Friday, February 26, 2010

Making Them Wait

To piggyback on my last post, years ago I saw a film on people on death row. The filmmaker had done a study on what makes murderers different than the average guy. The one characteristic he found: an inability to wait for deferred rewards. These are people who can't wait until payday; they want money this minute, so they rob someone. They can't wait to watch an ex-lover possibly live a horrible life without them in the picture, so they kill them. The filmmaker suggested that when we raise kids, it's vital that we make them wait for deferred rewards. If they clean their room now, they can have some TV time but only after dinner....

This has huge consumerist implications as people get sucked into the ads that tell them to buy stuff they don't need 99% of which is trashed within 6 months.  If we can get people to delay gratification, to stop and think when they see something they want before hitting the shops, then we can reduce the amount of crap in our landfills.  And it all comes back to Plato's insistence that the most important thing schools should teach is the skill of measurement - measuring the long term gains accurately against short term desires, something we're notoriously inept at doing.    

I tried the marshmallow test on my 5-year-old this morning. I happened to have two wrapped chocolates. I showed them to her and told her I'd give her one now, and if she didn't eat it while I was getting ready for work, then she could have the other one too when I came back downstairs. I unwrapped the one on the table in front of her and put the other in my pocket then folded laundry upstairs to pass the time.

I thought doing the experiment at home would make it easier on her because there were distractions at the table, and she was getting chocolate at 9:00 in the morning, which is a pretty big deal in itself. Surely she could make it the 15 minutes I made her wait.


She came up after 10 minutes: "Sorry, mama. I ate the chocolate. But can I still have the other one please?"

Oh, so polite and cute and tempting, but sorry, no.  "I get the other one," I told her.  She flipped and screamed and ran to her room threatening to never come out again.  Then she yelled out, "I didn't even eat one.  The cat ate it."

According to the original researcher, Walter Mischel, "What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control....It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”

Doomed to have low SATs and no social life, or is there a cure?  To what extent can we teach little ones, or anyone for that matter, how to think differently?  I never taught my first two how to cope with delayed reinforcement because they never needed teaching, which makes me wonder if it's all just in there, unable to be significantly altered by manipulative parents.  Researchers now are doing genetic tests and brain scans on the original kids to see if there's a physical difference between them.  The implications are that if it's primarily genetic, then some kids may not succeed as well as others despite our efforts. 

A google search of teaching delayed gratification finds religious sites and people advocating bread making and grass growing as ways to get kids to wait.  My girl can wait patiently for cookies to bake; that's not the problem.  She'd even be okay to not get the cookies until the next day.  It's not the waiting that's the problem as it is the self-control. And the marshmallow test adds a different dimension to mere waiting:  I have something that she can't have.  She didn't have the patience to wait, that's for sure.  But it was greed that overshadowed the exercise.  And the upshot of it all is that she didn't need self-control because she had the expectation of being able to control me, which speaks volumes.  She ate the first one, then came to me for the next one regardless of the deal we made.  To be fair, all the kids who ate the first one, still expected to get the second one.  She thought she had found a way to make the situation work for her.  Not having her expectations realized was an abomination in her mind.  She clearly needs to get less of what she demands!   

The researcher suggests the secret to self-control is "strategic allocation of attention." Instead of focusing on the marshmallow, they find a way to distract themselves.  This is a standard cognitive behaviour therapy tool.  But that doesn't really answer what the difference is.  That is, why are some kids better at distracting themselves while they wait?  Mischel suggests it's just a matter of controlling attention and focus and that practice is key.  Kids need to be made to wait over and over and taught tricks to help them get through the waiting like pretending the marshmallow is just a photograph in a frame or a cloud that will disappear if you touch it. 

Other researchers measured the ability of adults to control the contents of their working memory - the ability to direct the spotlight of attention so that our decisions aren’t determined by the wrong thoughts.  They found that as adults, the ones who could distract themselves from the marshmallow as children, were now able to suppress certain words from the memory on command, and avoid clicking on smiling faces better than the adults who jumped at the marshmallows as kids.

It's all an ability to work against instinct, to avoid food, remembering or friendly faces, all things we instinctively gravitate to.  The only way to defeat instincts is to pay attention to something else - an alternative stimuli.  And some people have a much easier time doing this than others.   

Providing strategies seems useful if kids are given strategies of a specific situation, but one problem for some people seems to be creating their own strategies at the crucial moment.  We can't have coaches following us around making suggestions to help us avoid a compelling immediate gratification. Furthermore, another component of this exercise is recognizing when you're in a situation where waiting is the best idea.  Two marshmallows over one, it's clear it's best to wait.  But what about a treat at the store that you want right now.  Mom says no, but why on earth would you want to avoid the treat?  What's better than getting what you want right this minute?  You're not getting a box full later if you don't beg for just one now.  You'll get nothing if you don't advocate for your right to a little self-indulgence.

Mischel suggests some self-control-building techniques:  "Have they established rituals that force you to delay on a daily basis? Do they encourage you to wait? And do they make waiting worthwhile?....Even the most mundane routines of childhood—such as not snacking before dinner, or saving up your allowance, or holding out until Christmas morning—are really sly exercises in cognitive training: we’re teaching ourselves how to think so that we can outsmart our desires."

I make my kids wait all the time.  The biggest annoyance is my refusal to use the dryer.  They have to wait for clothes to air dry, which just about kills them when a favourite pair of jeans is in the wash.  But how do you make the waiting worthwhile? I seem to be teaching them that waiting sucks, that the planet is more important to me than they are as their social lives are destroyed by their limited fashion choices each day.  What bigger rewards can there be to making waiting worthwhile?

Health?  More money in the piggy bank?  Less pollution on the planet?  Those are really long term rewards where the gain is so far off it's almost imperceptible to the naked eye.  It starts to work when you hit middle age and start to feel the pangs of age and start to calculate the ratio of years to retirement to money saved and start to want a better future for your kids.  But in the prime of life, something else has to be a reward.  It has to be social - like if people will like you better if you resist buying something.  But that typically works the opposite way.  People crowd around anyone with a new gismo.

This is it.  This is the key to everything.  Find a reward that people can look to, something to make it worth their while to distract them from mindless shopping.  Maybe suggest they should wait a day or week or a year before making any purchase more than a certain amount of money.  But what if that great bargain is gone by then?  That's the catch.  Industry doesn't want you to think; they want you in here today.  If we can recognize that tactic and refuse to obey, we'll all be much better off.  

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You Can Take the Girl out of the Church...

There's not many traditions that have stayed with my from my Catholic upbringing - I even do Christmas begrudgingly - but for some reason lent is one of them.  Ruth has a thought-provoking post up about lent teaching us to appreciate delayed gratification, and in it she refers to this experiment:

If you skipped the video, they've found that people who can delay gratification do better in life, and you can tell who these people are by the age 4.  There's many of these experiments on You Tube, and one thing that strikes me is how different 4-years-old can look and be.  Some of the gobblers seemed like they just needed another few months of life to get to a point where this might be possible. That being said, I think my 5-year-old would shovel it down before the experimenter left the room.  Maybe I'll try it on her tonight. 

This study has been used in creating what feels like a self-help book called the Time Paradox.  The only thing the book seems to have going for it from the ad is that author is one Philip Zimbardo, famous for his pivotal prison experiment in the 70s.

