Friday, November 23, 2007

Advent Sharing Calendar

As the season of Advent approaches, we begin to dust off those traditions that link one Christmas to another like a string of lights on a tree. For the past several years, I have shared one of my holiday traditions with the readers of this column.

The Advent Sharing calendar was originally created to help us be mindful of those in need during this season of such great excess. This year, more than ever, we need to remember that our planet is in great need, and that the very act of celebrating the holidays can dramatically impact our already stressed ecosystem. As a result, this year's Advent Sharing Calendar will focus on reducing our energy consumption, recycling more and buying less.

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 recycled Christmas paper. Monetary gifts are added every day until the Epiphany (January 6th). Gifts should be added as follows:

December 1st – If you have flood insurance, put a loonie in the box and count yourself lucky.

December 2nd – If your home was untouched by severe weather this year, add another loonie.

December 3rd – If you haven’t prepared an emergency kit for your family, add a toonie and then visit to find out how.

December 4th – If you don’t know why you need an emergency kit, add another loonie and them visit to find out about resilient cities.

December 5th - If you drive a full-sized SUV or van, add $ 5.00. 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 6th - 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 7th– 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 8th – Add 5 cents for every year of your life untouched by natural disasters.

December 9th – Add 25 cents for every produce item you bought this week that was imported from Asia. And then ask yourself why.

December 10th - Add a loonie if you visited a dollar store this week.

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 – Add a toonie if you drive alone to work. Subtract a loonie if you take public transit.

December 13th - If you haven’t checked your tire pressure lately, add another 50 cents. Properly inflated tires not only improve fuel efficiency by 6 to 8 percent, but can also improve the life expectancy of your tires by 30 percent, which means fewer tires in the landfill.

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 a loonie for every disposable or single use product you purchased as a stocking stuffer.

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 generate enough power to run a television for two 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 – Add a loonie for every item of clothing you purchased in the Boxing Day sales that has to be dry-cleaned.

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 start a carpool at work. For more information, visit

January 2nd - Resolve to use less energy this year. Visit and take the pledge!

January 3rd – Resolve to learn more about protecting the environment. Visit

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 Conservation Council of Ontario and The David Suzuki Foundation.

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

Teach Your Children

As the mother of a 13 year-old daughter, I am painfully aware of the pressures that our youngest generation faces. At the risk of sounding annoyingly like my mother, things were so very different when I was a girl. For starters, when I was my daughter's age, my friends and I walked everywhere. The daily ritual of our 20-minute walk to school (and back) kept us reasonably fit. It also provided us with some critical bonding time. We talked about our adolescent crushes, unfinished homework, plans for the future, fights with our parents. Getting a ride to school was a rare treat that was reserved for days when the weather was just too severe to walk, or a project was just too big to carry. In the evening, we'd often walk for hours, visiting the local park or stopping at the local plaza for a snack before we walked home.

By contrast, the majority of kids today are either bused or chauffeured to school, sports and extra curricular activities every day. Kids who want to walk or ride their bikes are discouraged for safety reasons. The result is that the traffic jams inschool parking lots rival serious backups on our highways during rush hour.

Traffic jams in the school parking lot aren't the only problem that this creates for the chauffeured generation. Our kids are the fattest and most physically unfit generation in history. The time that my generation spent walking and talking with friends is now spent on MSN, Facebook, text messaging or watching television. Even when kids are together, chances are they’re not talking to each other. The prevalence of cell phones means that they're talking (usually rather loudly) to someone else.

If you ask most parents why they chauffeur their kids around and pay for expensive cell phones, chances are they will say it's because they want their kids to be safe. They'll cite rising crime rates, gun violence, sexual assault and abductions as a primary motivators. In reality, crime rates have dropped dramatically over the last ten years. According to Statistics Canada, from 1996 to 2006, sexual assaults dropped 26 percent, abductions dropped by 50 percent and other sexual offences dropped by 24 percent. Homicide dropped by 14 percent and attempted murder dropped by 12 percent.

Here's the Catch 22. Despite the decline in crime rates, our children still are at greater risk - not from guns and sexual assault, but from urban air pollution, caused by the very vehicles we try to cocoon them in.

