Monday, December 22, 2008

What science education really needs: the arts

We’ve all heard the stories that children can hear and remember music in the womb. Prenatal exposure to classical music is said to help the development of a baby’s brain and may make them particularly adept at math. Studies have found that adults score better on IQ tests after listening to classical music and that pre-school students who took piano or rhythm lessons did better on math tests. These are only small connections between art and science, two huge spheres of human culture. Is it possible that art and science are more connected than we think and that one can help us with the other?

Carl Sagan - a distinguished popularizer of science in the seventies, eighties and nineties – had broad influence across science reaching all the way to education. He noticed something funny was happening with science students over the course of their education. Children in the first grade, he noticed, were particularly enthusiastic and curious about the world. They asked tough questions like, “Why is the moon round?” or, “When is the world’s birthday?” They had no notion of what we would call a “dumb question” and would ask any and every question that crossed their fertile minds. When Sagan spent time with high school seniors, however, he noticed an entirely different dynamic. “The joy of discovery has gone out of them,” he writes in his book The Demon-haunted World, “they’re worried about asking dumb questions.” Something happened between the first grade and the end of high school. What was it?

Sagan thought that children were encountering parents or teachers who were irritated by these questions and may even ridicule them with answers like: “What did you expect the Moon to be, square?” He thought this would teach children that some questions are dumb and shouldn’t be asked in the first place. I don’t think Sagan is wrong with this reasoning but I don’t think that this is all there is to this story. Another great, complementary explanation to this problem comes from an unlikely place: a expert on drama and theatre education. And the best part is that I don’t think he even knows it.

Sir Ken Robinson is an expert on creativity sought by international agencies and private companies alike. “We are educating people out of their creativity,” he says. It’s a bizarre idea but one that explains a lot once borne out. Education systems are run on an idea that all mistakes are bad and that, he thinks, is indescribably detrimental to creativity. Many people’s initial reaction would be to think, “Of course mistakes are bad!” After all, aren’t we always trying to avoid them? He makes it clear, however, that he’s not suggesting being is wrong is creative but, “if you’re never prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” We shouldn’t strive to be wrong but we also shouldn’t be scared of it.

Although Robinson is suggesting this because he feels art is under-appreciated in our education systems (he inquires why students do math everyday but don’t dance everyday) his idea has consequences across all of education. This is what I think is happening to the science students in Sagan’s experience and most likely students of all disciplines. Students are constantly avoiding being wrong because they will lose marks or be ridiculed by classmates. They become conservative with their imaginations, afraid of making large, adventurous leaps. Despite my fondness for science I’ll freely admit that, without any imagination, it’s boring. The fun is not necessarily knowing what is but also what could be. We must find a way to keep the creativity in the students we’re educating!

Some forms of art are places where there is literally no way to be wrong. Many visual arts like painting or sculpture offer places where children are free to explore their imaginations as far as it will take them. They don’t have to worry about doing something wrong, there’s no way they can be! This is the type of attitude the first graders that Sagan encountered had towards science; they weren’t afraid to be wrong! Other forms of art like music require that some rules be followed but still leave a lot of room for creativity. Maybe that’s why music students do so well in math. They follow the rules of math but use all sorts of creative ways of getting their answer.

Einstein was quoted as saying, “anyone who has never made a mistake, never learned anything new.” Even Einstein, who is often held up as the epitome of intellect, made mistakes. The biggest one he made was his proposal that the universe was not expanding because of a mysterious force he called the ‘cosmological constant’. When he found out the universe indeed was expanding he called it the biggest blunder of his life, not because he was wrong about the ‘cosmological constant’ but because he wasn’t imaginative enough to think that the universe might be expanding. It’s a lesson to us all that one of the greatest minds to ever exist wasn’t afraid of being wrong, it was afraid of not being creative.

As appeared in the December 10, 2008 issue of the Brome County News

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

World AIDS Day: Ice water or hypothermia?

An old-fashioned remedy for a toothache was to hold one of your hands in ice water. It didn’t cure your toothache but the pain in your hand helped you forget the pain in your tooth. With the global financial crisis feeling more like it’s going to need a root canal rather than a simple filling, some may be looking for a bucket of ice water. World AIDS Day, which happened this past Monday, was probably not what they had in mind. The tragedy of the AIDS pandemic is more than an ice bucket; it should make us grateful that we only have a toothache.

