Archive for ‘Environment & Sustainability’

December 1, 2018

A tailings pond won’t float your grandchild’s boat

I just finished reading The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King. It is an excellent book, incredibly well presented and researched, and should be required reading for everyone who lives in North America — both Canadians and Americans.

King makes the very valid point that land — specifically the desire to acquire land as property and then exploit it according to Western economic ideals of growth and development — is at the heart of all mistreatment, marginalization, abuse and disrespect of North American Native peoples by White populations throughout history. This idea that the land must be “developed,” “worked,” “tamed,” and that the resources within it must be “extracted,” “used,” “commodified,” is a uniquely White perspective, and it is not necessarily the right perspective. It’s certainly not right when you consider the long-term health and sustainability of our planet and everything that lives upon it, include us.

Let’s look at one of King’s more poignant examples, at least for folks in Western Canada: the Alberta Tar Sands. The Tar Sands are a toxic moonscape of bitumen extraction operations covering some 141,000 square kilometres — about 20 percent — of Alberta’s land surface. In 2015, Tar Sands tailing ponds contained 1.18 trillion litres of waste product, virtually none of it reclaimed to its natural state.[1] That’s about one litre of lethal sludge per dollar of economic gain, if you consider a 2005 study by the Canadian Energy Research Institute that estimated the Tar Sands could generate up to $1.14 trillion (CDN) in GDP between 2000 and 2020.[2]

Tar Sands operations began in 1967 and have done nothing but expand towards full capacity since, despite the obvious and proven havoc they are wreaking on the Alberta environment. Sadly, environmental costs don’t register on the dominant Western economic psyche, which idolizes dollar signs and places the bottom line at the top of its value pyramid. To quote King from here:

[The Alberta Tar Sands] is, without question, the dirtiest, most environmentally insane energy-extraction project in North America, probably in the world, but the companies that are destroying landscapes and watersheds in Alberta continue merrily along, tearing up the earth because there are billions to be made out of such corporate devastation. The public has been noticeably quiet about the matter, and neither the politicians in Alberta nor the folks in Ottawa have been willing to step in and say, “Enough,” because, in North American society, when in comes to money, there is no such thing as enough.

We all know the facts and figures. Carbon emissions from the production of one barrel of tar sands oil are eight times higher than the emissions from a conventional barrel. The production of each barrel of tar sands oil requires at least three barrels of fresh water, 90 percent of which never makes it back into the watershed. The waste water winds up in a series of enormous tailing ponds that cover some fifty square kilometres [220 square kilometres as of 2017[3]] and is so poisonous that it kills on contact. It is only a matter of time before one or more of the earthen dams that hold these ponds in place collapse and the toxic sludge is dumped into the Athabasca River.

Just as disturbing are the surreal structures that have begun to appear on the Alberta landscape. Sulfur, a by-product of the bitumen-to-oil process, is being turned into large blocks and stacked in high-rise piles on the prairies because no one knows what else to do with it. Predictably, these blocks are slowly decomposing, allowing the sulfur to leech out and spoil the ground water.

Yet, in spite of all the scientific evidence, oil corporations, with the aid and abetment of government, are expanding their operations, breaking new ground, as it were, and building thousands of miles of pipeline — the Keystone Pipeline, the Northern Gateway Pipeline, the Transmountain Pipeline — that will take Alberta crude from Fort McMurray to refineries and markets in the United States (Illinois, Oklahoma, and Texas) and in Canada (Kitimat and Vancouver).

I know, I know, there are organizations that have been fighting this kind of ecocide for years, but unfortunately, they constitute only a small portion of the overall population. To be sure, they have had the occasional success, but there is little chance that North America will develop a functional land ethic until it finds a way to overcome its irrational addiction to profit. Unfortunately, there are no signs that that’s going to happen any time soon.

Sadly, King is probably on the ball with this one. Despite increasing public outcry — and action — over pipelines and potential environmental impacts, corporations and governments continue to bulldoze the path they most want to travel: “develop” the land, rake in the dollars, then move on to the next tract of “natural resources,” leaving a wake of wasteland that, if they thought about things on a personal level, none of these folks would wish their grandchildren to inherit, let alone inhabit.


[1] Pembina Institute,

[2] Globe and Mail

[3] Calgary Herald

January 29, 2015

Nature makes you a different person: it makes you healthy

Some First Nations wisdom for the rest of us, courtesy of Gitga’at elder and matriarch Helen Clifton (as quoted in Arno Kopecky’s book The Oil Man and the Sea):

When you watch bears and eagles time their cycles with the salmon, when you see whales breaching and sea lions shouting from the rocks, it has a deep effect on your psyche. It makes you a different person. It makes you healthy.

