Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Our Bodies Our Selves

[readers, this is a post started two months ago that I may never complete but that starts a bunch of interesting thoughts. And what is this blog, if not a catalyst for reflection? So I present to you, for the first time though likely not the last, an incomplete blog entry on motives and agendas:]


the so-called "environmental debate" has some pretty fanatical devotees on both sides. I was recently directed to http://www.noteviljustwrong.com, which [...incomplete]

...critical thinking is key, then. We must always always ask, who stands to gain from this point of view? Of what benefit is it to the involved party to espouse such a radical stance?

...noteviljustwrong has an entire movie that I have yet to watch, but their opening page asserts that "the World Health Organization lifted its ban on DDT in 2006, but Al Gore and his allies will not accept that verdict any more than they will accept the science that discounts theories about global warming. They are determined to blame humans for everything." So I looked it up. And indeed, here is the WHO press release:

...which is amazing. That said, the Neo-cons seem to put no faith in the relative authority of the UN or the Nobel Prize (to say nothing of their utter disdain for government), so it's funny to say in one breath that government can't be trusted and then turn around and use governmental edicts as evidence for your argument. Can't have it both ways, I don't think.

But this leads me to question, or at least admit, my own motives: why am I so interested in trying to preserve the environment?

1) First and foremost, I am concerned for the future of my own family, of my child (or possibly children, at some point). I want the beautiful world around me to exist and not be deteriorating and falling apart for my daughter when she grows up, and for her own family.

2) As well, ages ago I concluded that suffering is a result of the actions of humankind, so that my actions (yes, good or bad) can have an effect on *your* life, and on the lives of countless people I will never even meet (see http://btbowen.blogspot.com/2007/10/restating-case.html). So for example, cancers and other environmentally-caused sickness are to some degree the result of the poisons we as a species are spewing into our biosphere. God isn't to blame for suffering; *we* are, and so I want to try to diminish my responsibility, such as I can, for the suffering of others. In a similar way, if I buy new clothes from a company that uses sweatshops (e.g. watch the documentary "China Blue"), I'm contributing to the suffering of unknown numbers of people who live in deplorable conditions. So I try always to buy my clothes second-hand: it's not a perfect solution, but it's a good step, I think, and it's within my financial means.

3) In a backwards kind of way, I suppose my motivation could be financial, maybe. I find that being "environmentally conscious" does help save money, and that's useful for our family at this juncture. As well, I occasionally think about going into journalism, so doing all this writing is both good practice and also potentially good for my portfolio. That said, I don't make money from the blog and it does take hours and hours of work.

* * * * *

[flash forward]

4) 09.12.09 - it's two months later and I'm still mulling over this motivation problem. Why are climate deniers really so very interested in "disproving" climate change? Do they think we'll be blown back to the dark ages? Do they resent not feeling like they really have any choices left, or do they feel like they're being told what to do? I, for my part, have begun to conclude that maybe my own interest in the environmental causes stems from the fact that I feel like a bit of a black sheep: I don't totally feel like I fit in, even now, in society as it has been erected, and so maybe my underlying motivation for championing environmental causes is that I think maybe I'd feel more comfortable - like I'd finally found "home" - in those self-same dark ages. Do I eschew technology? I do not. Do I constantly wish that i were doing something other than watching TV or checking my email, and that the people around me didn't buy into a culture I find so repulsive? yes. Our western culture makes me uneasy at best and terrified and nauseated at worst.

...so it seems to me that maybe the battle over the validity of the environmental argument is a battle of identity: namely, that each of us self-identifies either as being successful by society's standards, and therefore welcomed, or a loser, and therefore shunned. What's at stake when we dig down under the threat to our lifestyles that the environmental movement could be, is in fact the very sense of who we are, which has taken us our lifetime to construct.

* * * * *

So what does noteviljustwrong stand to gain? Well, for one thing, they have a big retail section (http://www.noteviljustwrong.com/shop). But - and I think this is the real underlying motivation - noteviljustwrong really represents a particular way of life and standard of living, and a resistance to being forced to change. And that's fair enough, really. But I think the thing they're missing is that no one (and here I'm talking about North Americans, and still only generally) really *wants* to make massive changes to the way they live. Environmentalists, though, I think understand that either we can change now of our own free will, or we can be forced to change when the conditions on the planet make the status quo impossible.

Noteviljustwrong's opening pseudo-manifesto includes the phrase "They are determined to blame humans for everything." Putting aside a discussion of whether or not humans are in fact to blame for everything, this assertion is defensive. It suggests that they feel they are not beng treated fairly, and that their [...and here the entry stopped back in October, when I saved it to my desktop and vowed to come back to it].

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

the climate change hoax

You may have seen this story somewhere in the last couple days: http://www.cbc.ca/technology/story/2009/11/26/climate-change-hack.html. Essentially, some very prominent "climate change scientists" from the UK's Climatic Research Unit had their emails hacked and posted online, and those emails seem to suggest that these scientists have been fudging the numbers on climate change to make the situation seem more dire than it may in fact be.

In response, climate change deniers and agnostics are having a triumphant HA moment, and it's not the first time. In December 2007, a number of UN climate change scientists were revealed to have been fudging some of those self-same numbers too.


