Before moving to Toronto for the rest of the summer I was warned about the dangers of biking on its streets. I’d need a helmet and some luck, I was told.   And I’d heard plenty about newly elected Mayor Rob Ford’s lack of appetite for cyclists and their paths.

In fact, the week I arrived, bike paths were making headlines as city council decided to remove bike lanes on Jarvis street they had set up one year earlier.   The irony of the decision is that it will cost much more to remove the lanes than it did to install them. Reports say the removal will cost $200,000 while the original installation cost only $59,000.

The hundreds of cyclists out to protest the move still had reason to celebrate, however.   The Jarvis bike lanes won’t be removed until segregated paths are set up, most notably on Sherbourne Street, which runs parallel to Jarvis on the eastern edge of Toronto’s downtown core.

While councillors opposed to the move lamented what they called an unprecedented shift for a Canadian city, other cycling stories continued to gain momentum.   On July 7, Toronto’s Bixi announced it had hit the 100,000-trip milestone after surpassing the 1,000-subscription mark in the spring.

Toronto’s 80 stations are limited to the downtown core (Montreal has over 400 across the city), but the availability of the service throughout the entire year is likely to continue to attract residents looking for a permanent, fast and comparatively cheap alternative to Toronto’s streetcars, buses and subway.

Of course, cycling is not the only sign of an environmental conscience in Canada’s largest city.   This past Saturday, Yonge Street was closed from Dundas to Queen for the Live Green Toronto Festival, which also took over Dundas Square. The festival brought together promoters of green businesses and municipal programs, showing off their products and services.

Toronto’s competing car sharing programs Zipcar and AutoShare were on site, as well as providers of worm composting equipment, solar panel companies, local and organic food suppliers and restaurants and bag makers re-using materials even before they get recycled, among dozens of others.

The city’s commitment to putting the environmental festival front and center in the heart of the city, and stopping traffic to do so is refreshing, in comparison with Montreal’s Salon de l’environnement, which is relegated to the indoor Palais des Congrès.

And on the same note, credit must be given to a city that has had municipal organic waste collection since 2005.   In Montreal we continue to hear the service is on its way, with hopes pinned on 2013-14.

In a city known for its scale, the massive high rises and sprawling, rail-laced avenues tend to overshadow the progress made on environmental issues.   While the traffic in Toronto is still the country’s worst, Montreal does not lag far behind and so perhaps the best outcome is a process of mutual motivation, where Montréal la verte is inspired by and learns from Toronto the green, and vice versa.

With the effects of climate change becoming more pronounced and more dangerous each year, the push for greener fuels is growing around the world.  Developers of plant-based fuels called biofuels are doing their best to be the ones to replace gasoline, but not all biofuels are as green as they seem. Some can take nearly as much fossil fuel to produce as they are supposed to replace.

Corn ethanol is what is called a first generation biofuel because it is produced from a food grain. This fact has placed it at the centre of the food vs. fuel debate that pits the nutritional needs of people around the world against the need to move away from oil as a fuel source, while exposing corn prices to volatile market forces that have many doubting the viability of corn as a long-term solution.

In Canada, one player stands above the rest: Greenfield Ethanol.  Forget the Box visited the Greenfield Ethanol plant in Varennes on Montreal’s south shore and takes you on a visual tour of the world of biofuels, from corn to ethanol.

Photos by Tomas Urbina

protesters march in downtown Montreal

protesters march in downtown Montreal

If anyone thought the battle over shale gas in Quebec was finished, a wave of protest that has swept through the province washed those thoughts away in Montreal on Saturday.   Organizers and supporters of the “Moratorium for a Generation” marched on the city, bringing to a crescendo a month-long trek from Rimouski in eastern Quebec and along the St-Lawrence River to downtown Montreal outside of Premier Jean Charest’s office.

man holds megaphone and microphone to mouth“We’re asking for a 20-year moratorium on the exploration and extraction of shale gas in Quebec,” said organizer Jean-Sébastien Leduc.   Twenty years is the length of a shale gas exploration land claim and of a generation, said Leduc.   “We don’t want to leave a legacy of polluted water, contaminated air and noise to the next generation.”

Shale gas extraction involves drilling a well and pumping water, sand and chemicals into it at high pressure.   The pressurized mix cracks layers of shale releasing the natural gas trapped inside, approximately two kilometers underground, a process called hydraulic fracturing or fracking.

Concerns about the industry include the potential for ground water and drinking water contamination with chemicals and natural gas, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, noise and industrialization of rural landscapes.

Michel Robert, a farmer from Mont St-Hilaire, marched with the group that started in Longueuil on the south shore.   The group marched across the Jacques Cartier Bridge, chanting, carrying flags and signs and drawing a chorus of honking horns on the busy crossing.

For Robert, water is the biggest issue. “On my farm I get my water from an artesian well and the chemicals that are used could end up in the ground water in a year, 10 years or  100 years,” said Robert, “but in 200 years there will still be farms in St-Hilaire and we don’t need these chemicals in our water.”

Fellow Mont St-Hilaire resident and retiree Marie Bouchard took part in the march and said public consultation has been lacking. “Wewoman gives peace sign on street never heard anything about it and all of a sudden we saw trucks beginning to explore 200 metres from our homes,” she said.   Mont St-Hilaire is known for its largely undisturbed natural richness and is a UNESCO biosphere reserve.

Several groups took part in the rally including the outspoken Quebec Association Against Air Pollution (AQLPA), one of the industry’s loudest critics, as well as Equiterre and Greenpeace. Parti Québecois leader Pauline Marois and Québec Solidaire MNA Amir Khadir also attended.

