Saturday, September 10, 2011

Leaders or figureheads?

Deciding which candidates would be figureheads and which would be leaders is up to you.
With the Alberta PC party replacing Premier Ed Stelmach who is resigning October 1 what changes? Will we get a figurehead or a leader?
Changing things isn't easy. Alberta is a big ship and can't turn on a dime. Claims of being an energy superpower is code for continued expansion on oil and gas, rather than any major expansion in renewables.
Provincial leaders have a choice of loyalties: to the party, to their riding, to their province, their country, or the world.
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it." -Upton Sinclair
Anyone who can get elected premier will be under immense pressure to pander to the Oil and Gas sector, despite climate change and the environmental impacts associated with fossil fuel production.
In 2008, the energy sector made up 30.8% (almost $90 Billion) of Alberta's GDP. That should indicate how entrenched the industry is, and how much money can be made in the industry. Political muscle? You bet.
With flagging economies, and these resources available, loyalties to party, province and country would suggest exploiting as much and as fast as possible. A strong economy is good for jobs and re-election.
Climate change impacts are down the road and hit poor people in far away places first. Profit and jobs are here and now. Very tempting.
We have a history of trying to pitch the cleanliness of our oil, treating it as a marketing problem. The product is the problem, and our entire system is complicit. Some of us admit we have a problem.
A political figurehead can keep the ship going straight ahead. A leader can forego the easy option, embrace reality, and usher in a clean energy future that we can be proud of. A principled future that we don't need to defend with marketing or guns.
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Sunday, September 4, 2011

Short Sighted Money or a Green Energy Revolution

Image of the Keystone XL Protest from . Yes, the band.
The Keystone XL Pipeline, oozing towards Whitehouse approval, demonstrates a commitment to short sighted goals.
Canadian and Alberta governments are pushing for the project to go ahead, eager for the money, market, and jobs that the project would bring about. It hearkens back to Canada's early days, selling natural resources, leaving the value adding to others.
To build the pipeline or not is a question of foresight and loyalty. Unfortunately, the scarcest resource in question isn't oil, it's room in the atmosphere for carbon dioxide. That convenient ignorance paves the way for jobs and money, the main attraction for this project. The pipeline would encourage more bituminous sands development while reducing the incentive to building renewable sources of energy.
The people pushing this 'business as usual' project forward have a different set of loyalties than those opposing it. On one hand, we have jobs and money. On the other hand, we can ease off on the climate change gas pedal, set an example for the rest of the world, and build a green economy. Many jobs that could be created by retrofitting buildings to use less energy, for example.
It seems only fitting that hurricane Irene blasted the US west coast as the Tar Sands Action protests take place outside the Whitehouse. Consider the calibre of the protesters, including author Bill McKibben, and leading climate scientist James Hansen. There have been about 600 arrests so far.
It's up to President Obama now, to decide whether to take the jobs and the carbon bomb that come with KXL, or to usher in a green revolution. It's going to be a tough call, and one that will define his presidency. At least he's a democrat. Right wing republicans seem to have a hard enough time with evolution, let alone climate change.
Canadian support for this pipeline is devastating to the next generation, but understandable given the short memories in politics.
On the other hand, where you should really feel betrayed by the people who 'represent' you is in the Alberta Utility Commission's approval of the 500MW expansion of a Maxim Power Corp. coal power plant near Grande Cache.
Federal regulations are scheduled to come into effect in 2015, and former Minister of Environment Jim Prentice said "We will guard against any rush to build non-compliant coal plants in the interim".
Maxim blatantly rushed this through, knowing that complying with the upcoming regulations would make the project non-cost effective, and the AUC went along with it.
The Maxim Coal project, like the KXL pipeline locks in carbon emissions for a long time, while reducing the appetite for renewable solutions.
Phase out the coal. The bituminous sands will still be there later, we don't need to extract them all now. The green revolution is at our door, but we're too stoned to let it in.
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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Loving, Hopeful, and Optimistic

Not my photo. I wish it was, it's great.
If you know who I should ask about using it here, please let me know in the comments.

