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!

Wasting less, eating better

Food – the nourishment we rely on for our very existence – was at the center of two shocking news stories this month.

The first: according to a new study, food production and associated activities are responsible for fully one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions.  Those emissions arise not just from on-farm activities, but also from transportation, processing, packaging and retailing.  Animal-based foods in particular have a far larger footprint than plant-based foods.

The second: according to a new UN report, almost a billion tonnes of food are wasted each year – a fact that’s even more obscene when you consider how many millions of people go to bed hungry every night. Waste happens at every step of the supply chain from farm to fork, but especially at home and in the food service industry.  The report concludes food waste is responsible for 10 per cent of global emissions.  That’s worth restating: eliminating food waste could reduce global emissions by 10 per cent.

So why not reduce the environmental impact of your diet by:

  • Eating less animal-based and more plant-based foods.  Consider designating certain meals of the day or certain days of the week veggie only (IE Meatless Monday; recipes here).
  • Resolving to clean your plate, every time.
  • Buying bulk whenever you can to reduce the need for packaging
  • Growing a garden; it’s amazing how much can be grown in a small space well tended, and it’s empowering to have at least a measure of control over what you put into your body.  Even if you’ve never gardened, spring is the season of new beginnings.
  • At the grocery store, buying only what you need and can consume in a reasonable time.  Resist the urge to buy large ‘family packs’ if the inevitable result is that some will spoil before you get to eating it.
  • Using good judgement before discarding outdated food, because ‘best before’ does not mean ‘bad after’.  Use your nose, and try to imagine what your dear grandmother would do.
  • Designating one area of your fridge as an ‘eat me first’ section, and placing your oldest food there. You can download an ‘eat me first’ sign here.
  • Using leftovers and wilting veggies to make soup; some good guidance here.

Conserving the lifeblood of our existence

Ours is a watery planet, but consider this: 97.5 per cent of Earth’s water is salty; only 0.03 per cent is surface water, the portion most humans rely upon.  Put another way: if a typical trash dolly full of water represented all water on the planet, surface water would amount to just six tablespoons.

And as our population continues to grow, so does our water consumption.  Humans today use three times the water we used fifty years ago.  Worldwide, 2.2 billion people lack access to safe water – including many residents of Canadian First Nations.

Water is essential to our existence, so we’d be wise not to take it for granted.  Here’s how you can reduce your personal water footprint:

  • Very good: Install a low flow shower head.  Less water, same satisfying shower.  Then go one better: take fewer and shorter showers.
  • Very good: Install a low flow (six litre) or dual flush toilet for big water savings.  Then go one better: ‘when it’s yellow, leave it mellow’…
  • Consider a front-loading clothes washer for 50 per cent water savings; do only full loads
  • Fix dripping faucets because they can waste 80 litres a day
  • Detect toilet tank leaks by putting a little food coloring in the tank and checking if any color seeps into the bowl; most repairs are easy do-it-yourself jobs with inexpensive parts available at hardware stores
  • A no-brainer: turn off the tap while brushing teeth
  • Avoid watering lawns or washing driveways
  • Keep a bottle of drinking water in the fridge so you don’t have to run the tap to get cool water
  • Calculate your water footprint here (detailed but US-focussed) or here (international but to my eye less user-friendly).  Both include the water footprints of our food and consumer goods choices, which are far greater than most of us would guess.

March 22 is World Water Day – so raise a glass and appreciate it for the vital, underappreciated essential it is.

Net Metering: the independence of generating your own electricity, backed by the security of your local power grid

If you plan to install solar power, there are two ways you can go:

The first is to go off-grid, which means you’ll be totally independent with no connection to any outside power line – so no power bill to pay, ever.  But it also means that if you like power 24 hours a day, you’ll need a battery bank that can store enough power during the day for use during the night – and that battery bank will need to have enough extra capacity to carry you through long winter nights and prolonged cloudy weather (which sometimes happens at the same time).  In short, off-grid is appealing, but anyone considering it should be prepared to spend a bit more money, and to become actively engaged in day-to-day power usage and management. The second option – more feasible for most people – is to remain connected (or grid-tied) to your local utility’s power line and use net metering.  Net metering is an arrangement whereby you use grid power whenever your panels aren’t generating (IE at night), but then send any surplus power you generate with your panels (IE during the day) back into the power grid.  Then you’re billed on the net amount of power you use: your consumption from the grid minus what you’ve sent into the grid.  Rules vary between jurisdictions.  Some allow you to offset your power consumption to zero on an annualized basis; others will actually pay you for any surplus you produce on an annualized basis.

