Friday, December 28, 2007

Resolutions or Revolution

It's that time of the year again. The only thing between us and the end of the holiday season is New Year's Eve, and with it come the dreaded New Year's Resolutions.

There are several problems with New Year's Resolutions. First, they usually require a lot of effort. That's why we put them off from year to year. Secondly, they can also be really unpleasant - again, another reason to procrastinate. Thirdly, they are usually either so far beyond our grasp (I promise to lose 50 pounds by spring) or so ridiculous (I promise to lose 50 pounds by spring) that we never really have a chance of succeeded with any of them.

This year, resolve not to resolve. Instead, make a commitment to change the world. If you think that's really beyond your grasp, think again. A delightful new movement called We Are What We Do has created an equally delightful book entitled, Change the World for Ten Bucks: 50 ways to make a difference.

To quote the We Are What We Do's website, "We're not another charity. We're not an institution. We Are What We Do is a movement. We'd like to inspire people to use their everyday actions to change the world. Whoever they are. And wherever they are. And that includes you.

We've created 50 simple, everyday actions that can improve our environment, our health, and our communities, making our planet and the people on it much happier. We started by putting these actions in a book, but the whole movement is getting bigger. And bigger."

We Are What We Do began in the UK in 2004 and has spread like wildfire around the world. The growing success of the movement is simple. Where else can you change the world, feel good and have fun for ten dollars? Truth is, you don't even need ten dollars. The 50 tips printed in the book are also available online. But having spent ten minutes reading the book, I can guarantee you'll want to own it.

More importantly, the money from the sale of the books is helping to change the world. The money raised from UK sales now helps over 50,000 vulnerable children, young people and adults every year and has also helped to launch We Are What We Do in Canada. Buying the book will help to make the Canadian chapter self-sufficient and allow them to expand their projects into a schools program, national action days and other books and cool stuff to keep people inspired.

So, how do change the world, with or without ten bucks?

You can start with Action #1,"Learn mouth to mouth resuscitation". As the book says, "Give someone a kiss they’ll remember the rest of their life.” Hopefully you'll never have to use this particular skill, but simply knowing that you have the power to save someone's life can really change your attitude about the power that one individual can have to do good in this world.

"Spending time with someone from a different generation" is Action #14 and comes with a lovely picture of an old black man wearing a T-shirt that says, "Talk to old people, they know cool stuff you don't." His arm is wrapped around a young white boy whose T-shirt reads, "Talk to young people, they know cool stuff you don't."

Then there’s Action #28, "Hang your clothes out to dry. If don't think that this can make a difference, consider the fact that one load of laundry in the dryer uses enough energy to make 250 pieces of toast. Wow.

How about Action #35, "Write to someone who inspired you." The funny thing about teachers, writers, community and other leaders is that more often than not they have no idea that what they are doing is inspiring someone else. Tell them.

No more samples. You'll have to go online and check it out for yourself, or spend ten dollars and help start a revolution.

What a great way to start the New Year!


Resolve to find out more about this simple little idea that is changing the world, one action at a time. Visit

Change the World for Ten Bucks is published by New Society Publishers and is worth ten times the ten bucks that it costs. The book can be ordered online at

Monday, December 24, 2007

Snow Blind

In the past I used to revel in a good blizzard. A thick blanket of snow seemed to calm the spirit and quiet the land. People had the good common sense to stay indoors, light a fire and enjoy the beauty. Kids would bundle up and play for hours outside, building snow forts, making snow angels, and generally indulging in the joy that only an unexpected snow day can bring.

Last Sunday as we watched our driveway disappear under a very thick blanket of snow, we decided not to fight it. The trip to the mall to do some last minute Christmas shopping was cancelled and instead we all indulged in the rare treat of an afternoon nap. It was glorious.

The morning after the storm I still couldn't get my car out of the driveway, so my husband Brian drove me to work in his little 4-wheel drive CRV. I thoroughly enjoyed being in the passenger seat, and despite having to cancel the list of errands that I had planned to run at lunchtime, it was wonderful not having to drive for an entire day.

