All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Archive for October 2011

Vancouver specials: so much garbage?

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Vancouverites know them well: utilitarian, well built duplexes, usually unloved, and considered by most ugly as sin.

Vancouver specials, chain link fences...ugly!

The problem is, any demolition of these houses creates a large amount of waste.  Already the so-called “DLC” stream (demolition and land-clearing) makes up about one third of the total amount of solid waste in the Metro Vancouver area.

Isn’t there a better solution than taring down a perfectly functional (albeit ugly) building?  In my wandering bike rides I have encountered several examples of spruced up Specials.  If this reduces demolition waste, I’m all for it.  And I think the new facades are pretty cool!

spruced up Special, Drive area

another one near the Drive

another in Mount, I don't know the designer, I swear!

There is now a trend in renovation that focuses directly on the Specials; for instance one reno in the Dunbar area, beautifully done by Iconstrux, is all over the net.  But nice as these renovations are (well, to me, at least), they can be expensive.  Just a nice coat of paint may be enough.  After all, this style is unique to this area – and what looks ugly now is likely to be missed if they all those Specials disappear.  What would Vancouver be without Vancouver Specials, after all?

A new coat of paint, a neat Special! Mount Pleasant area.

Written by enviropaul

October 30, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Telling off the archbishop on climate change

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Last week George Pell, the Catholic Archbishop for Australia, questioned the morality of doing anything about climate change.  This was in the context of the annual lecture of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a british Climate deniers group (read here for a good backround article in the Guardian).

As usual in this kind of talks, there are remarkable leaps of logic in what was presented.  It is quite sad to hear this, especially as it comes from someone influential and highly articulate, who is likely to be sincere, and not just a shill for the industry.

He was careful to state that this speech reflects his own opinion, not that of the Catholic church (which it contradicts).

I will leave aside the role of the Catholic Church in environmental issues.  The church is often demonized for its stand on reproductive rights, which many environmentalists (including me) see as oppressive to women and promoting population growth.  But it has recently pronounced climate change a threat to humanity, at least.  Not so Archbishop George Pell.

Let’s start with some of the less outlandish statements.  In his speech, Pell declares that

The rewards for proper environmental behaviour are uncertain, unlike the grim scenarios for the future as a result of human irresponsibility, which have a dash of the apocalyptic about them. The immense financial costs true believers would impose on economies can be compared with the sacrifices offered traditionally in religion, and the sale of carbon credits with the pre-Reformation practice of selling indulgences.

I have to agree that all is not right in the world of carbon credits.  Yes, credits are aften used as if they were paid permits to keep polluting.  That’s not to say that they are wholly ineffective, however; the same cannot be said for indulgences.

It is also true that the results of any policy, environmental or otherwise, are always difficult to predict exactly.  But waiting for complete certainty is a sure fire recipe for paralysis.  I’m guessing that this is what the archbishop has in mind when he quotes “in dubio non agitur” (when in doubt, do nothing).  I think this reveals the true motivation: let’s not mess withn the status quo. This is deplorable; archbishop Pell, you have unwittingly declared yourself a supporter of the 1%, of injustice and oppression.  You are siding with those who deny hope to their fellow humans; and that is a cardinal sin, I need not tell you.

But let’s assume our good archbishop is unaware of this, and let’s see what else he has to say.  He repeats common denier canards:

My suspicions have been deepened over the years by the climate movement’s totalitarian approach to opposing views, their demonizing of successful opponents and their opposition to the publication of opposing views even in scientific journals. A point to be noted in this movement’s struggle to convince public opinion is that their language veers toward that of primitive religious controversy.

This, dear archbishoip, is very much the pot calling the kettle black – except that the kettle is still pretty new, with only a bit of tarnish, while the pot is black as sin.  The denier movement has benefitted from lavish donations from oil companies, including from the infamous Koch Brothers, public patrons of the arts and underhanded funders of attacks on the union movement, workers safety, environmentalists, or anybody at all who is active promoting social justice.  Heady company indeed, for someone denouncing totalitarian approach. Millions of dollars demonizing environmentalists, stacked against a few angry remarks from climate researchers.  And if any “opposing view” is banned from scientific journals, it is when and only when it is with respect to articles where the science is so shoddy as to beggar descrition.  Articles that critique global warming models, that point out inaccuracies in data or that propose other sources of climate variability are published and are welcome in the debate as they help the science move forward.  Anybody makes grumpy remarks when their theory is found to be wanting – that is not “demonizing” or “silencing opponents”.  No, I’m afraid that is something your august institution, the church, has much to answer for.