Grid-tied net-metered systems are simpler and less costly than off-grid systems because batteries aren’t needed. Through net metering, you are essentially using your local power utility as your ‘battery’, because you can send it power in summer and then use back that same amount of power in winter.

Here are links to how net metering works in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, PEI, Newfoundland and Labrador power and hydro, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and BC.  For subscribers in other areas, please just check with your local utility.

Choose to invest sustainably  

Follow the money,” informant Deep Throat whispered in All the President’s Men, a movie about corruption in the Nixon era.  That now-famous line speaks to a basic truth in our world: money makes things happen (and lack of money prevents things from happening).

Energy is a good example.  Fossil fuel companies would never be able to extract oil, coal and natural gas without the backing of financial institutions – which in turn have made tons of money by bankrolling the sector.  And here’s a devastating reality: banks continue to finance new fossil fuel development, even as the climate change consequences of burning fossil fuels become clearer.  A global report card by the Rainforest Action Network found:

  • US$2.7 trillion have been invested in the fossil fuel industry since the signing of the Paris Climate Accord by 35 of the planet’s largest banks.
  • All of Canada’s Big Five banks are in the thick of it.  Royal Bank of Canada is the fifth largest fossil fuel investor in the report card, followed by TD (eighth); Scotiabank (10th); Bank of Montreal (16th); and CIBC (21st).

Imagine where we’d be if that $2.7 trillion had instead been invested in clean, renewable energy.

So what can you do?  Most of us have retirement portfolios or pensions, and it’s RRSP contribution time.  You can steer your money to where it does the most good and least harm by:

  • Asking your advisor to divest your portfolio of fossil fuel holdings and instead seek out viable sustainability-oriented investments (and there are more to choose from all the time).  Even the most traditional advisor may be more receptive in the wake of fossil fuel giant Exxon reporting its first-ever loss last week.
  • If you’re a client of one of Canada’s Big Five banks, letting your advisor know you’re not happy with their support of fossil fuels, and asking them what their bank’s plans are to divest.  Remind them you have options.
  • Moving your business to a more sustainability-minded financial institution if you’re not happy with your bank’s divestment plans; here’s a simple guide to help. 

If you’re ready to take things a step further, joining a campaign like Fossil Banks: No Thanks to pressure banks or Shift to pressure pension funds (including the Canada Pension Plan fund, in which all Canadians have a stake) to divest of fossil fuels and shift to investments that fight climate change.

If you haven’t already, now’s a perfect time to start making wise, sustainable investment choices, so that when you ‘follow your money’, you’ll find it’s making good things happen!

Staying mentally strong through a crisis  

A year after COVID-19 arrived in Canada, perhaps one of the less-talked-about consequences has been its toll on our mental health.  So much of what we took for granted as ‘normal’ was cast aside almost overnight: daily routines, family relationships, social connections, economic foundations and more.  The pandemic has been an unprecedented test of our strength, resilience and ability to carry on.

For anyone who cares about our natural world, the current state of our environment can be similarly stressful.  The daily avalanche of negative news – whether about heat waves, droughts, floods, hurricanes, disappearing biodiversity or something else – is enough to gnaw away at even the most optimistic disposition.

If you’re feeling stressed by COVID, climate change or both, here are a few strategies to help you not just cope, but prevail:

  • Take heart, and see hope.  In the case of COVID, a vaccine is on the horizon.  If we follow rules and good practices, we can minimize our chances of becoming infected and contribute to the larger battle of ending this crisis.  In the case of climate change, we’re seeing mind-boggling progress in renewable energy and electric vehicles, and the political winds have changed with the election of a new US administration.
  • Take care of yourself, both physically and spiritually.  Exercise, go outside, talk to friends, maintain a healthy work-life balance, connect with like-minded people, take up yoga or meditation and laugh as much as you can.
  • Look deep within, and see and believe that you are stronger than you know.  WE are stronger than we know, something we should never underestimate.
  • Since most of us are too busy most of the time, see any unexpected downtime due to COVID as a gift, a time to refocus your life priorities.  Honestly, what really matters?  Then resolve to make some changes to better align your beliefs and your lifestyle.  If you care about our environment, use this time to learn about how to live more sustainably or save energy or grow a garden or eat better or…
  • Finally, set a few doable goals and take some action, because even the smallest action is better than words or worry, and can give a feeling of accomplishment, progress and confidence to go further.  Remember, people like you and me are still the world’s biggest hope for solving climate change.  The David Suzuki Foundation offers a great list of ten ways, small and large, you can help.

