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Joined hands

Photograph provided courtesy of Fred Hunsberger

This June I am planning to go to a gathering put on by the Tamarack Institute in Hamilton called, “Re-Imagining Cities~ Re-Engaging Citizens.” And I am excited! So much so that I feel absolutely full of ideas and have decided to blog again about a host of different things. To start, I’d like to explain a little bit more about what will be happening at the Tamarack gathering, why the theme of this gathering speaks so powerfully to me, and how I feel this is something our communities need right now.

The skinny on what’s happening

First, let me give a brief overview of what will be happening. The overarching theme of the gathering will be exploring how to smartly engage with community members in the creation of strong cities, starting at the smallest level of individual neighbours and moving up to neighbourhood groups and other community organizations. And, not to just attempt this, or go through the motions, but to create needed change intentionally, strategically, and in a shared way, in order to harness the full resources of the community.

Specific topics that will be explored include establishing strong citizen-municipal partnerships, and how the ways we relate affects our communities. We will also get to the nitty-gritty of community building by thinking about its relation to regional food systems, and the impact of community on social isolation and loneliness. This wide-ranging agenda is targeted at anyone concerned with deepening community, including community builders, neighbourhood leaders, policy makers, planners, and researchers.

Given the gathering’s theme, it is appropriate that President of Tamarack, Paul Born, will be speaking at the event, sharing insights from his book Deepening Community. As the name of his book suggests, he explores the need to develop deep community, by which he means places where we get to know and care for one another, celebrate our common stories and diversity, and develop a belief that we are all ‘in this together.’

My journey of community engagement so far

I am looking forward to this gathering for a number of reasons, but the greatest one is that I like how it will be taking issues down to the micro level of communities and neighbourhoods. I think it is partly my long-time commitment as an environmentalist that draws me to this work. I’ve wholeheartedly embraced the adage ‘think globally, act locally,’ and believe that trying to make changes in this world starts at the community level.

My enthusiasm might seem a bit surprising, given that I am an Urban Planner and that planners often create legal instruments like laws and policies that shape, at a high level, how we live. And indeed, I have done this both as a planner and a community organizer, examining for example how federal trade agreements could affect local food procurement and the influence of the provincial legislative framework on pit and quarry management. I have also attempted to make other grand sweeping changes by speaking on global climate change, presenting on the importance of pollination, and running workshops on local food production. Throughout this work, I have been thinking a great deal about what is needed to make broad changes throughout the country, if not the world.

But to be honest, I am more hopeful about working to bring change from the ground up at the community level, and getting involved by sitting on my city’s environmental committee to make municipal level change, coordinating a community garden, or simply caring for the woods behind my house (removing invasive plants and litter) and making soup for people I care about.  My conviction that change IS possible at the local level is so strong that I even helped organize a three-part resiliency series for my city in partnership with Jean Robertson at the Upstart Collaboratory for Collaborative Culture Designing, the then Mayor of Waterloo, Brenda Halloran, and various other community organizations and individuals. By resiliency, I mean the ability to deal with changes, stresses, and shocks, such as a shortage of food.

Moving towards deep community

There are many reasons why I feel we need to move to a deeper sense of community where we know and care for one another. In economic terms alone, we all end up paying for a lack of deep community. For example, providing housing is actually cheaper than leaving homeless people on the streets, because it costs less than funding shelters, emergency care and correctional services for them, with one report showing that costs can be three times less.

Another economic reason for building deep community is the effects of helping children early in life. Examples can include investment in early learning or home learning, all of which can have benefits to society as the children grow up, such as increasing their likelihood of holding down a job or volunteering in the community.

At the deeper social and emotional level, lack of community can lead to a host of challenges including mental health problems, fear of crime, and the previously touched on debilitating sense of isolation. Moreover, even if we are not experiencing these problems ourselves, we are impacted and can suffer when we witness the suffering of others. Although more from of an environmental perspective, Joanna Macy talks about this sort of thing in her book, World as Lover, World as Self, with how people often end up feeling discouraged, depressed or overwhelmed from witnessing the troubles going on in the world today.