There are several other tropes that are always repeated by deniers, including archbishop Pell.  “First they called it global warming, but then they called it climate change, and when the climate changes no more than in the past, they call it anthropogenic climate disruption.”  Whew.  Yes, climatologists are fond of using changing terms.  Global warming is real, but climate change is more appropriate, as the real threat is not a gradual increase in temperature averages, but the variability in the climate – in storms and droughts, in particular.  And to be technical, all climatologists agree that the climate does change from natural causes, but this is a red herring: the worry is the change due to discharging greenhouse gases from human activity.  So it’s anthropogenic, and it’s a disruption – yes.  Now who is splitting hairs, here?

But “the climate changing no more than in the past”?  Sorry, yes it is, and it has a very clear human signature, alas.  There are now heaps of evidence but one of the better sites to access all of this is, which has just published a link to a great climate data guide.

There are several assertions of the same ilk, but I’d like to focus on the ones that seem to come fittingly from an archbishop’s mouth.  Take, for instance:

Remember Canute. The history of climate change provides no reassurance that human activity can control or even substantially modify the global climate.

Nice literary reference – King Canute was famous as a figure of hubris for ordering the tide to stop, which of course didn’t happen.  (Incidentally, the real king was canonized by the Roman Catholics for promoting said church, and made a patron saint of Denmark, but it seems the Danes mostly don’t care – hubris, huh?)  The implication is that climatologists are equally foolish and arrogant for thinking that humans can affect the climate.

That’s pretty rich, given that Pell is from an institution that has no problem with the literal claim that Joshua stopped the sun from moving at Gideon. And condemned Galileo for claiming that the Earth rotates around the sun, which creates a problem with Joshua’s account.  (I always had a hard time with this.  When Galileo was condemned, primitive clocks were common, and the modern concept of time divided in even intervals was already present.  Not so with the ancient Hebrews, however – they measured time by the sun.  The biblical passage seems to me a poetic way to suggest that the battle was so intense that time seemed to stand still – now why couldn’t the renaissance church see this?).

Honorably enough, archbishop Pell claims to worry about the poor, who may shoulder an unfair part of the cost of the fight against climate change.  How nice.  How convenient to forget that the poor are precisely the ones likely to suffer the most from climate change itself.  And that the environmental movement to fight climate change is precisely a movement for environmental and social justice.

Is archbishop Pell a devout, sincere person who genuinely believes that fighting climate change is immoral?  Such delusion would be very sad – though forgivable if someone has an open mind.  Or is it a more sordid example of someone working to preserve the status quo at all costs?  Many deniers see environmentalism as the rebirth of communism, and attack it by all means fair and foul.

I don’t know, bishop Pell.  But as I re-read your pronouncements, I suspect the latter.  Intellectual dishonesty.  Cowardice.  Aren’t they sins, too?

Written by enviropaul

October 30, 2011 at 5:42 pm

Environment and crime novels (2)

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Hallowe'en crime scene. Maybe.

When he arrived at the site, Trevor found he had to wait until the police had cleared up the demonstrators before he could start work.  There were five left, all sitting cross-legged in the field.  Environmentalists.  One was a little grey-haired old lady.  Ought to be ashamed of herself, Trevor thought, a woman of her age squatting down on the grass with a bunch of bloody Marxist homosexual tree-huggers.”

So starts Peter Robinson’s 2003 Close to Home novel.  Environmental tropes crop up everywhere in crime stories, much to my delight.  This particular story is not about the environment or any dastardly pollution event, but it starts this way.  And it’s not the only crime novel to use the environment this way.  Why should that be?

I find that good crime writers are acutely aware of the environment where they set their stories; in fact, poor descritions of surroundings, absent weather, leaves stories abstract and hollow.  This may not be such a problem in other genres – but atmosphere is crucial in crime stories, just like shadows are needed in film noir.  Take another of Robinson’s stories, In a dry season (1999).  An unusually dry summer has emptied a reservoir, uncovering an abandoned, submerged village…and a decades-old crime scene.

Not that a change in the environment, like a drought, is a necessary device for a murder plot.  But it helps with its credibility.  Crime novels are set in ordinary surroundings, and everything is pretty mundane if it weren’t for this crime – and a depiction of the environment is necessary, just as talking about the weather is a must in banal conversation.