Eventually, I'll get 'round to posting my article on motivations - who stands to gain from the two sides of this showdown? - but for now, I'd like to make a point:

Nothing - nothing! - changes the fact that a finite planet cannot hold infinite resources. It's against the laws both of logic and of physics, and it's not possible. So... we're still going to run out of oil, whether we've peaked already or we won't do so for another century; it's impossible for there to be an endless supply. Potable water is still under imminent threat: the way we're poisoning our water, we don't have an infinite supply! As the head of the Council for Canadians Maude Barlowe asserts, "the wars of the future... will be fought over water."

We humans are not being kind to the planet, and the validity of climate change science will not change that fact. Just look at the rates of extinction of species, the state of the Great Barrier Reef, the pollutions of the oceans, etc. etc. etc., and you'll have a hard time denying it.

The human species has overreached our carrying capacity, and we can't just keep continuing to grow and grow. It's insane to think that exponential growth using up a finite resource can go on forever - that doesn't make any sense (see Easter Island - our canary in the coalmine). If nothing else, realize that all species go extinct, and that our time will come too.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

two new articles

I'll admit it: I like when people do all the work for me. But also, these two articles say what I would try to say in a much more articulate manner. A couple of Facebook friends posted these links today, and I wanted to pass them on.

caveat: Canada's record on the environment is horrifyingly abysmal.

...and here's an infuriating one about Harper. Apparently we're just too naive and idealistic and we should be lowering our standards so we can reach our goals without needing to change...

Thursday, November 26, 2009

lifestyle update

so... this isn't the same kind of post, because as I said previously I do have a bunch of research-heavy ones in the works but none of them is quite ready. Instead, I thought I'd just give you a little window into things we've been trying to do at our house to be more environmentally responsible:
  1. we have started saving our little one's bath water at night, keeping the plug in and using a bucket to fill the toilet tank. It felt wasteful to just let all that water get used for 15 mins (tops) and then to drain it, so we've been thinking about this for a bit, and we finally did it. It's not easy-peasy, but we're getting used to it fast. Next month's utilities bill will ultimately be the verdict
  2. we are getting eggs from a local producer, about 2 dozen at a time, every 2 weeks. She's a friend of my mom's and has an organic (chicken) farm, meaning they're grain-fed and free range, and she had too many to eat herself, so she's started selling them. $4 a dozen!
  3. we bought plastic wrap for our windows. When we moved in we replaced some of the crappiest windows with new (more) energy-efficient ones, but we still have 3 huge ones that let a lot of heat out. So in the absence of an extra $1500 to replace the windows, we'll try this and see what happens.
  4. I'm still trying to hang laundry outside, even when it's less than 10 degrees. Things have been drying surprisingly well, particularly on windy days and when I manage to get everything on the line by 9:30am at the latest. When it doesn't all dry completely, a quick run in the dryer - 10 or 15 mins - finishes it off, which is still better than all of it for an hour on high heat.
...I think that's it. I've been riding my bike more, too, though it's getting cold enough that that's becoming less and less palatable. OH and I've been biking over to the Farmer's Market (less than a 10 min ride) weekly to pick up apples and other produce. Baby steps! Dr. Reese Halter, author of The Incomparable Honeybee, was on The Current yesterday, and said, "...if everybody does one thing different, and we all collectively join hands, that is a Stanley Cup ring; we win!" - it's a little cheesy, but it's more positive than I am generally able to be, and it may even be true. It's worth a shot, certainly.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


I have said in previous posts that I think the only viable option to the environmental cataclysm we are hurtling toward is population reduction. The reason, however, that population is the big problem as I see it is that, generally, western society (or more broadly, developed and indeed developing nations) does not want to change. The public does not have anywhere near enough will to change our way of life to slow down the course on which we're headed. Concluding that nothing can be done, though, is a little defeatist and fatalistic, I admit.

In fact, with the global economy in its current state, now might be just the time for us to start moving as a society toward a less goods-based way of life. Until recently, North American life has been driven by consumerism - the more you and I buy, the better the economy does, and the wealthier you and I become, basically. After the 9-11 attacks, GWBush infamously asked for "your continued particpation and confidence in the American economy." In other words, if we continue to buy stuff, our economy will keep running as it always has, and we'll be okay, both in terms of our standard of living and in terms of our level of psychological comfort, going on as much as possible as if nothing had happened. Seven years later, though, "business as usual" caused one of the most colossal failures of global markets ever, and inarguably the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression (stay tuned for a future post about the Depression itself).

So far, though, the majority of the effort to recover has been to "get things back on track," trying to return us to the very system (primarily of credit and debt) that crippled us in the first place. We have such short memories!

Common sense (and physics) tells us that we cannot have unlimited resources on a finite planet. Last year sometime a friend of mine sent me a link to this chart which estimates how much of everything we have left on Earth to use before it just runs out. It's conjecture and it's based on some scientific data, but even if have twice as long as it tells us, we're still going to run out, whether it's in our own lifetime or that of our children or that of our grandchildren. And so we need to curb our consumption, one way or another, whether that means each of us consuming less, or fewer of us on the planet consuming the same amount.

