Friday, March 31, 2006


Several years ago I discovered a book in the delete bin at an airport bookstore. It was written in 1978 by French novelist and mathematician Jerome Deshusses. Its title, "The Eighth Night of Creation", appealed to my awakening ecological self, and I hoped that I might find its contents of interest.

I was not disappointed. Its first chapter, "Gehenna", changed both my understanding of traditional religious teachings and my worldview. In light of our ongoing struggles to find an appropriate way to dispose of our garbage, and with Easter only a few weeks away, it seemed appropriate to share Deshusses' observations.

A lot of the world's religions promise eternal reward or punishment for how we handle things here on Earth. In the Christian faith, heaven is where the best of us will spend eternity. Hell, we're told, will provide endless torment for those who don't fare quite so well. But whatever the destination, we've been led to believe that our ultimate fate lies somewhere in the future, beyond death.

According to Deshusses, it turns out that when Christ of the Gospels talked about Hell, one of the terms He used was Gehenna. Over the centuries we've made this word a general term for torment, but it originally had an exact meaning. Gehenna was the name of the garbage dump that was nestled in a deep valley outside the walls of Jerusalem.

Needless to say the dumps of Christ's day were a far cry from the sanitary landfills we engineer today. Gehenna was an open pit, infested with rats and reeking with decaying food and human excrement. The bodies of executed criminals and other undesirables were also dumped there. When the pestilence that fed on the dump began getting out of hand, the entire thing was set on fire. But even the fires of Gehenna didn't purify - they sent billows of reeking smoke over the entire city, spreading disease and death.

Small wonder that Christ used the word Gehenna when He was trying to convey what eternal damnation might look like. It was a powerful image that everyone could relate to. But I think it goes one step further. I think that we can make our own heaven or hell, right here on Earth.

So instead of taking that image and that lesson to heart, we've done what we do best. Ignore our waste and hope it goes away. We've taken the idea of stewardship and turned it into dominion. Most of us act like it's our God given right to make as much garbage as we want. Sure, we'll be accountable for our actions someday, and hopefully, that day will come after were dead. It's the ultimate cop-out.

Two thousand years later, the dumps are still filled with the discarded remains of our civilization. Instead of being filled with rats and unwanted corpses, we now cast our radioactive and chemically hazardous wastes away with little regard for the consequences. But like the rotting wastes of ancient Jerusalem, sooner or later the mess we're making of this planet will catch up to us.

That day is fast approaching. Sure we've paid lip service to the idea of waste reduction with our blue box and recycling programs. 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.

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. These products are being produced by the same companies that are now required to pay their share of curbside recycling programs in Ontario. Not surprisingly, these new products, which are 100 percent disposable, are not subject to any tariffs because they cannot be recycled. I can't believe that the Ontario government is either that stupid or that forgiving.

Enough is enough. We're running out of space, time and patience. Nobody wants a garbage dump, and yet we continue to produce the stuff at an alarming rate. Canadians have the dubious honor of being the biggest producers of garbage in the world. I think we've finally reached the point where we can no longer hide from our own Gehenna. When asked for whom the garbage dump is built - the answer is for you and me.


There are alternatives. Check out the Grassroots Recycling Network

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) puts the onus on the industry that creates products that ultimately end up in the dump. For information, visit Environment Canada and search for EPR.

Friday, March 24, 2006


When I was six years old I had an epiphany. I remember it like it was yesterday. We have recently moved from Toronto to Edmonton. It's early spring and I'm helping my father prepare the vegetable garden for planting. The heavy black soil is still thick with the remains of the previous summer's harvest and I'm gleefully squishing the glorious rotting mass through my pudgy fingers.

As I bend closer to smell the rich earth, something catches my eye. I reach down to retrieve a small cross, created by the intertwining of two long dead plants. As I place the cross in the palm of my hand, my six year-old heart understands that this is the spirit of resurrection: life after death; warmth after our first frigid Alberta winter; the miraculous rebirth of spring.

Flash forward twenty years or so. I'm a young bride who has recently given up her trendy apartment in Toronto's even trendier beaches district for my husband's ancestral farmhouse in the country. During the week we commute daily to Toronto, but on the weekends we tend our two-acres of paradise and make a concerted effort to grow our own vegetables.

