Thursday, December 28, 2006

2006 Green Thumbs Down Awards

With only a few days remaining in the year that was 2006, it's time once again to present my Annual Green Thumbs Down Awards for ecological ignorance and political arrogance.

The "Oh Say Can't You See?" Award goes to Mr. George Double-Ya Bush for his assertion that the existence of global climate change is based on belief, not facts. Hate to break it to you, Mr. B, but this isn't a question of belief. But if proof is really what you're looking for, why don't you talk to the good folks in New Orleans who are still trying to rebuild a city almost wiped off the map by a hurricane of unprecedented strength? Maybe the residents of the Greater Vancouver area might be available for a chat once they've cleaned up the mess from three - count 'em - catastrophic storms in a row. Or perhaps some of the millions of environmental refugees in the developing world who have already been driven from their homes by flooding, landslides and other so-called natural disasters might want to stop by and chat. After all, they have nowhere else to go.

North of the 49th parallel, Canada's Environment Minister, Rona Ambrose, takes home the "Are you sure you're not a blonde?" Award for apparently caring more about her hairstyle than the fate of the planet. At the recent Global Climate Change talks in Kenya, Ms. Ambrose tossed her hair and called the press "mean" for dumping on the Harper government's track record on greenhouse gas emissions. (Come on, Rona; let's see those roots!)

In a related category, the "June in January" Award goes to Ms. Rona's boss, Stephen Harper, for his Clean Air Act that will start reducing Canada's greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It will be interesting to see how the then 91 year-old Harper will see this legislation to fruition. Got a problem with commitment, Mr. Harper?

The "Money for Nothing" Award goes to the top executives at Ontario Hydro's successor companies, Ontario Power Generation and Hydro One, who have brought the idea of sucking deeply from the public trough to new and exciting depths. After serious questions were raised about Tom Parkinson's $1.6 million salary and expense account irregularities, the CEO of Hydro One did the dishonorable thing and walked away from the job with a $3 million severance package. Is this what they mean by debt retirement charge?

Meanwhile, back at Ontario Power Generation, CEO Jim Harkinson is still raking in an annual salary and bonuses that exceed $1.5 million. A sum that is reportedly almost four times the salary paid to CEOs at Hydro Quebec and BC Hydro.

The "Closing the Gate After the Horses are Gone" Award is presented to the Ontario Government, who in light of the above are considering capping the salaries of public employees.

The Ontario Government is also at the podium for receiving the "There's One Born Every Minute" Award for actually believing that nuclear power is a safe, cost-effective way to produce electricity. Earlier this year, Energy Minister Dwight Duncan announced that the province would invest over $40 billion to build two new nuclear reactors and refurbish six existing reactors. This after decades of inefficiency and cost overruns at Ontario's nuclear power plants sent Ontario Hydro's debt soaring to $38.5 billion. With assets of only $22.5 billion, Hydro's debt forced the province to dismantle the behemoth utility into smaller, supposedly more cost effective and fiscally responsible companies. As Dr. Phil says, "How's that working for you, Ontario?" (See debt retirement charge above.)

The world's largest car manufacturer, General Motors, is this year's recipient of the "Put Your Money Where Your Mouth is" Award. With its investment in FlexFuel vehicles - cars and trucks that can run on a blended ethanol fuel - the auto giant is trying to paint itself as a green company. Meanwhile, back in the boardroom, company executives have announced a $740 million investment to rebirth the Camaro. The latest version of this gas-guzzling classic will feature a 400 horsepower, 6.0-liter engine. Since the Camaro isn't designed to meet everyone's driving needs, GM is currently aggressively marketing the H2, the somewhat smaller and more user-friendly cousin of the monster H1 Hummer, as an alternative to the family van. Green? Only if you're talking about the colour of money.

All in all, it was a stellar year for extraordinary corporate myopia and self-serving political arrogance. And here I thought we're supposed to get smarter as we get older!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Christmas Reflections

For 51 weeks of the year I try to write what's on my mind. Once a year, the week before Christmas, I write what's in my heart.

This year, I'm afraid to look. My fear is that all that has filled this past year will come tumbling out in a sad, unintelligible torrent with such force that it blurs the lines on the page. Change, it would appear, is the only constant.

Even the traditions that we have stitched together from year to year, like garlands on a Christmas tree, have changed. This year, with the passing of my father, there will be one less person, one less generation, sitting at our Christmas table. As our youngest child moves anxiously into adolescence, the magic that only a young child can bring to Christmas morning is finally gone. The childish letter to Santa has been replaced by a wish list carefully researched on the web and categorized by designer, store, and price range.

