Friday, August 28, 2009

Green Right to the Very End

The Star had an article about green burials in Cobourg, Ontario. I've always had issues with the way we're laid to rest, particularly the mahogany trees that have to be felled to contain a corpse. I'd be happy to be dumped in a pit reminiscent of the final scene in Amadeus. Now that's a real option - almost. There are no biodegradable body bags in Ontario, but we can be put in the ground in a cardboard box. One reluctant client (or client's daughter really) of a similar burial ground in Britain said the white cardboard casket reminded her of an IKEA flatbox, but nevertheless, it's the remnants of plentiful trees, not the solid boards of a less populous species. The law states that we have to be buried in something. If we're down far enough to avoid getting dug up by animals, I can't imagine the necessity for a container at all - as if a cardboard box will throw off the scent. It seems a formality, a sign of being civilized.

They don't embalm the body with chemicals either, so the body has to be buried quickly. This means the funeral can't be open casket - just as well if the casket reminds people of the Trondheim collection. In fact, if it's difficult to assemble people in a timely fashion, the funeral will likely have to take place after the burial. Personally I've never been thrilled with open-casket funerals anyway. The dead body is not the same as the person I knew. It's just a bag of bones. But for some people that will be the stopper.

Another potential stopper is the lack of any markers. There are no tombstones in green cemeteries, only wildflowers. They advertise that people can come to visit the meadow, instead of the one little plot of ground. In Britain they allow a tree to be buried on the actual plot to mark it, but that will be a problem if this takes off. Your tree of choice likely can't be contained to a three by six area. My mother was cremated, which is not at all eco-friendly, but it did allow me to keep her ashes under a tree at home.

But if markers aren't an issue, and not having a casket at the funeral is acceptable, then it seems a reasonable choice.

ETA - It was very unfortunate timing that I posted this shortly before we lost a student at our school. I'll keep it up because I do think how we embalm and bury our dead under a layer of cement is an important environmental issue to address, but I'll post more so it's not the first thing that comes up on the screen, although the tragedy has left me too distracted to write much lately.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The End of Suburbia

I use this film, The End of Suburbia, to start students' understanding of cars, urban sprawl, media, and mass consumerism, and I segue into plastics, another petroleum-based product. If there's no petroleum for cars, we won't have any to make plastics either.

After reading Armed Madhouse by Greg Palast I actually question the peak oil theory. But even if we've got oodles of oil, it's being restricted in a way that's far beyond our control. No matter what, we've got to find ways to live without it. This film helps students understand how it all got so out-of-control.

The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream
(Gregory Greene, 2004, 78 min.)

The Thinkers:
James Howard Kunstler – The Geography of Nowhere (blog –
Peter Calthorpe, Urban Designer – Sustainable Communities
Michael Klare, Prof at Hampshire College – Resource Wars
Richard Heinbert, Journalist – The Party’s Over
Matthew Simmons, CEO of Simmons Co. International, “insider” perspective
Michael C. Ruppert – From the Wilderness
Julian Darley, Environmental Philosopher –
Colin Campbell – The Coming Oil Crisis
Kenneth Deffeyes – Peak Oil: Hubbert’s Peak
Ali Samsam Bakhtiari – The Journal of the Iranian Petroleum Institute
Steve Andrews – Running on Empty

The U.S. makes up 4% of the population of the world, and uses 25% of its oil

“If a path to the better there be, it begins with a full look at the worst.” – Hardy

Benefits of Suburbia:

Space Affordability Convenience Family-centered Upward mobility
It’s the American Dream; but it’s not sustainable.

Suburbia is the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.

Suburbia is the dream of country living for the masses far from the city filled with
Pollution, noise, effluence, stenches, factories, vulgar worker culture…

1880s/1890s – like a manor in a park – best of city and country living
1910s – streetcar suburb
1920s mass motoring – automobile suburbs – cheap oil
depression and war – oil is cheaper than drinking water
1946-1950 – Veterans Energy Housing Program (post WWII American Dream)
- 5 million homes built in suburbs; everybody’s middle class now
- false promise; cartoon country living
- no connection with the country (river, forests, fields) just manufactured lawns
- no amenities of town – worst of city and country living
- destruction of cities; and big plans for cars

Car dependency

- GM destroyed rail-cars to sell gas powered buses and cars and make highways
- No suburbs if not for cheap oil to fuel cars

August 14, 2003 – power outage – “It’s a red light, but we didn’t get it!” - Simmons
“We have to grow electricity or we can’t grow our economy.”