But the point of the experiment is, if we can teach our kids to wait, they can rule the world - or at least do a bit better in school and socially.  And I wonder how much waiting six weeks for junk food or TV or whatever we gave up as kids actually helped us along the way.  Six weeks is way longer than 15 minutes, but we had many distractions to take our mind off things. and we were all in it together.  And Easter's at the end of it all.  We didn't care for the hollow bunnies - giant bricks of chocolate was where it was at. We'd gather round and break off bits with a knife like savages with a long-awaited kill. 

My youngest is being raised very differently than the older two and from how I was raised.  I used to a parent with no TV and not even cookies in the house.  Now we have cable even, and chips and cookies are an everyday part of life.  My little one also has an extended family that indulges her every whim, and for me, I find it too hard to constantly battle consumerism with teenagers in the house.  If they don't get it here, they just hang out at someone else's house.     

I practice lent as a personal challenge myself, just to see if I can, to test my will power.  It's actually from February 17 to April 3 this year, but I haven't had a beer since January!  Wish me luck. 

I leave you with this video, and to wonder why no guys have long hair like this anymore - and how 'bout those shorts!

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

What Not To Do

Carolyn posted a list of ten surprising ways you're killing the earth without even knowing it. There's some things on it I hope most of us know are problematic, like using incandescent lightbulbs or disposable cutlery, or not turning electronics all the way off with a power bar, or not properly insulating the house, but it's amazing to me what people still don't know or don't want to know....

If you ran around changing all your lightbulbs to the new energy efficient kind, good for you, but be aware that they're toxic if broken because they contain mercury.  If you saw The Cove, you'll remember the children in it with mercury poison.  It isn't pretty.  This is serious stuff.  DON'T just start sweeping up like usual or the mercury dust will become inhaled by anyone in the area.  Energy Star has pointers on how to clean properly:  First open all the windows to ventilate the room.  Then use a piece of stiff paper or cardboard to pick up big pieces, and use duct tape to get all the little pieces and the dust.  Then use a damp cloth to do a final clean up, but throw the cloth away - don't wash it.  The link says you can put it all in the regular garbage, but after all that, I think taking it to the hazardous waste depot is a better idea. 

One that's really baffling me that Carolyn also mentions is washing clothes in cold water.  We really don't need our clothes to be boiled clean for sanitary reasons.  I've washed everything in cold water for years except for diapers.   I think anything with feces on them needs that hot water wash.  For anything else, hot water can actually set stains in.  There's a facebook site I keep getting invited to and ignoring:  I Do 30.   It suggests people turn their washing machines down to 30 degrees.  I'm assuming that's celsius, which is still pretty warm.  I don't know how to turn it down anyway; it's just always set to cold now.

And on the laundry note, chlorine bleach should never go down the drain because it's a pesticide that kills the good bacteria in the sewers, the kind we need to break down "solids" and grease down there.  I use hydrogen peroxide instead, but how white do we really need our clothes to be?  I expect that one's not going to shift any time soon because people really do need clothes extra clean to feel accepted in society.  You can't get ahead in this world if your shirt isn't as bright and shiny as the next guy's.   

Any other thing people should know about but don't??

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Carnival of the Green #215!

Welcome to the 215th Carnival of the Green. Last week it was hosted by Tracy at EcoStreet, and next week look for it at the Ethical Superstore.  Today, it's here, and it's a tricky bunch to categorize.  I hope nobody minds that we're all on a first name basis here.  It just seems friendlier that way....

Eating and Experimenting

To many people in the thick of it, environmentalism rests on a foundation of food.  What we eat, how it's grown or raised, how it gets to us, how it's packaged, and how it's trashed are questions at the heart of an earth-friendly lifestyle.

Camilla starts off by encouraging us to Plant a Garden for Healthier Children at Heathy Theory because, "...preschool children were over twice as likely to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables daily if they were homegrown."

Richard at Eco Living Advice offers 8 Ways to Reduce Your Eco Footprint When Cooking.  My favourite piece of advice is to eat raw foods because, "You’ll also save yourself all the time and hassle of cooking."

Jennifer at Is It Easy Being Green? focused on food in her No Impact Experiment, Part 4.  She's taking things a bit at a time, eating partly locally and with a goal, " go from eating vegetarian 1/4 of the time to closer to 1/2 of the time."  Very do-able steps.  I just recently finished the No Impact book after seeing the film months ago.  I wrote about that a bit at No Impact Man - The Book.  "Getting on board with environmentalism is more than switchng lightbulbs; it involves actively acknowledging the short time we each have here. 'We're all in a fragile state of denial.'"

After dinner, Renee offers up tips on Worm Composting at the Compost Tumbler Site.  Something I never thought of is that it, "can be used to process dog feces."  Separately and preferably not in the kitchen that is.

Relocating and Renovating

After they leave the nest, students can continue being green with Angela's 101 Ways to Go Green in Your Dorm Room at Online Degree Programs.  Most of the tips can be used in any home too.  I still prefer innovative student-style furnishing like this idea:  "Use an old door propped across files cabinets to a create a unique desk that is practical, inexpensive, and recycled."

Arvil explains why Green Homes Don't Need to Be Small at Green Home Design.  My office is a corner of the kitchen table, so I particularly like this bit, "You will need a bedroom for each family member. Don’t raise your eyebrows – everyone needs a private space to develop a harmonious personality."

And if you've got an eye towards enhancing your current home, Catherine suggests getting a water softener as Soft Water Could Be the Eco-Friendly Way To Wash:  "Washing in soft water creates a lather more readily using less toiletries - and gives a more thorough clean."  And some solar tools and gadgets might also come in handy.

Saving and Spending

While you're shopping for a reno, SVB tells us 8 Simple Ways to Save a Thousand Bucks at The Digerati Life.  Many money saving tips are also eco-friendly tips like using the library and, "...selling off or donating your used goods."

Erin at Conscious Shopper tells us how she made Easy Homemade Handkerchiefs from her "...husband's 100% cotton t-shirts."

At A Green Lady Blog, Beverly suggests that if we must smoke at all, The E-Cigarette is the environmental way to go because the, "...smoke given off by these cigarettes is a harmless water vapor."

Active and Activism

Scott transports us In Hiking in Norway:  The Adventure Road. "Norway offers a network of 20,000 kilometers of marked hiking trails, one of the largest in all of Europe."  That could keep me busy for a year or so.

Finally, ~JP~ explores the Role of NGOs in the Climate Change Debate at NGO Meter.  "Since you can't throw a stone in a city without hitting a pro-environment canvasser, it's clear that a host of environmental organizations are gaining popularity and clout; in a political climate that's more receptive to planet-protecting regulations, these organizations play a vital role in positively influencing public policy in favor of Mother Earth."  It's frustrating to me that we're still arguing over the cause of climate change; I'm glad there's places to turn to for support in these trying times.

Tweets and Twitters

US imports 20,000 primates/yr, 4X more than other nations. NC Network to reduce lab abuse?

That's all she wrote.  Don't forget to keep sending in your posts and check out Ethical Superstore next week!  If I missed anyone, or if you want to add a post, self-link in the comments.

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Transition Talks

I went to both Transition meetings this weekend.  It's daunting to go to things like this for the first time because you never know what you're getting into, but both were time well spent...

