Thursday, January 19, 2012

Signing Off

Well, there's no point beating around the bush, so here it is: I'm going to stop writing new content for this blog. Originally I thought it was a good idea to cut back from bi-weekly posts to much less frequent updates, writing only when something comes across my virtual desk that really gets to me. Now I realize that even that doesn't quite fit with the direction I'm heading in for this year, so it's time to call it quits. Thanks for sticking with me for 209 posts and for sharing your opinions in the comments!

It's a nice planet - can we keep it?

Photo of earth as seen from space used under Creative Commons from NASA Goddard Photo and Video (Flickr).

Friday, January 13, 2012


Last week I saw an interesting documentary about the burgeoning environmental movement in China, and to start with, let me say that I never thought the words "environmental movement" and "China" would go together, not in my lifetime, at least.

Gary Marcuse's Waking the Green Tiger film follows the efforts of activists, journalists, filmmakers, and former politicians as they strive to preserve China's natural wonders, educate their neighbours, and encourage public debate, made possible by the passing of a new environmental law. The documentary focuses on a grassroots campaign, led by environmental activists, farmers, and journalists, to stop a huge dam project on the Upper Yangtze river in the mountains of southwest China. What's so bad about dams? While the country needs the power that would be generated by the hydroelectric plants, equally important is the food grown in the rich soil on the river's shores. This prime agricultural land will be lost when the dams back up the water and flood the valley - and thousands of farmers and villagers will be forced to abandon their homes and livelihoods.

The film also explores Chairman Mao's infamous "war against nature" in the late 50s and early 60s. Mao was determined to conquer nature in the name of progress, mobilizing millions of citizens in campaigns that reshaped the Chinese landscape, destroyed ecosystems, and triggered a famine of epic proportions. That's what you get for wiping out sparrows because they eat grain! There was a sick sort of ingenuity to the process of eradicating the birds: citizens would bang pots and pans and beat on drums to force the sparrows to keep flying until they fell from the sky out of exhaustion. Where did they fall? On open patches of soil that had been strewn with poison, which the birds gorged themselves on, in the hopes of regaining their strength. Eventually the birds were driven to near-extinction, and that's when the locust population exploded and wreaked havoc on China's food supply. 30 million people died of starvation.

Back to the documentary. What struck me was how in a relatively short time span, thousands of farmers and villagers, just average members of the public, were educated on the dam projects and its repercussions. By and large, this was due to the efforts of a really small number of people. To be completely honest, the campaign would never have gotten off the ground without the hard work and dedication of one man and his vision. He was a well-respected community member who everyone knew and looked up to. He was intelligent, articulate, friendly, and engaging. He was a natural born leader! Which is great for those living in the Upper Yangtze river valleys, who managed to halt the construction of the dams (at least temporarily) despite having to move forward with the campaign after losing their great leader to a fatal heart attack. It's not so great for the rest of us: those of us living in cities that are too large for any one person to organize a movement that the majority will support; who do we turn to?

These days in the developed world, any one person's lifestyle is so different from the next that we don't necessarily feel a sense of community, of having shared needs, of wanting to join together to protect something we all value equally. Our modern lives are so complex, there are so many problems and causes fighting for our attention and support, and with every passing generation, our neighbours grow more and more to be strangers rather than friends. What kind of leadership is necessary in this context? What type of person does it take to bring together big city residents? How can we push important environmental campaigns while everyone already has so much on their plate?

Something to think about for 2012.

Waking the Green Tiger posters used under Creative Commons from Face to Face Media.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


Do you make New Year's resolutions? Do you challenge yourself to try new things in January? Do you commit to lifestyle changes, maybe in your home or at work, or the places in between?

I'm not a huge fan of resolutions because I think January is a pretty crummy time of year to make big changes. It's cold out, the days are still quite short, and it's hard enough to re-establish your previous routine after going on vacation over the holidays - let alone make changes to that routine. Let's all agree: it's an uphill battle all the way! Instead of resolutions, I tend to choose a few big goals that I hope to achieve in small doses over the course of the year, gradually, gently. One of these is to slow down, and I expect to accomplish this by making bite-sized changes to various aspects of my life.

So it is with some sadness, but also conviction, that I am announcing an adjustment to my relationship with this blog: at the risk of losing followers who enjoy regular updates, I am going to write posts only when I feel the need to share information and/or opinions about topics that are very important to me. You might be wondering how that differs from what I've been doing so far! Obviously I cared about what I wrote in 2010 and 2011, but too often did I put pressure on myself to keep up the twice weekly pace of updates... for no justifiable reason! In order to write posts every three or four days, I sometimes had to sit down in front of the computer when I didn't really want to, or suffered from writer's block, or worst of all, didn't actually have enough time to commit to the task! Now that a brand new year is upon, I'm being more mindful of how I fill my days, and if I want to reach my goal of slowing down, I have to do away with writing blog posts under pressure, or under some sort of time/pace constraint. I am going to stop doing things because I have to and start doing things because I want to!

