All things environmental

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

Archive for June 2012

This Crazy Time – a review

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Tzeporah Berman

I just finished reading Tzeporah Borman’s biography (so far), entitled This Crazy Time.  A very rewarding, engaging book.

Berman’s environmental awareness emerged during the Clayoquot Sound’s War in the woods, where her obvious leadership abilities led to a stint with Greenpeace, followed by the founding of the group ForestEthics, then back to Greenpeace.  Her story is likely familiar to those who follow environmental politics in general and Canadian forestry issues in particular.  But even if you think you know the story (I thought I knew, for one), read this book anyways.

Read this book to be treated to wonderful insights to the inside story – and, overall, it is a story full of hope, covering the protection of Clayoquot Sound, the creation of the Great Bear Rainforest, and the protection of a large chunk of the boreal forest in Canada.  Despite setbacks, it is a story that shows that the environment not only must be but can be protected – and what works.

Read this book, also, to learn that compromise works and that industry is not the great Satan, much to the indignation of hard line environmentalists.  Berman has been reviled by many, for negotiating with the forest industry, for praising former BC Premier Gordon Campbell for his carbon tax – for dealing with the devil, basically.  Except that Berman shows, convincingly, that it works.  Even if the protection is not complete, it is at least better than a fight to the death – the death of the environment, usually.  And parts of the encounters are actually really funny – it`s hard not to chuckle while reading the account of the Victoria’s dirty secret campaign, for instance.  

But of course in these campaigns there were also setbacks, especially on the climate file, and these are eye-openers.  Particularly noteworthy is this encounter:

Just before leaving for Copenhagen I met with Steve Kelly, the chief of staff for Canada’s environment minister.  But he didn’t want to talk, he wanted to lecture us.  Kelly said: “if you think that you can limit the oil sands and limit industry and limit fossil fuels and put a tough cap on carbon and not destroy the economy, then you don’t live in the real world.”

Meeting Kelly was an eye-opener…besides being floored that we seemed to have a chief of staff for the environment who clearly didn’t care for the environment, I had not in almost twenty years of lobbying government ever met one who was this rude and belligerent and who clearly had such little knowledge of the environment and climate change.

But what sticks with me the most are some personal remarks thrown here and there that not only flesh out Berman as a real human, flawed and fearful, but also point out rays of hope.  Consider her reaction when she was looking for a school for her son (this is at Linnaea, on Cortes Island):

 “Every morning they have a circle with all sixty kids sitting together and talking about their day.  I remember walking into the circle, and there were Grade 7 and Grade * boys sitting with kindergarten kids in their laps.  By choice.  They were chatting while they waiting for the circle to start.  And I thought to myself, when I was in kindergarten we were afraid of the Grade 8 boys.  We didn’t talk to them, let alone run over and sit in their laps.  There was just something so moving about the way the older kids took care of the younger ones that I fell in love with the school.”

Towards the end of the book Berman writes of a conversation with her grandmother, after her spirits were crushed in the futile UN climate negotiations (where Canada won yet another of its many Fossil Awards):

After attending the UN negotiations in Bali, I spent a week with my ninety-two-year-old grandmother, not long before she died.  One day we were sitting in the hospital and I told her about my despair.  She said “I don’t want to hear any more about how hard it is, how big it is, and that you don’t know if it can work.  When your mother was growing up, when I was having my seven children, we didn’t have a phone.  We had a party line.  We didn’t have a car.  No one had their own car.  We had just gotten electricity…you need to hold on to fact that the world can entirely change in your lifetime.”

I found that excerpt very moving, as if it held the key to the whole book.  Not only does it reveal where Berman got her toughness from – but that very last sentence shows that despair is never justified.  Things have an amazing way of evolving – and that is the root of hope; and the whole book, ultimately, is about hope.

Happy reading!


Return to the land of hope (A photo essay on Germany)

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Freiburg, Germany: this is what environmentally friendly can look like.

I went to Germany to relax and visit friends.  I was on holidays, not on a fact-finding mission.  Still, one has to be blind not to notice what’s going on there – and what Canada could be like if we paid some attention.