"My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we'll change the world." -Jack Layton
What a wonderful approach. For the rest of us, who have a hard time retaining such relentless positivity, it's a wonderful reminder life is what you make it.
We control how we feel and our level of happiness by what we focus on, what we engage in, and which thoughts we allow to fester or grow. If you're happy and you know it, you know what to do.
There are no upsides to anger, fear or despair. These will drag you down. They're tempting, easy feelings, but they accompany misery and defeat. The choice between misery and the fruits of relentless positivity should be a clear one, if you want to be happy.
Positivity is challenging to maintain in a world that's intent on self-destruction while making you feel dissatisfied with the current state of affairs. Don't get caught up in the despair. Instead, look at the world not as something that throws obstacles in your way, but look instead with the wonder and curiosity in the eyes of a child.
Positive attitudes make good situations great, bad situations better, and even if the outlook isn't so good it provides a softer landing.
Let us appreciate what we have, despite differences, hardships, and grievances. Let us rejoice alone, and in the company of family, friends, strangers, and acquaintances.
Let us share the courage and conviction that what is to come is not to be feared, but will instead be wonderful. We create, in a way, what we expect to create.
Let us defeat the cycle of despair, that we will have the wherewithal and strength to overcome any obstacle.
Let us adopt Jack's relentless positivity as our own, so that our lives might be improved, and that we might also improve the lives of others by our presence, actions, and attitude.
We can change the world. You know best where you can contribute. Stay positive. It's better for you, and besides, Jack would want it that way.

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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Manicured lawn? You can do better.

What does a lawn need? Space, water, sunlight and maintenance. The maintenance takes time, assorted equipment, and sometimes fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides.
All of this is in the service of a plain green background around a house.
A half step forward here is to lay off the fertilizers and the irrigation. You'll still need to maintain it, but if you understand that going brown when there's no water around is actually a survival strategy you'll appreciate the lawn a little better. You might already be doing this. It's a good start.
There are two different next steps here, depending on your objectives.
If you're looking for easy, xeriscape the lawn. Between plants and mulch or rocks, you won't have to mow or fertilize any more. It's a little work up front, but the payoff is huge. You can still plant the plants you want.
To really help keep the weeds down though, you need  layer of cardboard or 8-10 sheets of newsprint under the 4 or so inches of mulch. Don't be stingy with the newsprint or the weeds will find their way through and reduce the low-maintenance benefit of this approach.
If you'd rather have a payoff from your yard, instead of the xeriscape option, look seriously at permaculture. It's a systems design methodology that gets the plants and the landscape working together so that you can grow food without having to put too much effort into it.
By putting the effort into the design of the yard/garden you can let the system do most of the work once you're done. This limits the work you have to do, and you still obtain a yield in exchange for your work tending the system. (You mean I have to pick the berries myself?)
You don't owe your lawn anything. It was a cheap way to cover the dirt when they finished building your house.
Get back your time with a xeriscaped yard, or get paid in food for your time tending the yard. The green carpet you visit only to mow is a drain on your time and energy. Either get clear with a xeriscape concept, or permaculture up your yard and reap the bounty.
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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Who Are We?

Human Identity Uroboros
Not my illustration, but suitable here. Human Identity Uroboros. Credit line: Nina McCurdy.
Thanks to Nancy Abrams and Joel Primack for the image and their inspirational Ted Talk

