Car Culture


Image: EA / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

North American cities are built around the automobile, with few exceptions.  Where I live, everything is spread way out, and the city has a relatively large geographical footprint. Plus it is cold.  It is hard to commit to walking or biking when the temperature gets below -15 °C (5 °F).  So people mostly drive.  Everyone drives here.  Even those who cannot afford a car, have a car.  Without a car, you feel trapped.

We live in such a car culture.

Lately, I have been rethinking this.  It started when we all heard out the massive BP oil spill in the gulf.  Everyone blamed BP.  “Plug the hole already!” we cried.  As hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil continued to spill into the ocean, we got angrier and angrier.  But then we started looking at ourselves – BP is only out there extracting that oil, because I drive, you drive and we all drive.  So aren’t we also to blame?

I recently went and saw an amazing art exhibit called Burtynsky Oil. Edward Burtynsky is a world renowned photographer. His exhibit led me through a visual journey of oil extraction, oil refinement, car culture, and the waste left behind. He offers up images of things we know about, but don’t really see in our day-to-day lives. Have you ever wondered what a million discarded tires look like? How about a collection of oil filters, or car engines? Have you ever seen an aerial view of a tailings pond, or an oil field? What about the circuitry of our freeways? His images are massive, and overwhelming. When I walked out of the exhibit I felt emotionally exhausted. I just wanted to curl up somewhere and process what I had seen.

But people love their cars. They spend lots of money on them. They insure them, maintain them, gas them up. For some, they are a status symbol. For others, they are convenient people movers. Those that live deep in the suburbs spend an hour or two in them per day, so they want them to be nice. For many families, a large percentage of income is spent on their cars.

Cars can also be very frustrating. They are big pieces of mechanical machinery that most of us do not understand. When they break down, it is expensive and annoying. For example, we got stranded with the kids on Christmas Eve, because our van would not start. We got stranded today; because our annoying van would not start (it now has a new battery). Just this week I unknowingly drove my husband’s car on a low tire, and destroyed the tire. We just got it fixed today. My sister was without a car last week because her tires deflated. Last month I went down to the parkade after work and was greeted with a flat tire. That was fun – trying to change a flat tire in a skirt and heels. My other sister recently got rid of her lemon-y vehicle because it was such a “piece” (her words) and she could not take it anymore. When she went to go deliver it to the dealership, guess what? The damn thing would not start. My other sister hit a guardrail two weeks ago in blizzard conditions and crunched the back corner of her car. In addition, she cannot open her trunk for fear it will not close again. It is all so annoying and frustrating and expensive. Why do we do it?

I don’t know. Our cities are set up wrong. The further out you go, the fewer things you can get to without a car. We don’t have great transit, and here at least, transit is looked down upon. Why take the bus when you could drive?

Hello… have you ridden the bus lately? I used to, back when I was a student and did not have a car. It was actually nice. I will go so far as to say relaxing. Coffee in one hand, reading material in the other, and perhaps a little snooze mixed in there as well. Why did I trade that all in for rush hour traffic?

Let’s face it, cars and transportation make up a huge chunk of total CO2 emissions. HUGE. We cannot reduce the emissions to the extent we need, without reducing the driving. We have to reduce the driving.

So how about you – are you also in a love-hate relationship with your vehicle?

Make a Change

The reason I started this blog was for my children. I was scared and fearful of their future, and did not know what to do. I felt helpless and powerless. How can one person make a difference? The situation seemed hopeless.

Then I realized that I had no right to feel that – my children and all future generations deserved better. I did not know the impact I could have on the climate change issue, but I did know that I could add my voice to it. I had to try.

So I started making some changes. Things I did for 15 years one way, I now do differently. It is actually fun, to shake it up a bit, add variety to the ol’ routine. It is interesting to see how easy it is once you take the plunge, making some big, and some little, changes. I am just a regular city mama, making green changes day-by-day. Next year I will step it up a notch and become more political too. To quote MJ:

“If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change”.

I love that song; it has such a powerful message.

The change today – a brand new blog header! What do you think? I am so proud of it, as did it all myself using (if you can believe it) the drawing tools in excel. It is inspired by my children, and how I hope we will change in time to leave them a beautiful planet.