By Tuesday I was back behind the wheel. Any sense of joy to the world had disappeared. Rather than being refreshed by a day of restricted driving, people seemed angry that Ma Nature had managed to get the upper hand for a couple of brief but shining moments. They were mad as hell and simply weren't going to take it anymore.

Cars cut in front of me, making really dangerous and stupid moves in the name of inching ahead a car length or two. The spirit of the season was nowhere to be found as angry motorists refused to yield to vehicles stuck on side streets.

Brian reported the same thing. At one point a young boy was playing on the snow banks piled high on the road. He began to lose his balance and started to tumble into the roadway. Brian honked his horn and slowed down, hoping to alert the child to the danger he was facing. Instead of stopping what he was doing, the boy looked directly at Brian and raised a defiant middle finger as he continued to roll into the path of oncoming traffic.

I am saddened beyond belief. In this season of supposed goodwill towards men - and women - we are so absorbed with our sense of entitlement that we refuse to yield to anyone or anything.

That, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with our world, and what's killing our home - the planet Earth. We refuse to give up anything that we perceive to be our God given right - even if it means killing ourselves, or the ones that we love. We are literally blinded by our own self-importance.

My niece calls the worst of us MIPs - More Important People. These are the people who truly believe that they are so much more important than anyone else that they double park in the driveway at the mall, leave their cars running while they run inside to buy whatever they perceive they need or want, and refuse to yield to anyone. These are also the same people who are likely to drive Hummers (like the idiot who cut in front of me earlier this week and then slammed on his brakes to make a U-turn in front of oncoming traffic) or big pig SUVs or bizarre hybrids that are neither truck nor luxury car but consume enough gas to power both.

A good friend used to say that the one with the most toys at the end wins. The question is, "Wins what?"

Here's the sad irony. Nobody gets out alive. In the end there is only the Universe and us. Each day is a precious gift. Each breath we take is a miracle, that is so far unseen anywhere else in that great black eternity of space. We don't need to destroy this garden paradise to prove that we are important. We are unique. How much more important can you get?

Maybe that's why after 2,000 years of bullying our way through time and space there is something in our collective unconsciousness that makes us stop on this the darkest and longest night of the year. Somewhere there is something that makes us light up the night and sing songs of great joy. Maybe, just maybe there is hope after all.


As 180 world leaders gathered last week in Bali for the 13th annual International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), protests broke out in cities around the world. In demonstrations reminiscent of the anti-war protests of the 1960s, hundreds of people in 70 countries around the world spoke with one voice, "It's time for action."

For decades we have veiled our inaction on such pressing global issues as climate change, loss of biodiversity and water scarcity with that catchall phrase, "growing concern for the environment." Growing concern for the homeless has never built a shelter. Growing concern about AIDS has never provided life saving drugs or worked to find a cure. Growing concern about violence and hatred has never stopped a war. Growing concern about anything only serves to quiet our conscience and make us somehow feel better, safer, about the world around us.

As long as we use the term "growing concern" to try and justify our self-serving inaction, the planet will continue to degrade, the air will become increasingly difficult to breathe, climate change will continue to bring us bigger, more violent, more devastating storms and those of us who are lucky enough remain to relatively unscathed by all of this will cling to our lifeboats and mutter, "I'm really concerned."

Our concern is as insubstantial as the prayers we offer without our personal pledge to do what we can to translate those prayers into reality. Mother Teresa offered many prayers, and for every prayer she offered, she took action. We loved her for it, we’ve canonized her for it, but precious few of us would ever consider walking in her shoes for even a day, let alone a lifetime.

The problem, of course, is that we are the only species on the planet that can predict what's going to happen and so we have spent much of recorded history attempted to alter the course of the future. Procrastination simply doesn’t exist anywhere outside the human condition. We invest in RSPs, mortgages and mutual funds. We even attempt to provide security for our children by setting up registered education funds so they can have the kind of security we want to believe that we already possess.

Not so. We are one good Katrina away from living in a lifeboat, one good drought from wasting away into dust. If we somehow think that it can't happen here, it's time to think again. It doesn't matter that at least for now we are safely shuttling ourselves back and forth between our thermostatically controlled homes and offices in the mobile living rooms known as vans. It is all an illusion. We are all in the lifeboat and the only thing that going to stop her from sinking is if we all start bailing - now.