In Kitchener, I met with one guy, and we talked easily for a good two hours about peak oil and human behaviour and the political process and the prospects of hope.  It was nice to chat with someone who doesn't think my efforts are a colossal waste of time entirely.  We tried to get to the bottom of why people don't want to hear about this stuff, learn about it and act on it.

When I was on maternity leave, I confess, I had a mommy blog under an alias.  It averaged about 250 hits/day.  Even now that I haven't written on it in years, it still averages about 70/day just sitting there.  This environmental soapbox gets about 20/day and all my friends and colleagues know about it.  People hang on your every word when you're struggling with diapers and screaming infants.  They want those life stories partly, I think, for the voyeurism of reading an on-line diary, but there's more to it than that.  People in the same boat hope for a few answers and want to help others in the struggle.  They don't just want to be informed, they want to be able to add their own helpful advise.  If they don't have any insights or answers to a problem, they don't want to talk about it.

And when it comes to caring for kids, it's the immediacy of it that's important.  At 3 a.m., when the baby won't settle, you can read myriad blogs about other people with the same issue and know you're not alone.  We're all in this eco-disaster together, but it's not immediate enough.  Nobody's screaming in the wee hours because of it.  And people love when governments sooth them with claims of inconclusive evidence.  Heath Canada maintains we can safely eat teflon.  We can relax, and it'll all go away.  So hush already.

In Waterloo, there were about fifty adults plus little ones meeting and greeting.  I brought my 5-year-old to that one.  She didn't want to play with anyone else, and she really didn't want me to talk to anyone but her, so that was a trickier time.  It started at 2:00, and I didn't get there until 3:30, but it didn't really fill up until after 4:00.  There were lots of games to play that took me back to my childhood.  Some people had lovingly saved their old wooden dominoes, and there were a couple of crokinole games on the go.  And there was a dutch card game that I remember having as a kid but couldn't remember how to play.  

I considered making a salad for the potluck but bailed and went for Vincenzo's hummus and flatbread.  I actually worried that the organic foodies in the crowd would know if my produce wasn't the real deal!  The food was fantastic - all vegetarian or vegan, and I commented that people should put out little recipe cards for the taking at these things.  It was a mix of people of all ages, older men with large beards and younger with long dreads and everything in between and tons of kids.  I met many people either working on or with a PhD, and it struck me that maybe it attracts a university crowd, beyond that we have two universities in this city, because people are feeling impotent with just knowledge.  They want something to do with it beyond just telling other people bits of information deemed necessary in their classes.  

After the dinner people were going to chat as a group, bring in ideas and thoughts, and play some instruments together.  Unfortunately I missed it; my girl had had enough.   

The idea behind Transitions, as it was explained to me because I still haven't read the book, is that first we build up community and get people interested, then we get people working on ideas.  This is still supposed to be the building interest phase, but there's enough people already that they're going to start dividing into working groups.  The meeting for that is Wednesday at 7:00 at the church on the corner of King and William.          

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Earthfest How To

We're just starting to get ready for another OneEarth Earthfest.  It's a big rock concert of mainly student bands from KCI as well as a few from other schools and local performers.  If you want to do one this year, keep reading.  If you don't, then come to KCI's Earthfest 2010 on Wednesday, April 21st, from 6-10 at KCI's Auditorium!!!  Vendors welcome!...

We've held three concerts so far, so we're getting better at it.  Assuming you have permission from the school already (we got ours last June) and reserved a space to set up, right about now you'll need to find some bands to play.  I put out announcements in the school, and got students to facebook anyone they know to get the most options.  Set a deadline for demo CDs to be sent in - March 1st or so is good.  At the same time, try to line up vendors and community groups to sit at a table outside the music area. 

Spend a lunch hour with the club listening to the demo tapes.  Try to get a good mix of bands to play.  The band decision needs to be pretty firm by mid-March - then announce the line-up and be prepared for the people who didn't get in to want an explanation, and for at least one of the bands that did get in to drop out.  Also be prepared for huge upsets around who gets to headline.  Nobody wants to play in the first half of the evening.

Have a band meeting to find out exactly what equipment each band has or needs and if they're willing to share a drumset.  Not moving the drums for each band saves lots of time!  The first year we had 11 bands in four hours, so we set up a side stage, so one band started playing as the previous band ripped down.  Moving drums ten times would have been nutty.  Yet we had to once or twice for a few people very tied to their equipment.

Then advertise lots - posters in the school, at other schools, around the city, and call The Record, radio stations, and The Echo.  The first year we had this announcement playing over the P.A.  Get together with the club to make merchandise of some kind.  We hand-made t-shirts the first year and net about $1,000.  The second year we had t-shirts made professionally, and we lost about $1,000.  This year we're back to hand making stuff!

Make sure to book the site for the afternoon of the performance too so you can start sound checks about four hours before. Put aside some money to feed the bands before they play. It's just nice.

The line-up for Earthfest 2008:  McLovin', 15 Steps and Counting, Dew at Midnight, The Estatics, Moglee, Eh Wall!, Dirty Looks, Joe Balfour, Sneakthief, Fatal Flaw, and Vitiated, and for Earthfest 2009:  Jasmine  Drudge-Wilson, Sam Hilifer, Meghan Foley, Four Days 'til Morning, McLovin', Chinese Fire Drill, Great Scott, The Goliards, Knewrawtick, Robin Jupiter, Dew at Midnight, The Estatics, The Vitiated, and Killing the Legend.

The first year we held a second Earthfest outside in June at Victoria Park.  It was lovely, but poorly attended because of end-of-term assignments due, and therefore very expensive to run.  If you want to do that, you need to visit with the City of Kitchener and the Region of Waterloo offices for permits, and you have to walk door-to-door with fliers for all neighbours within a two-block radius of the park.  If you want to sell any food, that's a whole other kettle of fish and permits and training.  Be prepared for noise complaints.  Nobody tried to shut us down, but we heard lots of complaints afterward.  Waterloo Park has stopped allowing much at the bandshell because of the number of complaints there.  It's a shame we can't have more outdoor concerts in the city.  

Here's a montage of the teacher band set, the very first band at the very first Earthfest.  You'll soon see I have no sense of modesty - nor pitch.  I learned to play drums a week before for this one and only performance (around three minutes in).  But the whole point of the evening is to have fun and that anyone can play - even us!

Here's a much better band:   Dew at Midnight at Earthfest Outside in Victoria Park June 2008.

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EcoSchool Video

We made this video last year about this time, Torin Langen put it all together for us, and I finally got it working on-line!  It's interviews with staff and students about the environment and a quick look at how we're doing environmentally.

If the clip below doesn't work, check it out here.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Earth Day 2010

It all started back in 1970 as a universal reaction to photos that came back from the lunar landing.  Here's everything happening in or near the region for the 40th anniversary of Earth Day!  Check back from time to time.  I'll add things as I find them.  Let me know of anything out there to add! ...

Earth Day Events (or maybe way before) - it's in chronological order:

Saturday, March 13
From 2-7 is a Z-Day celebration at Wilfrid Laurier University.  It's a movement that started from the film Zeitgeist.  Click the link to learn more.

Friday, March 26
Earth Hour in the schools is Friday all day.

Saturday, March 27
Elsewhere (at home) Earth Hour is the evening of Saturday, March 27th from 8:30 to 9:30.  Kitchener City Hall is running events from 4-10 with live music.    If you want to have a table there, e-mail Darren.