Toy Mountain

Well another Christmas has passed, with the merry moments and warm wishes that go along with it. I have always loved the Christmas season, the sparkly lights, the pretty packages and the good spirits. I remember feeling sad as a child, when it was all over at the end of Christmas day.

My children are just getting old enough now (at ages 2 and 5) to get really excited about Christmas. They were so excited yesterday morning, when they realized that Santa really did come, and he really did eat the cookies and drink the milk. They were doubly excited when they saw that Santa really did bring the toys they had asked for. It was magical for them and for me too.

This year, I was committed to not use a scrap of wrap in the giving of our gifts. All my gifts were given in a homemade bag, a tote bag or a reusable gift bag. As a result we generated less Christmas garbage than in other years. Way less! Some family and friends also used homemade gift bags as well. We had cute fabric bags a plenty this year! One sister went as far as to make all her Christmas gifts, and a friend of mine gave Kiva loans to entrepreneurs in the developing world! I was so inspired by these gifts.

Despite this, we still managed to generate a lot of garbage associated with the toy packaging. It is obscene really. The most annoying thing is how all the toys are pinned in with multiple ties and screws and elastics and tape. Why? With some, you have to be careful not to break the toy when prying it free from its plastic cage.

How can I reduce that next year? Well one idea is to purchase used toys instead of new toys for my kids. I actually did some of that this year – they got some used story books, and some used toys from Santa in their stocking. However, I could have gone further if I planned better, and looked for stuff earlier on, such as at summer garage sales.

The second idea is to drastically reduce the amount of toys that we get the kids. Right now they each get three toys from us and one toy from Santa, along with a stocking full of toys from Santa. This is clearly too much, since they also get toys from Grandmas and Grandpas and Aunties and Uncles and cousins.

The worst part is that they are starting to get greedy for toys, especially my oldest. This must be in part, due to the amount of toys they have and get. What am I promoting here? That toys are what we value? When they grown up, what will they value? Adult toys? More stuff? This rampant consumerism is exactly the opposite of what I want to be promoting.

It is so hard though, since their little faces light up when they see the toys, and then they spend hours and hours playing with them. They do love the toys, and use them. It is hard to take that away, and they will probably not understand. However, it is in their long-term best interest. That is what parenting is about – thinking long-term, and educating for the long-term. That is why we don’t let them eat cookies and cake all day long.

So enjoy today kids, playing with your new mountain of toys. Next boxing day might be different.  Perhaps we will go sledding! :)

Bulk Bins

Ah…. buying in bulk. I used to think that only hippies did this, or those who really like eating granola. I used to shop at a grocery store that had bulk bins aplenty, and I would just snobbishly walk by them and head for the box-y isles. I would throw boxes of pasta, boxes of cereal, boxes of crackers, boxes of cookies and boxes of granola bars into my cart. Then I would head to the plastic-y bag isle, and toss bags of rice, bags of pasta, bags of sugar and bags of oatmeal into my cart. Then I would go home and we would eat it all up, and toss the boxes, toss the bags. Eat, toss. Eat, toss. Repeat forever.

Until now! Since so much of our trash is food related, I decided to try and break free of all the boxes and bags. So, I trotted down to the grocery store that had bulk bins a plenty:

I brought along my stash of bread bags that I have been rinsing out and keeping so that I would not have to needlessly use more plastic bags. My first foray into bulk bin shopping resulted in purchases of oatmeal, pasta, egg noodles, trail mix, raisons, granola and black beans. As I run out of other foods, I will also purchase rice, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, nuts and whatever else I can find in the bins that we eat. I will probably also load up on different kinds of beans, just as soon as I learn some recipes on how to cook with them…

There is another thing I learned about of buying in bulk – it is way cheaper. Bonus!

So I got home and my first thought was that I needed to purchase new canisters and glass containers, for all my new bulk items! I wanted pretty rows of glass containers, showing off my colourful pastas and rice, my nuts and beans! Shopping, I needed to go shopping!

