have little effect on my own, but I hope that if people can see how easy it is to live without a car, A/C, and drier, or how easy it is to produce minimal waste, avoid plastics, get solar panels on the roof, or be vegetarian, AND how much money they can save, then it could have an impact.  Is it okay if my acts potentially have an effect in the future - even if the potential is minuscule?

It feels better than doing nothing.  It's painful to watch the planet fall apart, and the little I do keeps me going.  I'm not going for self-satisfaction as much as I'm making an effort to avoid guilt knowing I'm adding to the problem with frivolous use of fossil fuels.  And I never stop trying to do more than I'm already doing.

Now I'm just struggling to rationalize to myself that it's okay to reduce energy and waste which, I'm pretty sure, is not what Altman was going for!

This Bentley has the highest GHG emissions in all the land!
If I buy a Bentley, an air conditioner, and a side of beef, it will have negligible effect on the world, and it might make my kids happy that finally I can drive them around town like a "normal mum," and I'll be contributing to the economy.  I won't be personally happier, though, because, although I know I'm having little impact - okay, none - it still feels good to do what I can.  So, aha, it really is all about feeling smug.  Shit.

In Altman's essay, he starts with praise for Peter Singer's claim that speciesism is a prejudice like racism that must be eradicated.  We have to care about animals the way we care about people (or, for some, the way we care about people currently in our in-group).  We should act to decrease suffering regardless the species.  He adds Richard Sylvan's theory that we "have direct duties to holistic entities" not just  sentient species - a biocentric theory.  And he applauds Ecofeminism for recognizing that we have a duty to withdraw from domination in general - obliterate the perspective of forests and people as resources for our use.  Then he concludes,
In this intellectual landscape, it is not enough for us to change our behavior slightly by buying "green" products and recycling.  Rather, we first need to transform our way of thinking about how we are related to nature....Once we adopt a new ethic, an environmental ethic, we will finally recognize our direct obligations to all living things.  
I'm confident I recognize this obligation, yet it doesn't really matter if there's only a few of us scattered around and scant political representation to help us actually change anything.  Why does this new attitude change anything.  It's hard enough to get the masses to change their behaviours; it might be a total lost cause to require an attitudinal change as well.  If we change attitudes, then behaviour will follow, but that's a long and tricky road.  Much easier and faster is to legislate a change in behaviours.  BUT, with our current political climate, that's not bloody likely either.

I get that he's really bashing people who just buy "greener" crap instead of less crap and with an eye for getting a bit of social praise for their efforts instead of actually looking at the world differently.  They're trying to do something without it having any effect on the conveniences of their lives which is lazy and inauthentic.  But at least they recognize environmental work as useful enough to want to appear to be followers.  I'd rather 100 green-washed friends, neighbours, and colleagues than be surrounded by people who buy bigger and more, suggesting environmental efforts are all for naught - even if they might be right.

I have this same conundrum when I read this bit of the Tao Te Ching (ch.29 - Stephen Mitchell trans.):
Do you want to improve the world?
I don't think it can be done.
The world is sacred.
It can't be improved.
If you tamper with it, you'll ruin it....
The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.
But I like to fix thing!  I get a lot of pleasure from the upward struggle to make things right.  I love a challenge!  And I think it's just sheer dumb luck that what gives me pleasure happens to be something that could benefit the world.  Except that maybe it can't.

Here's the thing:  I think smugness is all we've got right now - a little self-praise that we're doing the right thing.  I do what I do in part for the internal reward of self-righteousness (I get no social kudos for any of it - people generally think I'm crazy), but also because of a blind faith that it might do some real good if it ever snowballs.  To clarify, I know if everyone lived like this it would dramatically help the human race survive on this planet - that's a scientific fact.  But the faith part comes in when I consider the leviathan trial of getting everyone else to actually get with the program!

Or at the very least, living as we do, my family has slowly acclimatized to the heat and to walking everywhere, so when we start having black-outs and gas shortages, we'll be less-suddenly deprived than most people in our neck of the woods.  Perhaps environmentalists will survive because they're better adapted to living with less.  And then we'll be unbearably smug!

(Cross-posted in A Puff Of Absurdity)

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Friday, December 7, 2012

On Environmental Intentions

Cross-posted in A Puff of Absurdity.

A week ago, The Globe and Mail published an "essay" on the Facts & Arguments page about a woman who has chosen to retire from being an ecowarrior.  (Remember about twenty years ago when that page actually had essays on it - rigorously argued claims of interest instead of personal anecdotes??  Anyway...)   I can't link to articles from The Globe anymore because I don't pay for the on-line service - but I did get the photo attached.  You'll just have to trust my quotations are accurate.

Lynn Lau decided she's tired of doing environmental stuff because the world's not actually changing anyway.  Her efforts aren't affecting anyone in a meaningful way.  She complains, "It's a thankless, deeply depressing affliction to care about the environment.  Despite our efforts, the planet remains far from saved."  She goes on to explain that, " be an environmentalist you need to be a misanthrope at heart - distrustful of authority and individualistic."

My counter in brief:  Get over yourself.

Doing good works is about doing good works.  It's not about saving the world or influencing seven billion people to change.  Focusing on the outcome and having unrealistic goals in general will doom anyone to failure - to depression and withdrawal.  But it's not environmentalism that's the problem; it's that misplaced focus.  We can never really be sure what our actions will produce, or what will happen in the future.  We could all embrace vegetarianism, then get hit with a meteorite.  Who knows?!  So it's with folly that we follow that path.

If, however, we live with a focus on our intentions in the present, and on the little things that do work, then environmentalism can be deeply satisfying.  When I take out a large bin full of waste every night at work, waste diverted from the landfill and into compost, it's satisfying even though I know another three bins will end up in the trash.  Which is a better way to live right now:  to throw up our hands and say I can't fix everything so I won't do anything, or to gain pleasure from doing our part however small and insignificant it may seem?  We don't have to do everything to get pleasure in having done something.

Part of the problem the writer seems to have is that the amount of effort she's spending isn't matched by any incoming rewards or pleasures.  The problem may be two-fold: she's working too hard, and she needs honour to continue.  I live a relatively eco-friendly life, but I find it brings me more pleasure than pains.  It's all a matter of enjoying whatever you're doing.  I compost in my yard, but I love working outdoors.  Same goes with hanging laundry on a line in the sunshine.  My recycle bins are organized enough that we don't have to think too much to sort waste.  And I feel great walking and biking everywhere - not in a self-righteous way, but in a wind in my hair kinda way!   And I don't do the things that bring me no pleasure.  Lau complains about raising chickens and maintaining her garden.  I hate vegetable gardening, but I live near a market.  It doesn't make sense for me to produce my own food when I can buy it from other people who did a great job growing it all.

