Tag Archives: consumerism

The Sustainability Picture

14 Oct

After cycling all across the country, what did we find out about sustainability in Canada?

We spoke with over 50 people across the 10 provinces. Our encounters were amazingly varied, and each story was unique. We were inspired! Many Canadians we met are acting to move towards sustainability. Some of them don’t necessarily associate their actions with sustainability; others are aware of the way their actions fit into the sustainability picture. It is amazing that, even without seeking out “sustainable people,” we came across so many relevant initiatives.

Now, we can step back and look at the big picture, looking for patterns in the stories we collected and making some generalizations about the Canadian perspective on sustainability. Here’s what we found.

Consumerism and Waste

Q: What did one garbage can say to the other?
A: “I got totally trashed last night!”

Many Canadians are concerned about the vicious cycle of consumerism: work more, buy more, want more things, repeat. But once people are aware of it, they are better equipped to break free. Randy from Newfoundland sees this happen to people who go to work in the oil sands. Although he has worked in Fort Mac himself, he knows his limits: he won’t buy a skidoo or a big truck if he doesn’t need one!

There’s also concern about another side of consumerism: excessive production is detrimental to the environment and creates a lot of waste. Emily from Saskatchewan was inspired to minimize her own consumption: she re-uses things by shopping at thrift stores and garage sales. At the Nelson Food Co-op in British Columbia, a documentary about waste inspired the members to vote for banning plastic bags in the store. That’s 10 000 members reusing their bags every time they shop! Charlie from Nova Scotia used all reusable dishes and cutlery when she hosted an event for 200 people to reduce waste from single-use eating utensils.

Local Economy and Community

Lots of people had concerns about money draining from smaller communities and businesses to large corporations. Co-operatives offer one solution: they follow a business model that can be accountable to the communities they serve. In Grand Forks, British Columbia, a food co-op has re-started, providing an alternative to shopping at the chain stores in town. By connecting the residents with the local farmers and making the price fair to both farmer and customer, the co-op is improving the local economy. We found many other, similar food co-ops as well. For example, the Penokean Hills Farms co-op in Ontario is helping cattle farmers to butcher and sell their meat locally.

In some places, people were concerned about a lack of jobs in their area. The Bear Claw First Nations casino and hotel in Saskatchewan is a striking example of a community creating jobs for itself. The White Bear First Nations fought hard to make the resort a reality. Now it employs a large part of the community. The business is run by community members whose mandate is to keep the community in mind, providing income, job training, and funding for community projects. We also encountered a radically different solution to the jobs issue: people in Hutterite colonies live communally. Everyone helps out, and everyone gets what they need.

Self-sufficiency

Many Canadians are growing their own food. We’re not talking herb gardens: people manage to feed themselves, at least for most of the season. The Thiessens from Saskatchewan grow their own vegetables and only rarely need to buy food. Justin in Ontario grows vegetables and raises chickens on his permaculture farm. Gabriel in Quebec raised his own goat. Marianne from Prince Edward Island grows enough vegetables for 3 households and shares her harvest with her neighbours. Rose in Nova Scotia is fattening up two pigs for the winter. Kevin in Nova Scotia eats the mackerel he catches from his kayak and the organic vegetables he trades for his excess mackerel. If you’re lucky like Bridget in Newfoundland, and you have friends who are hunters, then you are guaranteed to have moose meat feasts for a while.

A significant number of people strive to be self-sufficient with their electricity and energy needs. This is especially true in Ontario, where we saw solar panels everywhere. Thanks to Ontario’s government subsidies and the FIT program, people see solar panels as an investment and even a source of income. Pat and Sherri, for example, have enough solar panels to supply them with 110% of their annual electricity needs.

Several people we met were self-sufficient for their water needs. At the permaculture farm in Ontario, a pump connected to a solar panel channeled water from Lake Huron to the house and garden. Dany and Maite in Quebec draw water from a well for household use, and obtain their drinking water from a nearby spring.

Health

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
A: It can go wherever it @#*&ing wants, it’s a free-range chicken!

