Friday, July 27, 2007

Summers in the City

Rick Summers is a true visionary. Part entrepreneur, part activist, Rick has combined his background in social work with his interest in business to create a truly unique company. His product is affordable, sustainable homes and businesses, but his true passion is people.

"My goal is to have a company with employees who are committed to showing compassion and concern for others and who are focused on doing what is right," states Rick's website. "I want my employees to be encouraged and to always seek improvement for themselves and the client. Summers & Co. believes that each team member should be doing what they love and excel at."

Talking with Rick, it's clear that he walks the talk. Rick's latest project is a shining example of exactly how much of a difference one individual can make. Along with his business partner, Khanna Holdings Inc., Rick has magically transformed the historic Oshawa House Hotel in downtown Oshawa.

Built in 1848, the Oshawa House Hotel is the city's oldest commercial building. Until very recently its glory days were well behind it. By the time Khanna Holdings purchased the hotel in 2004 for the relatively modest sum of $650,000, it was little more than a run down flophouse frequented by drug addicts and alcoholics. Three years and over $1.1 million in investment later, the Oshawa Hotel is now a totally retrofitted 32-suite apartment complex combined with main floor storefront businesses.

What makes the project so exciting is that part of the investment includes a $175,000 geothermal installation that provides all the heating, cooling and hot water requirements for the entire complex. To save space, 200-foot boreholes were drilled horizontally under the small backyard parking lot. As Rick explains, "You need 175 feet of piping for every tonne of heating and air conditioning." provided the all-Canadian installation, and P.E. Coulter and Associates engineered the project. Both companies are local businesses.

Each suite is equipped with a fan-coil heating/cooling unit with individual thermostat control. In addition, a heat recovery system recirculates fresh air by capturing energy from stale exhaust air and transferring it to the incoming fresh air. The result is that this very old building is now energy self-sufficient and carbon neutral. At current energy rates, the entire installation will pay for itself it 5 to 7 years.

As a further bonus, plans are underway to mount photo voltaic cells on the hotel's flat roof to generate electricity. When that happens, the building will become energy independent, no small accomplishment for a 169 year-old building located in the heart of the city.

But the real magic of the Oshawa House Hotel is that 25 of its 32 studio suites have rents that are designed to be affordable for low-income earners. The remaining seven suites are rented at market value.

"I want to create communities that combine affordable housing with upscale accommodation," said Rick.

Unlike other low-rent accommodations, all the suites at the Oshawa Hotel - both affordable and fair market - are equally beautifully outfitted. Each studio features upgraded bathrooms and kitchenettes, complete with granite countertops and low-maintenance laminate flooring.

Shirley Van Steen, Director of Housing Services for Durham Region is delighted with the hotel.

"It really is a perfect solution," said Ms. Van Steen. "And it's certainly something we would like to see a lot more of. It's excellent quality housing. It's a win-win-win for the tenants, the landlords and downtown Oshawa."

Not to mention its environmental benefits. As Oshawa's Mayor John Gray points out, "This historic building houses both commercial and residential units and supports a green and sustainable community."

The City of Oshawa provided interest-free loans for facade improvements and building code upgrades as part of the city's downtown revitalization project. In addition, the project received $250,000 in funding through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) Rental and Rooming House Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program.

If all this wasn't enough, a portion of the profit from Summers & Co. is donated to aid the poor.

"I believe that if people have food, shelter and clothing," said Rick, "then they should do their part in helping others to have the same."

Like I said, a true visionary.


For more on the magic of Rick Summers, check out

For everything you wanted to know about geothermal heat pumps, check out This all-Canadian company has been successfully designing and installing heat pumps for over 25 years.

For more information on government grants and programs that are available for both homeowners and businesses to help protect the environment and conserve energy, visit and

Sunday, July 15, 2007

O, Canada.

For almost as long as we've been a country, being Canadian has meant being free from the daily ravages of war. For generation after generation we have been able to provide our children a safe environment to grow up in - a privilege shared by precious few other nations in the world.

As only Canadians can do, we have never taken this safety and security for granted. Always ready to help our neighbor, whether it's down the street or across the globe, we've been there. Canadian soldiers played prominent roles and suffered great casualties in both the First and Second World Wars, and later in the Korean War. For the last half a century or more we have earned the right to be called the world's peacekeepers.