The bigger problem than effort is the craving for recognition in some form of praise or a visible effect on the world or the people around us.  For a few years now, our school has been an official eco-school.  It's an effort for me to fill in all the required paperwork and do all the running around to prove we're environmentally motivated.  After a few years of getting gold-standing, last year, we didn't qualify.  We didn't stop doing anything environmental, we just didn't prove it as well as we normally do.  And this year, I'm having second thoughts about the whole thing.  Tracking what we do, and proving it with photos, is work.  There's no pleasure in the act itself, merely a minor reward at the end:  a sticker that suggests we are worthy.  It's just a tool to impress people with our school, and we already know we're on it.  It was a great way of getting people to start recycling and reusing, but now that we're doing that with just occasional reminders, I question the need to continue reporting to an official external body.  Reducing my consumption of over-packaged over-processed crap at the grocery store is a no-brainer, but weighing garbage and filling in forms for recognition is tedious and anxiety-provoking.

Lau's suggestion that environmentalists are necessarily misanthropes is just weird.  We can understand human nature - that our immediate rewards tend to win out over long-term punishers - without contempt for one another.  We do need to recognize that people need reminders over and over to reduce waste and energy, to walk past the car in the morning, to avoid buying a new whatever when the old one works just fine.  And governments need reminders that this stuff matters, and that enough of us care to make it worth their while to change a few rules to make it easier to do what's right.  We are all fallible, but that's what makes us interesting.

She closes with this: "If this is a sinking ship we're on, I'm going to quit bailing for now, and take a seat on the deck to enjoy the view."

Can't it be both?

A bit from the Talmud: A group of workers has been given a big, complicated job to do. They complain, “We do not have the right tools. The task is enormous. We will never be able to get it done.” The rabbi replies, “It is not for you to complete the task. But you must begin.”

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Putting the Brakes on Car Culture

Cross posted at A Puff of Absurdity because I'm getting a lot more traffic there these days!

I love biking and walking everywhere, but Waterloo Region - and many other places - sucks for cyclists and pedestrians.  I lived in Ottawa for a year, and it totally ruined me for any other city.  They have off-road bike lanes so cyclists don't have to dodge storm drains, garbage, parked cars, and the ever-feared, sudden and deadly driver-side-door-openings.  And when that wasn't feasible, at the very least they had barriers between bikes and cars (see photo - sweet, eh?).  A recent editorial in the G&M suggests that's most important:
"Designing bike lanes physically separated from other traffic – like those now popping up in Montreal, Vancouver and other cities across Canada – is the key to shifting commuters out of cars or buses and on to bicycles."
But if we can't do that, because we're running out of room on the streets as it is, all it would take to make our city less car-centric is to enforce some existing laws and guidelines that have been forgotten along the way and to stop building multi-lane roundabouts.

The Ontario Driver’s Handbook suggests, “You must wait for pedestrians to cross if they are in or approaching your path” (43, also HTA144-7).  Trying to cross a nearby three-way intersection as a pedestrian, I often have a lengthy wait as many drivers zip right in front of me, oblivious to the rules. Failure to yield right-of-way to a pedestrian has a set fine of three demerit points and $180 (or $365 in a community safety zone).  But it seems that nobody is ever stopped and charged for this in our city.  Imagine every car stopping in its tracks and waiting for you as you approach an intersection because they're afraid of a ticket.  It would make for a very different city:  people might walk more often and would certainly feel safer when they're walking with little ones.

Erecting signage to remind drivers that they can be charged for driving in front of people waiting at a crosswalk or intersection, and then actually charging a few of them to set an example, is a simple solution to prevent further tragedies.

The Handbook also clarifies how to share the road with cyclists:
"Bicycles and mopeds that cannot keep up with traffic are expected to keep to the right of the lane; however, they can use any part of the lane if necessary for safety, such as to avoid potholes and sewer grates.  Cyclists need a metre on either side of themselves as a safety zone.  When passing a cyclist, allow at least one metre between your car and the cyclist.  If the lane is too narrow to share, change lanes to pass the cyclist.  When turning right, signal and check your mirrors and the blind spot to your right to make sure you do not cut off a cyclist.  When parked on the side of the street, look behind you and check your mirrors and blind spots for a passing cyclist before opening a door" (38).
A metre on each side?  Luxury!  This practice alone would prevent almost every cycling fatality ever.  If I was assured that I'd be given a metre of space on either side, without being honked at and yelled at by people who don't like the rules, I wouldn't hesitate to ride in rush-hour traffic.  The police here are leaning towards coming down on cyclists and pedestrians for being in the way instead of car-drivers for not being cautious.  Hopefully it won't get as bad as New York (I can't help noticing nobody cares that he's without a helmet!) (h/t Rob):

K-W's proposes connected bike lanes (right beside the cars) which would be great, but a really quick fix is to just stop building multi-lane roundabouts.  They're made to reduce impediments to car travel, which encourages car travel (and speed), which is filling our city with smog.  Worse, they put the onus on pedestrians and cyclists to travel cautiously for their own survival.  Roundabouts reduce fatalities for car drivers because they take out the risk of T-bone accidents common at intersections, but multi-lane roundabouts increase fatalities (see 2.2) in cyclists and pedestrians.  It's hard to get around a heavily-travelled roundabout, and in some places in this city, they're impossible to avoid.

If we want truly to be an "Environment First" community, we need to encourage walking and cycling. And if we want to be a safe city, we need to encourage drivers to slow down and/or stop for cyclists and pedestrians. Nobody wants to cope with the trauma of an accident; it just takes an extra second of care to prevent one. And if we want people to get out of their cars and use the LRT coming our way, we have to stop making it so bloody easy to drive unhindered by stop signs, traffic lights, and laws!

While we're at it,  more places to lock bikes would also be nice, and it would save the trees from the wrath of chains.

Some people still think they can't possibly get around without a car.  I know people who drive the one kilometre to work because they have to carry a few things.  But check out this mother of six who bikes everywhere and moved to Portland because it's such a bike friendly city!  I don't want to move; I want to change our city.

We can look for solutions to problems by emulating people who have taken global concerns to the next level instead of settling on the easiest route of "that's just not possible for me."  If a mom can bike her six kids everywhere, then I really have no excuses.