Next steps

Attending this Tamarack gathering on “Re-Imagining Cities” will be a big step for me compared to what has occupied me mainly of late. In addition to the various community level activities listed above, what I have left out up to this point is that my time has been occupied at the extreme micro-community level with caring for our young daughter. It is also for her that I feel going in June makes sense, because I have a strong belief that major change is needed for her to have the kind of future I wish for her. This change will require more than what I can do on my own, and calls for an intentional connection with others in the community.

Out of this wish for my daughter and my commitment to deepening community, next steps for me following attending the gathering will be to report back on what happened. It is my intention not only to listen and learn, but also to take advantage of the opportunity to network, connect and share my ideas. If this excites you as much as it does me, stay tuned for my upcoming blog posts. This way the dialogue around how we might create deep community can continue and broaden, to include those unable to attend – for the benefit of us, our neighbourhoods and cities, and the planet as a whole.

This article was originally posted on the Tamarack Institute’s site,

Photo by Tevaprapas. From the Wikipedia Commons.

Photo by Tevaprapas. From the Wikipedia Commons.

Yes. Sometimes all you can do is sit tight and wait… On this crazy, wind-swept ship of life that is.

Please excuse this overused metaphor and let me explain more. I am not suggesting an approach of doing nothing. There are lots of things that painfully need addressing in the world, and a laissez-faire approach will not help. It is just that I am finding much can be observed, learned and ultimately achieved by taking in the landscape of where one is at. Whether that be at a family gathering (where I was at a few weeks ago) or any number of places (party, movie theatre, hairdresser, sitting at home etc.)

To be honest, I am feeling much more inwardly peaceful and becoming (I think) much more outwardly effective by taking into account the direct sphere of my potential influence and seeking to genuinely connect (i.e. making meaningful eye contact, listening, and relating) with people. This is opposed to more-or-less running out onto “street corners” (aka environmental events) in a proselytizing, Greenpeace-like fashion and trying to lure, herd, and browbeat people into changing.

To be honest, looking back I don’t know where I was exactly trying to get to or what I was trying to accomplish with all the environmental networking I’ve been doing in the past. Who was I trying to meet? What was I hoping to get done? How did I think change would happen?

Not that my past efforts have been a waste of time — I learned a lot and formed many important friendships. Nor do I think that people who do this are necessarily making poor choices, as I honour where they are at and what they feel they need to do. Just that there are so many people that I see on a daily basis that I can form important relationships with and work with to help bring about change. Even if that change is, sometimes, just in myself.

So, to bring this back down 20,000 feet, a few weeks ago at my family gathering I talked to my brother about why he likes firecrackers (yes, firecrackers!) and made plans to go on an important, family- and relationship-building walk in the woods with him and his children. And my sister-in-law’s father opened up to me about his grocery shopping habits and preferences, which is about the first time we’ve ever spoken at length. I met a little friend that my niece made today and in the process met the friend’s grandmother, who seemed like quite a caring individual although wanting a bit more company. Finally, my mother-in-law, who has been caring for my father-in-law with dementia, shared with me that she is looking forward to some time by herself next week (thanks to a community program that my father-in-law is getting involved in). I found myself greatly treasuring all these encounters and exchanges.

So, now, feeling now much more at peace with the swarm of oftentimes seemingly misdirected and insane activity going on around me. And much more prepared and willing to continue helping adjust the sails, if only a little bit, to shift humanity’s course. As a mother who spends a great deal of time nursing, cleaning dirty hands, and changing wet nappies, to name a few things, I take great comfort in this. And for this reason I share this deep meta-reflection with all of you.

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 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…

Phto by Fred Hsu. From the Wikimedia Commons.

We face many environmental problems today. So many that the situation can appear overwhelming. For some, the tendency may be to act like an ostrich, by “burying one’s head in the sand”, and ignoring it. Others can choose to do the opposite, and rush around in a frenzied mayhem, attempting to address every single issue.