*** We are at or near peak oil production worldwide – we will still have oil produced for a while, but it will decrease each year, and increase dramatically in price. We can no longer afford our lifestyles – our cars, home heating, air conditioning, etc. The gap between what we want and what we can have will grow, and this will cause multiple problems in the world. ***

** Dr. M. King Hubber, renowned geologist, predicted this problem in 1956. Why didn’t we listen?? Why didn’t we take precautions??

Predicted Consequences – worst case:
- What if US and China go to war over oil?
- No more trucks available to deliver food, so we’ll all starve.
- Decreased economic activity, recessions, then a never ending depression.
- Violence around filling stations.
- Government lies about why oil is so expensive; more dishonest wars.
- Tremendous struggle to maintain entitlements to suburbia.
- Electing maniacs who promise they can maintain our lifestyles.
- Scramble to get out of suburbia.
- Expect a war for the remainder of our lifetimes. The US must not allow any other country to take over oil reserves.
- Suburbs will be the slums of the future with crops growing on front lawns.

Predicted Consequences – pro-active community involvement:
- Dramatic change in individual lifestyles.
- Everything we do must be made smaller and more local. We must grow food closer to towns.
- Need more independent farming (no more fertilizers or pesticides available).
- New Urbanism – return to traditional communities; re-learning principles of town planning, classic grid development, and high-density at cores.
- Live locally (work, school, food production…), become less car-dependent, and pay attention to how you use energy.

** Will we listen now?? Will anyone take precautions? When the KCI rules were about to change, I warned students to find a place to sit and claim it as their own territory before everybody’s fighting for a place. But nobody moved out of the halls until forced.

- The media’s silent because there’s no up-side
- The media is irresponsible, but we all have a short attention span; we can drag our attention from sports, entertainment, etc.
- Reality is bad for business.

Benefits of the Oil Crisis:
- better neighbours
- local energy formations (solar, wind…)
- a healthier environment

Quick Facts About Petroleum and Related Products

Fossil Fuels – non-renewable natural resources from the ground that can be burned to create energy; they contain hydrocarbons, so burning causes lots of pollution and global warming. Three main types – coal, petroleum, and natural gas.

Coal is a solid fossil fuel extracted from the ground by underground mining or open-pit mining; it’s disappearing (but not that fast), and it pollutes, creating global warming; it’s heated to make electricity, and can be converted to liquid fuel like gasoline and diesel fuel. It creates more pollution than the following two forms of fuel.

Petroleum / Crude Oil / Naphtha / Black Gold – it’s a liquid fossil fuel taken from the ground with pumps. This is what has hit peak production and will be increasing in price dramatically. It’s the raw material for solvents, fertilizers, pesticides, and plastics. Different products come directly from the separation of petroleum based on boiling points (fractional distillation) including methane, propane, gasoline, jet fuel, kerosene, diesel, paraffin wax, asphalt, and oil. Soon none of these products will be affordable.

Natural Gas – is a gaseous fossil fuel (different from gasoline) that’s mainly methane. It’s piped directly from the oil fields or swamps to your house for heating and cooking. It’s also on a quick decline along with petroleum.

Hydrogen Fuel – Usable as a fuel, but it’s produced from another energy source such as natural gas (48%), oil (30%), or coal (18%). We can’t create hydrogen fuel without the use of fossil fuels. Furthermore, we can’t make hydrogen cars without using massive amounts of fossil fuels. “It’s the public’s delusion to alleviate their fear - a very rational fear because there is no plan B.”

Alternatives – non-fossil fuel energy sources:

Bio-diesel – It’s fuel from vegetable oils or animal fats. It creates far less pollution than fossil fuels. However, it takes more energy to make ethanol than to use it. The production and land use may not justify the product.

Nuclear – very expensive, pollutes as it sits in the ground, radioactive spills and accidents are disastrous immediately and for many generations to come.

Wind Turbines – need a lot of space, and are currently very expensive.

Solar Power – it’s expensive to install initially, but will pay itself off quickly as fuel prices rise, and as the solar power market increases providing more products locally manufactured. The sun hits a photovoltaic cell which creates electricity. It can be used immediately, or stored in batteries for later use. Passive solar systems can be used to heat water for household use, and to heat homes by heating thermal masses (e.g. slabs of stone). It can manage all the needs of a very careful electricity user. Our desires must still be kept in check.