Our culture feeds us *so* many messages about the relationship between who we are, what we're worth as people, and what we have, that many of us get hoodwinked into believing it. If we could figure out how to free ourselves from our stuff - to be satisfied with what we have - then we as a species might have a very different, much richer future ahead of us.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

coming soon

just to keep you up-to-date

I'm working on a number of different ideas right now, so expect new posts soon:
  • religious evangelism vs. environmentalism
  • consumerism, the economy, the Great Depression, and the environment
  • how the Judaeo-Christian worldview has contributed to our destructive environmental attitudes
  • is the environmental crisis being blown out of proportion/ is the environment really doing better now, as some are suggesting?
...lots of meat in there, and lots of reading to do on my part to get things ready. So sit tight; don't touch that (mouse)dial.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

i'm a hypocrite

I'd like to share some examples of ways I feel like a hypocrite:

1) I gave up coffee, because according to waterfootprint.org, every cup we drink represents an unconscionable 140L of water used in its production. So I drink tea now - only 30L/cup. Do I feel wonderfully self-righteous about this move? In fact, I do not. 30L/cup is still a waste, and in fact it's probably more like 45L/cup for me because I use 3 teabags per pot instead of 2, which is what I believe the number is based on. And I drink at least four cups a day, so 120L/day (versus the previous 6 cups of coffee or 840L/day). Better, admittedly, but still harmful. Even if we all suddenly drank *only* water - all 6.7 billion of us - we'd still be producing waste and using up water faster than is sustainable.

2) I discovered that using our laptop instead of our desktop PC uses a lot less energy - 90W versus the 700W of the PC +monitor. So we use the laptop as much as we can. Excellent. But we still use it, and occasionally it gets left on when nobody's sitting at it, and occasionally I forget to turn the power bar off at night so it stays idly on. Better for the planet, but still not good for it.

3) Grocery shopping, I often have to choose between local, organic, and cost. But I also want to factor in packaging, processing, chemicals used in preservation, and water used. No matter what, I always lose. Even if we go to the farmer's market and buy straight from the producers, they've still trucked all their stuff in, we often drive the ten blocks because we have my daughter and we'd rather not have a cranky/overheated/cold toddler for an entire return trip. Besides that, though, often things are more expensive! Today I paid $10 for five cloves of "Mennonite garlic" grown locally and organically. Gonna have to use it very wisely (am, in fact, preparing to plant a few cloves thereof and grow my own - only rainfall-fed, mind you).

4) I'm a musician by trade. But I almost never play in Hamilton, where I live. Instead, I drive the 65km to Toronto, by myself, at over 80km/hr (apparently this is the optimal speed for conserving gas. I drive considerably faster than that), both ways. And so that's also easily in excess of the 312kg of CO2 I would produce driving more slowly (based on the MNR's estimate of 2.4kg of Co2/L of gas). I'd love to take the GO Bus, but it doesn't run at the hours I need so I'd never be able to get home the night of a gig, so playing music would always mean at least 12 hours away from my family. I don't use the AC, it's a pretty efficient car, and sometimes I can even carpool with a bandmate, but even with all these things all I can do is occasionally harm the environment less, but I cannot actually do it any good.

...see, particularly in North America, where our culture is built around consumerism, it's all-but impossible not to harm the planet by what we do every day, no matter what it is. We shower, wash dishes, wash clothes, flush toilets, use electricity, drive places, use our computers and gadgets, listen to music and the radio and watch TV, eat stuff grown more than 50km from our houses, some of us eat meat... we're really buggered. Carl Sagan, and now David Suzuki, says that, "if you were to reduce the Earth to the size of a basketball, the biosphere would be thinner than a layer of varnish, and that's it! That's where all life exists, and nothing within that system can grow forever!" (David Suzuki on CPAC, Oct 2008).

And so, more than ever, I am concluding that the only hope for our species' survival is a major push toward population decline. It is completely counter-intuitive and goes against everything our genetics and evolutionary imperatives tell us to do, but it's the only real solution.

Friday, September 18, 2009


It's been long enough that at this point I may actually start repeating things I've already written, but no matter. The reason it's been so long is that I have become depressingly overwhelmed with where we're at and with how much needs to be done for us to make any sort of real change in the momentum of climate change. James Lovelock, inventor of the Gaia Hypothesis, said in an interview a couple of months ago with David Suzuki ("the Last Call") that he thought we had passed the point of no return, and that nothing we could do now would change where the climate is headed. Suzuki was audibly horrified, and went on to talk to environmental guru (/entrepreneur) Al Gore, who disagreed and said he thought Lovelock was misguided... but I don't think so. I think I agree with Loveloc. I told my dad this, and he pointed out that in fact this is Malthusian thinking (see this not inaccurate Wiki for Thomas Malthus).

I have already said that I find trips to the grocery store crippling: last time I went I stood in front of the organics section of shampoos looking at ingredients and labels trying to figure out which ones were biodegradabale, not tested on animals, hadn't used any pesticides in production, might also be local, and didn't cost a mint. At least 15 minutes later I walked away empty-handed, convinced that my decision not to wash my hair at all is still the soundest (stopped in May of 2008).

