Friday, June 26, 2009

Enjoy Yourself - It's Later Than You Think

It's been so beautiful out, it's hard to stay inside to blog (or study for exams I imagine). But James Lovelock and Jeff Rubin are both predicting the end of the world as we know it, so I thought I'd comment.

Rubin's claims all focus on the peak oil theory. I totally bought into peak oil until I read Greg Palast's book Armed Madhouse. He's got some pretty convincing evidence there that we're not nearly at peak oil, including that Hubbert made his claims because he wanted to support nuclear energy, and that the oil companies want it to be believed because if oil's a rare commodity, the prices can be higher. If that's the case, then Rubin is playing right into the oil company's hands. But if we ARE about to run out, that's not such a bad thing for the environment.

If the powers that be believe we'll run out sooner than later, maybe they'll get on the wind/solar bandwagon. I know wind/solar can never work (for our conveniences) without a back-up system, but if wind/solar is widely used and subsidized, and outrageously expensive and rare petroleum products are just used as back-up, then our GHGs will be reduced dramatically.

Lovelock has a more pressing concern. He says we're at the point that we can't decrease climate change through any human innovations. Monbiot said we have until 2040 before we get into a "positive feedback" loop that's inescapable, but maybe the Mayans were on to something after all.

Lovelock believes temperatures aren't going to gradually increase, but will jump four or five degrees in a few years time, making food production difficult everywhere as people try to adjust to new climates worldwide. Most of us will die from starvation and wars leaving only a few million in the wake of it all. There will only be a few habitable places left, and Canada is one of them. And when the US decides to move up here, I don't predict another 1812. This time the Americans are a more formidable force, and we're not so well aligned with the first nation groups as we once were (and we've also ensured they're not the force they once were - good thinking).

In the Globe's article listing off all the doomsayers along with Lovelock, Maude Barlow's not even mentioned, and for decades she's been insisting the next wars will all be about water. Right now about 20% of the world has little or no access to clean drinking water. But they're not the important fifth, so we don't talk about it much. And she's been concerned with the US invading us for our resources for quite a while too.

And in Dark Ages Ahead, Jane Jacobs, the urban design guru also lacking a mention in the article, shows how similar our circumstances are now to life just before the fall of many other civilizations. The difference now is that we have a global civilization. It's not just one part of the world that will fall apart - it's the entire system. And key to this is a culture that is prevented from realising the extent of the deterioration of fundamental resources that we all depend on. If we are running out of oil or polluting enough to make GHGs self-perpetuating, we're not feeling it fast enough. Most the people I know have the A/C on even though, for the most part, it's not necessary, it's just nicer. Give us convenience or give us death.... It's not really a choice anymore now is it.

Ah, but people have predicted the end of the world over and over, and they've been wrong. Things do seem to be on their way to a collapse of some sort, but at the very least, I'm happier with Obama at the helm than Bush. I don't suggest we arm ourselves against a potential invasion, but cottage prices way way up north are looking better every day. Perhaps we should get off the grid before the grid self-destructs. Just in case.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Water Water Everywhere...

I'm speaking to the school board next week on bottled water. The board wants to ban it from sale in the schools, but a trustee or two is filing motion to stop the ban for fear that students will turn to pop and "juices" instead and become obese and/or diabetic. They're proposing a comprehensive plan concerning bottled water use that might involve a lengthy, time-consuming committee development, implementation, and yadda yadda yadda.

Here's some of my ideas in point form that I'll split up with a student speaker.

The Switch to Pop Theory

Students in our school have shifted significantly and easily from bottled water to tap water in stainless steel water bottles. By selling the bottles in many styles and then offering them as prizes, most students seem to have a re-usable bottle. In fact it seems to be a bit of a status symbol or fashion statement. You're old school if you still drink out of disposable bottles. We also held a water taste test, and most students were shocked to find they prefer the school's tap water to two popular brands of water that have been shipped from who-knows-where and sat on shelves for months.

Next year we intend to get a water dispenser that will sit in the cafeteria, unplugged, and filled with tap water. This will increase water drinking even more as many bottles can't be easily refilled from a water fountain. If we want students to drink water instead of pop or juice, we just have to make water more accessible and free! If we want to really make sure kids only drink water and not pop or juice, we can also ban pop and fruity drinks sometimes called juice.

