Archive for December, 2009

Circles of concern, circles of influence

I just read an article in the current issue of The Canadian Friend that resonated very strongly with me. In “Making Peace With Our Place on the Planet”, Tony McQuail of Kitchener Monthly Meeting writes:

Something that has been helpful to me is distinguishing between my circle of concern and my circle of influence. If I spend a vast amount of time and energy worrying about the things out in my circle of concern, I can get pretty wound up, frustrated, and lose my inner peace. When I concentrate on my circle of influence I feel far more positive, and bring a hopeful and constructive energy to bear on situations where I actually have some impact. It helps me work on what I can do, rather than worry about what I can’t.

This is a very helpful way of thinking, to me. I spend a lot of time in this job listening to bad news, much of it coming from distant places where I can’t have much if any direct impact, or occurring on a scale too vast to be affected by individual will. This is generally the point where despair sets in.

It’s sometimes hard, too, to figure out what exactly my “circle of influence” is. I know that I could be doing more than I am. I could put in more volunteer hours than I do. I could donate more money to causes I care about. I could, when my current job ends, go and join the Peace Corps and spend the next few years building schools in Africa or whatever. The point is, there’s this large nebulous zone just outside the things I can currently have a positive impact on, full of things I could have a positive impact on if I had more strength, more willpower, more energy, less time commitments, less emotional entanglements, less ties to the place where I live – if I were, in short, a different person altogether. For me, that leads to more guilt than it probably ought to, and that feeds the despair too.

Maybe it’s helpful to remind myself what exactly my circle of influence is.

My garden is the first thing that comes to mind. A large part of Tony McQuail’s article is about his farm, and the ways in which food production is linked to oil and thence to war and violence. I don’t have the skill to grow some things (celery, so far, has been a dismal failure) or the environment to grow other things (chickens, say, or pineapples – damn you, delicious pineapples, and your inability to thrive in the St. Lawrence Lowlands!), but my boyfriend and I can generally get our quota of vegetables entirely from the garden during the peak tomato-producing months.

Another group within my circle of influence is my immediate circle of friends and acquaintances, with whom I walk a fine line between wanting to mention when they’re doing something environmentally terrible (“You know you shouldn’t be seting Styrofoam on fire, right?”) and wanting to actually keep said friends. Generally I find perky enthusiasm a lot more helpful than nagging. (“Guess what I saw today! Recycled paper coffee filters! Those used to be impossible to find! Isn’t it great how many more recycled products you can get these days? I feel so much less guilty going shopping when I can get recycled stuff, don’t you?”)

Then there’s the other people in my environment, who I don’t necessarily know but who can see me bicycling, or using a refillable mug, or darning my socks on the bus, or whatever, and might think it’s a good idea. I don’t know how much that actually happens, but it’s certainly happened to me a few times. Besides, it’s a critical mass thing – how many people do you see now using reusable grocery bags? Practically everyone. There’s social pressure about it now. Several times in the past month I’ve seen people apologize (to the cashier, or to the other customers at large) for taking plastic bags. This is a positive step. (The next step is for the supermarkets to just stop offering plastic bags altogether. They’re already doing it in Halifax. Come on, Montreal, do you always want to be trailing behind Halifax??)

There’s my government, of course. Sometimes, like everyone else, I feel I have next to no impact on the decisions of the government that theoretically represents me. But I write letters to them anyway. And hey, we finally got Peter McQueen elected; that has to do some good.

There are my consumer decisions – what to buy, what to wear, where to shop. I’ve finally got my clothes-buying algorithm mostly figured out. (The Salvation Army figures prominently.)

Finally (and by “finally” I mean “I’m probably forgetting something”), there’s this blog, and its literally tens of readers (“Dozens! Baker’s dozens! They come in thirteens.”). Writing for a living has always been my goal, though admittedly I usually visualise that as involving fiction. But I’ve always thought writing was one of our most powerful tools for shaping the world. The amount of positive response that Right Relationship has received over the past year has been truly staggering, and I want to make sure to keep that firmly in mind as I continue in my own writing career in the months and years ahead. I know I now have the skill to write well enough to get people interested in what I have to say; now let’s see if I can make sure I’m saying something worth reading.


