Occupy Wall Street

All I can say is WOW.

In a previous post, I wondered and hoped, if the kind of uprising that we saw last spring in Egypt would ever come here, in the name of climate change. When would people draw a line in the sand and say enough is enough? When would they get off the couch, turn off the TV, and take an active role in their democracy? When would the companies and governments of the world stop for a minute – and listen to the people?

The Occupy Wall Street movement is not about climate change, not really. It is about standing up to corporations who seem to have a relationship that is just a bit too cosy with the government. The government should not be looking out for the best interests of corporations. The government is for the people, it is supposed to represent the people. It is supposed to keep the people safe, by ensuring there are regulations on products and work practices and environmental destruction. It is supposed to protect and maintain the basic infrastructure of our society – roads, bridges, education, phone service, internet, electricity, and yes, banks. It is supposed to do things that are in the best interests of the people. It is not supposed to put corporations first.

Along the way, somehow our capitalism has got mixed up with democracy. Democracy should always be the most important thing. The people, not corporations, must decide what is in their best interests. The people must decide what are the best policies for them. They must decide what regulations protect them the best. It is should be by the people, for the people.

But somehow we have gotten to a place where capitalism is the most important thing. Democracy has been demoted. Now the economy rules supreme. And who runs the economy? Corporations. So what does the government do? It tries to create an environment where companies can thrive. It reduces business taxes, putting more of the tax burden on the middle class. It keeps minimum wage pretty low. It has regulations that are relaxed over time, in the name of competition (look at America’s banking system and how that turned out). It keeps environmental regulations pretty lax.  It disregards what 97% of climate scientists are telling us about climate change.

But is this a race to the bottom?  To have lower minimum wages, lower standards, lower business taxes, and a blatant disregard for climate change?  Are all these things the best thing for people?

Here in Alberta it is about oil. The oil royalties in Alberta are some of the lowest in the world – this is good for corporations, as they can take it out the ground and not have to pay as much to the government for it. This royalty regime has caused rapid development of the oil sands, and so the companies are up there, pulling it out, faster than the environmental agencies can determine the long-term effects, faster than the town of Fort McMurray can grow, and faster than the Woodland Caribou can adapt to their reduced habitat, putting them on the endangered list. Why so fast? There is so much development in Alberta that workers are coming in from other provinces, and foreign workers are streaming in. So why so fast? For the people of Alberta? I don’t think so. To please the oil companies so they keep growing the economy quickly? Now maybe we are on to something…

So how does the Alberta government score on environmental monitoring? Well, for starters, it uses an agency that is self-funded by the oil companies to do the monitoring. Independent scientists like Dr. Schindler’s team have said the monitoring is sorely lacking.  The formal federal environment minister, as well as Canada’s environmental commissioner, have even said it is lacking. So it is definitely lacking. Why? Well tighter regulations make it harder on companies and then the economy doesn’t grow at such a high clip. But the economy is for the people of Alberta, who already have enough jobs. And the people of Alberta, are sick of being the world’s peddlers of dirty oil.

So yeah, you can say that the Occupation Wall Street movement has really got to me. I now can see change more clearly on the horizon.  People are standing up for democracy, putting it ahead of capitalism. They are standing up for each other, for me and for you and for our shared lot in this world.  This is so inspiring and amazing.  It is exciting how fast this has grown. I can’t help but wonder how it will all unfold.

Tomorrow it starts in Canada, in 15 cities. In my own city of Edmonton, they are meeting at noon at Churchill square to march and then settle in for a longer term encampment. Can you believe it? Occupy Edmonton. It is amazing to me really. Camping here is no small feat, with temperatures dipping below freezing at night, and winter quickly upon us. It will be interesting to see how long they can last.

Occupy Wall Street is occupying my mind. As those occupiers chant, all over this continent:

We are the 99%.

We the people will never be defeated.

…I think of them with love, hope, and optimism.  Indeed.

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Alberta’s Election & Keystone XL

For those of you who are unaware, Alberta has been governed by the Progressive Conservative party for 40 years. So same government, since before I was born.

The hard truth is that if you want to have an impact on who is elected premier in Alberta, you have to become a member of the party and vote for their leader. The first ballot was last Saturday, and I signed up and voted for Alison Redford, the most progressive of the bunch. She is the only one that says anything about sustainability, and she is the only one that agrees that we need to get more teachers back in schools (with my son’s kindergarten class at 27 kids, I agree).