The City of Waterloo is hosting a drumming circle at the bell. I was told Sunday 8:30-9:30, but I'm guessing they meant Saturday. Check the link as it gets closer.

Friday, April 16
The 20-minute Make-Over is officially at 2:00, but I'd suggest doing it for the last 20 minutes of the day.

Saturday, April 17
From 10-12 is the Tim Horton community clean up at Waterloo Park.  Is that ironic or fitting?

Wednesday, April 21
KCI's EARTHFEST 2010 is happening in the auditorium from 6-10. This is an annual evening of music, art, activities, and community tables. If you're in a band, or if you want to reserve a table for something earthy, e-mail me your information (

Thursday, April 22 - EARTH DAY
W.C.I. is showing Petropolis at their school. Contact Kari Olsen there to bring a class. I think we'll be going to that one if we can.

Grand River is organizing an Earth Day Environmental Fair of local businesses and organizations from 1-6 in the afternoon. Contact Scott Curtis for more info.

Friday, April 23
Huron Heights is showing the film Oceans at the Kitchener Empire Theatre on April 22 and 23 at 10:00 and 12:30. Contact Chris Charman if you want to bring a class.  There could be buses, but he's not organizing them.

Saturday, April 24
There'll be a Procession of the Species Parade.  You can join in if you like, or just come to watch!  We're in the process of trying to get a workshop to run at Earthfest to prepare more kids for the procession.

There's a Blooming Earth Festival at the Kitchener Market from 10-4.

WCI (300 Hazel Street, Waterloo) will be hosting its 2nd annual e-waste collection including computer waste, televisions, printers, modems, phones, pagers, cameras, radios, etc. Contact Kari Olsen for more info.

REEP and U of W are holding an Earth Day Energy Showcase at Kitchener City Hall Rotunda:  a showcase of speakers and exhibitors.  If you know of other companies or organizations who would be interested in this event please feel free to pass this information on or contact Michelle Chung at 519-888-4567 ext. 38485 or at

Friday, April 30
Sir John A. Macdonald is hosting FREE 2010, an outdoor benefit concert/film festival/art exhibit for Free the Children from 7-10 at night. It's $5.00 to get in. Bring your own chair.

Eastwood's IMPACT is running EcoArts Festival. This is a FREE public event with a theme of 'Conscious Consumerism'. They are accepting donations of used portable e-waste devices such as cell phones and ink cartridges. The event will run from 6-9 and include an art gallery and sale, raffles, t-shirt sales, live music, education booths, short films, an improv performance, and the feature film: The Age of Stupid.

Consider Nixon’s State of the Union Address in 1970, the year 20 million Americans attended Earth Day rallies around the country:

In the next 10 years we shall increase our wealth by 50 percent. The profound question is: Does this mean we will be 50 percent richer in a real sense? Or does it mean that in the year 1980 the President standing here will look back on a decade in which 70 percent of our people were suffocated by smog, poisoned by water, and deafened by noise. The great question of the seventies is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations, for we still think of air as free. But clean air is not free, and neither is clean water. The price tag on pollution control is high. Through our years of past carelessness we incurred a debt to nature, and now that debt is being called.

Let's make this year one to remember. For keeps this time.

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Transition Meetings

There's a meeting tomorrow night at 7:00 for anyone interested in peak oil concerns.  It's at the coffee shop on the main floor of the Walper Hotel (1 King Street at Queen) in Kitchener.  And there's a different Transition group meeting on Saturday afternoon at the United Church at the corner of King and William Streets in Waterloo.  It's a potluck (ee gads), with activities starting at 2:00, food starting around 5:00, and clean-up at 8:30.  I'm going to try to hit both....

Interested in being trained as a Transitions Movement leader? The Midwestern Ontario Regional Green Jobs Strategy will be hosting the next 2 training sessions coming to Ontario. They are looking at holding a Level One training in Guelph in May or June and a Level Two "Train the Trainer" session in July. They would like to get an idea who is interested in attending and if your preference would be weekday training or weekend training.

The current dates they are looking at are:
Level One - June 16, 17 and 18 (but there are other dates available in May during weekdays)

Level Two - July 2-4 (yes I know it is a long weekend, but we have a great session planned and your time spent with us will be enjoyable.)

Click here for more info on training.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

No Impact Man - The Book

"...There are two kinds of asceticism:  one that is a fundamental rejection of creation, the body, pleasure - in short, a rejection of being human - and one that, used temporarily as a tool, 'might just educate some of us well in regard to what is and what is not necessary, needed, or even truly desired.'"   Good words for the beginning of Lent.  I practice Lent even though I'm not Catholic because it seems like a good idea to try to get away from the pull of habits - just to see if I can.... 

It's striking how different the book feels from the film.  We show different bits of ourselves on film than we do in print.  He seemed a bit pushy in the film.  He had a goal that he was pursuing, and he was relentless in his efforts, struggling a bit when his wife needed him to bend for her.  I thought he was a bit of a jerk, and I was cheering on Michelle the entire film. 

I fell for him in the book.  It's more spiritual and philosophical and political than the film had room for.  It's funny and a heartening read, light but with depth.  But, like reading the 100-Mile Diet, it clarifies my suspicions that it takes someone a lot of time to make these kinds of changes.  It seems to be practically a full time job for someone in the household.  I'm impressed with myself that I can wash and hang my laundry to dry before going to work in the morning.  It's not going to happen if I'm washing clothes by stomping on them in the tub.  It also satisfied my curiosity around why, in the film, they never discussed the environmental implications of having a second child:  he wasn't allowed to.     

He hits all the big issues, but primarily consumerism.  "Where our trash comes from is sometimes more important than where our trash goes."  But where it goes, the Pacific Gyre for instance, is a huge concern as "100,000 sea turtles and sea mammals, a million seabirds, and countless fish starve to death each year after plastic blocks their digestive tracks".  After another meal with take-out containers that will never go away, he considers writing in one, "Dear kids.  Sorry about the turtles."

His philosophy is similar to Epictetus and Epicurus:  We have to recognize that wanting and getting, over and over, doesn't lead to happiness.  We buy stuff to impress people so we can make some friends.  But that's just silly.  Friends are important, but we can get them without stuff.  However, in the film they saw the boundaries to that line of reasoning as people stopped wanting to shake Michelle's hand.  They were shunned by a few people as they refused to maintain the norms of our consumerist society.  That's a big hurdle for most people.  Can we really care about the world more than we care about our own social status?  But the corollary is that, "We're too busy for love because we're working to get the stuff that the ads say will bring us love....If it's love we're after, how about we cut out the middleman - the stuff - and just hang out?" 

An interesting perspective on consumerism is that material is divine and should be treated so.  "Our problem is that we see the material as base and trash it, treating it as though it has no divine value."  If we could remember that it all has value at least because of the value of our resources, then we could stop using it so carelessly.  Easier said than done, though.  It's another paradigm shift we have to make in attitude.  We have to somehow remember this amid a sea of advertising bombarding us. 