For instance, who in their right mind would use a Volkswagen 2-litre engine to heat a home?  Uncle Detlev, that’s who.

Detlev with his new toy: a volkswagen cogen heat and electricity system for home use

Detlev is quite proud of his new acquisition.  Before, he used heating oil, which is costly – and dirty.  He wanted to shift to natural gas.  But why get a regular furnace when you can also make electricity, and get paid for it?  He contracted with the local utility.  Now when heat is needed, the engine starts (it’s surprisingly quiet) and the hot water that, in a car, would be cooled by the radiator, is used for heating.  Meanwhile, the engine powers an electrical generator that feeds into the grid.  All of this is controlled remotely – so it’s worry-free (hey, it’s German engineering!).  And Detlev gets a substantial check from the electric company. Technically, this is called cogeneration; but only in Germany is it available to home owners.

Sure, it uses natural gas, so it’s not carbon neutral.  But it displaces the electricity that would otherwise be produced by coal fired generators, so that’s an improvement.  And the gas?  A large part is now produced by digesting farm waste and garbage.  Indeed, everywhere are ads reminding the public to put their banana peels in the Bio-Müll, the green bins for food garbage that produce the biogas for the system.

Detlev has always been fond of nifty technology (he’s had solar hot water collectors on his roof for twenty years), but his neighbour maybe less so.  So instead of installing a cogen system, the neighbour went for the simpler solution to saving money: insulate the house.  Except that here, again, people do things differently.

Dinah, my partner, noticed that the neighbour’s house has a new colour.  But it’s a brick house!  But you don’t change brick like you do vinyl siding.  Surely you don’t paint brick?  Something doesn’t look right.

The house on the right has been re-insulated: a new layer of bricks and thermal foam over the old yellow brick. The other house is the “before” version.

But it is, indeed, new brick.  Built around the old brick, with an insulating layer in between.  And new thermal windows – with industrial strength insulating shutters, for good measure.  Like I said, the Germans don’t mess around.  After that was explained to me, I started seeing the technique used all over the place, especially in apartment buildings.  Why tear down a building when you can improve the envelope – why, by adding a new envelope!

And solar electricity – it’s everywhere.  You don’t need a compass in Germany – just look where the solar collectors point to find the South direction.  In Baden-Würtenberg, the sunniest state in Germany, you can’t escape them.  Homeowners, farmers, municipalities – they all have them.  While I was there, on May 26, solar electricity beat all records: for the first time, more than half of all electricity produced was solar. Over half!  And no wonder: solar panels are everywhere.  Even in northern, cloudier Schleswig-Holstein, you find on buildings and in fields – there was a particularly nice field I saw where articulated panels were tracking the last kilowatt of the sunset, with windmills in the background.

Solar collectors on an appartment block, Hamburg

And you see windmills everywhere, too, particularly in the north.  It makes a nice balance: on stormy days, when there’s no sun to generate electricity, windmills are spinning like mad.

Tracking solar collectors nearly vertical at sunset, windmills behind, near Kiel











In Canada district heating is often viewed with suspicion.  In Germany they are very common, but you normally don’t see them unless you look for them.  A district heating system uses a central, efficient power plant to heat a whole development.  You get a much better bang for your fuel buck.

A small district heating in Hoisbuttel…

…feeding heat into the local appartment blocks

You don’t usually notice them unless they are of the scale of this system in Munich that serves a whole neighbourhood.  This one uses natural gas, but it has a companion in the north end of the city that incinerates garbage for its fuel.  Talk about free energy!

Now that`s district heating! In Munich.

Put it all together and you get neighbourhoods like Vauban, in the city of Freiburg.  Vauban was developed on an old army base, and the objective was to create a community with a small environmental footprint.  So what you get is a bunch of low-rise well-insulated apartments, festooned with solar collectors, laced with bicycle paths and tramway lines.  District heating (what little is needed) uses waste grapeseed oil as biofuel, and generates electricity too.  And special attention was paid to building materials: the old base buildings were recycled where possible, and toxic plastics like vinyl (PVC) were shunned.  More commuting trips are made by bike than by cars, and same goes for transit.