In party leadership elections, if one candidate does not get over 50% of the vote in the first ballot, then the top three contenders move to a second ballot. So Alison Redford came in second, and we vote again this Saturday, October 1st.

So who came in first? Gary Mar. He is the least progressive of the bunch, but the name that most people recognize, as he has been in government for a long time.  I heard comments he made on the radio about the Keystone XL project and Alberta’s oil sands, so I decided to write him a letter:

Dear Gary Mar,

I heard your recent comments on CBC radio about the protests over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. These particular protesters (as there are many) are Albertans who feel that we should not be shipping our raw bitumen to Texas for refining, that we should be refining it here in Alberta instead, to create jobs for Albertans. Your comment was that it was not an “either/or” scenario; that we can ship the raw bitumen to Texas and refine it here in Alberta as long as we continue to increase the development of the oil sands.

I believe that this situation is an “either/or” scenario (or better, a “neither/nor” scenario), for the following reasons:

  1. The pace of development of the oil sands has already happened too quickly. Habitats are being destroyed. Certain animal populations, such as Woodland Caribou, have been put into endangered status due habitat loss directly attributable to oil sands development. We think that Alberta’s wilderness is vast and resilient. The fact is, it is not.

  2. The pace of development has happened too quickly. Fort McMurray cannot keep up with the required growth in homes, roads and schools. Communities there are fragmented with transient workers who never intend to put down roots, urban work camps are everywhere, 20% of the residents have no fixed address, and alcohol and drug addictions remain high. Will this community pay the price?

  3. The pace of development has happened too quickly. Proper water monitoring procedures and programs have not been put into place. Dr. Schindler of the University of Alberta conducted the most extensive study ever conducted in the area, and his results revealed that the current program is hugely lacking. Even former federal Environment Minister Prentice agreed that a better system is required to properly monitor the water pollution in the area.

  4. The pace of development has happened too quickly. Forests are being peeled back, faster than they can be reclaimed. Habitats are being lost forever. An ecosystem is very delicate, once you destroy it; it is unlikely to return with the same vigor. The amount of reclaimed land is a tiny percentage of the total land used by the project.

  5. The pace of development has happened too quickly. The water and air pollution are directly impacting the health of people who live downstream from the oil sands. The residents of Fort Chipewyan have abnormally high rates of cancer, cancers that are specifically linked to petrochemical exposure. Why has development charged ahead without full consideration to the lives of these people?

  6. The pace of development has happened too quickly. Tailings ponds are growing larger and larger. New technology to replace the 30 year old technology of tailings ponds is not being widely used. Tailings ponds are leaking into the river and water systems, as evidenced by Dr. Schindler’s important study. What if tailings ponds broke their containment, unleashing rivers of pollution? What is the plan for that?

  7. The pace of development has happened too quickly. The oil sands are already emitting more carbon emissions than the entire country of Switzerland. Why are we rushing to emit more? In a world where the countries of this planet are looking for cleaner and greener ways of producing energy, why is Alberta banking their future on being the supplier of the world’s dirtiest oil? What if we wake up one day and the world has moved on? Why would we put all our eggs in one dirty basket?

  8. The pace of development has happened too quickly. There are already 392 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the sky. Climate scientists agree that we need to reduce this to 350 parts per million to keep the warming at only 2 degrees. If we don’t change course, we are headed for a planetary warming of 6 degrees, which would be catastrophic for life on Earth. 97% of scientists agree that carbon must be reduced to avoid the disastrous effects of climate change. If we pump all that oil out of Alberta’s sand, and put it up into the sky, we will most certainly warm the planet past 2 degrees. We most certainly will put future generations in a dangerous position. Imagine, years from now, the world putting partial blame on Alberta, for its reckless plundering of oil sand. What will our children’s children think of us, when they inherit a hot planet?

Further, Alberta does not need more jobs. Even as the economies of the world are crumbling down around us, Alberta has jobs. We have more jobs than people. So much so that you are campaigning to change foreign worker laws to enable the oil companies to grow larger, faster. You have missed the key point. The economy is there to serve the people of Alberta, not the other way around. If we are charging ahead with growth in the oil sands, reckless in the face of the wildlife, human, community, water, ecosystem and carbon emission damage that it is causing, most surely we would not do it over and above Alberta’s need for jobs. Where is the common sense? Do you have the best interest of the people or the oil companies, at heart?