I am reminded of the life that we celebrate at this time of year - a life of desperate poverty, hardship and persecution. His life mattered because He took action, despite the consequences he knowingly faced. The Civil rights movement was born because a tired woman by the name of Rosa Parks took action by sitting down and refusing to move. The Berlin Wall came down because people took action and literally tore it down one brick at a time.

Life was never meant to be comfortable or secure. The very act of birth itself is violent and bloody - not the warm fuzzy event the media likes to portray. And so it should be. We are the only planet in the Universe that we know for sure contains life. Those are incredible odds, but what's even more incredible is that we have made ourselves so comfortable.

So how bad is it? According to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report released in preparation for the Bali meeting, eleven of the last twelve years rank among the twelve warmest years in the instrumental record of global surface temperature. The temperature increase is widespread over the globe, and is greater at higher northern latitudes. The average sea level has risen since 1961 because of thermal expansion, melting glaciers and ice caps, and the polar ice sheets. The polar caps are melting and mountain glaciers and snow cover on average have declined in both hemispheres. In short, the lifeboat is about to get swamped. We're way past concern. Radical, meaningful and immediate action is the only course available. It's time. Get out of your comfortable chairs and take action.


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s current report can be found at

Climate Change 101: Understanding and Responding to Global Climate Change is available at

David's Gift

I believe in miracles. I believe that the darkest hour is always just before the dawn and that one individual can make a difference. And I also believe that most people believe in these things, too.

Think about Christmas. Christ wasn't born in the winter. According to biblical scholars, he was most likely born sometime in late August. We celebrate his birth at the passing of the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, because out of the darkness comes light and the miracle of hope. Even in our increasingly non-Christian society, the appeal of Christmas, of lighting our way out of the darkness, remains.

And so for years now, I've rejoiced in the dark days that precede Christmas. I've sat out in the snow and wondered, how 2000 years later, the weather seems to paint the perfect landscape for the birth of Jesus. The sparkle of Christmas lights on the freshly fallen snow stirs up magical images of that first night, and the star that lead the shepherds to the stable. There is glory in the idea that hope comes, not in the flash of lightning or the movement of great powers, but in the simple, miraculous birth of a child in a manger. And that one life, however short, can make a difference.

Last weekend after we put up our Christmas tree, we sat and watched one of my very favourite Christmas programs, "A Charlie Brown's Christmas". My thoughts turned to David, an incredible young man who also loved Charlie Brown.

David was only nine years old when he was diagnosed with cancer. At first the doctors were very optimistic. His parents were told that his particular cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, responded well to chemotherapy. But each round of therapy brought more bad news, and the doctors at Sick Kids in Toronto began running out of treatment options.

While we all prayed for a miracle to save David's life, the true miracle of this tragic tale was David himself. When he was first diagnosed, his main concern was that he would miss the auditions for his school presentation of "Your a Good Man, Charlie Brown". David convinced the teacher directing the play to delay the auditions until his first round of chemo was complete so that he could have a crack at the role of Linus. Not only did he get the part, but his performance stole the show. A talented artist, David whiled away the hours in hospital by drawing the poster to promote the play's performances. That year for Halloween, instead of trying to hide his bald head and pale complexion, David celebrated it and went out trick or treating as a ghoul.

Throughout the course of his treatment, David endured countless indignities, pain and trips to the hospital with grace and courage. Along the way he and his family won the hearts and minds of everyone who heard David's story. David's battle brought the hopes and fears of all the years together in one valiant fight. It was in the darkest days before Christmas that David's light shone its fiercest.

It seems inconceivable to me that David lost his courageous battle almost ten years ago. After bringing so much light to so many people, it was strangely fitting that David left this world not in the winter, but on the eve of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. He died before the sun went down, in that eternal twilight that is endless summer. We should all have as much style and grace as that little boy possessed in his short but magnificent life.

