A man, a plan: Tim Flannery

October 28, 2009

FLANNERY by Alex Szalay_RGB

Correct me if I’m wrong, but my oenophile eyes and 30/20 vision (for reals, I have crazy-good eyesight) tell me that’s a bottle of Wolfblass in the photo above, nestled carefully in a grassy knoll. Oh, and that guy next to the bottle of wine is Tim Flannery — environmental author extraordinaire. I can confirm that this guy loves his Australian reds, too, because I sat down with him recently in Toronto and he ordered a glass of shiraz, apologizing for the long-distance selection. He then apologized even more when he ordered a plate of steak frites with it, insisting that he rarely eats meat when in North America. I was dubious about these menu selections, but I must say, by the end of our lunch date I was heartily convinced he is a man who cares about the planet and is very engaged in doing something about it.

His new book is called Now or Never, and it’s out in stores now. I scarfed it down in about two hours because he really is that good at conveying all the scientific this-and-that behind global warming to people like me, who can’t even explain why leaves turn red in the fall (I had to ask my mother, who has four science-related degrees and understands how chlorophyll works). He also provides incredibly concrete solutions that pretty much every single politician in every single country should be adopting immediately. Of course, even if you haven’t read Now or Never, you may know Flannery by his previous book, The Weather Makers, which was a best-seller and led to major environmental policy changes in Australia; he also chairs the Copenhagen Climate Council and is promoting the upcoming UN treaty negotiations that start in December, which is very, very soon (um, Harper? Did you hear that? It’s time to get yer ass out of the tar sands and over to Denmark!).

“When you’ve got as complex an issue as climate change, where no one has all the answers,” Flannery told me, “an ongoing dialogue is essential.”

Indeed, Flannery is such a fan of dialogue that he took a remarkably different approach to Now or Never. Rather than simply publish his own views on the challenges of global warming, he invited a handful of critics to respond to his work. In the end, readers get 107 pages of his initial argument, followed by 45 pages of critique from Bill McKibben, Richard Branson, Peter Singer, Fred Krupp and Peter Goldmark, Gwynne Dyer and Alanna Mitchell, with a final reply from the author. The idea was to make the book resemble a 19th-century political tract, at least in format: a concise, pointed essay meant to both enlighten and provoke readers.

“I felt that this was an important book to get out in advance of the Copenhagen meetings,” Flannery said. “Progress is slow right now, and that scares me. I must say, I wake up in the small hours of the night occasionally thinking, ‘What are we going to do on Dec. 19 if we’re faced with a suboptimal outcome?’ ”

He certainly didn’t seem to have high hopes for Canada, either: “This is as bad as a developed country gets… Harper has no friends internationally in this anymore — he used to have [former U.S. president George W.] Bush and [former Australian prime minister John] Howard and they’re gone now, so it’s a real concern … It’s in the government’s interest for the Alberta tar sands to continue, but the rest of the world can’t afford it … The tar sands represent one end of the hydrocarbon spectrum — the really dirty end — and other countries will eventually look at Canada and say, ‘If they, as a wealthy country, can get away with destroying their environment and producing highly polluting petroleum, then why can’t we?’ It’s a corrupting influence on the world.”

Flannery’s words sound harsh, but he also admits there are good things happening here too; part of Now or Never, for instance, looks at an alternative energy system called pyrolysis, of which Vancouver-based firm Dynamotive is one of the world’s leading developers. There are also a number of carbon-neutral or even carbon-positive housing developments being constructed on the West Coast and in Toronto, not to mention countless Canadian environmental NGOs, charities, offsetting organizations, wind and solar companies and more.

“It’s easy to get disillusioned in the West, but the world is moving and there’s still hope,” says Flannery. “Look at what people have done in the banking sector — how we’ve reigned in some of the greediest people in the world and said to them, ‘This isn’t good enough anymore.’ If we can do that for finance, we can do it for greenhouse gases, and we will.”

But what do you think? Is this really achievable, or has Flannery had a few too many glasses of shiraz?

P.S. Exciting news: Green as a Thistle will be in Copenhagen for the first week of the climate negotiations!! Stay tuned for more details on where to find my reports!


There’s møre tö Sweden thån IKEA ånd Volvo

October 1, 2009

Hello! (Waving sheepishly) Apologies for the prolongued absence… there’s this thing called the Toronto International Film Festival that sucks up all my time for two weeks every September, and as soon as this year’s fest ended, I immediately hopped on a plane to Sweden for a week-long sustainable housing tour, which I’m writing about for the Post. Those who’d like to ream me out for flying across the Atlantic, feel free to do so now and move on — after all, Elizabeth Kolbert has already pointed out that I’m a slut who loves to fly, so it should come as no surprise (and yes, I made sure to offset the trip for $23.80 at TerraPass).