But this is just a symptom of the larger disease: we humans can do very very little that is actually good for the environment. At best what we get to choose between is things that are bad for the planet and things that are marginally better for it.

At a global population of 6.7billion (source: the CIA World Factbook) - expected to double within the next 25 - 40 years - our biggest environmental challenge is ourselves. There are simply too many of us to survive on this planet. We are this close to using up what little there is left of the Earth's natural resources, and at that point we will be stuck.

The environmental movement, at its core, is about the preservation of the human species, as in fact are basically all major paradigms and certainly all political philosophies. Ironically, if the planet keeps becoming more and more hostile to human life, we will almost certainly experience a mass die-off (such as may not have been seen since the introduction of oxygen to the atmosphere about 2.5 billion years ago (The "Oxygen Catastrophe" - again, Wikipedia is simply the easiest source here, but this is a well-accepted scientific theory) - talk about environmental disaster!), and then the planet will begin to recover. The Earth, it turns out, would be better off without us at this point.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

the new singing blog

I intended to write a new post ages ago. Since the last one, though, I have become increasingly depressed and despondent over the state of the Earth. It seems to me we humans can only choose between things that are bad for the environment and things that are "better" for the environment, but that in fact very little we do is actually good for it. With that in mind, here's something I've been grappling with, in the form of a poorly-recorded, technologically frustrated little ditty.


recycling's a sham
they can't recycle all your jam jars or your CDs
or the newspaper you don't read
or even all the stuff that they tell you that they can recycle
cause in fact it all sits around

recycling's a joke
well i guess it's better than nothing
but really what it is that really we all need to do

stuff can't make you happy
stuff can't love you back

don't need that funky gizmo
don't need that new TV
but your mom is lonely
and loves it when you call.


see you next time, when maybe Pro Tools will decide to play nice with Vista (not likely).

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

giving up

This blog went quiet for a couple weeks because I've been overwhelmed by the increasing amounts of terrible information about the state we're in.

I will press on, though: first, things I'm currently trying to give up, and then, an excellent essay I read last night about why changing your own "footprint" isn't really good enough.

The Current, on CBC radio, has been doing a season-long series on the state of water in our world, called Watershed, and on of these programs they talked about something called our "water footprint."

Essentially, your water footprint is the amount of water you as an individual are responsible for consuming (note the turn of phrase): for instance, the average kilo of beef takes 15,500L of water to produce, the average cotton shirt takes 2700L of water, and the average cup of coffee uses 140L of water.

It was that last one that struck terror into my very core. I had developed the habit (mostly at work) of drinking at least 10 cups of coffee a day, which meant 1400L of water daily before I even took a sip. I resolved to cut down and, if possible, cut out coffee entirely from my diet. it's been difficult, but a week ago I retired our coffee maker, replaced by a bodum which I use only once every few days... cutting my consumption from around 120 cups a week (16,800L of water) to maybe 4 (560L). Do I enjoy this? I do not. I am trying to drink more tea instead (30L/cup) and have taken to making cold drinks with the lemon balm we have growing in our yard (assuming a 1:1 ratio for water).

You may have noticed, though, that I also mentioned meat. According to waterfootprint.org, it takes 15,500L of water to produce 1kg of beef, 4800L of water for 1kg of pork, and 3900L of water for 1kg of chicken. Beyond that, the First Canadian Edition of Living in the Environment (G. Tyler Miller Jr., © 2008) says that it takes 7kg of grain to produce 1kg of beef, 4kg of grain for 1kg of pork, and about 2.2kg of grain for 1kg of chicken... so all in all, meat production is wasteful and harmful to the environment, and if I influence the corporations by what I do and do not buy (supply and demand), then enough of us cutting our meat consumption may eventually send a message. So last night I had one soy burger and one lean portion-wise PC hamburger. Did I love the soy burger? I did not. But I could live with them if I had to.

Before bed, though, I stumbled my way over to Orion magazine, where an article entitled "Forget Shorter Showers - Why personal change does not equal political change" caught my eye. The basic idea that author Derrick Jensen puts forward is that a) we have been taught that our consumerist and capitalist attitudes are what really matter - that our private little crusades to eliminate waste and environment-harming products in our own lives are enough to make a real difference - but that in fact these simply lead to complacency and a false sense of piety, and that b) the major contributors to climate change and the destruction of the environment are the corporations, not individuals (see the article for exact numbers, but it's around 25% individual and 75% corporate).

But the thing that really hit home for me was this:
...the endpoint of the logic behind simple living as a political act is suicide. If every act within an industrial economy is destructive, and if we want to stop this destruction, and if we are unwilling (or unable) to question (much less destroy) the intellectual, moral, economic, and physical infrastructures that cause every act within an industrial economy to be destructive, then we can easily come to believe that we will cause the least destruction possible if we are dead.
...I had, as recently as this past weekend, begun to say out loud that I thought maybe the only solution to the environmental catastrophe was human extinction (which would make these people happy), and was feeling very depressed as a result. But Jensen offers a simple solution:
Simple living as a political act consists solely of harm reduction, ignoring the fact that humans can help the Earth as well as harm it.
So yes, DO try to curb your own habits, because it will help, but to really make a difference, we cannot continue to believe that harm reduction in our own lives is the ultimate act of environmental stewardship. Instead, we must actively become involved in reducing the harm that is being done by industry, corporations, and our governments.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

family trumps

My daughter was born in the fall of 2006. In 2007 we had a particularly hot summer, and we actually bought a huge AC unit, much to my wife's and my environmental chagrin, but while we weren't thrilled at the prospect of all that energy and freon, we were still less thrilled at the idea of subjecting an infant who couldn't yet speak let alone turn on a fan to the incredible heat of our little sunbaked Victorian cottage.

