Thursday, 27 January 2011

Disconnect Disease

Today the US government approved the use of GMO alfalfa. In North America, there is an alarming number of people who believe that climate change is either a hoax, a natural phenomenon, or a problem of the future. Many children today are hard pressed to name even 10 different species of life native to their area.

It is a sad sign of our times that people have completely lost touch with their connection to nature. We view all non-human life forms (and even some humans too, if they live far away and look or sound different) as resources to be consumed. Our society has forgotten the interconnected nature of life on our little planet. We are not aliens imported into a warehouse of resources; we too are living people and are part of the web of life.

We used to talk about "food chains" in science class when I was a kid. The imagery is clear: a straight line where the smallest species is eaten by the next smallest and so forth. My younger brothers learned about the "food web" in which more complexity is introduced. The reality is that ALL of life is interconnected. Nature is a vital part of who we are.

When the bees aren't around in their usual numbers, it affects not only bee-eaters, but many plants that depend on bees for pollination. In turn, other animals are affected as the food normally produced by those plants is no longer available. This spreads not only up and down a food "chain", but also to other chains. Animals who miss their usual food will need to adapt by eating something else, or die out. Should they begin eating other plants, this now affects another "chain", and so on. The repercussions may extend for years or decades, and as such, are little understood by a science still in its infancy.

We have lost many of our songbirds to tropical forest destruction. We are losing our coral reefs to climate change and ocean acidification. Every loss affects us in ways we may not yet comprehend.

And yet, despite the extreme consequences that can arise from the disruption of even a single species, we continue to tamper with the web of life with little thought about the consequences. From material waste, climate change, genetic modification, pharmaceutical and industrial pollution, nano technology, and overpopulation, we are causing a huge decline in biodiversity on our planet. It is a huge experiment in which we play both Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, except in this case, it affects all of life as we know it.

Perhaps part of our problem stems from the terminology we use when we refer to species survival. I suspect that if Charles Darwin were here today, he'd want to rethink the words he used in his description of the process of evolution. In stressing the competitive nature of survival, we've missed the point that nature is a closed system with its own mechanisms for maintaining balance. A "successful" species, meaning one that increases its overall population, can only remain as successful as its food resources allow. Humans are a very successful species, but if we continue to grow our population will crash as more and more species are crowded out and our food resources diminish. Growth cannot continue indefinitely. In one way or another, balance must and will be reached. The difference in humans is the terrifying tendency we have to destroy life for reasons other than food.

So while we all sit here staring at our screens (yes, I am guilty), our children learn about technology, politics, consumerism, perhaps some human rights lessons, and are rushed from program to activity. They learn to view nature as something that happens "out there" independent of them. We are robbing ourselves and our children of our natural heritage and future. Life on earth is a closed system, and we are on a path that both stretches it to its limits, and destroys much of what makes life worth living. And in our rush for more, faster, better, most of us have forgotten how to live.

This is all very bleak, but it is also an opportunity. I challenge myself and you to make the time to spend outdoors in a natural place at least one day a week. Take as much time as you can possibly spare, and share it with a younger person. Learn to observe. Learn to relax. Learn to listen, and learn to just be. And eventually, we will learn once again how to live.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Going Green: The Next Steps

So you recycle and compost, you turn down the thermostat on winter nights and turn it up on summer days and you've replaced your obsolete incandescent lights. You carpool, use transit, cycle or walk most places. You buy local organic food and eat low on the food chain. You can't remember the last time you used a plastic bag for your groceries.

So now what?

Beyond the basics, most people think going green must by default mean spending money--often a great deal of it--on fancy technology. And it is true that adding PV panels to your roof or a wind turbine in your yard or a geothermal well can be costly; as can a hybrid vehicle. Certainly these do pay back over time, but many people can't afford the initial investment.

So what can you do?

1. Never underestimate the impact of smaller actions. Bringing along your own cutlery and containers to fast food restaurants makes a difference (better yet, pack your own food from home!). Watch your water usage; it takes energy to treat water and pump it into your home. Challenge yourself to reduce your usage of gas, electricity and oil.

2. Buy less. Buy used. Learn to repair items, or find someone who can. Try manual versions of appliances such as a can opener, chopper, food mill, etc. (You'll especially enjoy the benefits if you have to prepare food during a blackout!).

3. Avoid disposable items. Diapers, bags, razors, wipes, cloths, dishes, cups, cutlery, pens, tablecloths--all have reusable versions, which are better quality and will save money in the long run. If you are female, consider using a Diva cup or other silicone menstrual device.

4. Let your elected representatives know how you feel about environmental issues. Keep correspondence brief, and provide evidence where appropriate. Remind them often!

5. Teach the children in your life the importance of environmentally sound practices.

6. Ensure the children in your life do not suffer from nature deficit disorder by providing many opportunities for outdoor play in various natural settings and in all seasons.

7. Share your progress with others. Peer pressure can be a positive thing too!

8. Keep up to date on new technologies that might apply to your circumstances.

9. If you cannot replace your old leaky windows, re-caulk the edges and during the colder months, add a shrink-wrap film "pane" to conserve heat (kits can be found at any hardware store).

10. Research raw food recipes for ones that appeal to your family, and have a "raw food day" once or twice a week to save on cooking energy. When you do cook, make a double batch to serve at another meal.

11. Have yourself take off of any or all mailing lists, and subscribe to magazines and newspapers online. View these on a laptop rather than desktop computer if that is an option for you.

12. Check your mindset: do you think as a consumer or conserver? Relatives who have lived through the depression may have some enlightening tips on becoming thriftier and reducing wasteful habits. My grandmother once suggested I use dark fabric for diapers so I wouldn't need to bleach them down to white. She also had a recipe for making her own soap and could darn socks, mend holes and re-sew buttons in her sleep.

13. Learn to up-cycle items: old worn jeans can become a new handbag or backpack; holey underwear makes a great dust rag. Many more great ideas can be found online.

With all the interest in solar energy, a Newfoundlander has invented the ultimate in up-cycling. The main component to his solar heating panel is aluminum soft drink cans. It may just be that many of the ideas we need will involve ways to use common items and/or technologies we already have in new and innovative ways.

Other innovations to look for: refrigerators with outdoor venting options, cars with carbon fiber bodies and cold fusion (hey, we can dream, right?!).