When I began thinking about this post, I wondered if I would provide an estimate of how (in)frequently I might be writing in 2012... then I realized that even that would create unnecessary stress for me. So instead I'll say this: I look forward to telling more stories (good and bad), sharing more of my strong opinions, and challenging you to challenge yourselves, and I hope you'll keep reading despite a slow pace of updates.

Photo of new year snowman used under Creative Commons from Ruth Flickr (flickr).
Photo of street art used under Creative Commons from Cubby (Stickerthing blog).

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy Birthday, Earth!

It's been a year of ups and downs, with some bad environmental policy decisions but also some green good news stories. When my birthday comes up, I think about what I've accomplished over the past year, and I start planning how to reach my next goals. Well, it's not my birthday, but in many ways, New Year's is like the planet's birthday. Instead of dwelling on the good things that didn't happen and the bad things that did, at the end of December I put my mental energy towards a hopeful and optimistic attitude for our collective future. I'm not expecting that 2012 will provide solutions to all of our environmental problems, but I'm sure we can make some great things happen. So happy New Year, dear readers, and Happy Birthday, Earth!

Photo of earth used under Creative Commons from blueforce4116 (flickr).

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

It's All About the Little Things

During the holiday season, which for me is stressful more often than not, I find it useful to change my perspective and look at the big picture. Most years, this means reminding myself that no matter how much my family members irritate me (after too much time spent in close quarters), I still love them, and even though I have to travel pretty far to be with them, I'm still glad to be in good company over the holidays. This year however, I switched my mindset in a new way: I muted the voice inside my head that rants and raves about the poor decisions made by the government (you know, the usual, policies that will cause harm to human and environmental health). What did I pay attention to instead? The little things!

Over the past week I experienced small moments of delight whenever I noticed a simple action taken by my family members to reduce their environmental footprint and protect their health. Take for instance my mom, who saves water every time she takes a shower. As you can see in the photo above, she keeps large juice bottles in the bathroom so that she can fill them with the cold water that runs out of the tap before the hot water makes its way from the heater in the basement to the shower on the second floor. Later, she uses the juice bottles to fill a watering can which she uses on her indoor plants. Brilliant!

There were little things of a green nature in my brother and sister-in-law's home, too, like organic milk. Keeping pesticide-laden feed, copious amounts of antibiotics, and unnecessary synthetic growth hormones away from dairy farms means healthier cows, healthier humans, fewer superbugs, and a safer environment. My brother also attached his indoor Christmas lights to a timer so that they wouldn't run all night, and my sister-in-law told me the car sits unused for one or two weeks at a time. In the kitchen I found dish soap containing only natural fragrances and no phthalates. The list goes on!

I received some great eco-friendly gifts, too, like a bottle opener made from post-consumer materials that is completely recyclable, an energy-efficient electric blanket that will let me turn my thermostat even lower than I already do overnight, and a teflon-free rice cooker made of stainless steel in a double-boiler configuration. At a time of year marked by unnecessary consumption, excessive gift-wrapping, food waste, and high carbon emissions from extensive travelling, it was an absolute pleasure to delight in these lovely things.

What green actions does your family engage in? What green products did you receive as gifts?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Wishing You a Bright Solstice

I've always laughed at the term "ChristmaHanukKwanDiwalStice", not only because it sounds absurd, but because its speakers are attempting to be as politically correct / sensitive / inclusive as they can, which is actually a little alienating. The very fact that there are a dozen versions of this mishmash word draws attention to confusion around which holidays to include. Which belief systems are respected? Which ones are overlooked?

The spirit of the season.

Growing up, my family celebrated Christmas, but it never held any religious significance to me. As an adult, I still travel during the holidays, drawn home by the allure of traditions that matter: baking cookies (swearing when the sugar cookie dough dries out and cracks), decorating the tree (the smell of fir triggers some serious nostalgia), enjoying an afternoon coffee with a shot of Baileys (definitely did not do this as a kid), getting dressed up on the 24th and staying in pyjamas all day on the 25th (extra points for not taking a shower), and doing very little besides working on jigsaw puzzles, watching movies, and reading (while snacking on the above-mentioned cookies).

Sure, many of you might be able to relate to some of these traditions, but if you don't celebrate Christmas, we probably have less in common. If there is no holiday for you at this time of year, our day-to-day lives might look nothing alike. Nevertheless, I'd like to suggest we all have something to be grateful for, no matter our race, ethnicity, beliefs, or culture. Okay, so maybe you have to live at a fairly high latitude in the northern hemisphere to relate, but that's most of my readers! I'm referring, of course, to the winter solstice, which occurred right around the time this post was published.

