Make this time at home time well spent

If there’s a silver lining to this dark COVID-19 cloud, perhaps it’s this: most of us (except for all those heroes working in essential services) find ourselves suddenly with much more time on our hands.  In a bizarre sort of way, it’s an unexpected blessing.

Alas, even if temporarily eclipsed by a fast-moving health crisis, climate change – that other, larger, slow-moving emergency – has not gone away (as news stories below confirm).  So maybe the time provided by the present crisis is a perfect opportunity for us to learn more about what we can do to stem that other – to learn more about our personal carbon footprint and what we can do to shrink it.

And for that I know of no better resource than the Global Footprint Network – a beautifully simple website where you can take a five-minute quiz and instantly receive a report that:

  • shows how big your personal carbon footprint is; and
  • suggests lifestyle changes that will make the biggest reduction in that carbon footprint

Spoiler alert: you may be a bit shocked by your initial results; I know I was when I first took the quiz a decade ago and learned that if everyone on the planet lived like me, we’d need four planets – FOUR!!  But the information in my report has helped me to since cut that in half (yes, the journey continues) – and it can do the same for you.

Footprint

So – if you’re finding yourself with some unexpected free time, why not make this your personal goal: to learn more about your personal carbon footprint; and then plan what steps you can take to lower it permanently once this current crisis is over?  (And I’d welcome hearing how it’s going.)

(Prefer reading over quizzing?  This New York Times article hits all the high points.)

Reflections on change

March 27, 2020

Emergencies and new thinking

Several years ago, I heard a radio program that examined the concept of an emergency.  I still remember its key messages: first, in an emergency, rules, reality and priorities change instantly and, second, if warranted by the situation, an incredible amount of resources can be reallocated to solve a problem.  (Here’s a column I wrote on the subject.)

And here we are, in a global emergency that most of us would have thought implausible mere weeks ago.  Overnight, our realities and priorities have changed, and we’re seeing how quickly resources can be reallocated.

In the short term, it’s scary – and I hope you’re doing well: following best practices for prevention and not forgetting about self-care and care for others too.  Hopefully drastic measures and public co-operation will blunt the spread of COVID-19.

But it’s also bringing out our best: who’d have thought that a distillery would pivot to making hand sanitizer; or that a hockey equipment manufacturer would start making visors for frontline healthcare workers; or that 700 students and retired health professionals would respond overnight to an appeal for backup help.  Amazing, inspiring, reassuring.

And in the longer term, by demonstrating just how much is possible when we work together and focus on a common goal, hopefully this crisis will have changed our thinking and provided a model we can use to tackle our climate crisis.  We’re already seeing the emergence of bold ideas like economic stimulus packages designed around sustainability, and a basic income guarantee that would alleviate some of our biggest fears about the economic consequences of major upheavals like COVID-19 and climate change.

Einstein

Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  So maybe this is the perfect time to reflect on what’s important, and change our way of thinking.

Stay strong, stay safe, and please do your part to stop COVID-19.

Could buying less stuff make you happier?

It’s well documented that spending on basic necessities and creature comforts gives us lots of fulfillment per dollar spent.

But after that, the amount of fulfillment we get per dollar spent starts to level off.  In fact, there’s actually a point where our fulfillment peaks – and spending beyond that point clutters our lives and actually makes us less happy.

What’s that fulfillment peak called?  ‘Enough’.

Enough

Most subscribers to this newsletter are, like me, blessed to be living in a land of plenty – and are probably, like me, beyond ‘enough’ when it comes to stuff.  Consumerism may be good for our economy, but it contributes to resource depletion, climate change and other environmental challenges.  Equally concerning, consumerism leads us to worship stuff, and even measure our self-worth by how much stuff we have.  The cost has been an erosion of our spirituality, our relationships and our sense of community.

So the next time you’re tempted to buy stuff, why not pause and consider: do I really need this?  Will it really improve my life, or just complicate and clutter it?  What’s the environmental impact of this stuff?  Hopefully your answers to those questions will lead you to a richer, happier, more fulfilling and more sustainable future.  You’ll find some nice guidance here.