Anyway, I won’t go into great detail about my trip because there is simply too much information to convey and, frankly, it’ll probably be overwhelming, if not a little boring. So instead, I’m going to point out some highlights, throw in some photos and conclude with the Single Most Important Lesson I learned while in this country, which is best known as the home of IKEA and Volvo and meatballs.

First highlight: Bike paths. Everyone knows that Scandinavian countries kick ass when it comes to bicycle infrastructure, but it’s quite something to actually see it in action. In Stockholm, bike paths are EVERYWHERE; I honestly could not find a single road that did not have a bike path — and trust me, I tried. What’s interesting, too, is that they run on the sidewalks more often than the street, which makes it safer for the cyclists (although pedestrians have to watch where they’re going). Plus, because it’s Europe, there are no road bikes or mountain bikes; everyone rides those cute upright numbers with Art Deco headlamps, and some of the bicycle paths are even marked with fancy brass inlays. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good photo of this, but here’s what they generally look like:

bike path Stockholm

Second highlight: Localised energy and waste management. In Sweden, they take a very holistic approach to environmental do-gooding — so instead of dealing with water, waste and energy separately, effort is made to create systems that combine all these issues at once. Example: In one housing development, there are three pneumatic waste disposal units (one for organic waste, one for paper recycling and one for glass/plastic recycling); you put your low-grade cardboard packaging in the paper hole and shut the door, whereupon it gets sucked through a tube into a nearby sorting and processing facility and, eventually, gets sent with all the other packaging waste that can’t be recycled to a local incinerator, which burns it, sending the heat back into the community to warm up the houses, the water and even sidewalks during winter. The emissions from this process aren’t very toxic because they’re filtered through various scrubbers and cleaning mechanisms before getting released back into the air. Here’s a photo of the units above ground:

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And here’s another photo, showing the underground sorting room, where all the tubes end up (yes, it stinks a bit):

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And just how does everyone know which types of cardboard can be recycled and which types have been recycled so many times that they must go into the general garbage hole? Well, here’s the next point:

Third highlight: General public knowledge. According to my friend, who lives in Gothenburg (one of the greenest cities on the planet and home to the Volvo plant, which is accessible by transit and runs entirely on wind energy), most Swedes will easily be able to sort their trash into 11 or 12 different streams, so the waste diversion rates are pretty high. And speaking of Gothenburg, one neat fact about the restaurants here: Most of the patios come with a fleece blanket on the back of every chair, so if you get cold, you can wrap yourself up and there’s less of a demand for heat lamps. Here is my friend, Duncan, in his blanket:

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Aside from this, Sweden is chock-full of solar panels:

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And it has tons of wind farms:

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Here’s proof of just how windy it is by those turbines:

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On the flip side, we didn’t see many green roofs during our trip, and while there is a good level of density to the cities, there aren’t many high-rise buildings. In terms of water efficiency, I’m not sure how much greywater technology there is, but I did get to make use of this wicked toilet at an eco-education centre that’s separated into two components: A front bit for #1 and a back part for #2 — the pee is diverted to a treatment plant where it’s turned into natural fertilizer for local farms, and the poop goes into the regular sewage. Take a look:

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But perhaps the Most Important Lesson I learned was that we really need to start taxing the heck out of ourselves if most of this sustainable infrastructure is to be developed and implemented. The Swedes pay crazy taxes (about half their income), and the majority of these funds are delivered to the municipal governments (which handle things like waste, water and energy). Unfortunately, it’s doubtful that North Americans will ever consent to coughing up this much money to local bureaucrats.

Still, if we start paying more attention to how other cities are addressing climate change — especially when it’s successful and holistic and cost-effective — maybe there’s hope for us yet.


Garden-sitting for the Alters: Harvest edition!

September 11, 2009

Well, the summer has pretty much ended, which is kind of a bummer. On the bright side, however, harvest season is in full force! Before my final schlep up to the Alters’ garden (I’ve been garden-sitting, for those who don’t know; here’s Part 1 and Part 2), Jacob let out an exasperated sigh and said, “Remind me why you’re doing this, again?”

I had four words for him: We’re sharing the bounty.

