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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”

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”

Just browsing: on books & the internet April 10, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in books, communication, consumer, internet, language, learn, life, technology.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

booklover's dream

My visit to a bookstore yesterday has me questioning one of my assumptions about myself: that I love books.

Well, I do genuinely love the idea of books, the musty smell of a three-story used bookstore, the crisp riffle of freshly printed pages, the way that soft-shelled penguin paperback opens at random when you drape it over your hand… One of my fantasy rooms is a library with tall windows, a comfy chair, and walls lined with books on every subject (I’m undecided as to whether there should be a butler carrying in a glass of sherry in the mid-afternoon).

I’ve read quite a few books — besides the required school textbooks, I’ve read lots of science fiction, mysteries, biographies, short stories and Canadiana, along with classics such as Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Homer’s The Odyssey. But, increasingly, I tend to pick up books that look intriguing, but then I don’t get around reading them, or I start and don’t finish (with the exception of mysteries, where sometimes I’ll skip the middle part and rush through to the end so I can get to sleep before 2 a.m.).

So there I was yesterday, leafing through a sale copy of John Ralston Saul’s The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World — and thinking, oh, how interesting — when suddenly I stopped and said sternly to myself, “Myself, you are not going to read that book. You are going to leaf through it, dip into a few chapters, then put it aside until you have more time, which will likely be never.”

Alas, another fantasy smashed on the cold tile floor in the kitchen of logic. I felt a sense of loss, then wondered if the internet is to blame.

Because I do read more than ever if you count the internet. I read constantly online, or perhaps I should say I mostly “scan”, because I only stop to read more than a few words when I find something that truly catches my imagination. And, all too often, I even put off that reading to “another time”, bookmarking the page for more leisurely digestion when I can give it my full attention.

Except it appears that I have no, uh… what was I saying? Oh yes, no attention span; it seems to have evaporated. Yet can I legitimately blame the internet for its ability to provide instant information and make me too impatient to bother reading a book?

The surveyors of society are currently claiming that the reading of books is increasing, not decreasing, notwithstanding the naysayers and Steve Jobs’ recent comment (“the fact is that people don’t read anymore”). I would say that about half the people I see riding the subway or in waiting rooms are reading.

So what do you think: are you reading less? Or are you just reading differently?

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Related Links:
Newsweek: “The Future of Reading”
Guardian UK: “Dawn of the Digital Natives”
New York Times: “Book Lust”