Ian Rankin’s stories have the same rainy, run-down environment as Robinson’s; both are set in Great Britain (Robinson’s in Yorkshire, Rankin in Scotland), and both main characters have a fondness for Laphroaig scotch.  Rankin’s 1997 Black and Blue revolves around an oil spill off the Scottish coast, a cover-up, environmentalists dragged off an offshore platform occupation (and a murder, of course).  All very believably described, in all its grit and strife.  But some of the best writing comes when inspector Rebus, the main character, lands in Shetland looking for a recluse environmentalist with suspicious activities:

It was an extraordinary place.  The feel of his feet on the grass wasn’t like walking across lawn or field; it was like he was the first person ever to walk there.

This beautiful piece of writing could grace any environmental anthology – and anchors the whole search for the motivations of the key characters.  The Scotish wilderness is special, and brings meaning to those who care to feel it.

This is why I think crime novels make fine reading for environmentalists: crime writers get the environment.  They have to, for their stories to make sense.

I can’t close without a mention of Jules Maigret, my favourite inspector born from the pen of George Simenon.  His stories, written from the 30’s to the 50’s, do not feature environmentalism – but the environment, the mood of a place, the Paris of winter drizzle and fog, or of sudden lilac blooms in the sun, is pervasive, is everywhere.  There are even comments about urban design, this one from Maigret’s wife, known only as “madame Maigret”:

A bit later, as they sat down at the outdoor terrace of a cafe, Place de la Bastille, without even switching neighbourhoods, madame Maigret remarked: “I wonder how they ever manage, in London or New York…” “What do you mean?” “Well, I hear that they don’t have outdoor terraces…”  (Maigret s’amuse, 1957).

…Ah, Paris!


Written by enviropaul

October 26, 2011 at 8:37 pm

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Push button traffic lights: I hate ’em

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Pedestrian-activated traffic lights.  Cyclist-activated traffic lights.  I hate them, I hate them all.

Don’t get me wrong – I use them, and I’m glad to discover a new one on my bike route.  But they still bug me.

I even remember my first encounter: newly arrived in Vancouver, I wait at the light at Cornwall and Maple.  I’m trying to be good.  As a Montrealer, I had learned that it is cars that hurt you, not lights, and no pedestrian ever waits for a green light to cross a street there (besides, it’s too cold in winter to wait).  But here, I’d seen pedestrians obey light signals, so I wait.  The light turns green.  But the pedestrian crossing signal stays red.  I wait.  What, red light again?!  What the?  Then I discover this weird protuberance, at elbow’s height.  A push button.  Well, I’ll be.  Vancouver is weirder than I thought.

There are two kinds of these buttons: those that are fitted to regular street lights meant for cars; and those that are only for pedestrian or cyclist use.

As I said, I appreciate them, particularly the second kind.  Near my place, 6th and Nanaimo, cars never noticed the pedestrian crosswalk, and bikes were fair game (there`s a hill).  It`s an improvement.  So why should I be grumpy?

I don`t like them because of the false sense of security they create.  I would like to see a police campaign targetting these crossings, in particular – it`s as if, as a driver, you learn that there is little risk if you floor it on a dark-yellow-dang-it-was-red.  I`ve seen a few near misses, especially at the busy 10th and Clark crossing.

I don`t like them because they are confusing.  Cyclists have been given fines for doing what all cyclists do: there`s a green light, you go through.  No, you`re no going to stop first; by the time you do, the light will have changed, and besided you`ve got this precious momentum.

Cars do the same, and that`s even worse.  There`s been several accidents at corners like Oak and 63rd – a driver sees the green (pedestrian activated) light, figures there`s enough time left to make it through – and bang.

I`ve even seen a driver reach out with an anti-theft club to push a button meant for cyclists.  A young mom with a kid in the car, trying to cross First Avenue.  She apologized to me (I was on my bike, must have given her a look) and said that she`s too nervous driving on the busy streets.  That didn`t make me feel any safer but that made me think that there ought to be alternatives to driving offered to young moms.  Anyways…

Why are these buttons there?  At regular crossings, they lengthen the duration of the green, so that pedestrians can make it through the crossing safely.  At  pedestrian/cyclist crossings, they are meant to be an improvement over simple painted crosswalks.  So goes the thought.

But the common thread here: let`s make life easier for cars.  Let`s make sure they don`t wait at lights any second longer than they have to.  If there`s no pedestrian in sight, why stop.  And that what really bother me.  These priorities are backwards.  Pedestrians are what makes a city.  They are the shoppers, the people you meet, Jane Jacobs`eyes on the street.  Pedestrians first, then cyclists.  Then cars.  That`s the normal order of priority.  But how many drivers know they are supposed to stop at an unmarked corner if a pedestrian is attempting to cross?  Why, for that matter, is jaywalking an infraction?