I vaguely remember that when I was a student at Knowlton Academy, the school arranged for someone to come in and speak to us about AIDS. Though time has blurred my memory, I remember the disease being described as a terminal disease meaning once you had contracted it, there was little, if any, hope of survival.

Things have come quite a long way since then. In North America, thanks to the success of anti-retroviral therapy (also known as ARVs), AIDS is now considered a chronic disease which means that, though it can’t be cured, it also doesn’t kill. Whereas at its peak in the mid-1990’s, AIDS was responsible for the death of 3,000 people a year in Canada, it now kills only around one person a day on average.

It is this proven success of ARVs in developed countries like Canada that makes the AIDS pandemic in Africa such a tragedy. It has demonstrated that HIV infection does not necessarily have to end in death. Former Canadian ambassador to the UN and UN Special Envoy on AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis puts it quite succinctly: “all these blessed people are dying for no reason whatsoever except the negligence of the international community.” In other words, people living with HIV do not die from AIDS anymore, they die from a lack of access to ARVs.

In South Africa alone, over 300,000 people die from AIDS every year. That is the equivalent of losing the population of the Eastern Townships every year. And the loss of life is not where the trauma ends. Almost two million children have lost one parent and nearly half a million have lost both parents to AIDS. To understand the magnitude of this, imagine a country where, in every classroom of 30 students, four had lost one of their parents to AIDS and one had lost both. Worldwide, it is estimated that over 25 million people have died of AIDS and 33 million people are carriers of HIV and despite Africa making up only 15% of world population, two out of every three HIV infections can be found there.

But the news is not all bleak. Access to ARVs is on the rise in most African countries. Nearly 30% of those in need of these drugs to survive have access to them. This is thanks to international groups such as the William Clinton Foundation, who negotiated low prices for ARVs with suppliers, and Keep a Child Alive (KCA) who buy these drugs and provide counseling services to HIV infected families and children in Africa.

Louise O’Shea, director of KCA’s college branch in Canada, took the opportunity this summer to visit an orphanage supported by KCA in South Africa. The Agape orphanage, which means “unconditional love in the Zulu language, is home to 49 children who have all been orphaned by AIDS. Walking an hour to and from the orphanage each day, she was touched by the friendliness of the people she encountered in a region that has been ravaged by a 41% HIV infection rate and found the hardest part of her trip was saying goodbye to all the children of the orphanage when she left.

“The KCA’s mandate” she explained to me, “is to provide anti-retroviral treatment to children and families at 12 sites in India and Africa.” KCA funds these activities through charitable donations. Many charities use a portion of donations to pay for administration but KCA contributes 100% of donations toward drugs and support services and funds its administration solely through a yearly fundraiser.

When asked why Canadians should be concerned with AIDS in Africa, O’Shea explains that we live in a global community and that it should be our goal to eliminate suffering in the world whether it be next door or across the ocean. “No one dies of AIDS in North American anymore so we forget that AIDS is a huge problem in other parts of the world.” This echoes the sentiments of AIDS researcher Kenneth Mayer who says part of the problem with AIDS is that of social stigma: that the epidemic will only affect “those other people”.

O’Shea also wonders, “whether it’s possible to have a $700 billion dollar AIDS bailout,” adding that she doesn’t doubt the need for such an economic stimulus package but wonders why it’s so hard to find the one dollar day per person required to keep people infected with HIV alive. Indeed, it becomes difficult to wonder how a world that spends over a trillion dollars globally for military purposes cannot rationalize spending a relatively paltry one or two hundred million dollars to effectively stifle the suffering AIDS has caused in Africa and worldwide.

Of course, anti-retroviral drugs are not the only answer. “It’s easier to educate people than to medicate people,” O’Shea says meaning that people need to be educated about how to avoid contracting HIV by not participating in high-risk activities such as unprotected sex. Of course, it doesn’t help that African leaders such as Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, and Thabo Mbeki, former President of South Africa, mislead Africans by telling them that HIV does not cause AIDS and that it is a conspiracy plot to stop the procreation of black Africans.