Eat, drink and be merry

I met up with a friend of mine over the Christmas holidays, whose name I’m not going to mention for reasons that will become obvious. When we got together, I was surprised to see that she was carrying a bottle of water in her backpack. She’s usually pretty good about environmental stuff, so I asked her, “What’s with the bottled water?”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Well, you know, I thought you were avoiding it because of how resource-intensive it is?” I said.

She shrugged. “Oh, that’s okay,” she said. “This water’s organic.”

I’m not telling this story to make fun of her, although it was pretty funny. The point is that we all get tripped up sometimes by the myriad of environmental buzzwords now circulating through our collective cultural memespace. Especially with the kind of greenwashing that’s become increasingly common these days.

“Organic” is one of those words that can have a pretty wide range of actual definitions. Apparently there are more than forty organizations in Canada alone that can certify foods as organic, and they use several different standards. That’s not including foods that use labels like “authentic” or “natural”, which don’t have legally specified definitions. Sometimes that means an advertiser is trying to put one over on people; sometimes it means a small producer doesn’t have the money or the ability to go through the organic certification process, even though their food would meet the qualifications if they did. Without knowing about the specific supplier, it’s hard to know which.

And of course, like anything else, this issue doesn’t exist in isolation. There’s a market in my neighbourhood that sells organic apples imported from Japan. Quebec apples, probably sprayed with pesticides, are still available at this time of year at the Provigo. Buy local or buy organic? Or, as is far more likely at the moment, run out of time, buy whatever I can get at the store that’s directly on my way to work, and then feel guilty about it?

There are other options; I’ve been volunteering for the past few months at Zero Food Waste (which, incidentally, would love to have more volunteers, if you’re in Montreal!). It’s kind of like dumpster diving, except officially approved-of by the stores – they put aside food that they’re going to throw out, and we pick it up and sort it out for use by the food bank, community kitchen, and other local organizations.

I try to avoid making New Year’s resolutions, except in a really general way, but I am going to make more of an effort to pay attention to what I eat this year. Hanging out with the above group of cool people should help. We’ll see how it goes.

(As an ironic epilogue, I found out later, via Wikipedia, that there actually was a complaint filed with the USDA in 2004 against a company that was indeed declaring tap water to be “certified organic” in order to claim that their various personal care products contained organic ingredients. Weird.)

Read all about it

Interviews! Today we’ve got a great interview with Peter Brown from The Lionel Show, which, as usual, WordPress will not let me embed directly. But fear not; just click here and it ought to either play or download, depending on how paranoid your media player settings are.

Also there’s a print interview at Investor’s Business Daily with quotes from Geoffrey Garver. Well worth reading, although quite short.

Was going to post another interview, but the interviewer was so clueless that it’s not even worth giving them the link traffic. Yes, it’s important to engage with people of all views, no matter how bizarre, but at some point it just becomes inefficient to keep pouring our energy and effort down that big ol’ hole. The scientific evidence on climate change is in. There’s as much consensus as there’s ever going to be, because the people who are still unconvinced are the people who aren’t likely to be persuaded by scientific evidence anyway. Can we just declare ourselves to have won the debate (and if there’s ever been a better definition of a Pyrrhic victory, I can’t think of it, because I’m pretty sure we’d all be delighted for the other folks to have been right, yes?) and then proceed to ignore them?

And yeah, I realize we can’t, because some of them run countries. Which is one of a number of things that keep me up at night. (Car alarms are another.)

I guess we’ll see the final shape of world opinion soon, as Copenhagen grinds onward. Keep watching the skies!

Plan C is panic…also Plans D through Z

On this week’s episode of CBC’s The Sunday Edition, among the guests was one David Keith, an advocate of geoengineering. Geoengineering, for those that don’t know, is basically the same as terraforming, except we’d do it here on Earth rather than on some alien planet. It involves making large-scale alterations to the way the planet works. So pretty much what we’ve been doing ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, then, except this time we’d be doing it on purpose. The CBC host called it “Plan B” in case our glorious leaders fail to come to a sufficiently drastic agreement in Copenhagen.

The specific technology that would be brought into play in this instance involves the spraying of sulphur compounds in the upper atmosphere to reflect a greater proportion of the sun’s radiation and thus cool the Earth. This is similar to what happens after a major volcanic eruption. In theory, it should work. It might even work in practice.