There are a growing number of Albertans, who no longer agree with being the peddler of dirty oil. There are many Albertans who want to be part of the solution to climate change, not the cause of it. There are many Albertans, regular hardworking people, who disagree that Alberta’s future must be in oil sand to be successful.

If you are elected Premier, I hope you will look into the eyes of your children, and do what is best for their future. We must think long term, for their sake. We need to invest in a better world, a cleaner and greener world, where the threat of climate change remains a threat and not a reality.

For the sake of my two young children and children everywhere, I hope you choose life and sustainability over climate change. Oil revenues are just not worth it.

Sincerely,

Sherry

Edmonton, Alberta
Wife and mother to 2 young Albertan children

 

Live in Alberta? Want to vote for Premier on October 1st? Just show up your polling station with $5 and you are good to go.

Letters to Leaders: Green Party Debate

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So, for those that don’t know, there is a federal election underway here in Canada.

About 5 years ago, I decided that I would vote based on my number one issue of concern – the environment. I knew that other issues were important (healthcare, education, economy) but were not in as dire a state of mismanagement. We depend on the environment for our very life, yet we are not acting as responsible stewards. Something has to be done about climate change; there is no way around it. Why doesn’t this issue dominate election coverage? It just doesn’t, and I don’t get it.

So in every type of election for the last 5 years or so, I put my voice and my vote down for the environment. Most of the time, this means voting for the Green Party. In most (all) cases, I knew that the person I voted for did not have a chance to win, but I wanted my vote to count towards this issue. I wanted the people in power to take note of the percentage of votes they are losing to the Green Party and to the issue of the environment.

In the last federal election I voted for a party that I had never voted for before – the NDP. The candidate was by far, the best representative towards my number one issue – the environment. She had a good chance to win. She had experience in environmental law and protection, ran her platform as a defender of the environment, and offered up a voice of opposition against the pollution from the oil sands. So, I voted for Linda Duncan and she won, and is currently the only Member of Parliament in Alberta that is not Conservative. She has been very active in defending the environment over the last 3 years.

So here we are again – election time. There are candidate signs popping up in my neighbourhood. Election ads are underway, election coverage dominates the news. Who do I vote for, how do I get involved and how can I further my number one goal – action on climate change?

I will be voting for Linda Duncan again, and she has a reasonable shot to win. I want to support her, and really believe in her message of transitioning to a clean economy, cleaning up the oil sands and ending fossil fuel subsidies. My hope is that she can continue to pressure the government on issues that they would otherwise not consider, and that this will result in more action on climate change.

I also support the Green Party though, and was dismayed to hear that the leader of the Green Party, Elizabeth May, will not be allowed to take part in the Leader’s Debate on April 12. She participated in the debate in the last election, and received almost 1 million votes. Polls indicate that she currently holds between 8-10% of votes today.

Therefore, as part of my Letters to Leaders series, I emailed the three main networks in Canada – CBC, CTV and Global – indicating my disappointment that she is not allowed to take part:

April 4, 2011

To whom it may concern:

I am disappointed that Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada, will not be allowed to take part in the upcoming leaders debate. I think that this is the wrong decision, and that it would be in your network’s best interests to allow her to debate for the following reasons:

1) She represents over 1 million Canadians who voted for her in the last election. Based on the percentage of Canadians who actually vote, this is a significant percentage. Excluding her excludes the voices of all of these Canadians. This is not democratic.

2) She brings a fresh, new perspective that an increasing number of Canadians identify with – environmental stewardship and protection. Few can argue that the environment is the root of all life, from which everything else is possible. It is imperative that the voices of Canadians who speak up for the environment are heard.

3) She represents the future. The future that my children and future grandchildren will inherit must certainly include a clean, green economy. Action of on climate change is required now, to avoid a catastrophe for future generations. Excluding Elizabeth May excludes the voices of Canada’s children, Canada’s future.

Many Canadians who do not identify with Elizabeth May’s message still agree that she should be allowed to debate. Most agree that her inclusion would make for a more interesting, livelier debate. In addition, she will be the only woman in the debate, offering a different perspective than the four other men.

Please switch your position and invite Elizabeth May to the debate. Please recognize that she represents a large number of Canadians, as well as future generations of Canadians. Please keep democracy alive in Canada.