“The necessary resources, both economic and political, will always be found for the purpose of terminating life. The project of preserving it will always struggle.” British journalist George Monbiot says this not referring to AIDS specifically but in a broader context. However, his words more than aptly describe the international community’s attitude toward AIDS in Africa. So though Worlds AIDS Day has passed, let us all take a moment to think about the people who could still be alive today and the families they have left behind.

For those wishing to know about AIDS in Africa I suggest reading Stephen Lewis’ book “Race Against Time” or watching him online:
The KCA website can be found at:

As appeared in the December 3, 2008 edition of the Brome County News

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Is it altruistic to admit you were wrong?

Recently a famous biologist, E.O. Wilson, did one of the most courageous things a scientist can do: he admitted he was wrong. Wilson, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author of On Human Nature and The Diversity of Life, had long been in the forefront of a debate on why we find altruism in nature and his recent break from the past is being received with mixed emotions.

Altruism, the unselfish consideration of others regardless of the cost to you, has been a major topic for debate among ecologists for decades. It seems strange that such a benign topic like altruism has been able to stir up ecologists to the point where words such as “baldface liar” have been uttered but there’s a good reason for that. For a full century, they couldn’t figure out why altruism should even occur in nature in the first place. The question even baffled the father of evolution himself, Charles Darwin.

The natural world is full of animals doing things with no apparent benefit to themselves. Worker bees can be found collecting resources and protecting their nests on behalf of others. Wolves will bring meat back to the pack and share with others that didn’t help in the kill.

These examples long puzzled ecologists because it should never be a good survival strategy to be altruistic in nature. Imagine a poker game between two people. One person plays the game normally and the other is an altruistic person who, when he wins a hand, splits his winnings with his opponent. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize the altruistic player will always lose! In fact, the normal player would win even if he was at a table with many altruists. Altruism is clearly a bad strategy in poker and it was long thought to be a bad strategy in ecology. Ecologists figured self-interest was the only way to survive. To be fair, they’re not the only ones that thought this, economics is still based the fact that people will make decisions based entirely on self-interest.

In the 1960’s ecologists and biologists hit on two answers. One answer was that related individuals (siblings, cousins, etc.) should act altruistically because they share many of the same genes. It would be like playing poker and sharing your chips with a sibling because you wanted someone from your family to win. This is the view E.O. Wilson espoused for a long time and the reason why worker bees work for nothing; they are putting their “chips” in with the queen (to whom they are strongly related) and let her do all the reproducing.

The other explanation, and the one that Wilson is now firmly standing behind, explains altruism by saying that it makes sense when competition between two groups is stronger than the competition within the group. A crude example would be that of a hockey team where all players compete individually (contracts and personal glory) and the team competes against other teams (winning). If the coach told the team that no player would get their bonus if they didn’t make the playoffs, the players would be more willing to play as a team and overlook their individual interests because the competition with other teams would become more important than their personal interests.

We have, therefore, two different explanations of altruism is nature. Do these two theories explain human altruism? Certainly we act more altruistically toward family because we see each other as part of the same whole. New mothers also often describe their newborns as being a little piece of themselves. There are also groups that band together and treat each altruistically in order to achieve bigger goals such as labour unions.

There are, however, some forms of human altruism that defy both of these theories. These actions, I would argue, are part of what makes us distinctly human because they create altruism where, ecologically, none should exist. A good example of this would be the $31 billion charitable donation (85% of his wealth) that investor Warren Buffett made to The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation in 2006; the biggest donation of its kind. But altruistic actions don’t necessarily need to be that grandiose. A small action like helping an elderly woman with her groceries is also a case of genuine altruism. Both of these cases involve helping unrelated people who are not part of the same social group and both, I feel, are the pinnacle of humanity.

However, while some acts of altruism, such as charity, are deeply respected and admired, there are others that are equally demanding that go unnoticed or are even shunned. This brings me back to the beginning of the article. When E.O. Wilson admitted he thought he was wrong about his previous theories on altruism, he was being altruistic himself. After all, admitting you’re wrong about something usually incurs a cost of some kind and it is done for some greater good. Which makes me wonder, especially during this provincial election campaign, why politicians don’t ever seem to admit they were wrong? I’ll leave you to come to your own conclusions!

