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Taking out the trash April 29, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in consumer, environment, learn, life, urban.
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Canadian icon
A few days ago, while I was walking along the sidewalk beside a gas station, I witnessed a 30-second non-verbal exchange that spoke volumes. The passenger in a truck filling up at the station dropped a cigarette package out the window. The pedestrian ahead of me — a tall, slim, ipod-and-shorts-clad athletic man — immediately stooped and picked up the offending piece of litter, showed it briefly to the startled passenger, then calmly dropped it in the nearby trash bin as he strolled by.

I braced myself for what might happen next: an apology, an insult? But there was no reaction. I glanced at the faces of the two guys in the truck as I walked by, and they seemed amused, as if they just saw somebody doing something silly. I felt like saying something to support the actions of the litter-nabbing pedestrian, but there was no confrontation, no chance for me to speak out against litterbugs, irresponsible behaviour, jerks… well, you know.

But that didn’t stop me from continuing an imaginary conversation in my head, however, as I reflected on other occasions when I have seen careless — as in, “I couldn’t care less” — people dropping their trash on the ground.

Like the time I was walking behind a mother and two young daughters, one with a new doll encased in plastic packaging. The daughter with the doll lagged behind as she worked to get the doll out of its packaging, and when she released the doll, she simply dropped the plastic packaging on the ground.

I promptly picked up the plastic packaging, caught up to the young girl and said, “You dropped this. Excuse me, you dropped this.” The girl looked at me blankly, and glanced at her mother, who had stopped and turned around. I pushed the packaging into the girl’s hand. “You dropped this,” I repeated, “and if it’s garbage, the garbage can is right over there.” I gestured to the garbage can a few steps away. She looked at her mother, but her mother just stood there, watching, saying nothing. I waited. The girl glared at me, but finally took the package and threw it into the garbage can, then rejoined her mother. I walked away, seething.

Do I need to say why I was seething, why I was incensed that someone could carelessly drop trash on the ground when there are recycling containers and garbage bins at every street corner? Do I sound old-fashioned (or just old) to complain about littering, to see it as a sign of disrespect for other people, as an act of vandalism against everyone who does their best to keep their neighbourhood or their city clean and tidy?

And it’s not only our cities — garbage dumped in the world’s waterways is getting so bad that some people are calling the ocean “the world’s largest landfill.”

Following the 2007 international clean-up of beaches in 76 countries, the Ocean Conservancy reported that volunteers gathered an incredible 2.3 million pounds of trash. The largest percentage of litter was cigarette butts. In the city, I think the dubious honour of a second-place prize would go to coffee cups.

Volunteers found 81 birds, 63 fish, 49 invertebrates, 30 mammals, 11 reptiles, and one amphibian entangled in debris such as plastic bags, fishing lines, fishing nets, six-pack holders, balloon and kite strings, glass bottles, and cans. Aside from urgent issues like pollution and harm to natural species caused by this littering, there’s the question of intent: is this the kind of heritage we want to leave the next generation?

cigarettes are top trashI know littering isn’t as important, in the scheme of things, as global warming, war, ethnic cleansing, HIV/AIDS and poverty, for example. But to me, it’s a sign of a bigger problem. It shows an apparent lack of willingness to take responsibility, to acknowledge that our actions — or inactions — affect other people. And that, I believe, is serious.

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Related Links:
Wired: “Drowning in an ocean of plastic”
BBC: “Author hits out at litter culture”
Ocean Conservancy website
“Litter: It’s often a different story on the street”


The world’s food, our fortune April 26, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in change, consumer, diversity, energy, food, learn, life, nature, world.
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wheat seeds - Time

One of my favourite family stories has to do with food. My mother grew up near London, and remembers standing at the back door and watching bombs falling during the Second World War. The frequent air raids meant that visits to the nearby bomb shelter became part of the family’s daily routine. On one occasion (that I know about), her mother ran out of the bomb shelter during a raid to fetch the roast from the oven. Bombs may be falling, but the family has to have its dinner!

The western world’s focus has recently turned from the consumption of “stuff” to the consumption of food. Much has been written about the current global food shortage crisis.

Yet how can it be a crisis is when people have been talking about a global food shortage for at least 10 years? There have been famines and other food-related crises in the world before now. Perhaps this time is different because the wealthy countries are sitting up and complaining, too.

The food shortage is affecting countries in different ways. There have been protests in Mexico, where the price of tortillas rose 400% in at the end of 2007, and Haiti, where the poor are eating “dirt cookies” (made of dirt, water, salt and butter. India recently banned the export of all except the highest quality rice. A sharp increase in the cost of milk (blamed on floods in Argentina and a drought in Australia) have affected foods from cheese to croissants. Higher wheat and fuel costs were blamed for a 20% increase in pasta in Italy. There have been bread-queue riots in Egypt, and unrest across Africa.