In Calgary, Alberta, Maria was buying some free-run eggs at the grocery store and the guy behind her in line commented to the cashier about how ridiculous the term sounds in French. They had a full 15-minute discussion about it in franglais. But many people we met were much more interested to know how their food was produced and where it came from.

A lot of people care about staying healthy, and one way they can improve their health is by eating better. Fresh, organic fruit and vegetables are important. Equally important is dairy, fish and meat produced in a healthy environment where animals are fed quality feed without antibiotics or growth hormones. Whether through local food co-ops and farmers’ markets or by growing their own food, many people we met found ways to obtain healthier food.

Several times the topic of vegetarian vs. meat diet came up – which is healthier? Jesse from Quebec became mostly vegetarian after moving to the city from his parents’ organic cattle farm. Fresh organic meat was in abundance when he was growing up but that was not so much the case once he moved to the city. On the other hand, Dwight who used to be vegan started eating local meat and dairy when he moved to Vancouver Island, British Columbia. When choosing between highly processed, genetically-modified soy products from overseas and fresh organic meat from across the street, Dwight prefers the meat.

Some people do encounter challenges with trying to eat healthy food. Everyone seemed to know the story of a couple in Quebec that transformed their front yard into a beautiful vegetable garden, but due to a ridiculous bylaw they were told by the municipality to tear down the garden or face a severe fine. A campaign was launched to save the garden and recent news celebrate their victory! Though it was an intense struggle for the couple, the campaign was all over the news and raised a lot of awareness, which brings us to our final category.

Education and Awareness

Spreading the message about living more sustainably can be a challenge. In some cases, information is not readily available: in New Brunswick, where the Irving family has a monopoly on the forestry and newspaper businesses, news is often biased. Several media co-ops have started up, providing people with a more objective and complete story.

Even when the information is there, it is not always easy to get people to listen. As Jesse from Quebec told us, those who work in inherently unsustainable professions, like mining and oil extraction, avoid the topic because they don’t want to be blamed or feel like they’re doing something wrong. Others, suggests Dany from Quebec, are just resistant to change and don’t dare to do something different. Aaron in Manitoba says that some people are just lazy.

At the same time, we did find several educational initiatives on our way, where dedicated people are taking on these challenges. Aaron in Manitoba started a sustainable campus group at the University of Manitoba to network and share knowledge among students. The permaculture farm on Manitoulin Island in Ontario holds permaculture design courses. Pat in Ontario teaches sustainable building design at Fleming College. Sustainable Antigonish in Nova Scotia invites guest speakers and sets up movie nights to raise awareness and share knowledge.

We also met parents who are passing on knowledge and values to their children. Charlie in Nova Scotia is teaching her kids about growing vegetables. Dany and Maite in Quebec are teaching their son Mateo about re-using by making crafts out of cereal boxes.

So many good things are happening all over Canada. Our project is not a scientific paper: we are not claiming to have gathered an unbiased statistical sample showing the current trends. But every story described and every person encountered is real. We hope that the stories we shared have informed and inspired our readers as much as they inspired us.

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Vicious Cycling

11 Sep

Newfoundland is kind of inkblot-shaped, with peninsulas jutting out in every direction from the line traced by the Trans Canada Highway. Here, everyone just calls it the TCH, which makes it sound like a mind-altering chemical compound. We’ve mostly been following the TCH, since it’s the only way to get from west to east in most parts of the island.

Based on overwhelming recommendations, we made a detour for Gros Morne National Park. The park is situated on the largest of Newfoundland’s many protrusions, and to get there from the TCH is a day’s worth of cycling on hilly terrain. We were obliged to add 3 days to our journey: one day there, one day to hike, and one day back.

Gros Morne Mountain is the 2nd tallest peak in Newfoundland, a 806m summit. The hike is 16km to the top and back, and it’s described as ‘strenuous’ in the information booklet. We were stationed at the nearest campsite, a hilly 13km away from the trailhead — a warm-up for our rest day. With pedal clips on our shoes and a pannier for a backpack, we headed up.

We won’t lie — it wasn’t easy. Our legs were sore for the next few days. But the unique tundra landscape made it all worthwhile.