My mother calls me a farmer's wife and I reply that it's an insult to the women I have come to know who really deserve that title. These are noble women who rise very early to work with their husbands milking the cows, and then head off to fulltime jobs to help with the increasing debt load that modern farmers face. A half a century ago, with hard work and long hours, farmers could support their families on 100 acres. Even with outside incomes, most farmers must now manage 1,000 acres or more just to make ends meet.

Living so close to Toronto, the farmland around us is under constant threat of development. Developers offer local farmers millions of dollars to give up the land and the backbreaking, heartbreaking work of farming. Our neighbour Stan quietly yet deliberately tells them no. "You don't understand," he says, "Farming isn't what I do; it's who I am."

Another twenty years fly by and many of our neighbours, so tired of 18 hours days and million dollar debts, sell to the highest bidder. Apparently, the most valuable crop farmers can plant is houses.

Fortunately, gratefully there are those who still hang on. Stan struggles against all odds, and so does Terry, the 5th generation farmer who tends the fields around our property. We wave to them as we pass their huge combines lumbering along the county roads that connect the fields that they work. Most of these fields are rented back from developers who wait for the land to be re-zoned so that they can rip off the topsoil and replace it with "50 foot luxury lots in the heart of the country." Our new urban neighbours, whose houses are planted in the fields to the north of us, are less understanding. They honk their horns in loud protest, unable to pass the slow moving farm vehicles, so eager to get to their important jobs in the city.

Last week I turned on the television, and saw those very same farm vehicles, only this time they were moving slowly across Highway 401, like giant prehistoric beasts. Their owners, too tired to fight anymore are fighting, nevertheless. They have had enough. They are turning their ploughshares into swords, struggling to survive, protesting a government that callously allots four times more funding to automakers than it does to farming. What we still don't understand is that this is as much about our own survival as it is theirs.

There is an ancient Cree proverb that warns, "Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realize we cannot eat money."

Perhaps we should add, "And the last field is paved." Maybe then, only then, we'll get the message.

I am reminded of a conversation that my husband Brian had with our local councillor, so many years ago now. It was at the same meeting where Stan turned down millions of dollars for his farm.

"Where will we get our food when we've paved all our farmland?" Brian asks.

"At the grocery store, of course," was the reply.

In 1952, Canadians paid 21.6 percent of their incomes for food. By 2000, that figure had dropped to less than 9 percent. In slightly more than half that amount of time, the average farmer's take-home pay, as a portion of total farm cash income, dwindled from 28 percent in 1971 to 10 percent in 1999.


If you ate today, thank a farmer. Show your appreciation by visiting Farmers Feed Cities and find out the 10 ways that you can grow your support and have a chance to win a "Farmers Feed Cities" T-shirt.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Water, water

Water, so abundant, so essential for life, has become the marketing success story of the century. Specifically, bottled water sales now top $ 100 billion annually, making water the world's fastest growing beverage industry. Clearly, we are no longer the Pepsi generation.

And while the rich get richer selling designer water to consumers who clearly have more cents than sense, the UN reports that 1.1 billion people don't have access to any safe drinking water. The UN report, compiled for the Fourth World Water Forum being held this week in Mexico City, states that the death of 1.6 million people could be prevented if they had safe drinking water and sanitation. The UN's Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people without clean water by 2015 has a price tag of $ 15 billion, a fraction of what we spend on bottled water.

This is perhaps the most dramatic example of the disparity between the haves and the have-nots on this sorry planet, and begs the question, "What the heck are we thinking?"

Clearly, thought has little to do with it. The majority of people who consume bottled water also have access to clean tap water. The only really difference between the water that pours from the faucet and bottled water is the cost. The Earth Policy Institute estimates that bottled water can cost up to 10,000 times more than municipal tap water. And while we rant and rave if gas prices go above the $ 1.00 per litre mark, most of us routinely pay twice that amount for half as much water.

If price isn't a big enough deterrent, then perhaps the environmental costs should be. Where tap water is delivered efficiently without any unwanted packaging to be disposed of, the distribution of bottled water is both costly and elaborate. In many cases, water is bottled and shipped halfway around the world from places with such exotic names as Perrier and Evian. Having been to Evian, I can attest that it isn't anything magical. Evian is just a small French town on the south side of Lake Geneva and Evian water tastes remarkably like the generic club soda that can be purchased in bulk from the local grocery store. And while we're busy buying up water from Europe, Canadian bottled water is being shipped elsewhere around the globe.