Sincerely,

Sherry

If you would like to add your voice to allow Elizabeth May to debate, you can:

  1. Email CBC (ombudsman@cbc.ca), CTV (programming@ctv.ca), Global (viewercontact.globalnational@globaltv.com) and CBC Radio (ombudsman@radio-canada.ca) and voice your concern
  2. Participate in this poll by CBC
  3. Go to http://demanddemocraticdebates.ca to sign the petition
  4. Go here for even more good ideas

It is a great feeling, participating in democracy in a bigger way than just stepping up to the ballot box. It feels good to have a voice!

The Age of Stupid

I just finished watching the documentary, The Age of Stupid. Again, the credits are still rolling and I am inspired to write.

My overall feeling after watching this film is WHY. Why are we doing this to ourselves? It is such a simple and honest question. What is the answer? Most people must not fully know the issue at hand. Either that or we just don’t care enough about ourselves, our humanity. We selfishly fail to focus on this issue. I feel so frustrated. This movie has lit a fire under my butt to try and do more… MORE!

We are not leaving this world a better place than what we found it, obviously. We buy so many consumer goods, we eat food from half a world away, and we burn cheap energy. We use our precious resources as if they had no end. The scary thing is that they will end. We are using them all up, saving none for future generations. Even those who don’t believe in climate change (against 97% of climate scientists) must still concede that oil will eventually run out. What then? The world will be faced with the same problem that we have now, without the added bonus of any hope of reversing catastrophic climate change and an Earth worth saving.

The movie takes place in 2055. The world has succumbed to catastrophic climate change, and most of humanity has been destroyed. Near the North Pole there is a huge tower rising out of the now-melted Arctic Ocean. It is a storage facility, housing all the important artworks of humanity, and in massive banks of computer servers, containing all the history and music and literature and scientific discoveries of all of humankind. It is a time capsule of sorts, on a massive scale. The narrator is the storage facility’s keeper. For all we know, he is all that is left of humanity. He has at his access, news and documentary footage. From this footage he creates a cautionary tale for some future non-human generation to find. All footage he uses is from current day real life, and is not fabricated or fictional.

He follows a young woman in Nigeria, age 23, who lives in a rural town where Shell Oil has moved in. The agreement was that 13% of the oil revenues were to go to community development. Here in this community, she sees nothing. No clean water, no medical facilities, no secondary schools, nothing. It is probably a case of corruption at the government level, as well as Shell not living up to its original promises and not being held accountable. There is now oil in the river, killing the fish, a key food staple for these people. Natural gas that is found alongside the oil is burned instead of stored or transported, as it is the cheapest option in this region. This country has the riches of oil and gas, but the people do not benefit, and are instead suffering with a damaged water supply and air pollution due to gas flares (emitting 70 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year). This young girl wants to build a better community, a better life, so she is working hard to raise funds to get admitted to college to become a doctor. In the end the only way she can raise the funds she needs is to sell diesel fuel on the black market.

Next he follows a British family, trying to reduce their carbon footprint and live off the land. Their goal is to reduce their footprint to one carbon tonne per person per year, as compared to the 10 tonnes per year on average for the UK. The father is involved in wind turbines and wants to install a wind farm on a local farm. The farmer is all for it, but the neighbours are not. The neighbours essentially, do not want their view to be ruined. One lady, who was instrumental in the protest against the wind turbines, says later that she is concerned about climate change and that everyone should do their part. Then she laughs awkwardly, knowing that her actions do not match her words. However, her actions are mostly typical, as we are all mostly, worried. But few of us are willing to give anything up of value to change. She was not willing to give up her view.

The narrator also follows a businessman in India, who is about to launch a new Indian airline. This man indicates that his overall goal and purpose in life is to work toward eliminating poverty in India, a noble goal, to be sure. However, to accomplish this, he is putting more airplanes into the sky, thereby contributing in a large way, to carbon emissions in India (airplane travel is very carbon intensive – one long haul flight would equal driving my car for 8 months).

He also follows an American man who worked for an oil company, who lost everything to Hurricane Katrina. With his small boat, he ended up saving over 100 people stranded in their homes, including a 92 year-old man and a 2 week-old baby.  Are catastrophic weather events like this going to increase in number and severity? Some would argue it is already happening.

There are two children from Iraq, now living in another country as refugees. Their father was killed in the war.  The reason for the Iraq war? The film implies that it was for oil and these two little kids are paying the price.