Those falling in the first camp may end up only further contributing to the situation. This is because they choose to block out their concerns by chasing consumerist rewards (i.e. a new car, big house) that further tax the planet. They may also choose careers that harm the planet, justifying their actions with the attitude that “If they don’t do it, somebody will.”

As for those in the second camp, while they may make some progress in the short-term, eventually they will likely become burnt out. In the process, they leave the strands of many unfinished projects in their wake. Which can leave those who were working with them feeling more discouraged than when they started. This is because all their efforts would seem for naught.

So where is the balance? How should we respond while avoiding the problems of both the “ostrich” and the frenzied project organizer? I cannot claim to have all the answers, but as a starting point I strongly recommend reading Stephanie Kaza’s inspiring book, Mindfully Green. In this book, she advocates following the “green practice path.” A Buddhist inspired text, undertaking this path is explained to basically involve 1) gaining a wider view of how our actions may be harming the planet and 2) finding ways to reduce this harm.

Kaza gives the example of how this relates to food. Eating food such as meat can cause water pollution, cause animals to suffer, harm the consumer through the causation of heart disease and cancer, and so on. However, it may be that for certain reasons (e.g. living in a colder climate, or I would add having a certain body type) you may find it necessary to consume at least some meat.

The key thing is to start asking the difficult questions about how much you can realistically do to lead a more ethical life. Embarking on this process is something that Kaza informs us is referred to as a “koan.” Based on Zen Buddhism, this is a continually unfolding puzzle that takes more than mental effort to answer. “You live with a koan,” she says, “you wrestle with it, you get stumped by it, you have sudden breakthroughs with it…”

Food as well as other basic daily activities, such as water consumption and waste production also cited by Kaza, can be a valuable starting point. After all, we all eat, drink, and make purchases.

However, I would suggest there are many other applications. For instance, how do the relationships that we form, and how we interact with others, affect a desire to not inflict harm? How do our choices about whether to have a family affect the planet? And one that I referred to earlier and that I often grapple with is, what impact does my chosen career have on the earth?

These are difficult questions and one cannot expect to come to answers immediately. “If you come to answers too quickly, you will have missed the deeper insight hidden in the questions,” she says. By the same token, do not expect to find absolute answers to all your questions. Instead, quoting poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Kaza reminds us that we must “learn to love the questions.”

There is much else I could say about Kaza’s book. Such as the need for self-care, to ensure that we have the energy to carry out our work (e.g. balancing the need to put bread on the table with a desire to help the planet). The helpfulness of considering joining a group, where others may have answers to the questions you are seeking. And, finally, the importance of commitment, or in other words taking a “vow”, to prevent harm to others and the planet. For, as Kaza states, “the pledge…helps to strengthen that intention.”

If you wish to learn more about the green practice path, I would strongly recommend reading Kaza’s book. However, for my purposes here,  I would like to end by saying I feel it is important that we consider taking up this path. We may not have all the answers or know where it will lead. But what can be more important than reducing harm to this planet and its inhabitants? It may be frightening, taking that first step. But once started, I believe many shall find that it is essential to finding a truly meaningful and rewarding life.

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Forget the “wisdom to know the difference.” There are real problems out there that need solving, and adopting serenity will do nothing to address that. That is the claim of a wonderful book I read this month called Influencer: The Power to Change Anything by Kerry Patterson et al.

Why do I think this book is so wonderful? Well, because this book seems to offer solutions to many of the environmental issues that we face. And despite the work of many committed individuals, the message about the seriousness of the environmental problems we’re facing does not seem to be getting through. At least in a manner that is mainstream and quick enough to be truly helpful. As testimony to this situation, the very book I am discussing does not pause even once to consider its application to environmental matters. Weight loss, worker productivity, disease control in Africa, and so on, sure. But not the environment.

To ensure this invaluable book does not escape the radar of those wishing to bring about environmental change, I would like to summarize its main points and recommendations.

