Friday, October 12, 2007

Personal Responsibility, Balance and Design

So, this post was born from a talk I gave before I left for my trip and then revised and re-presented at the Prairie Conservation Forum in August of this year. I warn you, it's long. However, if you're curious as to my view on the current state of the environment and how we need to stop engaging in polarizing arguments, by all means, read on.


It’s not often that I can claim to think as fast as or to be as prescient as David Suzuki. However, upon hearing Richard Branson’s offer of $20 million to the first person who could present him with a machine that removed carbon from the atmosphere; my first thought was “I’ve got this in the bag. I’ll just take him a tree, or algae or a grassland in the springtime”.

However, David Suzuki claimed it publicly and thus has deprived me from a life of luxury – thanks a lot David Suzuki.

Suzuki is of course, correct.

We are surrounded by the very machines that are capable of removing carbon dioxide at a prodigious rate. Photosynthesis, the process of taking in water, nitrogen and carbon dioxide and then using the sun to catalyze these ingredients not only removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, it release oxygen as a byproduct. The trees themselves are returning nutrients to the soil and, when the trees die, they become sources of nutrients for more plants and trees.

This incredibly efficient machine works best when we leave it alone.

But we don’t leave it alone. That fact, in and of itself is not a bad thing. For thousands of years we’ve depended on these machines to not only produce oxygen, but for food, fuel, building materials.

There is no other product as readily available and as versatile as a tree. With very little effort a tree can be turned into fuel, shelter, medicines, food, binding materials, clothing fibres and countless other products. Many of which have been used for thousands of years.

The difference today – and for the past 100 or so years – is the scale at which we cut down trees. Modern logging practices were defined at the end of the 1800’s. Where pre-industrial people would harvest one tree at a time, modern machinery can strip trees from the land faster than traditional cultures could ever dream of harvesting them. Our grasslands are converted to farmland or worse – covered by greenhouses – or refineries, removing those plants from the machine.

It is our demand for cheap, readily accessible products, food and materials that guarantees we will continue to remove the most efficient carbon-storage machines on the planet.

And the problem is not limited to the removal of trees and other plants. Because of course, while we are removing the very devices that can sweep the carbon from the atmosphere, we are pumping ever higher levels of CO2 into the atmosphere.

This is the second version of this talk. When I was first invited to give it, I began scribbling down thoughts, generating power point slides and writing to right the world.

I did this about a dozen times and confused myself in the process.

And I kept running into the plain, inescapable fact that what really bothers me in the quest to save this little blue and green marble we live on, is not the increase in greenhouse gasses, the dramatic waste of water, the tremendous inefficiency with which we manage our resources or the arrogance we have towards the earth.

What really keeps me awake is blame casting, our own self-righteousness and the deep politicization of the environmental problems.

At the end of the day, we are not destroying the planet. We are destroying our ability to live on the planet. Make no mistake about it, this planet and life on it will survive. It has survived for 6 billion years. It has survived coming into being as a spinning ball of gasses, it has survived meteor strikes, it has survived ice ages and it has survived numerous above ground and underground nuclear blasts. Earth will survive us and all of our insidious ways.

The author Kurt Vonnegut died April 11 of this year. Kurt was a big proponent of the idea that we lay too much blame on others for our own misfortunes. Kurt understood that we are merely tenants on earth and that tenants can be evicted if they misbehave. His final written words are a testament to the idea of personal responsibility in the face of the environmental crisis.

Kurt Wrote:

When the last living thing has died
on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
perhapsfrom the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
"It is done."
People did not like it here.
-Kurt Vonnegut

So, once we get our own insignificance out of the way, we can concentrate on what we can do to extend our time here. And the first thing we can do is to stop pointing fingers at “the oil industry” for producing fossil fuels or “the logging industry” for destroying carbon sinks. Pointing fingers is easy and it lets some of us sleep better at night. After all, we’ve proven time and again that nothing is our fault. All the trouble we find ourselves in can be blamed on someone else, corporate North America or the government. It’s time for us as a species to engage in a little introspection and self-evaluation.

Let’s start with a question. Do you have a cell phone? I do. Let’s take a quick look at the environmental impact of what has become a ubiquitous accessory in our lives. It’s made out of plastic and a mineral called coltan. Coltan is mined in the D.R. Congo – which is as a nation is an ongoing human rights nightmare. The mining of Coltan is for all intents unregulated and completely out of control and due to the location of the mineral, is stripping the jungle habitat of low-land mountain gorillas. Literally, every cell phone produced and sold contributes to the increase in greenhouse gasses though the production of the plastic case and by the deforestation of the African rainforest due through the mining of Coltan.

According to the CTIA, the international association for the wireless industry, there are 229 million wireless subscribers in the United States alone. Figures put Canadian wireless use at over 18 million subscribers. That’s 247 million wireless devices in use in North America alone – and North America isn’t even close to the world’s largest cell phone market. In 2005 Motorola introduced the RAZR. It sold 80 million units globally in six months making it the most successful cell phone launch ever. People, that’s a lot of plastic, and lot of the CO2 absorbing machine being consumed for our tools of convenience.