The northern hemisphere's shortest day in 2007.

On December 22nd, 2011, at 5:30 am UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) / 12:30 am EDT, for just a split second, the sun was as far from the north pole as it can possibly get over the course of the year, giving us the longest night of 2011 and kicking off the winter. Why does this matter? Why am I writing about this on my blog? Because every so often, it's important for me to stop and take note of what the planet is doing, especially if I consider myself an environmentalist. Beneath my feet, the planet is spinning on its own axis, hurtling through space around the sun, and tilting back and forth over the course of that yearly trip - no matter many paper cups I avoid using by drinking from a travel mug!

Forget the holidays. Forget the associated stress. Remember the planet. This extraordinary planet located just close enough to and far away from the sun to support life, to support us. If it didn't spin, tilt, and orbit the sun the way it does, we wouldn't be here. So let's celebrate the days getting longer, the light coming back. It's been really depressing having to get up in the dark and coming home in time to turn the lights on as early as 4:30 pm, or 4:00 pm on a rainy day. Even though the winter is just starting and the coldest days are ahead of us, we're moving towards long, bright days, and we're getting closer to the spring and the incredible amount and variety of life it gives us here in the north. The winter solstice is one of earth's ultimate holidays, and as a lover of this crazy planet, I can't help but love this time of year.

Wishing you a bright solstice!

Photo of crowded mall used under Creative Commons from The Hamster Factor (flickr).
Animated GIF of the winter solstice used under Creative Commons from Jecowa (Wikipedia).
Photo of moonlit night sky used under Creative Commons from Attila Botz (flickr).

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Tuesday Toxin Talk

I'm currently reading Slow Death by Rubber Duck, by Rick Smith (Executive Director of Environmental Defence) and Bruce Lourie (President of the Ivey Foundation). The book examines the toxins that leach out of commonplace items in our homes and workplaces and wind up in our bodies. Smith and Lourie experiment on themselves, purposely exposing themselves to everyday products over a four-day period, and use the results to raise awareness about the dangers that surround us. I'd like to use this space every few Tuesdays to share some of this vital information with you. For more in-depth coverage, please buy the book!


Let's talk about bisphenol A.

By now, I suspect all of you have at least heard of bisphenol A, or BPA, and most of you are aware of its toxic legacy. Since 70% of BPA is produced for use in hard, clear plastics, it comes as no surprise that we can find it in everything: medical supplies, water cooler jugs, CDs and DVDs, eyeglass lenses, laptop and smartphone screens, drinking glasses, hockey helmet visors, water bottles, vehicle headlights, kitchen appliances and utensils, baby bottles and water bottles, and scariest of all, the interior lining of tin cans that contaminates the food we eat.

Scientific testing has linked BPA with breast cancer, prostate cancer, learning disabilities, type-2 diabetes, and infertility. But did you know that scientists discovered its hormone-disrupting properties way back in the 1930s, i.e. 80 years ago? I'm not surprised that they initially believed the BPA would remain locked into the plastic or leach out only very slowly. However, it's shocking that they didn't continually test this theory and confirm that in fact, BPA is toxic even at very low levels. There is practically no safe level of exposure.

In 2008, Canada banned the import, sale, and advertising of baby bottles containing BPA. Two years later, BPA was placed on the Canadian Toxic Substances List, making Canada first in the world to declare the chemical as toxic. This is a great start, but we're not safe just yet. Rick Smith, who wrote the chapter on BPA, suggests the following:

  • When puzzling over the small recycling numbers on the bottom of plastic containers, remember this mantra: 4, 5, 1, and 2; all the rest are bad for you.

  • Find alternative uses for plastic baby bottles and replace them with glass ones.

  • Eat fresh or frozen food or food stored in glass bottles instead of canned foods, especially for food high in acidity like tomatoes.

  • Avoid putting plastic containers in the microwave, and if using cling wrap, keep it out of direct contact with the food.

  • Use cloth or canvas bags instead of plastic bags for shopping.

Please share any other tips for avoiding BPA in the comments section below! This post marks the end of the Tuesday Toxin Talk series on my blog, as I have written about all seven of the nasty chemicals covered in Slow Death by Rubber Duck. I hope these posts have been as useful to you as they were to me while researching and writing them. Some days I wish I didn't know how dangerous everyday objects are, but mostly I'm glad to be aware of the threats and ways to avoid them.

Image of chemical structure of bisphenol A sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of BPA-free water bottles used under Creative Commons from ZRecs (flickr).