Then there is the mountaineering guide in France, who at age 82, has seen the landscape and climate change in the mountains significantly in his lifetime. He has watched the glaciers shrink. He has watched the summers grow hotter. He has seen car and truck traffic through his small, quiet mountain town grow exponentially. He has a love of nature and he sees the path that we are on and is physically pained by it. He has a beautiful quote near the end of the film:

I think everyone in the future will perhaps blame us for not thinking how to protect the environment. We knew how to profit but not how to protect.

These stories from around the world remind us that we are all interconnected in this thing. What goes on in India and Iraq and Nigeria and the UK impacts me here too. It impacts my children. It impacts you.  We are all here on this little planet Earth, living together on this miracle of creation. This is our only home, no other place yet discovered in all the Universe could sustain us. It is like a tiny spaceship, careening through the immense dead of space. How will we treat our precious aircraft, so that it can continue to support us? Will our personal self interests override the needs of our vessel, so key to our very survival?

If we do not change, it is not the Earth that will suffer. It is us. The Earth will continue to careen through space, whether we have a place on it or not.

The scariest thing about this movie came from Mark Lynas, who wrote Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet. He told us that we will have to reduce our emissions by 80% by 2050, which is something I have also read elsewhere. However what I had not seen before, was his assertion that in order to achieve that, we have to peak on emissions by 2015. That is only 4 years away. I am so frustrated because I see this train wreck coming at us so quickly, and we are so busy squabbling about having to change our way of life that we don’t realize that before we are even done squabbling, it will be too late.

How can I accept that? In short, I can’t.

That is why I write in this space, that is why I am actively greening my life from top to bottom. But I need to do more. I need to reach out to people and get involved in the flesh, in person. I want to do more, and need to carve out time for it. There is absolutely no excuse for not doing so.

My children deserve it. You deserve it. We all do.

Letters to Leaders: Environment Minister Kent

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One of my new year’s resolutions was to write a Letter to Leaders series. I wanted to ramp up my political power to more than just a tick in the ballot box every 3-4 years. I wanted to write to political leaders and voice my concerns. I wanted to write to corporate leaders as well, given the high degree of influence and power they have on our society. I wanted to see if anything would happen. I needed to try.

I have many ideas on who I want to send these letters to and what I want to write about. I don’t want to simply complain. I want to offer up new ideas, open up hearts and minds. I don’t want to put down, I want to raise up. I want offer encouragement to do better, to go greener, to be more sustainable.

I also want to offer support and praise and gratitude, to those leaders that are doing good works, those that are working towards a new sustainable future, those that are ahead of the curve. I know how inspiring and motivating it can be to have acknowledgement and support, so I wanted to write letters to these types of people as well.

So I hummed and hawed on who would receive my very first letter. Should I start small and work up? Should I have an overall strategy on the content of my letters? Should I write the positive letters first?

After much deliberation, I decided to go right to the top and start with my biggest, broadest concern. So I wrote my first letter to the Environment Minister of Canada, Peter Kent.  I just sent this letter off moments ago, and am giddy with excitement! 

My approach was this – open the letter from a place of respect and congratulate him on his recent appointment, then establish that I was a average, rational person representing an average, rational voter (not some eco-nut), and then share some common ground, such as my previous voting patterns. After establishing all that, only then would I get into my concerns about the environment and climate change. I have worries, I have children…

Well… I will just let you read it:

 

February 13, 2011

The Honourable Peter Kent
Minister of the Environment
10 Wellington Street, 28th Floor
Gatineau, Quebec
K1A 0H3

Dear Honourable Minister Kent,

First of all, I would like to congratulate you on your recent appointment to Environment Minister. Some think that this is the most important cabinet position of all, since our environment is the root of all life, from which everything else is possible.

I am a 35 year-old wife and mother, living in Alberta. I got a degree in Business from the University of Alberta am now an accountant. I am well versed in economics, and believe that in most cases, the free market is able to sort out the best and most efficient way of doing things. As a young adult I voted Conservative. I agree with fiscal conservatism, and spending tax dollars carefully and responsibly.

However, a few years ago I started getting concerned about the environment and climate change. We were all told that 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are warming the planet. New information has now come out that indicates we are on the worst case trajectory for climate change, and that we could be facing the point of no return within 20 years. It turns out that our planet is very sensitive to even the smallest changes in average temperature, and warming more than 2°C will lead to catastrophic changes to sea level and weather patterns. This could create hundreds of millions of environmental refugees, cause the extinction of up to a quarter of the animal species on Earth, and leave some of our most precious food growing areas as deserts. Food shortages could become a reality, even here in Canada.