The answer's different for everyone, and that depends on how far out you can feel.
There's only one you. Whether you're 230 lbs or 115, it counts the same on the census. One. 'Who am I?' is a relatively straightforward question.
The question 'Who are we?' is much more difficult to answer, because the 'we' changes based on context, and is difficult to pin down.
You don't often hear this question asked but it's implicit everywhere. Are you one of us? We're adept at picking up social cues for this sort of thing.
Very few people are so selfish as to only care about themselves. We'll go to great lengths to take care of our families, for example.
The next step up is your tribe or your community. This is the level of loyalty that all cheers for the same hometown hockey team. It's also the reason that, all else being equal, you should shop at stores in your own hometown.
In fact, being loyal to your community would suggest buying from local businesses even if it puts you at a slight disadvantage. If everybody buys their books online, then your community doesn't get a local bookstore.
If you don't support local businesses then you don't get the benefits that they provide, like the business taxes, local jobs, and economic activity that makes a community viable.
Beyond the community, we are a part of our nation or religion. This is what brings the country together for the Olympics or War, or what can spark fundamentalist activities.
Once we look beyond national or religious borders we can see that we're all human. The Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948 is a great example of what being loyal to humanity is like.
Is the 'we' the group of all humans? Is humanity in it for itself? To take care of ourselves, we must also take care of the rest of the life on this planet, both for food, and for the myriad ecological services it provides. So it makes sense for humans, on the whole, to take care of all life and the health of the planet.
When there are violations of this precept, look to see what closer loyalty is being honoured instead. Cutting down rain forest to feed your family can make sense if that's the situation you're in. Watching how others respond when faced with a conflict can help you figure out what groups they most strongly identify with.
It can help you figure out your answer to the 'Who are we?' question too.
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Sunday, August 7, 2011

Setting a good example

Enough with living off the past and the future. Live off current solar income.

We have a series of complementary problems. Peak oil, catastrophic climate change, and now the global debt crisis.
By playing the problems off each other, we can find a solution: We need to relocalize our economies.
Peak oil and climate change come from living too much off the past, in the form of stored solar income - hydrocarbons, taking it out of the ground and pumping it into the skies and the oceans.
The debt crisis arises from living too much off the future, in the form of mortgages, bonds, and various flavours of credit cards.
How do we fix it? By living in the present, off current solar income. By cleaning up our act. We're busy, of course, but the more we put off solving our problems the bigger the problems will get. Tomorrow will bring challenges of its own. There's no sense in compounding the problems we refused to deal with yesterday onto it.
Rapidly constructed coal-fired power plants in China are overwhelming any minor gains the Kyoto might have given us. In addition to our own massive greenhouse gas reductions, we also require geopolitical solutions. We can't solve this on our own any more.
Our best hope lies in setting a good example. The global middle class wants what we have, and will get it the way we got it, unless we demonstrate something else, and give them another story to be in.
Demonstrating our willingness to live in a world where ecological limits are respected is a valuable partial solution, and one that could have an impact beyond our contribution, as others start to emulate our way of life.
Now, one thing that we do really well is capturing the imaginations of people around the world. We have the creativity to build and implement viable solutions to this intractable problem. 
But we all need to eat. Get good at gardening or farming. Farm for your neighbour or your friend. If you don't have access to land, borrow someone's yard and split the produce. Figure out how to grow food now, while there's still time. That's a prime example of producing real value on current solar income.
It's time to set a good example.

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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Purple pipes and the future of household water

Unfortunately, I don't have any purple pipes in my basement to photograph. Sorry.

We're either blessed or spoiled with all the drinkable, fresh water being so easily available in our houses.
Blessed because it's so important to our lives, and we really couldn't get by without it. Spoiled because the fresh water is so easily available, it's simple and easy to waste.
We use it for everything. Drinking and cooking certainly, but also watering the landscape, cleaning the house, washing and showering ourselves, not to mention the toilet water.
It's ridiculous that we poop into perfectly potable drinking water, but we've quit seeing it as odd thanks to the endless supply of fresh water.
At least it feels endless, but you wouldn't do it that way if you had to carry the water from somewhere. Water is really heavy, and if you had to bring six litres of water from the river a mile away every time you had to go number two, you'd come up with another system.
Using water efficiently in our houses could be automatic. All it takes is a little more plumbing and a little more thought on the front end.
Purple pipes are a part of the solution. They indicate reclaimed water, so that they won't accidentally be interconnected with the potable water system. For example, the water coming from the shower drain or from the washing machine is still pretty clean, and could easily be used in the landscape or to flush toilets without difficulty if houses were set up to make that possible.
Retrofitting existing houses for this sort of system would be difficult, but new houses could easily include this system, reducing the water requirements of the development.
Ensuring the development has adequate water is an important step in getting developments going, and this could allow additional development or reduce the water impact of developments that were already planned, so that more water can be left in the streams.
If you're building a home, build in a system to reclaim some of that water that could have a second life on your property. If you're a developer or a municipality, consider the purple pipe as a way of reducing the amount of treated potable water that the development will need. That will save you money down the road and help make sure there's enough drinking water for everybody.