Is your financial institution funding climate change?

I stumbled upon “Banking on Climate Change”, a report by the Rainforest Action Network, a few months ago.  When I clicked on it, I had no idea I was in for a big surprise.

Banking on Climate Change is an annual ranking of financial institutions from around the world according to how extensively they back the oil and gas sector.  Fossil fuel extraction can’t happen without financing, so the banks that finance it are also facilitators of the emissions that are driving climate change.  Tough as it is to accept, fossil fuel extraction and expansion are the very opposite of what we need if we are to rein in climate change.

List

The surprise for me?  There, near the top of the list, was my bank.  In fact, all of Canada’s Big Five banks were on the list – each of them tens of billions of dollars deep into oil, coal, natural gas and oilsands, and most of them graded ‘F’. (Here are explanations of how those grades were determined, with links to sources of information.)

So even though I’ve divested my own retirement funds of fossil fuels, now I discover that the very bank I’m dealing with is itself ‘banking on climate change’: facilitating lots of emissions, and no doubt making lots of money in the process.  Arg.

So what can you do if your financial institution is on the list?  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Start a conversation: ask to meet with your branch manager, and explain your concerns about the institution’s support for fossil fuels. Ask what their policy is on climate change, and if they have plans to divest.  Ask about their support for renewable energy and other green economy solutions.  Be as gentle or as firm as you feel comfortable being, and don’t shy away from pushing things up the line.  You can also go online to find a higher-up sustainability contact.
  2. If you’re not satisfied with what you’re hearing (and there is plenty of greenwashing and gobbledygook out there, including in corporate sustainability reports), start checking out your options. Smaller and local institutions, such as credit unions, are less likely to be involved in fossil fuels.
  3. Spread the word: most people have no idea about the role of their financial institutions in financing fossil fuels – but now YOU know. So use your networks to spread the word and help build pressure on banks to change.  (You could even share this email!)

More information and some useful resources and strategies here, here and (if you’re ready to rumble) here.

As I mentioned last time, financing renewables and de-financing fossil fuels are key to creating the energy transition we need to fix climate change, and each of us can help make that happen.  Maybe you can’t change the whole market, but you can change your little corner of it.

PS: remember, I’m not a financial advisor, so no endorsements intended.  Due diligence should be part of every financial decision you make.

“Follow the money”

February 11, 2020

Invest ethically this RRSP season

Follow the money,” the shadowy character in All the President’s Men whispered to the two young reporters who broke Watergate, the biggest political scandal in US history.  It was good advice, because, in our world, money makes things happen – and lack of money makes things not happen.

It’s RRSP time, and many of us are thinking of contributing to a retirement nest egg.  But do you know what your money is – or is not – supporting?

Investment

Fossil fuel companies are prominent in stock markets around the world.  Three of the ten biggest companies on the Toronto Stock Exchange are oil and gas companies, and mutual funds are laden with fossil fuels.  True, over the years they’ve given some great financial returns.  But at what cost?  The extraction and use of fossil fuels is the very reason we’re facing climate change, the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced.  It’s estimated that the output of just 100 fossil fuel companies are behind 70% of all emissions since 1988.  And when we invest in them, we enable that to continue.

So what to do?  I’m no financial guru, but here are two suggestions:

  1. If you’re ready to divest your portfolio of fossil fuels, be sure to tell your investment advisor. Ask them to seek out non-fossil fuel alternatives that pass your ethical test and meet your investment needs.  There are more and more every day, such as this one (for info only; no endorsement intended; always check with a qualified advisor).
  2. Learn more about ethical investing; here’s a good primer.

Financing renewables and de-financing fossil fuels are key to creating the energy transition we need to fix climate change, and each of us can help make that happen.  Maybe you can’t change the whole market, but you can change your little corner of it.

Up next: what to do if your financial institution is itself a major investor in fossil fuels.

…without spending a cent!

“A way to meaningfully reduce my carbon footprint without investing a single penny?  Sounds impossible!”

But it’s not.  And it’s no more complicated than three simple words:

Just… slow… down!