For further reading: a column I wrote on the subject a few years back, and eight tips for overcoming eco-anxiety. So please stay safe, and stay strong!

The downside of home delivered meal kits

Perhaps you’ve noticed a recent trend in food marketing: home-delivered meal kits. 

The concept is simple: you go to a website, browse a menu, pick a gourmet meal for your family, order and voila: a box shows up at your door days later with all the ingredients you need to prepare that meal: the main course, veggies, sauces, spices and more.  All you need to do is open the box and follow the preparation instructions.  What could be simpler for today’s busy consumer?  No wonder home-delivered meal kits are now offered by dozens of companies via the internet.

But before you sign up, consider:

  • Meal kits come with a lot of packaging, so they generate a lot of waste.  They’re usually shipped in insulated boxes (which may not be recyclable), often with ice packs to keep things cold in transit.  (True, you can reuse ice packs, but how many of them do you really need in your freezer?)  Ingredients inside the box are usually further packaged as well.
  • Many meal kits originate quite far away, so they have a significant transportation footprint (a big part of it being that delivery van that drops it off at your door)
  • If a meal kit you choose is coming from afar, you can be pretty certain there’s nothing local inside it, so there’s no benefit to your local economy
  • Meal kits aren’t cheap.  Do the math, and you’ll likely find you can get the very same ingredients locally for a fraction of the cost

So instead of succumbing to the allure and expense of a meal-in-a-box, why not just shop your local farmers market, co-op or food store – for lightly-packaged local food with a small transportation footprint?  Even better: in season, subscribe to a weekly box from a local farmer or community supported agriculture group!

Footnote: until a vaccine brings pandemic relief, people feeling vulnerable due to age, health or other circumstance warrant an exemption.  Let’s hope we can all get back to our usual shopping and eating routines soon!)

Set sustainability goals for 2021

Thanks to COVID-19, most of us can’t wait to say goodbye to 2020.  But as the end of one sobering crisis seems within our reach, symptoms of the next are rumbling ever louder.  Christmas and Boxing Days were the warmest ever here in New Brunswick, with 21 weather stations setting new record high temperatures.

New Year’s is typically a day for setting fresh goals and resolutions; paraphrasing Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.”  So why not set some sustainability goals for yourself and your family for 2021?  Here are a few suggestions:

  • To put out no more than ___ bags of trash a month (year?)
  • To go meat-free at least once every _____
  • To get a home energy audit done, and implement at least ___ of its energy-saving recommendations by the end of 2021
  • To carpool or take public transit at least ___ times a month
  • To stop using drive-throughs (and you’ll be amazed at how much money you’ll save by making that daily coffee at home)
  • To get into the habit of gentle stops and starts when you drive (and you’ll be amazed at how much fuel you’ll save)
  • To be driving an electric vehicle (or at the very least a hybrid) by ___

These are just a start, but they touch upon the areas where most of us have our largest impact on the environment: waste, diet, home energy consumption and transportation.  For good measure, here are two more suggestions:

  • To call or write your elected leaders to demand meaningful action on climate change at least ___ times this year
  • To subscribe to TED’s Countdown, an inspiring global initiative dedicated to solving our climate crisis and creating a better future for all

Final thought: goalsetting really works.  I’ve always been terrible at it, but two years ago, for the first time ever, I set and shared a couple of audacious goals for our family: that we’d generate no more than 10 bags of trash per year, and that we’d be carbon neutral for our electricity and transportation by 2022.  I had no idea at the time whether we’d be able to do it.  But amazing things can happen when you commit to something.  We hit our 10-bag target in 2019, and will again this year.  And just this fall we installed a solar array that powers our home and charges our car – something that seemed almost impossible just two years ago. 

So – as you welcome 2021, why not have a quick scrum with others in your household, and together commit to some solid sustainability goals?  (And if you need help, don’t hesitate to hit reply and ask away!)

Happy New Year 2021!