A signal that makes the impossible possible
“Who here thinks you could wash your hands with just one cup of water?” I asked my audience. Not a single hand went up. “Well, I have something in my pocket that I guarantee will enable anyone to wash their hands with a single cup of water.” Now I really had their attention!

So what did I pull out? A $20 bill. “Who here thinks you could wash your hands with just one cup of water if I gave you this?” – and all the hands shot up.

That’s the power of a price signal: if people are given a worthwhile monetary incentive to do something, chances are pretty good they’ll do it, or at least try. If I’d have carried through with my offer, I’m pretty sure I would have shelled out a lot of money that day – because everyone would have quickly figured out that it takes virtually no water to wet your hands sufficiently for soap to work, and a cup of water can rinse a lot of soap if you use it wisely. If I’d have then kept the offer open for a week, I’m guessing human creativity would have kicked in: people would be routinely helping each other to make it easier to achieve what they wanted; there would have been discussion of ideas like soaps that don’t need water, or gadgets to dispense water super-efficiently; and I’d probably have accumulated a debt I’d still be paying off! 

The point: we humans can do amazing things when motivated, and there are few motivators better than a price signal. It works in reverse too: if water cost$20 a cup, everyone in my audience would have come to the same conclusion, except via an unhappier route.

Recent weather extremes around the world underline the need for big action on climate, quickly. That will require big motivation – the kind we can get from big price signals. Once the right thing to do becomes the cheapest thing to do, everyone, regardless of belief system, will do it, because we all buy cheap.

So please be a supporter of price signals – from incentives for home insulation, solar power or electric vehicles; to fees on plastic bags, or gas and diesel; to penalties for toxic polluters and coal-fired power. They’re key to unleashing the motivation – plus the ingenuity, creativity and perseverance – we need to solve climate change.

I know we can do it – and hopefully it won’t take anything near a $20 signal on a cup of water to get us there.

Honestly, we ought to drive less

A few months ago, a fellow member of a Facebook EV owners page posted a message that went something like this: Wow  just added up my receipts and I spent $600 on gas over the past five weeks.  Cant wait for my new Tesla to arrive!

It speaks to an uncomfortable reality about Canadians: we drive an awful lot –globally, third only to Americans and Australians. Combine that with the fact thatwe have the least efficient vehicle fleet in the world (thanks to pickup trucks andSUVs) and it becomes easy to understand why transportation produces more emissions than any sector in Canada except oil and gas.

There’s no doubt getting a more efficient vehicle (like a Tesla) is a good thing.  But it’s only half of the solution.  If we are to be honest about reducing transportationemissions, we also need to think about driving less (which is arguably more important, as even the most efficient EV uses more energy while driving than a gasguzzler that’s parked).

So what to do?  Here are a few suggestions for driving less:

• Very best: work from home whenever you can

• Best: choose public transit over your private vehicle (yes, even your EV) at every opportunity

• Best: walk or bike instead of driving whenever possible; consider an electric bike to help make it a breeze – a nice overview of e-bikes here

• Very good: find a neighbour or neighbours whose commute is similar to yours,and carpool to cut your fuel bill and emissions in half or better; some tips for smooth carpooling here

• Very good: carpool to league sports with teammates (or even opponents, if you’re on friendly terms); to clubs with clubmates; to church with fellow churchgoers; to any gathering with other attendees

• Good: plan your trips well so you can get everything done in one circuit; make an ordered list of your stops to help guide you

• Good: go to the closest source of what you need, even if the price is a few cents more; the fuel (and time) savings will more than make up for it

• Good: when delivering people to sports or other activities, wait for them instead of making two trips; take a book or go for a walk to make the most of the time

And, of course, avoid drive-throughs; park in the first spot you see (versus driving around looking for a spot closer to the entrance) and idle as little as possible.

Driving less can make a huge difference in our emissions – so let’s do it!

Make flying less a permanent habit
If you’re like me, you probably haven’t done much travelling in the past 16 months. But if you’re like me, perhaps you’ve also started receiving a steady stream of emails enticing you back to ‘normal’ travel with reduced fares on flights across Canada and around the world.
Unfortunately, flying is about the least eco-friendly way to travel. Globally, aviation accounts for about 2.5% of global emissions, or more than a country like Germany. It caters to that minority of humans who can afford to fly. And a large share of emissions from aviation happen high in the atmosphere, where they do more damage than emissions on the ground. 
So what to do if you love to fly?