Lately we’ve been doing a lot of ninja camping. It’s called ‘ninja’ camping because the idea is to remain well hidden, possibly because you are not technically supposed to do it. In Canada, though, it’s legal to camp on crown land, and most people with huge properties wouldn’t care or know you were camping there. It’s free, it can be more peaceful than paid camping, and it’s very easy to do in remote places. However, one forfeits access to a shiny (or not-so-shiny) flushable toilet, sink with running water, laundry room, wireless internet, a manicured lawn or wooden platform to put up your tent, and other goodies that might be available at a paid campsite. We have found that ninja camping is a good excuse to spend extra money on pies.

The fall weather has moved in already: we had another wet and windy day. It felt like cycling through a cloud with the wind spitting the misty precipitation in our faces. It was a relief to finally arrive in Gander, where we couchsurfed with Randy and Sharon. They were wonderful hosts, and made sure we got plenty of calories for the road.

Randy told us about the job situation in Newfoundland. Historically, cod fishing was the main industry, but in 1992 the government put a moratorium on cod fishing and compensated the fishermen who lost their jobs as a result. Since then, there’s been a trend for people to go work in oil extraction “out west,” that is, mostly in Alberta. A job in the oil sands pays significantly more than an equivalent one in Newfoundland. Randy has worked in Fort McMurray and shared his first-hand experiences with us.

“Fort Mac” is not a fun place to be: that’s why the pay is so high. It’s hard work in an unpleasant, toxic environment. There is not much to do besides work, and nowhere to spend money, but the money keeps pouring in. Gambling is not allowed but of course people play poker for high stakes, and some end up losing their earnings.

When the workers are back home on their time off, they spend. The cash seems endless, because there’s a lot of it all of a sudden. Many people buy expensive things: a truck, a house, a boat, an RV, a skidoo… They end up with debt. No matter how much they hated Fort Mac, they need to go back again because they have loans to pay off. Randy has met some people who started with a financial goal in mind, but are unable to stick to their plan, accumulating more debt instead of saving. Of course, those without a plan to begin with are even more susceptible to the lures of expensive stuff. Randy says a lot of younger people are unable to keep tabs on their budget.

Nowadays you don’t need to travel to Fort McMurray for oil jobs. For example, we cycled past a foul-smelling refinery near Arnold’s Cove. In the last decade, the offshore oil industry has been rapidly developing in St. John’s. This has brought new job opportunities and capital into the city. The city is now considered one of World Energy Cities and the unemployment rate is one of the lowest in Canada. These benefits come at a price: inflated prices for living, environmental degradation, and more big trucks on the narrow roads of St John’s.

Amanda VS The Plastic

6 Sep

After speaking and planning with the Tour de Sustainability team for over a year about this trip, I hopped on the train with my bike and finally met up with Anya and Maria in Amqui, QC.  As luck would have it, I joined them for the rainiest part of their trip, it rained 3 of the 4 days I was with them from Amqui, QC to Moncton, NB.  It was so great to see Anya and Maria and hear firsthand about all of their experiences during the cycle trip across Canada.  These ladies are machines!!

During our first stop for lunch at a roadside café somewhere near Matapédia, QC we decided to eat outside to continue enjoying the lovely day. Good job we did ’cause it rained for the rest of the afternoon!  Our food came in styrofoam containers just because we were eating outside on the patio. I am sure our table was closer to the kitchen than some of the tables in the dining room.  This got us into a conversation about plastic and how our culture is so quick to use disposable items.  During our continental breakfast the next morning at the hotel (so generously booked for us by some colleagues in Campbellton, Thank You Jocelyn and Bob!) all of the plates, utensils, cups, and condiments were wrapped in and made of plastic! After breakfast we headed off towards Bathurst on a beautiful ride along La Baie de Chaleur.  During the many pedal rotations I decided to write a guest blog for Tour de Sustainability about plastic and Anya has held me to it!

The poster above depicts the way we have come to rationalize using disposable items made of plastic. ‘Throwing it away’ saves time on cleaning and money on staffing.  So where does all of this plastic go when we ‘throw it away’?  While we are currently recovering about 5% of it, much of it eventually makes its way to one of the 5 gyres in our oceans which then gets mistaken for plankton and eaten by sealife which gets absorbed up the food chain and eventually makes it back into our own diets.  So much for ‘throwing it away!’