  1. Verbal persuasion alone rarely works. There are many reasons people resist change, and without addressing these reasons, any efforts to change people’s actions through the simple use of words will be unsuccessful.
  2. Identify the behaviours in need of changing. To rephrase the authors’ words to an environmental issue, people need to know that they should drive less rather than just saying, “Global Climate Change is coming! Global Climate Change is coming!” Doing the latter will do nothing but create worry.
  3. Inform people which behaviours are in greatest need of change. As an example, identify actions that can reduce the most garbage, whether that is through recycling or composting.
  4. Change personal motivation. After all, people will not alter their actions unless they desire to do so. A person may ask, for instance, why should I stop driving my gas-powered car even if it contributes to acid rain?
  5. Create opportunities for direct experience. For instance, provide people with the opportunity to participate in a community garden to learn as an aside about all the friends and acquaintances they can make. To encourage participation, why not make it a competition? As an example, see which city can reduce their per capita water consumption the most. In the process, it becomes fun to take a short shower, rather than being something that one deprives oneself of.
  6. Generate vicarious experiences. As an example, if someone is nervous about cycling in the city, let them see someone who is doing it. Or tell a story that does so. Stories can also help people envision ‘what if’ scenarios. An example that comes to mind is the movie, The Day After Tomorrow, that made vivid the potential impacts of global climate change. Stories are helpful because they provide the concrete, vivid and often emotional detail necessary to get ideas across while still maintaining people’s attention.
  7. Connect a desired behaviour to a person’s sense of self. Another way to influence personal motivation, an example would be to instill in children a love of nature. That way they will naturally want to protect it.
  8. Make people feel like they can positively answer the question, “Can I do it?” Without feeling enabled, people will give up in despair. This is tough for big issues like global change. But organizations like and the Transition Town movement which provide people with something to organize around can really help. They instill in people a feeling of hope that they are not alone and will eventually succeed.
  9. Harness the power of opinion leaders. The book cites how over 85 percent of people will not adopt a particular behaviour until leaders in their circle of peers do so. Clearly, environmentalists would do well to seek out opinion leaders in their community if they wish to effect change.
  10. Enlist the power of social capital. This basically means working together in a group to tackle problems that can seem daunting when working individually. That’s because people in groups can come up with solutions, see ‘blind spots’, perform tasks, and achieve solidarity (see point #8) that individuals alone could not. For instance, why not form a co-op to purchase solar panels in bulk, thereby reducing the price?
  11. Use incentives wisely. Provide rewards that come soon, are desirable, and are clearly tied to desired behaviours. An example could be a company that pays its employees not to drive to work, and instead arrive through alternate means. Despite the seemingly insurmountable problems of air pollution and global climate change, employees are given an immediate reward for helping address the problem.
  12. Employ punishments sparingly. Be careful when providing negative reinforcement. Although results may be achieved in the short term, eventually people may push back. Examples relating to the environment can include littering and car idling. People may become resentful for being reprimanded for such behaviours and just end up performing them still in secret.
  13. Change the structural environment. Three pieces of advice here: i) simplify, simplify, simplify; ii) make the “invisible visible”; and iii) bring people together. For instance, make the recycle bin accessible. Report people’s monthly water usage and run newspaper articles on ignored environmental problems. And finally, run events where people can get together (a rare occurrence nowadays in our culture of ‘cocooning’) to start identifying and working on solutions to environmental issues!

There. Whew! That about sums it up. Excuse the length, but there was a lot of material to get through.

What’s the basic message? Well, there’s no ‘magic pill’ to getting people to take action to fix the environment. But don’t give up and meekly accept feelings of serenity. Rather, boldly and thoughtfully seek to bring about change. The methods at your disposal are many and the potential benefits are endless!

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Gifts under a tree.

Photo by Kelvin Kay. From the Wikimedia Commons.

Consumerism. Wish you could escape it? Particularly at this time of the year, when hopes of holiday cheer frequently seem to disappear in a frenzy of shopping madness? Well, already over a half a century ago, famous psychoanalyst Erich Fromm was laying the very foundation for how to do this in his most famous book, The Art of Loving.

How does he do this? Well, in a nutshell, he achieves this by wisely noting, consumerism has come to be used as a substitute for love.

