All things environmental

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

Archive for February 2013

Joni Mitchell, the environment, and Katherine Monk’s new biography.

leave a comment »

joniI just finished Katherine Monk’s wonderful 2012 book Joni: the Creative Odyssey of Joni Mitchell.  It is partly a regular biography, but mostly it is an essay on the creative process, using Mitchell’s work as an illustration.  So it’s a bit philosophical, and can be heavy going at times (didn’t expect to see so much discussion on Nietzsche when I picked it up!) – but it’s very rewarding.

It got me going back to my Joni CDs, listening to her music with a new ear.  Made me realize how little her music has aged – not something many artists can boast of.  It also made me realize how good her more recent work is, despite getting little commercial airplay.

I’m always looking for environmental references in everything I read or listen to (I’m a nerd that way, if you didn’t already know), and Mitchell’s work is a treasure trove in that respect.  As I posted before, she is rightly known for penning the ultimate environmental song, Big Yellow Taxi (They paved paradise/put up a parking lot/…they took all the trees/put them in a tree museum.  Big Yellow Taxi, 1970) as well as Woodstock (We are stardust/billion year old carbon/we are golden…/and we got to get ourselves/back to the garden. Woodstock, 1970).  But there was way more to follow.

Of course, part of the appeal was her knack for blending the personal and the external; in Big Yellow Taxi, for instance, we hear “that screen door slam/and a big yellow taxi/came and took away my old man/Don’t it always seem to go/you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone”.

It was also the times, of course: 1970 was when the first Earth Day was celebrated, following the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara and the Cayuhoga River catching fire.  Mitchell became the ultimate Earth Goddess – but she had to be groomed into that role by David Crosby.  As Monk relates:

Crosby was really the first person to set the myth of Joni Mitchell in motion…[he] started with the all-important externals and gave Joni a hippie makeover.  He told her to lose the fake eyelashes and mascara and man-made fibers.  He pushed her to ditch her beautiful designer purse in favour of a woven pouch, and even though Mitchell wasn’t all that fond of the formless sack or the “natural look” – as opposed to Carnaby Street sexy – she cunningly agreed.

It certainly ironic to see the artifice required of folk singers at the time, given that what really mattered was authenticity.  This was coupled with the environmental movement in the weirdest way. Why was it that electrical guitars were taboo for the longest time in folk music and at folk festivals?  Why, in what were really just music venues, would you see brown rice and unprocessed, “authentic” food, and “Protect the Stein Valley” displays?  Not only would you see hippie girls dance in a pretense of trees swaying in the wind, but electrical gadgetry was anathema, somehow synonymous to selling out to the system, getting away from the simple life; there’s no electricity in a back-to-the-land commune, so no amplifiers.  As if!  Despite that, the movement had a point: much of current pop music is certainly suffering from an excess of formulaic electronic beats.  But requiring adherence to “isms” always hampered creativity, and Mitchell was to pass comment on the posturing aspect of all this in Fiction (fiction of the moralist/fiction of the nihilist/fiction of the declaimers/fiction of the rebukers/fiction of the pro and no nukers…Fiction, 1985).

Mitchell self-portrait for Taming the Tiger

Mitchell self-portrait for Taming the Tiger

No matter.  In fact, Mitchell isn’t known to have espoused a particular cause such as environmentalism or social justice, but her art, both music and paintings, is permeated with an awareness of these themes, and, at least judging by the portrait Monk paints of Mitchell, the artist prefers to let her art speak for itself.  Just listen to the crickets on Night Ride Home (1988), or how she mentions the rain in Paprika Plains (1977), one of my favourite among Mitchell’s music (back in my home town/they would have cleared the floor/just to watch the rain come down!/they’re such sky oriented people/geared to changing weather…).  Not that I’ll claim that Mitchell is mentioning climate change or such stuff; but the very mention of the weather, of nature, of crickets, make her a writer aware of her environment.

