Tuesday, May 15, 2012

voting with your stomach

   You'd think this might have occurred to me before. I know about how "voting with your money" is a good way of sending your ethical concerns to a company, but for some myopic reason it only just occurred to me that it is also a way of voicing environmental concerns.

   Perhaps the issue is that we are often told about the environmental sins of obvious polluters like oil conglomerates or companies that dump toxic wastes into water systems, whereas I feel the "footprint" of food companies is rarely addressed.

   But so — with trepidation given the implications — I would like to start digging into the environmental records of food companies. We know a number of them are stepping into the wide world of GMOs, which itself has arguably serious ramifications in terms of monoculture (think potato famine or Dutch elm disease) and loss of crop diversity (e-high-five to Svalbard!), but what about the direct damage food  companies are doing, say, in terms of deforestation, or waste, or water pollution, or energy usage?

   Here's a good place to start (sorry about the scale!):

...seeing how few companies actually control our food system means two main things to this discussion: holy crap! and also, in fact there are only basically a dozen companies to have a proper look at. yay.

   This feels like a very complex and multi-faceted topic, and the atmospheric pressure change is making my head explode. However, I'll try to do a few posts on these guys, and hopefully by the end there will still be good food to eat. maybe even some meat.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

barely a post

SO... a friend posted this video on FB a while back and I reposted immediately, prompting some interesting discussion about finite resources and pessimism etc. For my part, I felt strongly that this video said in 30mins what I have been trying on this blog to say for almost 3 years. so ... enjoy!

Friday, March 9, 2012

of course I'm a hypocrite!

hello 561ba890-682d-11e1-9664-000f20980440 (if that even is your real name)...!

Today I am replying to a thoughtful commentator (commenter?). My character has been called into question, and that's fair. In a round about way I have been called a hypocrite, and I don't actually deny it. I drive a car, I wash my clothes in a machine, I own a house which requires heat and light, I have a baby for whom we buy (P.C. Green, but still) disposable diapers, I'm not a raw-food vegan, I drink coffee and tea, I own all kinds of factory-made resource-based instruments... etc. etc. etc. So yes, I'm a hypocrite, but I think that's part and parcel of being a human being. We are flawed and we are broken and we can't do anything right. We screw up. But we try, and we learn, and in fact I have found that the more mistakes we make the faster we learn. So I'm fast-tracking it, apparently.

In what is part-digression and part-related-illustration, one of the things that drives me the craziest about politicians these days is their unwillingness to accept failure, or to be seen as having ever made a mistake. It is completely insane and inhuman to think that anyone, particularly anyone tasked with leading and running a country, is infallible. The bigger the responsibility, the bigger the job, and presumably the bigger the mistakes that are made along the way which, when addressed and dealt with openly, can lead to greater wisdom in both decision-making and policy-enacting. People! Soilent Green is made of PEOPLE! wake up. Government is made of people just like you and me whose capacity for perfection in anything is NIL. Anyone who pretends otherwise thinks you're an idiot.

But back to the question at hand: am I, Ben Bowen, environmental blogger, a hypocrite? But of course! It's one of the reasons I drink. ha ha. I think, unless I live squatting in a grass hut on Crown Land and only eat bugs and berries, that I will always be so. It is one of the unfortunate consequences of living in 21st-century North America. But that doesn't mean I don't want to try to defend my position. Not being capable of a complete quaquaversal should not mean that I decide to throw in the towel, buy a Hummer and an AC unit for every room, and water my lawn 24/7 all summer. I still think striving to make small differences in my lifestyle is worthwhile.

I thought it might be useful or me to detail some of those differences in one post, given that a good many of them are spread out all over the blog:
  • we put our laundry on the line outside from late March to early October
  • Among many dietary choices I've made, I don't eat red meat, since ruminants (primarily cows in N.America, but sheep on the opposite side of the world) produce methane, which harms the atmosphere
  • I try, when I drive, not to exceed about 110km/hr since anything over that (or, in fact, under about 80k) burns more gas in my car, and I walk to the grocery store as often as I can, though carrying home a full load of groceries hurts my back, so I mostly do drive.
  • I don't shower as often as a normal person should. On average every 5 or 6 days, and then as quickly as possible. I hope this saves water.
  • I drink tap water, not bottled.
  • we have window AC units we put in maybe 5 or 6 nights a summer when it's either that or sleep in your own juices. Otherwise, just fans.
  • I turn lights off whenever I can, and try to be conscientious about electricity use.
  • I agonize at the grocery store over my food purchases, trying to weigh cost against local food against free-range against organic. It's a horror show. ugh. I always leave feeling like a failure.
...do I want to live in the Stone Age again? Well, if we could still have medicines and civil society, yes. I'd be happy to find my own food through foraging and hunting, and I could make do without running water or electric amenities. I often dream heartachingly about picking up and moving to a remote plot of land somewhere on the east coast just so I didn't feel so conflicted and co-opted.

