Saturday, May 30, 2009

Actions speak louder than votes

Actions speak louder than votes

Getting involved is more important than voting. Engineering expert Robert B. Johnson said 'the world is run by those who show up'.

Elected officials do their best to make high level decisions on your behalf and in your best interest. In elections, we delegate authority to them, and occasionally they make mistakes on our behalf. For such a high profile and thankless job though, it's fortunate that we have people who are willing and usually able to do it.

Voting is not enough. To really make a difference, you need to care enough to actually do something. You're interested. You're talented. Your actions speak louder than words or votes. You know best where your help is needed.

Making things happen often means doing them yourself. In a community context, that can mean going it truly alone, volunteering with an organization or a cause that you believe in, or getting involved in the political process to make your views heard by the people who you've charged with making decisions.

Some things that you want to accomplish will be bigger than you can handle, and that's ok. Bigger things just mean you need help, and the more help you have, the easier it will be. Have the vision. Tell people about it. Rally them around the idea. Make it happen.

Being involved in something that matters to you has a social payoff for you as well. It's a great way to meet other like-minded people.

Vote, but don't fool yourself into thinking it's enough. Laziness and apathy don't get things changed. Vision and action do. This is real grassroots democracy. Your 'vote' is proportional to how much you care and how hard you're willing to work to improve the situation.

Change doesn't happen at the ballot box; it happens when people get involved in building and shaping their community, and it doesn't wait for election cycles. It starts when you see something you want to change, and there's lots of room for improvement.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Complex issues, no agenda, better meetings.

People with different backgrounds all working towards a poorly defined goal would seem at the outset like a recipe for disaster. Imagine starting with a circle of chairs, some markers, and a complex problem to solve.

Leave your agenda at the door. What arises from this self-organizing structure can be greater and more finely adapted to your situation than you could possibly have hoped. 

Harrison Owen, in his book 'Open Space Technology' explains the nuts and bolts of how this works, and how it can be harnessed.

Stemming from the idea that the best parts of any good conference are the coffee breaks, Owen developed a way to channel and harness that energy.

People can bring up topics and lead conversations, participate fully in them,  bounce around from conversation to conversation, or even just sit on the sidelines as they see fit.  Things begin when they are ready, and when they're over, they're over. Each individual is responsible for figuring out where they can best learn or contribute.

People don't get caught up on what could have been. Rules like "whoever comes are the right people" and "whatever happens is the only thing that could have" keep people focused on what's actually happening, rather than what might have been.

This all seems like a kick in the teeth to traditional meeting planning, but allowing people to self-organize keeps people engaged and productive. Can you say that about your last meeting?

To be fair, you can ruin any good idea, and this sort of meeting is no exception. If the decision's already been made, if someone's determined to be in control, or if all you want to do is deliver information, then this isn't the meeting style for you. On the other hand, OST can produce amazing results quickly when applied to complex, poorly defined problems.

As a plus, Open Space Technology can be organized quickly, and it can achieve amazing results as long as the people who show up are there voluntarily, and nobody tries to stay in control.

Web Only Bonus:

Anatomy of an open space event.

Brief User's Guide to Open Space

These were the two documents that served as my introduction to Open Space, and will provide a more complete description of the methodology. Enjoy.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Holistic neighbourhood infrastructure in Bonnyville Housing Co-op

The Three Little Pigs housing co-op in Bonnyville uses eco-efficient design, repeatable construction and neighbourhood scale utilities to make a greener rural neighbourhood. The Communitas Group, along with the Workun Garrick Partnership developed a prototype neighbourhood in Bonnyville that deliberately avoids municipal services.

Between not for profit construction, community involvement, and green design, the concept makes social, environmental, and economic sense. As a prototype, it makes a strong case for this type of community. Rather than trying to make each house independent, they will integrate the infrastructure at the community scale, which will save money in the long term.

The site shack and the panel shop are the first thing to be built. The factory produces the panels for the 35 homes in the development. Repeatable building modules help expedite the construction and keep costs down. After the construction is done they can move the tools to another housing development and renovate the factory space for something else.

