Wind Energy and YOU

I may be a bit quieter for the next couple of weeks while I work on a new article about wind power, this one about the issues around siting wind turbines or wind farms in and near Toronto. We have one (at the Ex) and if Toronto Hydro gets the results they want from the anemometer off the Scarborough Bluffs, we could have a bunch more. This ruffles all of the usual feathers.

But where exactly are we supposed to build them? Everyone likes renewable energy–and every opponent of any given wind project I’ve interviewed has said that at least once, so it must be true–but somewhere else, apparently. The technical siting constraints are considerable: you need to have enough wind; you need to have enough space; you don’t want to build it in a migratory zone for birds or bats, and you don’t want to chop down significant habitats to construct them. So you might think empty country is better–but then how do you connect them to the grid? Miles and miles of transmission cable aren’t exactly environmentally friendly, plus you lose more electricity in the lines the farther it has to travel. From an economic perspective and from certain environmental perspectives, producing electricity where it will be consumed makes sense. Just like growing food where it’s going to be eaten.

I have no answers yet, and twenty-five days to come up with some and put them in a well-written and persuasive article. Wish me luck.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the issue of mixing wind turbines and cities. Would you want one in your backyard? Close enough to see it in the distance from your kitchen window? Are they modern works of art or eyesores? If you live in Toronto, what do you think about the WindShare turbine at the Ex and Toronto Hydro’s hoped-for plans off the Scarborough Bluffs? Where should they go, and why?

Alan Dugan: On the Liquidation of Zoology

We put the mountains in the valleys,
the oceans in the deserts,
and paved the world flat.
The botanical trash was burned,
and life put in its place: zoos.
In this way we cleaned up
in honor of the flat out
continuity of the green glass sea
and walked on it like Christ
in horror of the bad old days
when any kind of life ran wild
and men did as they pleased.

~~~~~

Not exactly as cheery or inspirational as Mary Oliver, no, but gorgeous just the same, and true.

Alan Dugan is normally not a nature or environmental poet (his love poem, “Love Song: I and Thou” is worth the cost of whatever collection you find it in), but when he is, he’s good. This one reminds me of the sad spectacle of a city’s boxed trees: the anemic, sickly specimens in planters for decoration and shade and, sometimes, to reduce air pollutants. Urban trees are good things. They have all kinds of benefits and I’m glad they’re there. But sometimes, when I see them, I am uncomfortably reminded of a tiger in a small zoo cage. A box is not a tree’s natural habitat, and it will never flourish in one.

Why is it that we need to corral life into tame, domesticated pockets?

Pop Quiz: how being connected to nature makes us happy

Want to have an easier time acting on environmental issues? Find a(nother) source of meaning or purpose? Be happier? There’s one simple thing you can do to achieve all three: go for a walk.

Mayer and McPherson Frantz of Oberlin College developed a fourteen-question Connectedness With Nature scale that measures whether someone believes that they are a part of or separate from the rest of nature, and they found that respondents with higher scores were not only more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviours (everything from daily lifestyle choices to career) but were also significantly happier. “The magnitude of this correlation [between a connection with nature and happiness],” they write, “is similar to the magnitude for variables like marriage … education … and income within countries.”

In other words, nothing to sneeze at. But how do you go about increasing your sense of connection to nature? It’s as simple as going outside. Subsequent studies have shown that spending even small amounts of time in non-human environments–even wild-animal parks or, in some cases, watching nature videos (though the effects were not as large)–increases a person’s sense of connection to nature.

Which probably explains why this running-biking-park walking-gardening nature-lover can get a tank of gas to last for three months and is spending her work-life and her free time on environmental issues (my score on the scale was about 4.99/5; the mean was about 3.6 and most people fell between 3 and 4.2. I’d post it here but I’m cautious about copyright infringement). It might also be why as a type 1 diabetic single mom of a little girl with an undiagnosable genetic form of dwarfism I am, most of the time, pretty happy, even though I spend a couple of hours every day steeped in climate catastrophe, mass extinction and ecosystem collapse.

Anecdotal evidence, I know. But what do you have to lose? Go for a walk.

~~~~~

Schultz, Wesley P. & Jennifer Tabanico. “Self, Identity and the Natural Environment: Exploring Implicit Connections with Nature.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology (2007) 37: 6.

Mayer, F. Stephan & Cynthia McPherson Frantz, “The connectedness to nature scale: A measure of individuals’ feeling in community with nature.” Journal of Environmental Psychology 24 (2004) 503-515

Mayer, F. Stephan et. al. “Why is Nature Beneficial?” Environment and Behaviour (2008). http://eab.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/0013916508319745v1

"Nature"

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This is my daughter’s rock. She keeps it clean and comfy by washing it and esconcing it on a patio chair; so the chair’s getting wrecked, but it is a very clean, very happy rock.

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The spider’s long since abandoned the web, but webbing is strong stuff and it sticks around–the insect house on the animal house.

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I haven’t got a clue what this is. Well, it’s a plant. So I have a clue.