Closer to the heart of the matter, he writes, is that we get awfully scared sometimes.  Scared of loneliness and death and suffering.  And the TV, books, newspapers, shopping, stuff... it's all a way to distract us from the tragedies of our lives.  Getting on board with environmentalism is more than switchng lightbulbs; it involves actively acknowledging the short time we each have here.  "We're all in a fragile state of denial.  We all know on some level that people eleswhere are starving to death and don't know where dinner is coming from.  Meanwhile, we go and spend ten dollars on a CD that we will listen to maybe three times.  That same ten dollars could have saved someone's life."

We don't know what will happen when we're dead, so it's hard to figure out the right way to live.  He mentions the nun Pema Chodron (who lives in Nova Scotia), and it's also the existentialist quest for personal meaning in our lives - authenticity.  We need to become comfortable with not knowing how it ends.  And the only thing that makes sense, according to Pema, is "grabbing on to the equally confused soul standing next to you and working together to help each other get through it."      

"Each of us as individuals needs to take responsibility for this world we live in.  We need to stop outsourcing our political power to politicians.  We all need to believe that we can make a difference....The job is simply this:  to live our lives as though we make a difference.  Because, paradoxically, when we imagine we don't make a difference, that is when we do the most harm.  The special interests have money on their side, but we have the people."

He ends the book in a way very similar to Suzuki's talk with the OneEarth club:  on our deathbed, we won't be wishing we had more stuff.  "I'll wish for only one thing....That I had been better at loving and not being distracted by stuff or accomplishment."

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What If There IS No Climate Change Problem?

This is for the growing number of people questioning the notion that we are causing a rapid increase in carbon emissions.  It's from the No Impact Man site.  I recently finished his book which I'll tell you about a little later. 

That's it!
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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Nestle, Aggregates, and Groundwater

Ecology isn't rocket science; it's much more complicated than that. - David Schindler

The Envirothon Team at my school was invited to an excellent set of talks about groundwater yesterday in Puslinch. It wasn't meant to be a debate, but it really could have been. It was rousing nonetheless. I'd put Trout Unlimited and Wellington Water Watchers on one side of the ring, and the OMNR, the Dufferin Aggregates Ltd., and Nestle on the other....

All the speakers were very nice and polite, well, mainly. The Water Watcher made it clear that Nestle had misrepresented some pieces of information, and that was exciting. But I'll get to that later. There were some important points made along the way about the environment and life in general beyond "alluvial deposits, thermal refugia, and frazzle ice."  This is just random ideas and facts I took away from it all.  Skip to the video at the bottom if you prefer.  (warning - there's some swearing in the video)

* What we can see isn't always a good indicator of what's going on.  Sometimes problems are created much further away from the effects.  We have to remember that we can't always see the whole problem we're working with.  Brook trout need a minimum volume of groundwater discharge to survive.  They can be swimming around and laying eggs, but their eggs won't hatch.  That an area looks nice is meaningless when nature is disturbed.  Making an area pretty again doesn't necessarily mean it's healthy or sustainable.  Looks deceive and one bit of disturbance in one area can seem to have no effect but end up having a huge and lasting effect in ways we can't easily perceive.

* We need areas where rainwater falls through plants into the ground instead of running off pavement into storm drains.  If you pave all the recharge areas, like Barrie did, you'll have problems later on that are really hard to fix.  -  I couldn't help thinking of the apartment going up down the street that got permission to ignore set-backs and is building right to the sidewalk.  If we refuse to learn from history, we're doomed to repeat it.  The worst is being a bystander, shouting from the sidelines but not being really heard.

* We need lots of aggregates (sand, gravel, limestone, etc.) to build streets and homes, and we will always need more and more roads and buildings, so the environmental impact has to take a back seat to this necessity; we're running out here .  -  But why do we keep needing more buildings and roads?  It seems to me their must be a time that we're finally finished, that we have enough.  What we need is to find ways to live without subscribing to the myth of the necessity of growth and make that paradigm shift to sustainable living.  We have to reduce our population, reduce growth, and live within our means - not just our bank balance, but our global resources.       

* My industry creates lots of jobs, therefore it's necessary. -   I know we all need to live and eat, but we don't need to have jobs in destructive industries when there are sustainable industries that could employ many if the government saw fit to promote them.  

*  The Harris government dismantled the Ministry of Natural Resources slashing almost 70% of the jobs there.  So significantly fewer people have to take care of the same amount of area.  When things are approved by the MNR, it doesn't always mean it's a good idea.  They just can't check up on every single issue the way they once could.  Yet they still need to find a way to enforce their own laws.

* The Wellington Water Watchers are responsible for giving free, unbottled water to Hillside, something that Ani Difranco commented on when I saw her there.  She wished her city was as progressive!  

* If you go on the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario's website, you can see if someone is asking to do something that might harm the environment.  You only have thirty days to comment and/or mobilize.  The Permit to Take Water (PTTW) system is like writing a cheque without knowing how much is in the account or how many other cheques have been written.  We don't know how much groundwater we have, so we probably shouldn't be giving it away.

* If we're not sure of the effects of our actions, we should take the most cautious position.  Always.

* London banned the sale of water bottles in city buildings, and Ontario took it to the table at least.  By tonnage, water bottles don't take up much space in the landfill, but by volume it's huge. 

* It's ironic that they served pop at an eco-conference and that many of the presenters' handouts were many pages single sided.  We really need to live our philosophies for anyone else to buy into them.     

* Bottled water label "spring water" is the most damaging to the ecosystem because, due to the rules around what's called spring water, they take it from the beginning of the system where it's easier to get at.  The result is this water doesn't run through the area the way it used to.  Something like that. 

Okay, here are some of Nestle's claims.  They didn't say anything I hadn't heard before:  We have the same amount of water as we did 10,000 years ago.  It just keeps on circulating.  We can't run out of water.  Niagara Falls alone is thirty times the volume of water needed by Canada.   Nestle is taking less than is lost by leaky water and sewer infrastructure.  Their rep insisted, "We wouldn't do something if it harmed the ecosystem - we just don't operate that way." 

Here's Maude Barlow's response to the myth of excess water: "The amount of fresh water available in the world is only one-half of one percent of the total world's water stock. And every year that needs to stretch to welcome another 85 million new people into the world. Yet we are depleting, diverting and polluting that finite supply at an astonishing rate.   Today 31 countries are facing water stress and scarcity and over a billion people lack access to clean drinking water. We know that 5 million people, most of them children, die every year from illnesses caused by poor drinking water. If we do not change our ways, by the year 2025, as much as two-thirds of the world will be living in either water scarcity or total water deprivation. This is the major environmental crisis of our time.  Ground water over-pumping and acquifer depletion are now an urgent problem in the world's most intensive agriculture areas. Water is being depleted many, many times faster than nature can replenish it. This means that instead of living on water income we are now living on water capital and we are facing water bankruptcy."

My two cents - taking less than is lost doesn't make it a good thing.  It's still taking something we need.  And we need even more because so much is lost to leaks.  And insisting over and over that you just don't harm the environment doesn't make it so.   And, heads up, a whole lot of the pollution in our water is plastic from plastic bottles.  The Nestle literature says, "Every time a consumer deposits a plastic water bottle in the recycling bin, it reduces his or her carbon footprint by 25%."  Ahh, every time we avoid buying water bottles at all, it reduces our footprints by 100% then?  And if nobody made them anymore, well, just imagine.  

