Category Archives: food

New Year’s Resolutions

Today’s Metro Morning asked people to call in with their new year’s resolutions for the city of Toronto, which were then commented on by guest Glen Murray. They only had time for three callers (unless I missed the beginning), and their resolutions were:

  1. Close Bay Street to private vehicles.
  2. Increase the number of recycling options.
  3. More affordable housing.

Based on these calls, I will now conclude that if an election were held tomorrow, I’d get 66.6% of the vote and Michael Shapcott would get the other 33.3%. (Note: not a scientific poll.)

The question got me thinking though, and I decided to create my own top ten environmental new year’s resolutions for anyone wondering what they can do. The catch is that these kinds of lists are already everywhere, and I didn’t want to be boring. So, things like “drive less, replace your light bulbs, and recycle” didn’t make the cut. I’m assuming you already know that. These resolutions also ask a little bit more of you. Sorry about that.

Here, off the top of my head, are ten other things you may or may not have thought of or already be doing.

  1. Eat less meat. We already eat too much for our health anyway, and meat is a very inefficient (albeit admittedly delicious) way of producing food energy. It takes more resources (food, land, water, etc) to produce meat than it does to eat lower on the food chain.
  2. Eat more locally. The average meal travels further than it needs to, which contributes to climate change, damages local economies, and generally makes your food less yummy.
  3. Eat more organically. (Yes, I did skip breakfast.) Did you know that agribusiness uses petroleum and natural gas-based fertilizers and pesticides? And that it’s only because of this infusion of oil that we’re able to grow as much food as we do? And that oil production will likely peak sometime between last year and ten or twenty years from now? Because I didn’t know that until a few years ago, and it’s a pretty big deal that we should all be aware of. We are, in effect, “eating oil,” in that much of the food we grow wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Buy foods that avoid the use of artificial fertilizers.
  4. Take transit less. I actually got this tip from the now defunct One Tonne Challenge (this link is pretty funny and demonstrative), which advised me that since I don’t drive very much, and since even public transit uses energy, biking and walking would further reduce my carbon emissions. Also, biking is awesome.
  5. Start a garden. This relates to #2. If you’ve got a back yard, this should be fairly simple. If you live in an apartment building or condo, you’ve got a little more work to do, but it’s still possible.
  6. Buy less. My brother is returning from a trip to Kenya today, and he’s assured me that the impoverished Kenyans he met are, on average, happier and more life-loving than us wealthy Canadians. Almost everything we buy ends up in the garbage eventually anyway. The first and most forgotten R (of the three R’s) is the most important.
  7. Produce some of your own power. If wind or solar (either passive or active) work where you live, consider getting them installed. If not, maybe you have a geothermal option. If you live in a condo this isn’t impossible, but obviously you’ll have to either talk your board into it or get elected to the board yourself.
  8. Buy power from Bullfrog. Easier than #7, as they’ve already done the legwork.
  9. Reduce your overall footprint. Using this ecological footprint calculator may give you some insight into what sorts of actions have the greatest effect.
  10. Add your own tip by commenting on this page. (Note: Blogger comments have been buggy recently, but they’re still being saved. Even if it says “0 Comments” below, clicking on that link may reveal that there actually are comments.)

Hope that’s been helpful and/or interesting, and, of course, not too preachy. If not, that’s what tip number ten is for.

Speech to the Friends of Durika Conference and AGM

For the record, the following is the text I roughly spoke from at today’s Friends of Durika conference. It may or may not make a compelling blog entry, but this seemed like a good place to park it anyway.

I’m glad to hear, in Kim’s introduction this afternoon, that we have something in common. You’re crazy. Me too. I run for a political party that, we were told, was never going to be taken seriously. And I advocate solutions to our problems that, we are told, are unrealistic. People say we’re crazy, and they tell us to “get real.”