An incomplete list of types of plastic: Can we live without it?
1. Cellulose (1866)
Film, clothes, ping pong balls, fake ivory, combs, jewelry, old billiard balls
(highly flammable)
2. Rayon (1891)
modified cellulose, “man-made silk”, cellophone
3. Bakelite (1907)
Radios, televisions, clocks, jewelry, lamps, new billiard balls, buttons, electrical
insulators, added to wood metals for strengthening
4. Nylon (1920s) - polyamide
clothes, packaging
5. PVC (1920s) – poly vinyl chloride
records, food wrap, surgical gloves, vinyl siding, window blinds, piping, blister
packaging, credit cards, auto instrument panels, paints, rain coats, shrink wrap,
toys, upholstery, I.V. tubing, medical supplies
6. Saran (1933) – poly vinylidene chloride
protection of military equipment, food wrap
7. Teflon (1938)
non-stick pans
8. Polyethylene (PETE/HDPE) (1933)
Pop bottles, water bottles, packaging, film, toys, communication equipment
9. Silly Putty (1949)
10. Polystyrene (1950s)
Styrofoam, plastic silverware, egg cartons, fast food packaging, plastic model kits, video cassettes, televisions
11. Velcro (1957)
reusable closure
12. Polypropylene (PP)
Yogurt/margarine containers, prostheses, carpets car bumpers, medicine bottles car seats, caulking, toys, fridge interiors
13. Polyurethanes
Mattresses, cushions, transportation, furniture, insulation, ski boots, toys
14. Unsaturated Polyesters
Lacquers, varnishes, paints
15. Epoxes
Glues, electrical wiring coating, helecopter blades
16. Acrylics
Lighting fixtures, auto parts
17. Resins - Printing inks
18. Latexes - Carpets, paints
19. Urea-formaldehyde - Insulation, laminates
20. Synthetic rubber - Neoprene, fuel hoses, machinery, rocket ships, swim goggles
21. Fiberglass

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Sharkwater is an excellent film about the death of many sharks as they get tangled in fishing nets and the massive extermination for the delicacy, shark-fin soup. Warning - it's a very gruesome film (for what they do to the sharks). I'd be cautious about the students I show it to. To tell you the truth, my knees get weak at the silhouette of sharks above me in the water. I mean, photographs from that angle - not that I might actually be in the water with sharks. The film wasn't able to completely unbrainwash me from the grip of Jaws. I sometimes show it in Challenge and Change or in Civics.

I happened to catch the movie at the theatre the night Rob Stewart was speaking about how he made the film. He told us he was a cinematographer, not a film maker. He got a ride to a shark habitat on an anti-whaling boat, but got arrested before he ever made his destination. He kept the cameras rolling, and this film is the result.

He mentions that Paul Watson is commanding the Sea Shepherd. Paul Watson was an original member of Greenpeace, but separated, according to some, for tactics that were even too controversial by Greenpeace standards. Giving students the whole story there makes the film even more interesting.

Here's the handout I use to start discussion:

(Rob Stewart, 2007, 90 min.)


Sharks were here before the dinosaurs when there were only two continents. Killing them (90% reduction in the past 20 years) cuts off the head of the ecosystem. They are an important controlling agent. Plankton creates 70% of the oxygen of the planet. If sharks die, then the fish they would eat, the ones that feed on plankton, will flourish, and our oxygen will be affected. Life on land depends on life in the ocean.

Media and Money

People make money off sharks being dangerous; it’s good TV. We all love monsters because we love to hate. More people are killed each year by pop machines than by sharks. (And by crocodiles, elephants, cars, and starvation.)

Only the drug trade rivals shark fins for money. The Taiwan Mafia is wealthy enough to own private docks and buildings, and an entire neighbourhood in Puntarenas (the largest province in Costa Rica).

Paul Watson was a founder of Greenpeace. He left after conflict about his methods which include ramming into whaling and shark boats.

The UN has no rule-making authority over international waters. Nobody does.


Activists are necessary in order to stop letting people get away with things, or at least making them do their crimes in the light of day. Unless people devote their lives to solving the problems, nothing’s going to change. But we only need 5-7% of the population to make a difference.

We don’t understand what we are, conceited naked apes. In our minds we’re a divine legend, some sort of God who can decide who lives and who dies. The fact is, we’re just a bunch of primitives out of control. We’re in the midst of the third world war. The enemy is ourselves. The objective is to save us from ourselves.