Dr. David McKeown, Toronto's Medical Officer of Health, released a report earlier this month that links serious illness and premature death to traffic related air pollution. In 2004, Toronto Public Health conducted a study that linked overall air pollution to 1,700 premature deaths each year. This new report, Air Pollution Burden of Illness from Traffic in Toronto, shows that 440 of these deaths are associated with air pollution generated specifically from vehicle traffic.

"For the first time in Ontario, we have isolated the health impacts of vehicle emissions, and can demonstrate the potential health benefits of moving to a more sustainable transportation system," said Dr. McKeown. "A 30 per cent reduction in motor vehicle emissions in Toronto could save nearly 200 lives a year and significantly reduce hospitalization and illness, and associated economic impacts."

Young lungs are extremely vulnerable to air pollution and smog caused by vehicle exhaust. A report released last year by the Commission for Environmental Co-operation states that the incidence of asthma among children in North America is four times higher than it was 20 years ago.

To make matters worse, because our kids are being chauffeured everywhere, they are literally becoming fat and lazy. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, childhood obesity rates in Canada have tripled over the last 20 years.

In trying to keep our kids safe and secure, it would appear that we are literally killing them with kindness.


The Toronto Board of Health report, including a technical summary, is posted at

The Commission for Environmental Cooperation is an international organization created by Canada, Mexico and the United States to address regional environmental concerns, help prevent potential trade and environmental conflicts, and to promote the effective enforcement of environmental law.

The Canadian Centre for Health Information

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Anti-Christ(mas)

The pumpkins have barely begun to rot on the compost heap, and already the season of consumption and toys is upon us. Small wonder. Yahoo reports that two-thirds of our economy is driven by consumer spending. With 70 percent of that spending occurring between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the race is on to capture the imagination and wallets of the buying public.

We all know this stuff. And yet we still get sucked into the desire to do more, to buy more. Clearly the estimated $417 billion that will be spent globally on advertising this year is having an effect. Aside from the obvious credit card debt at the end of the season, we need to understand that there is a much bigger price to pay for our rampant consumerism. According to The Worldwatch Institute, Canada and the United States make up 5.2 percent of the world's population, and yet our portion of private consumption expenditures is 31.5 percent, or more than six times what could be considered our fair share - if fairness had anything to do with it.

Thanks to increased trade with China and other developing countries, consumer goods keep getting cheaper and cheaper, which means we're buying more stuff. This in turn further depletes our resources, fills our garbage dumps with packaging, and single use items as well as other junk. All this uses up finite oil reserves, the burning of which further contributes to climate change. This is supposedly done in the spirit of "Peace on Earth, Goodwill towards Men."

Enter the Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir. They believe that consumerism is overwhelming our lives. We define the quality of our lives through the use of various consumer products that give us gorgeous hair, flawless white teeth, sex appeal, the perfect home, car, home entertainment system or cell phone. On Friday, November 16th, according to Reverend Billy, the Shopocalypse ends. That's when the good Reverend and the Church of Stop Shopping will hit the road in two bio-diesel buses to bring their anti-consumerism messages to the malls of America, just in time for the holiday rush toward the final day of shopping judgment: Christmas.

The tour is set to coincide with the release of The Church of Stop Shopping's new film, What Would Jesus Buy?, which premieres in cities across the US and Canada on November 21st.

"The corporations want us to have experiences only through their products. Our neighborhoods, "commons", places like stoops and parks and streets and libraries, are disappearing into the corporatized world of big boxes and chain stores," says the group's Statement of Beliefs. "But if we back away from the product - even a little bit - well then we put The Odd Back In God! The supermodels fly away and we're left with our original sensuality. We like independent shops where you know the person behind the counter or at least - you like them enough to share a story. Remember children ... Love is a Gift Economy!"

If all of this religious furor is a little too much for you, there's always Buy Nothing Day (BND). Celebrated annually on November 23 in Canada and the US (and on November 24th around the world), BND has become a global phenomenon. The Adbusters Media Foundation started this made-in-Canada celebration in Vancouver 15 years ago. This year, environmentalists, social activists and concerned citizens in as many as 65 countries will hit the streets for a 24-hour consumer fast.

