Friday, December 25, 2009

What Cuba can teach us about farming

When, as an island nation, you find yourself suddenly cut off, your biggest issue isn't oil or electricity. The issue is food. Humans survived for many thousands of years without oil or electricity, but food is essential.

The Soviet Union withdrew its support for Cuba in 1991 and Cuba found itself without the Russian oil, fertilizer, seeds and pesticides that it had become dependant on. They couldn't trade with the US. They were on their own.

What they realized is that even in Cuba's urban centres, you can still grow your food. They set to work putting gardens basically everywhere, growing all sorts of vegetables.

The farms were local and de-facto organic. They simply didn't have access to the pesticides or the fertilizer. Their diet, with an increase in fruits and vegetables, was healthier too.

That lesson, has put Cuba at the forefront of urban agriculture, and has given us a window into what we might look forward to.

Virtually overnight, they were able to shift from an oil and chemically dependant centralized food supply, to a distributed food supply that was automatically organic, met the needs of the people, and put them at the forefront of a resurgence in urban agriculture.

No question it was a shock, but they had the resilience to survive it. Do we? We may get the chance to find out.

Expect peak oil. Expect peak food too. The fertilizers we rely on are derived from petrochemicals. Look at your yard. What bounty has your grass given you?

Start thinking now about a garden for next year. We would do well to make the mistakes while there's still grocery stores around to bail us out.

We've done this before, but we've mostly forgotten how. Victory Gardens helped carry us through WW1 and WW2. We can grow our own food again, and we can shift our food strategy quickly. The shock of the transition will be easier if we start now, rather than waiting for circumstances to force our hand. It's time to grow something, and it'll be tasty.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Do you fix it?

Suppose you inherited a vehicle. It's paid for, and it's given you years of trouble-free service.

After a while, you take it in for a routine check-up and find out that it hasn't been maintained very well. The coolant needs to be flushed; it needs all its fluids changed; but most importantly the cylinder head gasket is leaking. Fixing it would involve tearing down and rebuilding the engine to replace the gasket. Expensive.

The service rep tells you that to fix everything it's going to cost about what it would cost to replace the vehicle. You can keep driving it for now, but it's a ticking time bomb. You just never know when it's going to overheat and leave you stranded.

Whether you fix it or not depends on a bunch of factors: how much you use it, how you can meet your needs another way, and how long you would like to keep it for.

The scientific community has given us that kind of ominous diagnosis about our spaceship Earth. We can keep driving it for now, but unless we make some repairs, it will fail on us soon.

Government representatives from around the world are meeting in Copenhagen to decide whether to fix the planet, and if so how. It's actually easier than deciding whether to fix the car:

How often do you use the Earth? Constantly.

How easy is it to get another planet that meets your needs? Impossible, we haven't terraformed Mars yet.

How long do you humans want to keep using the Earth? Permanently.

The only rational response here is to do what the science demands without further hesitation. Business as usual is as much a suicide pact as Mutual Assured Destruction was during the cold war. We depend on this planet completely. There are no viable alternatives.

With that in mind, the 'what' is cut and dried: Do whatever it takes to fix it. The 'how' is much more complicated, but it will involve each of us doing everything we can. If Copenhagen fails, there won't be time to wait for big government to save us. We're all in this together. It will be an exciting time to be alive.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

How to fix Alberta Politics

This image was modified, and is also released by me at

The international goodwill Canada earned in places like Vimy Ridge is evaporating. Canadian heel-dragging on climate is being compared to Japan on whaling; not a favourable comparison.

As we've seen with the passing of Bill 50, the current Alberta Government will remove regulatory oversight and mortgage your future if it suits them, despite strong opposition. Rather than representative democracy we are treading perilously close to petro-dictatorship.

In the next Alberta election, we will have a choice about what to do with our government. Dragging the political spectrum even more to the right is not a recipe for the change we need, but dragging it left won't work either.

The system needs a reboot.

It's time for a return to what's important: Genuine civic engagement is essential to a thriving democracy. A change to our voting structure is important because all Albertans deserve a voice at the table.

To make progress, we need progressive systems both inside and outside of the traditional power structures.

First, inside the system, we must bring election results in line with voting. The current 'first past the post' system breeds voter apathy. If you think your riding is decided even before you vote there's little practical advantage to bother. You've already won or lost.

People don't vote because their vote doesn't matter. Changing the system would make their vote mean something, even if they're in a riding that's already decided. Build an Alberta solution based on voting systems like Single Transferable Vote and Proportional Representation.

Changing the system is tough because the existing system benefits those already in power. As citizens we need to demand electoral reform so that we will be more accurately represented in the halls of power.

Outside the system, an engaged public is essential to making democracy work properly. It's too easy to be a free-rider, hoping someone else will make good decisions for you, and saving you the trouble. But comprehensive solutions only come out when enough people are engaged in the process. As Bill 50 has shown, being a free-rider puts government policy firmly in the hands of large corporations who know how to work the system for their own ends. Not yours.

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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Seven reasons why you hate public transit

1. The shape of the city: North American cities were built around the automobile. People here are spread out, and public transit needs density to be viable. If you hate transit, your city isn't dense enough. Remember, you don't need transportation, you need access.

2. Free Roads, and Free Parking: The government built roads everywhere that you can use for free. In most places you can park for free too. Cities have rules requiring parking spaces when you build a building. This keeps the parking supply high, and parking prices low. Since you're only paying for the driving, and not directly for the roads, you don't feel the full cost of the auto-dependant lifestyle.

3. Traffic: If buses had their own lanes they could beat the traffic and have an advantage over single passenger automobiles. If they have to fight the traffic, they get stuck in the same jams that cars do.

4. Cheap energy: Even at $200/barrel, energy doesn't cost nearly what it's worth. If you paid someone minimum wage to make a barrel of oil's worth of energy for you, it would take them 8.6 years, and you'd owe them $138,000. Hydrocarbons are a bargain. We shouldn't waste them.

5. Learning Curve: If you don't know where the bus goes, or how to let the driver know you want to get off, you simply won't take the bus. You could just drive. Transit systems are complicated. Cars seem much simpler.

6. Missing the bus: Your car leaves when you do. Transit here isn't frequent enough. In Japan, peak times have trains every 2.5 minutes. There's always a train coming.

7. Paying for it: You have to pay every time you take the bus. With a car you don't have to pay to use it. Just for insurance, car payments, parking, gas, repairs and maintenance. None of those payments, however, are made at the moment you decide to drive, so it feels like it's free, but it's not.

What other reasons can you think of? How can we adapt our cities to improve access to the things we want?

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