Thursday, August 31, 2006

Irony in the Headlines

Today's prize for environmental irony in a headline goes to....

Drought to Shut Down Canadian Rain Forest Resort

Honestly. Rain forest. Drought. Well, it turns out that it's not just one business being shut down, but a whole slew of them. The city council in Tofino has ordered all commercial businesses in Tofino to shut down and stop using municipal water supplies by this Friday.

Which the resorts are loving, of course, since this is happening just as the last long weekend of the summer (presumably a great time to rake in a little resort-town cash) arrives. NOT! Some of them have arranged to truck in tanker-loads of water. Others have closed - and considering the fabuloso weekend I just had, my heart goes out to this couple in particular.

Anyway, what's happened is that the reservoir is at an all-time low and there just hasn't been much rain. In this rainforest area. Oh yeah, and Tofino, which apparently has about 1700 permanent residents, swells to about 22000 people in the summer. I guess that would put a little pressure on the local water supply. Also - it's probably going to be one of the driest Augusts ever in the region.

So, shall we get back to the climate change argument? Or to the topic of the massive ecological footprint the average North American has? Alternately, we could discuss human attitudes and perceptions towards nature and try to understand why acceptance of our right to dominate and control seems so pervasive. So hard to choose.

A picture of Tofino (it really is beautiful) that I took from this website

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


And one other thing before I dive into post-holiday work mode. I've been meaning to do this for ages: let me introduce you to the best photoblog around: photosensitive.

The photos are taken by Jordan (noted sushinight commentator!) I hope he doesn't mind that I'm showcasing him here a bit ...


Well, it's been a while since I posted here, but I do have a good excuse, honest. And besides, I probably saw my most loyal readers in person this weekend anyway.

SO, a big shout-out: to all you readers but especially to Caroline, Jordan, Simone, and Heather, who routinely comment on my blog - thank you my dears - and who, this weekend, were all at the best darn party I've ever thrown.

Yup, I got married - and it was SO fantastic. Everything went right, and it was really really FUN.


...we can get back to the environment and all that other stuff tomorrow.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Social Acceptability and Air Quality

I was at a friend's for dinner last night and we got into a huge debate about what it's going to take to get people to cut their energy use sufficiently to improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

I'm in Newfoundland right now and talking about air quality here is way different than in Ontario: there isn't really a problem with air quality here. The population is much smaller and less dense than in southern Ontario, and any emissions are blown away by the consistent high winds here in any case.

I was arguing that social pressure might be a useful tool for getting people to change their behaviour: if your neighbors think less of you for driving to the corner store rather than walking, would you be less likely to take the car? Or leave your lights on when you're not in the room? Would store owners persist in blasting the air conditioning while having their front door open onto the street if people associated that action with waste and their childrens' poor health?

After all, it seems to have worked for the anti- tobacco lobby: fifteen years ago, most smokers would have felt comfortable lighting up almost anywhere. Now, the smokers I know light up only in private, mainly because they are made to feel like pariahs if they do it in public.

Still, this approach might only work in a region like southwestern Ontario: where the threat of a blackout or similar energy crisis seems real, the air pollution hanging above the cities is visible, and people who have respiratory disease like asthma feel the impact of air pollution on their health. I think that it would be very tricky to make the connection between airborne pollutant emissions and poor health for the public here.

And the concept of an energy crisis..? In Newfoundland, the crisis is still that the province gave up so much hydroelectric power for practically nothing... there is no sense here that energy conservation is something that would benefit the community.

Friday, August 18, 2006


Today I stumbled upon a cool blog called Greenthinkers. It's "an informal forum for thoughts and ideas on how to live a more green life".

And they have loads of fun, useful, and curious information on there:

Fun: the Toronto company called chopper couture that makes rock 'n roll T-shirts out of bamboo fibers.

Useful: telling us about "Recycling for Charities", which lets you get rid of of your old digital equipment and support charities at the same time. Sounds like win-win to me.

Curious? Find out what the heck "organic leather" could possibly mean!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Equal opportunity for brown spots and wierd shapes

A few days ago I was on a bit of a rant about how I would like to buy more organic produce but have trouble getting past its high pricetag.