In the U.S., during the 40 years from 1969 to 2009, walking and biking to school decreased from 48% to 13%, and one cycling parent suggested, "The most important part about getting to school this way is that our kids will grow up thinking that biking is a normal human activity, not something we do only during play time, or only on weekends."  I know at my school, there's a constant stream of cars dropping off kids every morning, and the school is right downtown, steps from a bus route.  But it's faster and easier, and convenience is winning over our health and well-being.  For now.

Check out Divorce Your Car! by Katie Alvord for more great suggestions.

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On Nuclear Power

Cross-posted in A Puff of Absurdity

The only safe nuclear reactor is 93-million miles away, the sun -  Daniel Hirsch

We've got record temperatures, and lots of truly frightening climate change data, just in time for a regional by-election.  The Ontario Clean Air Alliance (OCAA) is working to make nuclear power an issue this election.

We don't have any recent movies like Silkwood (a true story) or The China Syndrome (in theatres 12 days before the 3-Mile Island accident) to scare the bejesus out of people anymore.

We just have real life.  But some still believe that nuclear is the way to get us out of this greenhouse gas mess we're in.

George Monbiot, a rigorous environmentalist and author of Heat, is an advocate of nuclear energy, and he thinks there are good ways of using waste materials to create more energy.  He was also part of a debate opposing Dr. Douglas Parr of Greenpeace - and the pro-nuke side of the debate won 63 to 9 just three months after the Fukushima disaster.  He's that good.

Monbiot used to be more nuclear-neutral.  In Heat (2006), he noted significant concerns with nuclear power (page 89):
* it increases chances of nuclear weapons being developed (see The Dark Knight Rises)
* every plant leaks radiation into the air and sea
* we only have enough uranium to last about fifty years
* it takes 20 years to build a reactor, and each reactor lasts only 20 years
* there are numerous dumping and leaking scandals and cover-ups because it's much cheaper to handle radioactive materials badly than handle them well (Tepco falsified safety data on at least 200 separate occasions - Rubin, 115)
* it's uninsurable
* it's expensive to build and run
* it's highly subsidized receiving 44 times as much government money as wind because big expensive schemes are more favoured with governments than small cheap ones (the bigger the project, the more powerful the lobby)
* BUT, it's better than coal.  If those are our only two choices, go with nuclear.  But he seemed to be in favour of renewables with natural gas backing up the system back then.

Then Fukushima happened, and people didn't drop dead en masse, and maybe suddenly he felt safer.  And climate change sure got a whole lot worse.  And he said, "Anyone who believes that the safety, financing and delivery of nuclear power are bigger problems than the threats posed by climate change has lost all sense of proportion."  James Lovelock, of the Gaia hypothesis, agrees.

And Monbiot makes a compelling argument that can't be lightly dismissed.  It's a gamble for sure.  On the one hand, if there's a nuclear meltdown we'll have an area with massive cancer deaths and contaminated land and water forever. On the other, with a global meltdown, we'll have mass starvation, desertification of agricultural land, and flooding which all will increase without our help thanks to positive feedback loops - oh, and unliveable daytime highs in much of the world.  The problem is that climate change won't be a death sentence for the wealthy bits of the world for a good 50-100 years or so, but a nuclear reactor meltdown could happen tomorrow.  According to Plato, we are all sorrily lacking in the art of measurement, and we'll see what's close up as having a much larger impact than what's further away in time or space.  And I do.  

A rebuttal from Jim Green (Friends of the Earth) also contains arguments against nuclear based on potential weapons development, and Ralph Nader lists reasons why nuclear power is a nightmare, and Paul Mobbs has an extensive, informative post illustrating some problems with Monbiot's position.

But I'm banking on this:  We're really bad at predicting - we tend to lowball how much renewable energy we'll likely use in the future.  In the 70s, experts predicted the states would need hundreds of nuclear reactors by now, but all the projections were way off.  We just don't know.
Projections of total U.S. primary energy use from the 1970s.
And if we're not going to be averaging a three degree increase in global temperatures in this century (which is the current life-threatening prediction - it was nice knowing you), then a nuclear meltdown becomes a much larger problem by comparison.

Michael Rose discusses the myths of nuclear power one being that without nuclear reactors, the U.S. cannot hope to combat climate change.
"It would be like "using caviar to fight world hunger," said Peter Bradford, former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner and current staff member of the Environmental Law Center. The least expensive and most productive way to reduce our carbon footprint is to be energy efficient, not to build expensive nuclear power plants. "The money that was sunk into building the reactors in Japan should have gone into something that would really have helped us combat global warming like solar or wind power," and improving the national energy grid so that it's integrated, said Hirsch. We can't spend money on everything; we should spend it on solutions and not on technology that creates more problems."
The OCAA is suggesting an initiative focused entirely on cost to ensure that taxpayers don't cover any costs beyond the estimated in order to provoke a more accurate estimate - which will really show politicians and taxpayers the true cost - well, the financial cost anyway - of nuclear energy.  The reality is, government subsidies are keeping nuclear cheap.  If we had the same subsidies for renewables, we'd have solar panels on every rooftop.

David Suzuki's site suggests: "...the Liberals are still intent on investing in new nuclear capacity.  The Progressive Conservative go further by pledging to speed up nuclear power development.  The NDP want to reinvest money earmarked for nuclear power into energy efficiency and conservation, clearly a much better use for that money."

(Greens are also anti-nukes, but the NDP could actually win this one!)

Many thinker in the arena suggest it's better to work on energy efficiency and conservation than to spend money on nuclear power.  We need to get everyone to conserve.  And by that I mean get the government to stop us from being such entitled brats.

This is tricky for Canada because, as Jeff Rubin points out in The End Of Growth, we depend on money from cars and tar sands.  That's a huge psychological barrier to overcome: going for long term surviving over short term thriving.  I don't expect Harper to be the man for that.  Rubin also comes to the same conclusion as others:
"...the solution to higher energy costs is quite simple: learn to use less energy" (15), and "when it comes to reducing emissions, altering the energy mix by adding more renewable sources is a red herring.  What the world really nees to do is use less power.  And that's exactly what is about to happen in tomorrow's economy" (243).  
How do we do that?  According to Rubin, make energy crazy expensive.  Make the tax on cars more than the price of the car.  Increase electricity prices by three times.  It will hurt our industries, but that's a price we have to pay if we want to continue to exist.  And "the simple unspoken truth is that a recession is the bet possible way to tame runaway carbon emissions."  He suggests, "Curbing emission will always take a backseat to the more tangible imperatives of job creation" (239).  Luckily, renewables create more jobs than nuclear power. But, again, "The reduction in emissions that's about to occur because of high costs is exactly the kind of adjustment environmentalists say we will result from a profound slowdown in economic growth, which we currently lack the tools to fix" (249).  More products will be made locally since distance costs money, so manufacturing will come back home.  And he warns, people will have to learn to live with less and share jobs.  But in some ways that's a good thing.  Louis C.K. thinks so... (a treat for you if you've made it this far)

