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Sow with cub, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska. (c) Ron Niebrugge

Sow with cub, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska. (c) Ron Niebrugge

I have decided to try and come out of hibernation. Yes, that’s what I said. Out of hibernation, with winter just beginning. As an environmentalist and nature lover, I attest this really does makes sense, given how the seasons are all mixed up with global climate change. And as an expectant and ultimately new mother (yes! I was blessed to become a mother this past year) my time and energy has largely been required elsewhere to, of course, the most important job of all.

As a re-entry point, I thought I would blog about what I have been up to over the past while and where I think I may be heading (I did admittedly manage to write a short blog post about the nastily invasive plant, garlic mustard a while ago. But that was meant to be informative, without any personal reflection or such). For better or for worse, a fair number of things have been going on in my life, thanks largely to my wee one’s good temperament and my very supportive husband. Here they are in brief below.

Waterloo Mayor’s Forum Series on Building Resilient Communities

This three-part event series (held during the winter and spring of 2011) was a highly-ambitious project, involving a partnership between TransitionKW, The Upstart Collaboratory for Collaborative Culture Designing and other groups. We set about to shape no less than the very thinking, at the community level, about how to create a more resilient (meaning the ability to deal with changes, stresses, and shocks) community. We sought to achieve this by helping participants 1) understand the barriers to environmental and social change, 2) identify ways to overcome these barriers, and 3) explore what a more resilient future would look like.

What were the outcomes? Well, we forged a lot of great friendships and had a lot of fun. in the process, I believe we really got people pondering (myself included) what needs to happen if we want to stop heading towards the train-wreck of environmental, social and economic problems that we’re heading towards right now.

Tough Questions around Aggregate Mining

Yes, the rock, gravel, cement, and sand that we use to build our homes actually must come from somewhere, and the results can be quite contentious. My volunteer involvement with these matters started with the Melanchton mega-quarry, for which I made a presentation to the City of Waterloo Council, requesting that they petition the province for a full environmental assessment of the project.

The request was turned down at the municipal level (though it was eventually permitted at the provincial level), but continuing my work on the broader issue of aggregates in general, I presented at a PitSense event last April and later an all-party provincial review of aggregate extraction this past July.

What have I learned from all this involvement? Well, the topic of aggregate extraction is a highly contentious one, albeit falling under the radar of the general public. Whether it is possible to reach some sort of agreement amongst the various disagreeing parties remains to be seen. I believe a crucial step involves opening up the conversation to the broader questions of “Why do we feel we need so much aggregate?” and “Is the world we want to live in compatible with continuing to use it at the rate we have been?”

Increasing an Appetite for Local Food Resiliency

My involvement with TransitionKW (for which I have held various positions including Facilitator and now Ambassador, to allow time for other things) and its focus on permaculture, that seeks to grow food and generally live in a manner with as opposed to against nature, led to giving a presentation on pollination for a Jane Goodall event this past March. My takeaway? It turns out that by planting wildflowers, we can not only protect bees, but increase the productivity of our gardens, orchards, and fields!

My growing awareness of matters related to food helped prepare me for another presentation in May. This one was related to food security and global climate change for a Connect the Dots event in Waterloo. (This event was meant as a follow-up to the 350.org rallies that happened the year previous, meant to raise awareness about growing levels of C02 in the atmosphere and the need for action by worldwide leaders convening in Copenhagen). Instead of focusing on climate change mitigation though, this event sought instead to explore what is and could be done to prepare for and adapt to the changes to weather that are and will continue to happen. This again was a great experience – providing me an opportunity to sit down and think about all the ways that we can make our food system more resilient as well as recognize the myriad of things being done in our community already.

With this taste of the complexity of issues we face relating to food, I eagerly jumped at the change to speak to an urban planning class at the University of Waterloo about local food resiliency. I should perhaps mention at this point that my knowledge about food has been developing also as a result of my involvement with the Community Garden Council of Waterloo Region (for which I was Communications Lead and am now a Member-at-Large) and KW Urban Harvester (for which I am a coordinator).

The experience of giving a presentation in an academic setting was so exciting, and I was so grateful for all the help that I received, that I made the presentation publicly available. Not wanting the presentation to go to waste, I shared it with all the candidates running for the Kitchener-Waterloo provincial by-election this summer, and ended up working with the Waterloo Region Food System Roundtable in an effort to review all the candidates on their opinions on food. Unfortunately (and to be fair, at least partly due to issues of it being a quick election), I only managed to interview Green Party candidate Stacey Danckert, the recording of which I have now just posted.

With a more solid understanding of food issues beneath me, I also ended up volunteering to facilitate a workshop on access to healthy, environmentally safe food. The workshop was for an Environmental Justice Convergence event by the Waterloo Public Interest Research Group (WPIRG) at the end of this past August. It involved a panel discussion with various people involved in community gardens, followed by a conversation café. While the turnout was not very large, I was very happy with the event including the quality of questions that were asked. My favorites were, “How do we raise awareness about food issues to the public at large?” and “How do we share this information without making people defensive?” Important questions all.

As of now, I am continuing to further my understanding of food issues by becoming engaged in conversations about the Canadian European Trade greement (CETA) and its potential impact on local food procurement policies. I have been doing so with the Waterloo Citizens Environmental Advisory Committee (WCEAC). More to follow hopefully in the days ahead as to what develops on that front.