Plastic can't be recycled; it gets downcycled with lots of leftover waste.  And where that waste goes is into the ocean where it gets into the food chain as it's eaten by fish and birds and animals and eventually by us.  We all have bisphenol A in our blood stream from plastic.  The amount of bisphenol A is directly linked to the rate of miscarriage in women.  Plastic is messing with our fertility.  But if you want to buy water in bottles, that's your choice.  It's a free world. 

After the talks we got to play with sticks and dirt which was far more educational than you might imagine.

This video is about the Pacific Gyre where all the plastic from land and sea blows, flows, and settles. There's lots of swearing; they're sailors. The video is part 3 of 3 parts. The first two mainly documents them trying to get there, but they do show the particles of plastics, the beginning bits, that wash up to shore and talk about how to deal with the amount of packaging just on the food they brought for the trip. This part is about 25 minutes long.

"How far can you go from people and not have to be wading through their shit?...If we basically ruined the ocean, what chance do we have with land, or with ourselves for that matter?"

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Teflon in the Food Chain and the Precautionary Principle

I was out with friends last night who wanted to know about the teflon issue, but find my posts so long they can't get to the end of them. Good to know. I'll try to keep this (and future posts) short and to the point. Try is the operative word there.

In a nutshell, the region is encouraging residents to re-use microwave popcorn bags as green bin liners.  In my previous post and in my letter to the city I included lots of sourced research from the FDA and EPA that the chemicals in the bags are 100 times as toxic as teflon coated pans, that it's readily absorbed, and that it seriously affects the liver and can pass through the placenta to a fetus..... 

I sent an e-mail to Brenda Halloran, and a reply came back with that e-mail attached from a representative of Waste Management that said this (disclosure warning be damned): 

"I have not seen any medical research to indicate that the inclusion of this item in the green bin is inappropriate or a health risk.... With regard to perfluorinated chemicals in general (including both PFOS and PFOA), Health Canada states that "exposure to PFCs in food is not expected to pose a significant risk to human health".....In addition to our own government's research, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in specific reference to PFOA, states that "there are no steps that EPA recommends that consumers take to reduce exposures to PFOA."

Okay, if you check the Health Canada link, the entire quotation is about PFCs that get in food from  packaging around the food not being a serious problem.  I question that, but even if it's the case that it's entirely safe to have wrapped around our food, putting the bags in the green bin means this stuff will become the growing compound for our food.  It's not quite the same use. 

If you check the EPA link, it's talking about "routine use of consumer products" not being a concern.  But mashing it up and spraying it on food is hardly routine use.  We're doing something new here that hasn't been tested for public safety.  And that link also explains why the EPA is studying the stuff in the first place:

"PFOA is very persistent in the environment, is found at very low levels both in the environment and in the blood of the general U.S. population, remains in people for a very long time, [and] causes developmental and other adverse effects in laboratory animals."

Everyone should be aware that it's very difficult for regulatory agencies to say something negative about a product with many manufacturing uses.  Industry will clobber them.  Give The Secret History of the War on Cancer a read if you want to learn more.  So they take their bloody time getting to a point where they say definitively that this product should be banned.  It's truly frightening.    

But there's this thing called the Precautionary Principle that we could go by instead of these regulatory agencies.  This states that, "When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."  It's being widely used in many applications worldwide because we just can't wait for scientists to say for sure how much exposure to whatever toxin is too much.

We don't need microwave popcorn bags in the green bins.  Nobody benefits significantly from using them in that way.  And I'm baffled that Waste Management didn't, after my first e-mail, just say, "Good point.  We'll suggest they stay out of the bin in future."  Instead they're trying to prove that there's really nothing to worry about.

This is a funny city.  And I'm sorry I failed in my mission; this is yet another long post to drudge your way through.  Congrats to those who made it!!

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Free Economies

In the comments at the previous post, Sue sent me a link to the freeconomy community.  It's a cool site out of the UK but active in 126 countries.  You sign up and list all the skills you have to offer.  Then you can swap skills with other people who can do something you need.  It's a barter system.  We have something similar in K-W called Barterworks.  And, in case you don't know, we also have a Freecycle - like KCI's Free Store but regional....

It's hard to tell from the intro information at the freeconomy, but hopefully it doesn't have to be a direct trade, because you might want my typing skills but have nothing to offer that I need in return.  If there's some points involved, then I can work for you, but get work done by someone else.  Or you could write me a note saying I did two hours work, and I could cash it in for two hours for someone else.  But using points and notes is kinda like using money then, isn't is.

Money's a pretty handy marker of trade.  The problem with money isn't the currency itself, it's the potential for mass accumulation.  That potential for gain makes little cash register noises in some people's heads (ca-ching!) and leads some clever types to find ways to spend less on production by, for instance, blocking unions, or outsourcing to areas with lax labour and environmental laws, or hiring only women and children who are easier to control and lock in factories for 16 hours a day, or (let's cut to the chase) using slave labour.

Using local currency, like some do in the Transition film, is a very cool way to get around the big business profit through exploitation issues.  It forces people to think, whenever they shop, about where their money is really going. 

On Marks' blog, he writes about criticisms and particularly this one:  You're not saving the world by doing this.  I get that all the time.  Thanks for the heads up.  The difference is he gets it from anonymous irate readers, and I get it at home and work by those who refuse even to turn off light.  Yet, like Mark, I persevere in trying to make others aware about toxins in the food system (I got an answer on this that I'll write about later) and in not being wasteful.  I've lived like this my whole life because my parents, born just before the depression, trained me not to ever waste anything even a little bit of energy from a single lightbulb.  When is wasting energy or resources ever a good thing?

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Doing What We Do in an Honourable Way

This is a lovely video of Julia Butterfly Hill who, years ago, lived in a tree she called Luna for over two years.  I came across this video at No Impact Man.  She speaks about the importance of not stopping war with war-like attitudes, about dissolving the artificial boundaries of us and them.  It made me think of Riane Eisler's Partnership Way and Martin Buber's I and Thou both of which I read way back in university. 

It's just a few minutes long, and it might change your day:

That's it.
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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Big Picture: Connecting

Check out what Eastwood's IMPACT group is producing.  It's gorgeous!

I like the tone of it, simple yet effective:   "Stop using plastic drink bottles. These things are ridiculously wasteful. An obvious alternative is purchasing a reusable water bottle, preferable stainless steel. Ban these plastic bottles from your house and life!"

Here here!

Each newsletter page is full of snippets of information easy to read and digest.  Cool.....

He's got the same goal as I had when I started this last May:  "The Big Picture is looking for help, and lots of it. One goal of this project is to connect together all of the organizations, clubs, and individuals that are focused on global environmental issues such as climate change and resource depletion. The point of this is to bring together leaders from all of these groups and ensure that we are working together towards a common goal of sustainability. Far too often, we are working on projects, with great intentions I might add, but very separate from each other. Banding together will enable a strong connections and promote steady progress. Always remember, it is the individuals and grassroots organizations that will truly drive change in this world.
We are looking for help on all levels including but not limited to writers, speakers, photographers, web designers, leaders of organizations, and individuals wanting to work together here in Waterloo Region."


Here's the funny thing.  Even though I occasionally e-mail links to posts to my neighbours and teachers at my school and teachers at EcoSchools across the region,  I still only have 12 readers, and over half are from California.  And I only had one community person wanting to add their own post on asbestos - not a huge issue for our students, but important for our world.  Then I tried to get three separate but very similar groups together on the official Transitions Ontario page for Kitchener-Waterloo so everyone in the city could easiliy find out information for every event happening here.  No bites.  Nobody from any of those groups even replied with a "no thanks."  Nada.  