And my, oh my, what a bounty there was! I was literally stopped in my tracks when I entered the backyard and saw a zucchini plant crawling up a tree, the tendrils of a squash plant creeping over to the house next-door and lettuce that had grown nearly as tall as my chest (I decided to let it “bolt” just to see how high it would get — turns out, it can get pretty high; and it even has beautiful little flowers at the top in a cute starburst formation). Part of me was almost weirded out by the whole scene, like it was straight out of Little Shop of Horrors and Audrey 2 was everywhere. But I regained my composure and started wandering amongst the foliage to see what I could pluck — I was told by Kelly to “eat, eat, eat” whatever was ready to be harvested — and eventually discovered two HUGE zucchinis. The squash wasn’t quite ready yet, so I gave it more water and let it be. There were ridiculous amounts of kale, so I snatched a few leaves of that; then I took some stuff that I thought was maybe spinach but is actually a complete Mystery Plant to me. It has a kind of lemony taste to it and big, flat leaves. The peas had unfortunately dried up, but the beets were still kicking, so I pulled up a couple of the bigger ones. Here’s the finished cornucopia:

Harvest!

I guess it doesn’t seem like very much, really, considering the square footage of the garden itself. However, it’s still exciting that, with a horribly damp summer and next to no green thumbs, I was able to help the Alters produce real, living, healthy food. Needless to say, I returned home, dragged Jacob outside, pointed to the veggies and said, “THAT’s why I spent all that time weeding!” Then, we had a delicious vegetarian curry.


Orange you glad I didn’t tell you what was in that glass of orange juice?

September 1, 2009

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Way back during my green year, I made a few changes that had to do with juice: One was to not consume anything that had HFCS or any other modified corn derivative in it (which a lot of juices do); another was to not buy any drink that came in disposable packaging, which all juices do. So basically, I had to make my own from scratch, using whole fruits that came from within Canada and the U.S. But to be honest, I’m not much of a juice person anyway. Smoothies with yogurt, ground flax seeds and ingredients that make it more of a meal I can understand, and the occasional peach, plum or pear will satiate the rest of my sugar cravings. Every time I drink juice, though, it just tastes too sweet and I think to myself, “If I’m going to be ingesting this much sugar, I might as well be drinking wine.” (Is this the first sign of alcoholism? Oh well).

However, my lovely boyfriend — who I will call J from now on because he doesn’t want all of his Google hits bringing up posts about lemon trees and Diva Cups — is a juice fiend. He is obsessed with Allen’s apple juice, primarily, but also likes a good youngberry juice from Ceres, and will occasionally throw some Tropicana cranberry or orange juice in there for good measure. I’ve been trying to wean him off the Allen’s because it’s less than $2 for a full 1.5 liters of the stuff and that just can’t be good (not to mention the possibility of BPA lining the cans), and the Ceres comes all the way from South Africa, which leaves quite the carbon footprint. I have generally felt that Tropicana is all right, despite being owned by Pepsi, as it’s not from concentrate, it’s an American company and it tastes pretty close to the fresh-squeezed stuff.

But man, oh man, have my opinions changed.

Have you heard about this new book, Squeezed? (Note the author’s stainless steel water bottle in the pic! And she’s Canadian!) Here’s the gist of what it’s about, according to the publishers:

Alissa Hamilton explores the hidden history of orange juice. She looks at the early forces that propelled orange juice to prominence, including a surplus of oranges that plagued Florida during most of the twentieth century and the army’s need to provide vitamin C to troops overseas during World War II. She tells the stories of the FDA’s decision in the early 1960s to standardize orange juice, and the juice equivalent of the cola wars that followed between Coca-Cola (which owns Minute Maid) and Pepsi (which owns Tropicana). Of particular interest to OJ drinkers will be the revelation that most orange juice comes from Brazil, not Florida, and that even “not from concentrate” orange juice is heated, stripped of flavor, stored for up to a year, and then reflavored before it is packaged and sold. The book concludes with a thought-provoking discussion of why consumers have the right to know how their food is produced.

And you can watch an interview with Hamilton on the CBC here:

So what do you make of all this? Is OJ especially evil when it comes to chemicals and preservatives, or is the same as any other juice on the market? Are certain companies or brands better than others? And can we check for certain labels or ingredients to make sure we get the best juice, or has the industry found a way to circumnavigate all the rules and guidelines about labelling? What juice do YOU drink??

Image from this website. Also, read Lloyd Alter’s review on Treehugger here.