Clifton lives in Hartley Bay, British Columbia, a remote Gitga’at coastal community perched at the mouth of the Douglas Channel, a 90-kilometre inlet stretching from the Pacific Ocean to Kitimat. Clifton has seen these bears, eagles, whales and sea lions, first hand, for all her life. She, too, lives each day in time with the cycles of the salmon.

But all that might change: Kitimat is slated to become the western terminus of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project, a pipeline from the Alberta tar sands. Heavy oil from the pipeline is due to be shipped, in massive, hulking tankers, down the Douglas Channel, past the bears and eagles and salmon and whales and coastal communities, on its way to Asia.

An accident or spill is, at some point, inevitable. And that puts the health of coastal British Columbia — and, ultimately, the health of each and every one of us — at risk.

For more information, or to add your voice to those concerned about the health of our coastal marine environment:

September 8, 2013

How do you treat your home?

I like this quote from canoeist Bill Mason’s documentary Song of the Paddle, produced in 1978 by the National Film Board of Canada:

Wilderness . . . is a white man’s concept. To the native peoples, the land was not wild, it was home.


May 15, 2013

What is Canada Post thinking?

Years ago, I put a “no flyers/junk mail” sticker on my mailbox because I no longer wanted to receive wasteful ad mail that I often tossed directly into the recycling bin.  It has, thus far, worked wonderfully.

Today, however, I received a letter from Canada Post suggesting that I consider removing that notice from my mailbox. . . .

“Dear occupant,” the letter reads, “Your address is part of Canada Post’s Consumers’ Choice database as a result of having a ‘no flyer’ notice on your mailbox. This means you are currently not receiving unaddressed mail delivered by Canada Post. . . .  [You bet!]  We would like to make it easy for you to receive this important mail that includes information and offers that could benefit you and your family.  [Huh?]”

The letter goes on to inform me that by choosing not to receive unaddressed mail, I am missing out on “important” monetary savings, community connections and product samples.  It then suggests that I opt back in to junk mail delivery by 1) returning an enclosed postage paid card (printed on sustainable paper, no less) and 2) removing the “no flyers” notice from my mailbox.  Both suggestions are printed in boldface text, and the latter item is prefaced with the word “IMPORTANT“.  If I follow these two easy steps, I’ll begin receiving junk mail again in just a few weeks.

Well, I’ll be.  What is Canada Post thinking?  In an era where companies are cutting paper and saving money by turning to e-billing, online advertising and the like, here is Canada Post trying to encourage folks to resume the delivery of excess, wasteful paper products to their homes!  It boggles my mind.  I understand that Canada Post deals in the paper-mail trade, and that the corporation is facing financial difficulties, but launching a campaign intended to get people to embrace junk mail seems both desperate and markedly out of touch with the times.

So, Canada Post, I will be leaving my “no flyers” sticker on my mailbox.  I realize, as you point out, that “most unaddressed mail . . . [is] printed on sustainable papers and can all be recycled.”

The point is, I don’t want to receive these unnecessary materials in the first place.

May 7, 2013

The taste of joy

Quote of the day:

If you could bottle joy, it would taste like fresh birch sap.

This from freelance writer and songstress Laurie Sarkadi in her article “Tapping birch” (Canadian Geographic, April 2013).  As for what fresh birch sap tastes like, Sarkadi continues:  “think cold, pure spring water with notes of honeysuckle.”

Sarkadi is lucky enough to live in an off-grid, lake-front home in the boreal forests outside Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.  Surrounded by birch trees, she joined a birch syrup-making co-operative and found herself — a staunch environmentalist and conservationist — confronted with the questionable task of drilling a hole into the pristine trunk of a thriving paper birch tree on her property.

Despite her knowledge that proper tapping techniques wouldn’t harm the tree, Sarkadi still found it difficult to drill that first spigot hole, as if doing so were a violation of both the tree and the natural world she strove so hard to protect.

Her conservation ethic put to the test — and the hole eventually drilled — Sarkadi arrives at this conclusion:

It is the paradox of conservationism that in our desperation to save and protect our natural spaces, we lose some of our own wildness.  We put our trees into tree museums (as Joni Mitchell astutely noted) to look at them — like fine china that sits untouched — instead of building sustainability inside our forests in the spirit of cohabitation.

True balance with the natural world, Sarkadi suggests, sometimes means interacting with it at an intimate, reciprocal level, wounds and all.

April 29, 2013

Observed on the street: A circle of life, turning, turning

I came across this beautiful rendition of the aboriginal medicine wheel (also called the wheel of life or the sacred hoop) on the outer wall of my local/district community arts council building:



I love the grounding stones at centre; the depiction of the cycles of nature, the seasons, the sun; the symbolism of birth, growth, death and rebirth — of life itself.  I love how the prints of humans and animals exist together in the soil, intermingled with the roots of the trees, connected to both the seeds of life and the earth to which all living things eventually return.  I love how each component of the circle relies on every other for balance, for continuity, for solidity, for completeness.