Admittedly this is not the central point of the book. (And I would highly recommend a slow and thoughtful read over this wide-ranging but short and to-the-point work). Nonetheless I believe Fromm has a firm handle on this ill of society, that quite arguably has even a stronger hold on us today. For as he insightfully states, consumerism takes many forms including “sights, food, drinks, cigarettes, people, lectures, books, movies…”

What is more, the products that we consume have been standardized. This is because modern capitalism needs men “whose tastes are standardized and can be easily influenced and anticipated.” Of course, there are some variations in the products that we consume, like different initials on a handbag or sweater; however, these serve only to create a feeling of difference “when in reality there is very little left.”

These circumstances become even more concerning when combined with the radical division of labour that has led to the routinized nature of work. Placing a greater value on the production of goods over human life, modern capitalism has required the expectation that “men” be willing to “fit into the social machine without friction.” As a result, “[h]uman relations are essentially those of alienated automatons, each basing his security on staying close to the herd, and not being different in thought, feeling, or action [emphasis added].”

(To drive home the point as to why this is so alarming, Fromm frighteningly reflects on how “modern man” closely reflects the picture that Huxley describes in “Brave New World.” In this book, physically well looked after, but emotionally bereft characters are bombarded with slogans like “‘When the individual feels, the community reels’” and “‘Everybody is happy nowadays.’”)

What is the alternative to all of this? Well, as Fromm repeatedly states, we can form truly loving relationships where we get to know the center of a person, or in other words achieve “central relatedness”.

By reviewing his exploration of the nature of love, one learns that achieving this will require:

  1. careful attention to the needs of other individuals,
  2. readiness to act to promote their welfare,
  3. respect for their unique individuality, and
  4. an effort to get to know them.

One also must be willing to grow in maturity to see others and oneself as we truly are (something which Fromm refers to as “objectivity”) as well as to have faith that humankind (or “mankind” as he states) including oneself can become better.

No small order of course. But Fromm at least provides us with something worthy to aim for. And in the process, maps out at least some of the course we need to follow to leave consumerism behind us.

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The Earth seen from Apollo 17.

Photo by NASA. From the Wikimedia Commons.

I have been writing in the past several months about various different environmental issues and posing various practical and philosophical solutions. And while that is all fine and dandy as they say, today I had a realization.

What about the big picture?

I mean, great. All these ideas are fine. But what exactly are we supposed to do? And not just a few things. But the whole enchilada, as they say.

After all, we have been working since, quite arguably, the 1970s with the advent of Earth Day to bring about environmental change. And look where it has got us. We now have the BP oil spill, the threat of drilling in the Arctic, an ever increasing problem with global climate change, and more. Our efforts to use reusable mugs, programmable thermostats, and the odd carpool simply have not cut the mustard, so to speak.

In two words, I feel that what we need is extreme cooperation. I mean, seeing people seriously come together in new and innovative ways to solve these problems.

What form would this cooperation take? Well, to draw on planning theory (which I can’t help but do, given my background in urban planning), I think we need to take a long hard look at feminist planning theory. This facet of planning theory advocates the creation of things like

1) common play areas, gardens, and dining halls,
2) communal kitchens, and
3) cooperative garages.

Now my crunchy granola friends (yes, believe it or not, there are some who are even “greener” than me), inform me that this type of arrangement is called an “intentional community” (with other terms, like “cohousing” and “ecovillages” falling under this umbrella.)

When you think about it a little, this sort of thing really makes a lot of sense. By using communal kitchens for instance, food could be cooked more efficiently in larger batches (which is important given that home food preparation, according to Just Food by James E. McWilliams, uses 25% of the total energy required to produce food). Additionally, fewer rooms would need heating since not so many rooms would be in use.

By working together more, other efficiencies could be gained. For instance, people could make trips together to places like stores. What is more, we could implement these changes quickly, using existing infrastructure. For instance, a street in a typical suburb could designate one house to be the “hub” where people do things cooperatively.

Now you might think this idea sounds a bit idealistic and unrealistic. After all, people are notorious for not getting along with their neighbours. Which is why so many have taken to cocooning in their homes (with their home movie-theatres and work-out rooms no less). But I say, if getting along is all that’s required to get us out of this environmental quagmire that we’re in, it’s worth a try. Is it not?