At the same time, I’m a little humbled to be here, and I’ll tell you why. Earlier today I was speaking with a woman who was at the founding convention of the Green Party. (For the record, I wasn’t there, and would have been in diapers if I was.) She’s still involved, but her energy has become diverted to other organizations and action as well. In her words, “I got less political and more hands on.” Of course, that’s like you folks.

You got real. You’re accomplishing real things and demonstrating that the solutions that people like us advocate to the many threats facing our species and our planet are realistic solutions. And though the process we discover that what’s actually unrealistic is the path that we’re on now.

Today I want to talk about how we make political rhetoric real. And specifically, I’m going to talk about what language we use to bring others to our side. Because that’s part of my role as a politician: to speak to people in a way that they understand and that will ultimately cause them come to adopt my point of view. And I hope that’s what I can contribute to the discussion today.

First want to start by giving you a brief primer on the Green Party of Canada, so that you know where I’m coming from and can see how much common ground we share.

By way of introducing you to the Green Party, I want to start with a bit of a disclaimer. And that is simply that I don’t want to speak to you in a partisan way. That’s possible, because in many ways, the Green Party is a non-partisan political party. Both our membership, and our policies, come from the other three major Canadian political parties. We say that we are neither left nor right, but out front.

But what, exactly, does that mean? In part, it means that instead of subscribing to a political ideology of left or right, we have adopted the six key values of the Global Green movement. Those values are:

  • Ecological Wisdom
  • Social Justice
  • Participatory Democracy
  • Non-Violence
  • Sustainability
  • Respect for Diversity

And I know that last one is very important for Durika as well, thinking of your work towards biodiversity.

Sometimes it’s strange to speak to a group like this because, in some ways of course, I’m preaching to the choir. So I thought an interesting thing for us to talk about today would be: “how do we make the choir bigger?” Politics is about using language to persuade other people of your position, towards the goal of getting your ideas implemented. So let’s look at the language we use.

Green is the new black. Green is sexy. A few years ago, books like Collapse and A Short History of Progress were national best sellers. Following our natural cultural progression, popularity in literature became popularity in film this year with the release of An Inconvenient Truth. Wired magazine, the bible of “the next big thing,” put Al Gore on the cover and devoted a good chunk of the issue to neo-environmentalism. Last month The Toronto Star ran a feature story about several people who are discovering that environmental awareness is economically very valuable.

The Green Party is another gauge of public interest in this area. In just two elections The Green Party of Canada has gone from 0.8% of the vote to 4.5% of the vote, and in a recent poll we were at 10% nationally.

One of the ways we’ve done that is by adopting economic language to describe ecological problems and solutions. I wasn’t surprised to see the same thing on the Friends of Durika website, where biodiversity is described as “natural capital.” More about this later.

The downside, of course, is that much of the language used by corporations and politicians around issues of ecological wisdom has been greenwash: words on a page that don’t materialize into real action. When a company like Shell can claim to be operating in a sustainable way, we have to question whether or not that word has now lost all meaning.

As an exercise, let’s unpack this paragraph from the Friends of Durika website:

“Over the past fourteen years, they have created a sustainable community that is a true eco-village. Their energy source is alternative, their food organic and the organizational structure of the community is both democratic and consensus based. There is no religious affiliation nor do they subscribe to any particular political party.”

Let’s start with the word “sustainability.” One of the major critics of the word is author Michael Crichton, who argues that because natural systems are always changing and evolving, that sustainability cannot be defined or shown to exist. Now, I don’t agree with him. For example, when you build a suburb of Calgary or Toronto and start drawing down the water table faster than it fills up again, that’s clearly not a very sustainable action. However, I think it demonstrates that the word has not been well defined. I suspect that most people don’t have a very good understanding of what it means.