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Maintenance: Keeping your tools ready for action

Tools radically expand our capabilities and we're great at picking the right tool for the job. All too often we quietly neglect the step that allows us to continue using those tools: Maintenance.
The costs of maintenance are pretty easy to figure out. It takes time, effort, sometimes a trip to the mechanic, and all while the tool is still performing its job just fine.
If they find something wrong when you take your car or your teeth in for a checkup, it's usually an expensive, painful fix. One which you could have avoided in the short term by skipping the checkup.
It's a head in the sand approach to problem solving. Immature and ineffective. Like most things, ignoring the problem has consequences further down the road.
To care about maintenance, you need to care about the future. If you want to avoid breakdowns in the future, you need to maintain your car before it's broken.
If you sharpen your saw it will work better when you need to use it again, but sharpening the saw doesn't get wood cut. To bother, you need to think ahead to next time. An action now for a future benefit.
Another way to look at this is to consider the cost of maintenance now vs. the cost of maintenance later. Deferring maintenance means it will cost more to fix later, because things continue to degrade as time goes by.
If it's a choice of a small hit now or a big hit later, the small hit now is the more responsible choice, even though we're biased towards the here and now.
Some things, like skills and muscles, degrade not with use but with neglect. If you learned to speak French but never practice, the skill will have withered somewhat. A little maintenance, in the form of practicing, will help maintain it. The same goes for relationships. If you don't maintain them they'll disappear on you.
Whether it's your saw, your car, or your body, stick with the maintenance now, even if it's a little inconvenient. You'll be the one reaping the benefits down the road.
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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Conversation catalysts create community

When starting a conversation, it's much safer to talk about something else. Not you, not me, the third thing that's present, whatever that is. It's threatening to interact directly with someone in that context. Nobody wants to be on the spot. 
Can you believe these bugs? Nice car, how do you like it? Pretty hot out today eh?
Dogs and babies in particular grant you admission to the club where you can talk with people without having to talk about them, or about yourself. It allows conversations and relationships to develop in a non-threatening way.
The direct approach would put someone on the spot, but what's more likely is that the conversation would just never start. No catalyst, no conversation. This concept may explain golf's popularity. There's always something new and safe to talk about. Nice drive.
It's a little weird to be standing in the front yard talking to passers by. If instead you've got an obvious reason to be there, like a garden that's being tended or a garage sale, it's suddenly ok, and people are willing to chat.
If you're out and have a dog, a baby, or something obviously noteworthy with you, strangers can ask you about it safely. No conversation starter, no conversation, no real community.
The spontaneous connections are important to building community. Making the leap from stranger to acquaintance makes a difference to the neighbourhood and can help smooth over other problems if there's a bit of a relationship first.
For example, your neighbours would be less likely to complain about your dog barking if you'd built up the relationship with conversation and maybe shared some home grown tomatoes.
These conversations that build community are impossible behind the wheel, and far more likely in the dog parks, pathways, and play structures where people have an excuse to linger.
The structure of the city tends to confine us to our cars, so that many of these natural conversations are stopped before they ever start.
Being conscious about these accidental, even trivial conversations and their role in building the community is how you build and maintain that friendly small town feel.
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Saturday, July 9, 2011

The right tool for the job

Knives by SGT Blades.

