Questions in the quiet

At the end of the workday yesterday, my boss called to talk something through. And I was surprised at my relief in hearing his voice. In this time of social distancing, or for some quarantine, we’re relying more heavily on our online tools, and I think also quickly discovering how inadequate they are.

A friend who lives nearby came over later and sat two metres away in my backyard. We talked for 45 minutes before it got too chilly. Was this high risk behaviour? I hope not. But it’s amazing how, only days into the shrinking of our worlds, it felt invigorating, a physical high. She tweeted after about how good it was, and I replied, “Two metres is the new hug.”

I’ve been doing workout classes online, live streams on Instagram, and a friend remarked how these are better than the pre-recorded videos. The sound isn’t great, and there are awkward angles and mistakes, but somehow they’re much more alive, more human. There’s a sense of doing something together instead of alone, a sense of connection, even if it pales compared to physical presence. It’s interesting that many of us spent so long trying to smooth reality out of our online presences, to create a carefully controlled alternate dimension, and now what we crave is the mess we pushed out of the frame.

I live with my partner, and so get regular human contact, and yet still I’m realizing how many voices, how many physical presences, have dropped suddenly from my life. The morning chorus of birdsong suddenly a solo.

The world is so quiet, so still. Few trucks rumbling by, no honking of horns, no laughter from the street. The spring bulbs are pushing out into a sort of museum of humanity—that same careful spaciousness, that same hush. But what are we curating now? What are we trying to preserve? What is worth our attention, our awe, our contemplation?

I think a lot about what we will take from this great disruption when life returns ton normal. I can hope a love of our fuller humanity, of our local networks, our everyday interactions, our freedom to move, our fragile planet. Will we have a new grasp on the essentials of life? And how long before we take them for granted again, before the full chorus of birdsong is just background noise?

It’s impossible to say. For now, I’ve decided cataloguing absence is a kind of appreciation too. Maybe even an inoculation we didn’t know we needed.

New Newsy

Recently I decided to channel my environmental despair into a weekly newsletter that tries to inspire engagement and moderate action in our everyday lives. It’s called Five Minutes for the Planet, and it presents info and action prompts for one topic each week, from water pollution to smartphones. Of course I’m not deluded: the climate crisis will not be averted in five minutes a week. But I did want to find a way to connect with people who are concerned about the future but don’t know where to start. We need more people starting, continuing, picking up where they left off. We need political change and culture change.

I’ll still be writing here, but probably less. If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll subscribe and join my band of everyday revolutionaries.

Extraction Mentality

Of all the joys of gardening, the fistfuls of blooms and the tomatoes glistening in the rain, among the most magical, though least Instagrammable, is composting. I love composting. I’m in awe of it. As I turn it, I often pull up big pitchforkfuls to look at more closely, to try to try to glimpse just some of the life teeming inside. Some of it is visible—the red wrigglers squirming, the sowbugs skittering—but so much of the important work is done by microbes and bacteria and fungi, microscopic life I imagine as galaxies held in the palm of my hand.

All of our scraps and peelings, the cores and pits and tough stems, are mixed with leaves I’ve whisked away from people’s curbs, and in the end we have something that nourishes the garden. Something that not only gets rid of trash, but creates life. It’s a beautiful closed-loop system. (Or it would be if I grew all my own food.) I feed it, it feeds me.

So much of modern agriculture is based on extraction, getting all that we can get from our soil, relying on cheap fixes, like nitrogen fertilizer, like pesticides and herbicides, to get more now, with little concern for the future. Outputs matter more than inputs. It’s, like so many things, a one-way street from the earth to us. It’s an extraction mentality.

I’ve just joined my local co-op, the only one left in Toronto, though from a financial point of view, it’s not a clear win. There’s a membership fee, and I contribute two hours’ of labour each month. I won’t do all my shopping there, as my spending would take a considerable leap, and I’m not quite ready for that yet. Which is all to say, financially, it might not be the right choice.

But that’s extraction mentality. And such a small part of the picture. By shopping there, I can support local farmers who treat the earth and their labour well, and in turn, benefit both. I can support local, ethical companies. I can use less packaging. I can contribute my skills and time to my community. I can learn from people who know more and share what I know.