This essay from the New York Times is a moving portrayal of why organic farming is so costly - personally and financially. It's a shame that with all the hard work that goes into organic produce, the fruits and veggies themselves still end up being infested a lot of the time (see Jordan's comment on my previous post).

I guess they often don't look as pleasing either: brown spots and odd shapes are more common in organic produce - this shouldn't bother us but we have been well-trained to select the healthiest-looking food for ourselves: in a very modern way this would be designed to get value for money and in a very ancient was this would have been a survival technique.

Too bad that the healthiest-looking fruit these days often tastes a bit like cardboard. A stanford prof explains that tomatos are usually picked before they're ripe (so that they aren't soft and squishable as they travel across the continent) and then made to look red and ripe (sadly without the usual sugar infusion you get with natural ripening) using ethylene. Yum, ethylene-tomatoes. I wonder if exposure to ethylene would prevent a tomato from being classified as being organic?

The same prof explains that some companies are trying to get around this problem by modifying the tomatoes' genes to alter the ripening process. I wonder what the per tomato cost will be to make them look good and travel well compared to the per tomato cost to farm tomatoes organically and locally?

...adjusted to reflect the relative nutritional value and environmental imact of creating each tomato of course. Which would be an complex thing to figure out.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Pigeons pack phones for pollution

A group in San Jose California is combining art and science by releasing a bunch of urban homing pigeons into the neighborhood equipped with cellphones and air quality sensors. The pigeons, their paths and the measured pollution levels were mapped in real time and sent to a blog. The project only looked at carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides - but these should be reasonable markers for urban pollution levels.

Some people have expressed concerns that wearing the "backpacks" might be stressful to the pigeons and also that the project is redundant because the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is already measuring pollution levels in the area. The group claims that the apparatus doesn't bother the pigeons (and most of the flights were a couple of hours at most in any case). In contrast to the EPA monitors, which are stationary, these birds were moving around while they collected data. From the maps on the site, it looks as if most of the birds staye fairly close to where they were released - so the results would be most useful for looking at spatial difference in pollution at a neighborhood level.

It all sounds kind of cool to me. I wonder if they looked at the pollution levels with respect to distance above the ground as well at latitude/longitude (the typical way to map dispersed pollutants) - I didn't see this on the site and don't know if it would yield interesting results or not.


P.S. Kensington

Yesterday was one of Kensington Market's Pedestrian Sundays - which basically means that they shut the area off to motorized traffic and have a big community party. There are seven of them scheduled between May and October and each has a theme. Most of them are on the last Sunday of the month but this one was a special P.S. Kensington celebrating the anniversary of the big blackout.

There was so much energy in the market - huge games of chess and scrabble laid out on the pavement, at least three different percussion bands that I saw marching around and playing, a juggler, a demonstration of something that resembled a cross between a martial art and a dance, and a chance to pin up a statement saying where you were when the lights went out. Add to that tons of people, food stalls and vendors in the streets - it was a great, diverse, celebratory community atmosphere.

I also loved that the intent was to encourage people to celebrate without electricity to remind ourselves about the blackout and the costs of our energy use. Radios, for example, were strongly discouraged. They weren't necessary anyway - there was tons of live music and sound all around.

If you're in Toronto, check out the next P.S. Kensington days: on the last Sunday in August, September, and October, there will be celebrations of air, earth, and Hallowe'en, respectively.

See you there..?!

Friday, August 11, 2006

When you wish upon a star...

This weekend is the time for the annula perseid meteor shower. Apparently this year is won't be too spectacular, because the moon's going to be 87% full and will basically be outshining the meteors.

How sad... still, you might catch a few, especially if you're watching tonight or tomorrow evening before the moon rises. NASA says there's potential of seeing something called an "earthgrazer" if you lie back and look up between about 8-10 PM. An earthgrazer skims horizontally across the sky, just touching the atmosphere (sort of like a stone skipping across a pond). To us it will look like it's moving north to south.