Speaking of space, here's a cogent excerpt from a book by Sally Ride, a physicist and the first woman in space who passed away yesterday (h/t Grist):
More than anything, though, I could see how fragile Earth is. When I looked toward the horizon, I could see a thin, fuzzy blue line outlining the planet. At first, I didn't know what I was seeing. Then I realized it was Earth's atmosphere. It looked so thin and so fragile, like a strong gust of interplanetary wind could blow it all away. And I realized that this air is our planet's spacesuit--it's all that separates every bird, fish, and person on Earth from the blackness of space.... 
To a person standing on the ground, our air seems to go on forever. The sky looks so big, and people haven't worried about what they put into the air. From space, though, it's obvious how little air there really is. Nothing vanishes "into thin air." The gases that we're sending into the air are piling up in our atmosphere. And that's changing Earth's life-support system in ways that could change our planet forever.
If only everyone would believe it and act on it! 

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Monday, July 16, 2012

On the Ethics of Wealth

"There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living." - Thoreau

Tony Shin sent me this info-graphic and asked if I'd add it to my blog.   Of course I have a few things to say about the 1% first.

Paul Feldman did a study in the 80s with bagels being sold on each floor of an office building using an honesty jar and price list.  He tracked who paid the right price for the bagels.  The people in the lowest floor - the mail room - paid about 95%, but as they went up the floors, and up the corporate ladder, the sales were worse and worse.  The richest people paid the least.

Now, the social science question is, is it an attitude of ripping off others that enables people to get rich in the first place?  Do some people, right from the start, decide they are better than others and take what they want and, because of that attitude, are able to collect more stuff.   Is it mainly bullies that get rich?  OR is it the case that once wealthy, people decide they deserve a donut or two free of charge for all their hard work?  Did the wealthy start out just like you or me but slowly saw themselves as better than us as they got richer.  Did they attribute their wealth to hard work and smarts instead of luck, and therefore began to see the poor as lazy and stupid?  Or is it a bit of both?

But the philosophical question is, is it unethical to be rich when others are suffering?  Beyond all the stealing and cheating listed below, is it unethical just to have more when others have less?

Many philosophers have written something along the lines that the best way to become rich is to take away a person's desires.  If we want just what we have, then it's all good and we can be happy with the least amount of work.  I think that goes a long way in life.  It's an attitude that many of us would benefit from adopting, and when I contemplate it, I wonder why I continue to work full time.  It's a choice between things I love to do:  teaching and writing.  One pays substantially more, so I do it more even if I don't love it more.

But is there a stopper to this axiom at the lowest rungs of poverty?  I might think that people can't just decide to be happy and stop desiring basic necessities like food, clothes, and shelter, but then I'm reminded of Diogenes living in a barrel and telling the king that the only thing he needs from him is for him to move to the left to stop blocking the sunlight.  Like Montaigne said, it's crazy that once we get stuff, we fear losing it so much that we barely enjoy it. One of my greatest fears is losing everything and scrounging to get by, to get enough for my kids.  If it's the case that poverty isn't as terrible as we think - particularly in socialist countries with safety nets - then perhaps we should stop worrying about who has more and how they got it.

The "how they got it" is key, I think, to a connection between wealth and ethics.  But that's an easy one.  If you conned someone to get where you are, deceived someone in any way, then your riches are tainted.  And I wonder if some people start out small, lying in ways that feel justified, then, once they see they can get away with it and find they are even lauded in elite circles for their cleverness, then they go big and have the balls to destroy protected land for a pipeline.  This behaviour is most often the case, which maybe clarifies the problem with the 1%:  exploitation of resources and people.

But what if all your business dealing were fair and honest to everyone - then is it still unethical to amass a fortune when others are hungry?  What if you give much of it to charity, but still keep enough to have extra homes and cars?  Do I have to make sure everyone in the world is clothed and fed before I can relax into a life of leisure, or is it enough that I know I came by my riches in a virtuous manner?  And can I rise above whatever it is that drags many wealthy people down a road of greed and corruption?

Thoreau says, "The rich man is always sold to the institution which makes him rich...absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue."  I'm dubious.  Anyway, check out the graphic:

Rich People Are Unethical
Created by:

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Sunday, June 3, 2012

91 Seconds of Recycling

I wanted to film all the little things I do around the house that save water, energy, and waste.  I captured it all, and my son put it together for me.  Once you get past the intro, it's not too bad.

It was inspired when raccoons got into the garbages up and down the street on night, and we could all see what each other had thrown out.  There was a whole lot of styrofoam.  There was also a lot of food waste, which is why critters were in there in the first place.

Here's what I do that anyone could do with very little space and/or money:
1. Find a corner of the yard (even if you're in an apartment) and compost all non-meat/dairy/fats food waste and all yard waste.  That saves 30% of a typical person's garbage from going in the landfill.  I have a bucket on the counter that I take out every day - rain or shine.  It's just a short walk to the back of the yard.
2. Use the green bin JUST for meat, dairy, and fat wastes, then it's small enough to fit in the freezer and you won't get maggots all in your kitchen.
3. Turn off the water when you're not using it - we know about teeth brushing, but turn it off when you're sudsing up your hands too!
4. Hang your laundry on a line.  If you don't have a big freezer, and you're a typical person, then your drier is your number one energy user in your household.  Just say no to the drier and hang clothes outside all summer and inside all winter.  It's a minor inconvenience that saves a lot of energy.
5. Hook up your gutters to rain barrels, and use them to water the garden.
6. Save all your batteries, e-waste, old paint, and styrofoam to take to the dump once you've got lots - take all your neighbour's stuff too, so it can all be disposed of properly.
7. Share a spot on the curb so the garbage truck doesn't have to stop as often - which saves gas.
8. Organize all your waste somewhere so kids can easily put everything in the right place:  a cereal box for all the boxboard, a bag for all the plastic bags, and a small bin for stuff that REALLY has to go in the landfill - mainly anything with mixed materials like granola bar wrappers.

Make it a habit, and it will really make a difference!

