Speaking of pirates…

(September 24, 2018)
The G7 environment ministers conference opened in Halifax on Wednesday, on International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

These international conferences always need a theme. While plastic pollution in the ocean might seem like a good theme to the public, it is very hard to organize fun side events on something so ghastly. (Besides, plastic-filled sushi for lunch is hard to digest.)

So, (pirate) hats off to Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna for her sense of timing and clever choice of locale. Instead of focusing on boring speeches that go nowhere and proposing actions that are always too little, too late, the visiting ministers could have opted to wear eye patches and go on the sailing ship Pirate Tour of Halifax Harbour.

Afterward, they could have followed up with a solemn inspection of the Titanic artifacts in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, and perhaps some gawking at the devastation depicted in the exhibits of the Halifax Explosion that wiped out much of the city in 1917. The day could have been rounded out by stepping across the street into the Alexander Keith’s brewery for something local.

Pirates, the Titanic and giant explosions, with beer as a chaser to escape the reality of the G7-led buccaneering, plundering, arrogant miscalculations and mistakes that have brought the whole planet to the brink of disaster — what a perfectly themed first day to their conference!

Aaarr, mateys…

Now, I am too much the nice Canadian to suggest these G7 ministers should all have been made to walk the plank in the Halifax Harbour, but there would have been some justice in doing that.

After all, given the pathetic efforts being made internationally to address global warming and stop rising sea levels that threaten to swamp small island developing states, the G7 is effectively telling the people in these countries to tread water.

McKenna has been having a grand time lately, touring about Canada and showcasing cool stuff to take everyone’s minds off pipelines, but her tone would be more sombre if, like the government of Kiribati, she was trying to figure out where in the world Canadians could move after the water levels rise and wipe out the whole country.

Thankfully, the island of Fiji has agreed to let the Kiribatians come aboard, but as the planet warms, moving to another small island is only a temporary solution.

At the same time the G7 environment ministers might have been adjusting their eye patches and getting to know their parrots, United Nations secretary general António Guterres was giving an impassioned speech saying we have less than two years to dramatically change course if we are to have any hope of avoiding runaway climate change.

Paris was not enough, he said. We have to do more, and much faster, if we want to have anything more than a nightmare future after 2020.

Manitoba might be one of the few places where people can mostly avoid the effects of rising sea levels and, to a lesser extent, extreme weather. We just watched a Category 4 hurricane hit the U.S. East Coast, at the very same time as a Category 5 super typhoon hit the Philippines and spun off toward China. As the planet warms, we could see several such storms hit, one after the other, in the same season.

Droughts, wildfires, floods, heat and tornadoes — we’ve seen them all this year. The cost in economic and human twerms has been enormous… and will get worse, rapidly, if we do not do something definitive about changing how we live together.

That sense of urgency is clearly not felt by our three levels of government. The mayoral candidates could not even all agree on getting rid of single-use plastic bags. Nor would everyone agree that our transportation systems need to be reworked to eliminate the fossil fuel consumption that (literally) drives climate change.

At the provincial level, Premier Brian Pallister has to stop congratulating himself for not being as bad as Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe and Ontario’s Doug Ford. His government has an appalling record of inaction, dithering and poor decisions on those crucial environmental issues that threaten not just our children’s future, but our own.

No doubt he will swap out the sustainable development minister again before the next election, so the new one can shrug helplessly in response to the inevitable critique and say, “I just got the file,” when Pallister himself has been the roadblock to green opportunities all along.

There isn’t enough space left here to say much about our pirate-in-chief, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It seems naive to complain you were cheated or misled by a pirate, after all — that is what they do, whether it is about promises of gold aplenty or oil pipelines.

As the world continues to burn, we are all walking the plank together.

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Recycling plastic isn’t enough

St. Joseph’s Cathedral (Ngong), with a local dump in the foreground. On the right, plastic bags that will take 1000 years to decompose…on the left, out of sight, an equally big pile of plastic bottles.

(January 12, 2018)

One way or the other, our future is plastic. It can either be a hopeful, plastic future that we can shape in the way we want it to go, or it will be a future in which we continue to poison our planet with plastic stuff we never really needed.

At the moment, we can still choose, just as the government of Kenya chose to ban single-use plastic bags — or, more accurately, the plastic bags that blow across the landscape that have no essential use whatsoever.

After all, it doesn’t matter if you use that bag once or twice. It still outlasts you by hundreds of years, before it decomposes into chemical compounds harmful to soil, water and the life that depends upon them.

As garbage dumps go, it was not very big — about five acres, nestled between the new Roman Catholic cathedral and the large parish school in Ngong, a suburb now of Nairobi.

Like other garbage dumps in developing countries, it was also very efficiently managed. A couple of years ago, I watched trucks dump their loads and a dozen women and older children rapidly pick through the trash. Anything edible or with any potential value was removed, trundled away by the men who lurked on the sidelines — and who angrily objected to me taking pictures. These trucks also have a side business at roadside towing services gilbert az which is a better one.

There were two piles that snaked through the dump along the main pathways, however. Each was about 15 feet high. On one side were the plastic bottles, mostly water bottles. On the other side were the plastic shopping bags.

Both piles will long outlast the people who picked around them or the children who walked by on their way to school every day. The local government has promised for several years to remove the dump, but (like here) municipal election promises are not easily translated into action.

The future of Africa is also plastic, in the same terms as our own. Images of horizon-wide herds of migrating animals, the wildlife of exotic safaris, are misleading. That wildlife is confined to small areas where national parks preserve at least some of the animals’ territory from roaming cattle, ruthless development, random tourists and poachers wanting a fast trophy.

Across the landscape, plastic bags blow like prairie tumbleweeds. Small towns and villages are too often unkempt, filled with plastic trash, as locals throw plastic water and pop bottles out the windows of vehicles to be left wherever they fall.

Crossing the Great Rift Valley, where human life supposedly began millions of years ago, I stepped out of the truck in the middle of nowhere to take a selfie with a wild giraffe, the first wildlife we had seen in transit. The plastic iced tea bottle in the ditch at the side of the road sort of ruined the moment… especially when I then realized how many plastic bags were hung in thorn bushes off into the distance.

I have not yet been able to visit Nakuru, the place in tourist videos where thousands of flamingos fly across the lake. This trip, I was told not to bother — because of water pollution, most of the birds have left for another lake, at Naivasha. Seeing the plastic bags and bottles choking the mouth of one of the rivers flowing into Lake Nakuru — and hearing stories of algae blooms and agricultural pollution reminiscent of Lake Winnipeg — it is no surprise the birds did not come back.

Anyone who argues for the continued use of disposable plastic is on the wrong side of science and of history.

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Learning to live without plastic

St. Joseph’s Cathedral (Ngong), with a local dump in the foreground. On the right, plastic bags that will take 1000 years to decompose…on the left, out of sight, an equally big pile of plastic bottles.

(January 2, 2018)

#BeatPollution was the hashtag for the third United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi in early December. The theme was “Toward a pollution-free planet,” which all the UN member states were supposed to address in resolutions, side events and presentations at the global headquarters for the United Nations environment program.

The devil, of course, is always in the details. While governments agreed on some ambitious proposals in Nairobi, what happens when everyone gets home is the real test.

Pollution most concerns us when it is obvious, local and personal — when you can’t breathe because of poor air quality, when the water is contaminated to the point you can’t drink it, when the ground makes you and your children sick just to walk on it — then, people get upset about pollution.

What is most frightening, however, is when the effects are just as serious, but the pollution itself is not so immediate or obvious.

Take lead, for example. One resolution moved to ban lead in all paints, globally. Too many countries in the world still allow it — and Canada only banned lead in paint in 1990. Leaded gasoline is still for sale, though almost all of it is lead-free these days. Out of curiosity, I took a free blood test to check my own lead levels… and despite living in what I thought was a relatively lead-free environment, my level was 5.9/10. In an adult, apparently it needs to be more than 10 to be cause for concern, but any level of lead in children can cause serious and lifelong cognitive disabilities.

Industrial pollutants can be like this — persistent in the environment, persistent in our bodies, causing (in combination) health problems later in life. The only way to stop this from happening is to stop the pollution at the source.

Plastic is perhaps the worst example. Most of the plastic ever made is still around us — it can take thousands of years to decompose. Yet most of it is for convenience, unnecessary, used to save us time and effort. If we factored in the cost of this long-term plastic contamination of the planet, those throw-away, single-use plastics from fast-food operations (apparently the single biggest source) would cost more than stainless steel.

There is so much plastic in the oceans already that there is no longer such a thing as plastic-free wild fish anymore — and by 2050, there will be (by weight) as much plastic in the ocean as there are fish. It’s not just the big chunks, either — micro-plastics, such as microfibres from polyester clothing, or micro-beads of plastic in everything from cosmetics to toothpaste to who knows what, are already in the water we drink and the food we eat. The byproducts of plastics are certainly circulating through our bloodstreams, in ever-increasing amounts.

Despite this, the piles of plastic waste grow. One resolution started to tackle the issue of marine plastics pollution and to identify the land-based sources and the barriers to cleaning up the oceans. It may be hard for Winnipeggers to get concerned about the subject, at least until the next time you eat fish, but there are roughly a billion people worldwide who depend on the sea for the food they need to survive.

It’s a huge job — how does one clean up an ocean? — but it’s clearly easier to stop the plastic from getting into the water in the first place. We just have to start, and to stop making excuses for continuing to foul our collective nest with plastics we don’t need.

For example — plastic straws. Ban them. Period. Plastic knuckles for coffee cream? Don’t eat at restaurants that continue to serve them, because they can’t be bothered finding another way. Carry your own cutlery for takeout food — and make sure the containers are made of paper or compostable materials.

And those plastic bags, the ones we can’t seem to do without? The ones we tried to encourage people not to use, and then gave up?

For the first time ever, I had to be very careful not to pack anything (like shoes) in a plastic bag in my luggage. Kenya has joined a growing list of countries in Africa to ban single-use plastic bags. Some, like Uganda, have had limited success.

Not Kenya — enforcement is strict and the penalties are severe. With fines of US$400 and/or four years in jail, the government means business.

In the Nairobi airport on my way home, I ran into Judy Wakhungu, Kenya’s cabinet secretary for environment, water and natural resources, and told her how wonderful it was that the Kenyan government was doing something about the problem of plastics pollution.

She said they were serious about cleaning up the problem, and the strict enforcement would continue. She was glad to hear me report that driving through the countryside, this time, past dozens of outdoor markets, plastic bags were nowhere to be seen.

Government regulations can work, if they are applied to everyone. In Nairobi, people walk into the upscale Two Rivers Mall carrying their own shopping bags — because they have no other choice except to put mushrooms in their pockets.

A ban on single-use plastics of all kinds — starting with bags — could be part of a Manitoba climate and green plan.

It only took Kenya six months.

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