In addition to the large amount of fossil fuels that is consumed shipping water around the world, there's the little problem of the bottles that contain that water, most of which are made from polyethylene terephthalate (or PET), a plastic made from crude oil. According to Emily Arnold, a researcher with the Earth Policy Institute, this translates into 1.5 million barrels of oil annually in the US alone, or enough to fuel 100,000 cars for a year. On a global scale, we use 2.7 million tons of plastic just to bottle water, very little of which is ever re-captured through recycling programs. The remaining bottles are tossed into our landfills where they can take up to 1,000 years to break down. Seems like a ridiculous waste of a finite resource for a simple drink of water.

And there's more. A recent study by Dr. William Shotyk, a Canadian-born researcher, has found that antimony, a chemical used to make PET bottles, leaches into the drinking water that they contain. The longer the water sits, the higher the concentration of antimony. Small exposures to antimony can cause depression and illness, while larger quantities can induce violent vomiting and even cause death. While ground water contains approximately 2 parts per trillion (ppt) of antimony, freshly bottled water averages 160 ppt. Samples left up to six months had levels as high as 630 ppt. While these levels fall below international standard of 6 parts per billion, they do beg the question, "Why bother risking it in the first place?"

Dr. Shotyk's study, which will be published later this month in the Royal Society of Chemistry's journal, is just the latest example of exactly how high a price we are willing to pay for the convenience of bottled water.

So let's re-cap: $ 100 billion industry based exclusively on a commodity that is readily and (almost) freely available from the tap while millions die without; millions of wasted barrels of finite fuel oil; millions more tonnes of unrecycled wastes and toxic chemicals to boot. This is an extreme example of exactly how far out of balance our world has become.


The Fourth World Water Forum is being held March 16 to 22, 2006.

The Earth Policy Institute is dedicated to building a sustainable economy for the Earth.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Peace, eh?

Watching our Canadian Olympic heroes return home after their outstanding performances in Torino, it was hard not to feel a surge of nationalistic pride. Those sweet faced, peace loving Canadians proved that nice guys (and girls) don't have to finish last. About the only criticism that seemed to surface about Team Canada's medal-winning efforts was that our women's hockey team didn't have to trounce their opponents with such vigor. As the poster children for world peace, it seemed a little out of character to take such joy in flattening the opposition.

At least that's what we'd like to believe. But while most Canadians were busy reveling in our victories on the playing fields, our politicians were busy gearing up for a very different kind of international confrontation on the killing fields. The result of which was made evident last weekend by another, very different heroes' homecoming. Rather than the waving of Canadian flags, we witnessed the solemn draping of flags over the coffins of two Canadians soldiers killed in Afghanistan. The shocking pictures of the axe attack on Captain Greene further rattled our gentle peace loving souls.

These are images unfamiliar to Canadians. Since the Korean conflict, our role on the international stage has been one of peacekeeper. In recent years we have even jeopardized our friendship with the US to maintain this position. When George W. Bush called upon Canada to join the "war on terror", Jean Chretien's response was typically Canadian - a very firm but polite, "No".

Which is why is it a shock to most Canadians to discover that we are at war. And while it would be easy to blame Prime Minister Harper for our sudden shift in status, the transition began more than a year ago when our peacekeepers in Kabul became peacemakers in Kandahar. Since then, our commitment, both in numbers and in level of danger, has increased dramatically to the point where earlier this week Canadian troops took the helm of the international forces in Kandahar.

"When we went to war everybody knew it," said one World War II veteran in response to the latest news headlines. "I don't think the vast majority of Canadians even realize that we've had a major shift in government policy." That's probably because nobody bothered to ask.

Since the deed has already been done, Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor has rejected the idea of a parliamentary vote on our increasing involvement in Afghanistan. However, in recent days he has appeared to be willing to enter into a debate in the House of Commons.

It was reported last week that the military had asked the government for the right to cancel any leave or separation requests, including termination of employment contracts with any and all military personnel, in order to fulfill its commitment to Afghanistan. Although the Department of National Defence has since denied these reports, what's clear is how much the Canadian public has been kept in the dark about our changing defence policy.

What we do know for sure is that our commitment to Afghanistan is the deployment of 2,300 troops until 2007, with some talk about a long-term, ten year commitment to the area. There is also a decision to increase the total number of military personnel from 68,000 to 75,000.