Global Food Crisis - Der SpiegelIn some parts of the world, food prices for staples have risen 50% or more over the past year. However, in the United States, consumers have had to cope with a 6.5% increase in their grocery bill.

A UN official recently listed a number of causes:

  • growing populations
  • crops being used for biofuels
  • more sophisticated (or diverse) diets in places like India and China
  • a lack of strategic grain reserves
  • the effects of climate change causing drought conditions in places such as in Australia, affecting wheat production in recent years.

A related problems is that of inefficient food distribution and food wastage. Have many of us have refrigerators full of food we don’t need and might not get around to eating? I can’t even imagine how much wasted food restaurants and grocery stores throw into the garbage. In 1995, the BBC reported that 17 million tonnes of food is added to landfills in Great Britain each year because it’s cheaper for the food industry to dump it than give it away.

And with the globalization of food production and distribution, more people are beginning to rely on processed or pre-packaged food. Western foods (can you say MacDonald’s?) are a cultural as well as commercial influence.

The fact is, like the cheap energy we have been used to, food doesn’t get any respect. I’m not suggesting that high food prices are good — there are too many people in this world who have barely enough to eat as it is — but that the North, as the source of much of the world’s food, doesn’t know how to tighten its belt. (And while I’m on the subject of belt-tightening, I know I’m not the only person who should be eating less!) The word “rationing”, familiar with the Second-World War generation but a foreign idea to most westerners today, is coming into vogue again.

People react to the threat of a global oil shortage produces in two ways: by panicking and and buying up all remaining stocks (have you seen the price of gas lately?), or increasing research into alternative energy sources in order to wean themselves off oil dependency.

That’s why I think the boom in biofuel research and production — as wrong-headed as some of it is turning out to be, what with everyone running off madly in all directions — is a good sign. It means that costs are now high enough to make people value alternatives, and maybe think more carefully about conservation and how to stop wasting the energy we produce now.

And so I recommend the “don’t panic” approach to the current food shortage. (Waves of panic-buying of staples and rice-rationing have already hit some U.S. food stores.) Greed won’t get us out of this difficulty, but thankfulness might. We need to appreciate what we already have, and support ongoing work to better manage food distribution, diversity, and sustainability. Let’s get our governments to find some swords-into-ploughshares funding and share the wealth… of food, that is!

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Related Links:
CBC interactive: Global Food Prices
CBC: “Beef is out, wheat is in: farmers”
Guardian, UK: “Change in farming can feed world: report”

Telegraph, UK: “Potatoes could solve food shortage”
ABC: “UN warns on food shortage riots”
Financial Post: “Forget oil, the new global crisis is food”
Time: “How to End the Global Food Shortage”

Claiming the Arctic April 24, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in arctic, Canada, diversity, environment, explore, global warming, nature, world.
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Northwest Passage - Globe & Mail

Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea;
Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.
                                    “Northwest Passage”, by Stan Rogers

The dotted blue line of the new 200-mile limitCanada has one of the longest coastlines in the world. Although it borders on three oceans, until recently, it hasn’t paid much attention to the mostly frozen Arctic Ocean at its back door. That is now beginning to change.

Under the United Nations Law of the Sea convention, signed by Canada in 2003, coastal countries can extend their sovereignty beyond the usual 200-nautical mile limit recognized in international law if the seabed is an extension of the continental shelf.  Since Canada ratified the convention in 2003, it has until 2013 to submit scientific evidence to extend that limit.

That potentially gives Canada claim to an area the size of the Prairie provinces that could contain natural gas, oil and other resources. Canadian scientists are struggling against unpredictable ice conditions to map the ocean floor.

However, the resource-rich Lomonosov Ridge, which runs between Greenland and Russia, will be a bone of contention. Russia is claiming this undersea mountain range is part of Russian territory. In 2006, Canada and Denmark cooperated in a mapping project to try to show that the structure of the undersea Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of the North American continent.

The Arctic Ocean is now being mapped

Canadian attention is also focused strongly on the ownership of the Northwest Passage. This past summer, satellite images showed that the passage between Canada’s arctic islands was ice-free for the first time in recorded history. And there are predictions that the it may be open for much of the summer in as little as 15 years.

If these predictions come true, the Northwest Passage could become a busy shipping route. The Northwest Passage is 7,000 kilometres shorter than the current shipping route through the Panama Canal. That’s about two weeks saved in travelling time.

Under the UN Law of the Sea, all ships are guaranteed passage through international straits. Should the winding Northwest passage between the northern islands be considered an international strait, or part of Canadian waters? Perhaps the best solution is to open the passage and govern it, as Nunavut resident Paul Kaludjak suggests: “The best way to have our sovereignty accepted by the international community is not to restrict entry to territory, but to facilitate use of it in accord with Canadian regulations.”