This is a trick question that many of you will have heard from me before: what parts of those photos are nature, and what parts aren’t?

Talking trees, extended metaphors and "The World at Gunpoint"

giant talking trees taking out industrial civilization, Tolkein-style
giant talking trees taking out industrial civilization, Tolkein-style

I have a love/hate relationship with Derrick Jensen. The first volume of his Endgame books has been sitting, half-read, on my environment bookshelf for years while I try to get up the stomach to finish it. Is it terrible? Yes. But not in the way you might think. It’s ninety per cent brilliant and insightful, nine per cent weird and one per cent shudderingly awful. So when I saw that Jensen was taking on a column at Orion magazine–one of my favourites–I groaned.

But.

I liked it, eh?

And it sure has stirred up a lot of controversy.

“The larger problem with the metaphor, and the reason for this new column in Orion, is the question at the end: “how shall I live my life right now?” Let’s take this step by step. We’ve figured out what the gun is: this entire extractive culture that has been deforesting, defishing, dewatering, desoiling, despoiling, destroying since its beginnings. We know this gun has been fired before and has killed many of those we love, from chestnut ermine moths to Carolina parakeets. It’s now aimed (and firing) at even more of those we love, from Siberian tigers to Indian gavials to entire oceans to, in fact, the entire world, which includes you and me. If we make this metaphor real, we might understand why the question—asked more often than almost any other—is so wrong. If someone were rampaging through your home, killing those you love one by one (and, for that matter, en masse), would the question burning a hole in your heart be: how should I live my life right now? I can’t speak for you, but the question I’d be asking is this: how do I disarm or dispatch these psychopaths? How do I stop them using any means necessary?”

After having read Endgame (or part of it), I’m sure that is exactly what he’d be asking himself. I’m equally sure that most people in that situation would be asking themselves, “How can I get to the phone to call 911 without being seen? If I wait for him to leave, will doctors be able to save my family?” His seeming assumption, that in such a situation most of us would kill the murderer ourselves, is untrue; but it is also true that we would not be cowering on our bedroom floors and wondering about, say, forgiveness, interpretive dance, or meditation practices.

(Another problem with the analogy, as comment #26 points out, is that we are not only the person cowering on the bedroom floor but also the raging psychopath and his gun; this complicates the notion of taking action. Do we shoot ourselves in the head? Wrestle ourselves to the ground?)

But at least this column gets us away from this eternal asking of  “how should I live my life right now?” Your compact fluorescent ligthbulbs are great, but they are not enough. I’m glad you’re recycling–you are recycling, right? keep doing that–but it also is not enough. Reusable shopping bags and packing your own lunch and turning the thermostat down are all fabulous and necessary, but not enough.

What question would I ask instead? What if, instead of asking “How shall I live my life?” people were to ask the land where they live, the land that supports them, “What can and must I do to become your ally, to help protect you from this culture? What can we do together to stop this culture from killing you?” If you ask that question, and you listen, the land will tell you what it needs. And then the only real question is: are you willing to do it?”

I suspect the land is telling Jensen that it needs explosives.

But that’s not what I hear. I hear that I need to participate in repairing the damage that’s been done, in restoring habitats and knitting those torn ecological webs back together. I hear that I need to understand as much as possible what is going on and find ways to communicate that effectively to people who are more preoccupied with taxes and the price of gas. And I hear that I need to find sources of meaning and value other than “whoever dies in the biggest house with the most stuff, wins,” and “you are as big as your bank account,” because those values are utterly unsustainable regardless of our levels of technology (not to mention, they make even the winners of those games miserable).

I hear a lot of things, none of which have anything to do with blowing things up. But that’s ok. The ELF  and Earth First! have been blowing things up for a while now and, while they’ve been used as an example of environmental extremism by some to discredit the movement overall, it hasn’t made much of a dent in our respectability. I’ll just worry about doing my part.

If you listened to the land, what would it tell you to do?

We’re not all police and paramedics; you may not have the character or temperament to be a front-line environmentalist. And that’s fine. But how could you call 911?

Green is the New Holy

green-bibleMany, many years ago my Aunt Heather and Uncle Brian were talking to my parents about their experiences with environmentalism within their conservative Christian church. The specifics of that conversation have been long lost to the mists of time, but my Aunt’s frustration as she spoke of her church is still clear. “I try to talk to them about the environment,” she said, “but they just say, ‘Oh, the Rapture’s coming soon, why bother?'”

This was at least fifteen years ago and possibly closer to twenty, and as you may have noticed, either the Rapture has not come or it has and Jesus found no faithful to raise into Heaven with him.

In either case, everywhere I’ve turned lately I’ve seen stories on green evangelism. The environment as it turns out is also part of God’s creation and the destruction of it has now been recast in some circles as a sin (as opposed to a mandated crusade of subjugation a la Genesis, and even when I was a Christian this seemed fishy to me: I can’t be sure, but when Jesus said, “See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin,” he did not follow that up with, “so rip the lazy buggers up and build a Wal-Mart, hallelujah!”).