This summer we have no AC. We have three units, two for the upstairs bedrooms and the one for downstairs (which we'll probably never use again, not least because it is incredibly loud - you get what you pay $200 for), but we're not using them. We called the city last summer and signed up for their tree planting program, where they'll put a tree in the part of your front lot that's actually city property, and by the fall we had a 15' baby oak tree in front of our house. In about 30 years it will lend excellent shade to this little house, decreasing the need for AC in hot weather. This summer we put up heavy curtains in our downstairs to lock out the sun during the hottest parts of the day, and we have two window fans that create a cross-draft upstairs to vent the hot air out at the end of the day before we go to bed. 

One problem remains, however, and that's the car. When it's a sunny 30º outside, 40º with humidity, I am still hard-pressed to impose a no AC rule on our toddler when we're getting into a 50º car. It doesn't seem humane. I can talk myself into enjoying the heat for a bit if I'm alone and until the wind chases the hot air out, but I just can't do it when my family's baking too. I don't have a solution for this, other than to run it for as long as it takes to cool and dry and the car, then turn it off and just run the fan with the vents closed so the cool air circulated for a bit. We park in the shade whenever we can, and we bought one of those tacky-looking shiny things to put inside the front windshield, but still... 

What this post is about, though, is the fact that we all have some common obstacles when it comes to going green, and I believe one of the biggest is family. We may be able to convince ourselves to suffer through the consequences of the decisions made over the last century by doing things like living without AC, trying to live vegetarian (a stunning documentary about the way we use water, called Watery Road to Hell, details, among other things, the incredible amount of water it takes to "make" meat - visit http://www.waterfootprint.org/), or walking the 3km to the pool instead of driving (saving 14.4kg of CO2 - 2.4kg for each km - MNR, 2007) , we do not feel like it's fair or kind to rope our loved ones into these pursuits.

The irony, of course, is that being kind now, in the short-term, may actually be being unkind in the long-term, since making decisions that are not good for the Earth will ultimately render the planet even less friendly to our species, and thus to our children and our children's children... wanting our children not to be too hot today may mean that they are faced with even more dire decisions when they have children of their own. I know this with my head, but when I look my little one in the face as I buckle her into her carseat, I can't do anything but try to meet her immediate needs. 

Saturday, June 20, 2009

the greater of two evils

I drive to Toronto from Hamilton a fair amount, for gigs and recordings mostly. I'd love to take the GO Bus instead - I actually hate driving - but it doesn't run later than about 12:30am and I am almost never done playing before about 1:30, so I am forced to drive. Alternately, I could do the gig, stay at a friend's, and then come home in the morning, but then I'd miss hours of morning time with my family, and often I'd have to get up super early to get home early enough for my wife to get to work on time.

So I drive. But it's this family time thing that causes another problem: according to the US Department of Energy and the Union of Concerned Scientists, driving fast can use up to 33% more gas than keeping to the speed limit, and as we've seen, every litre of gas produces 2.4kg of CO2, so that's a lot more CO2 being emitted over time. When I leave for gigs, I give myself around an hour to get there from home. But I know, for instance, that the Tranzac can be a 45-min. drive, door-to-door, if I drive 120km/h instead of the posted 100km/h. So for that extra 15 minutes of time with my family, I opt to drive faster rather than use less gas. On the way home, all I want to do is collapse in bed, so I also speed home.

There are many examples of this kind of problem for me: my coffee pot uses 1200W of electricity. My microwave uses 1100W. Thus, if I make a pot of coffee, the most energy-wise thing for me to do is to turn it off right away, and then nuke it cup by cup as it cools. That way, instead of using 1200W of power for an hour or-so, I use 1100W in bursts of 1:45 (this is my optimal coffee-nuking time). But I'd say at least half the time I prefer to leave the pot on so I don't have to take the extra step - which probably takes about 2 mins total - of nuking my coffee before I drink it. Ironically, after that first hour I do like to turn it off so it doesn't start to taste burnt, and then I start nuking the stuff anyway (aside to coffee purists: I know this anaethema to your being. I would love to be a coffee snob, but I really just don't have the palate, which in the end is better for the Earth anyway. so ha). 

On a related note, the coffee I buy is fair-trade organic stuff, actually from PC (which is a little suspect, but at this point ignorance is bliss), and to offset the cost I also buy bags of roasted barley, which I then use in a 2:1 ratio for brewing. It does make a slightly nuttier taste, but it's not unpleasant and it saves both money and arable land. I also harvest the dandelions that grow in our yard, clean and dry the roots, and then grind them up in my bean grinder to add, about a tablespoon at a time, to the mix. According to the University of Maryland Medical Centre, dandelion root (ideally dried for at least a year according to some herbalists) is very good for the endocrine system; liver and kidneys both benefit. And it takes some of the bitterness out of coffee, so everyone wins. Well I win anyway. And I think that's it for today. 

