Saturday, February 26, 2011

The three Is of conferences: Individuals, Ideas, Inspiration

Mechanical Engineer and Permaculture Advocate Rob Avis serves up ideas and inspiration at the Pathways 2 Sustainability conference that just took place in Red Deer.

No matter what we're up to, we could always do it a little better. Attending conferences is a great way to connect with individuals in your field, find out about new ideas, and get inspired.
Connecting with people: Whatever you're doing there's someone else doing something similar somewhere. They might be able to shed some new light on how you could improve. Conferences are great for this, because the people who show up are already self selected to be interested in what the conference is about.
You get to talk to people face-to-face. Even in this age of instant communication with hundreds of friends and followers there's something special, high bandwidth, even primal about face to face communication. Electronic communication can keep a relationship going and share information efficiently, but it takes body language, voice intonation, eye contact and a handshake to really connect with someone. Then use the tech to maintain the relationship.
Discovering new ideas: Once you've done something for a while it's easy to fall out of that beginner's mindset where you're constantly learning and finding interesting ways to improve. It's hard to tell if you're in a groove or in a rut. If you're willing to be open to them, conferences can bring the new ideas to you without you having to go and seek them out.
Once you know about new ways of doing things you can go try them out. Maybe in small batches, maybe only as a test, but you can find out if they work better for you. Even if most of the time they don't, that chance for a permanent improvement in what's going on could be worth a lot in the long term. Remember, ideas are easy. It's the implementation of them that's tough.
Inspiration: Once something becomes routine it's easy to lose sight of why you do it. At conferences there will be lots of information fired at you, sometimes from people or areas that you don't expect. Don't count them out. The more oblique perspectives help position you within the context of the whole, and can remind you that what you're doing is worthwhile.
Once you finally do know it all, presenting at a conference can really be worthwhile. It's a form of giving back to those who have helped you all along, and afterwards, the people who have something interesting to add will come up and ask you questions that could provoke an extension of your ideas.

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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Building more roads makes traffic worse, not better

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From a motorized frame of mind, it's easy to think that roads should go everywhere you want to go. This kind of thinking prioritizes destination over journey, and that's a mistake. The journey is at least as important.
The journey is where the adventure happens, where you can be surprised and delighted. On the journey interesting things can happen that you don't expect.
From a municipal planning perspective, roads are expensive to build and maintain. Scores of snowplows and sanders are ready to go all winter long aren't cheap to keep on standby.
That's not the worst part. The more we rely on roads to carry us from place to place, the further away everything gets. The additional space the roads take up is part of this, and it also makes it easier to sprawl by making available cheap land on the outskirts of the city.
Then there's the traffic jams. If the system has trouble it can choke off access. The first level solution would suggest building more roads. That works for a while, in the same way that smoking a cigarette temporarily alleviates a smoker's craving for nicotine. They'll be back for more.
More roads attract more cars, which makes the problem bigger, not better. Building tighter, walkable communities instead will make communities thrive rather than simply being collections of houses.
There are plenty of benefits to building walkable communities. The health benefits of using walking as your primary method of getting around are significant.
For municipal governments, the cost savings of limiting road construction and maintenance can't be overlooked.
For shopkeepers, it's clear that people don't shop from their cars, they shop when they're walking. They can look in the windows and decide to come inside far more easily than they can if they're in their cars.
Building more roads solves the wrong problem. A better question is how can we create great places for people to live, work, and play without needing to strangle ourselves with roads.
How walkable is your neighbourhood? Check for an analysis. What could make it better?

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Failure had better be an option.

No matter how good you are, you can be better. Improving is  going to require frequent trips outside your comfort zone, and you might fail while you're out there. It's scary, but it's worth it. When you risk failing at something epic, you also risk succeeding at it.
When deciding what to do, you have to choose between:
1. Guaranteeing success at something trivial.
2. Risking failure trying something outside your comfort zone.
Both of these labels are moving targets. For example, making an omelette might be routine for you, or it might be completely beyond your skills. As you learn, your comfort zone expands.
You can always wrap yourself in the warm blanket of security and pour yourself a bowl of Cheerios, confident that your breakfast is going to turn out just like you expect. Sometimes you just need to get through breakfast and on with the day, but accept that you're not going to grow in the doing of it.
Conversely if you are certain that something's going to fail,  it's probably not worth it either.
Where things start to get interesting is in that in-between area where you don't know whether something's going to work out, and you have some control over the outcome.
This is where the opportunities for personal growth emerge. Here, beyond the edges of your comfort zone, lie the things that you can stretch to accomplish. They're uncomfortable. They're scary. They will certainly teach you about what you're capable of, but you might fail.
You can look for the sure thing. You can stamp out every risk of failure and wrap yourself in blankets inside your comfort zone.  To refuse to fail is to refuse to grow. It sure is comfortable though. It won't make you better.
Failure has to be an option, because it is the trying and the growing that make life worthwhile.
"A ship in harbour is safe — but that's not what ships are built for." John A. Shedd, Salt From My Attic, 1928

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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Garbage Day.

Every week, someone you probably don't know comes along  and takes stuff that used to belong to you. Stuff that you don't want anymore, and makes it vanish from your life forever.
The old garbage disappears and makes space for the new.
As various cities have shown, when garbage collectors go on strike we get bogged down pretty quickly.
There's two reasons for this. Part of it is our responsibility. We waste a lot of stuff. The other part is that our culture and our systems make it the default to waste a lot of stuff. Systems like the the grocery store and the garbage man.
Imagine, for a moment, how your consumption patters would change if you had to keep all of your garbage. Then go watch the movie "Garbage! The revolution starts at home" to see how it played out with people who actually tried this.
Where does garbage go? Away. The trouble with 'away' is that it doesn't really exist. Everything has to go somewhere, and whether you burn it or bury it, it's never really away.
We are well trained consumers though, and by now most of you have made the leap to recycling as part of the solution. Recycling is good, but it's really only our third choice.
Take bottled water, for instance. The benefit you're looking for is really just to be able to drink safe, clean water.
You don't need a bottle at all. With fountains, or hypothetically, clean wells or springs, you could drink water without ever needing to use a water bottle. It's not always convenient, but it's a possibility.
Next best is to reuse the bottle, and that's where your Nalgene, Sigg, or CamelBak water bottle comes into play. The bottle provides convenience and portability without requiring the tons of plastic that bottled water does.
Some glass beer bottles are reused as well. The glass can handle being returned, cleaned and resold, and systems are in place to handle it. Plastic can't handle that sort of treatment. Other systems like glass milk bottles were effective as well, but have given way to cheaper lighter, less reusable materials. 
Recycling is at best, a third option, but it's still better than the trash.
The takeaway message here is to buy consciously. Prioritize your three Rs, and reduce your contribution to society's waste. Reduce first. With enough reduction, maybe one day we can make garbage day a thing of the past.
Bonus points: If everyone reduces their garbage enough, you may be able to get your property taxes reduced, thanks to the reduction in tipping fees.

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