Appeared in the November 26, 2008 edition of the Brome County News

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The ethics of a bodycheck and a planet

For those not familiar with the late Stephen Jay Gould, saying he was one of the greatest natural scientists of the last century is an understatement. His contributions to research were only eclipsed by his ability to write about the wonders of ecology and evolution in a way that was accessible to all. It was not at all out of place for Gould to start an essay with a story about his beloved New York Yankees and somehow relate it to the importance of a fossil fish making paleontology as interesting as baseball in the process. It was no doubt Gould’s inspiration that turned a simple hockey game into something much bigger for me.

Two weeks ago, in a matchup of old rivals, the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, hockey fans witnessed a gruesome body check. Leaf defenceman Mike Van Ryn was pasted face first into the boards by gritty Canadiens forward Tom Kostopoulos giving him a concussion along with a broken hand and broken teeth. The wake of the hit started a huge online discussion about the incident. While some of these online debaters were clearly biased by the colour of the players’ jerseys, others seemed to see it as an issue of what was more important: the intent to injure or the resulting injury. Little did they know it, but this second group was stepping on the toes of some pretty important philosophers.

Philosophers and ethicists have long been divided into two groups. One group, called consequentialists, hold that the morality of an action should be judged on the outcome. For example, if someone accidentally spills coffee on a carpet, that would be judged as bad even if the spiller didn’t intend it. On the other hand, the couragists claim that an action should be judged based on the intention of the act. In this case the coffee spiller wouldn’t be judged as bad because they didn’t mean to spill their coffee. These two points of view don’t conflict when someone intends to do something good and the outcome is good or vice-versa but things get sticky when the outcome of an action is the opposite of the intention.
Without knowing it, hockey fans debating the severity of Kostopoulos’ punishment were debating this famous philosophical issue. “If Van Ryn escapes injury, probably no suspension is forthcoming, the consequences resulting from a careless act do matter,” says one fan clearly siding with the consequentialists. Damien Cox, a Toronto Star sports reporter, makes a clear case for the couragists: “No intent to injure. Just a good play gone bad. So no, Kostopoulos doesn't deserve a suspension.” In the end, the reasoning behind the three game suspension handed down by the league ended up having a distinctly consequentialist sound to it: "While it is my determination that Kostopoulos did not deliver a check to an unsuspecting opponent, his actions caused injuries."
This theme of intentions versus consequences creeps up in many places other than hockey. In a murder trial, intention can be the difference between manslaughter (4 years in prison) or first degree murder (life in prison). On the other hand, no-fault car insurance ignores the intentions of the drivers pays out according to the consequences of an accident.

What about when it comes to environmental damages? I don’t think that there is anyone who would intentionally cause environmental damage, they would avoid it if possible, but the damage is done nonetheless. Does that mean we are couragists in this respect? We drive our cars knowing the consequences are carbon dioxide emissions and climate change but we think it’s alright because it’s not our intention to release it; our intention is simply to get from point A to point B. Is this the important difference then between the average Canadian and David Suzuki who is deeply concerned with the consequences of our actions?
Even intention can be difficult to define when two things are happening at once, as is the case when we drive somewhere while simultaneously emitting carbon dioxide. Is it possible that though we only intend to get somewhere, we are also intending to emit carbon dioxide?
There’s an interesting experiment that demonstrates how sticky this issue can get. The experiment involves showing people two scenes. In the first scene the vice president of a company explains to the president he has a new plan for the company that will maximize profits but will harm the environment. The president replies that he understands the environmental will be harmed but doesn’t care; he tells the vice president to proceed. The people watching the scene are then asked whether the president is harming the environment intentionally. On one hand, his intention is only to maximize profits but he is conscious that this also involves harming the environment. Does that mean he is intentionally harming the environment?
The second scene is identical to the first except the word harm is replaced with help. The people are then asked whether the president helps the environment intentionally. Interestingly enough, when harm is done to the environment, 82% said that president harmed the environment intentionally but when the environment is helped only 23% say the president harmed the environment intentionally. People thought that the president intended to do a bad thing but not a good one despite the fact that the circumstances are the same.
Maybe the moral is as simple as the Kostopoulos hit. I don’t believe he intentionally injured Van Ryn just as we don’t intend to damage the environment through our actions. However, Kostopoulos was somewhat reckless and was rightly punished for the results of his actions. We are also reckless to a certain degree with our natural environment but, unlike Kostopoulos, still have time to try and abandon these reckless ways…before someone gets hurt.