Tapped out on bottled water

This is another interesting issue. It both brings the promising potential for an immediate lessening of our impact to Mother Earth, while at the same time raising sharp criticism from industries like Nestle (with a bottling plant no further than nearby Guelph). As part of a single-use bottled water subcommittee of WCEAC, I have been helping to raise awareness about the issue in the city of Waterloo. The latest formal presentation on the matter was made to the City of Waterloo Council on April 23 of this year.

Political, Internet, and Just Plain-Old Democracy

The Greeks claim to have started it, and nearly two and a half millennia later we still do not seem to have gotten it right (for recent commentary on this, see the Sarnia Observer). Groups like Fair Vote Canada are still pulling out their hair as to why we can get majority governments with only a minority of the vote. In environmental terms, I know many would agree that this has meant that parties with a ‘greener’ agenda have not been able to get their concerns acted on (let alone their voices heard).

Conversations like this inspired myself and a few others to organize a Democracy Café last fall. While not a huge turnout, we had some interesting discussions. Perhaps my favorite was the idea of a citizen-driven governance system, where leadership is encouraged and developed from the grass-roots up, and feeds into higher levels of political decision-making. Is this the solution? Well, maybe not entirely, but it would sure help a lot I think.

As for Internet democracy, you are probably wondering what at all this has to do with environmental protection. And I felt the same way, until I started thinking about it a bit. But there are increasingly looming threats of Big Brother surveillance and the already existing ‘silos’ of information (i.e. in academia, commercial businesses, government) preventing us from solving the problems we so desperately need to address, to name just a few issues.

These matters motivated me to help organize an Internet Democracy Café this past month and start a blog where I have summarized my thinking on the matter as well as provided some references on the topic. My hope is that this will help motivate us ‘environmentalists’ to get out of our silos, and start connecting-the-dots between the myriad of issues we are facing.

***

Well, that about sums it up. Except to answer the question perhaps as to why on earth I have been doing all this. I will answer to say that it’s not that I have had some sort of ‘master plan.’ My philosophy on life, that emphasizes the importance of the process by which we do things, causes me not to approach things like this. But I am fascinated by the learning opportunities created by opening ourselves to new experiences and ideas. And of course, by working and aligning ourselves with different people, we can achieve even more.

No doubt these initiatives largely feed into helping me with my chosen profession as an Urban Planner. I have had plenty of opportunity to research, assess policies, review development proposals, explore the merits of processes, and so on, with everything I have been up to. All of these things have been great learning ground to become a fully accredited planner.

I hope though that as I re-enter the workforce, I can maintain my sense of adventure for learning new things and having new experiences. I believe also that this wide array of activities should give me a broader basis to consider questions around planning and how we can more effectively manage our community resources for the public good.

There are some other ideas that I have on the fire, but for now ‘nuf said’ as they say. This is one mamma bear who just might head with her wee one back to the den for a moment to ponder things a bit more. After all, there’s no point in being too hasty and you can never exactly predict what will happen next. Just look at the weather…

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Food

Copyright Pam Brophy .

Are you…Concerned about eating in a more environmentally sustainable fashion, but not sure how? Wanting to be a culinary adventurer, but feeling that one must search abroad for tasty delights? Wanting to read a funny, interesting read as well? If this is the case, I strongly recommend that you give Margaret Webb’s book, Apples to Oysters, a try.

Working a zigzagged trail from the east to west of Canada, Webb carefully selects eleven food or drink producers to teach us about how to be kind to our palette and/or health, and the earth all at the same time. What is perhaps even more fascinating is how we find out that producing food in an ecologically sound way often makes good business sense too.

Take as a case in point Johnny Flynn’s farmed Colville Bay oysters from Prince Edward Island (farming being a practice preferable to fishing which in the past has seriously threatened oyster populations in this bay). They are so delectable that at one point, Webb’s partner jokingly asks whether she would go straight, if only to get some more of his oysters. With most of his oysters being choice, he is able to command top price for his produce.

But wait. There’s more. Like the wildly popular, recently discovered Ambrosia apple from British Columbia, which just so happens to be organic. Or the “earthy and sensual” soft cheese from Quebec, produced by the milk of cattle that feed on marsh grass. And last but not least, a Niagara winery committed to minimizing pesticide use (a practice called integrated pest management) that is also the maker of a leading Riesling ice wine.

I could go on, but there are the health matters as well. One that may be of particular interest is the mainly grass-fed beef from Alberta, which has a lovely flavour and much less fat than grain-fed beef. Webb also introduces us to the roasted (and sometimes, due to customer demand, organic) flax seed that, as she phrases it, makes you go “ding ding”, as regular as a “church bell.”

While many food producers in this book seem to be struggling to keep up with customer demand, the author is careful not to paint an entirely rosy picture for farmers considering following a similar path. For instance, we learn about a couple with an organic farm in the Yukon who cannot make mortgage payments after a series of crop failures (they plan to start again, but this time on a smaller scale).

Another caveat provided to readers is to not be hasty when deciding what is “environmentally sustainable”. For example, we are told copper – classified as an organic spray used as a fungicide – is “deadly” poisonous and does not break down. Thus, the owners of the winery, I mentioned earlier, prefer not to use it on their grapes.

The author should be commended for providing an honest portrait of the trials and tribulations of  “ecologically-sensitive” food production, for she has a definite reason to be biased towards such efforts. As readers are told, the decline in health and eventual death of her father may have been caused by the pesticides used on the family farm.

All in all, Webb has written a very worthwhile book, providing valuable information for “foodies” and environmentally conscious consumers alike. However, rather than laying things out in black-and-white, she provides ample (excuse the pun) food-for-thought. So…get a copy of this book and enjoy. Who knows? You might be inspired to take a gastronomic trip of your own!

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