Which is perhaps why we are so shocked and angry about the growing list of young Canadians who have lost their lives in Afghanistan. There are always risks associated with being in the military - it comes with job of defending the rights and freedoms of those who are in jeopardy. It is a proud and noble profession and one that our soldiers take on willingly.

Like so many other Canadian families, were so proud when our son joined the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. A brilliant student who didn't particularly like school, Matthew decided that three years in the army would give him the discipline that he lacked and the opportunity to serve his country and see the world. He worked hard to learn the soldiering skills he needed and became an excellent marksman and qualified parachutist. He loved his job.

But half way through his second year something happened. The soldiers in his company were told to make sure that their dress uniforms were kept clean and ready. Unbeknownst to the Canadian public, our role in Afghanistan was about to take a subtle but deadly shift. No longer peacekeepers, our new role as peacemakers would mean that dress uniforms would be required for the funerals of fallen comrades.

It was hard to believe, and even harder still to understand. At no time was the Canadian public ever given the opportunity voice its concern; ever asked if it wanted to start sacrificing its brightest and its best for a senseless conflict on the other side of the world. No war was declared, no war measures act was invoked, and yet suddenly we were engaging an enemy whose tactics are barbaric at their best, and positively evil at their worst.

Our soldiers are some of the finest trained in the world. Disciplined and accurate, they are capable of taking on any foe on the battlefield. But the war in Afghanistan is not a war of combat. It's a war of cowardice, deception and dismal failure. Very few of our soldiers have died in battle where they would at least have a fighting chance to do the job they were trained and committed to do. Most of them have been blown up by IEDs or accidentally killed by friendly fire. And for what?

This isn't a war to bring democracy to a people that want it. By best estimates it will be at least another five years before the Afghani people are even remotely ready for any kind of civilized democracy. This is a country where women are so ill treated by their husbands that they would rather set themselves on fire than live. And despite our best efforts, the UN latest estimates show that opium production in Afghanistan, which accounts for about 90 per cent of European heroin use, is projected to surpass last year's record output.

This is about oil. It’s about securing a pipeline that was constructed across Afghanistan as an alternative to using the volatile Persian Gulf. It's about feeding our need for fossil fuels and cleaning up a job that the Americans left half finished.

I am torn between great anger and tremendous sorrow. By the grace of God our son completed his three years in the military and got out. But many of his friends haven't been so lucky. Two weeks ago, we said goodbye to his close friend Steve Bouzane. Sunday night we stood on an overpass of the 401 and waved goodbye to two more - his platoon officer, Captain Dawe, and his good friend, Captain Jeff Francis.

It was nearly dusk when the somber cavalcade came into view. The six black hearses were flanked by an honor guard of O.P.P. officers and followed by the limousines that carried the soldiers' families. The hundred or so people who had gathered on the overpass held Canadian flags in tribute and waved solemnly to the families below - families whose lives have been forever shattered beyond our possible imagining.

Summer Reading

Quiet summer nights at the cottage, lazy days on the beach, or a comfortable chair on the front porch all add up to great opportunities to catch up on all those books you've been promising to read. To add to the list, here's my top pick of recommended books and magazines about the environment that collectively inform, inspire and ignite the spirit.

Paul Hawken's latest book, Blessed Unrest, (Viking, 2007) is an uplifting account of the greatest revolution in human history. Subtitled, How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, Blessed Unrest, "Is the story without apologies of what is going right on this planet, narratives of imagination and conviction, not defeatist accounts about the limits," writes Hawken. "Wrong is an addictive repetitive story; Right is where the movement is."

Hawken documents the amazing rise of this leaderless yet powerful movement that is comprised, by his best estimate, of "…over one - and maybe even two - million organizations working toward ecological sustainability and social justice." All tolled, literally tens of millions of ordinary people are doing extraordinary things to save the planet. In short, Blessed Unrest is a book about hope and should be required reading for everyone.

If Hawken's book is about hope, then Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century, (Abrams, 2006) is about practical action. The handbook, edited by Alex Steffen, "is a groundbreaking compendium of the most innovative solutions, ideas and inventions emerging today for building a sustainable, livable, prosperous future." The book is carefully laid out into seven major sections: stuff, shelter, cities, community, business, politics and planet. Each section provides examples from around the world of ideas and actions that work, along with practical suggestions and resources for anyone interested in changing the world.