If you're struggling, ask yourself if you're using the right tool for the job. If not, getting your hands on the right tool (even if it's expensive) is often the right move.
There's something almost magical about using the right tool for the job. This talent for tools makes us human.
Throughout history, if the tools didn't work or if they caused more problems than they solved, then they were discarded. The useful tools helped define cultures, which emerge as a way of life in a place.
Containers, fire and cutting edges are the major primitive tools. When combined with a culture and a supportive environment these tools can build a rich civilization.
Tools radically expand our capabilities. From hammers to banjos to smartphones, each allows us to do something that we would otherwise be incapable of.
But you can't build a house with a banjo. You need the right tool for the job.
And some tools are better than others. To get in touch with someone, do you send a letter, email, text, tweet, or call on the phone? Or… do you talk in person, just like in the olden days?
Normally, this would be the time for a rant about how we've mostly forgotten how to make tools. That ship has mostly sailed. Thanks to civilization, the tools we use today are pretty complicated. We can't do it alone anymore.
Take for example the story of Thomas Thwaites, an artist who took it upon himself to make a toaster from scratch, trying to copy the cheapest toaster he could find. The video is on TED.
His story throws into perspective the price, complexity and performance of the tools you can get for less than an hour's work at minimum wage, especially compared to what it would take to build it yourself.
There are all sorts of problems and all sorts of tools. The right tool will make your job so much easier. The skill these days is picking the right tool for the job.
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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Too much space and the pyramid scheme of sprawl

Near Piramide Metro station in Rome.

An abundance of space would seem to be an advantage. It could be, if we had the self-control to use it properly, but we don't.
We've found ourselves on a treadmill of growth. Developers built some infrastructure, in order to sell some homes.
'Great, free roads' says the municipality. Then eventually the infrastructure needs maintenance, which the city is responsible for. Unfortunately, the tax base to pay for the repairs can't (ever) cover the cost of maintaining these all investments.
Municipalities get this money by continuing to grow. Development expands the tax base so that the municipality can pay for current maintenance. There's lots going on, though, so it doesn't seem this clear while it's happening.
It's almost impossible, politically, to resist this sort of immediate boost to revenues, especially if the treadmill's going faster and faster. However, it comes along with a time bomb: all the new development will also need to be maintained. It's the same problem as the first time, but multiplied. So you do it again. 
Pyramid schemes work really well for people at the top, but defraud people at the bottom. As the global debt crisis continues to spiral out of control, we're finding out where the bottom is.
Having lots of space entices us to squander the investment in our cities that could have gone to development instead of growth. Building at the edges is easy and cheap, but being a great city is sometimes at odds with being cheap and easy.
Smart municipalities focus their development efforts on revitalizing their core rather than continuing to squander civic vitality building at the edges.
Short election cycles make this a tough sell though, because the payoffs of sprawling development are quick, but the 25 year maintenance costs are too far away to impact current decisions.
In cities that are spatially constrained you see the vitality, the walkability, and the density that makes great cities. They also stand a better chance at financial solvency because they have a tax base supporting less infrastructure than they would have if they'd built at the edges.
We can do better, but only if we're willing to escape from the pyramid scheme of continuing suburban sprawl. It won't be easy, but it's that or get crushed by the pyramid.
We need better cities, that's clear. Increasing densities is part of that. We've got the space. What we need to develop is the self control to leave that space alone.
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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Canada Post labour dispute: a teachable moment

The mail is supposed to go in right where it says 'Closed / Fermé'.
Take your business elsewhere.