The Profits Conundrum

Schools make a tidy sum on vending machines. It really is a shame that schools can't fund sports and clubs with public money but have to rely on corporate sponsorship, bake sales, and pop machines. We don't want students to drink pop, but we need the profits from the pop machine. Isn't it funny that the board wants to ban water bottles, before it looks at pop. I'm pretty sure it's not because water in plastic is less healthy than pop in plastic, but, obviousy, because water sales don't hit the heights of pop sales. It's a smaller hit to take. I have no solutions for this. I don't think we'll make enough profit on apples and salad to fund teams. Any ideas?

Water Problems

Both Coke (Dasani) and Pepsi (Aquafina) have admitted that their water is from a tap. It's not special water from a spring. But we should be happy about this because in the film FLOW (For the Love of Water), it's made clear that bottled water is almost entirely unregulated, and municipal tap water is, in most cases in this part of the world, highly regulated. In 2003, almost 10% of food poisoning cases in the UK have been linked to bottled water. It won't be until December 1st, 2009 that it will finally be illegal to have any E. coli contamination in bottled water, and bottlers will be required to test their water weekly. From now until December, you're on your own.

Bottle Problems

Nothing should be consumed out of soft plastics that can be crushed with one hand. Soft plastics leach several toxins like BPA, and even hard plastic is coming into question. Remember when all pop and condiments and everything came in glass? Glass can be recycled more efficiently, and it doesn't add crap to our food. Yes, I also remember broken glass all over the place, so now we're into stainless steel bottles which don't break and don't leach.

If anyone has other reasons to stop the stopping of a plastic water bottle ban, let me know, and maybe I can strengthen my position by Monday. AND if you've got points in support of selling water in school, let me know that too. Then I'll know what I'm up against!

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Monday, June 8, 2009

Urban Beautification

This is the greening project the horticultural class did at our school this year. It's a stage area for classes - drama, music, or just a teacher dominatin the space - surrounded by grass, trees, and shrubbery. The view is from the top of the hill looking down. It's a great place to bring a class to read or discuss an issue. We're doing presentations right now, and unfortunately many students are stuck on using power point, so we can't work outside.

Here we're sitting in the audience with a lovely view of the back of the school. By way of contrast, here's the new city square created to draw people in to sit for lunch and create community. It's
got a lovely view of an above ground parking lot.

Mayor Brenda Halloran claims the square "will be a real focal point." Without a water feature, I'm not sure what the draw will be besides occasional musicians. But will people want to hang out in the sun? Apparently there will be some trees coming, and someone will be paid $80,000/year to organize events on an on-going basis. So it might all be wonderful after all. This photo was taken at noon on a sunny Saturday and the place wasn't so much a hub of activity as a desolate wasteland. But there will be time...

And here's the riffraff (he's my riffraff) that starts hanging around when there's no groundcover to jam up the wheels: And here he is with the piece of urban art in the background:

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Sunday, June 7, 2009

How To Compost in a School

Several people have asked how I compost all the school's organic matter. They're worried about rats and smell and vandalism and many other what-ifs paralyzing them from action. We just did it, and it was much easier than I thought it would be.

The Bin

The bins the region sells are way too small to be effective. You're much better off making one. I happened to just tear down an old balcony made of cedar boards, so I had the perfect building materials. Our is about 8' long by 5' wide, by 4' deep. It has two separate lids that are hinged. The entire thing is surrounded by chicken wire that goes into the ground a few inches. I would have put the chicken wire on the inside, but the composter got used by other staff before I had a chance. If you can put it on the inside, put the chicken wire across the entire bottom instead of just in the dirt a few inches. Make sure there's spaces between the boards to let in air and rain. The only benefit of the chicken wire on the outside is you can grow morning glory up it.

We keep the bin in a sunny area at the back of the school where students don't hang out much, but it's close enough to get to with buckets of food. My one and only complaint is that in the winter, when the parking lot is cleared, the snow all gets shoved in front of my path to the bin. I often end up climbing a good five or six foot mountain of snow, in a dress, with buckets of garbage. Some people prefer vermicomposting because they don't have to go outside to do it. I like going outside. And, for me, there's a learning curve to tackle with the worms. (And I'm not convinced they'd eat as much waste as we produce.)