"Social change comes from the passionate interests of a small group of individuals. Every major shift in the world, slavery, votes for women, civil rights, apartheid…, always from individuals with passion and energy to get involved. Individuals in non-governmental organizations passionately involved in protecting the ecosystems – that’s where I see some optimism. That’s where I see some things happening."

No species survives by ignoring the laws of ecology. We know what we’re during, and yet we’re allowing ourselves to do it.


1. Why do you think some people are willing to risk their lives to save others people or animals or the environment? What factors in a life might produce that kind of selflessness?

2. Why don’t governments stop shark killings internationally?

3. People get such joy in having power over those less powerful than we are. Domination feels good. Who could you have power over if you chose to, and can you restrain yourself from enjoying that type of domination? What’s more rewarding to you than the great feeling you could get from exercising power?

4. Comment on any other aspect of the film.

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Environmental Citizenship

This is a lesson I used to use in the Challenge and Change in Society class, but I had to drop many lessons once we took on MSIP. Now I often use it as the final assignment on citizenship in my civics classes. I have used it successfully at the fast-forward level. It's easy to get them going, and it's easy to evaluate. It's not strictly environmentally based, but it leans that way. (Sorry I can't get columns to work on here.)

Civics: Final Project Name_________________

In a 3-5 minute presentation, teach the class about one form of activism that you have explored in depth. Present the material you have gathered, then ask one or two excellent questions to provoke a class discussion on the issue.

This will be researched independently, and presented in class _______________.

You have three choices for this assignment (just choose one of the following), BUT you may do more than one (1, 2, or 3) for BONUS marks:

1. Protest in Music
* Choose a song that you feel advocates social or political change.
* Bring in a recording of the song, with lyrics on an overhead.
* Describe what the song is about; what is the artist advocating?
* To what extent is the song influential or able to incite change?
* Lead a class discussion based on the social/political change in focus.

2. The Power of One
* Research one person that has affected change through protest such as…
Julia Butterfly Hill, Kaisha Atakhanova, Stephanie Roth, Jane Jacobs, Carolyn Raffensperger Von Hernandez, Stephen Lewis, Maria Elena Farro, Corneille Ewango, Naomi Klein, Ralph Nader, Michael Moore, Maude Barlow, Judy Helfand, Craig Kielburger, your choice
* What did they do?
* What motivated them to try to change a problem in the world?
* Lead a class discussion based on the social/political change in focus.

3. Personal Activism
* Focus on a specific problem in our community right now.
* Create a thorough action plan to change this problem yourself and to
challenge other people to change the problem with you. The following
websites might help determine how best to begin developing a solution…
* Lead a class discussion based on the social/political change in focus.

Research / Explanation of the Issue: /10
Ability to Lead a Discussion: /10

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Lessons in Environmental Policy

Here's a quick lesson that can be used with the Transitions in Society textbook for a grade 12 Challenge and Change in Society class. The aim is to have students familiarize themselves with some of the language of social science, and at the same time learn about change in one piece of environmental legislation over whatever time span the teacher wants to use.

Challenge and Change in Environmental Policy

Research one local environmental challenge in society today to determine the current challenges of this issue such as....

urban sprawl, landfill sites overfilling, automobile use, wind power, nuclear power, ecotourism, organic food, pesticides, reducing consumption, urban sprawl, air pollution, global warming, endangered animals, environmental issue of your choice....

Some website of use...,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, Globe & Mail, Toronto Star, The Record,, and governmental sites

Read the case study on pages 95-97 to get a better understanding of the terms used here.


1. What is the specific dominant paradigm to be addressed in this issue? A dominant paradigm insists that we have a duty to create materials wealth to make this and future generations richer, and we have a right to dominate, change, or even corrupt the natural world in order to do so.

2. What is the specific alternative paradigm to be addressed in this issue? An alternative paradigm insists that society must place a higher importance on non-material values, encourage stronger communities built on better personal relationships, and act with greater respect for nature.

3. The dominant and alternative paradigms are competing realities or worldviews (or perspectives on the issue). What argument are most often used when the two opposing groups are bargaining for reality, each trying to prove that their paradigm is more accurate?

4. How would Structuralism-Functionalists and Neo-Marxists view this issue?

5. What forces are impeding or motivating change in this issue?

6. How has this issue changed in the past several decades (e.g. since the 1970s)?

7. In what direction is the issue changing?

8. What forces would be necessary to change this issue to a point of resolution (to solve the problem)?

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