So big deal if we eat a few pieces of plastic in our seafood.  It shouldn’t change the taste, right?  Well, plastic leaches harmful chemicals within our water systems, wildlife, and in our own bodies!  Here is a cheeky video that might not be too far from reality.

Even the amount we do recycle gets down cycled to less valuable products which eventually end up with the same destiny. It might be time for us to start rethinking the way and frequency with which we use plastic.

Once you start paying attention and avoiding using single use plastic, it becomes second nature.  This goes beyond carrying your own bags to the grocery store, although this is a good start.  This means being ready to refuse certain products if they are packaged in plastic, saying no to straws, bottled water, and using containers instead of plastic wrap. Mason jars are super handy and multi-use! In fact, you will probably even begin to notice that food that isn’t stored in, wrapped in, reheated in, or served on plastic actually tastes better!  If you don’t believe me give it a try for a few weeks.

“Plastics are made to last forever, designed to throw away” 5 gyres.org

If this is something of interest to you and you would like to learn more here’s another great website worth visiting: http://plasticpollutioncoalition.org/

Despite my plastic rant, the bike trip was fantastic.  It felt great to bike through my home province and I felt so accomplished after biking 470km in 4 days and blown away by the enthusiasm in Anya and Maria as they crossed 7000km (now well past 9000km).  Covering distances by bicycle makes our communities, provinces, and even our country feel more scalable to human pace and life.  Way to go Tour de Sustainability – All the best to Anya and Maria on the last leg of their trip!

Coasting Along the Cabot Trail

1 Sep

The day we hit our 8,000km mark we also arrived on Cape Breton Island. The highway loop around the northern part of the island is called the Cabot Trail. Like Anya’s bike, it is named after the explorer John Cabot, who set sail from England over 500 years ago. After risking his life and enduring great difficulties, Cabot (probably) found this beautiful place. Today, getting here still poses a challenge for the cyclist: the loop is famous for its steep hills as well as its breathtaking views. In the clockwise direction, the most intense climb is North Mountain, with a 13% grade for 3km and a total elevation gain of 445 metres over 4km. Although it was possible to avoid this loop en route to Newfoundland, we accepted the challenge on our quest for rugged coastlines.

We started out on the scenic Trans Canada Trail along the coast. In Judique, we camped on the beach without setting up a tent. It gets quite windy around here. When we tried cooking on the beach, the lighter wouldn’t light, so we had to take it to the sheltered picnic table, where it worked just fine. We made a mental note to buy some matches at the first opportunity, just in case the lighter was running low on fuel.

Luckily, the next day our Warm Showers host, Kevin, cooked us a warm dinner with freshly caught mackerel. Kevin goes fishing for mackerel in his kayak practically every day. He says it’s a very cost-effective vessel. Though it lacks some of the comfort and reassurance of a sailboat or motor boat, and the locals think he’s crazy, Kevin loves fishing out of the kayak. He strives to enjoy life without excess, so that he doesn’t need to work a job that causes a lot of stress and takes away all his time. A lot of people, he says, work and save until they are old and unable to enjoy their savings, or they buy useless things just to be like the neighbours. The mackerel feeds Kevin both directly and as a bartering item: he trades his homemade smoked mackerel for fresh organic vegetables with a local farmer. To reduce cost on other things, he hunts thrift stores and garage sales for quality and unique household items.

Kevin told us about the limited work opportunities here. Tourism and fishing are the big ones and they’re seasonal. During the winter, an overwhelming number of people rely on unemployment insurance. Many people leave to work elsewhere, especially in the tar sands, where they earn big money. But Kevin wonders whether they are able to control their materialistic urges when they are suddenly given so much freedom.

The next day we summited two mountains, including North Mountain. We arrived in Cabot’s Landing and got ready to cook dinner on the beach. Again, the lighter was not cooperating. Of course we hadn’t bought any matches. Anya, who is not a big fan of pasta, suggested that perhaps a salad for dinner would do just fine. But Maria was outraged, and managed to light the stove just by using the sparks from the flint in the lighter. That’s what happens when you desperately want a warm dinner!