If you'll notice, there's no little access door at the bottom to dig out the finished compost, but I find that system encumbersome anyway. I much prefer, just twice a year, to get my rubber boots on and get right into the compost pile to stir things up or get out the "gold".

The Buckets

We have seven pails, well labelled, around the school to collect organic waste. They have signs on them and above them that say exactly what can and cannot go in the buckets. I started with buckets that are similar to our bottle recycling buckets, and ended up with a lot of bottles in them. So I searched out green buckets instead. Students have asked us for more buckets in the hallways, but they're not supposed to eat in the hallways. That's a bit of a conundrum. If I put buckets there, they'll be used, but will I be condoning the hallway eaters?

If you're worried about the buckets attracting mice, I found a mice-away product at the hardware store that, apparently, farmers keep in their tractors so mice don't move into the seats in the winter. It's safe for indoor use (unlike mothballs), and looks and smells like a little pouch of lavender. It might be just that. I tape them to the outside of the buckets so whatever's inside doesn't contaminate the compost.

BUT, the mice and bug issues aren't real concerns because we dump and clean the buckets every night. This literally takes me 10-15 minutes. And we have to stay in the building for 15 minutes after our last class contractually anyway, so I may as well make myself useful. I grab the big bucket from my office, take it upstairs to the staff room, get my washcloth wet and a little soapy, then dump the smaller green buckets into my big one, wipe out the buckets, and move top to bottom. Then I dump the big out outside, wipe that bucket, and return it to my office with the dirty washcloth hanging over the edge. I get my stuff and go. The compostable garbage doesn't sit in the school any longer than the regular garbage, so it shouldn't attract pests any more than otherwise.

I'd include the posters and labels here, but blogger completely messes with the formatting. And I'm a luddite. But you can be creative about it. Basically they say COMPOST to fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, bread, rice, pasta, coffee, tea, and anything that grows in the ground. And GARBAGE to plastic, paper, metal, meats, dairy, eggs, and anything that comes from an animal. I don't worry too much about salad dressing on salads. There's not a high enough percentage of it to make it a problem.

The Process

To keep the bin outside from attracting pests, I layer the waste alternating between food scraps and yard waste. I keep a garbage can full of yard waste beside the bin. I've discovered, if you're going to do this, that it's a good idea to put a few small holes in the bottom of the garbage can so water can drain out if it starts decomposing before it hits the compost bin. The horticulture teacher tries to keep me in yardwaste, but I sometimes run out. So, where I live, on my street's collection day, I've taken to bringing neighbour's yardwaste to my school (with their permission of course). I can return the paper bags to them right after dumping them, so it saves on that waste too. Adding yard waste is key to keeping out rodents and stopping potential odours.

So every night after I dump the compost, I grab a few handfuls of yardwaste to cover it. Then I close the lid, and Bob's yer uncle.

I fill one side of the composter only, and so far, even though sometimes it threatens to hit the top, it decomposes fast enough that it never actually fills up. The sides aren't separated by any barrier, but they could be. After the last exam in June, I'll stir the mess up, shovel solids over to the other side of the composter, and dig out any compost into a wheelbarrow to be put whereever the horticulture teacher wants it. And on Labour Day weekend, I'll be in to get the rest of the compost out to be spread around, nourishing our gardens.

Time and Material

So altogether, you need a bake sale to buy supplies or a scrap boards and pails drive. You'll need 3 - 8' 2x4s for the bin, all cut in half, and 6 - 8' 2x4s for the lids. Planks - 12 - 8' boards for the front and back, and 6 - 10' boards cut in half for the sides, and 10 - 8' boards cut in half for the lids. Don't forget the hardware (deck screws and four heavy-duty exterior hinges), and a roll of chicken wire. You also need as many pails as you think you'll use, paper for posters and labels, and packing tape to stick the labels on the buckets. And mice-away packets if you're worried about that.