For the very first time the family ritual of cutting down a Christmas tree was replaced by shopping for an artificial one. After our real tree dried out far too quickly last year, we promised it would be our last. Practical concerns about fire safety finally won out over my life-long childish passion for a real tree. Gone too, was boisterous trip to our neighbor's Christmas tree farm in a van filled with five people, a large dog and my husband's ancient tree saw. With one son in England and the other in Vancouver, it was just my husband Brian, daughter Sarah and I who made the trek to the store to pick out an artificial tree.

When we got the tree home, I figured that the boxed version would at least be easier to set up than a real tree. I was wrong. "Some assembly required" translated into several hours of sorting different sized pieces and inserting them according to package directions.

I have to admit that once we finally got all the color-coded pieces in the right places, setting up the tree was much easier. Without the boys jockeying to position their favorite ornaments in just the right spot, trimming the tree was infinitely more civilized. As Brian pointed out, if you couldn't find the perfect spot to hang an ornament, you just had to move the artificial branches around until you found one. The tree has been up for three weeks now and we haven't had to vacuum up a single pine needle. I don't think anybody misses the daily ritual crawling under the tree to see if it needs watering, either.

With two six-foot sons out of the house, we were finally able to trade in our family van in for a wonderfully fuel efficient Civic. At 50 miles to the gallon, I can finally drive to the grocery store without expecting Al Gore to jump out at any minute and yell, "Hypocrite" as I pull into the parking lot.

Knee surgery earlier in the fall meant that I couldn't participate in my choir's Christmas concert this year. Instead Brian and I attended Sarah's first concert and were amazed, delighted and deeply moved by the beauty of young voices singing gloriously to God in the highest.

With the boys on opposite sides of the globe, we decided to forego our annual family Christmas photo, and wait instead to have a proper family picture taken at our eldest son's wedding next summer. With any luck, in time we will once again view the magic of Christmas through the eyes of our grandchildren.

Everything changes, grows, evolves. Brian wisely says that if you change one thing, you change everything. Would I trade the heartbreak of my father's death for our sons' brilliant passage into adulthood? Never. Would trade watching our daughter's Christmas concert for the chance to sing in my own? Not a chance.

We are each riders on a journey, each as magnificent as the stars in the sky, and as precious as the light in the eyes of a child. We build our traditions because they comfort us and bring us together, if only for a short while, with our fellow journeymen - those we are blessed to call family.

May the love of family and friends surround you this Christmas and may we all experience, if only for a brief shining moment, the joy of peace on Earth.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Winds of Change

The winds of change are blowing. It began earlier this year when Al Gore, the man who should have been president, finally accomplished what the environmental movement could not. He brought the threat of global warming to a theatre near you. Thanks to the box office success of his movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," people began to notice when the weather was unseasonably warm, or wet, or whatever. Concern about global warming was suddenly mainstream. Talk about climate change became dinnertime conversation, the punch line of Jay Leno's late night jokes, and the talk of the town.

The next big shift came when Elizabeth May, former Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada and long-time environmental advocate, was elected as leader of the Green Party of Canada. May has impeccable credentials as an environmental leader, author, lawyer and advocate. She is also no stranger to politics and served as advisor to Conservative Environment Minister Jean Charest during the Earth Summit in 1992. Despite her failure to win a seat in the House of Commons in a recent London, Ontario by-election, May has become national news. Her ability to deliver the perfect sound bite has made her a media darling, and as a result, a household name.

Perhaps the biggest news came on December 2nd when Stephane Dion beat out the men who would be king, to become the new leader of the federal Liberals. A former environment minister in the short-lived Martin government, Dion chaired the 2005 World Summit on Climate Change in Montreal

Dion's leadership campaign focused on what he calls the three pillars for the 21st Century: social justice, economic prosperity and environmental sustainability. Throughout the leadership convention, the characteristic green scarves that Dion's supporters wore became more and more dominant as he rose to victory, and prompted Justin Trudeau to point to the sea of green scarves and quip, "Look at this. Looks like the Green party to me."

For those who have fought so long and hard to make environmental concerns mainstream policy, Dion's election was an early Christmas present. While other leaders have made promises to protect the environment in the past, none has made environmental sustainability the centerpiece of their platform.

Elizabeth May was quick to publicly congratulate Dion on his victory.

"When Stephane Dion was Environment Minister, he demonstrated a willingness to work towards a united front on this issue of global concern and responsibility," said Ms. May. "I am confident he will bring this commitment to his new role and work with other parties for positive change."

Immediately following Dion's election, the Liberals experienced a huge surge in public support. The Party's national approval rating moved up to 37 percent, placing them 6 points ahead of Harper's Conservatives. In Ontario, the gap was even bigger. The Liberals jumped 12 points to 48 percent, giving them a 16 point edge over the Conservatives. The most dramatic jump was in British Columbia, where the Liberals gained a whopping 20 points to reach a 47.5 percent approval rating. It has been speculated that this jump is largely due to Dion's stand on the environment, a major issue in a province already hard hit by severe weather changes, a primary effect of global warming.