Then I stopped myself. The point of this is to reduce needless waste, after all. So I looked at what I had on hand, that I can use. I scrounged. Finding interesting things in your house that you already have can be fun too! It feels self-reliant and self-sufficient. Department store? Bah! I have what I need in my cupboard… pushed way at the back, if you just give me a few minutes and a flashlight… okay, maybe not… perhaps I can find something in the basement… just a sec…

So I ended up finding a bunch of glass jars and extra canisters. I filled them up and what do you know:

They don’t look half bad! Here I put my accumulation of bulk items together, so that you could see them all in one shot. However I keep most of these in the cupboard. Overtime, my stash will grow as we go through existing boxed and bagged food supplies. I may have to resort to purchasing used canisters down the road, or maybe we will just eat more pickles and pasta sauce to harvest more jars.

In the end, I have to admit there is something nice about opening up the cupboard door to see rows of simple glass jars. They compartmentalize the food, making the contents easy to see and appreciate, without all the logos and other baggage. It feels more organized somehow, I cannot explain it.

It feels good.

Green Team

Okay… um, I think I just suggested that I would set up a greening office program at work for an office of about 800 employees. Ya. Also, I did it in my written performance review. I just blurted it out at the very end and then sent it off to my boss before I could change my mind. Say whaaat?

I am not sure what his reaction will be. I hope he shares it with his boss, and that together, they think it is a good idea. Worst case scenario – they think I am a nut.

What business do I have with this idea? I am an accountant, I work in Finance, I work with numbers and excel all day long. I am not HR or Communications or Facilities Management or anything like that. I don’t even really know anyone in these departments.

I was actually inspired by Bill Gerlach of the New Pursuit. He started a grassroots movement at work to green the office. When I read about what he had done, it hit me. Why can’t I do that too? I am looking for things to DO. I want to HELP. I am greening my life, but what else? What else what else what else? I know! Green the office!

Here is a little known secret. Back in the day, when I was a mere 19 years old, I worked for Environment Canada as a co-op student. I was on the “green team” which was mostly comprised of other students. It was organized by the internal communication managers, and we were the grunt labour. We posted green “did you know” facts inside bathroom stalls (these were mostly annoying), we took away everyone’s garbage can and replaced it with 1) a recycle bin 2) a tiny garbage can that could sit on your desk and 3) a compost keeper. Then we set up worm composting in the office. Worm composting! This was 1996 people! The worms were so popular that we had to go from 2 bins to 4 and then eventually to 8 bins, to manage our office organic waste.

So I have some experience in this area I suppose. I remember that the Finance department was mad that we took away their garbage cans, so some people brought in big ones from home. C’mon people – roll with it! It was only the accountants that took issue though, which was good. I would have a bigger problem with people who study fish and wildlife rejecting the transition. But hey – now I am an accountant and look at me! I want to start a green team all on my own!

I will keep you posted on developments. I say there is a 50/50 chance of “brilliant idea Sherry” and “Um…no”.

Light bulb Idea

So everyone says we have to “move past changing light bulbs and carrying reusable bags”. It is true. The changes that are required are so significant; it is hard to even wrap your head around them. Some people think we have to achieve an 80% reduction in CO2 by 2050 in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. How is that even possible? My daughter will be 42, with children of her own. What kind of world will it be for them?

Anywho – back to light bulbs and reusable bags… I think we all agree that they are an important first step for people. Do this, and you might be ready to take on other simple changes. Like air drying your clothes! Or using a travel mug! Or avoiding Styrofoam! There are so many things we can do. A million acts of green really. This gives me hope.

In light of this, (pun intended) I have a confession to make. Are you ready? As of last week, I still had incandescent light bulbs in my house.

What? The shame, the horror!

My reason was that the compact fluorescents just would not fit in most of my overhead light fixtures. It tried several brands, several sizes… The problem was that the base of the bulb was too big. So I changed all the ones I could and left the rest.

No more. Last week I marched down to my local hardware store and purchased some of these:

So do you like my Christmas tree in the background? I love Christmas tree prettiness. This is a light source I will not give up! I normally type at my computer at night after the kids are in bed, sitting in the dark with only the Christmas tree to light my way…

Back to light bulbs… These are small. They use only 9 watts. They shine brightly nonetheless. I switched out 7 of these for my 60 watters. So instead of 60 watts x 7 lights = 420 watts total, I have only 9 watts x 7 lights = 63 watts total. It is like getting a 7 for 1 deal really. It is an amazing reduction in wattage, a whopping 85%. I am so proud of these little 9 watters.

