Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Ribbon is Passed

A bright light has passed from our world. On January 7, 2009, Justine Merritt – artist, activist, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother – died from pancreatic cancer. She was 84 years old.

Most people haven’t heard of Justine, and yet her extraordinary faith and dedication was a brilliant example of how one solitary life can change the world.

I had the privilege of meeting Justine at the 1992 Earth Summit. We were both staying in a small convent within the Tijuca National Forest, high above the chaos and congestion of Rio de Janeiro. Our days began with a non-denominational church service in the convent’s small chapel. At one service Justine read from her poem, “Gift.” She began,

“For months,
or is it years,
I have carefully,
I have silently prayed to the Creator to spare the ocean’s shells;
for the safe of one lovely shell, I’ve prayed,
do not let the earth be destroyed…”

As she continued to read, I was completely spellbound by the beauty and power of the poem that had been written in answer to a prayer.

A decade earlier, Justine had gone on a retreat to pray for guidance after converting to Catholicism. Divorced with five adult children, she told me later that she secretly hoped she would be guided to become a missionary and travel to Africa. Instead, Justine was inspired to use her passion for needlework to create an extraordinary work of art.

“It occurred to me to tie a ribbon around the Pentagon,” she said. “The ribbon I envisioned would be a symbol of peace, encircling a symbol of war, and it would be tied around the Pentagon in August of 1985, the fortieth anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

The idea was to create a piece of handiwork to depict what the artist couldn’t bear to see lost forever in the event of a nuclear war. In December 1982, Justine sent a mailing to the hundred or so friends and family members on her Christmas card list and asked them to create their own ribbons, and to spread the word to others. It was her hope to have 2,000 segments, (40 from each state) held by 1,000 people around the Pentagon, a distance of approximately one mile.

On August 4th, 1985, a team of nearly 2,000 volunteer coordinators was needed to help organize the 10,000 individuals that had gathered in Washington to fulfill Justine’s vision. Together they tied together 26,000 Ribbons from the United States, Japan, Germany, Canada, New Zealand, France, England, Russia, Guatemala, Peru, Tanzania and The Netherlands, fifteen miles around the Pentagon, Capitol Hill and most of downtown Washington.

After the event in Washington, Justine began to realize the threat of losing a loved one, and the threat of destroying our beautiful planet also wore heavily on the hearts of humanity.

”We are all part of this beautiful tortured Earth,” she said. “There are things that we cannot bear to think of as lost forever.” It was Justine’s prayers and ribbons that took her to Rio in 1992 to participate in the Earth Summit. The Ribbons were used in the opening ceremonies of the Global Forum, as well as in a prayer vigil outside the gates of Rio Centro, where he official UNCED Conference took place.

Justine’s remarkable story didn’t end there. She continued to write and inspire anyone lucky enough to meet her. In her 70s when most would choose to retire, Justine became a pilgrim. She gave up her apartment, sold her worldly possessions, and for years traveled across the United States, often staying with friends – both old and new – spreading her message of love, peace and stewardship for the planet.

Eventually Justine traveled to Rome and presented a ribbon to His Holiness Pope John Paul II in October, 2001.

In recent years, Justine’s failing health limited her travel to trips with her beloved children and grandchildren to the beach near her home in Eugene, Oregon where she died on January 7th.
In eulogizing her mother, her daughter Regna said,

“She showed us that each one of us, drawing on our own creativity, courage and love, can make a huge difference. Each of us can leave a legacy for future generations.”

“Justine changed thousands of hearts and minds through that colorful, peaceful demonstration and through the intense work of building hope. The work she started with the Ribbon continues today internationally. Justine's enormous light has moved on but her spirit and love remain here in our hearts.”


For more on the life of Justine Merritt, visit

A collection of Justine Merritt’s poetry entitled, “Journey”, was published by Hope Publishing in 1993.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Winter Driving

The season is officially only a few weeks old, but that isn’t stopping Old Man Winter from walloping us with what feels like an endless stream of snow storms and bad driving conditions. Despite the sub-zero temperatures outside, it’s hard to keep your cool when you’re stuck inside your car in heavy traffic.

The good news is that there are number of things you can do to reduce your fuel consumption and improve winter driving safety.

For starters, take public transit. Buses are bigger and safer than private automobiles. Use the time to catch up on your reading, have a snooze or do the daily crossword.

Try carpooling. Imagine everyone carpooled with just one other individual. Rush hour traffic would be cut in half, easing congestion and minimizing the risk of sliding into another vehicle when the roads are icy. As an added bonus, carpooling with co-workers gives you the chance to get to know individuals in your company that may work outside your department.