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The situation today is like flying one of those pedal-driven contraptions with flapping wings that people created before discovering the laws of aerodynamics. At first, when the flight begins, all appears well. The airman has been pushed off the edge of the cliff and is pedaling away. But the aircraft is slowly falling.

Thus speaks a fictional gorilla in the book, Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, after which the book is named. He does not communicate in a conventional manner, however, speaking mysteriously to the author through his eyes.

As he goes on to say, ten thousand years ago, humanity embarked on a similar “civilizational flight.” But our craft wasn’t designed according to any theory at all. Like the imaginary airman, we “were totally unaware that there is a law that must be complied with in order to achieve civilizational flight. “

As for what that law is, Ishmael calls it the law of “limited competition”. This is the law whereby populations are kept in check by limited food supplies. We falsely assume that we’re exempt from this law and that we can continue expanding and growing our population forever.

When did we adopt this attitude? It was with the advent of the “agricultural revolution” by people whom Ishmael calls the “Takers”. These people embarked on the gradual task of destroying all competitors for their food. This included the “competitors twice removed” such as plants crowding out grasses that fed their “game”. To make things worse, we have a materialistic culture that is “[c]onsuming the world.” By contrast, Ishmael refers to the so-called primitive peoples that lived in greater harmony with nature the “Leavers”.

Our misinterpretation of the Biblical creation story supports this attitude, Ishmael says. This is the story whereby Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and are expelled from the Garden of Eden. From it, the Takers have derived the conclusion that humanity is meant to be agriculturalists and subdue or “rule” the earth.

However, as Ishmael intriguingly argues, the story was actually written by the ancestors of the Hebrews who were originally “Leavers” (i.e. pastoralists). This explains why the “gods” withheld the very knowledge humanity needed to fulfill our supposed “destiny”. It also explains why agriculture is not portrayed as a desirable choice, but rather a curse whereby food must now be wrested from the ground by our “sweat”.

Ishmael is not suggesting we go back to being hunter-gatherers. Even Leaver cultures, he says, sometimes practiced a degree of farming or animal husbandry. Rather, the point is about becoming stewards of the Earth and letting the other peoples (i.e. “Leavers”) and creatures of this world live.

There are two reasons we should do this, according to Ishmael. Firstly, biodiversity is valuable in how it greatly increases the likelihood of life surviving changing conditions (e.g. an evolving climate). Secondly, other species have the incredible potential of becoming capable of what we have become!

In this light, the importance of the gorilla to humanity becomes apparent. Without the gorilla (and other species), we lack a sense of purpose. And so we find ourselves just going through the motions when doing things like dealing with our waste and stopping pollution. With other species like the gorilla still in existence, we can completely rethink the role for ourselves and our vision for the world.

Thus, the book ends with the following words written on a poster of Ishmael’s:


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Photo by R. K. Singam From the Wikimedia Commons.

It is a belief many of us hold dear. That is with respect to how the future is with our children. If we teach them about the importance of environmental protection, they will make the changes needed to ensure a sustainable future. Yes, we have made and continue to make many environmental blunders. And yes, without a doubt, there are many who do not care about these blunders. Or at least enough to do something about it. But the children will be able to fix all of this.

The Source of Frustration

Oh boy. Allow me to take a deep breath. Why, do you ask? Because I must admit this sort of thinking has been anathema to me for a long time. The environmental problems we are facing must be addressed now. If we wait for our children to become involved, it will likely be too late. Precious species and ecosystems will be permanently lost; people will suffer from often environmentally-linked health issues like cancer and asthma; and the climate may be irrevocably damaged as a result of global climate change.

Based on such thinking, surely the solution lies in targeting those who are making the critical decisions affecting our environment today. By that I mean the adults, or, from a child’s (by which I also mean a youth’s) perspective, the “grown ups.” Amongst them are the businesspeople, the politicians, the bureaucrats, the leaders, the volunteers, who carry much of the power to guide us towards making more environmentally-responsible choices.

