Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Message and The Messenger

Last week, Al Gore and the International Panel on Climate Change (better known as the IPCC) were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. According to the Nobel Foundation, the award was given, "…for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change."

Coming on the heels of his 2007 Oscar win for best documentary, Gore has effectively captured both the public's imagination and the respect of the intelligencia. The question that remains is, "Now what?"

While the Peace Prize was originally intended to reward the works of those working toward a peaceful and just society, according to the official Nobel website, "In addition to humanitarian efforts and peace movements, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded for work in a wide range of fields including advocacy of human rights, mediation of international conflicts, and arms control."

In his acceptance speech Gore said, "We have to quickly find a way to change the world's consciousness about exactly what we're facing." Given the accolades that Gore has received, it seems pretty obvious that climate change is already the next big thing. Public opinion polls rank the environment as number one issue in the world and the threat of climate change tops the list of environmental concerns.

Despite Gore's win, The White House (he should have rightly inhabited) has made it very clear that it is going to be business as usual. A spokesperson for The White House said that the president, while happy about Gore's win, wasn't about to adopt a more Gore like approach to the problem.

We live in a world where it's all about the packaging. It's glitz and glory. We embrace celebrity, not issues or action.

The inconvenient truth is that we don't need another hero. Canonizing Gore for his efforts is a whole lot easier than owning the problem ourselves. As long as we're applauding his efforts, we really don't need to take any action. Making Al Gore the poster child for climate change also means that we get to blame him if things get too intense, or the dire predictions aren't quite so dire after, or the economy suffers. After all, that's what martyrs are for. Media darling one day, crucified the next.

Perhaps what we need is a non-celebrity. Someone, or something, that can crawl inside our consciousness in the privacy of our own homes, and gnaw away at it until we truly understand that what we are facing is unprecedented in human history. True enduring change doesn't come from outside; it comes from within.

Enter wonderingmind42, a 38 year-old science teacher whose series of raw youtube videos cut right to the heart of the matter. His videos lay out the scientific arguments about the pros and cons of the global warming debate, including an analysis of the risk factors involved in taking action or maintaining the status quo. He even has created what he calls his Index video, that categories the various videos and provides a viewing order based on whether you're a skeptic, a true believer, or somewhere in between.

Unlike Gore, who couples star quality with the style and grace of American royalty, (to say nothing of some very expensive PowerPoint presentations); wonderingmind42's anonymity actually makes it much easier to ignore the messenger and focus on the message. His tools are a science classroom, a white board, compelling logic and passion, something that he clearly shares with Gore.

Wondermind42 takes the issue of climate change off the stage and out of the spotlight and puts it squarely, and very uncomfortably where it belongs.

"This is the most credible, most clear and pressing threat on a global scale in the history of humanity, with the sole exception of being of the brink of a thermonuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis," he says, "But this time, you, as an individual citizen, not only know about it, but you play a necessary part."

I'm sure Al Gore would agree.


Check out the brilliant logic of wonderingmind42 at

After being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Al Gore announced he would be donating his share of the $ 1.5 million prize to the Alliance for Climate Protection, an organization that he chairs.

For more on the Nobel prizes, visit

Monday, October 15, 2007

Waste Not

Among the estimated five million species on the planet, humans are unique. We create great works of art, music and literature. We have developed earth sciences to help us better understand our world, and health sciences that enable us to care for many species. We have mastered the art of building, transportation and irrigation and in doing so have altered our environment to better suit our needs. We have domesticated many other species for food, service and companionship. Thanks to the development of agriculture, we have a dependable global supply of safe food. All in all, we are very clever little monkeys.

On the grand scale of things, perhaps our greatest distinction is that we are the only species on the planet whose waste isn't completely recycled as food or shelter for other beings. Whether you call it trash, garbage or waste, this massive by-product of our creative abilities is a major problem.

"In nature there can be no waste," states the Waste Reduction Week Municipal Resource Kit. "Everything produced is used as a resource by some other living organism. There is a continuous cycling of the elements."

And therein lies the heart of the matter. Our many accomplishments have led us to believe, rather erroneously, that we are completely separate from nature. This misunderstanding stems from our proven ability to isolate and protect ourselves from the vastness of the planet we inhabit.

History tells us we've been leaving our mess behind for thousands of years. (Where would archeologists be without all those ancient bits of broken pots and other trinkets to analyze?) Until the later part of the last century, we always managed to find someplace to put our leftovers.