In addition to the book, Worldchanging is also a website and a global resource. Its manifesto: "Worldchanging was founded on the idea that real solutions already exist for building the future we want. It's just a matter of grabbing hold and getting moving."

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, first published 45 years ago, warned about how our indiscriminant use of chemicals threatens all life on the planet. It was the book that started it all. The impact of this extraordinary book cannot be overstated. It literally gave voice and purpose to the modern environmental movement. As relevant today as it was back in 1962, Silent Spring is both poetic and prophetic.

Courage for the Earth, edited by Peter Matthiessen, (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) is a compilation of essays written by scientists, writers and activists to mark the 100th birthday of Rachel Carson. The list of contributors includes John Elder, Al Gore, John Hay, Freeman House, Linda Lear, Robert Michael Pyle, Janisse Ray, Sandra Steingraber, Terry Tempest Williams, and E. O. Wilson. My personal favourite is an essay by Sandra Steingraber, an acclaimed author and scientist in her own right, that explores Steingraber's connection to her deceased father through their mutual appreciation of Silent Spring. Poignantly beautiful, Steingraber’s essay leaves one wanting more.

On that note, also highly recommended is Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood (Perseus Publishing, 2001) by Sandra Steingraber. This poetic account of the intimate biology of motherhood combines Steingraber's remarkable talents as a scientist and a poet in this magnificently crafted book.

In the mindless realm of advertising, the editorial content of most popular magazines exists to put spaces between the glossy ads. Two refreshing exceptions to this rule are Orion and Yes! Magazine. Both are published by non-profit organizations and are devoid of all commercial advertising.

According to its editors, "Orion explores an emerging alternative world view. Informed by growing ecological awareness and the need for cultural change, it is a forum for thoughtful and creative ideas and practical examples of how we might live justly, wisely, and artfully on Earth." In addition to its amazing editorial content, each volume contains a glorious collection of photographs, paintings and other visual art.

Yes! Magazine is published by the Positive Futures Network, an organization dedicated to a just, sustainable, and compassionate world. Each edition of Yes! is built around a specific issue: democracy, social justice, environmental sustainability, and is published on 100% recycled, 100% post-consumer waste, process chlorine-free paper.

Happy reading!


Blessed Unrest

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Summer Movies

Summer is traditionally the time for blockbuster entertainment. This year there are some quirky, brilliant and disturbing films to add to the list of summer viewing.

Michael Moore's newly released Sicko is a must see. This latest documentary from the director who elevated the genre to blockbuster status is shocking, heartbreaking and painfully funny. Sicko provides a Moore's eye view of the terminally ill American health care system and is possibly his best film to date. In his characteristic style, Moore talks to average Americans about how their lives have been impacted by a healthcare system run by profit-driven HMOs.

This is a particularly important film for Canadians. Canada's healthcare system is in jeopardy. If Moore's analysis is correct, we should all be fighting tooth and nail to keep our current universal system intact. The alternative, so skillfully depicted by Moore, is just too scary. According to the National Coalition on Health Care, under the current system 47 million Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 are without medical coverage. An estimated 18,000 will die as a result. This is more than the number of deaths from diabetes (17,500) within the same age group.

On a personal note, I found Moore's presence throughout the film to be particularly troubling. Given the health risks associated with obesity, I have a message for Michael: "Please lose weight. We need you. Your work is very, very important. God help you if after this film you find yourself seeking medical treatment within the U.S."

For those who prefer watching movies from the comfort of their own living rooms, there are a couple of newly released DVDs that should be added to the list.

Set in 2027, Children of Men tells the story of a world without hope. In the film the last live human birth occurred eighteen years before, in 2009, and now the world is in chaos. Despite its restricted rating, Children of Men, which was directed and co-written by acclaimed filmmaker Alphonso Cuaron, should be required viewing for anyone who cares about the future of the planet. Beyond the worry of a climate raging out of control, imagine what would happen if there were no more babies? As the main character says,

"I can't remember the last time I had any hope. Since women stopped being able to have babies, what's left to hope for?"