I feel really good about my choice. And not just because they removed the Nestlé products from their shelves, or because they have a new climate change mural, or because they vermicompost their food scraps or offer package-free tofu made in Quebec or bulk rice from Flin-Flon, Manitoba. Somehow all those little reasons, like adjustments in a yoga class, combine into something greater, bring me closer into alignment with who I want to be. But beyond that, beyond how I benefit, it gives me a chance to help close the loop.

A co-op takes its profits back into its staff and community, and the loop becomes a spiral, progressing in a sustainable way. If it were a garden, it would have great soil. It’s a reminder we aren’t nourished just by what we take, but by what we contribute. This sounds obvious, I know, but it’s not how our society is organized in the rush for the bottom price, the bottom line, to get what’s ours. Extraction is everywhere. Our inability to close the carbon loop is now a very real threat to human existence in the long-term.

And maybe this is the zeal of the recent convert, but I’m ready to get my hands dirty. I’m ready to strengthen my local ecosystems one purchase, one conversation, one volunteer shift at a time. I’m ready to invest in what’s good, what’s working, what benefits more people. I’m ready to put in a little more and to wait and watch for what new galaxies reveal themselves.

Plenty

One of my favourite things in my apartment is a floating shelf full of mason jars by my back door.  It holds jars of all shapes and sizes, some new, some very old, each filled with grains or beans or another dried staple. The shelves are like five tiny skylines, and when the golden hour sun shines in through the back window, they all seem to glow.

There is not much that inspires envy in our modest apartment, but that secondhand shelf laden with secondhand jars is frequently admired. I find all the shapes and colours and textures pleasing, but more than that, it’s a literal corner of my life where who I am approaches who I want to be. Looking at it, one might think, “I am a zero-waste person, I am organized, I am self-sufficient,” though those three things happen much more infrequently than I’d like.

These jars of food also give a sense of plenty and abundance, which is something I so longed for growing up in a house where the kitchen was restocked daily, yes, but only with what was strictly necessary for the meals ahead. We ate mostly store-prepared or frozen foods; I’m not sure when I first saw my first dried lentil, but it was certainly as an adult. In my first years on my own, I took pride in my full fridge, my bursting pantry. I could make anything, have anything, I would be spoiled for choice. I wanted my adulthood to be apparent in how much I had.

I still have that instinct: despite trying to live with less, I am a maximalist at heart, and acquisition is one of the driving forces of our capitalist society. And yet over the years I’ve come to realize that the pantry and the fridge don’t always have to bursting. If you have three kinds of vegetables, it’s easy for one to go limp or mouldy. Flours can get infested and go off. Even having three kinds of nuts on your shelf could be asking for trouble: nuts oxidize and can go rancid sooner than you think. Someone I follow took this to the extreme: she had one jar for grains, one for beans, etc, and when that was empty, she’d refill it with something new. That’s a bit austere for me (I was actually shocked when I read it), but the message is good: we don’t need to have everything all the time.

In fact, not having everything not only makes less waste, it makes me a more confident cook, less beholden to a recipe. Why buy broccoli when there’s a garden full of kale? Do I really need ricotta, or will this cottage cheese do? When my partner and I started meal planning, I could buy just what we needed. Now we throw almost nothing out, and less digging is required to find the next ingredient. (As a bonus, those who live with men will find incidences of them “not being able to find something” satisfyingly drop.)

These days, my jar shelf is a little less full, with room to regrow green onions or set some seeds to dry, and I am a little bit closer to those aspirational thoughts: I am a zero-waste person, I am organized, I am self-sufficient. My maturity is signalled not from having accumulated more, but from having the wisdom to hold myself back, to make do.  Plus, with the jars used more often, they don’t gather dust, and they shine that much more in the golden-hour glow.

Resource-full

When the Amazon fires were burning at their fiercest in August, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. (The fires are still burning, but less rampantly, which is what passes for good news these days.) My life still contained some of that precious end of summer happiness, that emotional golden hour, but those fires burned on my mental horizon, sending urgent smoke signals across blue skies.

The realities of the climate crisis make us feel small and powerless, and maybe we are, but I needed to do something. So I organized a small fundraiser, inviting people to my yard to pick their own bouquets and donate to the Rainforest Action Network. Making bouquets has been the great, unexpected joy of this year, and I figured I could turn that light on my despair.