[addendum: a recent article in the Manitoban says that putting the windows down instead of using AC does save gas but only when you're driving slower than 80km/hr; below that speed, using AC can increase your fuel consumption by as much as 30%! Above 80km/hr though, having the windows down actually creates so much drag that you ultimately use more fuel than you would blasting the AC]

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

decisions decisions

These are the decisions I agonize over:

I left the house today with my laptop, but found when i took it out that I'd forgotten the power cord. So... do I drive home and get my laptop's power adaptor, thereby lessening the amount of energy I have to use when I turn it on (it won't need to recharge) but using gas in the car, or do I use the battery, thus not using the gas to get home but using more electricity later to juice the battery up again? Does one have a worse impact than the other? 

According to standby.lbl.gov, my laptop, charging, uses about 97W (about 34% more power than normal). It takes maybe 3 hours to charge fully, so that's basically 0.291kWh. The majority of our power in Ontario comes from nuclear sources, followed by hydroelectricity, followed at a distant third by coal and then gas (http://www.ieso.ca). That may be good news for my dilemma, given that driving my car uses gasoline... 

It's about 1km from where I am to my house. The car's a 1999 Civic, very basic model with no power anything (except locks). It's not hot enough for AC, but even when it is I usually drive with the windows down instead (though I'm told the drag this creates offsets the gas you save not using AC. argh). The US Dept. of Energy says that, driving in the city, I get about 22MPG (http://www.fueleconomy.gov/FEG/noframes/14872.shtml), which is around 35km/gallon or, apparently, around 5.7L/100km (does anyone understand this designation? why aren't we using the equivalent km/litre??) according to Auto123.com. So if I drive 100km, I'm using 5.7L of gas. It took a lot of digging, but I finally found a Ministry of Natural Resources page explaining that each L of gas produces about 2.4kg of CO2 (interestingly, it's 2.7kg/L for diesel!). If you'd like to track your fuel consumption, there is in fact a new intiative through the federal government to do so online: http://oee.nrcan.gc.ca/transportation/tools/fuel-calculator/index.cfm?attr=8. 
At any rate, this means 2km (return trip to and from home)  uses 0.114L of gas, and creates something like 0.2736kg of CO2.  whew.

...how do I determine how much CO2 I create by using 0.291kWh of electricity, with all its various sources? I have no idea. I intuitively guessed, wrongly it seems now, that getting the power cord was better than charging the laptop. 

But part of the madness of trying to find reliable info on this stuff is trying to find a source that doesn't have obvious conflicts of interest... Bullfrog Power, for instance, has some sort of CO2 for electricity calculator, but they are far from an unbiased party. On the other hand, the Ontario and Canadian governments have in their best interests reporting slightly skewed results too so it can seem that they're doing a better job than they likely are at cleaning up the environment. I currently have 13 tabs open, not including this one, just trying to find out how much CO2 Ontario electricity generation produces. And I still have no clue. If you've found your way here, perhaps at least some of the links I've found will help you navigate your way through to some sorts of helpful sites. Meantime, I'll keep looking...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

water and electricity

I went back to school last fall, to finally finish my Hons BFA in Music. One of the courses I took was called, Science, Technology, and the Environment, and our second term project involved tracking our use of three resources over two weeks; I chose to track electricity, water, and travel (the latter being a bit of a cop-out since I almost never drive anywhere anymore). 

W A T E R :

The water portion of the paper was fascinating: I had to determine exactly how much water I used, day-by-day, in litres, by measuring how much came out of each faucet in our house over the course of 10 seconds, multiplying that by 6 for the amount per minute, tracking the number of minutes the water was running, and then calculating the total number of litres used. 

Here are the water measurements I calculated:
  • bath: 3.25L/10s = 19.5L/min
  • toilet: 6.8L/flush
  • bathroom sink: 1L/10s = 6L/min
  • kitchen sink: 2L/10s = 12L/min
  • kitchen washtub for dishes: capacity 4.5L
  • washing machine: 3.0cu/ft capacity (approx. 85L) – always cold water, so heat for hot water not a factor
  • shower: 1.55L/10s = 9.3L/min
  • coffee pot: 12 cups (240mL x12) = 2880mL or 2.88L
and the end result was that, the first week (which we were to treat as a control week, using the second week to try to lessen our consumption), my water useage was just over 2400L (which, weirdly, a quick search on Google tells me is the same amount of water it takes to produce a single hamburger, from farm to plate)! NB, my second week, I managed to reduce this to about 1550L, which still sounds like a LOT. 

E L E C T R I C I T Y :

The electricity portion, on the other hand, was a little staggering: turns out that, while I thought we did a pretty good job at keeping our electricity use down, we still had a long way to go. This was a much much more intenssive process that involved reading all the amp and/or watt readings on our appliances, tracking how long each of them was on (including idling times), and then determining the number of kWh used per day for each of them. 