In the morning we woke up to see the sunrise and walked along the big spit closing off Aspy Bay from the Gulf of St Lawrence. We found some birds. We swam naked. It was pretty.

After cycling a long 15km, we stopped to feast on the deservedly famous fresh oysters on the half shell at Hideaway Campground. Continuing our seafood mission we took an ‘alternate scenic route’ (aka, hilly detour) off the Cabot Trail. We suffered on the uphills, but were generously rewarded. Stopping at the Chowder House was a particularly sound decision: we ate crab, clams, scallops, prawns, haddock, and mussels.

We were rather late getting to our next Warm Showers host, Rosie. Her friend, Mary-Beth, was visiting from Newfoundland. Mary-Beth told us about the ferry trouble that had been happening since the previous weekend: one of the two ferries was out of commission, causing overbooking and delays. We checked on the internet, and sure enough, the following morning was booked solid, even for cyclists. The next available space was not until two days later. So we were forced to take a rest day the following day. After all those steep hills, it wasn’t such a bad thing.

Rosie’s house has a composting toilet. Yep, inside her house. There are haiku instructions for how to use it and following them, we were able to set its wondrous mechanisms in motion ourselves. What an experience.

Rosie also keeps pigs and chickens, and grows vegetables. Her pigs will reluctantly eat store-bought animal feed, and they will not eat Rosie’s vegetable scraps which go in the compost. But they love the fatty or doughey food scraps, like the ones Rosie gets from the nearby cafe. It’s her first year of pigkeeping and she’s been pretty successful so far. But the big challenge lies ahead: she’s going to ask for help in killing and butchering the pigs in exchange for gifts of knitted things and bacon.

On our unexpected rest day, we visited a bookstore, conveniently located next door to Rosie’s. The store owner played his fiddle for us. He said the young people aren’t learning to dance, although fiddle music is meant for dancing. Later, we went to hear some local fiddlers in the nearby church. Sure enough, everyone was stomping their feet but both the audience and the performers were an older crowd, and nobody was dancing.

In an effort to keep their Celtic heritage alive, Cape Bretoners added the Gaelic town names to the English ones on all their highway signs. Oh, Canada, land of many cultures and heritages. Most people are confused enough by place names derived from French and various First Nations languages — and now this? Here’s a pronunciation guide.

In the end, taking a later ferry worked in our favour: we waited out two days of mediocre weather, and a reporter contacted us for an interview. We made a brief appearance on the Cape Breton Information Morning show on CBC Radio. It’s on one or several of the the Aug 30 shows, but only our most dedicated viewers would listen to hours upon hours of radio just to find it…

Bargain Hunting

14 Jul

In Thunder Bay, we took a day off.

Maria needed some caffeine, which we found at a hole-in-the-wall place on a street undergoing construction that was simultaneously a coffee roasting house and a computer repair shop. The compact size of the shop prevents anyone from holding private conversations, so the owner and customers soon knew all about our cross-Canada trip and project. Tina, a customer, told us about her energy-efficient home: it faces south, with eaves to block the summer sun while letting in the winter sun, and solar panels on the roof (she mentioned the feed-in tariff program).

By necessity, we also explored the commercial wasteland part of Thunder Bay. People told us that Thunder Bay was once two towns, but urban sprawl filled in the gap with department stores and shopping centres. As we would find out later from Tony, a grocery store owner in Schreiber, Thunder Bay is the unofficial Walmart capital of Canada. It has the most profitable Walmart in Canada and, in fact, two more Walmarts are scheduled to open soon.

Apparently, people from the surrounding smaller communities flock to Thunder Bay to shop, because it’s cheaper and there is more selection. For a local shop owner like Tony, that’s bad news. He told us that people now use his grocery store like a corner store, only coming in for cigarettes and chips. There is low turnover for his products, so he can’t sell quickly spoiling items like fruit and vegetables anymore.

Our next stop was Nipigon, and we were prepared to spend the night with the bugs again. To boost our morale, we went to a cafe for dinner. We were shocked when the waitress asked, “Are you Anya and Maria?” It turned out we had sent her a couchsurfing request! Because there is literally no phone service anywhere around here, we didn’t get her text message. And that’s how we ended up couchsurfing with Al and Maria.