As seen in the November 19 edition of the Brome County News

Friday, November 21, 2008

Internet research: boon or bane?

On November 4 while the world was celebrating the ascent of a Barack Obama, the literary giant responsible for ER and Jurassic Park died quietly after a private battle with cancer. Better known for his controversial portrayal of science-gone-bad, Michael Crichton did not reserve his criticism for geneticists and technologists alone. In 1993, in a speech to the U.S. National Press Club, criticized the conventional media for not doing a good job because they had a monopoly on information. In the same breath he would laud the advent of the internet which he thought would destroy this monopoly. It’s been 15 years since he predicted the future of the media and the internet; was he right?

Are we currently living in an age of information liberation? It certainly seems so. I can sit comfortably at home in the Townships, in my pyjamas if I like, and watch Angelina Jolie talk about her experiences talking with refugees in Chad or Al Gore talk about his new ideas on climate change.

The internet has given us the option of sidestepping the conventional media and getting at the experts directly. It has removed all the filters put on newspapers, magazines and television news. Interested in endangered species? You can go to Youtube type in the name E.O. Wilson and instantly one of the most famous ecologists in the world is in your living room. Interested in energy? Thomas Friedman can come over any time of day or night and tell you why energy innovation will be more important than information innovation.

Of course, let’s not kid ourselves; we’re still not getting pure information. We’re getting information that went in the ears of E.O. Wilson, was processed by his brain and came out his mouth. We’ve just skipped the step of the media that usually lies between E.O. Wilson’s words and us. It’s kind of like taking out a link in the childhood game of broken telephone. The message can get a little clearer. Let me mention a couple of these sites that are bringing the experts to the masses.

One of the most popular of these sites is Originally a conference about technology, entertainment and design, TED has branched out so far that they now state their mission in two words: spreading ideas. The site includes over 200 different presentations from a range of speakers including Bill Clinton, Bono, Richard Dawkins, and Jared Diamond. My personal favourite is neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s description of a stroke she suffered. Her expertise with the human brain allowed her identify different parts of her brain that were shutting down as her stroke progressed leaving with an entirely new outlook on life.

Another great site is which pits two experts of differing opinions, on subjects ranging from foreign policy to hip hop, against each other for one hour. It started with two journalists who began putting their discussions online but they soon realized that if they got two guests, they could take the day off! While one hour is never long enough to resolve anything, it certainly separates the wheat from the chaff and this site has become so popular that extracts from these discussions are regularly published in the New York Times.

While Crichton yearned for the filters that newspapers put on information to be removed and may have been right about some of its benefits, he didn’t see one important complication. Doing research on the internet is about as easy as trying to drink water out of a fire hose; there’s just too much information and it’s difficult to make sense of it and often when trying to drink out of this torrent of information all that happens is we get soaking wet.

What Crichton overlooked is that newspapers, magazines and televisions news don’t just present information as is, they prioritize news and omit less important news stories. They take complex ideas and boil them down to their essentials making them easier to read. They take this torrent of information and divert some parts and reorganize other parts to make it easier to digest.

The use of this reorganization is obvious when you realize that there is nothing quick about an internet search. Different websites have different, often contradictory, points of view that are not always well written or well presented. Some sites get bogged down in technical details while others barely skim the surface of complex issues. What we are doing when we do research on the internet is we are being our own journalist. We sort through the information and arrange it in a way that makes sense to us. Sometimes, for topics we’re really interested in, it’s worth it for us to do this but for other topics, where we only have a passing interest, it’s easier to let the journalists do the journalism.

As far as I see, we are currently enjoying the best of both worlds – or rather, all worlds. All different forms of media give us different access to different information. Newspapers and television news give us the basics of what’s happening. Magazines give us more in depth coverage of more specific issues and the internet gives us that fire hose of knowledge which, used in the right way, can quench our thirst for knowledge. The Michael Crichton of 1993 would be happy. Happier anyway.

Seen in the November 12, 2008 issue of the Brome County News

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Three myths surrounding environmentalism

I have nearly always considered myself an environmentalist. It started with my grade five teacher at Knowlton Academy and has allowed me to follow a path that has brought me through two degrees and two stints working for non-governmental organizations in Latin America. Yet, after all this time, I feel that I have become more and more uncomfortable calling myself an environmentalist. Not because I disagree with the idea of it, but because I disagree with a general portrayal of it.