The labour dispute isn't good for Canada Post's main business, but there is some environmental upside to reducing the amount of unnecessary paper mail.
The postal system is pretty impressive. Moving pieces of paper around the country is a pretty tough gig. You have to keep them sorted and deliver them on time for pennies an item.
It's economical too. For $1.75 you can put an envelope or a postcard in a box near your house and have it delivered to another box pretty much anywhere in the world. Fifty-nine cents if it's in Canada. Most of the time it gets there just fine.
At the outset, it's a tremendous value proposition: You don't have to deliver things yourself. We'll do it for you. It saves you the time and hassle of delivering the letter or parcel, which is a good deal across town and a great deal across the country.
Canada Post last went on strike in 1997. The internet was still pretty new, and long distance phone calls were still expensive. Business got done by sending out bills and putting cheques in the mail. A postal strike would shut down vast swaths of commerce.
That power to shut down commerce is gone. Even before the strike/lockout companies were encouraging customers to switch to electronic billing. Online billing is common enough that many more people would switch over now if they only had a reason. 
Here's one: The mail stopped coming. 
If customer complacency is a major force keeping Canada Post in market share, service disruptions that force its customers to experiment with new ways of doing things isn't in its best interest. For example, if there was a transit strike and former riders got in the habit of biking or driving to work, it would be tough to get them back.
The learning and effort to switch between systems is a barrier to change, but this disruption will send some formerly steady customers to seek electronic solutions.
The inevitable loss of letter volumes through the post will reduce the costs of doing business for companies who move beyond the mail service. Moving information around on the internet is much cheaper than moving physical pieces of paper.
This lurch to adopt electronic options will help the environment by reducing non-essential paper use and help the bottom line for businesses who won't have to pay to mail quite as many things.
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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Free health food at the edge of your culinary comfort zone.

Lazy? You may already have a garden! The Dandelion is one of the first edible plants to pop up in the spring. Often considered a weed, think of it instead as a resilient self-planting early-bloomer that goes nicely in a salad or cooked in a stirfry or soup.
When you're gathering dandelion greens, look for the smallest plants, preferably before the blossom has opened. Those young leaves are the tenderest and tastiest. Once the blossoms have opened, they're much easier to spot and can be bitter. Parboiling these greens before serving makes them less bitter.
There are plenty of health benefits associated with dandelion greens. In addition to being high in vitamin A and C, it also contains lots of calcium and potassium.
Dandelion greens are a diuretic, and is sometimes used to improve digestion, help with liver disorders, reduce blood pressure and promote kidney function.
There are plenty of chemicals out there designed to kill this little healthy flower. Avoid harvesting dandelions unless you're sure the area is free of chemicals or pesticides.
Dandelion may also interfere with some antibiotics. You're responsible for your own health. Do your own research. Lots of information is out there, and speaks quite highly of this plant you probably already have in your yard, and could simply go out and pick, for free.
Dandelion Wine, made with the blossoms, yeast, sugar, water and various other ingredients according to the recipe is another way to take advantage of the bounty you didn't even realize you had. (Recipes for dandelion wine vary, and abound on the internet.)
Eating fresh dandelion greens may be a little outside your comfort zone, which means this will be a growth experience for you. It will also connect you more strongly to where food really comes from. (It's not the store.)
If you're not using pesticides or chemicals and you have dandelions available it's worth a try. Read up on how beneficial dandelions are and find recipes online. Post success stories (or disasters) here.
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Saturday, June 11, 2011

Civic Culture and the spirit of place: How to build worthy cities.

A healthy old tree demonstrates just what it is to be of a place. Its every twig perfectly tuned to its context, resources and constraints.

Our communities deserve that level of attention.

Making a city worth caring about is a worthy challenge that demands we fully develop the culture of the place where we live.

A lofty goal, to be sure, because it requires remembering how to listen to the quiet whispers of the place; a withered skill in the age of cheap energy and instant-on-distractions.

As a nation of immigrants, maybe we never really learned to listen to the quiet voices of this place. We brought a culture suited to where we were from rather than developing a culture that suits where we are.

The answers are in the land and the local community, foods, materials, skills that surround you. Focusing on the local resources will lead you to a land use, an architecture, and a community that reflects the spirit of the place.

The status quo is powerful, but you don't exactly hear of people making pilgrimages to Mississauga. Row after row of suburban houses doesn't make for the kind of community that is interested in itself, let alone the kind that would emerge as a beacon to others.