So I guess my bottom line is, I feel I'm doing my almost-best in what is an interminable uphill battle. I want to do the right thing. I want to build a better, more sustainable, more beautiful, more natural world for my children and my descendants, but I'm not getting it right very much. I know that. It sucks. It makes me sad. But my children give me the motivation to keep on keepin' on, so I do, even though I'm aware that just by living in North America I'm part of the problem. There are so many forces working against me that I bend and break under them all the time.

Friday, March 2, 2012

I ate bacon for lunch

So I have finally made what I hope is another sustainable decision about my diet: I am cutting my dairy consumption by at least half — less cheese by far, soy milk in my coffee, very little yoghourt or sour or cream or what-have-you — but I have also decided to start eating pig products again.

I get asked often enough whether I'm a veg, and my response is always that I'm n "environmental vegetarian," by which I mean I'm trying to do my best by the environment by the food choices I make. So beef has been an obvious choice to leave out because of the effect of methane, a powerful "greenhouse gas," on the atmosphere and the fact that cows, which ruminate, produce a lot of it. But I miss meat. So last week I did a little digging around about exactly which animals were ruminants, hoping to discover that maybe there were some animals I hadn't thought of that I could sink my teeth into. Well, in fact, in large part the answer was no, BUT, it turns out according to a report by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board of Kenilworth, Warwickshire, pigs are better than cows emissions-wise because they don't ruminate (to oversimplify, chew their cud).

So my thought is this: if I cut my dairy by more than half but eat a little pork or bacon now and then, I am in fact decreasing the emissions for which I'm responsible. Granted, cutting the dairy and not eating the pork would be better again, but I'm not ready for that yet. I love cheese. I had even begun having a new recipe for savoury oatmeal for my breakfast most mornings... as a digression, here is the recipe:

1 cup vegetable stock
1/2 cup rolled oats
...stir oats into stock in a microwave-safe bowl. cook 3 minutes.
grate in 1/2 a cup of cheese (I used cheddar but anything will do) and stir until melted.
best served with Louisiana hot sauce.

...so giving up this amazing creation is no fun, but if I console myself with a little pig now and then — we ate 7 strips between 3 of us this morning — I won't just break and slide back into heavier-emissions consumption. It's not perfect, but it's something I think I can probably manage long-term, which veganism really wasn't.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

An open letter to Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver

So yesterday the Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver published an open letter to the Canadian public about the environmental "radicals" whose "goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth." Referring to Enbridge's new Northern Gateway Pipeline, he decries the attempts to stop the export of tar sands oil to Asia, which is the Harper Government's new plan after the Keystone XL Pipeline to the US was effectively scrapped by President Obama.

Much though this insidious attack offended me personally — I'm sure Oliver would lump we in with the crazies — it didn't surprise me. Oliver's attitude is in fact typical of business and government, whose interests are always in short-term profit over the long-term welfare of the public. What they fail to understand — or perhaps, more rightly, acknowledge — is that the destruction of the environment will actually lead to more lost jobs and disastrous economic decline, and that the environmental agenda is not in fact about the environment but about humanity. Environmentalists want to save the world because they — we — want to save the human species. This planet, as I said in the previous post, is the only like it within the nearest 200 million light years; we don't get another one. It is finite.

David Suzuki had a clever response, I thought, calling the environmental paradigm "a pretty conservative approach" that seeks to "'live within our means,' 'save some for tomorrow,' [and] think about the 'legacy we leave for our children.'" He pointed out that the government's policies actually deplete and destroy the very resources it seeks to profit from, ensuring, in the long-term, economic depression (not big 'D,' though that could easily follow).

Here's another writer saying the same thing as me: 350.org

Friday, January 6, 2012

food waste, caloric density, cooking...

Time for an update. It has now been over a year since I stopped eating red meat. It still sucks, but I still feel committed to the decision. My daughter will often say to me, "so Daddy, just stop being a vegetarian! If you want to eat meat, then eat it!" This is in fact helpful, because I have to restate my case to her: I don't eat meat because I love her and I want her and her children to have a beautiful planet to live on. We don't get another one. In fact, author Bill Bryson says (in his excellent book A Short History of Nearly Everything), the average distance between stars is about 200 million light years, meaning that's the closest we are to another Earth-like planet at the right proximity to its sun to support life. "Two hundred light years is so far beyond us as to be, well, beyond us." (p28) ...All to say, it's worth trying to preserve this tiny finite planet for future humans; our great migration to Earth Mark 2 is a few years off.