I also really like the Blue Planet brand; they seem to have more varied selection, they shine brightly in a nice warm white, and are cheaper. Bonus. Plus there is a pretty blue planet on the box. Really, you can’t beat that.

Going Bananas

My kids love bananas. They each get half a banana every morning with their cereal. It is a breakfast fruit staple of sorts.

Now that I am trying to live a more eco-friendly life, I am considering the distance my food has travelled to get to me. All else being equal, I am trying to opt for more local choices. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, this is quite difficult, as we live in the middle of a winter wonderland. What is in season here? I’ll tell you what is in season – nothing. All that you can get locally are those things that can be stored, such as potatoes, turnips, onions, carrots and cabbage.

I have been thinking about the generations before us that lived here – I am talking about the pioneers and farmers that first settled this area about 100 years ago. They must have been very sturdy folk indeed, to withstand the long, cold winters. What did they do for fruit in the winter? Well they probably kept a barrel of apples, cooled off somewhere. They canned peaches and pears and made jam. That was probably it. For vegetables, they probably just kept eating those vegetables that could be stored. There were no tomatoes, no cucumbers, no broccoli, no peas, no lettuce… Many people had probably never even tried melons, oranges, pineapples, mangos and bananas. These foods are grown half way around the world, so access was limited.

Now I go into the grocery store and it is brimming with produce. Most labels tell me where the food is from. Much of it is from all around the world. If I see tomatoes grown in Canada, I know that at this time of year they are grown in heated and lighted greenhouses, not outside. Which tomato has a larger footprint – the local one grown inside, or the one that had to travel 1,000 miles? I honestly do not know. But for now I am choosing the local. What about the strawberries from New Zealand? That is about as far away on the planet as you can get from Canada. Plus I have heard that some of the ships carrying our produce sometimes violate international laws and heavily pollute while in international waters. Is this true? What is the impact?

So I am standing at the grocery store, looking at bananas. My kids love ‘em. Plus, they are high in potassium and chock full of other nutrients. They are also really cheap. Should I just get them? If it was only for me, I would probably forgo. But for my kiddies? I look closer at the plastic banana sticker. Ecuador.

This place is 4,200 miles (6,700 kms) away from where I live.

I decide to skip them today, but get them next week. I decide to get them only every 2nd week from now on, until at least spring when there is more local fruit available.

I decide also, to next year try my hand at canning fruit. J

Tipping Point

Review of the Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell
This book discusses the phenomenon of social epidemics – how they are started, how they take off, and how they reach the tipping point so that they are subscribed to by the majority. Malcolm Gladwell suggests that there are 3 laws that work together to create an epidemic:

1) Law of the few – there three groups of exceptional people out there, 1) ones who are interconnected (Connectors), 2) ones who have lots of information and love sharing that information (Mavens) and 3) ones who are very good at convincing others (Salesmen). These people are vital to the transmission of a new idea. For a new idea to take off, you need groups of these people on board.

New ideas are adopted at different rates by different people. He categorizes people as follows:
• Innovators
• Early Adopters
• Early Majority
• Late Majority
• Laggards

Innovators and early adopters are visionaries and risk takers. They may be the “cool kids”, they may be activists. Many ideas fail to take off because they cannot be translated from this eclectic group to the mainstream of the early majority. You need those special people – Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen – to translate the radical ideas that have been embraced by the innovators, and tweak them and repackage them in a way that the majority can understand. Not only do these special people transmit the message, they send it in the language of the majority.

2) Law of Stickiness – the idea has to be memorable and resonate with people. It has to appeal to them on a deeper level. This can be done by “tinkering, on the margin, with the presentation of the idea” (pg 131), and packaging it in such a way to make it irresistible.

3) Law of Context – the situation surrounding a new idea has an impact on whether it will take hold. Ideas hold better in smaller community groups, preferably under 150 people, where everyone knows everyone else. “In order to create on contagious movement, you have to create many small movements first” (pg 192). Also, people are better at looking at complex thoughts when rephrased in the social context. Finally, a new idea will not take hold until the environment is ripe for that idea to take hold.