Athens. Rome. London. Kyoto. Venice. All places committed to being what they are as best they can. Being ancient helps. They've had time to figure it out, and that shouldn't stop us from striving to figure out what it means to be where we are.

By importing our culture we've taken shortcuts that kept our cities from developing into places where we can thrive. Like native plants, cultures thrive in harmony with the place where they emerged, and can become invasive when taken out of their proper context.

The choice is between the overconsumptive blandness that is the suburbs and the emergent harmony built from the stones, seeds, and souls that make a place alive.

When you boil it down, this is the civic analogue to 'be yourself'. Honour the place where you live. Everywhere else is taken. As your community develops, do what's right where you are. Listen to the quiet forces that surround you. Develop the culture that emerges from the place and you won't go too far wrong. What's built will belong.

Like growing a tree, it takes time and careful attention to bring this about, and slowly, deliberately, let's create places worth living in.

"It is for want of self-culture that the superstition of Travelling, whose idols are Italy, England, Egypt, retains its fascination for all educated Americans. They who made England, Italy, or Greece venerable in the imagination did so by sticking fast where they were, like an axis of the earth."

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance.

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Development or habitat destruction

Quit Sprawling. Build a better city.

A future with a future.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Want to be happy? Don't think too hard.

Watch out, this defies conventional wisdom: If you're about to decide about something complex, you will do better if you don't exhaustively research it.

In this case better means both objectively better results and more happiness for less effort.

There's an overwhelming amount of information out there. For simple things, it's possible to think through the decision completely, but complex decisions will certainly tempt you to doing extensive analysis in order to do the best you can.

Whether that analysis is warranted depends on your objectives. The assumption here is that you want to meet your needs and be happy with the result.

If you'd rather not be happy with the result, feel free to analyze it to death, but be aware that diminishing and sometimes even negative returns kick in on the analysis, and you are ruining your chance to be happy with the outcome.

It's a waste of time to try to process it all. Trying to figure it all out is certainly time consuming.

Functional MRI studies show that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that makes good decisions, shuts down when problems get too complex. If you try to juggle too many factors your frustration and anxiety will rule and you'll make worse decisions, or fail to decide at all.

In terms of your happiness, the more thought you put into it may get you a better result (subject to the frustration and anxiety we've already talked about) but you also get to know about all the ways you might have been able to do better.

For more info on this, refer to Sharon Begley's article "I Can't Think" in Newsweek, March 7, 2011, and the TED talks from Dan Gilbert: "Why are we happy? Why aren't we happy?" and "The Paradox of Choice" by Barry Schwartz.

You'll be happier with your jeans, your movie selection, or the house you buy if you consider only a few than if you try to look at all the options and then drive yourself nuts thinking about what you didn't get.

You did want to be happy, right?

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Don't Waste Your Willpower

Have you been neglecting your imagination?

Preparation: The work before the work

Friday, May 27, 2011

Enlightened selfishness: in it for ourselves, whatever that means

Self portrait, in a way.

We're in it for ourselves. This state of being in it for ourselves gets fuzzy when we try to nail down just who "ourselves" is. (Spoiler alert: the system is interconnected, everything is us, take care of it.)
Would you screw over your family for personal gain? Of course not. Taking care of family is as automatic as taking care of ourselves.
Would you help out a friend in a jam? Maybe they need a ride, or help moving a big couch down a tiny flight of stairs. Of course you would. Even at the cost of some personal money or time. We watch out for our friends.
Would you help out a bunch of strangers in your province if their city burned down? Donations and outpourings of support for those displaced by the Slave Lake fire would suggest that "ourselves" includes a lot of people we don't even know. Total strangers can count on our support when they need it.
Being in it for ourselves extends to people in other countries. Haiti received lots of support after its devastating earthquake.
A sharper question in this province is whether Albertans should set aside their allegiances to the Oilers or the Flames and root for the Vancouver Canucks: a Canadian team, but a rival to the hometown face. Is our sense of ourselves tied to our local franchise or the national one with a shot at the cup?
When there's a pinch somewhere, we'll help out, even if it means cheering for someone else's hockey team. We're in it for ourselves, and pretty much anyone in temporary pain can get a hand up.
We're in it for ourselves in wanting things like clean air, clean water, and a reliable food supply. Selfish? Yeah, and that's ok. To get that, taking care of the plants, animals, ecosystems and atmosphere makes all sorts of self-interested sense.
Being in it for ourselves isn't that far from being in it for everything. Fixing our spaceship is good for everybody on it.
(Vancouver in six, as long as the funky bounces keep helping out in double overtime.)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Predictably Unprecedented