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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Keeping the OWS Fires Burning

Occupy Wall Street protesters, the 99%, are pulling up stakes and leaving areas all around the world.  Regardless the perceived problems with diversity within the protest platforms, you've got to admit it was pretty impressive how many people in so many different cities were able to rally together to fight the power!

If we compare it to the civil rights movement, the beginnings are not dissimilar.  Both had to contend with a media backlash of course.  But there are a couple of  marked differences in how the civil rights movement was able to really take off.  First, the civil rights movement had several remarkable people who rose up to lead.  The OWS group needs a good speaker to unify the people.  We need a Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr. - an excellent speaker who is intelligent and really understands the background and the direction we need to move in and who can excite the masses passionately.  Maybe Tom Zolot (check out how he controlled the situation at about 5 minutes into the video) who was one of the protester who got pepper sprayed.   We need someone who says things like this:
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom. - Martin Luther King Jr.
Or this:
I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those that do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation. - Malcolm X
The movements differ significantly in how concrete they are.  The civil rights movement had tangible obstacles to overcome.  They could individually fight by daring to sit in the wrong place, marry the wrong person, move into the wrong neighbourhood, go to the wrong school....  By contrast, the OWS movement is ineffable.  It's harder for individuals to use small daily acts of bravery to take it down.  There are things that people can do, but they're not as visible, not as public.  We don't all notice how many people are in on it, so it's hard to gather speed.  On the bright side, because we can't make those small daily public acts, maybe this movement can be less violent.  Maybe we can effect change without anyone getting hung or raped or stabbed.  In the states, there was about as much violence during Black Friday shopping sprees as there was at the protests.  This is the pepper spray revolution!

So, is it over?

It doesn't have to be.  Here are some ways individuals can help change the world, some individual acts that really do make a difference:

First, get educated on why people are so riled up.  There are many movies out about the scandals that have brought all this to a head.  For my money, the very best is The Inside Job.  I summarized it here if you don't want to watch talking heads for two hours.  In a nutshell,
Progressive deregulation of the financial sector since the 1980s gave rise to an increasingly criminal industry, whose “innovations” have produced a succession of financial crises. Each crisis is worse than the last, yet few people are being sent to prison despite fraud that caused trillions of dollars in losses to private citizens.
Secondly, move all your money out of banks and into a credit union, then tell people what you did.  What's the difference?  A bank is a government or privately owned business that gets to decide what to do with your money (even in a democracy).  When you pay interest on loans, it makes the people who own and run the bank a little richer, and banks are allowed to gamble with your money on the stock market.  A credit union is a co-op, a collective in which you're a member with the rights of membership including having a say in things.  They're often not-for-profit (except in Canada where they're allowed to make some money).  Typically when you pay interest on a loan it goes into the system and benefits everyone involved including you.  It's the difference between Potter's Bank and the Bailey Building and Loan:

Third, avoid paying years of interest on loans.  Back in the day when I was buying a house, there was a formula for mortgage lending that stopped people from buying something they couldn't afford.  It kept some people from owning homes they wanted, which infringed on their freedoms some criticized, but it ensured that nobody was in a bind if the interest rates went up.  I had a 40% down payment on my first house by living in less-than-ideal conditions for several years while I saved every single penny.  Now you can buy a house with as little as a 0% down payment!  That's veryvery dangerous.  If the interest rates go up and the house prices go down, then you can lose your house yet still have a mortgage to pay.  Can you afford to rent somewhere AND pay a mortgage on a house you lost?  The tent cities outside wall street and government buildings are down, but the ones in inner city side streets and parks, those made out of necessity because people have lost everything, are still standing and will be for yet another winter.

Mainstream media will tell you that raising the required down payment is "closing out home ownership to people" - which it is, but why is that a bad thing?  It's ensuring that people who can't afford a house, don't try to buy one until they've saved up more money.  And this site makes a compelling argument for just avoiding the whole home-ownership process to begin with.  In the end, renting isn't throwing away money; you actually end up further ahead.  But we're sucked in to believing that a house is part of the dream, part of being a grown up.  We think we want the right to make our own mistakes, but most people aren't able to see how the whole system operates well enough to make true informed choices.  There are too many sneaky weasels in the mix.

Fourth, this one is harder and more contentious, but if you're community minded, and you can afford the necessities easily, then voluntarily reduce your work hours.  This typically means giving up your benefits too, so make sure you can afford to do it.  We don't have enough work to go around.  Media (dictated by government and big business) suggest that interest rates are rising much slower than reality.  Get a crash course in these fuzzy numbers here.   We have a lot more people, and a lot of labour is being outsourced, so there's going to be rising unemployment.  If we can't change the way business works, maybe we can share the wealth by sharing jobs.  It also requires buying fewer luxuries, which some say will destroy the economy and everything will collapse.  I don't buy it, and neither does Tim Jackson in Prosperity Without Growth.  But that's a story for another day.

Fifth, write letters to political figures under the illusion of true democratic governance and tell people whenever you send them.  Demand clear, financial transparency.  Hold them accountable for their actions.  Should the elected officials who were in on all the deregulation be taken to task for that?  Should the bankers who got rich by insuring faulty loans be arrested for fraud?  Tell them to take out loopholes in the tax system and/or to raise taxes on outrageous luxury items (a second home, a yacht...) and eliminate them on necessities.  Recognize though, that if you get a little extra money, you'll be the one paying more taxes.  But if we want to reduce the huge rich/poor gap we have right now, then that's the way to do it!       

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Animal Welfare Labels

The U.S.-based Whole Food's Market Inc. is planning a labelling system for their organic grocery stores that informs consumers of the conditions in which animals were raised.  The system goes from a 5+ in which the animals live outdoors and eat foods intended for their digestive system (i.e. grass for cows, etc.), to a 0 for animals crowded in cages which is called "Does not meet Whole Foods market requirements."  It's unfortunate that much of the meat processed today would rate a "0" on this scale.

Of course the next day's paper had several letters suggesting that if people really care about animals, then they shouldn't eat meat at all.  That's true, BUT I don't think it's a useful way to provoke change.  If we maintain an all or nothing mentality, people aren't going to budge from their current place.  It's just too great a leap to go from possibly eating meat from fast food outlets several times a day to never eating meat again.  It happens once in a blue moon, but not nearly enough to have a significant effect.

If we want to help the world, we're unlikely to convince everyone to become vegan, but we might be able to convince them to eat "kinder" cuts of meat.  This doesn't necessitate changing our eating habits, just changing suppliers.  And when enough people shift to buying only animal-centered meat from Whole Foods, then this is what grocers and fast food restaurants will start to supply.  And that will affect our groundwater and river systems, our health as neighbours and consumers, and our conscience.