In the two weeks before the event, attendance was rather low, and I feared a flop, but when they day arrived, the weather held and a handful of people turned out. I picked as many flowers as I could and put out a rainbow of blooms. “I don’t know how to arrange flowers,” said one friend. “Me neither,” I said. “Just start.” And her flowers looked wonderful. Everyone’s did. I think it’s safe to say everyone was in a great mood, me especially, happy to share both my flowers and the joy of arranging them for a good cause.

Later, on request, I started making bouquets to order for people who couldn’t make the event. There was enough momentum that in the end I raised $610 by doing something that gave me major joy. It won’t put out the fires, it won’t save the world. But it’ll do a little bit of good.

When we think about resources, especially in an environmental context, we usually focus on what we take. (Too much.) But we also have resources, and many can be shared with a glad heart. These days it’s a question I want to ask everyone. What resources, talents, skills, do you have? And instead of using them for your own gain, as we’re taught, can you use them for the world’s?

For me, this means more flowers next year, and another fundraiser for sure. I’m also currently saving seeds so I can give away some Victory Garden starter packs in spring to people who might want to start growing their own food but don’t have the resources. (I’ll even be including copies of my favourite urban gardening book, which is what really started me down this garden path.) For others it might be using their yoga teacher skills, or their knack for carpentry, or sharing an abundant harvest.

People and communities can be resources too. My dad and his wife travel in well-heeled circles, and they love food and drink and hosting. What if I paired them with an activist chef I know, and we made a fundraiser? How much money and awareness could we raise? I’m taking steps to find out.

In green communities online, there’s often talk of hoarding resources, which sounds dramatic but can happen in innocuous, everyday ways: those clothes you don’t wear, those tiny bottles of hotel shampoo slowly losing their potency, the food you throw out or ignore in the back of your cabinet, the housewares gathering dust, the books you aren’t reading and probably never will. These days, as I go about my business, I’m looking for excess. I’m giving away the rain barrel I can’t use (a good eco-tool that’s been terribly wasted on me), and a lot of my bumper crop of parsley, sage and thyme so that people can use it for Thanksgiving dinner this weekend. Someone on the really lovely Zero Waste Toronto FB group needed a scoby, so I’m giving her a piece of mine. A friend was getting rid of some nice clothes, so I brought them to work, where they all went to new homes. This doesn’t require a full Kondo, and it fact it might be much more sustainable just to take things as they come, since responsible disposal can overwhelm.*

At a conference I attended recently, we watched a video that reminded me that not everyone needs to be a capital-A activist, quitting their jobs and decamping to an NGO. Often you can make the most effective change amongst the spaces and people you know well. We need adaptation and tough conversations everywhere. “What can you touch?” they asked. For me, at least, it makes the whole thing less daunting, and is a good reminder that opportunities for positive global change can be surprisingly local.

So much of what’s happening in the world is heavy, unbearably so. But instead of puddling under the weight of it all, let’s start by looking to our strengths, our community, our abundant resources. It’s an exercise in gratitude and generosity, and we all could probably use more of both. My fundraiser reminded me that there are some things we can give easily and happily with a little creative thinking. Hopefully once we’ve caught our stride, we’ll have the momentum to take on so much more that isn’t, figuratively or literally, sunshine and flowers.

 


* A note here about responsible rehoming: dumping everything at your local thrift store is not helpful, nor is chucking a bunch of stuff on the curb (especially right before a rain—a pet peeve I see all the time). But there are so many other good avenues: local buy nothing groups, Freecycle, Bunz/Palz, local swap meets, friends and colleagues, etc. BlogTO also has a great list of places to donate stuff in Toronto. If you actually want something to stay out of landfill, a little more effort is required, but on the plus side, you often get to meet the people who are happy to have your stuff.

 

 

 

 

A model of consistency

When people ask me what’s new, I sometimes struggle. Because as I’ve probably written before, in the big, small-talkable ways, my life is remarkably consistent: I’m over eight years into my relationship, ten at the same address, eleven at the same company. I’ve had no children, and even my cat is well into his middle age. I don’t buy many new clothes, and pretty much never redecorate. If you visited me after a decade, we might sit on the same couch, and I might even be wearing the same dress.

In this same past decade, the lives of my friends have changed a lot. I’ve attended a couple dozen marriages and welcomed quite a few little ones (who seem to keep their parents’ lives in a constant state of change). My friends have switched jobs, bought homes, a few have even moved to new cities. Meanwhile, I’m unmarried, child-free, and still a renter in the house where once it wasn’t all that surprising for someone to wake up after a late-night bender and find a pizza slice abandoned by the toilet.