But does focusing on such individuals really hold the solution? Should we really channel all of our efforts towards them, at the expense of children? Well, a few years later and hopefully somewhat wiser, I have rethought my position.

The Importance of Environmental Education

For one thing, children have tremendous power to affect change by their own actions. An example that comes to mind which is relevant to Ontario is “Reduce the Juice”, a youth-led climate change organization. In Waterloo, they held a number of great events aimed at educating the public and themselves on how to conserve and use renewable energy. Additionally, for Earth Day in Waterloo Region, students from both elementary and high schools have participated in a wide range of activities including garbage pick-up, planting and caring for trees, and conserving energy.

An additional matter is the ability of children to influence their parents. For this reason, David Suzuki regrets not focusing on educating children 20 years ago when he started his foundation. As he said recently on The Hour, “We still don’t have time for them [the children] to grow up. But [for] all of the young people, the two most important people on the planet are your moms and dads.” And they say to their moms, “I’m really worried” and to their dads, “What are you doing for me?”

There is yet another reason why we should educate our children about the environment. That has to do with the resiliency of the earth. Yes, we may foolishly wreak environmental havoc, and yes we need to take steps to stop this, but the earth has shown that it can repair itself (at least to a certain extent) if given sufficient opportunity. Examples are the improvements to the ozone layer and the recovery of species like the Bald Eagle. Rather than throwing our hands up in despair, we need to look towards the future to find ways to mend it. And teaching our children to value the environment and how to care for it is an important part of the solution.

Putting these Ideas into Action

That just about summarizes my thoughts on environmental education. Except with regard to how exactly we can achieve this. Fortunately, a wealth of information exists on how to include the environment in a school curriculum. A brief exploration of my public library produced a number of reference books. (Some books I found that seemed particularly useful were True Green Kids by Kim McKay and Jenny Bonnin, and As If Earth Matters by Thom Henley and Kenny Peavy.) A search on the Internet with the terms “environmental education for kids” also yields a plethora of information (including Kids for Saving Earth and EcoKids, both of which provide resources for teachers).

Also, with many universities offering degrees in environmental studies and Queen’s even having an Outdoor and Experiential Education program, there should be no shortage of people able to teach children about the environment (although, sadly, environmental studies does not qualify as a ‘teachable’ in teacher’s college, a situation that administrators would be wise to reconsider.)

Of course, from personal experience, I would say that all the teaching in the world about the environment will do little without enabling children to come into contact with nature firsthand. Only then can they develop a true understanding of the importance of protecting our “wild” spaces. This will require protecting our greenspaces (particularly those in urban spaces where children have less access to such areas), funding outdoor education programs like those associated with the Laurel Creek Nature Centre, and providing them with opportunities to join groups like the Waterloo Scout Group (which, by the way, is open to both girls and boys).


So. Environmental education for children. Is it important? Most definitely. Do we have the resources to rise to the challenge? Absolutely. Should we rely solely on children to do all the work for us? Not at all. But that doesn’t mean they should be left out of the equation. As for the time to act, as they say, no time is like the present. So let’s get going!

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“there are paths that can be followed, and there is a path that cannot – it is not a path, it is the wilderness”

(Gary Snyder [1990], The Practice of the Wild)

Female grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park, US

Taken by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Oh, where to start. Exploring the writings of deep ecologist Gary Snyder in The Practice of the Wild was a soulful journey. His words were laced with such deep meaning and resonated with so much tenor that I found myself poring over his book at length.

Why did I react this way? Perhaps it is Snyder’s love of storytelling. Maybe it is the way he skillfully meanders though history. Or possibly it is his enticingly poetic way of writing about matters of great, but often ignored, importance.

A Story for Illustration

For whatever reason why Snyder so captured my attention, his message was definitely not lost. As to how it can perhaps best be conveyed, it may be worth considering a short tale. It is a story he retells of a girl who fell in love with a grizzly bear.