Kalle Lasn, the co-founder of Adbusters, explains that while most participants used to see the day simply as an escape from the marketing mind games and frantic consumerism that have come to characterize modern life, the focus has since shifted due to the new political mood surrounding climate change. 

"So much emphasis has been placed on buying carbon offsets and compact fluorescent light bulbs and hybrid cars that we are losing sight of the core cause of our environmental problems," notes Lasn. "Driving hybrid cars and limiting industrial emissions is great‚ but they are band-aid solutions if we don't address the core problem: we have to consume less."

It's important to recognize that Buy Nothing Day isn't just about not shopping for one day.

"With over six billion people on the planet, it is the responsibility of the most affluent - the upper 20 percent that consumes 86 percent of the world's resources - to set out on a new path," said Lasn. That's truly a gift worth giving.


For more on Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, visit

Find out how easy it is to celebrate Buy Nothing Day. Check out

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


This past week four seemingly unrelated events wound together to weave a very important warning.

The first event was the devastating fires in southern California. Multi-million dollar homes located on some of the most expensive and desirable real estate on the planet were consumed by fire as quickly as matchsticks. What made the fires even more frightening was the randomness of their path. While some homes remained unscathed, others were burned to the ground.

The second event (if it can be called that) was the airing of a new television commercial. The entire commercial was shot from the inside of a family van. As the passengers cruise along the interior is described as an entertainment room (children watching videos on two overhead screens), a family room (second row of seats is swiveled backward and family plays a game on a central table), a dining room (family is chowing down on a fast food meal), and finally, a bedroom (contented child is sleeping). What's so fascinating about the ad is that there is no mention about why we buy vehicles in the first place, which essentially is to get from A to B. More to the point, it doesn't seem to matter.

The third event was a tragic accident that occurred last week. A woman was busy talking on her cell phone while driving her car. As she approached an intersection, the light went amber. Rather than slowing down, she accelerated her vehicle, hoping to sneak past the tail of the vehicle that was turning left in front of her. Distracted by her conversation she misjudged the gap and she collided with the other vehicle. The woman's life ended instantly.

What connects these stories together is that each one, in its own way, is a tale of separation and denial. We create barriers between ourselves and the world around us, arrogantly assuming that in doing so we are protected from the forces of nature that control the destiny of all living things.

This ability to rise above our environment is both a blessing and a curse. 200,000 years ago when we first started walking upright across the plains of Africa, we would probably have been voted "most unlikely to survive." We were small, had no body armor, no claws or killer canines, and we weren't particularly fast runners or climbers. What we did have was a brain, and that was our saving grace. This remarkable brain enabled us to do what no other species could - imagine the future of possibilities.

"Foresight was our greatest strength," said Dr. David Suzuki at recent business conference. "Our ability to see what was coming and avoid it, is at the very heart of what it means to be human." Dr. Suzuki was speaking to delegates at The Sustainable Operations Summit at Niagara-on-the-Lake. The summit was organized to help business and government leaders network and find solutions to our looming ecological crisis.

The problem, as Dr. Suzuki presented it, is that we have outsmarted ourselves. We have used our science and technology to protect us from the environment around us, and in doing so we are destroying the ecosystem that sustains all life. Unfortunately we are so isolated, so comfortable, so unbelievably arrogant, that we literally can't see that we are in serious danger until our homes burn to the ground around us, or we drive headlong into disaster.

"There is no environment out there," said Dr. Suzuki. "We literally are the environment." Despite our air-conditioned vans, our million dollar, climate controlled homes, our air bags and our cell phones; we still are as vulnerable as our ancestors were in ancient Ethiopia.

What's needed, according to Suzuki, is to reconnect with the science that brought us here in the first place. For more than half a century, scientists have been warning that the burning of fossil fuels to heat and air condition our homes and drive our vehicles was literally changing the climate. But because the change wasn't imminent, we have ignored their warnings until it is almost too late.