So what's all this got to do with the environment? Plenty! Not being at war would definitely be on my short list of what constitutes a healthy environment.

Wake up, Canada! It's time that we all gave our heads a collective shake and started demanding answers to some very serious questions. For starters, we need a broad public debate on foreign policy. If we're going to be at war, at the very least, somebody should tell us. Better yet, since we still live in a democracy (or least I thought we did), shouldn't the government be asking the Canadian public if this is the direction we want to head?

Secondly, rather than investing billions in the military to safeguard oil interests (including that supply pipe that conveniently goes right through the centre of Afghanistan), shouldn't we be looking at investing in renewable oil futures right here in Canada?

Finally, do we really want to trade our peacekeeper's jerseys for flack jackets?


Email your local MP and demand a public debate on Canada's foreign policy. For an up-to-date listing of all MPs, go to Government of Canada

Visit The Canadian Army

Monday, March 06, 2006

Food Miles

Walking into the produce section of any supermarket, it's hard to believe that it's the end of winter. Thanks to the development of international trade, a global food distribution system and modern storage technologies, we are no longer restricted by local growing seasons and soil conditions. Supermarkets offer us a variety of over 30,000 products from around the world, many of which were unheard of a half a century ago. Such modern dietary mainstays as New Zealand kiwis, Jamaican plantains and Chinese pummelos were unknown to our grandparents.

This is mainly because until the second half of the 20th Century, most people were only a step or two away from the food that they ate. Today, an enormous food system stands between farmers and consumers. This system is controlled by a handful of giant multinational corporations for whom food is a commodity and the bottom line is profit. In Canada, fewer than a half dozen companies control our retail food industry.

On the surface, this commodification of our food has numerous benefits and provides us with a planetary garden of culinary delights at ever decreasing prices. Locally, our agricultural production has moved from being a community driven initiative to an industry that is controlled by marketing boards and government regulations. This has translated into lower consumer food prices, better control over food production and greater food safety. In 1952, Canadians paid 21.6 percent of their incomes for food. By 2000, that figure had dropped to less than 9 percent.

Unfortunately these benefits have come at an enormous cost. Environmental degradation, consumer manipulation, producer exploitation and declining food quality are all side effects of our contemporary food system. More importantly, consumers have lost control of the very system that supposedly fulfills our needs. The modern food system consists of an inter-locking web of food producers (once known as farmers), processors, distributors and retail stores. Instead of simply going out in the back garden and picking a tomato for dinner, today the tomato that ends up on your supper plate may have traveled thousands of miles by truck, then delivered to a distribution centre, shipped by yet another vehicle to your local supermarket, and then given a ride home in the back of the family van. Food analyst and author Brewster Kneen refers to this process as distancing.

Every act of distancing adds to the cost of food, while actually diminishing its nutritional value. For example, milk is made into cheese; cheese is then processed into a cheese product. Whole grains are stripped of their most important nutrients and processed into white flour and then made into pasta. Together the processed cheese and pasta are combined in a ready-to-eat macaroni and cheese dinner. The result is something that doesn't remotely resemble the original whole foods.

Distancing also places a heavy toll on the environment. Food that is transported across huge geographical distances burns a whole lot of fossil fuel in the process. A report done by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Iowa compared the various "food miles" or the distances that food travels from where it is grown to where it is purchased and consumed. The differences were staggering. For example, locally grown apples travel an average of 61 miles (or slightly less than 100 km.) from tree to market. Imported apples travel a whopping 1,726 miles (or 2,778 km). When the list of the 16 most common foods was totaled, locally grown produce traveled 716 miles (1152 km), whereas the imported group traveled 25,301 miles (40,718 km), or more than the circumference of the Earth.

While it's hard to pass up fresh strawberries in the middle of winter, we need to become more aware of the hidden costs associated with having whatever we want, whenever we want it. Get into the habit of reading food labels. Talk to your grocery store manager about buying locally grown (and/or organic) produce whenever possible. During the winter months, frozen fruits and vegetables (grown in Canada) offer a reasonably priced and nutritious alternative to imported fresh foods. Once the warm weather returns, shop at local farmers' markets or pick-your-own farms. If you really want to get ambitious, pick up seed catalogue and plant your garden when spring arrives.


"Food Miles; A Simple Metaphor to Contrast Local and Global Food Systems", by Rich Pirog, can be found at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

For more on the work of Brewster Kneen, visit The Ram's Horn