Canadian rangers patrol the ArcticThe Arctic lands are the traditional home of the Inuit nations, and their livelihoods depend on the rich resources in the harsh northern habitat. The Canadian Rangers, who patrol and police the North, are predominantly Inuit. Whatever decisions are made about the Arctic will affect the environment and the livelihood of these northern peoples.

The goal of the UN Law of the Sea is to share the ocean resources fairly between coastal countries. We don’t need a cold war over the Arctic; there’s room for everyone to “play nice” as long as environmental studies and regulations are put in place first.

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Related LInks:
…Or Something (blog): “Geology, geopolitics, and the Law of the Sea
Nunatsiaq News: “Measuring Mountains Under the Sea”
Seed: “Deep Space: The last great land rush on the planet will be at the bottom of the ocean”
Geology.com: “Northwest Passage — Map of Arctic Sea Ice”
CBC: “Canada’s Arctic claim work challenged by ice, logistics”
National Post: “Canada’s Arctic mapping key to resource claims”
CBC In Depth: “Canada’s Arctic sovereignty: Drawing a line in the water”
“Sovereignty and Inuit in the Canadian Arctic”

Wired: “Today, Countries Battle for a Piece of the Arctic. Tomorrow? The Moon”
CBC In Depth: “The Northwest Passage: The Arctic Grail”

CBC multimedia: “Breaking the Ice: Canada and the Northwest Passage”

A bicycle revolution April 22, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in Canada, consumer, energy, environment, journey, learn, life, world.
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carlton street 2
Originally uploaded by Seeing Is

I rode my bike to work today. Not because it’s Earth Day, but because I have a class tonight and riding will get me home and to a late supper a lot faster than walking. But since it is Earth Day today, it’s a good time to think about the cost of commuting.

I’m fortunate enough to live only a 20-minute walk from work. I live and work downtown, within a few minutes of the Don Valley and only a short bike ride from Lake Ontario. I own a car, but I usually save it for out-of-town trips. Besides, parking is expensive!

One thing I’ve noticed, as a pedestrian and occasional cyclist (and even less frequent driver), is that cars in the city are most times at a disadvantage. Traffic — and drivers — get snarly during rush hour, and a driver can sit at an intersection waiting for three lights to change before being able to turn left (I’ve been in that situation, knowing full well I could have walked home in the time I took to turn one corner!). Cars double-park or stop in bicycle lanes because there’s no convenient parking spots left near the Tim Hortons. And then there are the risks of bad drivers, taxis doing sudden u-turns, pedestrians dashing across four lanes right in front of you, cyclists weaving through stopped cars and barrelling the wrong way down a one-way street…

But while I’ve had quite a few scares — and a lot of stress — as a driver, my only accidents (except one as a new driver) have been as a cyclist. I’ll tell you briefly about these two incidents, because I learned something important on each occasion.

1. Head-on: About 15 years ago, I had a head-on collision with a car. Literally. I was on my bicycle, turning left with the traffic, but the car which turned with me was a lot faster, and I found myself in the middle of the intersection in the path of an oncoming car. I don’t remember the collision itself, but I know that I managed to twist sideways on my bike and hit the car windshield with the back of my head. Yes, I was wearing a helmet; it saved my life, or at least saved me from serious head injuries. The car windshield was shattered, my body left a large dent on the car hood, my bicycle was twisted, and I was knocked unconscious. But I walked away from the hospital with only a few bad bruises. Lesson: wear a helmet!

2. Face first: The second incident happened last fall. I was leaving a class, in a hurry to get home, and started pedalling quite energetically. I was crossing the street in front of the school and turning to go left when my front bicycle tire slipped into a streetcar track. The next thing I knew, my face was on the pavement, my glasses were a few feet away, and my first thought was, “oh no, not again!” Fortunately, there were no cars coming, and several people came to help me right away, including a doctor who asked someone to fetch ice for me. My helmet didn’t help me this time (because I fell face forward), but I still managed to walk away with some bad bruises and some dizziness that disappeared after a month. Lesson: don’t be in a hurry!

hitching posts

This past Sunday was the first time I had been on my bike since that incident, and I have to say that I felt no hesitation. I love the feeling of gliding on my bicycle, not being caught in rush-hour traffic, not having to pay for parking. And I really like the way bicycling is for people of all ages, that I can ride my bike even when my body gets old and creaky!

And when I read about other cities where bicycling has become part of the transportation grid, about the way commuting by bike is part of the culture in places like Holland and Denmark, I feel like I’m part of a revolution. And this revolution is good for our planet. Happy Earth Day!

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Related Links:
Commute By Bike blog — check out the Gas Savings Calculator
11 Most Bike-Friendly Cities in the World
New York Times: “In Portland, Cultivating a Culture of Two Wheels”