“Starting an epidemic requires concentrating resources on a few key resources” (pg 255) because small changes to who is delivering the message, how the message is framed, and the context surrounding the message can have a large impact on the success of adoption by the majority. Small changes on the margin are important.

In the end, you must have a belief that people can radically change, with the right kind of impetus.

Application to Climate Change
So can we apply these principals to create a social epidemic relating to action on climate change?

1) Exceptional People
First of all we need those Connectors, Mavens and Salespeople on our side. These are the exceptional people that rapidly translate ideas in a way that the majority can understand. If you are not one of these people, then you must find them, or hope that your message finds them so that they can pass it on. I have often thought that involving celebrity culture may be the ticket, since so much of North America is drawn into that. However, we all know people who know a lot of other people, who are connected, or are natural sales people. If they embrace our message, there is no telling what could happen.

2) A Sticky Message
The environmental dilemma is in itself, is a very sticky idea, as we are talking about the survival of life here on our planet. However, many people either believe that:
• The idea of climate change is a hoax
• There is nothing they can do about it anyway (what difference can one person make)
• If they don’t think about it, then they can convince themselves that it is not real.

How can you increase the stickiness of the idea for these people? For those that think it is a hoax, I am not sure what will change their mind. They probably will only listen and consider information from sources close to them that they trust. This may or may not be you.

For those who think the problem is too big and they will have no impact, remind them that all they have to do is openly live a lower impact life, with less carbon, less garbage, less consumption. Their family and friends will take notice, some will be inspired. The ripple will continue. People who are in denial might start to question themselves, when they see a friend making environmental changes. Also, everyone can vote with the environment as their number one issue. You can send letters to politicians, emails even. We can engage in the political process more than every 4 years people!

Some people may want to do these things, but then not follow through. They are busy and care about other things that have more of their immediate attention, such as providing for their families, and managing their jobs.

But a lot of this stuff is not more work. It is simply making different choices. Stickiness would be increased by showcasing how easy it is.

The idea must also include the human condition, and more personally, how it will impact your family, your children. It must include the message that we must do it for the children. What mother or father or grandparent does not want to secure a sustainable future for their children? This is very sticky indeed.

The idea must be phrased to include some humor. The humor draws people in, so that they can be entertained while being informed. Doom and gloom will probably not draw them in. Most of the people we want to draw in know about the doom and gloom, but are in denial. So lighten it up a bit.

Framing the idea around high tech solutions for use by the everyday person will also increase stickiness among the younger generation. This could include personal applications or devices that they could use to monitor or reduce their carbon footprint, their water footprint, their garbage footprint, their plastic footprint…

The idea has to include urgency, as we really don’t have much more time to wait. Everyone is aware of the problem, but most don’t really know the severity and how much little time left we really do have.

The idea must resonate with hope. Without hope, there is no impetus for change. We have to be optimistic.

3) Context Ripe for Change
Are we finally ready to change? That is the big question. We were definitely not ready 10 years ago. Now however, it seems like there is daily news on developments and setbacks related to the environment, so the information is out there. Most North Americans probably don’t want to change their heavily consumptive lifestyles, but might be willing to buy a hybrid car next time, just to follow a trend. They might live in a large house and commute a long time in a car to work, but would be willing to support caps on emissions as long as it did not reduce jobs. Or would they?

It really comes down to this – whether people individually believe that a vote for the environment will negatively affect the current economic condition in their own family. Some people don’t believe that it will – that we can make up for the downturn in fossil fuels by an increase in green collar jobs. Some people think it will impact the economy and don’t care, they will vote for the environment because they see the bigger picture. Others will never give up something of theirs for the greater good. They especially won’t do this if they don’t believe in climate change.

Let’s face it – people are scared of the impact the environment is going to have on jobs. It is hard for people to get their minds wrapped around what a green economy would look like. People are scared, so they just say no.

Maybe they have to be more scared about climate change than about economic change for this thing to work. However we have already been told that the “doom and gloom” tactics don’t work. So what to do?

In short, we have to assume the context is ripe for change, as we really don’t have much more time to wait.