Here’s the deal.

Transportation generates about a quarter of Canada’s emissions, and a lot of those emissions come out of the tailpipes of the cars, trucks and SUVs we drive.  (It’s not helped by the fact that Canadians drive the very least efficient vehicles in the world.)  So it’s a huge part of our footprint.

True, we need to be able to get around.  But our driving habits have an enormous impact on the amount of fuel we burn and the amount of emissions we produce (not to mention how much we spend on gas).

And the one single driving habit that can probably save us the most?  Just slowing down a little.  According to Natural Resources Canada, vehicles are most fuel efficient at 80 KM per hour or less; and slowing down from 120 KM per hour to 100 results in a 20% fuel saving.  20% savings, just by slowing down a little!!  (That’s why the Dutch government recently lowered highway speed limits.)

Slow Down

So why not try it the next time you’re behind the wheel?  Good for your wallet, good for the planet!  And check out additional tips for squeezing more kilometers out of your fuel dollar here.

Why not go for ten or less bags of trash this year?

Two weeks ago I shared that our family had met our goal of generating less than 10 bags of trash in 2019.  (For the record: our accomplishment is humbled by that of longstanding subscribers Don & Heather Ross, who are routinely down to three bags a year – amazing!)

Some readers wondered how we did it, so I’m pleased to share what I think were the seven keys to our success:

  1. Choosing less packaging: limiting trash has become one of our guiding principles when we shop: we’ve gotten into the habit of purposely avoiding heavily packaged products and instead choosing products with little to no packaging and/or fully recyclable packaging. It’s meant the odd sacrifice, but we’re okay with that; our purchase decisions are one of the best ways we can influence the market.  I believe our strategy of ‘reducing trash at source’ was probably the biggest single factor that helped us achieve our goal.
  2. No single-use plastic bags, ever: it’s meant a few walks back to the car, but we’re now comfortably in the habit of using alternatives that include reusable produce bags or collapsible boxes (no endorsement intended).
  3. No disposable coffee cups, ever: that means I skip that coffee if I’ve forgotten my mug. The upside: I now remember my mug.
  4. No disposable cutlery: alas, still working on this one as I sometimes still forget my spork (no endorsement intended).
  5. Using reusable containers: for packed lunches, or even for restaurant leftovers
  6. Composting: organics make up a big part of household waste, so diverting them to a compost heap greatly reduces trash. A bonus: you end up with fertilizer for next year’s garden. Another bonus: your remaining trash is less smelly and less attractive to pests.  (Unsure about composting?  Here’s a simple guide, and you can find nice compost pails (no endorsement intended) online or at your local hardware store.)
  7. Recycling rigorously: our recycling systems are far from ideal (the carbon footprint of collection; the challenges of dealing with a mish-mash of mixed materials; dubious offshore ‘processing’), but recycling is still better than trashing.

Upon rereading the above seven points, I’m struck by how they all seem to have one common ingredient: the word habit, which is about making changes so that the right thing to do becomes the new norm.

Reducing Waste

So – why not try a ten bag challenge in your family – or a three bag challenge if you’re hardcore?  And please let me know if you have any tips or secrets to add to the above list!

(Read a far longer list of tips here.  For a deeper dive on eliminating waste: Cradle to Cradle, one of the best books ever on the subject; summary of its principles here.)

What’s your 2020 sustainability goal?

If you’re a long-term subscriber, you may remember this pledge I made a year ago in a Green Ideas about making sustainability resolutions for 2019:

My 2019 resolution?  I’m aiming for three, all stretch goals:

  1. That my family will generate no more than 10 bags of trash this year
  2. That my family will be carbon neutral for our electricity and transportation by 2022
  3. To present 50 free climate change presentations to schools and non-profits this year

Setting and writing down goals has never been a strength for me, so making such a public commitment was a big stretch.  But it’s led to a surprising result:

  1. We produced 9.5 bags of trash last year
  2. We’re in negotiations with a solar panel installer, and hoping for installation in 2020. In the interim, we’re buying green power and green biofuel from Bullfrog Power (no affiliation other than being a customer).
  3. My 50th presentation took place December 10