I have children. I have little boy who is 5 years old who likes comic books and cuddling his stuffed puppy at night. I have a little girl who is two years old who likes pretty bracelets and baby dolls. I worry about their future, even living here in Canada. I worry about their food supply. When my daughter is my age, will she worry about how feed her children, my grandchildren? Will she watch in horror as millions of people die or go hungry due to rising waters? Will she look at me and ask what I did to act when we still had the chance?

I know that you support the oil sands in Alberta, and believe that our oil is more ethical than that from the Middle East. I believe that this is like comparing apples to oranges, as surely there must be an ethical consideration for the extremely high environmental cost. The oil sands are very polluting, we all know that. The air, the water, the forests, the fish and the animals suffer. Sadly, the residents of Fort Chipewyan suffer as well, and are dying of rare cancers linked to petrochemicals. As an Albertan, I feel for these people and want to help them somehow.

However despite all the controversy, you must see for the sake of your family and for humanity that the world must eventually phase out oil. If we take all that oil out of the sand in Alberta, and put it into the air, we will have surely written off the future for my children. The world will most certainly warm past 2 degrees. We most certainly will find ourselves in a very scary and dangerous position.

I know that there are no easy answers. However, we must take the long term view to save our future generations from certain hardship. We must reduce emissions drastically, to avoid a warming of 2 degrees. We must put a price on carbon to allow the free market of renewable energies to flourish. We must do a better job of monitoring the water pollution of the oil sands and we must reduce the rate of their development. We must cut subsidies to the oil and gas sector and give more support to renewable energies. We must improve and support local food production.

We must do these things, and quickly. I know you are torn in many directions as a politician. However, we have a very unique opportunity to be a leader in these areas. I beg of you, as Minister of the Environment, to please take the higher ground – one that caters to life, to sustainability, and to the environment. Canada’s children are depending on you.

 Sincerely,


Sherry
Albertan, wife, and mother of two Canadian children

Bus Ride

Transit bus
Image via Wikimedia

If you have not already noticed, I am worried about climate change.  Everyday I learn more, read more, hear more; every day I am more worried.  It seems crazy that we have gotten ourselves into this situation, and even more crazy that most of us are content to sit idly by while it happens all around us.  However, I do understand why people choose to be bystanders – I was one of them only months ago.  What could I do?  How could I make a difference?  These bad things are going to happen regardless of what I did.  All I could do was just watch it unfold and hope for the best.  Right?

Well, maybe, maybe not. 

Maybe not.

I can do things to effect change in my own life.  I can inch things forward, little by little, by adding my voice to the thousands that are already on the cause.  I can “be the change you want to see in the world”.

It is pretty hard to openly complain about the BP oil spill or the Alberta oil sands, and still jump in my car every time I want to go somewhere.  But it is just so easy to jump in the car.  But how can I complain about oil and still be a rampant user of oil?  It is a double standard and I know it.

But it is hard.  I wrote before of our car culture and its hold on North American society.  I live in a city that is especially spread out, almost the worst urban spawl in Canada according to a recent study.  This makes it difficult to get around without a car.

I was thinking about it, and there are four main areas where I use my car:

  1. Work
  2. Shopping (for just groceries due to my current shopping ban)
  3. Friends and family gatherings
  4. Family activities (for example, my kid’s swimming lessons)

Where could stop using my car?  By far, the easiest to tackle is going to work.  There is a bus that goes through my neighbourhood that heads straight downtown and can deposit me one block from my office. So, beginning in 2011, I have committed to taking the bus to work.

I have not taken the bus in about 10 years, so this was a really new way of transporting myself.  After about 5 weeks, I am happy to report on my experience:

The entire trip takes about 35 minutes, as compared to about 15 minutes by car.  This includes walking 10 minutes in my neighbourhood, and another 5 minutes downtown to my office.  I am enjoying the bit of exercise this provides each day (30 minutes total).  I especially enjoy walking home at night in the quiet streets of my neighbourhood.  I reflect on my day.  I notice how the snow beneath my feet sparkles in the street lights.  I pass by houses, looking warm and cozy inside. I look up at the stars.

However, I am especially enjoying my time spent on the bus.  For the most part, I read.  I seem to never have enough time to read everything I want to read, especially now that I am greening my life from top to bottom.  I have all sorts of books out from the library right now, ranging from gardening, to preserving food to making homemade cleaners. I want to soak up as much information as possible.  My daily bus ride gives me time to do this.