Environmentalism has grown beyond Greenpeace and vegetarianism. Throughout my studies and adventures I have encountered so many different kinds of environmentalists – ranging from the meat-is-murder vegetarian to relatively conservative economists with dreams of a green economy – that I’m beginning to find it strange that people think of them as one united group in the first place.

I often find myself falling into the environmentalist stereotype when people discover that I have a degree in environmental sciences. Sometimes it’s with good intentions, such as a dinner host who is severely apologetic for not having prepared a vegetarian dish and sometimes it’s with bad intentions like a grumpy uncle who takes out his anger for the Kyoto Protocol on me. I admire and respect vegetarians and Kyoto supporters but happen to not subscribe to either. The spectrum of environmentalists runs anywhere from so-called ‘dark greens’ – those who believe achieving sustainability will require radical political change and personal sacrifice – to ‘bright greens’ who believe that many of the tools required to be sustainable already exist. Continuing to use one name to describe such diverse beliefs is as ridiculous as calling a Montreal Canadiens fan and Toronto Maple Leafs fan the same because they are both hockey fans. We all know what kind of trouble that would get you into.

Another myth about environmentalists has to do with the name itself and what it might imply. I’ll use feminism as an example. Feminism is a word which, taken literally, could be a system of belief claiming women are superior to men, much like racism is the belief that one race is superior to another. Most of us understand that feminism is simply advocacy of women’s rights in a world with strong male-dominated traditions with the final goal of gender equality, not female world domination. But the potential for confusion and a desire to avoid any association with the first definition has caused many international groups promoting women’s rights to avoid the word feminism and use other words such as gender mainstreaming.

Environmentalism could be, and sometimes is, misconstrued as prioritizing the environment above all. While there are some extremist environmentalists who do believe the life of an ant is equivalent to that of a person, most environmentalists do not believe what they do and choose the lifestyle they do uniquely for the good of the environment. Most see the well-being of people at stake in environmental issues because of how it is intertwined with the well-being of the environment. This world is, pardon the pun, littered with examples where the quality of life of people has declined with the quality of their environment.

The worst example is the Aral Sea region in Central Asia where, starting in the 1940’s, the Soviet Union attempted to grow large amounts of cotton on arid land using water from the Aral Sea’s two main rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. So much water was diverted from the rivers that the sea shrank to 10% its former size, destroying the fishing industry and causing large-scale unemployment and health problems from the dust blowing off the dried sea bed. While this is, admittedly, an extreme example, it should serve as a reminder that the natural environment plays an important role in determining both the health of the economy and people of a region.

The last myth I’d like to address is that progress and environmentalism are contradictory. There are some environmentalists who claim that in order to fully address the impending ecological crisis we will have to revert back to simpler ways. This idea tends to get thrown around leaving a lot people thinking that returning to the past is the only way to avoid environmental catastrophe. This is contrary to the trends seen today. Modernity and progress are being defined by efficiency and thrift rather than by waste and excess. I see this in celebrities who drive hybrid or electric cars (e.g. Leonardo Dicaprio and George Clooney) just as much as I see it at the local grocery store when someone is embarrassed that they forgot their reusable grocery bags. Being wasteful used to be a sign of affluence because it demonstrated that someone had money to burn, but as the world gets warmer and species go extinct, it is quickly becoming viewed as irresponsible and socially unacceptable.

I’d like to emphasize this point because skepticism is often high when it comes to reason trumping fashion but human history bears it out. It used to be the height of fashion for women to be overweight because it was a sign of affluence – not everyone could afford to overeat. Pale, untanned skin was also used to judge social status because it signified someone who didn’t have to be out in the sun working in the fields all day. A suntan was seen as a sign of poverty! Gradually that mentality faded as people realized that getting sun and avoiding overeating were healthier alternatives. With the advent of ultra-thin models and tanning salons, the pendulum has no doubt swung too much in the opposite direction but the point remains that if someone told you today that being overweight and pale were ways to demonstrate how modern you were, you would no doubt question that person’s sanity. It is becoming clear that, in a similar way, the wastefulness and prestige associated with gas-guzzling SUVs or with perfectly manicured, herbicide induced lawns is falling out of favour with the general public. In a decade or so we will look back on today the way we now look back on the fluorescent colours of the 1980’s saying, “what were we thinking?” Of course, the real question is: how quickly will these trends catch on?