...a number of things stand out:
  • Laptop: 64.98W - charging: 97W approx (about 34% more power according to standby.lbl.gov)
  • Laptop w/ new power adaptor: 90W - charging: approx 120W
  • PC: 600W
  • PC monitor (LCD): 100W

→ this means a) that it's waaaay less energy to use my laptop than our PC, b) that my newer, fancier power adaptor also uses more energy. hmn, and c) that our fancy LCD computer screen uses as much as a very strong light bulb. 

  • Television: 95W
  • radio/CD player: 13W
→ turns out listening to the radio IS better for you!
  • microwave: 1100W
  • coffee pot: 1200W
→ in fact, making big pots of coffee, turning them off as soon as they're done, and then nuking them when they get cold is more energy efficient. maybe. 
  • washing machine:  1200W
  • clothes dryer: 2760W – 5520W
→ the clothes dryer uses more than twice the energy of any other appliance, and is in fact even more energy-intensive than our fridge!

We've been hanging clothes on our lines as much as possible since then...

which is way more human-energy intensive - like, it adds at least an extra 20 minutes to each load of laundry - but which saves 45 mins, or about 2.3Kwh, of electricity. 

My first week's total useage was around 36kWh. 

But the point here is twofold: reducing your consumption of resources is good for the environment, but it's also pennywise. Our electricity is currently $0.05600/kWh (five and a half cents); at 1100 - 1500 kWh/mo., we're therefore looking at between $62 and $84 monthly. Obviously cutting things like the use of our dryer down helps us save money. But, as my essay asserted, according to Ontario's Independent Electricity System Operator, just under 70% of Ontario's electricity needs are met by a combination of hydroelectric and nuclear power (Independent Electricity System Operator, 2009). That's a far cry from the U.S., where natural gas and coal provide the bulk of electrical power (U.S. EPA, Energy and You, 2008), but there are still environmental consequences to our electricity's generation.
While the general perception is that hydroelectricity produces little-to-no environmental pollution, because of the flooding it usually causes, the process of building massive hydroelectric dams does in fact strongly impact surrounding ecosystems, both terrestrial and aquatic (U.S. EPA, Hydroelectricity, 2007). However, in the past few years, scientists have begun to look more closely at the environmental impacts of hydroelectricity, and an article published in 2005 in the New Scientist finally suggested that “hydroelectric dams produce significant amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, and in some cases produce more of these greenhouse gases than power plants running on fossil fuels,” due to the fact that when a reservoir is first flooded, the trees that end up underwater begin to rot (Graham-Rowe, 2005). As we now know, methane is a major greenhouse gas, being 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide (Graham-Rowe, 2005), and rotting wood releases vast amounts of both methane and CO2 (stored in the wood through photosynthesis) into the atmosphere.
Nuclear energy, which accounts for around 30% of the electricity in Ontario (IESO, 2009), presents a number of environmental hazards, from the initial mining of uranium (which, among other things, uses fossil fuel-burning machines) to substantial amounts of water used for cooling, to consequent water pollution, and finally to the generation of radioactive waste, which has a half-life of around 25,000 years–meaning it remains dangerous for a quarter of a million years–and for which there is no accepted disposal method (David Suzuki Foundation, 2009). More immediately, in some cases nuclear power plants are also reported to “emit radioactive material, imposing cancer risks on its workers, their children, and people in surrounding communities” (David Suzuki Foundation, 2009). However, despite these obvious problems, nuclear energy is still the best option for electricity generation in a world where cutting CO2 emissions is really paramount for moving towards a healthier climate. A June 2008 article in Wired magazine goes further: “There's no question that nuclear power is the most climate-friendly industrial-scale energy source... the reality is that every serious effort at carbon accounting reaches the same conclusion: Nukes win” (Wired, June 2008).

Saturday, June 6, 2009


   I was in the garden just now watering the plants from our rain barrel - the one I never quite got 'round to finishing so that now it has caused a $3500 bowed wall problem in our storm entrance to the basement - and I was remembering a conversation I had with a neighbour a couple summers ago when I first got our push-mower. He walked by, as he always does, walking his dog in his acid wash jean uniform, and exclaimed something about not being able to give up his power tools, no matter tha price of gas (which, if you will remember, has reached $1.30 a litre at that point). I laughed but, as always, didn't speak my mind about the reason I had chosen to buy a push mower, giving our gas-powered one to the single woman next door.

   So... in a predominantly Conservative neighbourhood, nestled in the heart of Canada's NDP stronghold, I, a budding Green, censored myself in the interest of making nice. I have vowed a dozen times that if he comes by again, ever, and says anything similar, I will explain myself. 

But also, how much good does it do the environment for me to buy a push-mower if I then give my old gas-guzzler to someone else to use? Granted she has a ton less grass than we do, but still, isn't it a bit of a contradiction? argh.

We let our grass grow quite long... I keep it at about 1.5 - 2", I'd say, and this serves two purposes:
  1. we don't have to water it as often, if ever, because the extra length shields the roots from the sun and keeps them moist
  2. the grass often goes to seed before I need to cut it, so that our back lawn was actually so thick the first time I tried to cut it this spring that I bent the handles of the mower. I eventually had to accept defeat and use - just once - the gas one, now borrowed from the afore-mentioned neighbour. 
...and our front lawn is now almost half clover, which is great for the nitrogen content of the soil.

