Friday, February 24, 2006

Plan "C"

In TVOntario's award winning documentary, "The Greenhouse Effect", renowned climatologist Dr. Stephen Schneider is asked about what we should do to combat climate change. His answer was multiple choice.

"In science what we like to do is create a model that will enable us to see the impact of our experiment. In this case, we need to be able to measure the effect that various levels of carbon dioxide will have on our planetary systems. Since we can't exactly create a duplicate Earth, we have two other alternatives," said Schneider. "We can B) do those things that make sense anyway, like reducing emissions and cutting energy consumption, or C) we can do nothing and let the experiment perform itself."

Clearly, the right answer was B). Unfortunately, as a species we've made it pretty clear that A) we're really bad at multiple choice, and/or B) we weren't paying attention in class. Since Schneider's comments were made back in 1989, and carbon dioxide levels have continued to rise in the atmosphere every year since, we are all now stuck with C) letting the experiment perform itself.

As recent reports have clearly indicated, this is really not good. Unfortunately, it's way too late to pick up our Climate Change 101 credit at summer school. Earlier this week Jim Hansen, (who coincidentally was also featured in the 1989 TVOntario documentary), expressed his own mounting concerns. Dr. Hansen, who is the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, stated,

"A satellite study of the Greenland ice cap shows that it is melting far faster than scientists had feared - twice as much ice is going into the sea as it was five years ago. The implications for rising sea levels - and climate change - could be dramatic."

Unfortunately, when he tried to talk to the media about these issues, he was blocked by Bush appointees to the NASA public affairs team. It would appear that talk about dramatically reducing our greenhouse gas emissions might be bad for the oil business as well as the president's increasingly poor approval ratings.

But the joke (however bad) might be on the Bush administration after all. If Hansen is correct, we may already be at the tipping point. "The last time the world was three degrees warmer than today - which is what we expect later this century - sea levels were 25 m higher," said Dr. Hansen. He is among the increasing number of scientists who believe that rising sea levels may be even more harmful than the warmer temperatures that have caused them.

Even ABC news anchor Diane Sawyer joined in fray this week with her report on the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. While her predictions of a 21 foot (6.4 m) increase in sea levels aren't quite as nasty as Dr. Hansen's; the result would be the same - the inundation of many coastal areas. Since the majority of the world's largest cities lie on a seacoast, the Manhattan skyline (among many others) may soon experience a re-sculpturing that will make the fall of the World Trade Center look like child's play.

But that's not the beginning of troubles for Mr. Bush et al. Gulf of Mexico oil production could be seriously impacted by rising sea levels and the accompanying storms (Remember Katrina?)

Just when it looked like the news couldn't get any worse, a new report published in the respected science journal, Nature, says that rising carbon dioxide levels are also causing plant life to absorb less water. The result is a huge increase in run-off, which in turn dramatically increases the risk of flooding and mudslides. As if to reinforce the point, Mother Nature recently buried an estimated thousand people under 35 metres of mud in the Philippines.

Let's recap: Weren't paying attention in class; can't do summer school; catastrophic climate change is putting "an end to the world as we know it" and I really don't feel fine.

The good news is that there may still be time to cram for the final exam. If Hansen is right, we have about a decade to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions. This means focusing on energy efficiency and renewable energy. And since procrastination is no longer a personal option, this also means turn down your thermostat, park your gas-guzzling vehicle and learn what else you can do. Oh, and take swimming lessons. You might just need them.


Dr. Stephen Schneider's website

The Independent Online has a feature article with Dr. James Hansen.


Monday, February 20, 2006

Home, hearth and healthy

You may have seen the ad on TV. In the first scene, a young girl painfully whacks her head on a piece of furniture. Her horrified mother rushes to the kitchen, but she doesn't grab a bag of ice for the injured child. No, she quickly whips out the blender and pours milk over a package of frozen fruit concentrate. In an instant she has created a fruit smoothie for her sobbing child. Tears gone, belly full, the girl is better.

In the next scene, a young boy is carefully building a model plane on the living floor. His father walks across the floor, and accidentally crushes the boy's plane. Not to worry. Within just a few seconds, dad has whipped up a fruit smoothie for the sorrowful child. The boy's tears quickly turn to smiles as he sucks it up.

While this commercial is probably the most extreme example that I've seen to date, it illustrates a systemic and frightening cultural phenomenon. We medicate with food. If something hurts, we have smoothie, if we're sad, we eat chocolate, and if we're lonely, the only answer is a quick visit to our favorite fast food restaurant where smiles are free. This is perhaps why obesity, particularly childhood obesity, is at epidemic proportion in this country.

Medicating with food is about as ludicrous as shopping for entertainment. But if we're bored and want something to do, we head over to the mall to shop. (If you doubt this, observe the hoards of teenage girls who hang out in the mall in packs.) Even if we have the best intentions not to buy anything, the lure to consume is seductive. And after a few hours of cruising the stores, why not drop by the food court for a treat? If we feel a little guilty, how about a quick trip to the gym on the way home to burn off those calories on the treadmill.