In the story, a girl runs off with a grizzly bear, gradually becoming wilder and wilder, to the point where she even starts growing fur-like hair. While she becomes bear-like, he becomes shamanistic, shifting shapes and chanting songs. Eventually she becomes pregnant and gives birth to their offspring.

The story ends in tragedy, with the girl’s family killing the bear. She in vengeance wipes out almost all of her family. In the end, she entirely transforms into a bear like her belated husband and disappears with her offspring into the woods.

For this reason, the natives of North America do not eat grizzly. But now, we are told, that the Europeans have come, “The bears are being killed, [and] the humans are everywhere…”

The Moral

The moral of this story? The line between the “wild” and “humans” is a thin one. To explain further, I will paraphrase Snyder’s thoughts somewhat by saying that nature brings forth form.

Consequently, he says, “Huckleberries and salmon call for bears, the clouds of plankton of the North Pacific call for salmon, and salmon call for seals and thus orcas.” As for what brings our lineage into form, “It is surely the ‘mountains and rivers without end’-the whole of this earth on which we find ourselves more or less competently at home.”

What I take away from his thoughts on “form” is that we are just one of the many expressions of life on this planet. While we are unique, we must recognize and respect the environment that called us into being, just as it brought the many other species into existence.

However, as indicated by today’s destruction of the grizzly and other bears, we are in danger of destroying the very earth that gave rise to us. For illustration, Snyder comments on how deforestation is causing life-destroying flooding, extinction of millions of species, and global warming.

Regaining a Balance

If we are ravaging the earth so much, a logical question would be what is the alternative? According to Snyder, a balance needs to be restored between humankind and nature. We need, he says, “a civilization that wildness can endure.”

The benefits of such action are both practical and profound. For by doing this, we could 1) save the precious creatures that inhabit this earth with us, an important endeavor given that “[h]undreds of millions of years might elapse before the equivalent of a whale or an elephant is seen again, if ever”, and 2) perhaps surprisingly for many, enrich our societies in countless ways. The occurrence of the latter is possible because creating a civilization/wildness balance  requires reestablishing a sense of place. And, as Snyder intriguingly claims, culture, language, and a sense of the sacred all emerge from having a grounding in one’s locale.

Wishing to make absolutely clear the point of how we can achieve such a balance, he writes, “It is not enough just to ‘love nature’ or to want to ‘be in harmony with Gaia.’ Our relation to the natural world takes place in a place, and it must be grounded in information and experience.”

A healthy dose of humility to our predecessors is provided along with this advice. For he later goes on to say, if we are to reconnect, we have much to learn from the ‘primitives’ that came before us. Their knowledge enabled them to use their natural surroundings as a “rich supply of fibers, poisons, medicines, intoxicants, detoxicants, containers, waterproofing, food, dyes, glues, incense, amusement, companionship, inspiration.”

Looking Beyond the Physical Realm

Reestablishing a sense of place has more than simply practical purposes, however. It can help us recapture our sense of the sacred. And so when reiterating the words of Geoffrey Blainey, Snyder recalls, “The land itself was their chapel and their shrines were hills and creeks and their religious relics were animals, plants, and birds. Thus the migrations of aboriginals, though spurred by economic need, were always pilgrimages.”

For this reason, Snyder says, “Human beings themselves are at risk  – not just on some survival-of-civilization level, but more basically on the level of heart and soul. We are in danger of losing our souls.”

One cannot help but wish, when reading Synder, that we will one day reconnect with the land just like our ancestors. On this matter, Snyder appears to be eternally hopeful, but warns: “For the non-Native American to become at home on this continent, he or she must be born again in this hemisphere, on this continent, properly called Turtle Island.” In other words, he asserts, “we must consciously fully accept and recognize that this is where we live and grasp the fact that our descendants will be here for millennia to come.”

Can We Succeed?

Do we have it in us to do what Snyder calls for? I believe so, and think he would agree. Given that for him, the natural world is only temporarily in hiding. “Nature is ultimately in no way endangered…The wild is indestructible,” he claims. But before it is too late for us humans, we must look within ourselves, and go off the beaten path both figuratively and literally, to find the wildness within ourselves.

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