That year, and every year since, David's gift to me has been the lesson that there is joy even in pain and that each one of us can touch the lives of those around us in the most profound of ways. The miracle that we celebrate every year at this time is the reminder that even on the darkest and coldest nights of the year there is magic and wonder in the birth of every child, and that each and every one of us can make a difference.

In the words of David's favorite cartoonist, Charles M. Schultz, "And that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."


Looking for a special gift for the person on your list who has everything? The Sick Kids Foundation's "Tribute Recognition Funds," can be established in honor (or in memory) of others. Tributes in David Schneider's memory can be sent to the "New Agents and Innovative Therapies Fund". For more information, visit

Green Christmas

I'm a Christmas junkie. I love everything about the holidays - the carols, trimming the tree, decking the halls with boughs of holly and decorating our house with Christmas lights, inside and out. In an effort to reconcile my ecological self with my passion for all things Christmas, we've made some modifications that have netted some substantial energy and monetary savings.

Over the past couple of years we've gradually replaced all of our incandescent lights with LEDs or light-emitting diodes. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) LEDs work by employing semiconductor technology to convert electricity directly into light. The result is that they are up to 90 percent more efficient than incandescent C-7 bulbs.

The first to go were the tree lights. While it took me a couple of days to get used to the fact that the lights didn't appear to twinkle quite as brilliantly, we soon discovered a major bonus that we hadn't counted on. LEDs stay remarkably cool to the touch, significantly reducing the fire hazard posed by incandescent lights.

This is particularly important if you have a real tree. At end of the first season we used LEDs, we noticed that the boughs were still very supple. As a further bonus, the tree dropped very few needles, which meant the daily ritual of vacuuming them up was no longer necessary.

This year we've taken advantage of the Ontario Power Authority's rebate coupons and replaced all of our exterior lights as well.

To find out exactly how much energy we'll save, I checked out the latest issue of Greentips, the monthly publication of the UCS. It states that LEDs use approximately 0.04 watt of electricity, compared with 0.45 watt for a mini incandescent light bulb or 7 watts for a C-7 incandescent bulb. According to the UCS, this year's holiday lights will potentially generate as much pollution as 250,000 cars - that translates into a tremendous expense and a needless waste.

Using the UCS's calculations, and using a price of 5.3 cents per kilowatt-hour (which is what we currently pay), it would cost about 15 1/2 cents to use 300 LED lights for five hours per day, for 45 days. By comparison, using incandescent mini lights or C-7 lights for the same period of time would cost about $1.60 and $25.00 respectively.

Based on energy savings alone, it's easy to see how quickly LEDs can pay for themselves. When you factor in that LEDs can last up to 100,000 hours (or about 20 years), that their small size makes them much less likely to break, and that you never have to climb up on the roof to replace a burned out bulb, the investment pays for itself many times over.

One more point to consider. Because they use such little energy, you can connect up to 25 strands of LEDs without overloading a circuit.

Regardless of what kind of festive lighting you choose, the UCS recommends that the strategic use of mirrors and tinsel can dramatically enhance lighting.

Another great way to maximize the efficiency of any lights is to use automatic timers. Several years ago my husband Brian installed X-10 modules to control all of our lighting. A computer program means that our lighting is set to correspond with our activities, room by room.

While it all sounds rather complicated, X-10 modules are relatively inexpensive units that are fairly simple to install. The modules use existing house wiring to manage electricity consumption with the aid of either a control device or a family computer. In our case an ancient Mac IIsi computer, which would have otherwise been destined for the dump, runs our house.

In addition to saving energy, using X-10s during the holidays has a number of advantages. As a deterrent to would-be thieves, the units are programmed to turn music and lights on and off at intervals even when we're not home. For Christmas junkies like me, X-10s also mean that you don't have to turn off the tree before retiring at night.


For more information about how to use X-10 modules to control your energy use, run your home and have fun, visit

To subscribe to the Union of Concerned Scientists Greentips newsletter, visit

The Ontario Power Authority (OPA's mandate is help ensure the long-term reliability and sustainability of the electricity system for the benefit of Ontario’s consumers. To receive the OPA's email bulletins, visit