So let’s attempt to define it. The best definition I’ve seen is from Mike Nickerson, one of the elders of The Green Party and the author of several books, including his most recent, “Life, Money and Illusion.” Mike defines sustainability in the following way:

Well-being can be sustained when activities:

1. Use materials in continuous cycles.
2. Use continuously reliable sources of energy.
3. Come mainly from the qualities of being human (i.e. creativity, communication, coordination, appreciation, and spiritual and intellectual development.)

Long term well-being is diminished when activities:
1. Require continual inputs of non-renewable resources.
2. Use renewable resources faster than their rate of renewal.
3. Cause cumulative degradation of the environment.
4. Require resources in quantities that undermine other people’s well-being.
5. Lead to the extinction of other life forms.

I think that’s a pretty good definition, but it doesn’t fit into a soundbite. Therefore, when I speak to people I take the first point, “use materials in continuous cycles,” and focus on that language. We are the only species that creates waste. In nature, all waste is food. In the language of Ray Anderson, our economy is a linear “take-make-waste” economy. We need to transition to a cyclical economy, where materials move from cradle to cradle. We need to challenge economic indicators, like the GDP, which actually goes up in response to natural and other disasters.

The next phrase in that paragraph from the Friends of Durika website that jumped out at me was “their energy source is alternative.” Of course, the question I’d ask is, “alternative to what?” Up until the lat sixties, 100% of Ontario’s electricity mix was renewable. It was hydro generation, which is why we have this strange language relic in Ontario where we call all electricity “hydro.” In the late sixties, however, we introduced “alternative” energy sources. You know, things like coal, and nuclear. Just forty years later, and now “hydro” is the alternative.

Next, “their food [is] organic.” Here’s a fun pop-quiz: what’s the opposite of organic food? Ask most people in a supermarket, and they’re going to say “normal.” There’s organic food, and then there’s normal food. Well, we know that there’s nothing normal about putting poisons (pesticides) on your food. Or about building an entire agricultural system around oil-based fertilizers.

And finally, Durika is referred to as an “eco-village.” Over the past week I’ve been struggling a bit to explain to people what Durika is. It’s a place where people understand that materials need to be used in continuous cycles. It’s a place with natural energy, instead of the unnatural alternatives. It’s a place where they grow normal food, not food with artificial chemicals in the form of pesticides and fertilizers. Durika is a village first, and eco-village second. I know, of course, that it is a very special and extraordinary place, but it shouldn’t be. It’s just a place where, more or less, things are done right.

Thanks to your work, to the people of Durika, and to other communities like it, we are proving that there are realistic, wise solutions to the problems our communities and our planet are facing. And when you do that, when you take political ideas and turn them into real action, that’s when you can look your biggest critics in the eye and say, “who’s crazy now?”

Insert “Garbage” Pun Here

A company with a chronic deficit solves nothing by taking out a loan. Likewise, Toronto did not solve her garbage problem yesterday. Toronto’s purchase of the deceptively-named Green Lane Environmental Ltd. (say, didn’t we used to call those things garbage dumps?) is the purchase of a little more time, nothing else.

How much time? About twenty years. How much time has it taken us to find this dump? About twenty years. And the next one will take even longer.

We’re the only species on this planet that makes true waste — as in, something that doesn’t go on to become food for something else. Looking at it that way, waste is economic inefficiency. Waste is lost profit. The only true solution to our waste problem is to eliminate waste altogether.

I know, sounds crazy, right? It’s not. In the past three years alone, Toronto has reduced the number of trucks we send to Michigan from 143 a day to 80. (And no, we didn’t just get bigger trucks.) We’ve done that by diverting recyclables and organics, and that’s just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. The real magic happens when you start using materials in continuous cycles.

Take the beer store, for example. They get back and reuse 96% of the bottles they sell! Ontario’s announcement that they’ll start doing this with LCBO products as well is a huge step in the right direction. Just think, if hungover people have the wherewithal to return bottles, how much more could we do with the packaging of non-intoxicating products?!