To build the bin, a group of handy students could make it in one or two classes if they're well organized and each group has someone who's used a drill before (a long-shot I've discovered), and you've got access to several cordless drills. Do the front and backs first. Lay down six 8' boards, then lay three 4' 2x4s on top, one on each end and one in the middle. Screw the 2x4s to the boards. Meanwhile, have another group working on the lids. Lay the boards down, and the 2x4s around the edges with one more on the diagonal. Screw those together. Then get the 5' planks (10's in half), and screw them to the ends of the back piece. Stand it up, and screw the side boards to the front. HINT - build it wherever it's going to be put permanently. It will be heavy to move once it's done. And it's nice to work outdoors.

Get kids inside the composter with staple guns laying the chicken wire on all sides and across the bottom. Get other students to attach chicken wire to each lid. Screw a 2x4 to the back edge. Set the lids in place and attach the hinges. I've never described how to build something before, so I hope that makes sense. E-mail me if you've got questions. If you're getting your class to do this, take pictures for the yearbook.

It takes one lunch period to label and put out the buckets. It takes a few weeks of morning announcements. After that you need 15 minutes a day to dump buckets, and an hour or so twice a year to dig out the compost. That's it!

Since I don't have a class that I can do this kind of curriculum with, I built the composter myself one Saturday. At first I had students dump the buckets on a rotation, and I'd just check them at the end of the day. But they sometimes forgot, and knowing I was their backup, they didn't worry about forgetting enough to start remembering! So it became faster and easier for me to just dump them myself. The buckets can never be left sitting overnight or someone will get upset and shut it all down. Also, I can do it without gloves then wash my hands. If students are handling garbage, they should have gloves on - which is an added waste. Finally, at my school, it wouldn't be safe to have them climb that mountain of snow in the winter. Teachers are more expendable.

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Saturday, June 6, 2009


The region's schools participated in EcoFest today and yesterday. We ended up with a gold standing which feels great after all the work we did this year. We also got an award for our display out of all the secondary schools. The gold sticker on our plaque was well deserved. We knocked ourselves out all year long. The display award - not so much, but we're grateful to be recognized anyway.

We made a montage of most of the events we held during the year. When I got there, I was amazed at the caliber of the primary school displays. We couldn't hold a candle to what the little ones do, and I was glad we weren't competing against them (especially after seeing them with all their fingers crossed as they announced the awards). Just to look a little better, I started adding stuff to ours in marker, like muscled stainless steel water bottles stomping on a plastic water bottle and these birds saying "Don't cut down my tree. Use hemp!", "Save my home - stop wasting paper.", and "Do you really need a copy of this? It's my house!"
Besides the display board, two of our kids performed a song loosely about the environment, but not specifically related to our club. Well, during the performance, one line was supposed to be about our club saving the day. But they just wrote it recently, and they couldn't quite remember the line, and it was the day after prom, so instead of "OneEarth Club" the singer sang "Obama." Whatever works. Because I went to the trouble of borrowing a videotape machine, then totally forgot to use it, I taped them playing the corrected version later. I can't upload quite yet; I'll add it later.

Today I brought my family there for the face painting and animal show and a live albino snake "necklace." It was a great place to ask lots of questions, and I think I understand how corn-based compostable plastic can actually biodegrade now. But I'm still wary of using green bin sludge on agriculture.

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Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Myth of Necessary Growth

My region is considering selling off fourteen green spaces to developers. This is just after the city decided to allow a high-rise developer to ignore the bylaw that requires 30% of the land to be landscaped. Instead, the developer can build almost right to the sidewalks and put a few containers of plants on the rooftop. And once again, we're going to destroy a beautiful old building to create a standard-issue tower to add to the urban uglification. I said more about the problems with that here, and wrote to the local paper, but the city voted in favour of the massive tax revenues anyway. Money over reason?? Shocking.

Growth is not the same as progress. Counselors insist that the region must grow to survive. But for us all to survive, we need to focus on sustainable living, not growth. Adding as many people as possible to an area seems to benefit the local economy. The city gets the taxes and the businesses get the consumers. But more people create more waste and use more roadways and drain more water from our system. There's diminishing returns once we hit a certain capacity. I don't know what that number is, and I wish I did. But I'm quite confident it's unwise to fill every square inch of land with concrete. What's necessary is to learn when it's enough, when we have enough people to keep the area stable, instead of adding more and more bodies to increase profits of a few.