I guess there really is something to be said about setting – and then writing down – goals.  (In my case, I’m not sure if my motivation came from having a focus or from fear of public failure…)

So – let’s do it again.  First, what are your sustainability goals for 2020?  The more specific, the better – here are some suggestions:

  • To recycle everything you can, every time, without excuse
  • To start composting at home, work or school
  • To waste less of everything, especially food
  • To eat vegetarian at least __ times per week
  • To grow a vegetable garden this summer
  • To buy less stuff
  • To stop using drive-throughs and never idle more than 30 seconds, even in winter
  • To examine how you get around (without excuses), and to resolve to do better by driving less, carpooling, getting a more efficient vehicle and/or taking transit
  • To call or write your elected leaders (at all levels) at least __ times this year
  • To join Al Gore in Las Vegas March 8-10 for a life-changing Climate Leadership training program
  • Or something else, small or big

My 2020 resolutions?  Well, since my three stretch goals worked okay last year, I’ll renew all three (please just hit reply and let me know if you’re interested in one of those 50 free climate change presentations for schools and non-profits) – and add three more:

  1. To work to establish a Sustainability Committee in my neighbourhood, so we can work together toward solutions that will benefit us all
  2. To attend at least six Fridays for the Future climate strikes (totally out of my comfort zone, but I’ve come to believe that sometimes you’ve just got to show up)
  3. To contact my elected representatives at provincial and federal levels at least quarterly to suggest policies and advocate for climate action

I’d love to hear your 2020 sustainability resolutions – and I’ll keep you posted on my progress on mine.  Happy – and sustainable – 2020!

2020 Goals

Practice an attitude of gratitude

When I first heard of the immense power of practising gratitude, I was sceptical.  Just having a warm fuzzy feeling about the good things I have is going to make my life better??

The more I’ve read about it, the more I’ve learned it’s true: practicing gratitude helps us:

  • Be more aware of the blessings we have. I’ve never forgotten this powerful message I once heard from a motivational speaker: “if ever you feel unsatisfied with your life, remember that there are millions of people in the world right now who would trade places with you in an instant.”
  • Be less worried about what we don’t have, so we feel liberated to step off of the treadmill of ‘more stuff’ that is draining our finances, parasitizing our spirituality and ruining our beautiful planet
  • Be healthier and more relaxed
  • Have greater self esteem
  • Care more for others, and have better relationships with loved ones, colleagues and friends

And that’s just the start; there’s much more here.

Gratitude

So this holiday season, why not take a few minutes to relax, ponder your blessings and be grateful?  It will make your day better – and your whole life too if you turn it into a daily habit.

Happy holidays!  (And I’m grateful that you’re a Green Ideas subscriber!)

More ideas for going ‘stuff-free’ this holiday season

Wow – ‘buying less stuff, doing more good’ sure hit a chord two weeks ago!  Here are more ideas for going stuff-free this holiday season:

  • Use your special talent or skill, be it baking, knitting, canning, brewing, winemaking, woodworking, soapmaking or something else, to give a little part of yourself
  • Consider special experiences like ziplining, an escape room, haunted hikes, whale watching, wine tasting, a spa or a weekend getaway – all far more memorable than stuff!
  • Get tickets for special events like plays, sports, concerts or exhibits
  • Give a subscription for a magazine or, perhaps more in tune with the times, for Spotify, Netflix or another streaming service
  • Buy passes for a pool, gym, museum or art gallery
  • Enroll someone in a pottery, weaving, drama, music or other class; if you’re an expert, give the lessons yourself!
  • Offer homemade coupons for household chores, snow removal, handyman tasks or delivered meals, especially for the seniors on your list. Or instead of spending money that took time to earn, why not shortcut the process and just spend time with them?
  • If you still feel the need to buy some token ‘stuff’, shop a secondhand shop for light impact and great value

stuff-less

Less stuff.  Less stress.  More time.  More money.  Better for the planet.  A good plan for this – and every – Christmas.