While there are many things I’m grateful for in all this, sometimes this sameness bothers me. There is certainly no shortage of external pressure to get these stamps on your passport to adulthood, and comparing myself to my friends sometimes makes me feel like a child in a sea of legs at an adult party. There can also be a certain internal restlessness that bubbles up now and again. Many of these milestones come with a full slate of responsibilities and things to learn, whether it’s sleep strategies for infants, mortgage rules, car models, wedding florists, or types of kitchen cabinetry. Some of these things are important, and others relatively trivial, but all keep you occupied, distract you at the very least. Since I’ve given up most consumer delights, I can’t even buy myself the illusion of change with something shiny and new.

I felt a little bout of this restlessness lately—maybe because September can make a person crave a fresh start. But then today I realized that all of these constants are in fact a very useful kind of constraint. That not being occupied with planning major events or moving house or raising a human has left me with a tremendous amount of time and mental freedom, and perhaps I’ve even used some of it well. Because while my life may not have changed, I can tell you that I have. I’ve spent the last few years learning a lot about environmental issues and racial justice, practising giving more and using less, honing my skills and expanding my interests. I’ve had time to read, and write again, and expand my self-sufficiency with time-consuming pioneer nonsense like making my own soap and growing and canning my own beets. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to live a good, meaningful life while colouring outside the lines, how find true north on my moral compass. And this is not the stuff of a Facebook update, or that prompts a party, but I know that it is not stasis, despite how it may look to a casual observer. I feel more like a river, its course the same but its composition always changing. And while “I’m like a river,” is more a stoner wisdom than cocktail party chit-chat, it’s been comforting to realize that my consistency hasn’t hampered my growth, but likely allowed it, that a same-same life can be a secret path to change.

The rebels we need

I haven’t been writing much lately, but I’ve been thinking a lot. It’s the kind of thinking, though, that resists tidy little posts, my thoughts not a piece of yarn that unwinds neatly with a tug, but more like an elastic-band ball, ideas encircling and overlapping. A recurring theme is the systems and conventions that we can challenge or rebuild for the benefit of all. I’ve been thinking a lot about individualism too, about the great fallacy of it, and the ways in which it diminishes our lives and leads us to fail one another and our planet.

You may have heard about the Fortune 500 bigwigs of corporate advocacy group Business Roundtable releasing a statement that acknowledged that profits to shareholders can no longer be a corporation’s exclusive focus. Suddenly the well-being of employees, communities, and the environment are worthy of discussion at the boardroom table. They’ve realized, I guess, that there are no shareholder profits if the 99% comes for their heads, if the world is a fiery hellscape. They’ve realized that they’ve stripped the nutrients from the soil for too long, which is metaphorical in most cases, but also literal in some.

It’s easy to raise my eyebrows at these out-of-touch elites, but I’ve been trying to question individualism in my own life too. In the Western capitalist model, we’re taught to put ourselves first, or, at the very least, put our family units first. And while we’re biologically engineered to favour our kin, and to a certain point it’s useful, at what point are we hoarding resources as surely as a Fortune 500 fat cat? I was really roused by Adam Roberts’s piece in Vox (wonderfully rendered as a graphic column by Alex Citrin), which asks, how much money is too much? When does wealth become immoral? What does morality look like in a capitalist system? What obligation do we have to make society more secure for everyone?

So I’ve been trying to find ways to upend certain capitalist and individualist actions and assumptions in my own life. For instance, I discovered a friend has $2000 of charitable contribution matching at her work. Since I’ve committed to donating 10% of my income, I have a chunk of money to give, and could easily give some of it to her. I could double some of my impact! And of course this money, invested in the right programs, can have a positive ripple effect beyond the food or contraception or mosquito nets it buys. The drawback is that I lose that charitable tax credit — about $500 if I gave her $1500 — which I’ll admit, made me nervous, setting off scripts about “my” money and what I might “deserve.” But I’m learning to shut those down. Because life ain’t fair, and while I am frugal and financially responsible, it’s ludicrously deluded not to factor privilege and plain dumb luck into my own financial situation. Let’s face it, those factors count for much more than 10%.