At first, I thought that the pedestrian activated lights were a compromise, a cheaper set of lights (compared to a fully controlled intersection, in all directions).  Not so; a report from Engineering shows no difference (a pedestrian controlled crossing at Fraser and 10th is $165,000; a full control ones at Homer and Helmcken is $160,000).  So why not full control ones wherever they are implemented?

If anything, to have a whole row of street lights in rapid succession really facilitates car traffic control.  Well synchronised lights ease traffic flow but – possibly more important – calms the speed.  No use rushing if the light at the next street is red; follow the speed limit and get there faster.

And on a bike!  You know what to expect, you`re safer (including from the cops and their tickets – just don`t go through reds!).  Ditto for pedestrians.  Even Montreal raised ones (do I need to specify that I jaywalked at the next intersection after my first encounter with one of these lights?).

I just feel it`s kinda demeaning.  As a pedestrian, as a cyclist, I need to press a button – ask permission, so to speak.  I`d like to see drivers have to get out and press their buttons, too (they`d be in better shape, getting in and out all the time, wouldn`t they?).  Yes, that`s not realistic.  Still; do away with these buttons, just put up the lights.  That`s what I`d like to see.

I can`t be the only one feeling this way.  The Argentinian cartoonist Quino nicely expressed the wish for a bit more pedestrian power,  I`d go for one of those buttons, I think.


Today I’m waiting for the light at Main and 5th.  It’s on a cycle path, and of course it is a pedestrian/cyclist activated light.  Cars are coming on 5th from the west.  They have the green light but they are supposed to do a stop, according to the law – there is, of course, a stop sign, along with the signal.  I count the cars that stop: none.  At least six cars barrel straight through – and fast; since this is not a full light, they don’t have a yellow light to guide them.  Six cars, one single light cycle!  Had every car been ticketed, the city would have gone a long way towards paying for the Olympic village.

I tell you, I hate these things.


Written by enviropaul

October 25, 2011 at 10:10 am

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David Suzuki at Occupy Vancouver

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David Suzuki salutes the crowd

Occupy Vancouver, at the art gallery, is entering week two and David Suzuki was scheduled to address the crowd at one.  Just like last week, despite the gloomy weather, the atmosphere is festive and the crowd is happy.  The police presence is, if anything, more subdued than last week.

I took my bike on the Dunsmuir bikeway (thanks again councillor Geoff Meggs!) and marveled at the traffic jam caused by the Canucks game also starting at one.  I got to VAG in plenty of time – at Georgia and Hornby, there were still many stalls available to lock the bike.  By the time I left, they were full, there were people looking for something – anything – to lock their bikes to.  Bike amenities are so much better than a few years ago, but there’s still work to do.  But the law of expanding gases that applies to cars (new highways generate traffic jams) also applies to bikes: if you build it (bike separated paths, parking stalls, whatever amenities), bikes will come.

The free food table - vegan and delicious

I was hungry and got some free food – an excellent, nutritious veggie and quinoa stew.  With food of this quality I’m less worried about the staying power of the campers.  I gave a donation to the volunteers, who thanked me and mentioned that donations in kind are also appreciated (the coffee table had just run out of milk – could someone go get some?).  It’s an easy way to express support – and the more support, even little bits like mine, help the movement grow.  You don’t have to be a full time activist to feel you can contribute.

"we shall overcome"

A happy surprise: Bill, from work, is a member of a group that I’ve dubbed the Red Singers.  He handed me a leaflet with words to “We Shall Overcome” and all the great union battle hymns.  At gatherings like these, you always meet people unexpectedly, and that strengthens the sense of community.  Bill is a guy who supports this movement (I could have guessed, but didn’t know), and that’s dear to my heart – and I like to think he feels the same way about seeing me.  I also ran into Caitlin, a student in my program.  She couldn’t stay – she was carrying frozen fish that she gets from a fisher family, the fish equivalent of a community supported agriculture.  I bought shares in a CSA this year, but didn’t even know about CSF.  I always learn from my students.  She had a big smile on, was pleased to see me, was pleased to see the crowd.  That too is a contribution.

Suzuki didn’t have anything particularly new to say, but he knows how to stir up a crowd.  The old lion’s still got it, and he’s probably the best politician Canadians never had.  He linked, of course, economy and ecology, gave too many examples of how money talks – but said that now may well be a historic moment, even if we won’t know for a long time if the seeds of change planted now will bear fruit (ok, he didn’t use that cliche – I summarize).  CBC had a nice coverage.

Suzuki getting approval with raised hands, in the midst of applause.