It's curious that doing this work is so isolating - I often feel like I'm paddling a lifeboat in circles, yet people still seem reluctant to join together en masse.  I begged for ideas and articles and posts for a while, then gave up and turned this blog into a slightly more personal ranting arena.  I originally pictured having links to every school down the side with information on each, but Eastwood's the only one that has shared any ideas.  Is it that teachers don't want anyone to steal their ideas?  I don't believe it's the case that nobody has any ideas.  Even if they're only partially thought-out, they're still useful for others to consider and get some wheels turning.  Do people think their ideas aren't amazing enough to share?  Or is it that they're so busy doing so much, they don't have the time or memory or inclination to tell others in the EcoSchool group or here about it?  Is it because people are shy and don't want to meet other people?  Is it because they have a very specific agenda and don't want to get it watered down by too many issues brought in by too many people.?   Or is there some amazing network somewhere that everyone's on, sharing ideas, discussing issues, meeting for pints, and I didn't get the memo? 

I'm baffled on this one.  I hope that Adam has a good turnout; I know I'll subscribe to his feed.  We really don't have time for people to be competitive or unsure or busy or afraid or exclusionary.   Because, like he said, it's really vital that we connect and share ideas.  We need to learn from one another and try different tactics over and over to get people to sit up and pay attention, to change how they live, and to develop the chutzpah to speak up and speak out about political decisions that will destroy the world for future generations. 

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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Of Disposable Cups and Popcorn Bags, Of Cabbages and Kings

Okay, another post on green bins.  The lack of consistent communication at Waterloo Region's Waste Management facility is makin' me nuts!  It seems every time I call or e-mail or read another newsletter from them I get a slightly different message about what is and what is not allowed in the green bin.   Why do I care?  Because the "product" the green bin program produces will potentially end up used as a fertilizer on crops.  That is, we will end up eating the crap that goes in there.  It's heated to high temperatures which, in theory, kills off all the bacteria like e-coli from the dog crap and meat that we stick in there.  Sometimes that process is ineffective and people die.  And they can't take out toxins from plastics or other chemicals that aren't meant to be consumed. As Rose George writes, "The waste-water industry is intimidating...dissent is not encouraged....We are their lab rats."  Just so you know.....

As I said in an e-mail to our Mayor two minutes ago, "It feels like the region is barreling ahead with something without proper research in place. Some employees of the Waste Management are completely unaware of the composition of popcorn bags and disposable cups, and as such, seem to be making unwise decisions that could compromise the health of citizens of Waterloo Region."

Their recent newsletter encourages us to include disposable cups but not compostable corn starch bags, and suggests we re-use microwavable popcorn bags as liners.  So I asked for some clarification on each of these.

On Tim Horton's Disposable Cups

Weeks ago I was assured by an employee at the waste facility that these cups aren't allowed, but the recent  newsletter says they are.  Curious.  The representative that was nice enough to e-mail clarification this morning told me they ARE allowed because they're just made of paper:  There's a BIG confidentiality message at the bottom of the correspondence I received indicating no unauthorized disclosure (which I didn't notice before I forwarded it all to the mayor - whooops), so I won't quote directly, but suffice it to say Tim Hortons cups are fine to include in the green bins because they're made of boxboard.

The problem is, that they aren't:  "Tim Horton cups contain a plastic liner."  There's a Facebook group protesting the types of cups used even, so it's not like this is an obscure fact that could only be know by insiders.

In Waterloo Region, there are more Tim Hortons than Burger King, McDonald's, Wendy's, A&W and Harvey's put together. One garbage study found that 22% of litter in Nova Scotia was from Tim Hortons (compared to 10% from McDonalds). This is a huge issue.  Tim Hortons' will offer a small discount if you use a travel mug, but that's not having enough of an effect.

On Compostable Bags

If Tim's cups, which have plastic in them, are okay, why not compostable bags?   She didn't directly address my question about the rejection of compostable corn starch bags.  I think they should reject them, but what personally bugs me more than food concerns, to tell you the truth, is the inconsistency of what they take and what they reject.  I have a strong drive to understand things, to get my head around systems, and this one still seems nonsensical to me.  So it really helps to know they think Tim's cups are pure boxboard.  Then it makes sense that they're acceptable but the bio-bags aren't.

Except... the Tim's cups aren't recyclable because of the plastic in them according to Waterloo Region Waste Management.

Are we having fun yet?   

On Microwave Popcorn Bags

Here's where things get really scary.  I expressed concern over teflon in the green bins because doesn't everyone know microwave popcorn bags are lined with teflon?  Apparently not.  The rep was completely unaware of this.  Really the whole issue is that people don't read every single piece of news about environmental or health issues that comes at them or even the things I write about at this little forum.  Curious.

On C8 or Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) lining the bags.:  "Food and Drug Administration researchers said microwave popcorn bags alone could expose the public to 'hundreds of times' more C8 than normal use of nonstick cookware. The C8 is then ingested by the people eating the popcorn." Worse, I'd say, is eating the bag which will be ground up and mixed in with organics and potentially used agriculturally.

Studies show that PFOA is readily absorbed following ingestion, poorly eliminated, and tends not to be metabolized. As such, "PFOA enters the circulation and is primarily distributed and taken up by the kidneys and liver. Additionally, detection of PFOA in umbilical cord blood indicates that it crosses the placenta." In studies, "PFOA affected primarily the liver and can cause developmental and reproductive toxic effects at relatively low dose levels in experimental animals. It increased the tumour incidence in rats, mainly in the liver."

Take a minute to watch this video if you're not convinced:

Somewhat disbelieving, the waste rep suggested that my club should take on a project of verifying this information, but I don't think we need to verify it. It's in the news over and over. Dupont was sued when some of this stuff got in drinking water in the states. Now we're being encouraged to include it in the bins. This chemical cannot be extracted from the finished product (sludge) before it gets turned into fertilizer and is added to our food chain. I'm afraid if they do nothing to correct this, our little Waste Management facility will be complicit in increased the toxicity of citizens of Waterloo Region.

If you care about your health, please send an e-mail or two.  This is serious.

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Monday, February 8, 2010

Combatting Eco-Fatigue

When we did our initial waste audit this year, we discovered that fully half of our recycling and compost is going to the garbage.  People haven't been sorting their trash as well as they did last year.  So we're trying a few initiatives to combat eco-fatigue...

We were going to give raffle tickets to anyone we caught recycling or composting, but we were worried about the repercussions if we missed someone.  We have visions of angry environmentalists lamenting their lack of tickets.  So we ditched that idea.

Instead we decided to make quizzes to give to MSIP classes - a couple of really hard questions each day - and the winning class gets some homemade cookies at the end of the week.  Then the following week we'll do a great green challenge (like we did for the teachers) pitting classes against one another.  Winners get more homemade treats.

And we made this video that's playing at an assembly tomorrow to remind people what goes where:

I'm not sure what I did to make it have a border instead of being full screen. Next time I'll pay attention to that little detail. The trickiest part of putting this one together, after figuring out a new version of the software, was choosing the music. What would make teens of all walks of life pay attention and/or not be annoyed? I went with the Beatles.