In fact, environmental references abound in her later work.  I’ll just cite a few of the more obvious:

In a highway service station/over the month of June/was a photograph of the Earth/taken coming back from the moon/and you couldn’t see a city/on that marbled bowling ball/or a forest or a highway/or me the least of all (Refuge of the Road, 1976)

Uranium money/is booming in the old home town now/it’s putting up sleek concrete/tearing the old landmarks down now/paving over brave little parks/ripping off Indian land again/how long – how long/ shortsighted businessmen/ah, nothing lasts for long…   (Chinese Café, 1982)

Ethiopia/your topsoil flies away/we pump ours full of poison spray/Ethiopia/between the brown skies and sprinkling lawns/I hear the whine of chainsaws/hacking rainforests down/Ethiopia …/Little gardenplanet – oasis in space/some hearts hurt – they can hardly stand the waste (Ethiopia, 1985)

Dreamer/no acid rain/love without pain/impossible dreamer (Impossible Dreamer, 1985)

Looking at money man/diggin’ the deadly quotas/out of balance/out of hand/we want the land!/lay down the reeking ore!/don’t you hear the shrieking of the trees?/everytime you touch the earth – she’s sore/ (Lakota, 1988)

Some devils had a plan/buried poison in the sand/don’t drink it man/it’s in the water/cool clear water (Cool Water 1936, revised lyrics 1988)

Enter the multitudes/in Exxon blue/in radiation rose/ecstasy/now you tell me/who you’re gonna get to do the dirty work/when all the slaves are free?  (Passion Play, 1991)

(This last made me think of Andrew Nikiforuk’s The Energy of Slaves (2012).  I wonder if he got the inspiration for his title here?)

Little kids packing guns to school/the ulcerated ozone/these tumours of the skin/the hostile sun beatin’ down on/this massive mess we’re in!/and the gas leaks/and the oil spills/and sex sells everything/and sex kills (Sex Kills , 1994)

So what makes a man a man/in these tough times/as drug lords buy up the banks/and warlords radiate the oceans/ecosystems fail!/snakes and snails and puppy tails are/wagging in the wound/beneath the trampled moon (No Apologies, 1998)

Strong and wrong/you lose everything/without the heart/you need/to hear a robin sing/where have all the songbirds gone?/Gone! (Strong and Wrong, 2007)

Shine on the fishermen/with nothing in their nets/shine on rising oceans and evaporating seas/shine on our Frankenstein technologies/shine on science/with its tunnel vision/shine on fertile farmland/buried under subdivisions (Shine, 2007)

You see these lovely hills/they won’t be there for long/they’re gonna tear them down/and sell them to California/here come the toxic spills/miners poking all around/when this place looks like a moonscape/don’t say I didn’t warn ya…Spirit of the water/give us all the courage and the grace/to make genius of this tragedy unfolding/the genius to save this place.  (This Place, 2007)

In fact, all of This Place is a paean to the beauty of the Sunshine Coast, Mitchell’s home, and to the fragility of beauty.  Have a listen:

When I hear this song, I regret a bit that nobody will see Mitchell at such places as the Enbridge hearings, even though the emotion behind the song seems tailor-made for that.  But this isn’t the venue for Mitchell; she may be an environmentalist (I don’t know, but I assume so, from her words), but she doesn’t preach.  Maybe it’s best that she doesn’t.  I’ll leave the last word on that to Monk, who herself quotes Heidegger (told you she can get deep and heavy):

Voice is the very echo of the soul, which is why German philosopher Martin Heidegger put such an emphasis on using it.  It’s not enough just to breathe.  In order to transcend and realize one’s creative potential, one needs to speak, and, finally, to sing – because “song is existence.”   Heidegger sees singing as the highest art.  “The song of these [true artist] singers is neither solicitation or trade.  To sing the song means to be present in what is present itself.  It means Dasein, existence.”

Phew.  Not sure what that really means, but Monk’s Joni is a really cool book, and Mitchell gives a lot of context to all the conflicting emotions behind environmentalism.