Suzuki got lots of applause from the crowd, as well as a lot of hands up with agitated fingers.  I learned about crowds signs while I was there: approval, with your fingers reaching for the sky; blocks (cross arms on chest); requests for clarification (a big C from thumb and fingers); and, my favourite, one that I’d like to use in meetings at work: if it looks like you’re about to throw an imaginary lasso above your head, it means you want the speaker to wrap it up.  Fast.  Don’t mess with the patience of crowds, it’s powerful!

Tent city with glass and concrete all around


I left feeling pretty buoyant.  On my way back Commercial Drive was blocked by police cruisers, and there were a large number of evidence cones all over the street.  A machete wielding woman had just been subdued by police, after repeated tasering.  Sad.  All’s not well with the world, and never will be.  But every bit that gets better is a reason for hope.

Written by enviropaul

October 23, 2011 at 9:29 am

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Environmental crimes in exotic locations

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Environmentalists are supposed to be serious folks, purpose driven, with no time for frivolities.

That may be true for some – movement leaders, hairshirt prophets.  But for most of us, well, no.  We’re as frivolous as anybody else.

I like to read crime novels – so shoot me!  Guaranteed to waste time, no redeeming value as “great literature” (something to brag about and sound sooooo cultured), and really dangerous as a method of work avoidance, especially if you have a deadline looming (like now, for me – but that’s a different story).  A good crime story is comfort food for the brain.

But sometimes there is something jarring in these novels, when the author gets a detail about the environment, or environmentalists, completely wrong.  This is when the believability of the story is destroyed, and as a readeer I feel I’ve been taken for a ride by a lazy writer.  So much for comfort food – someone has replaced my mozzarella with processed cheese slices.  Ick.

So I thought I’d mention two recent reads that I’ve come across, and that are totally satisfying.  They both feature an environmental crime – some instance of illegal dumping – and portray it quite well.  The main story has to do with murders, committed to cover tracks, not with the environmental degradation; but the environment is always present, in the background, and that presence helps in rooting the stories in reality.

One of the books is Donna Leon’s Death in a Strange Country (1993).  Leon is an American writer living in Venice (Italy, not California!) and this is where she sets all her stories.  The body of an American is found floating in a canal.  As the story progresses, it becomes clear that this is a murder, not an accident; and that the murder has been cleverly disguised to pass for the result of a random mugging.  Inspector Brunetti is then confronted with a second murder, apparently unrelated; but any reader of crime novels knows the formula: there is a conspiracy, and in this case murders are committed by powerful criminals connected with influencial politicians to cover up lucrative toxic waste dumping.  (And that is well researched: little science presented, but the stubborn skin rashes and fatigue produced in kids that come in contact is well portrayed.)  Well researched and utterly believable.  A reviewer has compared Brunetti to Simenon’s Maigret: a charismatic, caring character used a vehicle to describe Venitian society.  A gem of a book.

The other one, the 2009 Don’t Cry, Tai Lake is from a Chinese American author, Qiu Xialong, who sets his stories in 80s and 90s China.  Inspector Chen, on holidays at beautiful Tai Lake, becomes unofficially involved in a murder investigation.  The top boss of a chemical state firm stood to make millions after listing the company on the nascent Chinese stock exchange – but his lifeless body is found on the eve of doing so.  Inspector Chen discovers unsettling clues that contradict the official story, and has to dodge powerful politicos as the extent to which the company itself has dodged regulations and polluted the lake become clear.  Beautifully crafted, and an great portrait of the transition era, the book is lot of fun.

The surprise is that it (and its author) aren’t better known.  My sister introduced me to this author, and my copy is in French, proudly displacing a sticker “Prix du Meilleur Polar 2011” (best crime novel 2011).  None of the second hand book dealers I asked had ever heard of him – I guess he made it big in translation, but not in the original English.  It’s a shame – it really deserves a wide readership.  (And, yes, Xialong gets the environmental issue right, and thankfully he doesn’t dwell on it.) Another great book.

Written by enviropaul

October 21, 2011 at 11:16 am

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This Hallowe’en, I’m going as Monsanto

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My friend Gary Jones, a teacher in the school of Horticulture at Kwantlen, circulated an email this morning with a link to a petition against Monsanto’s latest.  For Gary to do so – he really doesn’t like bugging people, and he hates electronic media – there must be something really big irking him.

Monsanto has created a new brand of GMO corn: this time, a sweet corn variety.  Which means that this new variety is going to hit the grocery stores shelves any time soon – without any labeling, since there is no labeling requirement for genetic modification anywhere in Canada or the US.

GMO corn has been around for awhile, but all its varieties have been, until now, for animal feed or for industrial markets (hello, high-fructose corn syrup).  This is the first entry of Monsanto into the fresh vegetables market, and it must be stopped.