I also enjoy making new connections with strangers.  This may sound odd, I know.  But I have made a commitment to strengthen my everyday connections.  I want to be part of the of glue that holds us all together; so that we can better realize our shared humanity, our shared stake in this world.  So I have conversations.  I recently talked to one man who lost his house in a fire.  I talked to another woman who I happened to work with 10 years ago.  I often talk to the people waiting at the bus stop in my neighbourhood.  I think it is healthy to connect with others, to not just live our separate lives in our separate cars. 

All in all, it has been a good experience.  I will gladly continue to take the bus.  I have even started taking it for other types of trips as well.  It does take longer, yes.

That’s okay.  It gives me more time to relax, reflect and read.

Alberta Oil Sands

I am feeling down today. Last night I watched the documentary “Tipping Point” by David Suzuki on the oil sands mega project in Alberta, and the impact it is having on downstream aboriginal communities (watch it here). It confirmed my worst fears. The oil sands are polluting the waters, creating high rates of rare cancer among the aboriginal people, contaminating the animals, and now deformed fish swim in the river. On top of all that, the oil sands emissions are equal to that of Switzerland. How is that even possible? Massive amounts of water are used; huge lakes of toxic waste are created. The video footage of the area was devastating. It is a complete dead zone. Forests are peeled back, the earth mined for oil sand, and nothing lives except for the human workers that operate the cranes and trucks. You can see the extent of the devastation from space:

I am so sad. This is my home. Canada is such a beautiful country, with vast areas of wild forests. Yet hidden up north, this exists. It exists in my own backyard, only 450 kilometers (280 miles) from where I live. My city directly benefits from the economic spinoffs of this mega project. But it feels so wrong. Every fiber of my being tells me that this is wrong.

Canada doesn’t want to commit to reducing emissions because of the oil sands. It is the economic heart of Alberta, the country even. Cut emissions, and you may have to shut the oil sands down. So we stall, we coast. We receive some international pressure, win the fossil of the year award, but do nothing.

It makes me so sad and mad and fearful at the same time. Why are we doing this? I know the world needs oil, but at what cost? Why are we the dealer peddling this drug? Why can’t we be peddling something better, something beautiful, something green? Why can’t we be promoting the best of ourselves, the best we can offer, of innovation and perseverance and hard work? Why does it have to be dirty oil?

There are rumours of a provincial election these days, rumours of a leadership race. What scares me is the thought of getting a new government even more bent on promoting the oil sands, even more gung-ho to get all that oil out of the ground, to sell it to the highest bidder, to burn it all up and put it into the sky…

Is there any hope? What can I do to stop it? What can I do to help those people dying of cancer? How can we get off oil?

I don’t have the answers. I don’t know what to do. I feel restless, anxious, on the verge of tears. I love my country, my province. But I feel like they are letting us down.

“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”
                                                                                     – ancient Aboriginal proverb

Let’s not let our children down.



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?

Oil Sands over Breakfast

Today I went to a session on the Alberta oil sands.  It was a breakfast meeting, and the audience was other financial professionals like me.  The speaker was from industry, and he was there to give the industry’s side of the oil sands story.

After the session I went to work, and a younger guy I work with asked me about it.  This particular guy used to work on an oil rig.  He found the work so physically demanding and dangerous, he decided to pack it in and become an accountant like me!  He told me that he felt that talking about the oil sands in social situations was akin to talking about politics and religion.  Everyone has a different opinion, and people get offended easily if your opinion does not match theirs.  I thought that was so interesting.

Talking about the oil sands is now taboo?

I can totally see his point though.

I first learned details about the Alberta oil sands about 4 years ago.  I attended a luncheon, put on by the same financial association actually.  An expert from industry told us that the total oil deposits in Alberta are second only to Saudi Arabia.  We were told that it was an economic engine for Alberta, for Canada.  We were told that it will stream royalties into provincial coffers, which will help keep Alberta income taxes low.  We felt proud to live here, with all this wealth, this jewel.  I remember walking out that meeting feeling impressed, feeling lucky that Alberta had such a treasure.

