Thursday, July 31, 2008

Magic and The Monkee

There’s a magic that happens when liked-minded individuals gather together for a common purpose. Their commitment creates a kind of whirlwind that gathers momentum and strength well beyond the limits of the group. Against all odds, they seem to be able to move against the tide and create small miracles in their wake.

“If you look at the science that describes what is happening on Earth today and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t have the correct data,” writes Paul Hawken in Blessed Unrest. “If you meet the people in this unnamed movement and aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a heart.”

Characteristic of these groups is their fundamental understanding that their local efforts extend out into the greater whole. One shining example of this is a small community group called The Friends of Utopia. For almost two decades they have struggled to save an old gristmill and the conservation area that surrounds it. They are currently raising money to renovate Utopia’s old town hall, which will be used to host wedding, parties and other events. The money raised at these events in turn will be used for conservation initiatives. One-third will be used to restore and maintain the 144 year-old Bell’s Gristmill, one-third will go to national conservation projects and the balance will fund international projects dedicated to wildlife conservation. Not bad for a community that boasts a population of exactly 100.

The group’s leader, Susan Antler explained, “When a group of people get together for a common goal, it’s amazing what can happen. The pool of talent and resources that becomes available to you can knock you out of the ballpark.”

Perhaps this is why pop superstar Micky Dolenz offered to perform at a benefit concert for the Friends of Utopia in Toronto earlier this month. Dolenz, the former lead singer of The Monkees, was introduced to Antler by Tyrone Biljan, former president of the Canadian Monkees fan club. Biljan worked at Susan’s marketing company, Visions of Utopia.

“If it’s something that people believe in, they’ll respond,” said Antler. They’ll give you the path, but you have to push the door open.”

When I first heard about the concert, I thought that Dolenz was an odd match for the dedicated Friends of Utopia. After I had an opportunity to speak with Micky before the concert, I realized that his own sense of optimism about our planet was perfectly in line with the optimism and hope of Utopia.

Monkee in the Middle with the two Sue's - Suzanne Elston (right) and Susan Antler (left)

For Dolenz, who had planned to become an architect before his success with The Monkees, the idea of saving an old mill and the lands around it was very appealing.

“I love historic buildings,” he said. “And I’m quite a naturalist. I love to hike out into the Mountains near Soho. Because I understand the science of what’s happening, I’m not going through the current alarmist phrase.”

As Micky explained, natural disasters are part of nature. “I’m not as concerned about greenhouse gas emissions as I am about air quality, and what we’ll do when we run out of energy and have no infrastructure, hospitals or schools.”

He believes that we need to focus our creative energies on finding alternative solutions.

“I have tremendous hope for the future,” said Dolenz. “Everybody talks about saving the planet. The planet will be just fine. And then he added with a smile, “It’s the people that I’m not so sure about.”

“When I lived in Los Angeles in the 1960s, it had the worst air quality on the planet. 40 years later and the air quality is so much better. It’s really quite amazing,” he said. “It could only happen in California because of the lawyers, the politicians and the social infrastructure and mechanisms that existed to make that kind of change happen.”

As Dolenz explained, in terms of the history of the planet, these changes happen in the blink of an eye.

“The beauty of our system is that it can literally change the consensus of a nation in a very short period of time. If you had told anyone in the U.S. five to ten years ago that the top contenders for the presidency would be a black man and a woman, they would have told you that you were out of your mind.”

“Change can come like that,” he said. “I’m an optimist. The Earth heals relatively quickly.”


Blessed Unrest explores the diversity of the movement, its brilliant ideas, innovative strategies, and hidden history.

For more on the story of Utopia, please check out my previous post.

Journey to Utopia

In a world of jaded hopes and mounting cynicism, Susan Antler is an extraordinary and very energetic breath of fresh of air. Professionally, she has worked for the Composting Council of Canada since 1992 and has been the Canadian Program Director of the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC), since the organization was introduced in Canada in 1997. Susan also has her own environmental marketing company called Visions of Utopia.

Despite the success of all of these initiatives, it’s the latter company that gives a hint of where Susan’s true passions lie. She named her company after the small hamlet where she lives - Utopia, Ontario.

For Susan, Utopia has proven to be both a journey and a destination. During her corporate days in the 1980s, she wanted to invest in a home in the country where she could retreat on the weekends – her own little Utopia. At the end of a very long and unsuccessful search, Susan told her real estate that she would look at one more property of the agent’s choosing – as a courtesy – before giving up her quest.

This is precisely how she found herself standing in front of an old wooden sign engraved with the single word, “Utopia”. Despite the fact that she promised herself she would not get sucked in by the hamlet’s poetic name, Susan bought the house that was for sale.

At first she was simply a non-resident of the little hamlet that boasted a population of 76. Named after the novel by Thomas More, Utopia became the site of a gristmill in 1864. A year after it celebrated its 100th birthday, Bell’s Gristmill was closed in 1965. The mill, and the 50 acres of land that surrounded it, became a conservation area under the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority (NVCA).

Like all good epic tales, it was at this point that disaster struck for Susan. Her corporate career ended in 1991 when she was downsized. Always the optimist, Susan pledged to make the environment her priority.

As it turned out, her decision came just in time. Within months she was fighting to save the conservation area near her beloved home from privatization. While Susan and her fellow residents won the initial battle to keep the lands public, their victory was short lived.

By 2000, the mill was falling apart and scheduled for demolition. Once again the Utopians rallied. Between fund raising, grants and other efforts, they managed raise $ 428, 000 – just enough money to restore the historic building.

Unfortunately, even this didn’t prove enough to save the mill.
During the restoration, it was discovered that a diesel fuel leak had contaminated the basement.

Undaunted, the residents offered to share the additional costs for the clean up. The project moved forward for a few months until the town decided to give up its lease on the land.

At this point, even Susan’s eternal optimism was beginning to wear a little thin.

“This is only 50 acres. What am I doing?” Susan asked herself. But then she answered her own question. “It meant something,” she said in an interview. “It went so much further than the land. Utopia represents a way of community living that is quickly disappearing.”

In a bold and strategic move, Susan and her neighbors decided to step up to the plate and asked the NVCA if they could take over the lease. They then got into a battle with the Township who declared that they wanted the land in return for the money that had already been spent on the mill’s restoration.

Both groups were allowed to pitch their vision for the land and gristmill to the full board of the NVCA.

Following the Township’s presentation Susan reviewed the costs of the renovations to this point and made a startling discovery. Despite the fact that the township had championed the management of the restoration efforts, most of the funds had come from provincial grants or the community. For the outstanding amount from Essa - $535.21 – a personal cheque was offered to wipe the debt clean.

Remarkably up until this point, the group that had fought so valiantly to save Bell’s Gristmill was just a group of local neighbors. After the NVCA decided to award the lease to the community, the “Friends of the Utopia Gristmill and Park” was officially established and efforts were renewed to restore the mill and preserve the uniqueness of the Hamlet of Utopia.

The Journey to Utopia continues in my next post, when Susan Antler and the Friends of Utopia enlist the aid of a pop superstar to help save their community’s gristmill.


For more the on efforts to restore Bell’s Gristmill, visit

The Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation is the only industry sponsored, voluntary recycling program in this country.

The Composting Council of Canada

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Edible Estates

When I was a child my family moved to Edmonton in the heart of the Alberta winter. I was fascinated when the snow finally melted and revealed the large vegetable gardens in every backyard in our neighborhood. My father and I dutifully planted our garden, while my mother became an expert at the art of canning and preserving. As a result of our collective labors, getting food for dinner often meant a quick trip to the rows of mason jars carefully stored in the basement.

Even the front yards were put to good use. Many of our neighbors tilled up their lawns and planted potatoes – a staple crop that when harvested in the fall would feed a family over the long winter.

Things have changed. We now import our food from wherever we want and whatever time of the year that suits our fancy. It’s estimated that the average meal travels 2,500 km or more to reach the dinner table. Consider the average breakfast that consists of coffee from South America, orange juice from Florida, California strawberries, and grains from the prairies. Our food is bettered traveled that we are!

This distancing of our food is referred to as food miles. Transporting our food across large distances feeds into a vicious cycle. The further we ship our food, the more gas we consume, which both drives up fuel costs and increases the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, further exacerbating climate change.

As recent headlines will attest, all of this has triggered major global concerns over land use and food production. From the flooding of the American Midwest, to the stockpiling of rice and other staple grains in India and other countries, there is a growing uneasiness about the sustainability of our food system.

In response, there is an increasing interest in locally grown food. It’s fresher, tastes better, and supports local agriculture, which in turn promotes sustainable local economies. Local food advocates will also argue that knowing where your food comes from and how it is grown or raised enables you to choose safe food from farmers who avoid or reduce their use of chemicals, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, or genetically modified seed in their operations.

Maybe it’s time that we revisited the idea of the suburban vegetable patch.

California based architect Fritz Haeg has pushed the idea even one step further by exploring the idea of the front lawn as a food source. In the summer 2005, Haeg began Edible Estates – a conceptual land-art project. The goal was to replace front lawns with edible landscapes. To date Haeg has completed nine such projects in the U.S. and England. The results of his labor are profiled in the recently published book entitled, “Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn.” (Published by Metropolis Books, 2008).

The book features essays by Haeg, landscape architect Diana Balmori, food writer Rosalind Creasy, author Michael Pollan and artist and writer Lesley Stern, as well as personal observations by Edible Estate owners. The result is a combination manifesto, storybook and do-it-yourself manual that takes Haeg’s revolutionary project and challenges the reader to look at food issues in the larger context of environmental sustainability and global food production.

According to Haeg, landscaping accounts for 20 to 50 percent of all residential water use, with the average lawn using more than 325 litres of water daily. If harvested, the 30 million acres of lawn in the United States make would make grass the fifth largest crop in that country. With land use and food production being two of the most significant global challenges today, Haeg’s goal is to have everyone who comes into contact with the project reconsider how they occupy the land.

While it’s unlikely that everyone will immediately go out and till up his or her front lawns to plant edible gardens, the stunning images in Haeg’s book definitely provide food for thought.


For more on the visionary work of Fritz Haeg, visit

To order “Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn” online, go to

If you’re not quite ready to take a tiller to your front lawn, you might want to check out The 100-Mile Diet.

Local Food Plus is an award winning non-profit organization that brings farmers and consumers to the table to share in the benefits of environmentally and socially responsible food production.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

De-Construct Earth

Unlike other species, whose existence is defined by a continuous cycle of birth, life and death, we humans have added a fourth element: construction. We have taken our opposable thumbs and our tremendous little brains and shaped the world to our liking.

This unique ability has enabled us to successfully alter our environment, allowing us to live virtually anywhere. Buildings shelter us from the elements. Vehicles, and the roads that they travel upon, can take us safely and efficiently across town or around the globe. Intricate power systems keep us warm in the winter, cool in the summer, while providing light and energy to do almost anything.

We have also created tremendous art, great literature and breath-taking music and architecture. All in all, we are very clever monkeys.

Most of this pretty much worked in our favor until the last century or so, when it became apparent that we are becoming the victims of our own success. Our population has grown exponentially, pushing the planet’s ability to support us. The chemistry that enabled us to defeat countless diseases and pests has created a whole new generation of cancers and other ailments. The burning of fossil fuels that literally drives our creative engine is altering our planetary ecosystem to the point that it may no longer be able to sustain us.

This last point was driven home last week when Dr. James Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, made a speech to the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Dr. Hansen’s presentation was made exactly 20 years after his testimony to Congress on June 23, 1988, when he first tried to alert the public to the reality of climate change. After two decades, Dr. Hansen’s conclusions haven’t changed much. The only real difference, according to Hansen, is that we have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb.

“What is at stake?” asked Dr. Hansen. “Elements of a “perfect storm”, a global cataclysm, are assembled. Climate can reach points such that amplifying feedbacks spur large rapid changes. Arctic sea ice is a current example. Global warming initiated sea ice melt, exposing a darker ocean that absorbs more sunlight, melting more ice. As a result, without any additional greenhouse gases, the Arctic soon will be ice-free in the summer.”

And that’s just the tip of the melting iceberg. Hansen warned that West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are vulnerable to even small additional warming.

“These two-mile-thick behemoths respond slowly at first, but if disintegration gets well underway it will become unstoppable,” he explained. While there is still some scientific debate as to how much sea levels will eventually go up, Dr. Hansen predicts that by the end of this century we will most likely see a minimum two metre rise.

In addition to creating hundreds of millions of climate refugees, this rise is sea level will destroy many of mankind’s great cities – London, New York, Rio de Janeiro (just to name a few) – and much of the art and architecture that they contain. Rebuilding these cities would be unlikely. As Hansen warns, “No stable shoreline would be reestablished in any time frame that humanity could conceive.”

And maybe that’s the key. We’ve done precious little about the threat of climate change to this point because we really can’t conceive that the things that we’ve constructed to make our lives better – like the family car, air conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter - are actually helping to destroy the planet. But that’s exactly what’s happening.

According to Hansen we need to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide emission below 350 parts per million (ppm) in order to, “Preserve creation, the planet on which civilization developed.”

Hansen’s right, and he’s not alone. There are thousands of scientists who agree that the best time to do something about halting the impacts of climate change was 20 years ago.

The next best time is now. We need to muster all the creative, brilliant juices that got us into this mess in the first place and discover countless imaginative solutions that can get us out. Failure to do so condemns the future of humanity by knowingly jeopardizing the health of Planet Earth.


James Hansen’s June 23rd speech, “Global Warming Twenty Years Later: Tipping Points Near”, and much of his other work, is available at

The Daily Climate provides climate change news from around the world.