While I don’t think that sects as separate as those seen in different Protestant churches will ever grow out of environmentalism, I hope that the diversity of views represented by the word environmentalism will begin to be understood. This diversity will reveal that environmentalism isn’t only about the environment; it’s about human health and economy too.

As appeared in the October 29, 2008 issue of the Brome County New

The ecology of the global financial crisis

When is the last time you went an entire day without hearing the words ‘global financial crisis’? Our existence was continuing happily along, most of us blissfully unaware of the existence of sub-prime mortgages and of a liquidity crisis, until mid-September when it became a near-impossibility to turn on either the television or the radio without being reminded, in not so casual terms, that these are tumultuous times. The complexity of the issues forced the media to enroll its readership in a crash course in economic blundering making unwilling experts of us all and in short period of time, trillions of dollars were mobilized, banks were nationalized and stock markets rose and fell like a clichéd roller coaster leaving its riders feeling nauseated and wanting their money back – or at least to just get off the darned thing.

What could any of this have to do with the environment? More than you would think.

Like it or not, these cycles are the nature of the ecology we live in. Ecology? Surely I meant economy? Well, yes and no. Essentially, both words come from similar Greek roots. While ecology is literally “the science of the house or dwelling” economy is simply “the management of the house or dwelling”. Ecology studies how our surroundings work and economics tells us how to manage them making the human economy essentially a very specialized human ecosystem. While the economy differs from natural ecosystems in many obvious and important ways, this global financial crisis is an example that our human ecosystem is subject to some of the same cycles of perturbation that exist in nature.

Think of an old growth forest. It is beautiful, diverse and productive. Productive forests produce a lot of biomass, dead branches and leaves that cover the forest floor waiting to decompose and be reabsorbed into the tree. When conditions become really dry, all it takes is a small spark and thousands of hectares of forest can be lost. When this happens the cycle must restart from the beginning again but the new forest won’t be identical to the old one. It will depend on many things that were decided in the previous cycle like the seed bank in the ground and on chance events like trees surviving the fire or seeds arriving via animal or wind dispersal. All this to say that the new forest will be similar to the old one, but not exactly the same.

In case some of you are tempted to take the metaphor too far, I’m not implying the economy is going to burn to the ground but it there are fires here and there. Certain business ideas and approaches will survive these economic fires and will be part of the new cycle and some old ones will not. The new economic cycle will be similar to the old one but it won’t be identical.

Whereas a forest that burns down can’t choose to be replaced by a forest that is less likely to burn down, we do have the ability to change direction when a system breaks down. This is the nice thing about having big brains, and this is a great understatement, it makes us humans better at foresight than any other species on the planet. This why the U.S. will no doubt choose to institute what Canadians already have, a well regulated credit industry along with other changes to avoid the catastrophe they currently face.

But even that is rather short-sighted. The beginning of a new economic cycle is the ideal place to start thinking about future potential crises and I’m not talking only financial. For example, the World Wildlife Federation has just issued its “Living Planet Report” in which it explains that because we currently use 30% more resources than the Earth’s capacity to regenerate itself, we must change course soon in order to avoid an ecological credit crunch. While I don’t put that much credence into the statistics from these kinds of organizations, the idea is not a bad one.

The seeds have been sown to make this new economic cycle thriftier and less wasteful than the old one. A wide range of options is available to consumers wishing to simultaneously save money (which is always nice in a recession) and reduce their impact on the planet. If, when the economy goes into rebuilding mode, Canadians decide that they’d rather take a greener route, those industries will thrive and play a bigger part of the next economic cycle. Americans will certainly be in a good position to take this new trajectory with the nearly imminent election of Barak Obama for president, a man who seems ready to steer his country in a new direction.

For the time being the priority will be to stabilize financial markets and make sure that the bottom of this recession is not too low but when it comes time to start rebuilding the Canadian economy, it will time for Canadians to decide where the future of this country lies.