The petition against it (here) is from the makers of the movie Fresh, a new movie about natural foods (and the grassroots movements around it).  You can watch a trailer here.

I have signed the petition.  So it may come as a surprise to read that I’m not against GMOs.  Properly done, the technique is merely a way to speed up traditional plant breeding.  For instance, using genes from wild papaya, the crop has been saved from a virus that would otherwise have destroyed the orchards.  Crossing genes from wild bananas into modern (and seedless) bananas would go a long way ensuring that our cavendish variety (a clone) doesn’t get wiped out by a virus like the Gros Michel banana was in the 50s.  And research on flooding resistance in rice may be key to preserving one of the world staples against the upcoming wild swings in climate.  (Tomorrow’s Table, a 2008 book written by an unlikely couple: an organic farmer, Raoul Adamchak, and his wife, Pamela Ronald, a researcher specializing in genetic modifications, make for excellent reading on the topic.)

But transgenic modifications – implanting genes from one species into another – is something else altogether.  Not that I’m against it, in principle; but I think that much is still poorly understood, and its creations should not leave the lab or the research field, in the very least.

But when it comes to implanting genes that code for pesticides, like Bt-corn, or genes that confer resistance to pesticides like Monsanto’s Roundup – whoa.  This is of a different order of concerns altogether.  These plants are nothing more than another one-way to a pesticide treadmill.  Already most common weeds ahve developed resistance to Roundup (Monsanto’s trade name for glyphosate) – this means that people who would choose to use the herbicide under selected conditions can no longer do so.  And we really have no idea how these genes may spread – and what else they may be coding for.  And, of course, the seeds and pollen are mixing freely with non-GMO stock, threatening (and in some cases ruining) the livelyhood of organic farmers.  If Monsanto owns those seeds, as they claim, I’m still hoping for the first trespass case against them by organic farmers (get those seeds off my farm!  or else!  God knows, Monsanto has bullied enough farmers with just this argument in the past).

But even if GMOs could be found, across  the board, to produce environmentally benign, healthful plants, I would still sign the petition.  The key problem with the current GMO model, as I see it, is the ownership of seeds across generations (farmers that use GMO are not allowed to use the seeds produced by their own GMO crops).  This leads to a stifling of intellectual property, to a damper on the traditional role of the small farmer as a seed breeder and developer, especially in the third world.  And ultimately, it leads to corporate ownership of all our food sources,  and our future  ability to feed ourselves.  We don’t want to starve because some corporation executive messed up gambling with our food plants.  If the “Occupy Wall Street” is teaching us anything, it is that corporations cannot be trusted with society’s best interest, even if they mean well.  And Monsanto is not one that means well.

Written by enviropaul

October 18, 2011 at 10:31 am

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Occupy Wall Street, in Vancouver

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No, not literaly.  Wall Street is a nice, quiet street along Burrard Inlet – nothing to do with the demonstration that started yesterday.  The front yard of the Art Gallery – which is Vancouver’s poor excuse for a central square – was crammed with people, and the mood was happy.

Sunny Saturday morning, OWS at VAG

There were several thousand people (2000, according to the police), and the mood was buoyant.  Cops were smiling, chatting with onlookers.  Speeches and music, as always.  Even free vegan food!

A common stance: the fiction of "legal persons" is destroying us.

Here and there on the web and the media, you hear complaints that the OWS is all over the place, does not have anything specific it stands for, is just an excuse for venting frustrations.  A friend mentioned seeing a sign calling for the freedom of buying raw milk, wondering what that’s doing there.  Some commentator managed to place the word “inchoate” in there.

True enough; it is all that, but it would be a huge mistake to dismiss it.  A few things stand out.  First, this is as grassroots as it gets.  The original OWS started as a response to an idea launched in Adbusters magazine: “What if we occupy Wall Street?”  People just came, a slow-motion flash mob.  And kept coming.  And stayed.  And now OWS is spreading worldwide.  Something definitely hit a note.

Getting ready for a long stay

And if there is no central organisation. there are certainly recurring themes: 1% of the population is messing it up for the remaining 99% (‘I’m in the 99%’ becoming a meme); corporations are not people, and should not have rights of people, despite the legal fiction.  And here in Vancouver, something else was coming out loud and clear: corporations are polluters, killing our future.  If anything, it almost seemed that “corporations” and “tar sands” have become synonymous.