As Children of Men so graphically points out, all it would take is one barren generation. And then, as the graffiti on a wall in Alphonso Cuaron futuristic London asks, "The last one to die, please turn out the light."

The NFB documentary Manufactured Landscapes follows internationally acclaimed Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky on a journey throughout China. Through his large format photographs we see the almost unbelievable impact that China's massive industrialization has had on the landscape of the country.

This is not an easy film to watch. While Burtynsky's images are stunning and compelling, director Jennifer Baichwal could learn a lot from her subject's ability to capture an entire story in a single frame. While only 90 minutes in length, the film seems much longer. It drags on considerably, particularly during the opening credits of the film, but is nevertheless an important film to see.

As Burtynsky's writes, "These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire - a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times."

For those who enjoy Burtynsky's work, American photographer Chris Jordan has an equally disturbing collection entitled, Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption, on his website. Like Burtynsky, Jordan explores shipping ports, industrial yards and mining sites with his camera.

"Collectively we are committing a vast and unsustainable act of taking, but we each are anonymous and no one is in charge or accountable for the consequences," writes Jordan. "I fear that in this process we are doing irreparable harm to our planet and to our individual spirits."

Hardly light summer entertainment, but all incredibly important and worthwhile nonetheless.


Check out Jordan’s photographic collection, Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption, at

For more on the work of Edward Burtynsky’s visit

For more information on Manufactured Landscapes, visit and search the catalogue of films.

Michael Moore’s official website is located at

The National Coalition on Health Care can be found at

Monday, July 02, 2007

Present Tense

We humans have the collective ability to ignore just about anything until it literally smacks us in the face. This is particularly problematic when comes to the very real and present danger of climate change.

"The fixation on the immediate and the spectacular compromises responsible coverage of the environment," wrote Mark Hertsgaard in his landmark essay, Covering the World, Ignoring the Earth. "How do you take a picture of the Earth getting hotter?"

Given that Hertsgaard's essay was published in 1990, the answer appears to be ignore the problem long enough and you'll get your "photo op". The images of polar bears stranded on melting ice flows and thousands of homeless people huddled in the New Orleans Superdome immediately come to mind.

It's important to note that Hertsgaard was not alone in his warnings. Many experts, led by such notable scientists as world-renowned oceanographer Roger Revelle and James Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, began expressing profound concern about the impact of rising carbon-dioxide levels and its subsequent impact on global temperatures decades ago. Dr. Revelle first sounded the alarm in the 1950s - a half a century ago, and yet he is virtually unknown.

Today the environment - particularly the issue of climate change - is as hot as, well, the planet. Celebrities, politicians and those who are a little of both (most notably the "Governator" Arnold and the man-who-should-have-been-president, Al Gore) have galvanized around the cause du jour and the big corporate boys aren't far behind. Slick marketing campaigns are now selling everything from mufflers to laundry detergent as part of the solution, and the hucksters are just getting started.

On July 7, 2007, or 07-07-07 (numerologists take note), Kevin Wall, the Worldwide Executive Producer of Live 8, will bring Live Earth to the television, radio or computer nearest you. Live Earth is a 24-hour, seven continent concert series that promises to bring together over 100 music artists and more than two billion people. The humble goal of the concert is no less that triggering a global movement to solve the climate crisis. Partnering with Al Gore (there he is again) and the Alliance for Climate Protection, Live Earth will be performed on stages around the world, including the Giants Stadium in New York, Wembley Stadium in London, Aussie Stadium in Sydney, Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Maropeng at the Cradle of Humankind in Johannesburg, Makuhari Messe in Tokyo, the Steps of the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai and HSH Nordbank Arena in Hamburg.

According to the Live Earth website, “All Live Earth venues will be designed and constructed by a team of sustainability engineers who will address the environmental and energy management challenges of each concert site, as well as the operations of sponsors, partners and other Live Earth affiliates. Each venue will not only be designed to maintain a minimum environmental impact, but will showcase the latest state-of-the-art energy efficiency, on-site power generation, and sustainable facilities management practices."