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Saturday, February 6, 2010

Middle Class Guilt

Or, Can We Be Rich and Ethical?

"When the natural desires, the failing to satisfy which is nevertheless, not painful, are violent and obstinate, it is a proof that there is an admixture of vain opinion in them; for then energy does not arise from their own nature, but from the vain opinions of men." - Epicurus

As I was writing about my dream house and the prospects of having an extra smaller house in the backyard, visions of Haiti overshadowed it all. I'm middle class and have a lifestyle of excess, and I continue to live in a 1,000 square foot home despite the tragedies unfolding around the world. And I definitely think I have more than I deserve, but that's not enough for me to give it all up....

Sure I worked for it, but I didn't break a sweat the whole time I was writing essays for school. I worked a part time job throughout, but in a clean, comfortable environment. My fortunes are largely a result of luck. I was tremendously lucky to be born in a white middle class family in a city well-financed by insurance and inventions at a time of peace for this part of the world. It's also a roll of the dice that keeps me able bodied and relatively sane so far. I'd like to say that I've invested well due to intelligence, but that's really dumb luck too.

I sometimes question additions that go up in my neighbourhood because I was raised with five siblings in a house not much larger than my own and because I regret the one room we added when a third kid came along, but in the same breath I'll complain that I don't have an office at home where I can leave papers out and know they'll be there when I come back (sans drawings). My office is a drawer in the kitchen.
Comparing ourselves to others, judging those who have more, pride at doing without, fear of judgment from others who live with even less, all take us off the main road towards creating a world less dependent on petroleum, less obsessed with stuff, less toxic.

I was watching The Agenda the other night when a panel was talking about giving aid to Haiti.  Someone questioned why people didn't care about the place before the earthquake.  The obvious answer is that most people just don't know what's going on in other parts of the world.  I can't count how often I mention slavery on the cacao farms (chocolate) in the Ivory Coast to be met with head shaking and eye rolling because, "Marieee, slavery is illegal."  Therefore, it's implied, it doesn't happen anymore, and I must be a bit mixed up. 

But I don't think we can all really be expected to know what's happening everywhere.  There's 195 countries in the world all up to different things.  It's just too much to be on top of when you've got to work for a living and keep the house running and remember to call the principal back because your kid was late for school again.  So we pay attention when something big happens, and that has to be okay.  But once we find out, do we have an obligation to give up our savings, our vacation, or sell our new plasma TV to help?   

To be ethical is to be honest, fair, compassionate, respectful, and responsible.  The question with excess has to do with what's fair as well as what's compassionate.  Is it fair for some, like me, to have more than they need when others have less?  It's a justice vs mercy question.  I worked for my money, so I have a right to it, and yet how can I enjoy it when so many others are starving?

Often people equate the word rich with selfish as they picture a large house lavishly furnished.  But someone with little money can be selfish also, it just isn't as obvious.  Part of the problem with this dilemma is figuring out what lavish means.  A dictionary will tell you it means abundant or wasteful, among other things, but where's the line between excess and necessity?

I don't believe we need to restrict ourselves to nothing but one outfit, a cup, and a barrel to live in to call ourselves true environmentalists or global-thinkers or even unselfish.  Even Diogenes upgraded to Trumpus Tower when the need arose.  But is it reasonable that I have a fridge, or a living room?  Is it ethical to have space you don't use or a savings account or enough for a vacation when so many others have nothing?

Epicurus tells us a desire is necessary if the body needs it for survival and that unnatural vain desires are imprudent to satisfy.  But in our culture, social survival can depend on having a few luxuries.  So a few things become necessities socially when technically they're conveniences.  I can walk to the store for food daily instead of using a fridge for storage, but people would think I'm losing it.  So I think a few luxuries are, well, not necessities, but ethical to have particularly if there are kids involved who aren't prepared doing without.     

How much should we give of ourselves, of our money?  Some religions make is easy with a flat 10% rate for tithing.  But that's a drop in the bucket for some people and completely unaffordable for others.  Perhaps, once food, bills, and rent is paid, charity is the next step.  That'll at least work for people who haven't amassed a ton of debt over-consuming. 

I think it's okay to accept the life I have lucked into because it doesn't cause harm provided I keep my emissions down as far as possible, use few resources, and shop from ethical producers:  typically fair trade and union made.  But I also think it's necessary to help whenever we can and that that means sacrificing spending on self for spending on others.    

And a whole other kettle of fish once we get down to some action is how aid is being managed in Haiti. They had problems before because of French colonialists from way back and continued to have problems because of IMF policies.  Can we be sure money sent won't end up being collected as interest on loans?   You can fill out the form here to add your voice to those concerned parties.  It just takes a second.

Exodus 22:25 If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.

Usury at the time meant charging any interest on a loan. Funny how the Pope cares so much about man lying with man, but this line is never mentioned.

And so it goes.

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Little Houses

Yesterday's paper had an article on 100 square foot homes.  The current Style at Home* has a feature on a place six times that size, yet still quite tiny.  It's a cool move to get into smaller digs, and I hope it's a burgeoning trend.  You have less place to store crap, so you're less likely to impulse buy stuff you don't really need, and it's obviously a much smaller footprint in general.  Check out this place....

He doesn't even own land.  He's lived in a few different places, sometimes renting a bit of space.  So he pays maybe $6,000 for the building materials and can live wherever he wants.  That's very enticing to me.  Even though sometimes I get frighteningly claustrophobic (like when I'm sitting between two kids in the back seat of a Volvo for a 9-hour drive home from Quebec), I've always been really captivated by small spaces like this. 

Jay Shafer started building the little homes to try to solve the homelessness crisis after a woman died in a fire from a candle in a makeshift shelter.  He can make these homes very affordably.  And he lives in them because he wouldn't suggest someone live in something that he wouldn't live in himself.  He's been living in 100 square foot homes for over ten years.  And from the outtakes, I'd guess he's not living alone.       

The article in the paper wrote about using these tiny homes in the backs of a house for the kids if they want to move out but don't have the money for it.  I'd be more inclined to move into the tiny house out back and rent out my entire big house to my kids and their friends. Except I'd miss out one the one benefits of the tiny house:  it's harder for the kids to have big parties. 

Yet I see the biggest benefit of tiny houses as getting people out of the house more.  When people lived with extended family in ridiculously small spaces, they all went to the city center, or the market, or some other local establishment.  Or they went outside for a walk.  What a concept!   

We sometimes dream about a cottage to  live in after I retire, but we're at odds what it'll be like.  He wants it to be much bigger than our current home even though we won't have kids living there, like 36x36 with three stories.  I want something really tiny.  My fantasies all focus on innovative water and electrical system, if we can figure out how to collect rain in a black container higher than the house so we can shower with warm water, and where the batteries for the solar panels will fit...  The bigger it is, the more resources we'll need to keep it warm.  I've got twelve years to sway him over.       

*Reno magazines are another of my many vices.  Glossy paper, disposable, AND I could see it all on-line.  I used to be a full-on junkie and actually beat this habit of getting a "treat" for doing groceries for many years (when I noticed how much I was spending on them), but I'm eyeing up the upstairs bathroom now.  Mainly I just need new tile since a leak meant breaking a hole in the old tile a few years back.  This was my last relapse, I swear.   

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