Landscape by Joni Mitchell

Landscape by Joni Mitchell


Written by enviropaul

February 5, 2013 at 7:00 pm

Juggling garbage in Switzerland

with one comment

Public art on a Basel roof - or, the delicate equilibrium of waste management

Public art on a Basel roof – or, the delicate equilibrium of waste management

Dinah and I were visiting our friend Sabine in Basel, Switzerland.  Basel has a lot of surprises to the visitor: a gorgeous old town, of course (it’s Europe, after all), a very vibrant arts scene (really!), and a peculiar approach to garbage.

It’s Saturday morning, and we’re all waking up a bit late, Sabine having introduced us to prosecco and grappa the evening before .  No time for a leisurely cup of coffee, though: Sabine is rushing out the door, a large bag of garbage in hand.  I run after her.

A regular neighbourhood in Basel.  Uh, were are the garbage cans?

A regular neighbourhood in Basel. Uh, were are the garbage cans?


I didn’t have time to get my camera, but here’s the scene: we are delivering the garbage – all organic food scraps , it turns out – to a community group that does composting.  They only accept stuff Saturday morning – can’t be late.  A dedicated gardener and a group of volunteers take a look at our pile of food scraps, chop it up a bit with hoes, and off it goes into the mix.  The gardener adds a bit of ashes (for balance, he says – I’ll have to look into that), and then it gets mixed into the large community compost bin.

Over coffee (coffee, at last!) I asked what the rush was all about.  “Well, I can’t miss the delivery, can I? Otherwise, I’m stuck with the waste for another week.”  Now, I know Sabine is a dedicated environmentalist, but still.  Why not just put it in the garbage?  Once is not going to matter much, will it?

Well, the answer provided the explanation to a peculiar behaviour I had already noticed elsewhere in Switzerland.  The Swiss recycle like crazy, and everywhere you see containers for paper, plastics, aluminum, waste oil, green glass, brown glass, you name it.  And the recycling rate is the envy of most other nations, which raises the question: how do they get people to recycle so much?  There is a lot of civic pride in Switzerland, but that only goes so far, after all.

A recycling depot, Swiss style.

A recycling depot, Swiss style.

And where are all the garbage cans?  You normally always see the odd one in back alleys, but not here.

The answer lies in a bag they call the Bebbi Sagg.  It’s a simple blue plastic bag, the size of a regular white kitchen bag, with a tie.  But each costs about $2.50.  And this is why it works: the only thing that gets picked up on garbage day is these Bebbi Sagg.  It’s a very clever system: you want someone to take out the garbage, you pay for it.  You produce a lot of garbage, you pay a lot.  You recycle most of your garbage, you save a lot.  And it’s only pay as you go; garbage disposal isn’t imbedded in property taxes.  If you don’t make much garbage, it’s much cheaper than a flat fee.

basel bag



This is the reason why, in this working class neighbourhood where Sabine lives, an organisation has spontaneously emerged to produce compost.  It saves money, and you can take as much finished compost as you like if you have a garden.  And I saw some of the largest urban gardens ever, in Basel.  It all makes sense.

Community garden in Basel

Community garden in Basel


I know, I know, a tourist in Switzerland should pay attention to the cheese, the chocolate and the mountains.  Sorry for being such a nerd.  But I maintain that if you understand how a society deals with its garbage, you’ve gotten a unique insight into that society.

Whether it’s true or not, I sure like how the Swiss deal with garbage.  Simple, effective, and fair.


Written by enviropaul

February 3, 2013 at 4:22 pm

Hartley Bay and the human cost of the pipeline

leave a comment »

Hartley Bay

Hartley Bay

We have heard plenty about the damage that an oil spill can inflict on the environment, whether from a sinking tanker or a ruptured pipeline.  But what about the impact on human health?  To find out more, I asked Theresa Martin, who recently returned from a stint in Hartley Bay.  Theresa, a member of Sierra Club, was working there as a community nurse.