The houses don't need furnaces either. Instead, they use a district heating system with no natural gas connection. The furnace burns willow that has grown on site, and takes advantage of the wood that has been redirected from the landfill. They grow willow on site, and by maintaining a 10 acre wood lot on the site, they can have free wood heat in perpetuity.

They avoid needing a storm water system by retaining all the storm water on the site. They treat all the waste water on site too, and avoid needing to connect to the municipal sewer. They use composting toilets, and plan to use the fertilizer to help the willow grow.

Somebody is going to need to operate these facilities too, which means there will be a maintenance job for somebody who lives in the development. Notably absent from the scheme is integrated retail, but 

This sort of holistic thinking at a neighbourhood scale makes everybody better off, and not just with low utility bills. You get to know your neighbours too. If this sort of life appeals to you, you're probably not alone. Find kindred spirits and build your dream.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

How to keep the lights on

The Alberta government is thinking about where Albertans get their power. The solution, however, isn't coal or nuclear. Instead, renovate to save energy and generate small amounts of electricity everywhere.

In the same way that centralized information providers like Radio and Television are losing ground to distributed information on the internet, centralized power will be replaced by distributed power generation.

Operating a nuclear power plant doesn't produce CO2, but mining and refining uranium sure does. It also uses lots of water.

Nuclear power, however, is better than coal, which is to say coal is even worse. Clean coal is an oxymoron, and carbon capture and storage is a myth designed to make us feel good about continuing to use coal, oil shale, and tar sands. If we keep burning coal then we commit our planet to runaway climate change. Coal power plants need to be phased out by 2030.

Half of Alberta's electricity comes from coal, and the nuclear consultation makes sense, as we need to get away from coal, but we shouldn't blindly leap into another centralized power generation system.

The first rational step is to renovate buildings to use less energy. This costs much less than building new generating capacity, and creates jobs that are desperately needed in this economy. Ed Mazria, in a keynote speech at the Sustainable Building Symposium in Calgary explained how tying government backed mortgage discounts to housing energy efficiency retrofits is one way to magnify the government's stimulus contributions, produce jobs, help reduce CO2 emissions, and expand the tax base so they get their money back.

We also have an opportunity to democratize electricity by focusing on the individual. Small scale power generation, combined with a smart grid and energy storage (flywheels), will render centralized power obsolete. Meanwhile, mortgage refinancing at historically low interest rates could spur environmental renovations and create jobs that take advantage of our current economic crisis to do some good in the world.

The Alberta Government is currently in the process of developing a position on Nuclear Power. Be heard (until June 1) at

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Contains Recycled Material

Everything on this planet, with very few exceptions, has been here since the beginning, spinning around the sun for the last five billion years or so. Everything on this planet, with very few exceptions, will be here until the sun swallows us up in another five billion years or so.

The newsprint or computer you read this on, and the eyes you use to read it are both made of the earth. The patterns vary but the matter is the same. Everything is part of the cycle. Everything has already been recycled many times over.

William McDonough and Michael Braungart's book Cradle To Cradle explains how, in nature, "waste equals food". Our culture's approach to consumption and garbage breaks the cycle.

When manufacturers combine things that naturally break down - such as leather - with things that don't, like rubber (to make shoes, for instance), we make products that are fiendishly difficult to recycle. Moreover if we consume products that are destined for a landfill, (and really, who doesn't) then we're part of the problem. It's a problem best solved on the drawing board by designing things that are easy to recycle rather than by building bigger landfills.

This Waste=Food cycle that has continued as long as there have been mouths to feed is good for continued life on earth. Wasting resources isn't an economical strategy. Nature doesn't waste a drop, and it's been around a lot longer than we have. We can learn a lot from the way natural systems find balance.

One of the most direct examples of waste=food is composting. By tossing your banana peels in the composter you're feeding millions of microorganisms that want nothing better than to chow down on the feast you've blessed them with. They turn it back into the soil from whence it came. It perpetuates the cycle. Taking garbage to the landfill takes those resources and puts them out of reach of natural and technical cycles. 

Breaking eternal cycles, on the other hand, is not a good strategy. Your community will be more successful in the long term by working in harmony with natural forces rather than fighting them.