Keith is careful to say that this wouldn’t be an easy fix, and wouldn’t substitute for cutting carbon emissions; we have to cut emissions, and drastically. At best, this plan would provide us with some breathing space to allow us to minimize the damage while emissions are dropping. But I wonder how many people, upon hearing about this plan, are actually going to take that away as the message. I think it’s more likely that a lot of them will be all “oh look, technology’s going to save us, just like we thought it would, la la la we can do whatever we want.”

I’m not saying that technology isn’t going to be extremely helpful for both mitigation and adaption in the years ahead. Of course it will. Our society is too large and too complex for any kind of back-to-the-land ideology to work on a global scale. But it’s worth going back to the I=PATE formula here, and remembering that technology is only one part of the equation. Without a shift in values away from the commodification of life, all the gadgets in the world will be no better than a brief distraction from the abyss.

Oh, and to the guy who keeps writing me angry letters about “censorship”: I will let your comments through once you’ve demonstrated that you can get through three consecutive sentences without using a racial slur of some kind. Meanwhile you can peddle your garbage on your own blog, thanks.

Live from the centre of the Earth

I’m pretty sure we’re all watching the Copenhagen summit as closely as we can, so in the hope that this is useful to y’all, here’s a rundown of some official and unofficial live TV feeds from the proceedings.

World Wildlife Federation: Live broadcast every weekday at 7pm CET.

Oxfam: Daily videos. 24-hour streaming feed. Does not always come through very well though. Recorded video reports too, better quality.

Al Gore’s Lots of videos, some of them only tangentially related, but well worth sifting through.

Vimeo vlogs at random. Not live, but they might as well be, considering how fast they’re going up. Many non-English videos here.

TckTckTck: Also non-live but frequently updated. Scroll down for videos.

And so it begins…

Greenpeace Canada marked the opening of the Copenhagen talks yesterday in their usual fashion: by doing an awesome stunt and having a bunch of their members arrested for mischief.

Eco-economics For Dinosaurs


Three hours’ sleep last night and there’s a road crew banging a bloody jackhammer outside my office window. Don’t ask me how the middle of a rainstorm is a good time to do roadwork. Also, the average temperature for December 3 is supposed to be -3 C, in which case it would be snowing and I would be happy; it is currently +5 and raining. If my future biographers decide someday to chronicle my descent into madness, this would be a good place to start.

So, I feel a roundup of environmental humour is in order today, seeing as the alternative is me banging my head against my desk to stay awake. Let’s see what my entirely work-related web-surfing has turned up that I am finding hilarious in my current exhausted state:

Dinosaur comics woohoo! “Can we scientifically prove that people are wrong for getting mad at me for saying life is worth like twenty bucks? It grows in crusty milk, it is like the most free thing ever!”

The Stephen Harper “Anywhere But Copenhagen” Photo Challenge! Where would Stephen Harper rather be than Copenhagen? User-submitted photos; not as rude as you might expect! (Although I have a feeling the Liberals may be censoring NSFW entries.)

Captain Planet! Remember Captain Planet? It’s almost not worth making fun of, really. The thing that bothered me about it when I was a kid (well, one of the things, aside from LeVar Burton’s Extremely Variable Accent and the fact that the South American kid never got to do anything) was that the evil polluters never seemed to have any actual motive beyond just wanting to destroy stuff. Because they were eeeevil. If the point was to teach kids about environmentalism, then their utter failure to link pollution to the lifestyle choices probably being made by most of their viewers’ families was unhelpful at best. Granted, it was a kids’ show, but so was Batman (I mean the Paul Dini and Bruce Timm series, obviously) and they managed to have some pretty nuanced villains.

– By which I mean, of course, noted eco-terrorist Ra’s al-Ghul (does that apostrophe look misplaced to anyone else? cause it’s not, actually) and if there’s anyone you’d think I could find some sort of humourous website about, it’d be him, but apparently I can’t. Although he does have a LinkedIn profile. “View Ra’s al-Ghul’s professional profile on LinkedIn. LinkedIn is the world’s largest business network, helping professionals like Ra’s al-Ghul discover each other.” Huh.

This right here is the kind of thing that made me decide not to go into science.

Biodegradable balls – whatever, this is a blog I rather like in general.

– And finally, You Might Be An Economist If… at StandUpEconomist.

Now I’m going to take a nap under my desk.