If I give the money to my friend, I can give twice as much money to organizations I believe in, and also I can give some money to her as a tax credit. Her family had a run of terrible luck a while ago, and I love her dearly. If I’m for expanding models of family and kinship, why wouldn’t it be a good thing for her to benefit? Also, I don’t desperately need that money. If invested, it might give me more security down the road, but if I’m honest, in the decades to come, I should inherit some money too. In the meantime, I could save someone’s life. There are people looking out for me, who am I looking out for?

On a smaller scale, a friend of a friend recently gifted me her old patio furniture. It’s a huge upgrade from the rundown street findings currently in my yard, and means new stuff without consuming new resources — a great treat. I offered to pay her for them, but she declined, and my friend suggested I make a donation to Amazon protection instead. Another win and a net positive for the system. I needed to get the furniture to my house, though. I could have rented some sort of truck, but a friend’s husband has a pickup truck, and I was able to enlist his help in relocating my new patio set. My first thought was to buy him a nice bottle of something, but then I realized I had something more valuable to offer: my babysitting services. My friend happily agreed, and it reminded me that this is something I should offer more often. No money needed to change hands, nothing new needed to be purchased, and we generated some social capital and rainforest protection.

For now, we’re largely stuck with capitalism, but individualism can be undermined more easily. These small acts of resistance give us power, and we can be the rebels we need. We don’t have to wait for the Business Roundtable to start looking above the bottom line to make this world better. Yes, we need to vote, write letters, protest, and publicly advocate for systemic change, but the system lives in us too, in our homes and hearts, and there a brave new world is entirely possible.

Beach bodies

There are two ways to handle a city summer: escape it—heading to malls, museums, movie theatres, or any other place with polar A/C—or embrace it, grabbing your suit and sunscreen a making for a city pool or beach. Despite being a person who loves summer, I’ve tried both of these strategies in recent heat waves, but this past weekend I spent my afternoons at the beach and my local pool.

And while there were a few takeaways from my time stretched on a towel, what struck me both days was how nice it was to be immersed in a sea of bodies on display. Young bodies, old ones, fat ones, thin ones, and everything in between. Tattoos, stretch marks, tan lines, body hair, scars, and secret constellations of freckles are no longer hidden. Makeup washes away, and hair waves and frizzes. While I’m sure people have considered, to varying degrees, how they look that day, and of course stigma really doesn’t disappear, there is something about the sheer volume of people that still feels democratizing to me. Here are our bodies, and they are, finally, deliciously cool.

I was a lifeguard through all my teen years and a bit beyond, and I don’t remember thinking much about this catalogue of bodies. Maybe I was too young, or maybe I was used to it, or maybe it’s gotten harder to catch a real glimpse of another person’s cellulite. We’ve long had to contend with the airbrushed, photoshopped professional bodies of models, and the well-lit, trainer-honed physiques of actors, but social media is a relatively new player in the scene. Our feeds give us glimpses of what would appear to be more authentic, except, of course, they’re not: one carefully edited photo elides all the trashcan-bound takes. No wonder one study found higher social media use correlates with increased risk of eating and body image disorders.

Sitting, taking it all in, I was reminded of the plus-size pool party scene in Shrill, all those bodies lounging, swimming, floating—savouring all the warm weather pleasures. I watched the show with a curvy friend, who noted that what was especially revolutionary was how the camera lingered on these bodies in motion as the actors swam. This isn’t something to hide, those shots declared, let’s pause to take it in. In Shrill the book, West writes about how she had to teach herself to love bigger bodies, because society certainly didn’t teach us to love them—in fact, it does the opposite. (Hard to dismantle the patriarchy if you’re hungry and beaten down.) So she recalibrated her feeds, sought out photos of big bodies and studied them to broaden what she thought of as beautiful.

And that’s one thing (besides a break from the oppressive heat) the public pool or beach has to offer: a sort of joyful reminder of what bodies actually look like. I sat there feeling like one of the Fab 5, wanting to reach out and tell women especially that they were beautiful. Because I am sure all of them have frowned at the mirror, pinched or prodded their flesh, possibly under fluorescent lights of a changeroom when buying the very bathing suit they’re wearing. They’ve probably moaned to friends about how their boobs are sagging, or they need to lose five, ten, twenty pounds. We’re so unforgiving, so self-conscious, but these are our containers for being, the only way we can access the world. And as much as I wanted to compliment these women, the point is actually setting all that assessing aside, leaving it in the lockers with our street clothes. Because at the pool we get to indulge in the glory of physicality: it’s the grandpa doing a flip on the diving board, the goggled kids frogging underwater and gasping as they surface, the legs swaying in pool handstands, the babies splashing with delight. We are weighed down with so much judgment and expectation, but the public pool is a glimpse of a world where, with practice, every body can be buoyant, every body can be free.