But even our big beautiful planet has its limits. Given the sheer volume of garbage we discard, it's not surprising. According to Statistics Canada, Canadians discard 31 million tonnes of waste annually, which makes us the second largest producers of garbage in the world. That's about 2.7 kilograms per person, per day. Only our American cousins throw out more stuff than we do.

Curbside recycling has been successful at diverting some of this waste, but it's important to note that blue box programs are only for residential customers. This sector contributes 40 percent to the total waste stream. The remaining garbage comes from commercial, industrial, construction and demolition sources. When you factor everything together, we divert less than 25 percent of our garbage.

In the hierarchy of waste management - commonly known as the 3Rs - recycling is considered to be the third best option. That's because it doesn't reduce the amount of stuff we throw out. Recycling merely allows us to capture some of our waste and use it to create new stuff to throw out.

Consider this: before curbside programs we threw everything in the garbage can. Now we have the option of dividing our waste between the garbage can, black bag, blue box and green bin. It's better than nothing, but it does precious little to address the real issue, which is our unbridled and unsustainable use of the planet's finite resources.

Recycling also creates a whole new myriad of problems. For example, recycling paper creates millions of tonnes of non-recoverable, toxic sludge we classify as fertilizer in order to allow us to dump it onto farmland.

The first R, reduction, calls upon us to use less. Given that our global economy is driven by the need to continuously expand, it's small wonder that the idea of reducing our wastes (and by implication our consumption) has not really taken hold.

Likewise, the second R, reuse, is counterproductive to the need to increase corporate profits. For example, refillable bottles went the way of the dodo bird when the soft drink manufacturers calculated that it was a lot cheaper to subsidize recycling programs (which puts the onus on the consumer) than it was to collect and refill bottles (which puts the onus on the producer). This is precisely why the soft drink industry paid handsomely to set up Ontario's highly successful blue box recycling program.

As history has proven, we are so much smarter than this. October 15 to 21, 2007, is Waste Reduction Week in Canada - a great time for us to take a long hard look at our wasteful ways. The best way to begin to reduce our waste is to figure out what we're throwing out. Conduct a waste audit at home, at work and/or at school, set real reduction targets and monitor your progress.


For great resources for municipalities, schools, businesses and individuals, including the WRW Municipal Resource Kit, to find out what's happening across Canada, or to link to other resources, visit

Monday, October 08, 2007


I recently had a bit of an epiphany. I was visiting a local garden, wondering at the diversity of flowers and fauna available, when I realized that despite the endless variety of tastes, colors and textures basically all growing things come from four thing: seed, sun, soil and water. When you further consider that most living species share about 90 percent of the same DNA, how these four variables could produce such an infinite number of possibilities should have even the most sage mathematician scratching his or her head. It is nothing short of a miracle.

What's interesting is that the greater the diversity of living things that we have access to, both edible and beautiful, the more blasé we become. A couple of centuries ago when our ancestors first settled this brave new world, having enough grains and root vegetables set aside for the winter and enough seed for the spring was all anybody could possibly ask for. Mere survival was considered an extraordinary blessing. Excess was a luxury that was virtually unheard of.

In the 21st Century we live in a world of such endless bounty that we rarely look beyond its immediate source. Years ago when a local developer wanted to pave much of the farmland that surrounds our tiny homestead, my husband asked our regional councillor where he intended to get his food once all of the farmland was gone.

His sincere and blatantly arrogant answer will haunt me forever.

"Loblaws, of course," was his reply. Today that very same Loblaws is just one of host of major food retailers that can provide consumers with more that 30,000 different products. Rather than celebrate this remarkably diversity, we become enraged when a particular product isn't available in a particular size, color or package, "at the lowest possible price." We are spoiled beyond comprehension.

Perhaps that it is why the celebration of Thanksgiving is little more than another opportunity to overindulge. True thankfulness, by its very definition, involves a feeling of indebtedness toward another and is often accompanied by a desire to reciprocate the favor. In the impersonal world where our every consumer desire can be fulfilled by a quick trip to the local Wal-Mart and a faster swipe of the debit card, the idea of gratitude seems strangely arcane. The pervasive attitude is that we earned it, we bought it, and have no one to thank but ourselves. This shallow sort of narcissism offers little comfort.

More to the point, it bears little resemblance to the truth. Our existence on this planet is about as tenuous as the gossamer strands of a spider's web that collect the early morning dew. In relative terms, that thread is one of the strongest materials known, and yet it cannot stand up to the gentlest morning breeze.