I would love to get out of the city and lie back on a blanket for a few hours and watch - too bad I'm not still in the middle of rural Coloado like I was last week; that would have made for a perfect view. Oh well - it will be back next year and apparently the moon won't be getting in the way: it should make for a much better view.

Nature's pretty cool, huh?

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Cyclin' in the rain

When we arrived in Colorado for our cycling trip, we were told that the region was in a ten-year drought, and that we should not expect to experience much rain (actually a good chunk of the U.S. appears to be in drought conditions). As we got our trip underway, we found that we got wet almost every day, at least for a little while. One night it rained all night, and towards the end of the trip, which was in New Mexico, we detoured around a whole section that is apparently impassable after it's been raining. From our detour along a regional road we could see the dark clouds and downwards streaks that signify rain hanging in the mountais we would have ridden through.

When we asked people if the rain was usual, we were told, that yes, this was in fact the local monsoon season, so the rain was perfectly normal. It was just that it hadn't fallen during the last ten years due to the drought. We were also told that the arroyos in New Mexico were running faster and higher than they had in years.

I wonder at what point a changed climate becomes the new normal? To me, ten years of drought signifies a changed trend in the weather; I would have called the rain unusual. Add to this that the long-term trends for the region suggest that the last hundred years or so have been the wettest in a long time overall.

Perhaps in a region where water is so scarce, it is hard to accept that a year with rain could be the exception rather than the rule.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

HOW much for those strawberries?!

While we were in Colorado we were hosted for a couple of nights by my second cousin and her husband. These two, aside from being fun, friendly, wonderful people - and incredibly generous with their time, space, and food, are a shining example of how to do grocery shopping.

They buy as much of their produce as possible from a store that stocks fuit and veggies grown in Colorado. Open the fridge, and most products are labeled as being organic. They rarely eat meat and when they do, it's grass-fed, and hormone-free.

These two are among the only people I know who have so wholeheartedly embraced the concept of reducing their impact on the world around them. They are not contributing to produce being flown or driven all over the world, they are not contributing to the destruction of land by overgrazing with cattle, and they are not supporting use of pesticides and other harmful chemicals in the environment.

Now for my confession: I bought 5 pints of strawberries from California yesterday because they were such a good deal, and I probably couldn't find an "organic" label in my refrigerator if I opened it right now.

Despite understanding the benefits of buying local food and organic produce, I am still lured by low prices. Seeing someone actually act out the principles of buying locally and organic caught me off-guard. I know the theory is great, but a little guilt thrown in by seeing someone act more responsibly than me is helpful too!

So - I'm starting to think a little harder about what I'm buying. After all, there's NO reason to buy tomatoes from the U.S. if I can get some grown in Ontario for the same price. Baby step number one.

Now on to the next step - which I believe is appealing to my cheap side by thinking carefully about the true cost of unmindful grocery shopping. I'll be starting here: with a good read about "food miles" (comes in England, but you'll get the drift).

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


Ah, day one back in the old life. I've been away for two weeks having a lovely vacation mountain biking through the Colorado Rockies (and through a teensy bit of that famous red New Mexico landscape).

I always dread the return after time away - specifically, that point when whatever vehicle I'm in pulls away from the airport and aims itself homeward. After all the fuss to get luggage and either return to a parked car, meet someone, or snag a taxi, it's the first quiet moment ... and it's when that wierd feeling of, "was the whole time away just a dream?" hits me. At this particular interval I always feel acutely that whatever trip I've been on could all have been something I just imagined.

I'm pretty sure the trip wasn't a dream though - it was all fun and adventures and a few good lessons too.

One theory I'm working on as a result of the trip is roughly as follows:

"as any cyclists of group of cyclists approaches within 500 feet of a mountain pass of 10 000 feet or higher (ok, I know, feet/metres, but gosh darn it, I was n the States, using American maps. I digress.), rain will begin to fall on the pass in question. Clouds will appear more threatening and may also produce thunder, lightning, and hail as the cyclists reach close proximity of said mountain pass. The rain will continue to fall no matter how long the cyclist(s) may huddle under any structure present at or close to the pass, including but not limited to interpretive signs, outhouses, or small groves of trees."