There’s a Green Bible, a pile of green Christianity books, green evangelism organizations, and even a group of green Kairos members going on a fact-finding mission to the Alberta Tar Sands to figure out what stance they want to take on this wholesale-environmental-destruction business. Even atheists have been jumping on the green-god bandwagon lately. And I’m not a Christian, so I don’t want to say too much in case my natural flippancy causes serious offense to those of you who are. Instead, I’ll close of this short post with a poem from someone who is and who I think must be as happy to see this sea change as I am:

Watching a Documentary about Polar Bears
Trying to Survive on the Melting Ice Floes

That God had a plan, I do not doubt.
But what if His plan was, that we would do better?

Facebook for the Greater Good

Paul Hawken is one of those people who does everything. He writes books that change the definition of sustainable business. He founds institutes on environmental issues and businesses to try out his theories. He tours the world speaking to people about his successes and failures. He collects a couple thousand business cards from people working globally on disparate issues and writes another book about what they all have in common–Blessed Unrest –with a companion website that’s like Facebook for activists.

WiserEarth, founded just over two years ago on Earth Day 2007, allows you to create a profile and search for organizations and people working on just about any issue under the sun, or organize projects of your own. You can join groups, post jobs, start conversations, and connect with like-minded souls in dozens of ways. I found hundreds of groups just in Toronto proper (although, oddly, not the ones I currently volunteer with. I might have to do something about that) and a search on my postal code gave me a few dozen hits, many of which I’d never heard of before. No, you can’t answer quizes and annoy your friends with detailed recountings of what kind of red wine, Sesame Street character or shade of purple you are (although there is a friend feed), but do you really want to?

If you’re trying to find people near you who are already working on causes close to your heart, this is a good place to start. If you’re already working on something and you want to publicize it or find other organizations to pool resources with, it could be a useful tool. If you have no idea where to start or what you’re interested in, take five of the sixty minutes you already spend on Facebook every day and shift them to WiserEarth: poke around, see what’s available, and find a way to connect your interests to the needs of your community.

Good News: 350.org

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

The good news is that no one has to save the world.

The bad news is that we all have to save the world.

The good news is that you are not personally responsible for all of the world’s problems.

The bad news is that you are personally responsible for part of all of the world’s problems.

The good news is that you are only responsible for fixing the part of all of the world’s problems that you are personally responsible for.

The bad news is that it’s pretty complicated.

The good news–and the point of this meandering introduction–is that there are already so many people working way over their personal share on fixing the world’s problems that, in most cases, all you have to do is find out about them and sign on to efforts already underway.

The bad news is, you may have no idea how to do this. But wait! That’s where I come in. As a bit of continuing Good News on Mondays, I’ll look at groups, people, organizations, books and Big Ideas about how to fix the various ecological (and, where they intersect, social) messes we’ve gotten ourselves into. (Well done, Humanity! You are on your way to going out with a bang, not a whimper.)

Much like you need to provide yourself and your offspring with shelter but not build the house yourself, and much like you need to provide for your children’s education without teaching them everything yourself, you do need to help provide your kids with a planet they can eventually reproduce on without single-handedly solving the climate, deforestation, over-fishing and pollution crises yourself. All you need to do is extend yourself a bit beyond that thick Western individualist hide, find a smidgen of community, and be a joiner for once.

This week I’ll introduce you to 350.org, an online effort cofounded by Bill McKibben to organize global climate change actions on October 24, 2009, centred around the need to reduce carbon dioxide atmosphere concentrations to 350 parts per million (we are, currently, around 390). Why 350? Because this has been identified as the safe maximum atmospheric carbon level to avoid catastrophic climate change. (And we overshot it already. Oops.)

At the end of 2009, world leaders will gather in Copenhagen to hammer out a new post-Kyoto climate change framework; 350.org wants to get as many people as possible in as many countries as possible to send a strong message to those leaders that we want them to get off their asses, stop posturing and pointing fingers, and negotiate an effective climate treaty.

There is a searchable map of existing, registered 350.org actions all over the world. If there’s nothing in your neighbourhood right now, you have two choices: 1. register at the site, and keep checking back to see if/when someone starts something, or 2. come up with an idea and register that. 350.org will then set you up with posters, press releases, and organizational tools to make your event a success. The photo gallery and the ideas/actions inspiration page both have some very cool ideas; I love the buried cars.

Or 3., you can send them a small donation. They’re saving your planet for you and your kids. The least you can do is send them $35. Right?

There is a single, unspecified action registered in Toronto itself, as well as a couple in Guelph, Kitchener and Mississauga, but so far our section of the map is looking pretty sparse. If anyone nearby is reading this and would like to organize something, leave a comment and I’ll get in touch. Three million people can surely do better. (Children’s art festival in a park? Community planting of 350 trees? 350 bike riders? Picnics? Plays? Another CN Tower climb?)

What can or would you do for a couple of hours on a Saturday in October to let world leaders know that you want them to commit to meaningful action on climate change?

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