Whether or not Dion gets the chance to prove his promises, the die has been cast. Suddenly, it's getting much easier to be green. Ensuring the environmental sustainability of our policies and practices is becoming as important as balancing our financial budgets.

Already there are rumblings of a federal election in the spring of 2007. It will be up to the voting public to put an X where their concern is, and make sure that protecting and preserving our environment becomes a national priority.


"An Inconvenient Truth" is the perfect last minute gift for everyone on your list: Uncle Rob who drives that huge SUV, your cousin Jocelyn in her full-sized luxury car or your next door neighbor who loves to leave his car running in the driveway every morning. To order in time for Christmas, or to find out more about the movie that finally made climate change the next best thing, visit

To find out more about Elizabeth May and the Green Party of Canada, go to

For more about Stephane Dion, visit

Monday, December 11, 2006

Food Charters

Less than a century ago, we ate what we could grow locally. By this time of year, pantry shelves would be crammed with mason jars of preserved fruit, pickles and vegetables, while the root cellar would be full of potatoes, squash and other produce that would keep over the long winter months. The idea of eating fresh strawberries, or any other fresh fruit in December, was simply unheard of.

Today the world is our oyster, kiwi, kumquat, or whatever exotic food we choose to consume. However, with that global diversity comes a fundamental instability. Unlike our ancestors, we have very little food security because we have no control over where, how and when our food is grown. A catastrophic event on the other side of the globe could easily jeopardize our food supply. (Those old enough to remember might recall the killer frost in Florida many years ago that wiped out much of the state's orange groves and sent the cost of orange juice skyrocketing.)

In order to have food security, we first have to acknowledge the vital role that food plays in our lives. Next to air and water, food is critical to our survival. Despite this, we consistently fail to institutionalize the protection of our food system.

As Dr. Wayne Roberts points out, within the Canadian framework, there isn't a single department, within any level of government, specifically devoted to food. We have agriculture and health departments, land use and planning departments, but nowhere do we have a Department of Food.

Dr. Roberts made his comments at Food Charter Visioning Day recently held in Durham Region. As coordinator of Toronto's Food Policy Council, and primary architect of Toronto's Food Charter, among other notable accomplishments, Roberts was invited to provide some insight and inspiration. Toronto is one of a handful of Canadian communities that has developed a Food Charter.

A Food Charter is a declaration, much like the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom and the US Declaration of Independence, which defines a common ideal. While the latter define personal rights and freedoms, a Food Charter articulates a common approach to food security. It is carefully crafted by the community and encompasses all areas that are related to food production, consumption, distribution, equity and quality.

Food Charters are tools for social justice and change. They identify the rights of all residents to adequate amounts of safe, nutritious, affordable and culturally acceptable food and foster environmental stewardship and sustainability.

Food Charters are also key to economic stability. As Roberts pointed out, one-sixth of the average municipal budget is spent directly on food. This includes the one-third of the garbage budget that is used to haul food waste. An astounding 20 percent of all in-city car trips are made to buy food and the food service industry is a major employer and source of revenues for most cities. In Toronto's case, it's the largest employer, generating jobs, disposable incomes and other financial benefits.

According to Yes! Magazine ("Food to Stay", by Gary Nabhan, Winter 2007) buying locally, from local producers, has a dramatic ripple effect on the community. "For every dollar spent at a local business, 45 cents is reinvested locally. For every dollar spent at a corporate chain, only 15 cents is reinvested locally."

The environmental impact of buying local is even more dramatic. Supermarket produce travels up to 92 times farther than locally grown produce. The result is that the average food item we consume has traveled over 2,400 km. In addition, according to a recent report by Transport Canada, truck traffic in Canada has increased by one-third since 2000. The primary reason is "just-in-time" delivery practices. Truck trailers are a cheaper way to store food than warehousing it. As a result, thanks to this "just-in-time" delivery, even the wealthiest citizen is only a three-day food supply away from hunger.

With climate change being identified as the single greatest threat to our global environment, developing a local Food Charter that encourages local agriculture and reduces the number of trucks on the road seems like a no-brainer.

Ironically, there are very few food charters in Canada. In addition to Toronto's policy, to date only Prince Albert, Saskatoon, Vancouver, the Greater Sudbury Area and the province of Manitoba have, or are developing, Food Charters.


For more on Toronto's Food Charter, visit .

To read Yes! Magazine online, to order a free copy of the current issue, or to order a gift subscription (the perfect sustainable Christmas gift) go to

Monday, December 04, 2006

Advent Sharing Calendar

2006 may very well go down as the year that we finally woke up to the reality of global warming. Our planet is in peril and we have a very small window of opportunity to turn things around. What's needed is for everyone to make a commitment to reduce his or her greenhouse gas emissions. We can accomplish this in a variety of ways.