In addition to attracting broad citizen support, new endorsement was pledged by a coalition of Quebec scientists calling for greater independence and citizen participation in the government’s shale gas environmental evaluation committee.

Gathered outside Premier Jean Charest’s Montreal office, thousands of people cheered calls for more renewable energy development, including wind, solar and biogas.   And though people like Robert are still not sure about putting wind turbines on their property, energy conservation was a common theme.   “I think all citizens, including me, have to learn to better conserve energy,” said Robert.

Organizers said that Quebec’s energy needs are already met by the current hydroelectric supply and excess energy production is planned to be sold to the United States.   In Vermont, for example, the state has voted to close its nuclear plant in 2012 and buys a large proportion of its power from Hydro Quebec.

Public resistance to shale gas has already put the brakes on development in Germany and France where moratoriums are sought or nearly in place, though other European countries are pursuing shale gas as a means of gaining greater energy independence.

Photos by Tomas Urbina

When the Montreal General Hospital first opened in 1823, three percent of the first 3665 medical cases treated were for malaria. Yep, malaria…in Montreal.

Our lovely grey city used to be surrounded by a lot more swamp and marshland than it is now. Cases of malaria stretched from here all the way out to the prairies. And we can still get malaria in Montreal; the host of the malaria parasite is the Anopheles mosquito, who lives here, too.

The decrease in Montreal malaria cases happened because we removed their habitat by draining swamps and wetlands, and started to put screens on our windows. European malaria treatment was also improving, which decreased the amount of cases from travelers.

If you’ve ever walked by a pond or swampy area that had even a smidgeon of shade in the summer, you’ll have noticed that within seconds, you’re running frantically away because you’ve suddenly found about one hundred mosquitoes swarming around you, like a vampiric daytime rave. This is because mosquitoes lay their eggs in stagnant water.

It is said that more soldiers died of malaria than from bullets in World War II, and soldiers today are still plagued by the disease when abroad. People living in regions where malaria is endemic generally build up a tolerance for it, but they are still weakened, sick, and unable to work, which affects livelihoods and their ability to overcome poverty.

Scientists back in the 1950s thought they cracked the malaria problem by introducing DDT and spraying it everywhere, even dusting soldiers with it before they went to battle. It worked – only too well – and ended up also wiping out birds, which led to its eventual ban thanks to a pivotal book by Rachel Carson called Silent Spring. This book is also widely credited for kick-starting the environmental movement in the 1960s.

If climate change were to affect our region by making it warmer, it’s very likely that we’d see malaria in Montreal again. This Weather Network report outlines how this can happen.

The malaria life cycle and you

With dangerous pesticides like DDT now banned, dealing with the return of malaria in our part of the world would be a challenge, though humans do adapt to its effects over time.

This scenario is more likely than you would think. While Toronto is the most culturally diverse city in the world, Montreal is not that far behind. With thousands of people flying in and out of the city – some of them immigrants, some passers-by, some vacationers, aid workers or others  – many are coming from regions where they’ve likely been exposed to malaria.

images: sciencephoto.com, acbuchanan.wordpress.com, 4.bp.blogspot.com, sparc5.blogspot.com, sickle.bwh.harvard.edu

Woman in green t-shirt

Despite the fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster and renewed fears about the safety of nuclear power, almost no country has taken a position against the controversial energy source, except one.   Europe’s economic engine and most populace country, Germany, has bucked the global trend and announced it will shut down all of its nuclear power plants by 2022, at the latest.

But ask Jana Wiechmann, Greenpeace coordinator for the northern German city of Bremen, if the battle over nuclear in Germany is won and the answer is simple: no.

“We think we can get out of nuclear energy even quicker, as soon as 2015,” said Wiechmann in an interview a week after the German government made its announcement.

Woman in green t-shirt

Wiechmann and her Greenpeace colleagues have been at the forefront of perhaps the world’s strongest anti-nuclear movement, and though their work has been instrumental in mobilizing the German public against nuclear power, she says abandoning nuclear by 2022 is not nearly soon enough.

In a document Greenpeace Germany calls Der Plan (The Plan), the organization details how the country can wean itself off nuclear power by 2015, seven years earlier than the current government commitment.

Nuclear power provides about 25 percent of Germany’s current electrical supply and in order to get off nuclear, another power source will have to replace this supply.   Greenpeace’s recommendation to decommission all nuclear plants by 2015 makes this a tall order, so much so that the environmental organization is recommending increased use of fossil fuel power plants to make it possible.   And what of the global warming problem or the pollution coal-fired plants create?

“If we have to choose between the risks of nuclear energy where we could nuke the area for thousands of years if I compare that with only the heating of the atmosphere then we choose coal because there is no better alternative,” said Wiechmann.   But she specified that, “coal can only be the bridge from nuclear power to renewable energies.”

The idea of increasing fossil fuel use may seem counterproductive when it comes to other Greenpeace priorities such as battling climate change, but this is an indication of the vehemence of the anti-nuclear movement in the country of nearly 82 million people.

The Greenpeace plan lays out on a year-by-year basis how Germany’s nuclear power plants can be shut down within four years.   Though coal- and natural gas-fired power plants are proposed by Greenpeace to help Germany move away from nuclear, renewable energy is what they see as the long term solution.

maps of Germany with energy icons

Germany is already a leader in renewable energies like wind, solar and biogas, but Der Plan takes the country even further.   “Other countries look at what we are doing and we have the responsibility to show the world what’s possible,” said Wiechmann.

She thinks other countries can watch the German example and use it to decide if they want coal power or if they want to import German technology, since German companies are also leaders in the manufacture and design of wind turbines and solar panels.

Critics may point to the plan to use coal to help fill the supply gap left by the absence of nuclear.  The organization’s plan intends to begin phasing out coal starting in 2016 and to go coal free by 2040.

No-flush, or dry toilets can be designed to recycle waste and reduce environmental contamination

It wasn’t all that long ago that we needed to use an outhouse to do our business. Even my mom remembers using newspaper instead of toilet paper in the 50s because it wasn’t a common household item at the time.

Living in rural Ghana during the summer of 2007 brought me back in time to Montreal’s pre-indoor toilet era. My compound had one communal latrine (a tiny closet of a room with a hole in the ground and grooves to place your feet) that was locked, and only two people had the key. When my host family wasn’t there to open the door for me, I had to pee-pee dance sashay to the cranky old woman who didn’t like anybody and plead for the key with yellowing eyes.

If the need to go struck me in the middle of the night, I had to creep behind my compound to what I determined was a safe spot to do my business and hurry up before anyone, or any malaria-carrying mosquito, came along. I preferred the open-air bladder relief system to the latrines because I could gaze at the night sky and not smell other people’s waste.

Of course, I only did this as a final resort. If everyone went to the bathroom in this way, we’d be knee-deep in our own waste. The children were apparently exempt from proper sanitation in my village. They would often be pooping and waving to me by the side of the road with big grins. It was far more interesting to note the white lady on the bicycle than the fact that they were relieving themselves in plain sight, but maybe they also preferred to avoid ‘that’ smell.

The most disgusting toilet experience of my life was at a bus stop in Ghana while I was traveling from my home in the North to the airport to return to Canada. The vile smell was nauseating as I approached the open and brightly lit concrete structure. There was no use in lining up because the “toilet” was just an open troth with a horseshoe platform running   the length of the room for women to stand on and aim into the putrid mix of urine and feces below. It was the ultimate fly fiesta, and I seemed to be the only one who was squeamish.

The room was half-full of typically loud and colorful Ghanaian women, chatting away doing their business   next to each other. No stalls, toilet paper, or soap were anywhere in sight, so I did a discreet jiggle and hurried on my way, sneaking some anitmicrobial hand sanitizer from my bag as I closed around the corner and hopped back on the bus.

While my experiences were unpalatable, at least I was never in danger from the hail of problems people face in places where open-pit latrines and unsupervised toilets are the norm. Sanitation is a human rights issue, and where rights are neglected, the environment doesn’t stand a chance.

For health and biological reasons, having an environmentally secure place to void your waste helps prevent or at least slow down disease transmission. Some parasites, like intestinal worms, complete part of their life cycle by depositing eggs in our poop. A badly designed, or absent toilet will guarantee that the eggs will be inhaled or transmitted back to humans through our food that may have picked them up while it was still running around, like goats and chickens.

No-flush, or dry toilets can be designed to recycle waste and reduce environmental contamination.

School children and women are also at risk of assault in badly monitored and badly designed toilets. They’re caught off-guard with their undergarments already partially removed, making them easy targets. As a result, many people avoid toilets, opting for the immediate safety of their peers and open spaces versus a contained area that could put them in harm’s way.

We’re very fortunate in North America, although the toilets we do have are a colossal waste of water. You can conserve water from your toilet’s flushing mechanism by placing a two liter bottle filled with sand or water in your toilet’s tank. With this in place, it takes less water to fill the tank, and doesn’t remove from the flush power.

* photos 3.bp.blogspot.com and evianislam.com

When Bob Geldof opened the world’s first climate change museum in northern Germany two years ago, he was surprised by two guests, a man from Niger and a man from Samoa whose countries feature prominently in The Journey, the main exhibit at the Klimahaus.   Geldof, a well-known human rights activist and music producer, spoke about water, from rising sea levels to desertification, and how these global warming problems will lead to climate migration.   People like Foua from Samoa and Ibrahim from Niger would be forced to abandon their homes and homelands because their island is being flooded or there simply isn’t enough water available to survive where their people have lived for centuries.

It’s no wonder then that two years later when I arrived at the Klimahaus there was a climate refugee art exhibit surrounding the museum.   Artist Hermann Josef Hack set up his latest work, a scaled-down version of a climate refugee camp with tents scattered around the museum, as part of Bremerhaven’s Fresh Wind science festival.   On his website Hack says the work is designed to bring attention to those who are the victims of the Western world’s “arrogant and selfish behaviour” and who are overlooked by places like the Klimahaus.

a miniature climate refugee camp made of paperboard tents

While Hack’s message is important, the reality of forced climate migration is not lost inside the Klimahaus. The journey around the world takes us from people simply surviving in the near-desert of Niger to the humid rainforests, diverse peoples and wildlife of Cameroon, all at risk from deforestation.   Clear-cutting in Cameroon endangers wildlife and biodiversity through the destruction of habitat and delicate ecosystems while also weakening the planet’s ability to combat global warming.

After a freezing, albeit short trek through Antarctica we arrive in Samoa.   Beautiful and tropical, the island nation is nevertheless the home to people on the edge of climate migration.   Rising sea levels are forcing island nations to adapt to the loss of the ground beneath their feet.   In some places it’s erosion and in others it’s rising water due to higher water temperatures and melting polar ice.

But beyond the Klimahaus and the art exhibit on its shores is Germany’s wider movement towards a greener society.   Renewable energy has become a growing priority in Europe and especially Germany.   In northern Germany wind dominates the renewable energy landscape, literally.  From the plane and train you see them; at the beach they’re there: massive, peacefully spinning wind turbines.

a triptych of wind turbine images

The discussion around renewables like wind power has been spinning even faster since Germany shut down seven of its oldest operating nuclear plants in response to massive national protests before and in the wake of the recent Fukushima nuclear disaster.   Germans are pushing for more renewable energy to replace nuclear power, no small challenge. But if anyone can do it, Germany can.

In 2010 alone, Germany installed 1,493 megawatts (MW) of new wind capacity, that’s nearly one-third of Canada’s total installed capacity of 4,588 MW (Germany’s total at the end of 2010 was 27,214 MW, and don’t get me started on solar).   Even though Canada’s numbers are nothing to brag about, Canada’s wind resource has great potential and the numbers have been growing at a tremendous rate.   Up until 2010, installed wind power capacity in Canada had grown by an average of 45 percent per year from 2004 to 2010 (that’s a lot).   But that type of growth needs support.   The federal program that aimed to provide $1.48 billion in investment support for renewable energy from 2007 to 2011, ecoENERGY for Renewable Power, came to an end in early 2010 and has not yet been renewed.

But did we have to come to Germany’s Klimahaus to realize climate change is, as many have written and declared, the greatest challenge of our generation?   Maybe we did.   Some might criticize this article for the greenhouse gas emissions required to make the trip possible.   Blame the climate terror British environmentalist George Monbiot calls love miles, the miles traveled by air to see loved ones.

So while the conflict in writing this article is apparent, so too is the need to spread information to people that might not otherwise find out about it and to spread the word that work is being done on climate change elsewhere and Canada can get on board.  Because as we learned at the Klimahaus: the consequences of global warming are real and happening around the world, but if developments in Germany are any indication, so are the movements for global environmental change.

Photos by Tomas Urbina

Read part one of Tomas Urbina’s report from Germany

Unbiased reporting is very difficult when it comes to the environment. How can one deliver a balanced report when ultra-rich investment corporation ‘X’ forgoes the environmental impact assessment, and goes ahead with project destroy-precious-habitat-for-profit-again? Unfortunately, this is a tale of that exact old story. The happy ending will come from a simple click to share your voice. It’s easy to feel heroic these days.

Blackstone, in their own words, is “a leading global alternative investment manager and financial advisor and an established global financial brand.” They speak of providing alternative energy to parts of the United States, which dresses them in sheep’s clothing, since their biofuels exacerbate the problem they claim to fix. Palm oil, a frequent ingredient of biofuels, is a bittersweet fuel. Touted once as an alternative to ‘dirty’ coal and oil fuels, it is just as devastating.

The WWF state that “Large areas of tropical forests and other ecosystems with high conservation values have been cleared to make room for vast monoculture oil palm plantation,” which is why alarms are now sounding for the forests of Cameroon.

Dr. Joshua M. Linder, an assistant professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at James Madison University, has been working in Cameroon and has witnessed first-hand the effects of tropical deforestation for palm oil plantations.

According to a survey he has been circulating, “Blackstone … a huge international investor, finances  a 70.000 hectare palm oil plantation. For this plantation dense, high canopy, mature rainforest would be cut down fragmenting a continuous forestblock.”

Habitat fragmentation is one of the triggers that can cause a wildlife population to collapse, bringing it to the deep gorge of endangerment. Fragmentation isolates animal populations, making it harder to maintain a cohesive group, which is supposed to help with gathering food and protection against predators. It also imposes other dangers and opens up the forest for further development.

According to Dr.Linder, the permit for the plantation was given without agreement from the 30 small villages (3,000 people) and actual landowners, whose estates would be confiscated.

Blackstone intends to clear 700 square kilometers of Africa’s oldest forests near Korup National Park, in Cameroon. This area is a region known for high levels of species diversity unique to that region, such as drill, chimpanzee, red colobus monkey, red-capped mangabey, the redeared monkey and a variety of small, shy antelopes known as duikers.

Photo courtesy of the Stop Blackstone Deforestation in Cameroon facebook groupAccording to Dr. Linder and his colleagues at McGill University, “Oil palm plantations kill off tropical forests and biodiversity throughout the tropics.  Much of this is being done in the name of biofuel, a senseless paradigm.  Note too that Cameroon is a major exporter of petroleum from off-shore drilling.”

Dr. Linder is in Cameroon presently, and will be contacting colleagues and protesters within the next two weeks after he re-emerges from the forest, where he is studying the loss of property and forest habitat directly.

“The companies are quickly moving forward with their development but the protest is gaining momentum, even in the Cameroon govt.  We actually have a chance to stop this with your help with the Cameroon oil palm protest.”

Signing this petition will give you an exciting opportunity to be part of protecting some precious forest land that would otherwise be lost forever to palm oil plantations. Once a crop like this is planted, the tropical soil, which is shallow in nutrients, is sapped of its ability to support a complex ecosystem and will collapse several years down the line. Click here to sign the petition.

They say seeing is believing, but at Germany’s imaginative and revealing climate change museum, they believe experience is even better.  That’s the driving force behind the immersive installations offered by the Klimahaus (Climate House) and its main exhibit, “The Journey,” that transports visitors around the world along one line of longitude, eight degrees east.

Opened in June 2009 in the northern German port city of Bremerhaven, the UNESCO-sponsored museum is the first of its kind. The journey exhibit takes people through a range of the world’s climate zones: mountain glaciers, scorching desert, muggy rainforest and onwards around the globe in an effort to show what climate change means across the planet.

Along the way we meet the people who live in each zone and find out how their lives and worlds are changing due to global warming, be it in Switzerland, Sardinia or Niger. Many of the people we meet through photos, videos, audio and inspired installations are already living in the extremes, but everywhere the journey takes us we see that climate change is inescapable and is a reality people, animals and plants are living.

Picture it: starting in the middle of unassuming Bremerhaven we head due south on train tracks, first stop Switzerland and the Alps. There we learn about the rural traditions of an elderly couple who milk cows and make cheese in a mountain village. Why not have a seat and milk one yourself, it’s easy.

Or climb to the top of the scaled-down glacier and learn about whooping, the fun and lesser-known cousin of yodelling.

But we also learn how things are changing: glaciers in the region are receding quickly, leaving behind massive debris freed from the melting ice and creating major risk of rockslide, a product of climbing temperatures and a world consuming more fossil fuels than ever. You’ll even feel the temperature of a glacier in a passage on the way to the next stop, Sardinia.

The family that awaits you on the Italian island lives with extreme heat. Parts of Sardinia, off Italy’s southwestern coast, suffer from high temperatures reaching up to 40 degrees Celsius regularly and dryness that makes forests prone to wild fires. No one works from one to four in the afternoon as the oppressive heat makes it simply impractical.

Working with the premise that a butterfly in one part of the world can cause a tornado in another, we control weather settings in one room and watch the effects on camera as visitors in nearby rooms feel a brisk breeze, a sudden rise in temperature or a downpour next to the old Fiat.

Climate change in Sardinia has only exacerbated the problem of forest fires, which we see helicopter pilots lament in a video as they fly over an infernal landscape. But they also say that education and public engagement has led to better management of the forests and a recent reduction in the number of fires annually.

Further south along the 8th degree line we come to a place on the edge of the desert, though it’s hard to believe you’re not in the Sahara itself. Kanak is a remote region in Niger and is home to the Tuareg, nomads who have been herders in the region for 1300 years. They live on the northern edge of the Sahel, a band of terrain that crosses Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.

Conditions there are difficult to bear. After peering into the daily lives of Tuareg families we enter a desert-like room where a single acacia tree stands on a stretch of barren, sandy land. Here, water is at a premium from wells 30 metres deep and desertification is making life harder each year. That reality is brought home by the room’s 35-degree dry heat wave and the single drop of water falling on the tree every twelve minutes, simulating the amount of precipitation the region receives annually.

A quote from a Tuareg woman on the wall leading into the room speaks volumes: “When I was a young woman a lot of things were different. I saw things I no longer see. I don’t see any of those things anymore: giraffes, ostriches, tortoises, antelopes, deer. There were enough.”

“Canada” in the Tuareg language

From Niger the journey continues southward to the rainforests of Cameroon, Antarctica, the Pacific island nation of Samoa and up towards Alaska and before returning to northern Germany. But even to this point the message is clear: climates around the world are changing and the Klimahaus makes those seemingly distant consequences strikingly real.

Please read the conclusion of the Klimahaus journey featuring a climate refugee art exhibit and a closer look at Germany’s renewable energy efforts.

* Photos by Tomas Urbina and Malika Pannek

What do you say about killing another’s baby, replacing it with your own and forcing the parents to cancel out their genetic contribution to the world line in favor of your own. One side is obviously a bunch of dummies, and the other, vindictive jerks taking advantage of maternal niceties.

For all of you who go to nature as a refuge from the bustling world to relax in the soothing sounds of bird calls, think again. Some of those lovely chirpings are actually territorial calls from a troupe of avian terrorists set on taking over the bird world. Even some bird rehabilitators who receive this particular species smile in thanks at the well-wishers who bring them an injured specimen, only to snap their necks as soon as they leave. It wouldn’t be so bad if they had natural predators to keep them in line, but since they’re not from our neck of the woods, they literally get away with murder.

I’m talking about the European starling, of course; a sophisticated species who is slowly wiping out our own native birds. This attractive bird has shiny black, green and purple plumage overtones and a bright yellow to orange beak. Their foraging methods is one of the most advanced of the passerines (small birds that can perch on stuff). They stick their beaks into the ground and pry them open to look for food.

Sometimes, unpaired females will lay their eggs in other birds’ nests – what is called nest parasitism. Once hatched, their babies actually kick the original eggs out of the nest, and their adopted parents, who are now imprinted with their false young, raise them as their own. Wash, rinse, repeat.

They have become a real problem for native bird species in North and South America, New Zealand and Australia. They were first introduced in New York’s Central Park for aesthetic reasons because of a Shakespeare play that described the bird, and wanted a realistic reenactment of the period.

As National Geographic blogger Chad Cohen said, “The starling’s ability to mimic human speech earned the bird this cameo in Shakespeare’s Henry IV:

“The king forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer. But I will find him when he is asleep, and in his ear I’ll holler ‘Mortimer!’ Nay I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion.”

It is the only mention of the starling in all of Shakespeare. Yet it was enough to inspire Eugene Schiffelin (an eccentric Shakespeare fanatic) to import 60 of the fruitful birds to the United States and release them one March day in New York’s Central Park. … there are now over 20 million starlings in the United States.”

In other words, the European starling is an invasive species that left behind its natural predators, allowing it to adapt and overtake local species. They overtake habitat, out breed and out eat the birds that were here first.

Helen Garland is an avian specialist who has worked at various airports using birds of prey to control other bird populations that might pose a risk to passengers. “They’re pains in my rear end, danger to every airline passenger and killer/competition for native bird species. Send them all back to Europe along with the house sparrow (which has displaced the native bluebird)!”

While starlings could be considered top jerks in the avian world, you gotta hand it to them for becoming such a success, especially in the urban environment. While many passerines have a specific insect or seed diet, starlings eat everything (poutine, seeds in other animal’s poop, maybe even the evil leftover fumes from shit Harper did), giving them an advantage when regular food sources run thin.

Survival of the fittest has never meant survival of the best.

With Facebook and Twitter alight with news and people’s voices on the impending election, and the media reporting every last controversy it can uncover, Canadians across the country still complain that the real issues are not being tackled.   But at least one issue in this campaign has its own day.

Ten days before the election, on April 22, Earth Day gives Canadians and people around the world the chance to focus on the environment.   But the question is: does anyone really care?

If you follow the election campaign, the answer would be no.   The funny thing is that back in 1970, it was a Wisconsin politician, Gaylord Nelson, who started Earth Day.   But even though our leaders aren’t talking about it, get back to reality and you’ll find the environment is front and centre.   Start at the computer.   Earth Day was trending on Twitter in Canada hours before the Montreal-Boston game took over the Twitterwaves on April 21.

People were talking about what they’re going to do for the planet’s day: bringing along a reusable mug, buying eco-jewellery, cleaning up the neighbourhood, even voting for the Earth in the election (advance polls open April 22 across Canada).   And that’s what Earth Day is really about: taking action to recognize and raise awareness about the value of the natural environment.

In Montreal, events of all kinds are planned.   On the island’s south shore the Salon Eco-Jeunes reaches out to parents with school-age kids to come out and participate in educational activities on the environment.   And downtown a workshop on local food aims to show people how to become ‘locavores’ with a trip to the grocery store and tips on how to grow food in the city.

A sunny day in the forecast will also bring out the thousands of eager users of the popular Bixi bike sharing service that opened for the season only a week before.   The service has spread its zero-emission active transport trend to cities around the world like London, Melbourne, Washington D.C. and Minneapolis.

Earlier this month, Quebec made another commitment to the environment with a pledge of $95 million over the next 10 years to develop the electric car industry in the province.   It makes sense for a major hydro-electric producer like Quebec to get into electrics and the government has also created financial incentives for residents to buy hybrids, electric vehicles and set up charging stations at home.

So, what’s the answer? With Earth Day upon us, do Canadians really care about the environment? Last Sunday, Canada’s only national call-in radio show, CBC’s Cross Country Checkup, aired from small-town Ontario.   Residents of Port Perry, guests and the local election candidates discussed the issues important to them while Canada listened, called in and emailed.

One email from a fellow in Halifax summed up the views expressed that day. “Listening to today’s show, and people clapping when a candidate talks about what they will do for the farmers, the environment, providing good drinking water,” wrote Lawrence McEachern, “I am saddened to let them know that unless the leader of the party supports farmers, the environment, providing good drinking water, then nothing will happen. Our system does not support grass roots issues.”

But even though the federal leaders haven’t been talking much about the health of the Earth, Canadians can be encouraged by a recent survey done by four major environmental advocacy groups.   Environmental Defence, Equiterre, CPAWS and the Pembina Institute asked the parties to set out their position on 10 environmental issues at play in Canada.   Aside from the non-respondent Conservatives, the Liberals, NDP, Bloc and the Greens made strong commitments to seriously address climate change, implement renewable energy solutions, get the tar sands under control and regulate toxic chemicals in consumer products.

Earth Day began as way to take action to raise awareness.   Even though federal leaders may not be talking about it much, the environment is important to Canadians.   And even without overwhelming fanfare this April 22, more than merely raising awareness, Earth Day can rightly be seen as a celebration that the environment is an issue that people care about and that’s here to stay.

We can’t talk about it at the holiday dinner table because one of the kids picked himself up and got himself out of debt by getting a job there. Sure, we’ve touched on it briefly after a couple of mojitos, but when I first learned that my brother-in-law was a mechanic for the larger-than-life trucks that speckle Fort McMurray, Canada’s oil-country, it put a frog in my throat, especially since I used to be heavily associated with Greenpeace, a leading campaigner against the Alberta tar sands.

Getting into the pros and cons of the Alberta operation would lead to an unpolite family dinner conversation. But in all truth, like Ellen Cantarow said, energy is ugly, so what the hell. And tar sands are as ugly as energy can be. “Tar sands are sandy soils laden with a tar-like substance called bitumen. Getting oil out of them is a dirty, dangerous and deadly process,”   said Cantarow in her article.

Yes, my brother-in-law knows all about the displacement of the local indigenous population; he’s spoken to a few of them; shared a beer with them; and he has a right to earn a living, after all, even if it’s being employed in what many people consider a stain on Canada. Even Barack Obama is beginning to take a stand against importing the stuff into the land of the free.

“These tarsands, there are some environmental questions about how destructive they are, potentially, what are the dangers there and we’ve got to examine all those questions,” said Obama in an article from last Sunday’s Calgary Herald.

Some of the fuss around what Obama said was due to the fact that he called them “tar sands” – a term typically used by environmental activists.

According to Cantarow, “tar sands is a colloquialism for 54,000 square miles of bitumen that veins sand and clay beneath the boreal forests of Alberta, one of Canada’s western provinces. Black as it is, bitumen isn’t actually tar, though it looks and smells like tar, and has its consistency on a very cold day—hence, that term ‘tar sands’.”

Regardless of what it’s called, it is the last bastion of an oil-hungry world. The process for separating the fuel from the sediment is so economically and temporally arduous that it’s really a last resort when reserves are low to create a push for other sources.

While my tar-sands-working family associate isn’t likely to join the growing throngs of people opposed to his work, he claims that he’s not the one doing the extraction, after all, he’s just the mechanic.

You don’t have to cop out of making a difference like my brother-in-law, though. One way to tackle this slippery issue is to vote for the parties who don’t support the tar sands, such as Stephen “Tar” per and Micheal “Oil Rig”natieff. Greenpeace Canada has prepared a federal election guide (pdf)   to stopping the tar sands. Tarsandswatch.org also has a petition you can sign to send to our oily leaders. Sign it here!

* Tar Sands image courtesy of distantocean.com

It’s wonky out there. It’s warm, it’s frigid, it smells like poo, and tulips are trying to push through semi-frozen dirt. In other words, it’s good ‘ol spring weather. The frequency of elections in Canada is almost as reliable as the changing of the seasons, and the parties we have to vote for are warm, frigid, smell like poo, and try to push up through frozen fodder. So who gets your vote?

The CBC has a vote compass tool to check which party most represents your values. It deals with economics, security, morals and the environment.

The compass survey raises a couple of environmental issues, like the tar sands and, if you use you imagination, the military’s presence in the arctic.

This is a myth. The economy and the environment can get along - just not with the Conservatives at the helm

One of the strongholds that has kept the Conservatives on top for so long is the budget, and other parties are completely polarized on the issue in some cases. Completely removing government funding from elections would only allow parties with funds to run successful campaigns, so they’re all for it. That would leave smaller parties, like the Greens, up the creek without a paddle and we would love strong representation for the interest of the planet.

Oh, and the Conservatives also don’t believe in making corporations pay more taxes, which leaves more leeway for projects like the Alberta tar sands and no initiative at all for a Canadian climate change bill. Oh yeah, they already killed that bill.

So, the Conservatives don’t exactly have my interests at heart, but this brings us to another issue: who to vote for? My compass results brought be closer to the Green Party than I expected, but also closely to the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois. At this point, the responsible thing to do would be to vote for the party that ousts the Conservatives.

As you go to the polls, and bring everyone you know of voting age with you, consider the environment as one of the most important Canadian issues on the plate. It’s not just an issue for hippies and socialists.

“Despite its artistic pretensions, its sophistication, and its many accomplishments, humankind owes its existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.” –Anonymous

* Images: cbc.ca, sunygenescoehouse.blogspot.com, permacultureproject.com


Mount Royal Park in the summer (image: provincequebec.com)

Dirt, mud, snow, ice, slush, branches, fences, sand, sunburns, bruised knees, leaves, hills, fields, bikes, shovel and pail, hide and seek, skates, tag, slide, skipping ropes, skateboard, ball-bat-mit, burping contests, cloud watching, popsicles, trampolines, puddles.

And now?

Paperwork, computers, ergonomic chairs, RRSP, sensible meal portions, commuting, desk, pens, sitcoms, car, elevators, suitable dress, happy hour, CBC news, yoga, winter tires, sweep and mop, bills, recycling and garbage, burping competitions, unions, car payments, associations.

Life changes without us noticing it. Look where we started. The lucky ones had their summers filled with their caretakers yelling at them to come inside and wash up for dinner. Hopefully we were filthy, exhausted, but exhilarated from days spent playing outside. It’s a precious time we only realize after we’ve grown away from it.

Sometimes, it does stick, and those kids grow up to be biologists, ecologists, activists and botanists. But most of us forget the lessons of childhood. Back then was an exhibition of our unmasked personalities, truth and imagination. If a kid was smelly and rude, they were told to wash their faces. Forests were magical groves filled with dragons, fairies, and butterflies were our friends. Is it the same for kids today?

Sometimes it depends where children live. Kids in the suburbs have an easier time connecting with nature than kids in the city. There tend to be more green space, and parks are typically secluded on off-streets. In the city, green spaces are fewer and farther spaced out. So, what do they do in the summer?

There are a few camps in Montreal that specialize in helping kids connect with nature. Les Amis de la Montagne in Mount Royal Park’s Smith House offers a two-week day camp. It lets kids get their hands dirty and explore a natural oasis tucked away in the urban sprawl.

The Smith House (image wallyg's Flickr photostream)

Councilors there note a change in children’s perceptions of nature throughout their time at Les Amis’ camp. At the beginning, kids are asked to make a drawing of nature. Some kids draw parrots, small, creepy looking forests and other things that just don’t belong in an Eastern ecosystem. At the end, they’re drawing squirrels, raccoons and friendlier-looking forests. How much time are kids getting to play outside if their only perceptions of nature is what they see on television?

Playing outside is also a form of medicine. Like mothers that bring their kids together for chicken-pox parties, getting covered in dirt, eating treasures found on the floor, sharing juice boxes and other things that make you go “eeew!” help boost a child’s immune system.

It turns into a trick question in the city, though. Summertime is smog alert time (a time to stay inside). The incidence of respiratory disease is much higher in the city than regions with more greenery. Kids are damned either way you look at it, but it’s everyone’s right to be able to learn about their environment and play outside. What kind of world will it be if we have people running the show that never had the chance to play tag in the woods, or go reeling down a hill between tall pines on a plastic sheet of death (i.e., tobogganing).

Nature toughens us up and connects us to a natural order. Please, if you have kids, find some opportunity for them to get dirty, smelly, and be able to draw regionally appropriate interpretations of nature – for all our sake.

Aww, no more brussel sprouts? Children of North America rejoice

Who doesn’t like a good gloat?

A self-satisfying ‘told ya so!’ to the people who doubted you and a pat on the back from supporters when everyone else swore you were wrong. Sometimes smugness feels great!

Well, I’ll tell you about a bunch of people who actually aren’t happy to brag about being right – the folks who have been warning us about the effects climate change will have on the global food supply all this time. Yup, they were right, so let’s see how this affects us.

A cold snap that hit the Southern United States at the beginning of February also affected Northern Mexico where a lot of food is grown. Mexico provides Canada and the U.S with squash, cucumbers, eggplant, green beans, asparagus, pepper and round and Roma tomatoes, according to this report.

It’s the worst freeze in the affected areas since 1957. Most of the crops were killed (one report stated that ‘up to 100%’ of the crops were destroyed), which caused an immediate hike in the price of food sold in the U.S.

A North American food distributor, Sysco, released a statement that the freeze reached all the way to Los Mochis and Culiacan, both along the Gulf of California.

That eggplant parmigiana with a side of bean, pepper and tomato salad will have to wait, unless you don’t mind paying up to three times what you’re used to paying for locally unseasonal foods. That amount will be inflated because American food businesses will be charging more to cut a profit. The heart of the matter is that we’ve been very lucky since the global food-trading system shrunk, and now it’s time to begin facing the reality that we may be food megalomaniacs.

Asparagus, for example, quickly decline in nutritional value and quality soon after they’re picked. They can be harvested throughout the warm seasons in North America, but any that you buy from late fall to early spring definitely did not come from a nearby source, which means they’ve been sitting there for a while, becoming a mere shadow of what true asparagus is supposed to be. If you compared a freshly picked asparagus spear to the ones available in the grocer in February, there is a remarkable difference in sweetness, crispness, even color.

While it’s great to have a nice, crunchy spring salad (imported from California) in the middle of a Montreal deep-freeze winter, it makes a lot more economic sense to buy your veggies locally. This also means eating certain foods only when they’re available in your region, in the proper season that they’re grown in. Not only does this help support your local economy, making things better for your neighbors, it also help the developing world by creating less reliance on cash crops that stop them from growing foods that are locally appropriate.

Moreover, in last week’s Gazette, this article said that “World Bank data released on Tuesday (February 15, 2011) showed higher food prices — mainly for wheat, maize, sugars and edible oils — have pushed 44 million more people in developing countries into extreme poverty since June 2010.”

The chief of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, said that high food prices was one of the factors leading to the Egyptian protests. Food prices are also set to spike up in Central Asia. This is bad news, but please don’t give up. Pass the bowl of organic popcorn and read on for ways to become a food superhero.

You too can be as powerful as Powdered Toast Man!

One reservation against eating local and organic produce is the initial cost. Why pay $4 for a two-pound bag of carrots when it’s only $2 at the store? Well, the upward trend in the overall price of food, just like gas, isn’t going to be going down. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to the global food crisis because we have it pretty good in North America, for now, but I truthfully hate to say “I told ya so” when it comes to all the benefits of eating food grown close to your home.

Quebec has some of the best agricultural land in the world and organic farms are popping up all across the province. Ferme Carya, Ferme Cooperative Tournesol and Ferme Zephyr are three organic farms that do basket deliveries, farm shares and offer opportunities for visiting their farms to see where our food comes from. They also sell at various farmer’s markets across Montreal.

While the initial price tag on some organic produce seem high, you’re actually paying for a real, non-gmo carrot that wasn’t grown with a pesticide-herbicide cocktail, then shipped halfway across the continent. The cheaper grocery store price is false; you’re not paying for what you get – a lot of pollution and waste that we don’t see also comes with it, and we’ll be paying for that for a long time.

There’s no one solution to the global food crisis, and in the time it took me to research, write and edit this article, hundreds of people have died because of a local food deficiency. Buying your food locally is one priority we should all try to make if we want to say that we tried to make a difference somehow.

It’s an abstract form of activism, but your vote is your dollar. Making your local dollar strong will go a long way in making other parts of the world resilient in their own food sharing practices, especially when the food price hike will be even more devastating because food companies want to make sure they still make a profit off the backs of the hungry.

If that seems too complicated, then we should just let them all eat cake.

Frozen brussel sprouts courtesy of foodworldorder.blogspot.com
Powdered Toast Man image thanks to comicvine.com

The Earthship

When I was a teenager, I would daydream about my perfect home; a dug-out hillside with earth floors and tree roots coming through the ceiling. I’d capture rainwater, make a window out of wood that I found lying around, and I would grow my own food, living as close as humanly possible in touch with the Earth.

At that time, around 1994, I thought that I was the only person, ever, to have come up with an idea like that, and I reveled in the though, despite being told repeatedly that it was just a hippie dream.

Well, turns out I actually wasn’t the only one to think up an abode of this genre. Welcome to the Earthship. No, it isn’t a ship made out of earth, and no, it isn’t a spaceship made to boldly explore where no one has gone before. It’s an innovative type of home, typically built of recycled and reclaimed material, where the household itself functions like an ecosystem. The ecological footprint is minimal to nonexistent, and most of them are completely off the grid, using solar panels and wood stoves for heating, and semi-artistic designs for temperature regulation. Some use composting toilets, or just a plain outhouses in friendly year-round climates.

They started out in New Mexico – a warm, dry climate optimized for harvesting sunlight with photovoltaic cells and using the materials immediately available in the surrounding environment. Mike Reynolds, an architect, built the first earthship in the late 1970s. People thought he was nuts, but turns out he was really on to something.

Check out this short documentary on The Potter’s House to learn how they’re living the dream life, away from the rat-race. In lieu of a conclusion, I’ll let the houses speak for themselves. Feat your eyes on the diversity of homes – all built by hand with recycled materials in various locations around the world.

We have recycled bottles making for beautiful homes, earthships with amazing greenhouses giving a tropical feel, tires compacted with soil to obey the law of thermodynamics – absorbing and distributing heat where it is in needed in the house! Now who wouldn’t want to live in a home like that? No mortgage, complete creative control, and Hydro Quebec doesn’t get a cent further from you. Indeed, a dream come true.

Image iagram.com