After dinner, Al gave us a tour of the town. Nipigon used to have a pulp mill, like many other towns in the area. But some years ago, the mill stopped making money and was shut down. More than half the town was out of work. To get their jobs back, the townspeople formed a cooperative and bought the mill. But only a year later, the mill burned down. Since then, Nipigon has tried to attract tourists by rebranding their town. The efforts went nowhere.

But tourism is picking up for a different reason. Al told us about the recently established marine conservation area reaching from Thunder Bay to Terrace Bay, with Nipigon right in the middle. Although the park does not have any special amenities yet, it has already attracted outdoor enthusiasts.

Since Al works for the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), we also talked about hunting laws. For most species, there are enough animals so that a license will be given to anyone who requests it. Moose are an exception.

In Ontario, moose hunting is done by lottery: applicants compete for a limited number of available licences, each permitting the owner to kill one animal. Unlike the regulations in Europe where you own any animal that comes onto your property, in Ontario the animals are owned by the people in the province. From Al’s perspective, Ontario’s system makes it easier to manage wildlife populations.

Let’s say you hit the jackpot: you got a licence and killed a moose. Legally you are not allowed to waste its meat. You are also not allowed to sell the meat. So hunters either share the meat with their neighbours and friends, or freeze it, or both.  Everyone who has tried it says that it is the best meat they’ve ever had. So it’s no wonder none of our hosts had any moose meat to share with us.

Here’s Anya saying hi to Henrietta. We don’t know who shot this one, but maybe it was the late Bill Young of Young’s General Store.

Zen Beneath the Living Skies

19 Jun

Gathering our Zen for cycling through the Province of the Living Skies.

We’ve crossed another border. Though we were told we’d need a lot of zen to get us through the tedium of prairie scenery in Saskatchewan, we are actually enjoying its rolling hills (nope… it’s not really flat) and varied avian life.

 

I imagine these prairies some 65 million years ago: wetlands covered in lush vegetation and crawling with extraordinary creatures. Today, Saskatchewan thrives on their remains: we pass a sign for a museum containing a T. rex skeleton; the prehistoric plants have become oil deposits.

There are only a few larger towns on our way, but they do have campgrounds! This one has a tropical theme.

Can’t afford an all-inclusive in Mexico? No problem!

Where there are towns there’s couchsurfing. We landed a couch at Emily’s in Swift Current. Emily gets a lot of couch requests from cyclists: we are now on the main route for transcontinental tours. She was interested in Tour de Sustainability, and shared her own perspective with us.

Some time ago, Emily saw a presentation by the Otesha Project, and was inspired to make changes in her life to reduce waste. It’s ridiculous, she says, how many things are thrown out so that the owners can keep up with the latest and greatest. Emily loves garage sales and thrift shops; there, she can get treasures for cheap and use them again instead of them ending up in the landfill.

Spoking Wet

22 May

We have been so incredibly lucky with our hosts, but not with the weather. We have been cycling in torrential, nonstop rain for the past two days, yet we’ve been welcomed with open doors, tasty meals and comfy sleeping arrangements.

Our Warm Showers hosts for the first night cooked us dinner, which we ate by candle-light (for mood enhancement and energy conservation). They were very interested to talk about our project. We ended up talking for hours.

Daniel (far left) is studying geography and economics, and renting a room in Gary’s house. Gary (far right) is a carpenter, an engaging storyteller, and an amazing cook. Don’t be fooled by the enormous axe, he’s a really nice guy.

One of the first things that came up in our conversation is the issue of salmon habitat conservation. Both Gary and Daniel advocate for preservation of salmon habitat.  Gary’s philosophy is that if there are regulations that you believe aren’t right, it’s important to stir up the sh*t, even if the results are not immediately visible.

No late-night conversation is complete without musings on happiness. We discussed how consumerism promises happiness but does not deliver, and how the abudance of stuff takes the humanity away from human interactions. Gary told a story about meeting Annie Leonard at a conference; he said she was a really inpirational person. In case you haven’t seen her video, The Story of Stuff, here it is:

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