A waterfall in the interior of BC, near Salmon Arm. It's not the Assiniboine, but that's ok: Water systems are connected.

The unprecedented flooding of the Assiniboine River in Manitoba is certainly making life difficult for the people who live there.
The decision to intentionally spring a leak in a dike in order to save other houses is a tough call, but you make the best decision you can with the information you have.
People on the scene seemed confident that the plan will work great as long as nothing unforeseen happens.
It's unpleasant, it's expensive, and it's an example of consequences of climate change.
The cycle we're used to is that snow falls in the mountains, freezes into the snowpack, and melts slowly and steadily all spring and summer long. This gives our rivers a nice even water flow.
With climate change, the snow that falls in the mountains melts sooner, and comes down more as rain. It doesn't stay put, much more of it heads straight for the rivers.
This gives us the unpleasant situation where we get more water than we can handle right at the beginning of the season, and then diminished water as the season wears on, to the point where we don't have the water we have learned to count on in the late summer.
This is only one example. These unprecedented events are only going to get more and more likely in the future. Don't fool yourself into thinking there's an upside. It's all downhill. How far down? Depends. On us.
There are lots of advantages to transitioning to cleaner sources of energy. Clean air. Reduced pollution. Opportunities to develop a new industry. Opportunities for self reliance. Freedom from unpredictable fossil energy prices.
This flooding is actually pretty tame compared to other potential consequences. It's also more dramatic than the reduction in river flows we should expect later in the season. As time goes on, unprecedented events are becoming more and more likely, and not in a good way.
Mother nature is in charge. She's slow to anger, but we'd do better to stay on her good side. If we avoid the unprecedented disasters we won't know it, but continuing with the business as usual approach makes those expensive disasters much more likely. Ounces of prevention are cheaper and much more effective than pounds of cure.
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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Optimizing Energy Use

Our global energy system is on cruise control. That's not the change we need.

Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are throwing the climate and therefore our easy planetary ride into jeopardy. The science on this is beyond contestation. You may have heard about it.
We would do well to address this sooner rather than later, as the costs of prevention are far below the costs of trying to fix it later.
The culprit? Fossil fuels: Coal, Oil, Natural Gas. Despite the work that they are doing to mitigate their environmental impacts, the product is the problem.
Fossil fuels are energy dense and easy to work with, and they come with a contribution to climate change. You do not want the climate change. 
Anything that we haul out from the earth's crust, burn, and pump into the sky contributes to the problem.
It's clear that a shift to renewable sources of energy will help keep greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. The easiest way to get excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is not to put it there in the first place. 
Lots of what we do uses energy. Could we accomplish our goals in other ways? Could we arrange our world so we don't need to use the energy to achieve our objectives at all? This is subtle, but it's about doing what we want, not about using energy to do it.
How can we use as little as possible? Energy efficiency is a good second question, and it's an easy thing to think about: for example a car that goes farther on a litre of gas, a refrigerator that uses electricity than your old one, or a house that doesn't leak heat in the winter.
Minimize your energy use, then think about where it comes from, and what side effects it contributes to.
This is planet earth. There are no exits. We're going to be here for a long time. Let's get comfortable with reducing our energy use, and let's get comfortable with renewables.
That's where the bridge to the future is going, at least the one that doesn't lead to disaster. Let's start now, because you do not want to try to fix this later.
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