It's a start.
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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

In Case You Miss Me

I've started writing in two other places, mainly because I had to learn how to use wordpress.  I'll stick to strictly environmental and social justice posts here.  But you can find posts on education in general (and technology in the classroom in particular) at Snyder's Symposium.  And you can find posts on human nature and life in general (philosophy, psychology) at A Puff of Absurdity.  Feel free to comment.
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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Reduce Weight Gain with This One Life-Changing Tip!

There's an article in the paper today about kids under five needing a 3-hour daily exercise regimen to prevent obesity.  I'm taken with the words "exercise regimen" as opposed to, say, "playtime."  Apparently parents are keeping children trapped in swings and strollers all day instead of actually interacting with the wee ones.

From my limited sample of people on my street, it's not the case at all.  But I live on a street uptown with big front porches - where I live all summer (to do my people-sampling) - and places to walk to, and I think that affects how often people are outside.  Generally, elsewhere, we're pushing technology over nature.

But I still think the biggest cause of rising obesity rates is how our food has changed.  The local grocery store has huge ads everywhere saying, "Ontario corn-fed beef coming soon!"  They make it sound like a really great thing.  I like that we can eat local beef, and I admit I naively thought we were all along.  But "corn-fed" is a huge problem.  Beef should be grass-fed to prevent e-coli, reduce methane emissions, and reduce potential obesity.  I won't get into details here, but watch Food Inc. for the bigger picture.  And I have to wonder, if the cows weren't eating grass or corn before, what were they eating?  I'm actually restraining myself from vandalizing the signs with "Watch Food Inc. to find out the problems with this ad!"

Okay, here's the one life-changing tip:  If you want to avoid obesity, avoid one food:  high-fructose corn syrup.    See this study for why.  The problem is it's in everything, so good luck with that.  If you eat low on the food chain, and entirely unprocessed foods, you'll have no problem with this - but you probably don't need to lose weight then either. It's labelled as fructose (the same name as sugar from fruit, but not the same thing), sucrose, glucose, dextrose, etc.  Essentially, if you're buying processed food, look for "sugar" and no "-ose" ingredients.  Give yourself twice as long to do groceries next time you go though.
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Monday, July 11, 2011

Questionable Economic Models Driving Policy

Tom Rand wrote in the Globe & Mail today that the climate-policy debate is using an economic model, DICE, that mistakenly views climate change as a slowly accelerating process rather than a non-linear model that recognizes the impact of sudden catastrophic changes in climate already happening (as explained in the Stern Review).  As such, we're doing precious little - pretty much ignoring the risks to our livelihood.

In Australia, on the other hand, the PM, Julia Gillard, is making industry pay $23 a tonne for carbon emissions which is expected to lead to reductions in emissions on par with taking 45 million cars off the road.  The article also notes that "Ms. Gillard's government is the most unpopular in 40 years."

This is exactly what we need: elected officials who aren't afraid to be hated in their quest to do what's right for their country and the world.

Here's more from Rand:

That's it!
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Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Energy Glut

Philobiblon wrote a post the way I like to - an annotated summary with page references.  The book's called:  The Energy Glut: The Politics of Fatness in an Overheating World, and it's driving home what I've been saying for years.  If you want to save the environment and lose weight, ditch your car.  You can also save scads and scads of cash.  

I'm creeping up on 50, and I still haven't bought a car yet.  I think I can go the distance on this one.   I almost succumbed to teenager-pressure, but I re-did the math and assured myself that taking the occasional taxi when necessary is a very cost-effective way to travel.

That's it.
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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Summer Movie List

ETA - I'm going to use this post as a bookmark of all the movies I loved or hated this summer.

First of all, I understand the Provincial NDP's move to alleviate poverty by lowering the gas tax and as a means of wooing voters for the fall election, but from an environmental perspective and from a socialist perspective, it's a bad move.  Or at the very least, it's not a direction one would expect from the NDP.  It just gives opponents ammo when they insist the NDP policies will never work.

Secondly, I managed some serious escapist marathon movie-watching to mark the end of school.  I'm hand-sewing cushions which I thought I could do in front of a few movies, but I foolishly chose several sub-titled ones which made it difficult to look anywhere other than the screen.  Here's a summary of the best and worst of what I watched last night (and into the wee hours this morning):

Don't Bother With...

imgres.jpgCry-Baby - With Johnny Depp, how could you go wrong?  This is how.  Directed by John Waters of Hairspray fame, I couldn't make it through more than twenty minutes.

Breaking Upwards - A very realistic portrayal of a couple in crisis, but I find it hard to sit through all the angst.  I made it about 3/4 the way through.  What is it about Annie Hall that I can watch that break-up over and over, but most movies like this are just grating?  I think it's often all the petty arguing that, instead of getting just a taste, just the idea of how they bicker, we have to sit through entire episodes.  I hate it in real life; why would I want to watch other people do it?

Adventureland - Teen angst and drama without anything new to the story.  Plus, I'm really tired of Kristen Stewart.

I Admit I Kinda Liked...

Knight and Day.  I've still got a soft-spot for Tom Cruise and action flicks that don't really make sense.  The best part is the car chase when Diaz has to steer a car with a dead man's foot flooring the gas pedal, and Cruise blocks her vision with his body across the windshield while making quips to calm her down, and, despite swerving insanely on the freeway, she hits nothing - of course.  Sorry if I gave that away for anybody.

Middle Men - It's a telling of how one man can get sucked into some nasty stuff trying to make money off porn.  It's Goodfellas-lite.  Good to sew pillows to.

Definitely Check Out....

Tell No One - A very tense and exciting murder mystery with a few clever twists.  I love this stuff!

Volver - Gorgeous film.  Breaks the barrier between the living and dead, but not in a Ghost kind of way.  At all.

The Bothersome Man - A man gets dropped off in this weird town where everything is simply pleasant. There are endless dinner parties and mindless conversation particularly about home renovations!  There are no children - children are chaotic and cause upheaval. Nor is there any delectable food.  It's all pretty bland, but everyone is really happy with this version of perfection - except for him of course.  We need a bit of chaos, something to spice things up, for better and worse.  Some of us do, anyway.    

And then I watched So I Married An Axe-Murderer for maybe the fourth time.  "Piper down" still slays me.

Here's more must sees....

Terribly Happy - Corrupt cop trying to do good, but just can't get a break.  Loved it!

Buddy - A cute movie that could be used to look at if the ends can justify the means.  Also a good look at friendship and love.  Thoroughly enjoyable, and good for the whole family - well, my family.