"We are turning our backs on the very survival of the species," said Suzuki. Despite his truly sobering message, Suzuki believes that there is still hope.

"There are answers out there," said Dr. Suzuki. "Let's get started."


"Solutions are in our nature," says the David Suzuki Foundation. Take the Nature challenge and find out how you can protect the environment and our quality of life for future generations. Visit

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

How Green is the Black Dog?

For The Black Dog Pub, going green is just part of doing business. The owner and staff of the popular restaurant, which is located right on the border of Toronto and Pickering, decided less than a year ago to take their personal concern for the environment and translate it into the pub’s operations.

"A bunch of the staff got together and we decided it was the right thing to do," said Amanda Firth, one of the Black Dog's assistant managers. She says that the changes were not only the right ones to make from an environmental perspective, but from a business one as well.

So exactly how green is The Black Dog? I recently paid the pub a visit to find out for myself. My first impression was that it was just another popular pub. Nicely decorated, predictably noisy (it was a Friday night) with lots of pub-like atmosphere.

And then I saw the menu. For starters, it's printed on post consumer recycled paper and printed with soy-based ink. In addition to traditional pub fare like bangers and mash and steak and kidney pie, it offers a full range of vegetarian and organic dishes. As an added touch, the menu also identifies "heart smart" items - a practice that has won The Black Dog the Eat Smart Award of Excellence from the Toronto Board of Health.

Perhaps the restaurants most unusual (and environmentally sound) practice is the commitment to buy locally, whenever possible. The wine list focuses on selections from the Niagara Region, which according to the menu "Produces some very exceptional wines that do not have to travel halfway around the globe to get here." For those who prefer bottled water, the Black Dog only offers water that is bottled locally in Caledon, Ontario, in refillable glass bottles. The coffee is 100 percent organic, fair-trade (which means the growers are paid a fair price for the beans.) Food for the restaurant is also bought locally and all of the vegetables are 100 percent organic.

"We proudly support local farmers, ranchers, and foragers," boasts the menu, "and are dedicated to using organic, chemical free and genetically unaltered produce whenever possible."

If that wasn't enough, the menu lists some of the many green ideas that have been implemented at the restaurant that go well beyond what’s for dinner and encourages patrons to, "Take these ideas home and to work."

For example, water is diverted off the restaurant's roof into a reservoir and is used to water flowers and gardens, including the rooftop garden that provides a seasonal supply of organic herbs. Used cooking oil (which is trans-fat free) is recycled into biodiesel fuel. All paper products, including serviettes, napkins and toilet paper, are made post-consumer, recycled, unbleached paper. Take out containers are also made from post-consumer, recycled fibers and are biodegradable.

The restaurant's many energy and water saving programs include the use of low-watt bulbs, timers and dimmers. Washroom and storage rooms are equipped with motion sensors that automatically shut off the lights when unoccupied. The washrooms are also equipped with flush control devices to minimize water use.

Even the candles are green. Petroleum-based wax candles were replaced with 100 percent clean-burning, soy-based ones. Cleaning supplies are all made from safe, eco-friendly formulas. Staff uniforms are made from hemp and bamboo, which according to the menu saves, "thousands of gallons of water and pesticides and acres of valuable farmland."

The Black Dog scores top marks in the waste department, too. All of the food waste generated is composted and all paper, plastic and glass is recycled. Suppliers are encouraged to minimize their packaging.

One of the best things about The Black Dog is that all of the environmental changes and improvements made at the restaurant are transparent. The atmosphere is warm and inviting, the service is excellent and the menu has something for everyone. And while I was prepared to pay a little extra for being green, I was pleasantly surprised when we got our bill. The total bill for a party of five was less than $200 (or about $35 to 40 per person) and included appetizers, wine, entrees, dessert, coffee and tea.

While there currently are no plans to open more Black Dogs, the restaurant's success provides an excellent business model for others to follow. The pub is hugely popular and has been given 51 awards (and counting) including "Best Organic Restaurant."

"We decided to run with it and it's been fantastic," said Amanda Firth proudly. "We’ve added to our customer base while maintaining our existing clientele." Now that's something to bark about!


To find out more about the Black Dog visit