Here's the thing. Hunger a normal biological response. It triggers the need to go and hunt for food before you really need it. It's also probably why everyone in my house gets slightly aggravated before a meal. Our instincts tell us that we should be elbowing ourselves into position around the fire.

Ditto with shopping. Boredom is a precursor to activity. It is a trigger to do something, not buy something. But like virtually everything else in modern society, we have externalized responsibility. Basic survival instincts like the need for food, shelter, heat and caring have all been replaced by consumer actions.

And then there's the growing fitness industry. Our grandparents didn't need gyms or personal trainers. They walked where they needed to go, and whether it was tilling the crops or doing the laundry, they worked physically to provide for themselves and their families.

They also wanted their children, and their children's children to have a better life. So here we are: the most affluent and physically comfortable society in history. We're also the fattest, laziest and saddest creatures that ever walked God's green Earth. According to a recent study by the National Institute on Aging, over the next few decades life expectancy could drop, for the first time in modern history, by as much as five years. The reason: inactivity and obesity.

While I'm not suggesting that the answer to our social ills is to go and live in a cave somewhere, perhaps what we need to do is become a little more self-sufficient. In ancient times, February was the time that we gathered around the fire to keep warm. Bored with winter and inactivity, our forbearers couldn't just hop in the car and spend the afternoon at the mall. Instead, they would gather together to shield against winter's last blast and listen to the elders tell stories. Each subsequent generation would memorize those stories to pass along to their children. In more recent times, verbal story telling was replaced with family readings, usually from the Bible or classic literature.

So, turn off the television, the video games and the iPods. Plug your ears to guard against the wails of your children, and gather together as a family and tell stories. Light candles, fireplaces and snuggle. If you're lucky enough to have grandparents who are alive, invite them over to talk about their childhoods. Dig out old family photos. If you really can't resist the computer, research your family's genealogy. And if someone is hurt or sad, try giving them a hug - not a hamburger!

RELATED WEBSITES consists of 4,000 pages of more than 40,000 free genealogy links for Canada, the US and Europe.

US National Institute on Aging

Statistics Canada

Friday, February 10, 2006

Nuclear Decision

Despite the fact that we live in a democratic country, most of us feel that our opinion rarely matters: that what we think, what we say, what we care about, isn't even on the political agenda. Even when we cast our vote, it often feels like it doesn't really matter unless the majority of others in our riding do the same thing, and then the majority of other ridings also support our political point of view.

But once in a while, a single voice can make a difference. For the people of Ontario, that time is right now. Our province is at a critical juncture. Our ability to produce enough electricity to meet our demands is dwindling. In recent weeks, the Liberal government's promise to shut-down dirty coal generating stations has been back-tracked because we cannot generate enough power to replace these stations in time.

Enter Canada's nuclear industry. For years, the industry has been carefully building its case to stage a comeback for nuclear construction. With coal being phased out (even later than sooner) we are being led to believe that our only option is nuclear.

It's important to note that the nuclear industry has used millions of dollars of our money as taxpayers (through federal subsidies to Atomic Energy Canada Limited) and as ratepayers (to Ontario Power Generation) to build its case to the public through its "Getting Clear about Nuclear" ad campaign, and through lobbying to the Ontario Power Authority (OPA). The OPA is the agency established to advise the provincial government on the best ways to meet the province's future electricity needs.

The strategy worked, at least as far as the OPA is concerned. When the agency released its recommendations to the province in December 2005, the centerpiece was the recommendation that the province invest $ 30 to 40 billion on new nuclear power projects. This, despite the long history of cost overruns, construction delays, poor performance and serious safety concerns at Ontario's nuclear plants. According to the newly formed, "Go Clean and Green" coalition, not only did these recommendations under-estimate the cost and risk of nuclear power, they also under-estimated the potential for energy efficiency and conservation to reduce the need for new power supplies, as well as the potential of renewable power to fulfill our energy needs.

The brazen push by the nuclear industry must be stopped.
From February 13 to 17, the Government of Ontario is hosting twelve one-day sessions to hear what Ontarians have to say about our future energy mix. The sessions will take place in 12 towns and cities across Ontario: Mississauga, Thunder Bay, Kincardine, Ottawa, Kingston, Kitchener-Waterloo, Sarnia, Oshawa, London, Toronto, St. Catharines and Sudbury. Each meeting will consist of an open house during the day and a town hall meeting in the evening.

Remarkably, the province genuinely wants our opinion on this. More importantly, our current energy minister, Donna Cansfield has clearly demonstrated her support for conservation. Having spoken with her on a number of occasions, I honestly believe that she wants to do the right thing. Unfortunately, she has an uphill battle on her hands. To date, the McGuinty government has only committed to a five percent target for renewable energy.

Show your support. Attending one of these meetings may very well be the most important thing that you do this year. If any of the locations is too far to get to in the evening, then take a vacation day. Our future depends on it.