A gentle fading

Sunset, sitting on the dock at my ex-stepgrandfather’s cottage, I dangled my feet into the still lake, watching the tiny waves ripple out. I’d gone down to the dock feeling a bit melancholy, trying to say goodbye. I scooped up a handful of water and tossed it into air. The water shifted into tiny spheres as they fell back to the water, splattering its surface with dozens of little bullseyes. But then something interesting happened: all the little bullseyes joined into a giant one, a target that radiated outward, then disappeared. There’s physics to explain this, said my smart sister, but I was astonished nonetheless: it felt like my own little discovery.

And that’s one thing cottages are for, surprising connections with the natural world that widen your eyes and narrow your focus to just one little thing.

Of course cottages were for other things too: sun and swims and sugary treats, dinner in damp bathing suits and after-supper boat rides, fields turned into baseball diamonds, fireworks and fireflies, a sky improbably full of stars. They’re for happy hour turned happy hours, card games and cleansing pints, the clinking of glasses and dominoes and dimes in Crown Royal bags, the gentle swing of a hammock and the wheeling arms of Heels Over. They’re for diving for golf balls, finding fish in pockets of shade, holding your breath as long as possible. For laughter and loon calls echoing across the lake, the tinny patter of rain on the roof. Hamburgers for breakfast, the Dairy for lunch, corn roasts and vegetable dinners, tea and cookies on the dock in the evening. For wild hair, calloused feet, and always a bit too much sun.

I’d been going to that cottage for 29 years. For a long time it was my favourite three weeks of every summer. It’s where I became part of a new family, embraced with open arms, though I was, I’m sure at least at first, the baggage that comes with marrying a divorcé, the awkward +1. I made new friends too, had crushes, got my first bikini, learned to back dive and play Chinese checkers and identify the fish I stalked in the shadows beneath the raft. I swam almost as much as the resident loons and was marginally lake-famous as the teenager who swam the length of the lake and back on a bet with her dad.

It was a place of so many beginnings, though on this recent visit I was there to help weed through old stuff, to prepare it for sale. Many years every bed was full, even the couch—the cottage was a cup spilling over. But now, so many were gone—died, divorced, moved away—and there was no one who could give it enough time to hold on.

We like to imagine things will go on forever, and perhaps that’s why goodbyes are so hard: we’re forced to face that they don’t. But it was a place that had already seen a series of goodbyes, and the evidence was all around us: we flipped through old photo albums, my grandfather dropping a finger on each face and announcing them dead, unearthed my late-nana’s wedding dress, now yellowed with age, packed up old lamps and crib liners that once seemed worth saving and now were destined for the dump. We drank gin and tonics every afternoon at 4:30 in honour of another departed grandmother. My dad, still alive but no longer a part of the family, lingered in photos, in the wood sign that once hung over the garage. Every time I’m there I feel his absence keenly: he is a great connector of people, and without him we sometimes seem like those water droplets, our ripples overlapping but not quite joining up.

The other thing about goodbyes is they’re hopelessly inadequate, of course: we expect them to be a period, a tidy cap on a long book of feelings and memories, people and landscapes and the tiniest details, like an ugly magnet or faded paperback. Really a goodbye is more like the periods in an ellipsis, the beginning of a gentle fading away . . .

I was reading an old New Yorker on a plane recently and stumbled into Kathryn Schultz’s wonderful meditation on loss, “When Things Go Missing.”  She starts by ruminating on misplaced objects (wallet, keys, etc.) but before long she’s talking about the loss of her father. “We will lose everything we love in the end. But why should that matter so much?” she writes. “By definition we do not live in the ends, we live all along the way.”

I struggled with the right way to say goodbye to the cottage, but as Schultz reminds us, that part is beside the point. Perhaps the best goodbye is being alive to the moment, savouring that moment of dockside astonishment, and not forgetting to take in the scenery as the car turns off the dirt road one last time.

Opportunity Abounds

Reading books and articles about the environment is not for the faint of heart. Most times it’s a terrible cocktail of panic, anger, shame, despair, and depression, the kind of toxic mixture that could topple a moose. I think it’s important, yes, but it comes at a psychological cost. So imagine how happy (and surprised) I was to discover that Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken, left me feeling a bit optimistic.