We just got a new "public square" installed in front of Waterloo Town Square. The original plans called for water features and landscaping. They couldn't fund that entirely, so we're left with a huge cement and steel area with some public art that they installed to appear more urban, but leaves everyone in this tiny city baffled and angry.
I can't find the price of the art anywhere. Funny that. There's a drawing of the 2.8 million dollar space here, but it doesn't do it justice. If I get a chance, I'll snap a photo and add it later.

Some trees line the edges, but the center is barren concrete baking in the sun. There's no tables, and most importantly, every time I'm there, there's no people. There's no reason to sit for lunch. It's a wasteland. The only people who love it seem to be the skateboarders, and there appears to be a cop assigned there for the sole purpose of chasing the teenagers away.

If I had the equipment and know-how and chutzpah, I'd love to rip a hole in the center of the square and plant a huge maple. Then there'd be a place to sit in the shade, and a focal point to look at from the benches. As it is, we can sit and look at traffic until we're blinded by the sun's glare off the blocks.

People need natural areas. We need trees and organic lines and flowering bushes surrounding us. We need it aesthetically, but we also need it for our habitat to flourish. We can keep cramming people in by paving farmland and parkland, "surplus" land, but to what extent will we thrive in an inhospitable environment? And how soon before the old large town/small city dwellers start to move on, leaving Toronto-wanna-be behind? A city with many high-rises but no history or culture or community isn't worth squat.

I was wavering between the Joni Mitchell original and the Green Day cover, so here's a compromise (of sorts):

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Fonzie Says: Helping is Cool

I was reading a study on helping that found that children as young as 18 months old will (almost literally) knock themselves out to help people. If you drop a pencil, you want a toddler nearby - they'll snatch it up and hand it to you like they're passing you the Olympic torch. Nothing's better than helping.

Then what happens? Because by the time they're in their mid-to-late single-digit years, for most, helping has lost its appeal. I think it has something to do with our subtle social pecking-order. The people who always do extra, who get up to get stuff while others sit and get waited on, those helpful types are often, very subtly, knocked down a notch. Now if you drop something, and someone rushes to pick it up, well, he's kind of a loser. A chump. A sucker. And by the time they're teens, if you can get someone to pick something up for you, then you own them. Refusing to help becomes cool.

I watch this mind-set as I try to persuade people, adults mainly, to make the tiniest of changes. But if they do it to show support, they might get lumped in with my kind: the lowly worker bee. And we're all going to die anyway, right? Why bother double siding paper when Obama's new cap and trade bill has a target of 4% below 1990 GHG levels, and Heat suggests we need targets closer to 90% lower. Really, what's a piece of paper going to do for us. But of course, it can be hard to remember how little changes can make a difference.

So then it becomes a game of sorts to convince people to make an effort in order to make themselves look good - maybe because they can improve the status of our school or save their department money. Then they don't really have to do much as long as they present the appearance of doing something. But what would be really handy is if somehow helping out regained some status. Then people would scramble to copy less than anyone else or turn off the lights first or pick up garbage someone else left behind.

Except that, unless it's a sporting event, trying really hard is kind of
dorky. If you toss some garbage on the ground, which one of these guys is more likely to pick it up?


Being cool is all about not caring. Apathy has been edgy for decades. As soon as Fonzie started working hard to finish school, he lost it. The glasses and shark-jumping were overkill. Even just saying "school is cool" downgraded him.

The rewards of saving the earth are too far away to affect our current behaviour. And maybe it's too late anyway, or maybe technology will save the day, or maybe everyone else will work on it so I don't have to, or maybe if I don't think about it too much it'll go away and stop scaring the bejeebers out of me. So we're down to cash and honour to motivate the masses.

Unless we can popularize an uber-cool attitude: I care so much less than anyone else that I'll pick up garbage, not for the environment's sake, because I don't care about that, but just to show how little I care if people think I'm a nerd.

Any other theories on why people just don't care and/or how to shift behaviours stuck in neutral?

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