What caused me to change? It was a sequence of exposures to the idea, over and over, that caused me to get to my tipping point. The ideas became stickier with each repetition. I watched a few documentaries on the idea, and that got me voting for the Green Party. However, I did not really change the way I was living or talk too much about it with other people or engage in political discussions. Then I read the book, Now or Never by Tim Flannery which really had an impact on me and forever changed how I see this issue. However, I am not sure that I would have tipped if I did not have children; that was my context. The future scares me. I love my children so deeply that I felt that I had no choice but to try and do my part to make the Earth a good place for them to live.

Conclusion
I believe that the only way people who are not yet convinced to join us early adopters, is to hear it from us directly. They probably won’t listen to the next documentary, or listen to the next news issue on the environment. They will probably change the channel because they don’t believe it, don’t want to believe it, or don’t believe they can make a difference anyway.
They may listen to their neighbour though, or see what their co-worker is doing and take pause. They might hear their daughter talking about it over Christmas dinner, and what was at first dismissed, is now mulled over with deeper reflection. If they have young children or grandchildren, they might stop for a minute and think about the world they will be inheriting.

That is why we all need to deliver a sticky message. We all need to provide it through living as an example. As Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world”. We must deliver our message with sincerity, with humour, with urgency and yes, with hope.

Footprints

This evening I was walking outside as the snow fell. I was going to a meeting. I was staring down at the sidewalk as I went along, noticing how the untouched snow sparkled under the dim street lights. The sky was pink and dark, as it often is when it snows at night. I felt a sense of peace, and like the situation reminded me of something. Then it hit me. It reminded me of being a kid; walking outside, snow in my hair and on my eyelashes, enjoying the moment.

Earlier today I was chatting with a couple work colleagues, both of whom have older children. One of them just had both his children move out on their own, each straight into a brand new built house. Someone else remarked how kids these days go out into the world expecting the best of the best right off the bat. They don’t go with the second hand furniture or hand-me-downs. They buy brand new houses and brand new cars and top of the line appliances. Then we started talking about appliances we had. Someone asked me about my dryer. “I don’t use it”, I replied. “Why!?!” they asked. I paused, smiled, and then answered, “I am trying to walk more lightly upon the Earth”.

Hmm, I bet that got them thinking.

Tonight walking back from my meeting I noticed that the footprints I had made 2 hours earlier were now covered over with snow. I walked over it again and made new ones.

The problem is not walking upon the Earth. The problem is walking so heavily that the footprints never fade.

Going Granola

I continue to think about the garbage I produce. So much is food related! Everything I purchase in the grocery store comes in a package or a box or a bag or is shrink-wrapped on a Styrofoam tray. Every meal I prepare for my family leaves a wake of garbage when we are done. Wrappers, bread bags, pasta boxes, meat trays… Luckily I am not throwing away my organic waste anymore (more on that later), so that is helping. But still, scads of cardboard and plastic end up in the recycle bin.

 Look what Beth Terry over at Fake Plastic Fish has done to eliminate plastic. She counts every single plastic item that comes into her possession, and has been charting it since 2007. She finds non-plastic alternatives to everything. She even uses a glass straw! Her inspiration is the birds who feed on the huge gyre of plastic waste in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Have you seen images them? How did we get to this?

Back in my kitchen, I start to see that so many things in my pantry are individually wrapped in plastic as well. Granola bars, fruit bars, cheese strings… These are all snack staples I feed my two small children. Staples!!

So I have decided to stop. Instead of purchasing cardboard boxes of individually wrapped snack items, such as these:

 

I made these instead:

 

Homemade granola bars!  They are chock full of ingredients I understand like rolled oats, organic honey, raisins, nuts and peanut butter. I made them tonight and the whole house smelled like sweet nuts and oatmeal. If you want the recipe I used, it is loosely based on the one I found here. There are a million of them out there. Got some chocolate chips? Throw them in! Extra coconut left over from baking? In it goes! I actually had some almond butter that I wanted to finish, so in that went too! I have a stash of almonds and trail mix that will go into the next batch.

I have also stopped with the cheese strings. Now I purchase a big block of cheese and cut little stick shapes off the end when the kids want a cheese snack. It is so easy and so much cheaper too.

These new snacks are better for my children anyway. They are not as processed and have fewer preservatives.

So – does this mean I am officially going granola?