Hartley Bay is a small village of the Gitga’at Nation nestled at one end of Douglas Channel.  If you have heard about it at all, it’s probably because of the help and warm hospitality the villagers offered to the shipwrecked passengers of the ill-fated Queen of the North ferry.  And, of course, the village has been mentioned recently in the context of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline: it is located right smack in the middle of the proposed tanker path.oil-spill-hartley-bay-2012-map

“Mental health”, Theresa responded without hesitation when I asked about her main concerns in regards to the project and affects on health.  “Mental health is a significant public health issue in most First Nations communities”,  she said. Depression, anxiety, and suicide are key problems, far more common than the Canadian average.  The mental scars that resulted from the residential schools are still very present – most elders have lived through them.  And the pain crosses the generations: as the stories are passed down, so is the pain, the hopelessness, and the depression.  Larger health issues can stem from these emotions such as increased rates of stress-reducing habits including cigarette smoking, alcoholism, and substance abuse. These habits lead to further chronic health issues, and can contribute to violence related injuries. Not to mention increased reliance on anti-depressants and anxiolytics.

Theresa explains it is often a problem of disconnectedness, of disempowerment. With Harley Bay being one of the communities at highest risk and one who has fought hard in opposition, approval of the project alone could lead them to feel disheartened; their sense of hope would be broken. In a community where connection to the land and sea is still so strong and cultural practices remain engrained, this could have detrimental affects. The Gitga’at have developed an intimate relationship with their environment.  But for generations now, they have been told that this is of no value, they have been scolded for speaking the language of their elders.

But while this situation is slowly improving, there is now the specter of environmental pollution.  First Nation members are well aware of the environmental injustice that many of them have been victims of.  Tales of unexplained disease clusters are well known, from Sarnia, where Theresa grew up, to the Athabasca downstream of the tar sands.  She recounts her own experience at another First Nations village she worked at,  “the community was concerned about mines and mining exploration in the surrounding area. They believed there were increasing cases of their members being diagnosed with cancer and respiratory problems. Maybe it was due to the mines and maybe not. The village is remote; it’s very difficult, and no one bothers, to carry out long-term studies and follow-up, so we just don’t know.  But this is certainly a factor in generating anxiety.”

P1010119Hartley Bay is still quite pristine.  Food is difficult to purchase; there is no grocery store. The locals stock up on staples whenever they travel to Kitimat or Rupert, but the surrounding ocean and river is the main providerSalmon, crab, and halibut make up a large part of the diet.  There is a small garden for vegetables (no mean feat in this boggy landscape), and folks gather wild berries such as salal to eat.  Not an easy life, but the locals are proud of their ability to feed themselves.  Theresa received fresh crab as a gift, on a particularly stormy day.  “You went out in this weather?”, she said.  “Well, yeah, got to feed my family”, said her generous donor. “I know these waters, they’re my home.  I needed to get the traps in and I know where to go.  It’s just a bit of choppy water.” P1010105

Obviously the potential of a spill could create a lot of anxiety here. If there is a spill, what happens to the water?  Crucially, what happens to the food it provides? When Theresa asked a community member about her opinion of the project, she said: “I’ll tell you one thing. They better have a place ready for us in Ottawa, because when there’s a spill, they’ll be nowhere else for us to go.”  A disruption in the food supply, even if temporary, would be nothing short of catastrophic.        

And we know, if the project goes ahead, it’s only a matter of time before this happens.  And this is generating fear, a real fear, a fear palpable enough to contribute to anxiety and depression, a fear important enough to cause Theresa to consider it a professional obligation to speak, as a nurse, at the Enbridge hearings.

So, forget about the air quality problems that would result from the tankers belching smoke in the narrow inlet.   Forget about the potential impacts to drinking water.  These may be very real concerns, but they don’t even begin to touch upon the overlooked issue of mental health and all the other issues that stem from it.

For the people of Hartley Bay, the sinking of the Queen of the North is not some abstract statistic.  For them, it was real breathing humans in distress, soaking wet, hungry, disoriented, and scared.  The help that the villagers provided was exemplary.  But the villagers know all too well how the sinking is an apt metaphor for what may befall their community should the project go ahead.

But this, paradoxically, may well point to the solution.  From Attawapiskat to Idle No More, First Nations are making it clear that they’re no longer passive victims.  They’re taking charge.  Maybe in this awakening is the solution to the chronic health issues?  Let’s hope it is, for all of our sakes.


Photos courtesy of Theresa Martin.