Of course, they are not.  And quite a few corporations are actually model environmental citizens (if, again, a corporation could be a citizen – it isn’t).  But the frustration at corporations is finding a convenient target in the tar sands – almost more so than the banks.  After all, Canadian banks were remarkably well behaved, compared to their US counterparts – thanks to the fact that they are on a tight leash, thank god.  About ten years ago, there was talk of merger between the biggest Canadian banks – and a groundswell of public opposition, so that the merger was denied.  The merger was to create global, competitive Canadian banks, and pundits lamented the intervantion of the government preventing it.  But Canadians mostly saw layoffs and poor service as consequences of the merger. So, thanks to the public reaction, our governments have been nervous about letting the banks have their way – and that may well be why we didn’t get the mortgage crisis the US banks triggered.

The tar sands, on the other hand, are widely seen as irresponsible, arrogant, and largely in control of the Harper government – to say nothing of Alberta’s.  I’m really happy that they are targeted.

The second thing that stands out: how diverse the crowd was.  Unions were there, but so is small business.  Dreadlocked types are there – but so are earnest looking young and clean cut ones.  And older folks.  A typical mishmash, leading CBC to refer to “a carnival atmosphere“.  Traditionally, carnivals were when things were turned upside down, and masters worked for their servants.  If only!  But grassroots movements are the healthiest manifestation of democracy – and a sign of hope and optimism.  With that, and the radiant sunshine, no wonder people were smiling.

Capitalist, and proud of it. The good kind!

Still, though, the protest felt a little squeezed – there isn’t lots of room in front of the art gallery.  And it’s a bit weird to protest before an art gallery; it’s not exactly a seat of capitalism, or of authority.  But there’s nowhere else to assemble, in Vancouver.  No large plazas, no Tian An Men square.  Some have proposed leveling the block between city hall and broadway – now a parking lot and a few decaying buildings.  But not really central.  Me, I’d love to see the Robson block, on the other side, permanently turned over to pedestrians (it worked last summer!); and reshape the plaza behind to facilitate crowd gathering.  If anything, the facing law courts are a seat of power, and an apt symbol for demonstrations; and it has a nice connection to Robson and Granville streets, which are at least good walking streets (and may become pedestrian malls – one can always hope).

Lots of people, not a lot of space

Be that as it may.  The folks of Vancouver are now participating in a world event that started with the Arab spring, grew to foster the Madrid demos and the London riots (alas), and morphed into Occupy Wall Street.  We’re there!  And next time I’m around, I’ll find one of the food trucks and get something to feed the campers.  Let’s show support!

Written by enviropaul

October 16, 2011 at 11:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Three and a half good books on poop

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I seem to have this reputation among my students for having a fascination about poop.

Fair enough.  Can’t help it when you teach a course on wastewater.

But I can’t really rely on that to explain my choice of reading material.  Yes, I read about poop for pleasure and enlightment.

My latest find from browsing the shelves of Pulp Fiction, one of my favourite second hand bookstores in Vancouver: a slim book called Flush, by W Hodding Carter.  With a title like that, I could not resist.

Subtitled how the plumber saved civilization, the book describes the history of sewers and water supply, and that has the potential for being quite stultifying.  Except that Carter is no specialist, let alone a historian; rather, he is a do-it-yourself kind of guy.  So the book starts with a description of Jasmin, the brand new electronically controlled Japanese toilet cum bidet that warms you, washes you, dries you, and even eats up your smell when you do number two – and he just had to have one!  And get the neighbour to come and try it, and give his impressions.  He’s that kind of guy.

Upon learning that the Romans used lead pipes for their water supply, he had to try and make his own lead pipe, with mitigated success (and maybe a touch of neuropoisoning).  The book is funny and thoroughly enjoyable.  Carter gets a fair bit of the science muddled, if not downright wrong, but that doesn’t deter in the least from the fun.  But there’s also a serious side to it, in particular in the chapter where he details the work of Dr Pathak, of New Delhi, and his work on dual pit toilets.  These are simple latrines – except that through a clever design, they don’t need frequent cleaning, and when they are cleaned, what is removed is an innocuous material similar to compost.  But what is also lacking, in the process, is fascinating: the risk of water-borne disease (a scourge of rural India) and the need for servants from the untouchable class to clean the latrines.  This represents a major step in the emancipation of the untouchables, strange as it may seem to a western reader.  And the fertilizer elements of the waste can be returned to the field instead of polluting watercourses, a favourite peeve of mine.

Despite this, the book is relatively terse on its description of the main topic at hand: poo.  For that I’ll suggest the tiny book titled What’s your poo telling you?, by Richman and Seth.  This little gem of a book suggest that examine your business before flushing it down, to see what it may have to say about your health.  Well illustrated, makes a fine stocking stuffer.  In fact, it was a gift from one of my students, and I very much cherish my copy.