Now, who is to blame for the increase in greenhouse gasses due to the production of cell phones? Companies like LG, Motorola & Samsung? Maybe, but surely we must take the lion’s share of the blame for convincing ourselves that we need a device that up until 20 years ago, was the stuff of science fiction.

Don’t be depressed by this. It’s not your fault. O.K. it’s your fault, and the reality is, at this point due to political will, economics and our own laziness, greed and lust for new shiny toys, you and I are exercising very few other options.

At the Nature Centre we talk a lot about Sustainability. But we need to ask the question: What are we trying to sustain?
We are trying to sustain our time here. We are trying to sustain the resources we think we need to survive.

I think, the concept of Sustainable Living is almost outdated. We can’t possibly sustain our standard of living at it’s current level.

Right now the City of Red Deer covers 71 square kilometers for 85,705 people. If we merely sustain our level of urban sprawl, then by the year 2031 when our population reaches it’s projected level of 117,219 we’ll need over 100 square kilometers of land.

If we merely sustain our level of development and our current habits, most of those extra 32,000 people will drive – by themselves - the increased distances to work, school & play.

If we merely strive for sustainability, then we aren’t achieving anything.

Instead, let’s strive for increased efficiencies. Let’s strive for increased housing density. Let’s strive for a more efficient use of our non-renewable resources. Let’s strive for public policy and development regulations that encourage people to live close to work and schools. Let’s strive for public transportation that doesn’t involve standing in the cold in February – because that sucks.

We need to achieve the understanding that we and we alone are responsible for our fate and the fate of the plants and animals affected by our decisions.

Without some major technological innovation, we are stuck with the consumption of fossil fuels to produce the goods that we actually need and those that we feel we need or are entitled to.

There are very few things we buy or consume that don’t contain a reprocessed fossil fuel or that didn’t burn fossil fuels for the energy needed to drive the manufacturing process. I’d give you a list but it’s easier for you to simply look around when you get home.

I know I’m overstating a point already hammered into your consciousness, but we need to make a serious commitment to reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. The easiest way I can think of to do that is to make it an economic issue. At the Nature Centre, one of our core philosophies around the issue of sustainable power generation is that “The cheapest and cleanest energy is the energy you don’t use.”

When I talk about reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, I mean every single one of us needs to try harder. I admire Al Gore and David Suzuki for their messages. However, it smacks of hypocrisy to me, when Al Gore justifies maintaining an incredibly large home and driving a Cadillac SUV while filming An Inconvenient Truth and David Suzuki travels across the country in a highway coach that idles outside his presentation venues, with the statement “I buy verifiable emissions credits so my carbon imprint is neutral.” In effect what Al Gore & David Suzuki want is to sustain their current level of emissions while asking us to reduce ours. To me, Al Gore in particular would have a ton more credibility if he showed some actual leadership and worked towards reducing his carbon emissions rather than simply buying his right to live extravagantly.

“But,” you may say, “I work hard for the things I have.” I do too. And I’m not advocating that you give up on all the things you buy and consume. I’m simply advocating that you really decide what you need and separate those things from what you want. Then, when you buy the things you want, buy the most efficient examples and get better and longer term use out them.

This brings me to, what in April, was my final point. We need to have more control over the design process for the goods we buy and somehow, we need to be awed by technology again.

We have lost our ability to be impressed by technology. Remember back like an hour ago when I started talking, I was talking about the cell phone? It’s become a need and we are so underwhelmed by them that we are no longer impressed by the next big thing that a cell phone can do. Texting, internet, WiFi Hot Spots, GPS navigation, push email, digital cameras, video camera, mp3 music playback, mpeg… these are all cell phone features and terms that we throw around without appreciating technological leaps they really signify. We’d better start being impressed by something right quick or we’re just going to keep expecting newer, flashier, more feature-laden toys. And what do we do with our old toys? Like little children, we throw them away. Why do we throw them away? Well, they’re not cool anymore and besides Telus or Rogers or Bell will give you a free new one if you sign a contract.

Which finally brings me to design. A lot of our problems could be solved by better design or better designers. We aren’t designing intelligently and we aren’t designing for the long term. Call it planned obsolescence or call it poor planning but the things we buy and use are often either designed to be replaced rather than repaired or so poorly thought out that they aren’t used.

The best, although not the only example of this ecologically poor design is the iPod. Apple’s iPod has no screws, no pins, nothing to unfasten in order to open it to fix it. If it breaks in less than a year you return it Apple and they send you a new one. You’ll know it’s new and not repaired by checking the serial numbers. Up until very recently, once the rechargeable battery had packed it in, your iPod was garbage. You can now buy a kit & battery to do a replacement yourself. However, this is unsupported by Apple. The image of a 1950’s father leaning over the radio or toaster, screwdriver in hand is as antiquated as the black and white television it first appeared on.

So, when you wake up in the morning, I ask you to challenge yourself to the following:

1. Begin taking stock of how you use energy. What are the things that you do, consume or purchase that contribute to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

2. Take some responsibility for your actions. Remember, the planet doesn’t care whether we’re here or not. Only we can change our future.

3. Stop fighting with people who think differently than you. Believers believe. Non believers don’t or won’t. In fact hard-core non-believers will be marshalling their counter arguments as you are talking. You are going waste a lot of time and energy fighting battles that can’t be won. Find the fence-sitters, the undecidedes and concentrate on educating them to make better decisions.

4. Live the change you want to see. If you want people to drive more efficient cars, make more ecologically sound purchases or use greener energy, then be prepared to do so yourself. Buying so-called “credits” so that you can maintain an extravagant lifestyle while insisting others make sacrifices helps nothing and probably gives fuel to those who would claim there is no problem to solve.

5. Don’t feel guilty for having stuff. Try to stick to the stuff you actually need and when you buy your wants, buy them as efficiently as possible.

6. Take the bus, walk or ride your bike to work and encourage your kids to do the same. Granted it’s damn cold here during a significant portion of the year but really, unless there is actual precipitation falling from the sky there aren’t too many days kids can’t walk to school. And, if the streets are dry, you have six months of the year to ride a bike to work.

7. Replay and relive mom’s nagging. I can still hear the phrases “If you’re cold, put on a sweater.” “Close the door. Are you trying to heat the neighbourhood?” Mom was right, the cheapest – and greenest – energy we have is the energy we don’t use.

8. Eat locally-produced where you can but understand that we can’t possibly feed large urban populations without bringing in food from outside areas. When you must buy non-local food, buy foods with as little processing and as little packaging as possible.

9. Encourage local governments to think outside the box when considering future urban development. The technology exists right now for massive solar-power infrastructure, water conservation, fossil fuel reduction and other urban, green solutions for new communities. We need policy makers and community leaders to institute the appropriate legislation to assist developers shift the way they build.

10. Don’t despair. We will figure this out. We’re pretty good at coming up with solutions to tough problems. This one’s just a little tougher and it’s going to require us to make some tough choices.

It’s easy to stand in front of people like you and make these arguments. You are by and large, the believers. You may not be fully on board with combating global warming or any specific problems, however simply by attending a forum such as this you have demonstrated a willingness to accept change. It’s now time for you and I to go out and lead by example.

This is our newest mission at the Kerry Wood Nature Centre. For the first 18 years of our existence we were content with the role of environmental educators. We taught the public, youth groups, day camp kids and school children about the plants and animals that surround us. We showed them how the food chains work, how trees produce and store energy and how streams and rivers change their landscapes. We helped them understand how the habitats of Central Alberta are changing and how those changes affect the animals – including people – that depend on them.

Now, we have to show them positive behaviours. We have to show people of all ages how to be “green leaders” in their own community. We started these efforts in 2000 with the expansion of the Nature Centre building. By embracing the concept of “The cheapest & cleanest energy is the energy you don’t use” we created a work space that is lit by natural light wherever possible. Where we need artificial light, we’ve installed CF bulbs. In our back hallway there are two light tubes that reflect sunlight and moonlight into a fixture that looks exactly like a standard fixture.

We installed a waterless urinal in place of an 18 year old flushing unit. This change alone saves over 30,000 litres of water per year.

In 2005 using a Centennial Technologies Grant from the Province, our aging, 60% efficient furnaces were removed and replaced with 96%, high-efficiency models connected to a heat-recovery ventilator. At the same time we took out the aging water heater and installed an on-demand system that only burns when hot water is called for. On four furnaces and one water heater there are no pilot lights.

And, we installed the first Grid-interconnected, solar photo-voltaic power system. Currently it is providing enough power to cover about 85% of our lighting needs. Installed on a typical 15 – 20 year old residence, this system would produce about 250% of the home’s power needs with the extra power being fed into the grid during daylight hours. The real significance to this project however, was to show the City Electric Light and Power department that grid-connections were safe and effective. Now a home owner simply needs to apply for the appropriate permit, have their system installed by a licensed electrician and have the work inspected by the City inspector; the same for any residential electrical project.

That solar system sits on a roof clad in tiles made from rubber, recycled from old tires. The roof will outlast the building and as the tiles look like slate, is attractive to the public.

Most importantly, we’ve opened the back spaces and the ugly spaces of the facility to show people what they can do in their homes. We host green energy days each year and invite suppliers of alternative fuel-vehicles, eco-friendly building products and emerging technologies. We tour the public through the building and facilitate visits to our residential neighbours who have installed high-tech project like solar and wind power as well as simple projects like rainwater collection.

And, we are attempting to bring part of the parkland grassland back to its original make up. The north section of our property spent 50 years as a cow pasture. It’s loaded with thistle, henbane, toadflax and other non-native invasive species. Through a series of plant inventories, prescribed burns and eventually replanting native species, we are working toward bringing this unique habitat back to native grassland. We are doing this for the animals that live there and the public at large who need to see functioning grasslands in order to understand this habitat’s importance to us.

I didn’t mean to end off sounding like I was blowing our own horn. The most important thing we feel we can do is lead by example and then share our experiences with others. Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts and our experiences with you today.

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