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.

Shallow End, No Diving

Every weekend I have to do a long bike ride for triathlon training. And every weekend, I suffer from a sort of partial amnesia, where I forget this is something I really like to do. There are often scheduling conflicts, the weather can be challenging, the window is short before the bike paths are more stressful than useful. Yes, but objections pop up like groundhogs. And so sometimes I don’t go. But more often than not, I do, and more often than not, the fog of amnesia dissipates. I think, Oh rightThis. 

I remember my love for the fresh breeze off the lake, the boats bobbing in the harbour, the gardens I pass on the way down. For the air flowing over my skin, the white rush of wind in my ears. For seeing other people, groggily walking the dog, or cycling, or running, people up and doing it. These are my people, my secular Sunday congregation.

I pushed and pulled my pedals along the lakeshore, seeking momentum but thinking about the power of inertia. Our new, internet saturated lives reward a kind of listlessness, a lazy casting about for stimulation. Our bodies slouch, and our brains do too, until the next hit of novelty, the next refresh, the next app or site or update. It’s a condition that troubles me, even as I give into it almost hourly, especially if I’m stuck at a desk. Interacting in the real world, with our bodies, or even with deeper, concentrated thinking, is somehow intimidating. It seems like too much. But then once you start, once you get your stride, you think, Oh right. This. 

I’ve written about the importance of beginning when it comes to bigger projects, but I’ve been thinking about the little ones too, the dozens of beginnings a day that we can shy away from: begin the laundry, begin the deep work, the book, the run, the gardening, the dinner. There’s no anxious listlessness, no vague dissatisfaction, no searching for the next thing. There is just the doing. Which is not to say we should never rest (I spent a couple hours yesterday afternoon tired and just reading), but engaging with whatever you’re doing on a deeper level, even if it’s resting.

When I’m working I find those periods of deeper engagement the most satisfying—they are by far the best part of my work. But even still, I lazily resist them, puttering about with little tasks, shuffling through various social media accounts. Looking for the easier hit of dopamine. And this microresistance seems to me a sort of technologically sponsored social malaise, a thing that keeps us from doing our best work, being our best selves, even from being fully satiated. Those lethargic lapses are me at my most unhappy. They are not how I want to punctuate, or even define, my days.

How to combat this? Keeping my devices on a longer leash. Maybe even an Instagram detox. (At just the thought of it, I hear a chorus of yes, buts.) But maybe most important thing is to stop debating, stop delaying, stop stalling and distracting, and just begin. Trust that the engagement will come. Dive headfirst into the cold water, knowing that a minute later, you’ll be baffled at all the time you spend standing on shore.

To my future self on the occasion of a bicycle accident

To my future self,

You’ve had a scare. Maybe it was an inattentive driver, or a collision with an open door, or a wheel stuck in the streetcar tracks and a flight over the handlebars. These are all things I’ve seen in my mind’s eye when there is a brush with danger, when my pulse races in my throat. I’ve seen worse in real life, too: the girl on her stomach in the middle of the road, head turned to the side, a bystander immobilizing her spine, a crowd of cyclists forming a defensive perimeter. (She was dragged under a truck turning right, says the Toronto cyclists Facebook group. She may walk again.)

I hope what has happened to you, future self, is not so tragic. But you may be scraped or bruised, you are likely scared. You may be wondering if this daily risk is foolhardy.

There are some things I want you to remember.

Remember the first time you rode across the city to work, your body thrumming with adrenaline, with a sort of mad joy at having faced a fear, at having it blown off you by the warms winds as you flew down the Sherbourne hill. You felt, for the first time, all those cyclist clichés: you were part of the city, part of its pulse, as you rushed between neighbourhoods, connected them in new ways. You noticed new things: the mural in Moss Park, the new streetcar home by the spit. At some points the air tasted of hot rubber, but other times you smelled the lake. It was the feeling of a great first date—the feeling of possibility.

Remember the mornings the beach was veiled in mist, and people and dogs and trees were made mystical silhouettes.

Remember the free flow of thoughts as you drifted through the city, problems worked out rounding Queen’s Park Crescent. Or the times the thoughts took a back seat to pedalling, to breath, to the instinctual shifting of gears.

Remember the times, at an end of a long day at a desk, warm summer rain has poured down and soaked through your clothes, and you stood on the pedals and laughed aloud.

Remember riding 40k alone on a warm summer Saturday, stitching together the bike trails that wind north along the Humber, through parks and forests and ravines you didn’t know, feeling the joy of discovery, as if that trip had called them into existence.

Remember the first time riding in November, tires crunching over fallen leaves, and realizing you never thought you would still be riding, that you weren’t ready to stop.

Remember when a winter storm rushed in, and you rode home in a world made almost instantly white, squinting against the snow, feeling a little afraid, but feeling even more powerful.

But above all, as you are feeling frightened and vulnerable and small, remember that braving these city streets (something previously unthinkable) gave you independence and connection and freedom and joy and a sense of being true to your values, but most of all that it taught you how empowerment feels. Remember that all of these rich dividends started with fear. I hope fear is not the end of this story.