Let me be very clear. I'm not using the term "future" in some nebulous, tree-hugging kind of way. The decisions made by the Ontario government will affect our ability to meet our energy demands, to remain economically viable as a province, and to provide a safe, sustainable future for our children and our grandchildren.

The arguments against nuclear expansion are substantial and are too numerous to list in this column. (I'd need an entire newspaper.) They have, however, been clearly articulated on the websites listed below. Please visit them. Become informed, attend an information session, or write a letter to the address below.

We all have a unique opportunity to let our voice be heard; to really make a difference. To quote Ronald Wright, "Now is our last chance to get the future right."


Go Clean and Green is a cooperative website sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund, The Sierra Club of Canada, the Ontario Clean Air Alliance and the David Suzuki Foundation. Dates and times of all meetings are listed on this website.

Greenpeace Canada

Individuals can also provide comment by visiting the Ministry of Energy, or by sending a letter to "Our Energy, Our Future", 4th floor, Hearst Block, 900 Bay Street, Toronto, ON M7A 2E1.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Sweet and Dangerous

Like so many other aging boomers, I struggle with the discomforts associated with middle age. Osteoarthritis has left me with creaky knees and stiff wrists, and too many years at the computer has kept my chiropractor in business trying to keep up with my various back complaints. None of this is life threatening; all of this I attributed to the aging process.

I have not gone quietly into this state of decay. For years I power-walked an hour every day. When my knees began complaining too loudly, I replaced pounding the pavement with peddling my exercise bicycle. I take the proper vitamins and supplements, try to eat right, and limit my alcohol and caffeine consumption.

Until very recently, my only real vice was diet cola. Almost every afternoon I would indulge my thirst for a (preferably caffeine-free) diet Pepsi or Coke with lime. It was delicious and guilt-free, or so I thought. After complaining loudly that despite my best efforts, my stiffness seemed to be getting worse, my husband Brian asked if I was still consuming aspartame and suggested that I might want to trying giving it up and see if things got any better.

The improvement was swift and dramatic. Within days I had better mobility and less pain. While I'm no doctor, the anecdotal evidence in my particular case was overwhelming. Searching the Internet, I soon discovered that despite the fact that over 200 scientific studies have confirmed the safety of aspartame, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that it isn't as safe as once thought.

Aspartame, also known as NutraSweet, has been associated with numerous medical complaints including headaches, severe depression, ulcers and even death. To find out more, I visited Dr. Janet Hull's website.

Dr. Hull holds a Doctorate in Nutrition and a Master's Degree in Environmental Science and is also an "aspartame survivor." According to her website, "Aspartame may trigger, mimic, or cause the following illnesses: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Epstein-Barr, Post-Polio Syndrome, Lyme Disease, Grave's Disease, Meier's Disease, Alzheimer's Disease, ALS, Epilepsy, Multiple Sclerosis (MS), EMS, hypothyroidism, mercury sensitivity from amalgam fillings, Fibromyalgia, Lupus, non-Hodgkins lymphoma and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)."

And there's more. A recent study published by the respected journal, Environmental Health Perspectives (November 2005) concludes that aspartame causes cancer in rats at exposure levels currently approved for humans. This confirms a previous Italian study that linked the artificial sweetener to higher rates of tumors, leukemia, lymphoma, and other cancers. Ouch.

All of this led to the introduction of legislation that will ban aspartame in the state of New Mexico. According to the Organic Consumers Association, the bill, known as Senate Bill 250 and House Bill 202 would, "allow the state to regulate poisonous and deleterious food additives in the interest of public health. A successful bill of this type could set a powerful precedent for the whole country."

Aspartame is currently found in 6,000 products and over 500 pharmaceutical preparations worldwide, and is the only artificial sweetener approved for use in all of four major markets in the world: the US, Canada, the European Union and Japan. It's comprised of two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine. (The later led to my husband's suggestion that I lay off the stuff. Twenty years ago I suffered an acute allergic reaction to phenylalanine.) And while phenylalanine is found naturally in protein-containing foods such as meats, grains and dairy products, the 1976 edition of Grolier's encyclopedia states that cancer cannot live without phenylalanine.

The question becomes, if the evidence is so controversial, how did aspartame get approved in the first place? The answer, apparently, is linked to politics and power, at least in the US. (Aspartame was approved for use both in Canada and the US in 1981.) According to, "Aspartame was approved in 1981 over the objections of the FDA's own scientists, when Donald Rumsfeld, former CEO of aspartame maker Searle, called in his "political markers". Since that time, the FDA has been stonewalling adverse reaction reports on the sweetener."

Saving the political implications of all this for another day, the bottom line is that when there's smoke inevitably there's fire, even if it's the sugar-free kind. More importantly, my not-so-aching joints tell me aspartame is one thing I'm much better off without.


World Natural Health Organization

Sweet Poison

Environmental Health Perspectives

Aspartame Information Center is an industry-sponsored website that explains much of the science behind this controversial artificial sweetener. Note: consider the source.