1) There was a program on the CBC a couple weeks ago — I think in conjunction with their annual Sounds off the Season food drive — about how much food gets wasted in North America. It's obscene. Now, I'm a pretty frugal guy as it is, and growing up my mom always tried to waste as little food as possible, so I have always tended to eat things others might not, and save things others might throw out, but after hearing the article I have been being even more intentional. This is problematic on the rare occasions there's beef being eaten in our house, but otherwise one of the main things I've been trying to do is eat smaller portions. I find that if I dole out a smaller plate of food for myself, I not only eat less but also waste less. Not only that, it also means I can finish whatever my daughter doesn't, also leading to less waste.

2) I've also been thinking about, for lack of less jargony term, "caloric density." For a variety of reasons, including the ailing economy, personal finances, climate change, Third World hunger, and recent CBC articles about the prolongation of human life (one report said the potential was almost infinite life! How on earth do they expect humanity to have enough food if everyone lives into their hundreds and hundreds?), I've begun thinking about food sources, and just how calorie-rich nuts and seeds are. One cup of sunflower seeds, for instance, has like 1200 calories! So 2 cups would be enough to sustain someone my size for a day. Environmentally, this would mean such a tiny little footprint, both in terms of production and in terms of waste. Not that we could ever move as a species towards such a diet, but is it worth thinking about how to apply this in some (more balanced) manner? Maybe cutting my meals in half and eating more nuts & seeds?

3) A couple nights ago I tried to make potato chips by baking rather than deep-frying them. They were in the oven at like 425ºF for over 45 minutes and only got about halfway done. I started wondering how much energy it must take to make many of the foods we eat regularly, which once again brought up the idea that easily the most "environmentally-friendly" way to eat is raw food, not cooked. I have not yet converted, no. Not sure I could bring myself to do it. Being a vegetarian or even a vegan seems like a cakewalk by comparison.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

fire (now with references)

So I suck at being good to the planet. I'm trying to make the right decisions, but even when I oh-so-virtuously manage to deny myself all kinds of things I feel are harmful, I still manage to mess it up.
I have just come back from camping with my family. It was mostly restful, except for the somewhat leaky tent one night and the steadily deflated blow-up mattress the next, but on the third day (of five), while I was sitting beside the fire pit nursing damp wood to life, I had a glimmer of memory about campfires being terrible for the environment. As I recall now, the information was given in reference to the Third World and their meagre choices for heat - wood, dung, garbage in some cases - but it made me realize that I was polluting the air too! Now you may be saying, Oh come on Bowen, surely a few campfires cannot do that much damage to the atmosphere! ...and in one sense you're right, but the Tragedy of the Commons (is that Thoreau or Malthus or someone else? - edit: it's someone named Garrett Hardin, and it was coined in 1968 in the linked article) dictates that if you and I think that way, basically so does everyone else, and suddenly we're all having just a few campfires by the thousands and the tens of thousands... you can see where this leads. So... what to do?
There are a few different factors to consider:
  1. apparently trees only remove CO2 from the atmosphere for a certain length of time. By some estimates, after about 100 years of life, trees begin to decay and return their CO2 to the air. So... by burning wood over a century old, does this create more CO2, or an equal amount? Edit: "Carbon sequestration," as it's called, does only last in trees for between 80 - 100 years, after which time it is offset by decay in the tree, which releases CO2. see here...
  2. we could consider using those indoor creosote-removing recycled-coffee-bean ready-made logs outside while camping. But are they meant for outdoors? Are they safe for cooking with? And, most pertinently, do they produce noxious and environmentally-damaging gases? Edit: depends who you talk to. This company says their logs are "greener," while this report (p2 under "Toxic Pollutants") says some of them release PCBs and other toxic gases.
  3. if no campfire, then all cooking must be done otherwise: is propane a better alternative?
...This also leads me to the dreadful conclusion that perhaps cooked food is worse for the environment than raw food. I am already a super-reluctant vegetarian; do I have to consider not eating anything cooked now too? Good God.
My second major revelation was to do with some of the snacky-type "vacation foods" we brought along, ostensibly for our daughter, but y'know. Oreos, for instance. Turns out Oreos are made with (cow-fat derived) shortening rather than butter (splitting hairs though? more on this...). Ack! And both a vegan friend of mine and our (very not-vegan) neighbour recently mentioned, separately in the same week, that they don't eat Jell-O because of its gelatine, which of course is from cow hooves.
And suddenly I felt foolish and simple-minded in my conviction not to eat "beef." It seems fairly clear that all the "fruit of the bovine" may be just as bad as beef itself (quick! creative writers! new Creation myth where the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is actually a cow! go! oh and also, now the serpent is actually Adam's little girl saying, "but daddy you love beef! you should stop being a vegetarian. I want you to be happy!" Please also read Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage for reference). Given that I don't eat beef anymore because of methane (a greenhouse gas which I have cited numerous times as being 90x more toxic to the atmosphere - technically the troposphere, Jack and Annie and their Magic Treehouse recently pointed out to me), isn't buying dairy products just supporting the same industry and therefore the production of the same toxic gases? Argh!
so... do goats burp or fart?