Friday, October 28, 2005

Reality TV

Watching the latest natural disaster of the week, it struck me that in a strange and sickening twist, life has begun to imitate art, (or at least prime time's version of art.) Since Survivor's first season, the viewing public has become obsessed with what can loosely be referred to as "reality television." The ratings have spawned a whole new generation of programming and a new award category at The Emmys. Having recently watched the taping of one such "reality" program, I can attest to the fact that what the viewers lap up as "real" is actually carefully scripted entertainment.

By contrast, Mother Nature has been providing us with a weekly dose of hard-core reality. The fall line-up began with the City of New Orleans being drowned by Katrina's wrath. The next disaster was the much anticipated, but slightly disappointing, Rita. As if Mother Nature sensed a drop in the ratings, cameras were switched to Central America, where thousands were buried alive in mudslides. October's rating sweep continued with the devastation of the earthquakes in Pakistan. As coverage and viewer attention began to wane, we were brought back to the Western hemisphere, and the mother of all storms, Wilma.

Each subsequent disaster has fought for the public's attention, sympathy and donations. With millions now homeless, it seems inconceivable that those who remain unscathed (and glued to the tube) could possibly provide enough relief for all those whose lives have been shattered forever.

Or so I thought until I watched a seemingly unrelated news story on ABC. According to the report, Americans spend more than $ 18 billion a year on diet pills. The figure was both staggering and oddly familiar.

It took a few moments of cruising around the web to realize why $ 18 billion seemed such a landmark. It is only slightly less than the $ 19 billion experts say it would take to eliminate world hunger, and slightly more than the $ 17 billion that Europeans and American spend each year on pet food. (I also discovered that we spend another $ 20 billion on ice cream and other frozen desserts, and a staggering $ 35 billion on bottled water.)

There is something fundamentally sick and disturbing about all this. As novelist William Gibson wrote,

"The Future is here, it just isn't evenly distributed."

Despite all the advances that we have made as a society, despite the freedoms we have won, the wars we have fought against poverty and disease, the world is in some strange ways even more polarized than it was during the reigns of history's greatest tyrants. At least a despot can be deposed and revolutions can topple evil leaders. But where do we start the revolution when the enemy is us?

Thanks to The Millennium Development Goals we have a place to start. At the turn of the new millennium, the leaders of 191 countries agreed that we have the resources and the political will to eradicate the extreme poverty, hunger and disease that kills millions of people each year in the poorest parts of the world. The leaders set 2015 as the target date to achieve these goals.

"We will have time to reach the Millennium Development Goals," said UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, "but only if we break with business as usual."

I couldn't agree more. After all, we live on a finite planet, with finite resources. Each day those that have (that's us in what's loosely called the Developed world) take from those who don't. Sadly, ironically, it is the have nots who are also most affected by Mother Nature's greatest natural disasters.

I am reminded of the words of 19th century theologian and writer, J.H. Jowett. He said, "The real measure of our wealth is how much we would be worth if we lost all our money." Imagine our worth if didn't lose our money, but shared it with those who have none.


The Millennium Project

The Hunger Project is a strategic organization and global movement, committed to the sustainable end of world hunger.

William Gibson's edgy and prophetic writing can be found at William Gibson Books

For more on the works of J. J. Jowett visit Classic Christian Books

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A worm's eye view of the world

"It may be doubted whether there are many other animals who have played so important a part in the history of the world, as these lowly organized creatures."

Charles Darwin

Every living thing on this blue green planet is food for something else. Even we humans, who foolishly embalm our bodies and then encase them in wood and steel coffins, eventually end up as dinner for some microorganism or another.

This isn't as yucky as it sounds. It's actually very reassuring. We live in a closed ecosystem. Since there isn't any new real estate opening up on the market, it's a good thing that every living thing ultimately is reclaimed and reused. Imagine the pile of corpses of every kind that would add up if it nature didn't recycle. According to The Amazing Flygun website, "If a pair of flies mated and all it's descendants lived and bred without any losses to predators, then within one summer season there would be a million, million, million, million flies. That would be enough flies to cover the whole of Australia 11 metres deep in flies." Glad I live in Canada.

The bad news is that we adults have become so efficient at making our waste somebody else's responsibility that embracing the idea of rot has become a major yuck factor. Why else would we gift wrap our garbage each week before we put it out at the curbside? Even curbside composting programs shield us from actually coming in contact with the remains of yesterday's dinner, thanks to the newest generation of biodegradable bags. Just scrape, tie and drop in the little green bin. No physical contact required.

Kids, on the other hand, love yuck. Rotting anything is a source of fascination for them. I recently discovered this first hand while accompanying a couple of dozen Girl Guides on a nature walk along a beach. They joyously brought me the bleached spine of a long-dead fish, the larger vertebrae of another, and an almost dead Monarch butterfly that had been rescued from the water.

This fascination with nature's lifecycle is precisely why Larraine Roulston, a veteran recycler, journalist and grandmother, has crafted three wonderful books about composting. Roulston is one of the very few people I know who actually walks the talk. A few years ago I attended a board meeting with her and she brought along a portable composting bin. While the so-called waste management experts at the table scoffed at the idea, I was amazed by her courage of commitment. If the rest of us were more like Larraine, Ontario wouldn't be facing its current garbage crisis.

Roulston's trio of books feature Pee Wee Worman, a compost dwelling worm, and his friends, Sammy Sowbug, Mini Millipede and Verme the Earthworm, just to name a few, along with a group of school children, Nancy, Scott, Mathieu and Naseem. Through the magic of Roulston's writing, the children and their non-human friends are transported to Castle Compost where they have great adventures together.

Roulston describes, with childlike clarity and honesty, nature's most basic cycle:

"Compost is more than a fertilizer, more than a soil conditioner," writes Roulston in "Pee Wee's Family in a Nutshell", the third book in the series. "It is a symbol of continuing life."

While the books are designed for children, their message is clearly one that adults need to embrace.

"We've been taught it's unhygienic to touch this stuff and we should just throw it away," writes Paul Taylor, Compost Management. "Instead we have to learn to see organics in a positive light and as a source of our soil's fertility in the future."

To that end, each book contains a glossary, easy to follow instructions on how to compost, and a list of other resources. Completing Roulston's desire to minimize our impact on the earth, each book is printed on recycled paper and uses vegetable-based inks. In addition, a portion of the proceeds from book sales goes to support recycling initiatives in Ontario.


"Pee Wee and the Magical Compost Heap", "Pee Wee's Great Adventure" and "Pee Wee's Family in a Nutshell" can be ordered from Larraine Roulston's website, Castle Compost . The books are very reasonably priced ($ 15.00 for the complete set) and volume discounts are available.

Vermicomposting (or composting with worms) is a great way to compost indoors year round. Indoor composting also provides an excellent learning opportunity for teachers and students. For more information about vermicomposting, or to purchase your own red wiggler worms and indoor vermicomposting bin, visit Cathy's Crawly Composters

For more amazing "Fly Facts" visit
Amazing Fly Gun

Monday, October 17, 2005

Waste Reduction Week

October 17 to 23 is Waste Reduction Week in Canada. Despite our best efforts to reduce our waste through recycling programs, Canadians still rank as some of the biggest garbage producers in the world. The problem is that as fast as we figure out a way to recycle one kind of waste, we are introduced to a new generation of consumer products. These new products create more waste that also requires disposal of some kind.

It's a vicious cycle. In order to break it, we need to revisit the 3Rs of waste management. They are, in order of importance, reduce, reuse and then recycle. I'd like to put "rethink" and "refuse" at the top of that list.

We live in a society of excess. We have more, do more and eat more than any previous generation. The result is that we are the most overweight and indebted generation in history. According to Australian economist Clive Hamilton, this gross consumerism is driven by a need to grow our economies.

"But how does the economy achieve growth in a time of abundance, when everybody has what they need?" wrote British journalist William Leith. "By making them want what they don't have, of course."

Consider one of our most trendy accessories - bottled water. I was sitting in a coffee shop last week, when a man approached the woman sitting at the table next to me and began handing her a glass of water. Before he could place it on the table, she waved him off in panic.

"Not THAT kind of water," she said. "Bring me bottled water, please!"

While her somewhat dazed partner went back to the counter to fulfill her demands, I had to ask her, "Why bottled water?"

The woman explained that she never drank water from the tap, even at home, because water sits in the pipes a long time and she heard that there might be lead in the pipes. I was tempted to ask her just how long she thought water sat in plastic bottles, but I thought better of it when I realized that I was carrying my own bottle of water with me, (albeit one that I had refilled several times from my kitchen tap.)

For generations we all drank water out of the tap without so much as a second thought. Suddenly, all that has changed. As Maude Barlow writes in "Blue Gold: The Global Water Crisis and the Commodification of The World's Water Supply", bottled water has become one of the fastest growing (and least regulated) industries in the world. Global volumes have grown from 300 million gallons in the 1970s, by Barlow's estimates, to a staggering 40 billion gallons in 2004, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation. The majority of this water (an estimated 90 percent) is contained in plastic bottles, all of which have to be disposed of.

Only about half of these bottles ever find their way into recycling programs. But even these bottles aren't recycled into new ones. The problem is that the melting temperature of these plastics (mostly polyethylene terephthalate or PET) isn't high enough to destroy bacteria, so the recovered material is "down-cycled" into other consumer goods such as carpets and insulation. Virgin plastic is required for each new bottle of water that we buy, contributing to the estimated one trillion pounds of plastic that we produce every year. Keep in mind that plastic is made from oil, a non-renewable resource.

And then there's the economic cost associated with buying bottled water. According to the American Water Works Association, one bottle of water costs about the same as 1,000 gallons of tap water delivered to your home faucet.

And that's just bottled water. Multiply this by the thousands of new consumer products that are introduced every day to boost the corporate bottom line and it quickly becomes apparent that uncontrolled consumerism is not sustainable.

Consider the success of single-use products. In just a few years, everything from single-use dusters to single-use toothbrushes have become must-haves for consumers, while creating a billion dollar industry in the process.

We have to be smarter than this. So in honour of Waste Reduction Week, I think it's time to stop, rethink our priorities and then refuse to buy into gross consumerism.


Waste Reduction Week

The International Bottled Water Association

Maude Barlow's booklet, "Blue Gold: The Global Water Crisis and the Commodification of The World's Water Supply", is available online at Council of Canadians


William Leith's book, "The Hungry Years: Confessions of a Food Addict" (Random House, 2005) is a brilliant portrait of how excess is ruining our society and our health.

Monday, October 10, 2005


Thanksgiving is a time for gentle reflection and appreciation; a time to give thanks for the bounty of the Earth and to acknowledge our great fortune to live in this country of seemingly endless resources. For my family, this has traditionally meant celebrating with a Thanksgiving feast of vegetables from our own garden – broccoli, potatoes, squash, carrots, corn, onions, beets, swiss chard and tomatoes.

This year, our dinner will be largely courtesy of the local farmers' market. Living in the country means being dependent on a well for our water. The long hot summer (which continues as I write) has meant restricting our water use to the bare necessities such as cooking and personal hygiene. Watering our garden, when it needed it the most, was out of the question. The result is that only a few straggly tomato plants survived long enough to produce any fruit.

What would have been a life-threatening disaster for our ancestors is only a mild inconvenience for us because we still have limitless food resources. The farmers' market provides a wide assortment of locally grown fruits and vegetables. And if our tastes go beyond seasonal produce, we can always visit the local supermarket and bring home a global bounty of exotic tastes: starfruit and kiwi from New Zealand, Chinese pears and pummelos from the Far East and bananas and plantain from the Caribbean.

All of these delicacies may cost a little more this year, because of increasing gas and oil prices, but they are still well within the budget of the average Canadian. And therein lies the problem.

What happened with our family garden this summer is a microscopic taste of things to come. Unfortunately, we have yet to make the connection between what kinds of cars we drive and how often we drive them, and the changing world around us, despite the mounting evidence.

Already this year we have seen the disastrous impacts of climate change: the heartbreaking damage of Hurricane Katrina and shear magnitude of her cousin, Rita, are just a few examples. What happens when future storms wipe out the citrus groves of Florida, or forest fires destroy vast tracks of fruit trees in Canada's Okanogan Valley? What happens when the waters used to irrigate the cash crop fields of California and Mexico dry up?

Back before the turn of the century Ismail Sergeldin, vice president of the World Bank, made a chilling prediction, when he stated,

"The wars of the next century will be about water." At the time, most took Mr. Sergeldin's comments to be about water scarcity, but as recent events have clearly indicated, they can also be about too much water, too fast.

Last week we received yet another caution about the impact of climate change. Scientists attending the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Arctic Division Science Conference in Anchorage heard alarming reports about how climate change is threatening species at a rate unparalleled since the last ice age, which ended some 10,000 years ago, while erosion is whittling away at coastlines and destroying communities.

But that's thousands of miles away, just like effects of Hurricane Katrina, just like the brush fires and mud slides in California, just like the tsunami in Sri Lanka. It can't happen here. Right?

This weekend, as we sit down to our Thanksgiving meal, I will give thanks not only for our food, but also for the farmers who battle increasingly difficult odds to produce it. I will also give thanks for the home that we live in, and the grace that has allowed it to survive almost 180 years. I will say a prayer for those less fortunate; those who have already been displaced by the effects of climate change, lives lost, homes destroyed. I will also pray that our eyes be opened to the dangers that we create for ourselves, and for the wisdom and the courage to actually do something about it.


For more on the AAAS conference, visit The University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

The Alaska Climate Research Center provides up to date information about the changing climate trends in the state.

The BBC has posted a collection of before and after pictures that demonstrate how climate change has already impacted our environment. Search for "Changed Earth."

Monday, October 03, 2005

Garbage Wars

Earlier this week I awoke from a terrible nightmare. I dreamt that it was 1988 again, and the provincial government had given the GTA (i.e. Toronto, Peel, York and Durham), the right to expropriate land for its garbage. People were desperately trying to save wetlands, family farms and greenbelt areas from being turned into garbage dumps, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. It was horrible.

The problem is, I was not dreaming. Ontario's Ministry of the Environment is currently considering a report that would allow GTA municipalities the right to dump their waste in Ontario landfills that are currently off-limits. The report, which was commissioned by Toronto and neighboring municipalities, also recommends re-examining the possibility of re-opening closed landfills like the Keele Valley dump in York Region. The report has been kept secret since February because of the anticipated backlash from potential host communities.

Supposedly, these re-opened and re-expropriated landfills will only provide interim waste management. Most municipalities are working on long-terms plans to manage their garbage. However, given the current environmental assessment rules, it will be at least 2012 before any of those plans is translated into concrete options.

The situation moved from serious to critical last week when in a 105 to 3 decision, Michigan's House of Representatives approved legislation that would allow the state to ban the GTA's garbage with only 90 days notice. While the federal House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate need to pass legislation that would empower states to manage their own garbage, the clock is ticking.

For the city of Toronto, which only has a two-day holding capacity, this is a huge problem. Unfortunately, this is even a bigger problem for the environment within dumping distance of the GTA.

The tragedy in all this is that this could have been prevented. Seventeen years ago, what was then Metropolitan Toronto began the search for new landfill capacity. Concerned that it was running out of time and options, Metro Council adopted Report No. 11 of The Works Committee that outlined the city's process for siting an interim landfill. Of primary consideration was the recommendation, "to apply for an order under section 29(a) of the Environmental Assessment Act which would exempt the acquisition, expropriation, excavation, construction, operation and retirement of the proposed landfill site and ancillary facilities from the requirements of the Environmental Assessment Act."

What made the city's desire to exempt itself from any environmental assessment so heinous was that the city also planned to evoke the provincial Metropolitan Toronto Act that gave it the power to expropriate lands around the province to accommodate its needs. Locally citizenry around proposed dumpsites revolted. What followed was seventeen years of a perverse game of "dueling dumps" including the on-again, off-again Adams Mine.

It's now seventeen years later, and we are no closer to a solution. The problem is that we can't seem to understand the problem. Our attitude toward waste is both systemic and endemic. Our western civilization is built on the fundamental idea of the disposability of things. As quickly as we can expand recycling programs to free up landfill space, we introduce new streams of garbage to take its place. Consider how quickly we embraced the newest generation of single-use disposable products. In only a few years consumers have made this a billion dollar industry. If we are ever truly going to manage our waste, then as a society we have to embrace the 3Rs hierarchy that puts reduction and reuse before recycling.

Procrastination has its price. The minute that the very first bag of garbage hits the streets of Toronto and has no place else to go, then all gloves are off. Garbage ceases to be a perceived environmental problem and instead becomes a very real and present danger to public health. Environmental planning and assessments will fly out the window and 750,000 tonnes of Toronto's garbage (along with an additional 250,000 from other GTA municipalities) will be spread far and wide across the southern Ontario landscape, regardless of whether or not the environment is threatened.

By making garbage somebody else's problem, we have done this. Let he who has not made any garbage throw the first bag of trash.


The Grassroots Recycling Network