We are all one, forever united in the loop of this enduring narrative.  We share the same history; we share the same future.  Let’s take care of one another the best we can.  Peace.

January 5, 2013

Mountains, endless mountains, flowing through my veins

I grew up in the mountain-rich province of British Columbia, but I spent several years living in the “flatlands” of Ontario.  I often wonder how my perspectives on geography and landscape would be different if my roots were reversed, if I were a child of Ontario arriving in British Columbia for the first time.  Would I miss the gentle slope of Ontario, the endless horizon, the enormous sunsets?  Would the mountains of British Columbia stun me, humble me, leave my mouth agape with awe?

Mountains are in my blood.  They fill my horizon, fuel my body, comfort my soul.  Perhaps that is why I like this quote from Jamie Zeppa’s book Beyond the Sky and the Earth:  A Journey into Bhutan.  Zeppa — an Ontario girl for all of her then-23 years — has this to say of her approach by plane into Paro, Bhutan, a town crouched at the eastern edge of the Himalayas:

I used to wonder what was on the other side of mountains, how the landscape resolved itself beyond the immediate wall in front of you.  Flying in [to Bhutan] from the baked-brown plains of India this morning, I found out:  on the other side of mountains are mountains, more mountains and mountains again.

Those of us with mountains in our blood know this to be true, and we are grateful for it.

Rocky Mountains in Western Canada

October 12, 2012

Book recommendation – “Sleeping Naked is Green” by Vanessa Farquharson

I highly recommend the book Sleeping Naked is Green by Vanessa Farquharson.  Farquharson is a twenty-something arts journalist from Toronto who pledges to make one “green” change to her lifestyle each day for one year, and to keep every one of those changes going for the duration.  From switching to recycled paper towels and toting a reusable coffee mug to selling her car and unplugging her fridge, Farquharson shares her experiences — and their impact on her life — on her blog Green as a Thistle.  Her book is a humourous, candid look at what it takes (or doesn’t take) for the average person to live a more sustainable lifestyle.

Check out a list of Farquharson’s 366 lifestyle changes here:

Cover image of the book "Sleeping Naked is Green: How an Eco-Cynic Unplugged her Fridge, Sold her Car, and Found Love in 366 Days" by Vanessa Farquharson

“Sleeping Naked is Green: How an Eco-Cynic Unplugged her Fridge, Sold her Car, and Found Love in 366 Days” by Vanessa Farquharson

What I found particularly interesting was Farquharson’s final assessment of the effects her “green year” had on both herself and the people around her.  Some examples:

  • After lowering her thermostat to 64 degrees Farenheit (18 degrees Celsius) and keeping it there for months, Farquharson soon found herself “uncomfortably hot in most other indoor environments.”  Her body had adapted to the lower temperature, despite the extra blankets and sweaters she had required to weather the change at first.
  • After switching to natural, non-toxic cleaning and beauty products, Farquharson found her body reacting adversely to the run-of-the-mill products she had used before.  “When I was staying over at [a] friend’s place and had to use her concentrated, Clean Breeze-scented, neon green laundry soap as well as the purple lavender dish soap, both of which were crammed full of artificial fragrances, my eyes kept bursting into tears and my nose suffered perpetual seizures,” writes Farquharson.  “I’ve always prided myself on not being one of those flaky, ultra-sensitive types with weak immune systems.  But after making my body adapt to a more natural lifestyle, it’s apparently decided that, from now on, it will accept nothing less.”
  • Finally, Farquharson’s green challenge rubbed off on her family and friends in some unexpected ways.  Her formerly indifferent mother now stocked her fridge with only organic dairy and free-range meat; her SUV-loving father rented only subcompact hybrid cars while travelling; her friends carried coffee thermoses and bought bicycles to cut car use; and her co-workers shunned disposable water bottles and take-out lunches.  “Over the course of a year, I watched my friends and family make changes I never thought they would,” writes Farquharson. “At first, it would often be for my sake, just to accommodate my green restrictions, but now I truly believe they’re doing it for themselves and for the earth.”

Interesting book, and inspiring, too.  In the end, every little step we take towards attaining a more sustainable lifestyle helps!

October 9, 2012

Intentions for the Earth

I came across this blessing of sorts in the first few pages of the book Women of the West Coast: Then and Now by Marnie Anderson:

May we always recognize, and make allowances for, the seemingly diverse needs of man and nature.
May we realize that, in the end, they are the same.

September 28, 2012

Do you cherish or chop the hands that feed you?

I like this quote about man’s relationship to the natural world, courtesy of Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac:

Harmony with the land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left.

As we move through our daily activities, let’s consider the small things that we might do to live in greater harmony with the earth.  Let’s do our best to hold both its hands in ours, as we would those of a dear and long-cherished friend.