Work from home. Many employers have recognized that telecommuting can actually improve productivity and as a result are encouraging their employees to make creative arrangements that are mutually beneficial. If telecommuting isn’t an option, see if you can work flexible hours that will allow you avoid rush hour traffic. The four-day work week is another solution that is gaining popularity. It has also been proven to improve worker productivity, and it can reduce the need for employee parking spaces.

If you must drive your car, make sure that you and your vehicle are both prepared before heading out. Check that your windshield wipers are in good working order, top up your windshield washer fluid. Add a can of gas line anti-freeze to your tank during extremely cold weather.

Ensure that your tires are properly inflated. Driving on underinflated tires not only makes it more difficult to handle your vehicle in slippery or icy conditions, it can increase your fuel intake by 4 percent. Under inflated tires also wear out much faster than properly inflated tires.

Idling your car in the winter isn’t just bad for the environment; it can be very hard on your car’s engine. Incomplete combustion means that fuel residues can condense on cylinder walls, contaminate engine oil and clog spark plugs. The best way to warm your car up is to drive it. With computer controlled, fuel-injected engines, you need no more than 30 seconds of idling before driving away. Your car's wheel bearings, steering, suspension, transmission and tires only warm up when your car is moving.

Unnecessary car idling isn’t just about personal preference. Natural Resources Canada’s Office of Energy Efficiency (OEE) has identified idling as a significant contributor to global warming. In total, 4 percent of the fuel that we burn in our cars is consumed by idling. According to the OEE, if every driver of a light-duty vehicle reduced their idling by five minutes every day of the year, it would prevent two million tones of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

Ten seconds of idling can use more fuel than turning off your engine and re-starting it. If you’re going to be stopped for more than 10 seconds ~ except in traffic ~ turn off your car. This includes things like drive-thrus, car washes and waiting to pick someone up ~ especially children after school, where exhaust fumes can be particularly damaging to young lungs.

The key to safer winter driving is to slow down whenever conditions are not ideal. This reduces the risk of having an accident and can dramatically cut your fuel consumption. Cutting your speed from 112/km/h to 80 km/h can reduce your fuel consumption by 30 percent and cut harmful nitrogen oxide emissions.

Always take an extra minute to clear all of the snow and ice from your car and make sure that lights and turn signals are visible.

Be prepared for emergencies. Keep your trunk stocked with a heavy blanket, snow shovel, ice scraper and snow brush, flashlight, bag of sand, warning triangles and/or flares, a couple of protein or chocolate bars, a safety candle and matches. (If you get stranded in the snow, the heat from a single candle can mean the difference between life and freezing to death.) If you don’t usually wear winter boots, keep an old pair in the trunk along winter gloves and a hat.

Finally, never let your gas tank drop below the halfway mark.


During the winter months, check the weather before you head out at

Canada's Office of Energy Efficiency can be found at

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Top Environmental Stories of 2008

While the economy captured the lion’s share of news headlines in 2008, there were some significant Canadian environmental stories as well. For the record, here’s my pick of the best and worst of 2008.

In April, Prince Edward Island put an end to the province’s 24-year ban on non-refillable pop containers. PEI had the distinction of being the only jurisdiction in all of North America where pop and beer could only be sold in refillable bottles. The lifting of the “can ban” marked a complete about-face for PEI, which was once touted as Canada’s greenest province.

PEI has lost more than its unique deposit-return system. By bowing to public pressure, PEI has put convenience over environmental stewardship and Canada has lost an environmental icon. PEI’s courageous stand against the mighty soft drink industry was the impetus for the industry’s decision to fund Ontario’s blue box program.

April brought some good news, too. On April 22nd – Earth Day – the Ontario government followed the province of Quebec and introduced legislation to ban the cosmetic use of pesticides. Learning from the lessons learned in Quebec, the Ontario bill extended the list of targeted chemicals, making it one of the toughest pieces of legislation in North America. And unlike municipal by-laws, which can only limit the use of pesticides, Bill 64 will also restrict their sale. The move will replace a variety of by-laws already in communities across Ontario where the cosmetic use of pesticides is banned.

In December, Toronto City Council joined other Canadian cities such as Vancouver and London by banning the sale and distribution of bottled water at City Hall. Arenas and other city-owned facilities won’t have to follow suit until the end of 2011.

What makes this story so significant is that Toronto went through with the ban despite heavy lobbying from the bottled water industry, desperate to preserve the myth that bottled water is a necessary commodity.

The bottling and selling of water is arguably the marketing success story of the century. Specifically, bottled water sales now top $ 100 billion annually, making water the world's fastest growing beverage industry. Small wonder why the bottled water lobbyists worked so hard to prevent a ban by Canada’s largest city.

Perhaps the worst news story for 2008 – the catastrophic downturn in the global economy – might just be the best news story for the environment. For decades environmental leaders have been trying to get the message out that “business as usual” is not sustainable. Stripping the planet of non-renewable resources, creating mountains of toxic waste in the process, and pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere like there is no tomorrow is about an unsustainable as sub-prime mortgages. Sooner or later the system had to collapse.

Change causes upset and there will be a period of adjustment. The good news is that a shift towards more sustainable production and consumption will bring an unprecedented level of economic growth. Green will replace blue as the collar color of choice. Workers will experience greater health and safety on the job, and their families will benefit from a new economy that promises long-term stability and environmental sustainability.

Here’s the key: The economy is a wholly owned subsidy of the environment. Our common wealth isn’t in stocks and bonds; it’s in our environmental resources. If we can master the concept of sustainable production, everyone benefits.

The same can be said for the auto industry, which in the dying days of 2008 threatened to topple the North American economy with its arrogant unwillingness to change. The bailouts offered by both the U.S. and Canadian governments are at the very best short-term band-aids.

The good news is that people still need to get from Point A to Point B. Cars, trucks and other transportation devices will be built and sold. The companies that will both survive – and thrive – in 2009 and beyond, will be those that break the current paradigm and combine alternative fuel innovation, energy efficient design and production.

Last, and definitely not least, is the election of U.S. president Barack Obama. Even if he comes through on a fraction of his election promises, Obama will become the first truly green leader of the new world economy.


For more on the idea of building a sustainable economy, visit

For more on Bill 64 and Ontario’s ban on cosmetic pesticides, visit


The month of January was named after Janus, the two-faced Roman deity, known as the god of doorways, beginnings and endings. While the first of January is generally celebrated to mark the passage into a new year, it is also a time of reflection and retrospection.

For me, the beginning of 2009 has a particular significance. It marks the 20th anniversary of this column. And so in keeping with the spirit of Janus, here’s my list of the top things that have changed the world for the good and the bad over the last twenty years, along with some of my hopes for the future.

In 1989, the idea of curbside recycling was in its infancy. Early recyclers would dutifully pack up their cans and newspapers and drop them off at a depot, that more often than not, had been established a community group.

Today, blue box programs are in place is most cities across Canada. In recent years, curbside organics recycling programs have been introduced, enabling households to divert even more of our waste. Many municipalities now boast diversion rates of more than 50 percent for household waste.

Unfortunately, only 30 to 40 percent of our waste is generated at home, which brings our total national diversion rate is less than 25 percent. The remainder comes from commercial, industrial, construction and demolition sources. In total, Canadians produce more than 31 million tonnes of waste annually, or about 2.7 kilograms per person, per day.

The problem is that as fast as we can figure out ways to reduce our waste, manufacturers come up with exciting new ways to produce it. In 1989, single use products were almost unheard of. Today, virtually every type of consumer product - from razors and toothbrushes to window wipes and toilet bowl brushers - is available as a disposable item.

All this consuming has created a massive inequity in resource distribution. In 1992, 80 percent of the world’s resources were being consumed by 20 percent of the world’s population. Less than a decade later, that same 20 percent was consuming 86 percent of available resources.

In order to provide all these goods and services as cheaply as possible, the last few decades has seen the growth of the mega-corporation. As a result, today 51 of the largest economies in the world are companies, not countries.

The proliferation of drive-thrus is another phenomenon that has made a profound mark on the environment. From Tim Hortons to drive-thru banking and dry cleaning, virtually every service can be accessed from behind the wheel of the family automobile. The result is traffic congestion (particularly at intersections that host a neighborhood Tim’s), unnecessary idling (which translates into increased smog and greenhouse gas emissions) and increased waste from all of those disposable cups and fast food wrappers.

The success of the drive-thru was enabled, in part, by the introduction of the mini-van in the 1980s. Today, the family van has become a home entertainment centre, babysitter, mobile restaurant, status symbol, stress reliever (and creator). It has also helped to create the fattest and most unfit generation of children in human history.

It hasn’t all been doom and gloom. In 1989, the idea of a global network of information was the domain of universities and intelligence officers. One year later, Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web – arguably the single greatest technology achievement of humanity.

Today, the Web provides free access to information to anyone with access to a computer and a phone line. It has successfully leveled the playing field for community and environmental groups and has created an information platform that is global in scope.

The proliferation of the Web has driven the demand for faster, more powerful and compact technologies, which has transformed another 80s innovation, the cell phone. The latest generation of cell phones is thousands of times more powerful than the first personal computers, provides instant access to a global communication network and opens up brave new worlds of ideas and information.

Given all that has happened in the last 20 years, it’s anybody guess what will happen next. But any way you look at it, 2009 is going to be a very interesting year.


For more information about the Internet, check out .

For more information about Janus, or virtually anything else you can think about, spend some time browsing the world’s largest online encyclopedia