To get started, this year's Advent Sharing Calendar will focus on reducing our energy consumption, recycling more and buying less. Since we already understand that those in the developing world will suffer the greatest effects from climate change, our efforts will not only help to protect Mother Earth but also her most vulnerable children.

To begin, create an Advent Sharing box. Take a small box or coffee can, put a slot in the lid, and then wrap the container in Christmas paper. Monetary gifts are added every day until the Epiphany (January 6th). Gifts should be added as follows:

December 1st - If your home has been untouched by violent weather, put a loonie in the box.

December 2nd - Add another loonie if your tap water is safe. As Greater Vancouver recently discovered, heavy rainfalls can contaminate otherwise safe drinking water supplies.

December 3rd - If you drove today when you could have taken public transit, add a loonie.

December 4th - If you drive an 8 cylinder vehicle, add a toonie. If you drive a 6 cylinder vehicle, add a loonie. If you have a fuel-efficient 4 cylinder vehicle or hybrid car, pat yourself on the back.

December 5th - If you don't use a programmable thermostat, add 50 cents. You'll need to hang onto the rest of your cash to pay for your heating bill.

December 6th - Add 50 cents for every string of Christmas lights on your house. Add 25 cents for every floodlight. Subtract 25 cents for every string of LED Christmas lights that you use, both inside and out.

December 7th - If you live above sea level, add $ 1.00. The World Health Organization estimates that 150,000 people will die this year as a result of global warming. Many of them will drown in low-lying coastal areas.

December 8th - Add 5 cents for every year of your life untouched by natural disasters.

December 9th - Add 10 cents for every produce item you bought this week that was imported from the US. Add 25 cents for items imported from Australia, Asia or South America.

December 10th - Add 10 cents for every light bulb in your house that could be replaced by a compact fluorescent bulb.

December 11th - Add 50 cents if you haven't had your car tuned up in the last six months. A properly tuned engine can improve fuel efficiency by 10 percent.

December 12th - If you haven't checked your tire pressure lately, add another 50 cents. Properly inflated tires can provide a 6 to 8 percent fuel saving.

December 13th - Add 25 cents for every heavily packaged Christmas present that you've bought.

December 14th - Add a loonie for every gift purchased that requires electricity to operate. (This includes battery operated toys and games.) Subtract a loonie for every energy or water efficient gift that you purchase.

December 15th - Add 10 cents for every present that you wrap with previously unused paper. Save money and energy by reusing paper, making your own gift-wrap from recycled paper, or investing in cloth gift bags that can be reused for years.

December 16th - Add a loonie for every degree that your daytime thermostat is set above 20 degrees C.

December 17th - Add a loonie for every degree that your nighttime thermostat is set above 17 degrees C.

December 18th - Add a loonie every time that you leave your car idling while parked.

December 19th - Add $ 5.00 if you don't recycle. The energy saved by recycling a single aluminum can could power a television for two hours or a laptop computer for three hours!

December 20th - Add a dollar if you buy your holiday beer in cans, not refillable bottles.

December 21st - On this, the darkest day of the year, add 2 cents for every light bulb inside your house.

December 22nd - When visiting friends and family, slow down! Add 10 cents for every km/h you drive above the speed limit.

December 23rd - If you take a drive around the neighbourhood to see the Christmas lights, add $ 5.00. Walking is better for you and gives you time to actually enjoy the lights.

December 24th - On this most magical of nights, add a toonie if you leave your Christmas lights on after bedtime.

December 25th - If you don't recycle Christmas wrappings and boxes, add a loonie.

December 26th - If you don't compost the remains of Christmas dinner, add a toonie.

December 27th - If you braved the Boxing Week sales, add $ 5.00. If you drove alone to the mall, add another $ 5.00.

December 28th - When heating up holiday leftovers, add 50 cents if you used the oven rather than the microwave.

December 29th - Add 50 cents for every load of laundry that you don't wash in cold water.

December 30th - Add a loonie for every showerhead in your home that isn't low-flow.

December 31st - Add 5 cents for every disposable glass, plate and napkin you use at your New Year's Eve party.

January 1st - Resolve to use less electricity this year. Visit and take the pledge!

January 2nd - Develop a conservation plan for your family.

January 3rd - Challenge co-workers and employers to make their own plan.

January 4th - Make a commitment and a budget to replace energy inefficient appliances.

January 5th - Sit down with your family and decide where you would like to send the contents of your Advent Sharing box.
Suggestions include the Conservation Council of Ontario ( and The Pembina Institute (

January 6th - (The Epiphany) - Send a cheque to the charity of your choice.