Barney's Version - Fantastic film about a guy and his love of a good woman.  I question the analysis that she's a saint - a bit of a doormat if you ask me.  But lovely nonetheless.  He loves her, but what's the difference between love and need?  He can't cope without her, even for a few days, but he gives nothing back to her, ignoring her accomplishments completely.  Personally, I don't think that's love.  Also, the wife is lovely, but I thought her acting a bit stilted and, well, monotone.  It reminded me of the girl in High Fidelity - who almost ruined that movie for me.  

The Station Agent - Loved it!  A train-nut inherits a station in the middle of nowhere.  And he's a dwarf (the word he uses in the film).  An excellent look at friendship and coping and such.

Win Win - Liked it a lot - mainly the ending.  A nice, but mildly corrupt lawyer neglects an elderly client for cash and ends up developing a sweet relationship with the grandson.  A bit contrived (he's a wrestling coach and the grandson's a ringer), but I liked the refreshing view of an ethical conundrum - i.e. he actually does the right thing.

Death at a Funeral - Very funny.  And a good bit about the nature of love also.  A good blow-off line to an obsessive guy about the nature of love.

Bridesmaids - Hilarious.  And the love interest is one of my favourite characters from Pirate Radio - one of my favourite movies.  The ending is likely intentionally reminiscent of another favourite movie, but I won't spoil it by saying which one.  "What kind of name is Stove anyway?"
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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Avoiding Environmental Toxins: Start Young

A guest post from Krista Peterson:

Cigarette smoke, lead-based paint, pesticides, asbestos, and household chemicals are just a few examples of environmental toxins that are currently known to be harmful, especially to children. And the only way to minimize the risks of these environmental hazards is to limit exposure to them. Luckily, unlike certain health issues that we have no control over, environmental toxins present an issue that can be thwarted. But in order to do so, there needs to be a concerted national effort focused on raising awareness and reducing their existence.

Educating children on the importance of avoiding environmental toxins at an early age can be a useful tool for promoting a healthier, eco-friendly lifestyle. Children are particularly vulnerable to environmental toxins because they are growing, their organs are developing, and their behavior often puts them in close contact with the ground. Due to increased susceptibility, it is crucial for kids to know how to protect themselves at an early age.

Because of their widespread nature, it is nearly impossible to completely avoid environmental toxins. But by making some environmentally friendly decisions, it is possible to minimize your exposure. provides a pretty comprehensive list of ways to avoid toxins:

• Buy and eat, as much as possible, organic produce and free-range, organic foods.
• Rather than eating fish, which is largely contaminated with PCBs and mercury, consume a high-quality purified fish or cod liver oil.
• Avoid processed foods -- remember that they're processed with chemicals!
• Only use natural cleaning products in your home
• Switch over to natural brands of toiletries
• Remove any metal fillings as they're a major source of mercury. Be sure to have this done by a qualified biological dentist.
• Avoid using artificial air fresheners, dryer sheets, fabric softeners or other synthetic fragrances as they can pollute the air you are breathing.
• Avoid artificial food additives of all kind, including artificial sweeteners and MSG
• Have your tap water tested and, if contaminants are found, install an appropriate water filter on all your faucets (even those in your shower or bath).

Another important step to take is to make sure your home and school are free of mold and asbestos. Asbestos is a common toxin that was widely used as insulation on floors and ceilings throughout the 1950’s to 1970’s. The material is extremely dangerous and is known to cause a deadly cancer called mesothelioma. If you live in a home or go to a school that is particularly old, get a professional to come and ensure that you’re not breathing in the deadly material on a daily basis. Doing so can potentially save your life; the mesothelioma life expectancy, after diagnosis, is only 14 months long.

Even if we take all the steps necessary to protect ourselves from the threats of environmental toxins, the fact remains, an enormous amount of pollution still occurs on a daily basis. Environmental toxins are simply a byproduct of the modern lifestyle, and with the current state of our society, it may seem like there is no going back. But that doesn’t have to be true. If we can educate the young and promote healthy, green lifestyle decisions, there is hope that our population can live in peaceful unity with the environment.
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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Strip the Streets

After being disappointed in We Day, it was a delight to participate in Strip the Streets this weekend.  A couple hundred students from 14 schools got together to raise awareness and some funds for several groups that help local homelessness.  (I think it's okay to put this photo here since its from The Record.)

There were excellent speakers, a meal at the legion, then a night outside.  I like that the schools were mixed together to talk about different issues.  It's an event that actually develops community along with awareness.  But what had the most impact was breakfast the next morning.

We went to First United Church where many people without homes spent the night sleeping in the basement.  Students shared porridge and toast with people who live like this every day.  Many of the students were moved to tears.

As I stood on the sidewalk, away from the rest, getting a panorama shot of people taking down tents in the morning, someone in a car slowed down to yell, "You guys are dressed too well to be homeless!!"   I didn't share that with the others, and it completely missed the point anyway.  The event raised money, collected tons of toiletries and other essentials, and completely transformed the participants.  The students weren't pretending to be without homes; they were getting a small taste of what it must be like for many people, including about 1,000 youth in the region, to have to go without something we take for granted.  It was an eye-opener, and I found it to be profoundly effective.

ETA - A student today commented on the evening.  She thought the worst part would be suffering through a cold night, but what was far worse was a total lack of privacy 24/7.  It's degrading to not be able to get yourself presentable in the morning without seeing other people in the mall washroom.  We have a need for private space that can't be helped with temporary group sleeping areas.

My weekend was topped off with an excellent drama presentation last night - excellent except for the silly bandz that we've decided to give away at every event.  My 6-year-old was thrilled.  Me?  Not so much.  They're made of a silicone rubber polymer which in itself isn't particularly toxic or problematic.  Careful of choking if you try to eat them, or cutting off your circulation if you wear them.  But it's trendy crap that's destined for the landfill where they won't decompose.  They might, however, photodegrade so in a few years we can breathe in the particles and decrease our fertility.

This is where environmentalists are total downers, but, I think, necessarily so.  I was excited to see the play without the toys that came with the ticket.  It doesn't make our school suddenly cooler to jump on a marketing trend.  It just makes more garbage to clean up at the end of the night.  

The weekend as a whole reminded me of a line in the film No Impact Man.  Colin's talking to an old hippie gardener who tells him:  "It's always 50/50.  Some thing get better and some things get worse.  It'll always be like that."