Vauban: appartment block, solar cells, bikes, taken from the tramway tracks

Before anyone thinks I’m describing Germany as an ecological utopia, allow me to show how reality intrudes.  Certainly not everything is rosy in Germany.  In Vauban most everyone has a car and parks it wherever they can, despite the best intentions of the developers to make Vauban as car-free as possible (don’t get between Germans and their Audis…). Social tensions have been reported – some aspects of community management have been likened to bad condo strata council nightmares.  And the economy isn’t exactly doing great in Germany these days, just like everywhere in Europe.  There have been layoffs, and the feebates (the subsidies for solar energy) have been reduced.  And, of course, energy, whether car fuel or electric power, is already pretty expensive.

But – and here’s the key lesson for Canadians – the Germans seem to have a unique way to deal with crises.  Everywhere else, during the downturn, governments have let companies fail, unless they’re behemoths like automakers or banks.  Not in Germany, where the government recognized the importance of saving jobs; accordingly they created the Kurzarbeit (short work week) system.  Basically this is a clever implementation of work-sharing and part-time work.  The net result was that German workers had to tighten their belts, but everybody was still able to pay their mortgages – a fairer system of sharing the pain, if you will, than anywhere else.

Likewise for the feebates system.  Feebates guarantee the price that electrical companies pay homeowners who install solar collectors, and act as a subsidy while insuring that an investment in solar collectors is not a gamble.  This is why the darn things are all over the place.  The introduction of feebates created an instant demand for collectors, nurturing an  industry that now accounts for numerous good technical jobs.  Elsewhere (such as the US, alas), during hard times, a program like that would be dismantled – pissing off homeowners, but more importantly dealing a death blow to solar manufacturers.  This was actually considered by the federal government, but, in good German fashion, saner minds prevailed; feebates have been curtailed, not eliminated, and jobs and investment in high tech mostly preserved.  On-again off-again government support has plagued the alternative energy industry in North America, but the Germans have somehow managed to sidestep that trap.

Air quality in Freiburg: no hiding anything here.

I can’t figure out what it is about the Germans, but I noticed something else that doesn’t exist here: a wealth of information about pretty much anything that matters, including the environment.  In the middle of Freiburg, for instance, is a large panel that gives info about local air quality in real time.  But none of this silly “good, fair, bad” index we have here.  Germans aren’t afraid of science, so actual concentrations of carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, etc, are all given, in micrograms per cubic metre.  And bookstores and magazine shops – and there are many! – stock popular magazines with titles such as “Ecological renovations”, “Warmth and energy”, or “Efficient houses”.  There are also magazines with the German equivalent of Paris Hilton on the cover – but at least that isn’t the only choice.

Souvenir magazines (now if I could read German…)

And, yes, Germans complain and dislike their government, like everyone else, and treat announcements with a healthy skepticism.  But defeatism, and widespread belief in conspiracy theories are nowhere near as common as here.  Maybe it’s just the people I talked to.  But maybe the local mentality, and belief in the importance of education, is what makes the difference.  Who knows.

Our friends the Neumanns bought a house with a roof that faces the wrong way, so no solar collectors for them.  Like many others in their neighbourhood, they insulated the house and replaced the windows as soon as they could, and now their energy bill is 30% lower.  When we were staying there Bettina made soft boiled eggs for us in a gadget that struck me as utterly German: a dedicated egg cooker.  It’s basically an enclosed steamer that purports to use much less energy than boiling water in a pot on the stove.  Is it really worth it?  I mean, it’s not cheap, there is energy invested in its manufacture.  Maybe a life-cycle analysis would show that it’s an energy drain for a family that eats fewer than a dozen eggs a week – I don’t know.  But what I love about it is this: it shows that people are willing to try ways to save energy, goofy or not.  And are learning what works, in the process.

An energy-efficient egg cooker…












And here’s the thing : we’re no dumber than Germans.  We just need to believe.  Germany shows there’s hope.

The happy environmental tourist