Best: pledge to not fly anymore, as Greta Thunberg has done

Best: use videoconferencing instead of traveling whenever possible

Very good: when possible, travel by train or bus instead of airplane 

Very good: fly as little as possible, only when there is no reasonable alternative

Good: if you must fly, stay at your destination longer to get maximum benefit per tonne of emissions
Good: choose direct flights when possible; stopovers and connections come with a carbon cost

Good: buy Gold Standard carbon offsets to counter the negative impacts of your flight, or use a company like Goodwings to offset the impacts of your entire trip

Good: travel with as little luggage as you can (light suitcase, light clothing, even the smallest containers of personal care products) because when it comes to flying, every ounce counts.

This summer, fall and winter, pledge to fly less, because staying grounded is a good thing for the environment.

Use as little air conditioning as you can

There’s a tragic irony in the massive heatwave gripping western North America: the oppressive temperatures are leading people to use much more air conditioning, which is causing record power consumption, which is resulting in more emissions from power generation, which further drive climate change, which will cause more such heat waves. Alberta, which has the dirtiest power in Canada because of its reliance on coal, set a new summer record for electricity demand two days ago.

So what to do?  Here are some simple ways to reduce your need for air conditioning even as you stay safe and comfortable:

• Open windows at night to take advantage of free cooling, and close them in the morning to keep the day’s heat out.  If necessary, use a fan to draw in that fresh, cool night time air.

• Ensure all windows and doors are tightly closed when your air conditioning is running, to minimize the amount of heat that sneaks in from outside.  

• Keep blinds and shades closed, especially on south and west facing windows when the sun is shining directly on them.  It’s a simple habit that results in huge savings. (If you don’t have blinds or other window coverings, consider installing some; they’ll pay for themselves quickly.)

• If you rely on a window air conditioner, place it in a north or east facing window; it’ll work more efficiently in shade than in direct sun.

• Cool only spaces where you spend time; save by not cooling unused or unoccupied rooms.• Retreat to the basement if it’s an option, to take advantage of free, natural coolness there.

• For big savings, set your thermostat to cool down to tolerable (such as 22-25°C) instead of downright chilly.  (Ever been in a building where some people are wearing sweaters in summer?  It’s an enormous waste of energyand money.)

• Wear light clothes to match the temperature

• Use cotton bedsheets for better, cooler sleeps

• Minimize your use of kettles, toasters, ovens and other appliances that generate heat; they work against your air conditioner, so in effect you pay for that energy twice.  (It makes a case for making your coffee and toast out on the deck…)

• Keep yourself well hydrated with cool drinks, because a cool you can feel pretty comfortable even in warm temperatures

• When it’s time to buy a new air conditioner, make sure you choose an efficient ENERGY STAR certified model

• In vehicles, air conditioning is the second biggest load on the engine, after driving; it can reduce your fuel efficiency by up to 20%.  So use fresh air as much as possible and AC as sparingly as possible; some good guidance here.

Stay cool and comfortable this summer-but please don’t warm the planet in the process!

Make water conservation part of your culture
If you follow the news, you may have heard that Lake Mead, the reservoir above the gigantic Hoover Dam in Nevada, is at its lowest level ever, thanks to record drought and extreme heat. In fact, a serious drought is gripping all of Western US and 85% of Canada’s farmland, already creating concerns about crops. Even here in New Brunswick, record heat and modest rains have us on the cusp of drought, with almost all of the province under a no-open-fire restriction.

Water is one of our most vital resources, so conserving it just makes good sense anytime. You can make water conservation part of your personal culture by asking yourself, every time you use some:

Would I use this much water if I had to pay a dollar a litre for it? (Cheap water rates are one of the reasons why Canadians are among the highest per capita users of water in the world.)
Would I use this much if I had to walk a mile to get it? (People – especially women – in less fortunate parts of the world do.)
If my total water allocation for this week were 100 litres, is this one of the ways I would use it? 

Worth pondering! And in the meantime, here are some simple ways to conserve water:

Avoid watering your lawn (it just makes it grow faster anyway so you have to mow it more often – which takes time and fuel)
Wash your vehicle with a pail instead of a hose
Take shorter and less frequent showers
Find and fix water leaks in your home (toilets are notorious for quietly leaking huge amounts of water; you can check if yours is leaking by putting a little food coloring into the tank and seeing if it seeps into the bowl)
If you haven’t already, install a low flow shower head; install a low-flow toilet; get a high-efficiency front loading clothes washer
Use a rain barrel to collect rainwater for use in your garden.

Hopefully we won’t be praying for rain in our part of the world anytime soon. But, even so, let’s use what we have as wisely and efficiently as possible.

Avoid drive-throughs, period

True story: two days ago, while waiting for my son to arrive at a local restaurant, I found myself with a bird’s eye view of a neighbouring restaurant’s drive-through.  “Aha – a chance for a little citizen science,” I thought.  So I opened the stopwatch on my phone and took note.

My observations?  Not up to the scrutiny of ‘real science’ of course, but still interesting:

  • The longest lineup I saw in the drive-through was five vehicles, so the place wasn’t really busy
  • Even so, any vehicle that found itself fifth in line would sit waiting – and idling – in the drive-through for about five minutes

Since every vehicle in a drive-through typically idles, five vehicles in line equals five engines idling all at once.  Under such circumstances, it would take just 12 minutes to accumulate ‘an hour of idling’.  It’s probably fair to assume that many drive-throughs – especially the coffee shop kind – often have more than five vehicles waiting in line. 

So what are the consequences?  According to Natural Resources Canada:

  • An hour of idling in the average vehicle wastes 1.5 litres of fuel and generates 3.5 KG of carbon dioxide.
  • Mind-blowing: if the average Canadian driver reduced their idling by just three minutes per day, 630 million litres of fuel (worth over half a billion dollars) would be saved per year – equal to 40,000 tanks of fuel for a compact car every day of the year.  Emissions would be reduced by 1.4 million tonnes.

It’s an undeniable, if grudging, reality that drive-throughs have been a lifeline for many restaurants during the pandemic.  But the end (hopefully) of the COVID crisis marks a good time to refocus on that other, larger crisis and to think about new actions and habits.

June 2 is Clean Air Day.  There’s probably no easier way to keep our air clean and to reduce emissions than this one simple thing: resolve to steer clear of drive-throughs.  Period.

(Related question: is it okay for EV drivers to use drive-throughs?  Answer: not really, because even though your vehicle produces no emissions, your presence will cause all of those non-electric vehicles in line behind you to idle longer while they wait for you to get your order.)

How to deal with climate change deniers

Climate change is real, and it’s happening fast – yet some people still insist on denying its existence (and I heard of another case literally yesterday).  So how do you persuade someone who thinks climate change isn’t real?

First, a few human realities.  No one likes feeling threatened or challenged.  No one likes being ignored, or being told they’re wrong.  No one likes losing an argument; in fact, arguing usually just makes people cling more tightly to what they already believe.

In view of those realities, here’s a straightforward five-step process for having that difficult climate conversation, courtesy of the David Suzuki Foundation’s CliMate Conversation Coach (a great resource worth clicking!):

Step One:  after hearing a denial statement, ASK for more information.  Use non-threatening, open-ended questions to help people feel safe and respected, and to open the door to self-reflection.

Step Two:  LISTEN closely, and then ask follow-up questions.  This makes them feel heard, and adds valuable information.  It helps you better understand them and discover things you agree upon.

Step Three:  REFLECT back what you’ve heard.  Try to say in your own words what the other person said and, when possible, highlight emotions and feelings. It shows you’re listening, and making an effort to understand their point of view.

Step Four:  find something you AGREE upon because agreement breaks down barriers and builds bridges.  In particular, strive to connect with people’s goals, values and emotions: they tend to be strongly held, and can serve as anchors or foundations for further agreement.

Step Five:  SHARE your own perspective, including your own vulnerabilities.  Try using emotion and personal stories, because they’re easier for people to relate to and remember than facts and arguments.  Try to create a comfortable situation that encourages people to rethink and reconsider.

Sound a bit slow and tedious?  Alas, effective persuasion always requires an investment of time.  Two final points to consider:

  • Complete, instant turnarounds in thinking are rare.  Progress comes in small steps.  If you’ve opened someone’s mind a crack and you’ve both gone away happy, that’s a success. 
  • If you happen to come across someone who wears their denial as a badge of honour and has resolved that they won’t be persuaded ever, the best approach is probably to smile, walk away and save your efforts for more open-minded people.

Happy persuading!

Take part in No Mow May

“It was a food desert,” my son said after returning home from a sports tournament held in a big-city venue.  “There was nothing to eat nearby, so we always had to drive.”

Fortunately, my son had the option of driving to find food.  That’s not the case for bees, the workers we rely upon to pollinate so much of our food.  This time of year especially, they need early-season flowers to provide much-needed pollen and nectar.  One of the best is the dandelion – that brilliant, golden bloom that’s just about ready to pop.

But somehow dandelions in our yards have become vilified as weeds: we spray, mow and dig to get rid of them – in the process making our lawns food deserts for bees.

So this year, why not take part in No Mow May?  It’s really simple: don’t mow all or part of your lawn this month.  The benefits:

  • You’ll save time
  • You’ll save fuel and reduce your emissions
  • You’ll be doing a really good thing for bees and other helpful insects, which in turn do good things for us

Some municipalities, like Dieppe and Riverview, New Brunswick, are promoting No Mow May: leading by example by not mowing at City Hall, and even offering prizes for residents who take part. 

If your municipality isn’t on board yet, why not go solo?  Download a poster here or make your own to explain why you’re not mowing.  Maybe you’ll inspire your neighbours – or even your municipality, if you call and invite them to take part!

Uncomfortable leaving the entire lawn unmown?  Start with one corner to see how it goes – and expand that next year if you can.  

If you want to really help our insect friends, let No Mow May stretch into the entire summer – and allow other beneficial species like clover and daisies to flower too.

Finally, perhaps this lighthearted dialogue between God and St. Francis will provoke some reassessment of that green space around our homes.

This year, make sure your lawn isn’t a food desert for our insect friends.  Happy No Mow May!

Let’s not fumble this

April 20, 2021

The most important game to win

“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” UCLA football coach Red Sanders reportedly told his players over a half-century ago.  It’s a phrase that’s been used by coaches ever since to motivate their players to victory.

We live in conflicted times.  On the one hand, we Canadians live in one of the world’s most prosperous countries, and our comfortable, self-directed lifestyles are the envy of billions.  We’ve gotten used to pretty much doing what we want when we want.  We have technologies that do incredible things that would have been unimaginable to our grandparents. 

Then along comes COVID-19, reminding us in a sudden, humbling way of the reality that we are after all still just one species among many competing in our planet’s teeming biology. 

But worse, hovering over everything, and reminding us that we live on a planet that functions by simple laws of physics, is climate change.  We’re coming to see that emissions from oil, coal and natural gas, the very products that have brought humans to this level of prosperity, are upsetting our planet’s fragile balance, with the potential to throw virtually every aspect of our lives – food, water, shelter, health, safety and more – into uncertainty at best, chaos at worst.

Of course, the worst impacts of climate change can still be prevented.  But we are late in the game, and well behind on the numbers board thanks to past lacklustre performance.  It’s time for a strong, unified and focussed push from everyone on the team, with no misplays.

To paraphrase Coach Sanders’ line: fighting climate change isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.  A mantra for Earth Day and every day.

Share and swap your seeds  

Home gardens offer many benefits: the unbeatable taste of fresh veggies; savings on your grocery bill; some degree of control over your diet and how your food is grown.

But if your garden is like mine, the average seed packet provides far more seed than you need.  Sure, you can usually keep some for a second year, but even then much is often left over and potentially goes to waste.  Plus you’re less inclined to try new crops and new varieties, because that just compounds the problem.

So why not swap seeds with fellow gardeners in your neighbourhood or your community?  There are a multitude of ways to do it:

  • Check in with your neighbour: if they garden, the simplest swap of all may be over the backyard fence!
  • If you have a community Facebook page or website, why not post which seeds you have available and which you’re looking for, and see what happens?
  • Check with your local gardening club or sustainability organization; many organize annual seed exchanges.
  • Some libraries (yes, the book kind, like this one) accept donations of leftover seed, and then let anyone help themselves to what they’d like.
  • If you’d like to go all-in and organize an in-person event, here’s a simple how-to list; here’s a how-to list for those with more elaborate ambitions.

Seed swapping is a great way to try gardening for the first time without expense; learn from experienced gardeners; meet your neighbours; and diversify what you grow. So swap and enjoy!