Finally, here are some photos of our veggies, planted predominantly from seed, except for the onions and rutabaga, which were planted from veggies that went off in our 'root cellar' (cupboards under the kitchen hutch). Also, the tree in the mix is one that planted itself last spring and has grown like gangbusters (might it be a beech?), and the chickory is stuff I transplanted from an abaondoned lot up in Ancaster. Good greens, and the roots make an excellent coffee subsitute (as do dandelions, which I also harvest). 

peas (to let the ground rest and replenish the nitrogen)

tomatoes in pots

said onion

and rutabaga...



beach tree...

and chickory type 1 beside chickory type 2

post script:

I choose not to use any fertilizers whatsoever on the plants, and save the seeds of the heartiest ones at the end of the season, leaving them to rot on the vine so the seeds are good & ready. I watched a number of summers as chickory grew like mad at the edges of the highway (little blue silky flowers), and realized it was doing great despite drought, high sun, and tons of salt and contaminants. I'd love to only grow species that are native to this area, but I have yet to get my lazy butt out to Dundas to William Dam Seeds to explore those options. Instead, our seeds this year were a mixture of PC Organics (validity? who knows...), seeds saved from last year, and a couple other varieties. The beech tree, as mentioned, sprouted last spring

Idealists & Hyprocrites

It seems to me that ideologies have to be allowed to exist hand-in-hand with hypocrisy. As an ideological environmentalist, I am often a blatant hypocrite. 

So before going any further, I'd like to expose some of the basic tensions I have with being environmentally responsible:
  • money
  • practicality /ease /status quo
  • peer pressure /social norms
...there are likely more. I wanted to name them so you, dear reader, know that I am aware of what may seem at times to be a judgemental attitude, and that in fact I too struggle to do right by the Earth.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Grocery Dilemmas

I have a problem when I go shopping for food: I evaluate all the pros and cons. all of them. I want to share with you some of the considerations I try to make:
  • how far has the food travelled? our dependence on oil means that on average our food travels over 2400km (Barbara Kingsolver: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, p5) (see also this study by the Leopold Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State U.), using up 7 times more calories than the food yields (U. Michigan, Centre for Sustainable Systems), and even more - 11-15 times the yield - when we're talking about meat (Living in the Environment, 1st Canadian Ed., 2008)
  • how much grain has the meat I'm buying been fed (7 kg of grain makes 1 kg of feedlot beef; 4 kg of grain makes 1 kg of pork; 2.2 kg of grain makes 1 kg of chicken), to say nothing of the antibiotics it's been fed to get it to grow bigger and faster than it normally would (Paul Roberts: the End of Food)?
  • though it's more expensive, I buy non-clay cat litter for our cats, because the clay used is actually being strip-mined in a way that not only devastates local ecosystems and vast areas of land, but is also non-renewable
  • what kinds of pesticides do I think may have been used on the produce? I don't know any specifics, but I have heard, for instance, that apples are grown with a ton of pesticides. Better to buy organic. Bananas, on the other hand, are reportedly dipped in gasoline to help preserve them and ripen them at just the right time (after their long journey).
  • is it better to buy beans and peas dried and add water, thereby reducing metals used in cans and the preservatives we add, or is it better to buy the cans so you don't waste water and energy re-hydrating and then boiling them before use?
  • how high on the food chain am I eating? Citing the second law of thermodynamics (energy is always lost during a conversion from one form to another), if I try to eat less meat and consume things lower on the food chain and closer to the ground (so-to-speak), I can reduce the amount of CO2 my consumption is contributing to the atmosphere...
  • can I afford to buy fair-trade coffee this week? how much do I trust President's Choice's new organic & fair trade labels? How is it possible such a huge company is really making such changes? (see http://www.blackgoldmovie.com for an excellent discussion about the so-called "fair trade" coffee industry)
...there are more. Tonight I "had to" go to a grocery store further than our local one because it has longer hours, and when I got there I was really almost panicky about the obvious ignorance of the other shoppers around me, buying boxes of crazy processed foods with ingredients you can't pronounce, and apparently not thinking at all about how their lives are soon going to have to change because of the inevitable meteoric rise in the price of oil and the subsequently monumental decisions our fossil-fuel-dependent society is going to have to make about how we live. I find it hard to breathe in malls for the same reason.

So What?

But so why should you care, even though I've developed this slow-paced, fairly obsessive relationship with the food I purchase? Well, because, together with the decline in oil production (signalling and end to cheap oil) and our exploding population (worldwide @ 6.9 billion today, expected to double by about 2025), the Green Revolution is going to become a thing of the past - we are only able to get as much food from the ground as we do now because of petrochemicals; without them, our fertilizers and pesticides will disappear. And so, in short, we're entering an era when food is about to become scarce, and our methods of producing food are going to have to be re-thought. Additionally, all that fossil fuel energy we are using to produce our food is contributing to greenhouse gases (methane, CO2, ozone, etc.), which is warming our planet, creating a positive feedback loop. And that's just scratching the surface...