According to the New Yorker, I’m a slut who loves to fly and couldn’t give a s#!% about the environment

August 30, 2009

So have you read the latest edition of The New Yorker? If so, you might have noticed Elizabeth Kolbert’s rant about green memoirs. In it, she rips apart authors Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, authors of The 100-Mile Diet, as well as Colin Beavan, aka No Impact Man, and myself (you can read the full story here; the bits about Sleeping Naked is Green and me in particular are here). Basically, Kolbert takes a stab at my decision to move from a small apartment into a house with three storeys (she actually misspells it as having three “stories” — last time I checked, my house wasn’t a storyteller, but I definitely would’ve paid more if it was), as well as my trips to Banff, Oregon, Tel Aviv (it was actually the West Bank) and New York (she forgot to mention Spain), where she reveals how I met up with No Impact Man and “sniffed” at his choice of café, WHICH IS TOTALLY UNTRUE —  if anything, I felt embarrassed because I ordered a bagel with cream cheese before checking that the cream cheese was organic. Later, she mentions how Colin’s project was “almost as incoherent as [mine].” Does anyone here think my green challenge was incoherent? If so, I can explain it to you in one sentence: I made 366 eco-friendly changes to my life. That’s pretty much it.

Anyway, I’m not so much hurt by the article as confused by it — it seems Kolbert has taken the time to read through my book, or at least scan it pretty thoroughly, which makes me wonder how she missed the point of it all. In fact, the point of all these green memoirs is more or less the same: We wanted to find out what happens when the average person tries to be as eco-friendly as possible, and what our struggles and triumphs ultimately say about the green movement in general. What should we be doing? What should we not be doing? All four of us have taken plenty of time to acknowledge the hypocrisy and sense of futility that comes with such challenges, and we’ve all admitted that we’re far from being perfect environmentalists. True, perhaps we should have spent more time lobbying governments and less time debating whether or not to use toilet paper, but again, the point was to look at everyday habits — last time I checked, not everyone has time to be a professional activist.

But what do you think? Does Kolbert have a point about these “eco stunts”? Or does she have an unnecessary hate-on for green bloggers and memoirists? Leave your thoughts below!

P.S. Check out the post that Crunchy Chicken wrote about all this; she was much more on top of the game than me and there are almost 30 comments on her blog now (mostly supportive, occasionally critical).

P.P.S. I’m adding this very funny retouching of my book cover, done by one of the National Post’s graphics guys who I refer to as Stevetastic. Note the revised title (thanks, Steve!):

l


A trip to skincare heaven: Colleen Hague’s homemade organic lotions and potions

August 22, 2009

Those who have been reading this blog for a while (or my book, of course) will know that underneath my newfound appreciation for minimalist living lies a ruthless product junkie. It really wasn’t so long ago that I could be found slinking through the aisles of high-end department stores in search of the Best Face Cream In The World, and I’d pay up to $100 to get it. Fortunately, during my green challenge, I was able to see just how ridiculous this was and realized that the only thing my face really needed was a firm slap; eventually, I managed to pare down my long list of facial products to a simple bar of soap and a bottle of jojoba oil. I still maintain that we don’t need much more than this.

However, I recently had the privilege of meeting an incredible woman named Colleen Hague, a clinical aromatherapist and founder of Awaken My Senses, a line of organic skincare products, which she makes in the basement of her Toronto home — a space that’s been converted into a beautiful and serene kind of apothecary, laboratory and womb-like healing centre (that smells AMAZING). This is Colleen:

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Can you believe she’s 55? Anyway, I was introduced to her by a friend of mine who raved about the Awaken My Senses products. Then I heard that, instead of testing on animals, Colleen tests all her lotions on herself — and you can see the difference. It’s hard to notice in the photo above, but in person, you’ll see that the right side of her face has fewer lines and a firmer, smoother texture. But what really caught my attention when I first met her was how she walked into the room, pumped out a blob of organic moisturizer into her hand, and licked it right off.

“If you don’t feel comfortable eating it, why would you put it on your skin?” she asked, adding that up to 80% of what we slather on our bodies and faces every day ends up being absorbed within 30 seconds, gradually making its way into the bloodstream.

She then took some peppermint oil and rubbed a bit on my foot.

“You’ll taste that in your mouth after a few minutes,” she said. “That’s how quickly it gets into your system.”

OK, I thought. So I have to be careful about what I put on my skin. But I already am careful about that. What I wanted to know was this: Does it matter whether we use an essential oil or a carefully blended mixture of oils, water and other nutrients? And to what extent does our diet really affect our skin? And really, is there any truth to this aromatherapy business? I was once told that, because of my low blood pressure, I should never smell lavender again — but come on, that’s a bit crazy.

Anyway, to make a long story short, Colleen convinced me that what we smell can definitely affect how we feel, and this also has an effect on our health. But more important is what all these different oils do once they’re absorbed by our bodies. In a mini lesson on dermatology, she explained that there are three layers of skin: The epidermis (on top); the dermis (below); and the subcutaneous (even futher below), where new skin cells are formed about every 28 days. Standard moisturizers only affect the epidermis, but pure essential oils will get down to the subcutaneous level; a good skincare regime therefore involves using a combination of both oils and lotions.