We are much like those silvery threads. Deadly, arrogant and infinitely fragile. Anyone who has read this column on a regular basis will recall that I often quote the words of my dear friend and mentor Dr. Rosalie Bertell. When asked what the purpose of the environmental movement was, she said,

"The whole purpose of the environmental movement is to save the seed. Everything that's ever going to live in this world, whether it's a tree, or a plant, or a fish, or a baby, all into future time, is present right now in the seed. And if we damage that seed, there is no place else to get it. It is our most precious possession, and we have got to think in terms of the seed, because that's the future."

This weekend, as you celebrate the miracle of the harvest, think of Dr. Bertell's words. Remember that regardless of how exotic, how beautiful, how diverse life is, the bounty that we celebrate is always the result of seed, sun, soil and water, and the work of the farmers who nurture these elements together. Give thanks for their labors and remember that our entire future lies in the miraculous rebirth of the tiniest seed.


To find out more about the work of Ontario’s farmers, visit

Celebrate the bounty of the season by purchasing locally grown produce. It’s fresher and tastes better. Buying locally makes farming more profitable and benefits local economies. To find the nearest farmers’ market or local food stand nearest you, visit

Resilient Cities

There is a new weapon in the fight against climate change. It is called "adaptation", and until recently it was considered taboo, mostly because adaptation was considered to be an admission of defeat. In reality, scientists now acknowledge that the battle to stop catastrophic climate change was lost decades before we began any serious debate about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change is no longer the stuff of portents and predictions. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased by 50 percent or more. The famed Northwest Passage is free of ice for the first time in recorded history. With one of the hottest and definitely the driest summer on record behind us, autumn has arrived with more scorching temperatures and cloudless blue skies.

In order to stabilize our climate we need to reduce our current emissions by 60 to 70 percent. Despite this, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and our national and international leaders continue to procrastinate, putting rhetoric ahead of action, and political self-preservation over the health of the planet.

"Adaptation is different," writes Scientist Emeritus Ian Burton in his preface to The Clean Air Partnership report, Cities Preparing for Climate Change. "The benefits of adaptation fall largely where the costs are expended."

Not surprisingly it is those same areas that are most likely to be hardest hit by the impacts of climate change - our cities. According to the same report, "Cities are vulnerable because they concentrate people and buildings into a relatively small area."

With more than 64 percent of Canadians now living in urban centers of 100,000 or more, severe weather events can have devastating results. The interruption of such basic services such as water and sewage, energy, transportation and waste removal are centralized, severe storms can (and have) crippled our cities.

The 1998 ice storm in eastern Ontario and Quebec crippled the nation's capital and left hundreds of thousands of people without heat or water. In 2003, Hurricane Juan ripped through Halifax, destroying much of the city's Point Pleasant Park. Six months later, Halifax was hit with a record 100-inch snowfall. In 2004, floods devastated Peterborough causing millions of dollars in damages. And last winter, the nations watched as thousands of trees in Vancouver's Stanley Park, one of our great national jewels, were flattened by record winds.

What's remarkable about these events is that in every case, these afflicted cities have recovered. They are now stronger and more capable of withstanding future onslaughts because they have been willing to adapt. Their stories were the recent focus of a symposium held in Toronto that launched the newly created, Alliance for Resilient Cities. The Alliance is a collaborative network of municipalities and other decision makers that was spawned by The Clean Air Partnership (CAP).

"Why resilient cities?" asked CAP's visionary Executive Director Eva Ligeti in her opening remarks at the symposium. "Resilience is the ability of a system to withstand stress, and to adapt to changing conditions. Climate change is creating a great deal of stress for cities, and this will continue for the foreseeable future."

"If a city protects itself from storms, floods, droughts, heat waves, invasive pests, species, and diseases, it is the people of the city who benefit," wrote Burton. "Their environment is better, their health is more protected, and their economic activities are less liable to damage and disruption."

The point that Burton makes is a valid one. While mitigating greenhouse gas emissions requires policy direction from senior levels of government - those very levels that are seemingly paralyzed to do anything - municipal leaders have a very different role to play. They directly care for their own citizens. "That’s what they are elected to do."

What makes climate change adaptation such an elegant answer is that many of the measures designed to make cities less vulnerable, such as energy self-sufficiency and energy and water efficient design, walkable cities and better urban transportation, also help mitigate climate change as well.

This is exciting, empowering and finally a major step in the right direction. And thanks to the Alliance for Resilient Cities, this brave new direction also has leadership.


For more on The Clean Air Partnership and The Alliance for Resilient Cities, presentations from Symposium, as well as the report, Cities Preparing for Climate Change, visit