Then slowly over time I learned more snippets of information.  I heard it takes 3 barrels of water to make one barrel of oil.  Then I heard that it takes 8 barrels of water – which was it?  Then we heard about the 1,600 ducks that had landed on Sycrude’s tailing pond, and all died.  Hmmm.  That is not so good.  Then more news stories started coming out.  There were several billboards put up in several US states, telling Americans to boycott travel to Alberta, to protest dirty oil.  Now the Alberta tourism industry, an innocent bystander, was being dragged into this mess.  Oh oh.  Then we heard that Walgreens was boycotting Alberta oil.  Then Dr. Schindler from the University of Alberta came out and said that the oil sands were polluting the Athabasca River and showed images of deformed fish.  Alberta Environment said the pollutants were from naturally occurring sources.  Environment Canada decided to dispatch 6 independent scientists, just to make sure.  Then James Cameron (director of Avatar) came to tour the Alberta oil sands and the media was all in a tizzy.  What would he say?  Well after receiving tours by both industry and by native aboriginals, he said that the oil sands will be a curse on Canada if not managed properly.  Hmm.  A curse?  Then another two hundred ducks landed on more tailings ponds and died.  Then LUSH cosmetics and Concord Transportation boycotted.   Then just last week Avon said they were boycotting.

Now I don’t feel so proud.  People think our oil is dirty.  Some people say that the oil sands are a stain on Canada’s environmental record.  Stain? 

There seem to be two main problems.  One is the water – pollution from the tailings ponds and pollution in the river.  The other is the C02 – they need to burn energy (natural gas) to get the oil.  So they are burning a fossil fuel to get a fossil fuel, which we will then in turn, burn.

But oil is oil and we all use it when we drive our cars and purchase our products.  We are the reason the oil sands exist.  If there was no demand, they would not be pulling it out of the ground.  The companies are only doing what we demand.

One response to this problem is to reduce our dependence on oil by cutting back on how much we drive our cars and how many goods we purchase.  We the people, can make this conscious decision.  It is hard, I know.  People love their cars and so many of our North American cities have been built around the automobile, so nothing is in walking distance and transit is not very good.  There are exceptions to this, however.

The other response is to look to government to help us.  Can they regulate these oil companies to leave a lighter foot print?  Pollute less water?  Use smaller tailings ponds?  Use a portion of renewable energy to pull the stuff out of the ground?  Cut emissions?

I think we need all of these things.

During the breakfast meeting this morning I walked in thinking that I should ask a question.  I felt it was my environmental duty to pose a well thought out, rational and polite question.  So I did:

Sherry:  How many barrels of water are actually used?  Is it 3?  Is it 8?  We hear conflicting numbers in the media.

Oil Sands guy:  Our company uses 2 barrels of fresh water from the Athabasca river and 8 barrels of brackish water from underground aquifers.  The brackish water is saline and not drinkable.  We recycle 87% of the water used.

I was on a role and gaining courage, so I asked another one:

Sherry:  Given the international image of the oil sands that you are trying to repair, has your company ever thought about the use of renewable energy to get the oil out of the ground, such as wind, solar or geothermal?  I know it would cost more, but may provide a better image to the world.

Oil Sands guy:  Yes we have thought of that actually. The problem is that the contribution of energy of renewable sources would be negligible, and is very expensive.

Just. One. More.

Sherry:  We heard on the news that Dr. Schindler from the University of Alberta found that there was pollution in the Athabasca river downstream from the oil sands.  Then we heard Alberta Environment report that he was wrong, there was no man-made pollution.  Then Environment Canada sent 6 independent scientists to check it out.  Again – conflicting stories in the media.  Who should we believe?

Oil Sands guy:  Dr. Schindler is a very smart guy, but my understanding is that his study might not have been long enough to provide an accurate picture.  There is also the issue of naturally occurring oil sand that cuts into the river – it is difficult to separate out the naturally occurring pollutants from the man-made ones.

So there you have it.  I put forward my voice in a room full of professionals.  In the past I would have remained silent, and kept my thoughts to myself.  But new found environmental leaf makes me feel like I must speak.  Perhaps my words got someone else thinking.  So let’s talk this thing out.  Let’s have a dialogue. 

Back at work, I was talking about the session with the one younger co-worker that had asked me about it (the one who used to work on an oil rig), and other co-workers overheard us and joined in.  By the end there were 7 of us talking about it.  It seemed to be a topic we were all interested in.  I realized by the end that we are all rational people (being accountants, and all) and we all kind of thought the same thing:

We can’t keep on just waiting – waiting on the world to change.