When it comes to problematic skin, you also have three areas of concern: Eczema (which belongs to the dermatitis family); psoriasis (which is related to the nervous system and is often stress-induced); and rosacea (a cardiovascular problem that manifests itself in the skin).

As we get older, the nutrients we ingest are diverted more to the endocrine system and skin becomes less of a priority organ. But just because our bodies care less about our skin, doesn’t mean that we have to forget about it, too. So while it’s important to eat healthy, bear in mind that our skin will be the last to benefit from all those antioxidants and whatnot, which is why we need to feed it topically as well.

In terms of treating wrinkles, pimples, redness, dryness and so on, there’s no single magic ingredient — the secret, says Colleen, is all in how you blend the oils. It also makes a difference when you use the whole oil, rather than extracting it, synthesizing it and then reinserting it into a water and petroleum-based cream to give it fragrance, which is what most manufacturers do. But Colleen also blends her products according to environmental and climate factors, pointing out that a person’s skin will look and feel different in the prairies versus the east coast.

Anyway, after almost two hours of poking around her lab, I was desperate to try some stuff out. Then, Colleen came up with an even better idea.

“Why don’t we make something up right now?” she said. “I’ll let you choose which oils and how thick you want it, so it’ll be custom-made.”

SO EXCITING!

She tied on her apron, we went over to the counter, turned on the hot plate, brought out the electric whisk and got down to business. I wanted to use the extra-virgin avocado oil as my base as she had just gotten it in and had been raving about it, and it’s a lovely green colour. So she poured some out in a measuring cup, then grabbed a vegetable-based emulsifying wax, shook a few kernels out into a mixing bowl and let it melt. Here’s the photographic documentation:

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Once this was melted, Colleen added it, along with some distilled water (or maybe it was spring water… I can’t remember), to the avocado oil and began blending them all together:

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Soon, it turned into a lovely, thick cream that looked good enough to eat (and, naturally, we could have eaten it and been totally fine):

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She then added some carrotseed oil, which gives it a longer shelf life (Colleen says most of her products have an expiry date of six months), as well as some jasmine, and presto! Beautiful, nourishing moisturizer:

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And finally, here’s a shot of her clays, which she uses for face masks. I just thought they looked pretty (sorry about the lack of focus):

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I really can’t say enough about Awaken My Senses — I’m not about to suggest that everybody go out and buy every single one of her products, because the packaging and shipping does have some environmental footprint. However, if you’re serious about nurturing your skin and making it as healthy as possible, these lotions and potions are the perfect answer. On top of this, Colleen is an incredibly inspiring woman, so if you want to learn more about natural approaches to dermatology, give her a call. And check out her amazing stuff over here: www.awakenmysenses.com.


Garden-sitting for the Alters, Part Two

August 9, 2009

Anyone who knows anyone in Toronto will be able to tell you that this city has been plagued with the worst summer weather this year — nothing but rain, rain, and more rain. Add a 34-day garbage strike to that (not to mention no daycare, community centres, ferries to the island, etc.), and you’ve got about two million people wearing their cranky pants like they were never going out of style. But I’m finding that one of the best ways to get out my frustration is to head over to the nearest garden and pull up weeds for an hour. However, because my garden is teensy, I usually go to the Alters, who have kindly let me garden-sit for July and August.

So here’s a little update: The beds of seedlings (beets, pea shoots and a bunch of other stuff) are sadly not doing very well but I can’t quite figure out why. I’m guessing it’s either a lack of sun or animals, except they’re pretty well guarded with chicken wire. The peas are faring the best, but who knows if the beets will make it. Here’s the pic:

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Here’s a close-up of the peas (I don’t have a macro lens on my camera, so they unfortunately look a bit blurry):

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On the bright side, however, the lettuce is doing quite well — it’s growing in these crazy vertical stalks rather than stubby little heads. I didn’t know lettuce could grow this way, but it looks healthy:

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And although the kale at the back of the garden is covered in slug holes, the ones at the front look fab:

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The squash and zucchini are also surviving the rain-and-no-sun problems, although I accidentally stepped on one of the zucchini stems while trying to cut back some dead flowers. Grr.

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And finally, there are the herbs — the basil looks to be in stable condition but also appears to have finished growing. The sage, after a bit of pruning, looks pretty decent, and the container pots are still alive and upright (one got knocked over by a raccoon but survived the trauma):

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That’s it for now! Feel free to offer any tips/advice on how to cope with mass amounts of rain… In the mean time, I’m going to stay home today and clean (and also sulk).


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