Anyone whose appetite has been whetted by these two titles, and who wants more details (and a better grasp of science than Carter) should get a copy of The big necessity by Rose George.  Subtitled the unmentionable world of human waste and why it matters, this is an amazing source of facts and anecdotes about how we manage our waste, from the performance of Chinese biogas digesters to the design of standardized artificial turds by the engineers of Toto, the world largest maker of toilets (if you make toilets, you have to test them, don’t you? The recipe for the artificial turd is secret, but it does include peanut butter).  I also learned that the waste from one human can fertilize over 850 square feet of garden, and that girls in India don’t want to marry someone from a village without a latrine, an indication of the success of the work of Dr Pathak, also discussed here.  And I learned that the words “shit” and “science” have the same origin, in an old Indo-European word that means “to separate”, which may explain a few things.  And – a key point when you want to tell someone about a weird factoid you just learned about – it has a good index.

One of my book of the year (so I’m a nerd – but I still recommend it highly).

If that’s not enough, and should you want a Canadian angle, there is Jamie Benidickson’s The culture of flushing: a social and legal history of sewage.  Everything you could ever want to know about sewage, water pollution (and litigation!), and their place in history.  A thick book, fairly heavy going at times – best for those readers passionate about the topic.  But it has a place of honour on my bookshelves.

None of these books, though, tackle future waste management to any extent.  Which is maybe a bit unfortunate.  The looming crisis in food security is one of fertilizers: we may soon run out of easily mined phosphorus, yet we are flushing it all to sea, where it causes all kinds of pollution problems.  A few years ago a tourist was bitten by a shark off the west coast of Florida, something unprecedented.  That’s because sharks are swimming to Florida trying to escape the dead zone off the Louisiana coast – a zone where there is no oxygen, due (in part) to all the nitrogen and phosphorus we dump in our sewage.  Necessary and convenient as they are, I hate sewers.  Sure, they have brought sanitation; as George points out in her book, child mortality in London dropped by over half once toilets, sewers, and soap became widespread.  Still, they waste what will turn out to be a vital commodity – and we should know better.  In some areas of Europe garbage is taken away by vacuum lines; why can’t we do the same with human waste?  They get so diluted in sewage that it stops being practical to reclaim the fertilizers from them.  Ah well, I’m now on the hunt for a book about toilets and sewers for the Jetsons.

Happy bathroom reading!

Carter, W Hodding 2005.  Flushed: how plumbing saved civilization.  New York: Atria

Richman, Josh, and Anish Seth 2007.  What’s your poo telling you?  San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

George, Rose 2008.  The big necessity: the unmentionable world of human waste and why it matters.  New York: Metropolitan books

Benidickson, Jamie 2007.  The culture of flushing: a social and legal history of sewage.  Vancouver: UBC press.

Written by enviropaul

October 10, 2011 at 5:56 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Vancouver’s rubber sidewalks

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The city is experimenting with a new type of material for its sidewalks: rubber.

This is rubber that is recycled, mainly from tires.  It costs a bit more than the standard concrete sidewalk, but it should last longer – specially where roots from mature trees put pressure on the paving surface.  So, long run, costs should even out.

A rubber sidewalk on East 17th

The city is trying it out in a recent installation tried out on east 17th.

I think this is great.  I’m all for recycling.  But I think there is another important feature to this sidewalk that hasn’t been given enough emphasis: its role in climate change.

Recycling puts something (rubber, in this case) back into use, and that avoids having to manufacture something new, with all of the carbon emissions that it implies.

In the case of concrete, this is very significant.  Concrete is made by heating limestone to a temperature above 1400C, which requires a large amount of energy, usually from coal or other fossil fuels.  The heat can be re-absorbed in efficient processes, to a degree, but the energy requirement remains high.

Further, any Portland cement – the key ingredient in concrete – is made by heating limestone, which turns it into quicklime, by evaporating carbon dioxide.  This means that the emission of greenhouse gases is unavoidable, no matter how efficient the process can be made.  (For the science nerds out there: limestone is calcium carbonate, and quicklime is calcium oxide – so we get the reaction CaCO3 -> CaO + CO2)

I have nothing against concrete, and in many applications it is the best material.  But this is an example of where choosing an alternative material can have a huge effect on net greenhouse gas emissions.  And it’s easier on jogger’s ankles.  It lasts longer.  And it helps recycling, to boot.  What’s not to like?

Written by enviropaul

October 8, 2011 at 10:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized