Close to home is where we need to live

(February 9, 2021)

Nine years ago, I began to write a trilogy of books on the sustainability problem – what was wrong, how we got here, and what we could do to avert the disaster that lies ahead.

The title of the third book, published in in 2016, was somewhat prophetic, given our current pandemic situation. I called it Live Close to Home.

One of the things I had realized about our unsustainable western culture was that many of us are more interested in things at a distance than in things close at hand.

Instead of eating staple foods that are produced locally, we import them from away — often, far away. Instead of spending time at home, we escape from there as often as we can — again, sometimes going far away. Instead of spending cash we already have in our pockets, we buy more and more on credit, which is money we hope to have, sometime in the future. We fume about politics and global affairs in other places, but ignore what is happening in our own city or neighbourhood.

When it comes to the environment, we worry about global warming, pollution and environmental degradation and how these affect people and planet somewhere else, but don’t think much about what we eat, drink and breathe ourselves, right here.

If you think about our relationships with other people, there has been a similar shift there, too. We don’t really reach out and touch someone – too often, we use our communications technology to do it instead, from a distance.

Not surprisingly, the pandemic has only made this situation worse. So, with physical distancing morphing into social isolation, it’s not surprising that we worry about our mental as well as physical health during this pandemic.

I remember watching people, supposedly out together to talk over coffee, yet both on their cellphones messaging someone else instead. After all, when you text and message instead of talking face to face, your partner literally can be anyone, anywhere in the world. Often, these partners are far away — because distant avatars may be more exciting than an actual person picking the food out of their teeth, seated across the table.

Surveying students, especially international students, I found many are spending six to eight hours a day on their phones and computers, and others confess they are online from the moment they wake up, all day long. So if the internet goes down or the cell service stops, it seems we are utterly cut off from everything and everyone that matters.

Of course, this is not true. But that’s how it feels.

Obviously, isolation and loneliness are not new problems. You could argue the pandemic has merely removed the distractions that used to keep us from noticing how alone we really are. A night at the club, the pub, the concert, the game — all these activities allow us to avoid the awkward fact that the crowd would not have missed us if we had stayed away.

In the end, we can’t escape who and where we are. For the sake of our own good health, we need to live close to home, focusing first on ourselves and where (and how) we live, and to make that the foundation of everything else.

Living close to home provides other benefits for a green recovery and a sustainable future, too. We can buy local food to cook for ourselves; shop local, in community stores; help neighbours struggling with chores they can’t manage on their own; drop food on the doorstep of someone who feels just as isolated as we do. We can be kind, rather than cranky, when someone makes a mistake because of the stress they are under, too.

We are trying to spend less and stretch each dollar further, because our future income seems not as certain as it used to be. We now know more about our kids’ education than perhaps we ever did before, because we help them with it every day — or perhaps we have become their teacher.

Favourite restaurants provide us with takeout food that families are now eating together, instead of everyone alone and apart. We can no longer easily escape the people we live with, a fact that can be both painful and hopeful at the same time, as we are made to focus on what is happening close to home.

And yet while we have learned, the hard way, that nothing on a screen can replace a hug from someone we love, no one is ever really alone when there is someone, somewhere, who appreciates us for who we are. Especially when our communications technology is used to develop or enrich our personal situation, not just to escape it, living close to home can be a healthy and positive approach to coping with pandemic stress.

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We need to know more about our food

(December 6, 2018)

The recent romaine lettuce scare makes me wonder if food safety these days is the result of good public health regulations or effective prayers.

The decision by Health Canada to issue a vague, countrywide E. coli O157 contamination “advisory” on romaine lettuce — eat at your own risk — left producers, distributors, restaurants and consumers adrift.

Nobody wants greenery bad enough to die for it. Unlike previous recalls of specific products from specific batches, from specific suppliers in specific areas, this advisory carefully avoided anything more specific than an ominous worldwide warning.

It is a cautionary tale, however, about what lies ahead for food safety and (more generally) for food security as well, in a climate-changing world where food supplies will be under increasing stress for a variety of reasons.

Any cursory inspection of a grocery store makes us realize we are woven together into a global food system. There are products (fresh, frozen and canned) from everywhere, many of which have become staples of our diet, both at home and in restaurants out to the end of the universe.

Much of that food is grown for export in regions where living standards are lower than our own, where the availability of clean, fresh water — or water of any kind — is a serious local problem.

When travelling outside of North America, visitors find vegetables are things best cooked — but fried lettuce is an acquired taste. If you simply must have a salad on your exotic vacation, Montezuma will be a regular companion, guaranteed to get his revenge on you for consuming food the locals can’t get or afford.

Back home, we complain about poor-quality green beans in February, or cluck over the latest shipment of starfruit in March. We don’t think at all about the produce from California, where constant drought means the wildfire season is now year-round.

Globally, all the different facets of agriculture (from producing to processing) account for anywhere from 65 to 80 per cent of all freshwater usage. When water is in short supply, people are competing with lettuce and cows for their very survival. Irrigation with contaminated water, or a shortage of good water for cleaning the crop afterward, is increasingly likely.

So it is therefore not surprising to find our fresh food contaminated by E. coli these days. What is surprising is that these outbreaks are not reported more frequently.

This brings me back to whether we should be substituting chocolate for caesar salad, as a less deadly alternative.

The Food and Drug Administration is now saying it thinks the lethal lettuce is from central California, so crops from elsewhere are not affected and therefore (cough, cough) “safe.”

They are promising to do what should have been done all along, for all of our food — provide some source labelling, so people know where that crate of romaine was grown.

As a consumer, I should have the right to know what I am eating and where it comes from. With that knowledge, I then have a choice whether I want to take the inevitable risk of eating what I have not grown myself.

Yet food labelling is a hotly contested topic. Producers and distributors don’t want consumers to know the point of origin, especially when it comes to fresh stuff. Often the displays in supermarkets won’t tell you. Nor is there always a label on the produce.

We have the right to know what we are buying and eating. Don’t get brushed off by objections that it is too complicated or too expensive to implement. For decades, the aviation industry has had a system to track every single part in every airplane back to the plant, the shift, the worker who made the screw and what they had for lunch that day.

With computers and bar codes, we could literally track every coffee bean back to whichever Juan Valdez workers picked it, where and when, in Colombia or anywhere else. We could learn everything about our food — there would be an app for that, if producers and especially the multinational food companies wanted us to know.

Instead, eating has become a risky business. We have to trust a lot of other people that what we eat is safe. E. coli outbreaks remind us that regulations and occasional inspections are not enough anymore.

In part, it is our own fault, wanting to eat the same foods year-round. A diet of fast-food monotony means you need lettuce on your Saturday burger whether it is July or December. Fast food, like junk food, is always in season. The menu never changes.

Eating anything fresh is a matter of faith. When someone serves me salad, my silent response is not applause for Health Canada.

Rather, it is: “Lettuce? Pray!”

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Climate-change arena leaves no real winners

(November 20, 2018)

As the snow starts to fly, the “boys of summer” are done, the Jets are flying and the last frozen footballs are about to be thrown in the CFL.

Looking at a rapidly warming world (remember that 12-year time limit?) we should be debating what parts of our lifestyle — and our society — should be changed, surrendered or eliminated altogether if we want to survive.

However long your list might be, chances are “getting rid of professional sports” will not be found there, even though it should be.

Certain sectors seem to be exempt from reality these days. The top two would be professional sports and tourism.

I like watching a good game, even if seeing it in person is way out of my price range. But in a world of choices, where we have to start counting our carbon like average Canadians should be counting their calories, it is hard to justify the costs.

In the NHL, there are 31 teams, playing 82 regular-season games… before the playoffs add on even more. I wonder what the NHL’s carbon footprint might be? And yet, is any minimal effort made to mitigate that, like having teams play a double-header before flying off to their next game somewhere else? Shortening the regular season?

Nope. We won’t even talk about the carbon costs of playing hockey in semi-tropical climates — the wildfires in California routinely overlap with the hockey seasons of the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks.

We won’t even mention the Arizona Coyotes, the Vegas Golden Knights or the Florida Panthers. Hockey has little to do with winter sports anymore. It’s about the money, honey.

Add in the NBA, the NFL — and baseball in season — and you get my point. It’s not just team travel, either, but all the thousands of fans burning up carbon to attend the games.

In the United States, consider how much more greenhouse gas gets added on for college and university sports, even if we allowed kids in the regular school system a free pass on that carbon counter.

It’s also not about getting exercise. People are watching the game, not playing it. Other sports are the same. Imagine a golf course where everyone walked instead of using a power cart.

Speaking of golf courses, perhaps we should call the problem “the Mar-a-Lago Effect.” In other words, “I don’t need to change how I am living or what I am doing, because money and power will insulate me from whatever bad things might happen in a politically destabilized, climate-changing and warming world.”

It’s a free pass for business as usual, for the arrogant one per cent. As for the rest of us? If we have bread and circuses, as the Romans used to say, they figure we won’t notice what else is going on.

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford has changed that slogan to beer and circuses in the Ontario legislature. In Manitoba, Premier Brian Pallister has focused on pot and playoffs, no doubt hoping we will be too stoned or distracted to notice the only green in his Made-in-Manitoba Climate and Green Plan is lake algae.

Similarly, in a world full of oxymorons, one of the worst has to be “green tourism.” The only thing green about tourism is the money other people make from those tourists, while the locals are left to clean up the mess.

Tourists are people who pay to live somewhere else in ways they could never afford to live at home. Visiting an area with a water shortage? Flush and shower away. Power supply unreliable? Not in the resort area — leave the lights on and crank the AC. Hungry people, living in the squalor of abject poverty? “Waiter, call the manager. There’s not enough selection on the dinner buffet.”

For tourists, it’s a chance (even for a week) to experience the Mar-a-Lago Effect, until the credit card is maxed or the visa expires and they return to grey reality back home.

Perhaps that’s the problem. Professional sports and tourism sell us a dream, whether it is about heroism, winning or luxury. We seeming willing to pay a lot for that dream, even if we know it will be over Monday morning.

In a climate-changing world, that dream is no longer just a harmless fantasy. It is a delusion we can no longer afford.

Whatever the frothing of the trolls in response to statements like this, common sense tells us that time marches on. A minute wasted never comes back to be better spent tomorrow.

While we cheer and jeer, constructing beer snakes instead of composters, it doesn’t matter which team wins the game. If nothing changes, we will all lose, together, and soon.

Our leaders (in all sectors) need to lead. Or quit, and let someone else try.

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