The bottom line is that we need to stop subsidizing waste, and start making manufacturers responsible for their own products. Author Paul Hawken often writes about having three categories of waste:

  1. Consumables. Anything that can biodegrade completely and harmlessly. That includes clothes (assuming we stop putting other weird stuff in them) and food (assuming we stop spraying them with toxic pesticides).
  2. Products of service, like cars, TVs and refrigerators would be “leased” to the customer, ultimately to be returned to the manufacturer who would be responsible for the product’s recycling or reuse.
  3. Unmarkatables. This is the nasty stuff, like radioactive isotopes, toxins, and chemicals that bioaccumulate (build-up) in your body. Manufacturers really shouldn’t be producing these things at all, but if they do, they’ll pay to have them stored in “parking lots” until they can figure out how to neutralize them.

So, you can either make products that are 100% biodegradable, figure out how to reuse the parts, or pay the government to store your waste for you.

Anyone who thinks waste reduction, and ultimately elimination, isn’t realistic, should ask themselves one question. How realistic is the idea that we can just keep finding new dumps forever? (To say nothing of all the virgin materials we keep extracting unnecessarily.)

We need to start now, so that by the time this dump is full we won’t have to go looking for another one. Let’s not waste the next twenty years. (Ah ha! There’s the pun I was looking for.)

ps. By the way, this new dump is located in some of Ontario’s (and therefore, Toronto’s) prime agricultural land. As our garbage starts to break down it will leach into the earth that grows our food. The phrase “don’t shit where you eat” comes to mind.

Lick Global Warming vs. Cow Farts

Around noon today I sauntered over to the TD Centre courtyard in downtown Toronto to witness the launch of the Lick Global Warming campaign, a partnership of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The event featured people in cow costumes carrying picket signs, and (even more strangely) a 20-minute line full of Bay Street workers waiting for a free small scoop of ice cream in a cup.

I had a fun time trying to imagine what the Ben & Jerry’s boardroom brainstorm would have sounded like.

Ben: Ok, we need to do some sort of good-will PR thing.
Jerry: Let’s see…ice cream….
Ben: …cools you down…
Jerry: …when it’s hot…
Ben: Global Warming!
Jerry: That’s it! That’s so hot!
Ben: You mean cool.
Jerry: Is that what the kids are saying these days?

Or maybe Jerry really cares. The point isn’t to pick on my friends at the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, nor do I want to criticize anyone who makes delicious ice cream, but there’s one thing I find particularly bizarre about this campaign.

Can you spot it? No, it’s not the illustration of Earth in an ice cream cone (though I’m not quite sure what that’s about). And no, it’s not the fact that on the Ben & Jerry’s homepage there’s a flash animation (if you wait a few seconds) of a cow licking an ice cream cone (weird).

What really doesn’t make sense to me — and what I can’t believe wasn’t spotted or addressed by anyone at either organization — is the use of cows as an anti-global warming mascot. Why? Because cow farts cause global warming.

There. I said it.

Cows, though their farts and otherwise, produce large amounts of methane gas, which is the second greatest contributor to global warming after CO2. Some studies have even suggested that in some regions cows contribute more to global warming than cars, while others have concluded that eating meat is just as bad for the climate as driving an SUV.

According to this blog’s first-ever anonymous source, the OCAA has already received several complaints about their partnership with B&J, including the observation that B&J’s products aren’t locally produced, meaning the involvement of long refrigerated-truck trips.

I’m glad to see the climate crisis getting people’s attention, I do think global warming campaigns can and should be fun, and I know I shouldn’t really be criticizing any company that wants to do their part. At the same time, global warming is a complex issue that cannot be easily solved. I don’t think we do ourselves any favours by reducing the whole issue to one paragraph, and then pretending to solve it with one sentence.

People are smarter than that, and deserve to be given more credit.

Ok, I’m done my party-pooping for the day. (And yes, after watching the protesting cows I did grab a delicious ice cream cone. It cheered me up a bit.)

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