Drawdown is the work of an international panel of scientists, policy makers, researchers, and other professionals to assess, practically and scientifically, solutions for drawing down carbon reversing climate change. Yes, not just delaying, but reversing. Each of the 100 solutions presented (and ranked) in the book is assessed by conservative implementation rates by 2050, and then assessed for amount of carbon drawdown (removing carbon from the atmosphere), cost to implement, and ongoing costs or savings. And guess what? For most of these strategies, we end up with savings. Millions or billions of dollars of savings.

As conservative provincial governments in Canada fight the national carbon tax, and go on and on about protecting oil jobs for the benefit of the economy, it’s incredibly important to realize that we don’t have to choose between the environment and the economy. We’re not looking at an even playing field anyway: according to an International Monetary Fund estimate, in 2015 alone the fossil fuel industry received more that $5.3 trillion in direct and indirect subsidies. That’s a staggering $10 million dollars per minute. No wonder alternative energy seems expensive by comparison. But even setting that aside, right now in the U.S., more people are employed by the solar industry than by oil, gas, and coal combined. (And, spoiler: solar isn’t even Drawdown‘s top energy intervention. According to them, the future is wind, baby!) In fact, the book points out that we’re now at the point where “the expense of the problems in the world now outweighs the cost of the solutions.” Doing the right thing doesn’t have to cost more. In fact, it’s a bargain.

As I read this very readable, reasonable book, I was struck by an abundance of opportunity. Not just in the 100 solutions, but in the way the solutions often had incredible ancillary benefits. For example, if cattle farmers were to graze their cows on forested land (rather than razing trees for pasture), rotating grazing areas regularly, we’d maintain biodiversity, keep more carbon in the soil, have healthier cows, reduce deforestation of vital old forests, and the farmers make more money. Benefits of one intervention become exponential.

There are exponential opportunities in my own life too: deciding to cycle commute means I produce no carbon, I’m more fit, I save money, I’m more in touch with my city, I’m more punctual, and I’m happier. Or take my garden. I learned from Drawdown that “home gardens hold higher carbon sequestration potential compared to monocrop production systems, with sequestration rates comparable to those of mature forest stands” (emphasis mine). But I also reduce carbon produced with my partner and I eating hyper-local, package-free organic food. I get light exercise and healthy food. I support pollinators. I make my own compost, which prevents methane release, requires no fossil fuels, and maintains the soil. I give seeds and plants to other people, making more gardens. I save money most years. It has connected me to nature and my environment, and given me endless opportunities to learn and grow. Oh and there’s the small matter that it’s become what my partner accurately called my “life force.” It’s a daily source of joy and renewal.

I love thinking about changes that create little beneficial ecosystems. Drawdown reminded me that our planet’s story doesn’t have to be one of perpetual degradation. There are so many people around the globe coming up with smart, feasible solutions that make our world better.

Drawdown also brought me back to personal choice and the opportunities it presents. While big, systemic and technological change is absolutely necessary, #3 and #4 on their top 100 were wasting less food and eating less meat. Those are things all of us can do. And while my #zerowaste Instagram feed can sometimes be daunting, reminding me of my failures, the voice of reason eventually prevails. What if everyone cut their meat eating by 50%? What if everyone grew a garden or cycled to work or bought more things secondhand? What if everyone simply reused a jar once before recycling it? Again, exponential results. As the Zero-Waste Chef Anne Marie Bonneau reminds us, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” (I’ll keep quoting this forever, and I’m not sorry.) She reminds us that if just 10,000 people reduced their waste by 10% for a year, 1.6 million pounds of trash would be avoided.

The upside of our environment being in a shambles and our regular habits being so damaging is that there is so much room to improve. Low-hanging fruit abounds. So while I still need to write a letter to our provincial forestry minister about cancelling a tree-planting program, this week I also arranged a couple trades, picked up bulk coffee for a girls trip so people won’t be tempted by disposables, and I’m focusing on regularly eating my radish greens rather than composting them. Opportunity abounds, and with each good thing I do, benefits ripple out. There are benefits for my own tiny ecosystem (my life), and faraway ones I’ll never see or know. And at the end of the day, I’m also conserving another precious resource we need to survive: optimism.