This is all good stuff, but if the same scientists who began warning us about climate change decades ago are correct, it may already be too late. A recent article authored by a team of scientists headed up by none other than James Hansen, concluded that the race might already be lost. According to the academic paper Climate change and trace gases, "Recent greenhouse gas emissions place the Earth perilously close to dramatic climate change that could run out of control, with great dangers for humans and other creatures."

The scientists concluded, "If we have not already passed the dangerous level, the energy infrastructure in place ensures that we will pass it within several decades."

While several decades may seem too far off to even worry about, the atmospheric carbon dioxide that is already altering our climate began accumulating over a century ago. The gases we release today will remain problematic for a half a century or more. That's something we can no longer ignore.


The scientific article, Climate change and trace gases, Hansen, J. et al, published in Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society A, (Vol. 365, No. 1856, July 2007) can be downloaded from The Royal Society website at

For more on Live Earth, go to

Mark Hertsgaard is a prolific American writer and journalist who currently writes as the environment correspondent for The Nation. His books include Earth Odyssey (1998). Check out

Candle Night

My mother calls it, "being there". It's that rare occasion when everything stands still and your senses drink in your surroundings until you're completely filled with the moment. The experience is so intense, so real, that even years later you can recall that moment in intimate detail.

The last time that I was "there" was on the beach in Prince Edward Island. Our daughter Sarah was sleeping in a makeshift cot her dad had dug in the sand. As she slept in cool comfort, Brian and the two boys played in a warm stream that meandered next to our spot on the beach. I lay down beside Sarah on a beach towel, my eyes partially shaded by a baseball cap that I had pulled down over my forehead to cut the glare of the early afternoon sun. Off in the distance, several young people were playing beach volleyball, their laughter and happy chatter blending with the screech of the seagulls overhead and the roar of the waves as they crashed onto the beach.

It was perfect. I sighed and thought of nothing. No worries or cares interrupted the simple pleasure of just being there.

What makes this simple story so unusual was that it happened more than a dozen years ago. What makes it so sad is that this is the last time I can honestly remember being consciously devoid of thoughts or concerns. I was completely at peace, totally at rest and yet fully alert and alive.

I am not alone. We live in a world where everyone is on all of the time. What makes this so tragic is that we are so busy multi-tasking that we rarely capture the complete and utter joy of the single moment. Look around. Parents push their children on the swings with one hand while they hold the cell phone to their ear with the other. Glance around the dining room in any fine restaurant and I'll guarantee that you'll see as many Blackberries as you do bottles of wine. Even when we gather on the family couch to snuggle, chances are we're not looking at each other, but rather the television sitting in front of us. We bathe ourselves in the media and in doing so wash away the gift of simply being alive and in the moment.

Small wonder we're so stressed. The planet isn't doing so hot, either. All of the energy that we're burning has to come from somewhere. What we all need is a day on the beach, a time to simply stop long enough to quiet the voices in our heads. We need to schedule our time off, mark it on the calendar, send ourselves an email and then turn everything off, including our very busy little brains.

As luck would have it, we don't even have to organize our escape from chaos. Candle Night is a unique way to mark the Summer Solstice (a few days late) by unplugging from the world. From 8:00 pm to 10:00 pm on June 24th, join celebrations in Tokyo and Seoul by turning off the lights, unplugging the phone, muting the Blackberry and celebrating Candle Night. According to the Japanese website,

"Pulling the plug opens the window to a new world. Awakens as to human freedom and diversity. 
It is a process, finding a larger possibility of the human civilization. 
By turning off lights for only two hours, we will be all loosely connected. Let's make a 'wave of darkness' spread over the globe together."

While some of the English gets lost in translation, the idea is a clear as a bell. Unplug your life for two whole hours and see what happens. Make love, lie on the grass, the beach, or the roof and watch the world slowly darken without the jarring aggravation of artificial light. Instead, watch the stars come out, one by one. Sit quietly and listen to the sounds of the evening as the bugs begin to hum in the trees, dogs bark off in the distance, leaves rustle on the trees overhead. Take off your shoes and wiggle your toes in the grass, the sand or the mud. Hug your children, the dog, your grumpy neighbor. If the night begins to get chilly, enjoy the luscious coolness of the evening. If it's hot and sticky, revel in the warmth and joy of summer. If it's raining, soak in the magical power of water to renew and refresh both body and soul. Enjoy!