True that.  We just need those little bits of "better" to keep us going over the worse.
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Monday, February 21, 2011

Me2We Day

I appreciate the excitement many felt at We Day Waterloo, but I have a few concerns.  I considered sending this to The Record to balance out Carragh Erhardt's glowing editorial, but I decided otherwise.  Here's good enough.

If a rally is going to change how we live it has to do more than shout homilies at us. It has to model how to be. In this respect We Day failed. In words it told us to change the world, but in actions it told us to be wasteful consumers.

If these kids are our future, it’s a problem that so many bought bottled water. A few students told me it’s all they had for sale. This begs a question that I didn’t have the heart to ask: Why didn’t each of these “ambassadors of the future” bring a reusable bottle full of water? Thousands of water bottles were purchased in those four hours that made up the day.  As we listened to tales of women who had to miss school to walk hours for water, so many felt they couldn't make it for four hours without.

People like Al Gore were flown in to talk for less than ten minutes, then flown home again. A live video feed could have been as useful, and people would still have come for that, especially if it meant reducing GHGs. The “pumpers” made everyone stand up for most of the day, so we couldn’t see most of the speakers on the stage anyway, we had to watch on screens close to the ceiling.

They encouraged kids to buy t-shirts and jewelry and books as souvenirs of the day.  Right after the lunch break, some students spent a few entire speeches playing with their new purchases.  If you need a new shirt or necklace, then by all means, this is the place to get it where it's made or designed by hand and traded freely.  But do you really need more stuff?  We've trained our kids to want mementoes of everything they do, but it's just another consumerist scam under the cloak of charity.

Then we left the building to find, in the parking lot, 100 buses idling for over 45 minutes as kids got on to go home. They had to sit until every last person boarded a bus. It’s kind that they made the buses warm for us, but I think we can tolerate the cold for the sake of the planet. If we want to change behaviours, we can start by telling kids and the bus lines that it’ll be cold waiting in the bus, but we can handle it!  We just spent half a day listening to real hardships.  It's pathetic that we expect water on demand and a warm bus to wait in.

I’ve seen Craig Keilburger before without the flashing lights and pumpers and shouting. He is truly an inspirational speaker able to hold an audience for hours, right up there with David Suzuki and Stephen Lewis. The stories are the inspiration; if they only have an hour’s worth of stories, then make it an hour-long presentation. But why not have speakers tell their whole story instead of just teasers. There were little kids in the audience too, and some people think they need lots of variety to maintain their interest. But that belief actually creates a dwindling attention span.  Caught early, little kids love a good story told well. Everyone does.  We can foster that instead of expecting people to fall asleep if their attention is sustained by a single voice for more than ten minutes.

Dancing and chanting energize people so they think something important’s happening, that some connection has been made between all these strangers, but it doesn’t last. It’s fun and exciting for some, but doesn’t have the power to sustain us in a struggle to keep fighting the good fight. It certainly didn’t get kids to question their “XCI is the best school ever!” signs they held aloft right to the very end – ironic at an event that works to get us to shift our focus from a “me” to a “we”.

The day was frustrating because it’s so close. They’ve got the bodies and the interest, but too many words instead of actions of substance. They could cut out some time spent on dancing and have students do some good. Make people talk in small groups and pledge specific acts right there and then to be started before June, and have them submit them to a website co-ordinator so their promises are made public and they're held accountable.  Have schools sitting next to each other shake hands and say hello. Get names and make some new Facebook connections that can be counted on to join us for our next school event. Have people change their signs to “The world is the best school ever!”  And challenge students that didn't bring water with them to go the whole time without, to actually feel what it is to be thirsty and unable to get water, rather than fill our landfills and oceans with more plastic.

It was a pep rally that got everyone riled up, but a stunning waste of resources unless every one of the 6,000 in the audience actually starts to think globally with every action all the time - and they couldn't do it for a day.
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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Silent Spring Backlash

On a student's recommendation, I checked out the book The Fly in the Ointment by Dr. Joe Schwarcz.  I'm always going on about the increase of toxins in our environment and how to avoid getting overloaded.  Schwarcz insists eating spoonfuls of DDT is perfectly safe and that Rachel Carson (of Silent Spring fame) used junk science to convince the masses that DDT is harmful.

Schwarcz examines one of the many studies from Carson's book and shows how the treatment group of birds (exposed to DDT) had almost as many eggs hatch as the control group (no DDT).  And there are a few studies that show no harm, in fact an improvement in egg hatching.  Therefore, according to Schwarcz, all her studies are flawed.  I was just about to count the number of principle sources she used in her book, but they take up 53 pages of notes, and I don't want to count that many.  Suffice it to say, that study he jumped on wasn't the only study she used to back up her claim that DDT affects fertility in birds and likely affects fertility in people.  Eating a spoonful of DDT won't kill you.  But if you're a woman, and you inhale the stuff over years because you live on a farm or near a golf course, you might end up having problems conceiving.

Schwarcz laments the many children dying of malaria because of Carson, but Carson never advocated for a total ban of DDT, she just wanted it much more controlled than it was back in 1962.  I agree with both of them that spraying to stop deadly malaria is a good use for this pesticide.  Spraying it on our fields as a regular practice here - not so much.  And, most importantly, spraying it on lawns and golf courses to kill off cinch bugs and other "pests" because we love the aesthetics of a monoculture - not at all.

Schwarcz also is a consultant for Monsanto.  Just saying.

There are a lot of conflicting studies and scientific expertise on different scientific topics.  Carson is a marine biologist with a masters in zoology.  She wanted to do a PhD, but had to leave school to support her family. Devra Davis is an epidemiologist with a PhD in sciences and post doc work in oncology.  Schwarcz has a PhD in chemistry.  When PhDs conflict, how do we know what's true?

We can take the time to look at the research the scientists have studied.  It's especially important with "pop" science and social science books.  I did that with The Tipping Point series.  The studies are fun and interesting, but I want to withhold judgment until I read the original studies. It's usually pretty easy to find them on-line.  Look for controlled and treatment groups, large sample sizes, random samples, isolated variables, if the studies were repeated with similar results, and other markers of good scientific research.

A fast method, though, and the bottom line for me is that if we can live without certain synthetic products, then we should.  Eat low on the food chain, free range, organic, when it's possible, and here and now, that's really easy to do.  Avoid plastics and fragrances.  Really none of that is a big deal or difficult.  And I don't think it's paranoid to avoid buying a whole lot of crap we don't need.  Also, when studies conflict, always follow the money.  If Carson made up her studies (or Davis), what would she have to gain from that?  But Monsanto has a whole lot to lose if they can't find some PhDs to rail against these claims that pesticides can harm us.

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