As appeared in the November 5, 2008 edition of the Brome County News

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Appalachian Corridor: connecting people and nature

The human landscape is all about connections. Connecting one town to another, connecting farms to markets, and connecting people to one another. These connections are useful to us but have the opposite effect on the natural landscape creating a disjointed network that makes it hard for wildlife to migrate or travel from forest to forest. One local organization, the Appalachian Corridor (or ACA - Appalachian Corridor Appalachien), recognizes this and is helping local landowners and organizations apply conservation measures for a healthier landscape benefiting wildlife and people alike.

The Appalachian Corridor has been a part of conservation in the Townships since 2001 when three ambitious women, Louise Gratton, Francine Hone and Terri Monahan, started the project to protect the natural corridor of the Appalachian Mountains which includes over 2,500 km2 in Quebec alone, stretching from Brompton lake to the border and from the Pinnacle to Sherbrooke. Before ACA, the only sizable protected area in the region was Mount Orford National Park, covering nearly 6,000 hectares, and a variety of local land trusts which contributed another 400 hectares of protected land. In the short years since, the Appalachian Corridor and its partners – a wide array of local land trusts, conservation groups and government agencies – have effectively doubled the area of protected land in the region through private land donations and conservation agreements bringing the proportion of protected land in the area to 3%. The most notable example of this is the acquisition of 6,000 hectares of the Sutton Mountains massif which was purchased from Domtar by the Nature Conservancy Canada and the government of Quebec and is now known as the Green-Mountains Nature Reserve.

The idea of wildlife corridors has been around since the 1980s when ecologists began realizing that human development was causing the natural landscape to become more fragmented and more disconnected. As natural habitats were shrinking, so was the number of connections between them making travel and migration difficult for numerous wildlife species.

The Monteregian hills (e.g. Mount St-Hilaire, Mount Rougemont, Mount St-Gregoire) just west of the Townships are a good example of fragmented natural habitats. Each hill, while endowed with beautiful forests and wildlife, is completely surrounded by farmland and roads making it difficult for wildlife to migrate from one hill to another. Habitat fragmentation can be a problem for species that have big ranges and can’t rely on small, isolated natural areas such as the bobcat and cougar. Even for species that don’t necessarily travel as much or migrate, a certain amount of mixing between different populations is required to prevent inbreeding. In order to minimize these detrimental effects, conservation groups began working on creating wildlife corridors, stretches of protected land between protected habitats that make it easier for wildlife to travel between them.

Here in the Townships, we are fortunate to have a landscape that is much less fragmented than in Monteregie but wildlife movement is by no means unhindered by human development. This is the underlying goal of ACA’s three-pronged plan. The first step in the conservation plan is to ensure the region has core conservation areas – such as the Green-Mountains Nature Reserve and Mount Orford National Park – big enough to ensure the survival of all representative species. These core areas are then surrounded with buffer zones where certain activities that don’t compromise the integrity of the core area are allowed such as sustainable forestry and low-density housing. Lastly, corridors of natural habitat should be maintained between core areas to allow wildlife movements between them.

The means by which the Appalachian Corridor achieves their goals is by offering their technical expertise to local conservation groups and by helping landowners realize their conservation goals. Particularly impressive is the number of options available to landowners wishing to donate their land for conservation. Landowners can donate land outright or, if they wish to retain ownership, they can choose the conservation servitude route – a legal agreement whereby a landowner retains ownership of the land but agrees not to practice certain ecologically damaging activities such as construction, logging or draining wetlands. Another option is to draw up a management agreement with a local conservation organization or simply rent land out to them. Donations and agreements can cover as little as one hectare of land or as many as several hundred hectares.

The Appalachian Corridor’s website ( has a variety of testimonials from landowners who have taken the plunge and dedicated their land to one form of conservation or another. Their motives are very diverse as well as the means employed to achieve their goals. What is also abundantly clear from their stories is that donating land and starting conservation servitudes is more complicated than it sounds and that ACA greatly facilitates this process. “Without the Mount Pinnacle Land Trust and the Appalachian Corridor it would have been difficult to realize this dream which has been dear to us for many years,” one lady admits. Another contributor to the Mount Pinnacle Land Trust says, “after several meetings with the Mount Pinnacle Land Trust and the Appalachian Corridor team, I opted for the conservation servitude. They explained the process of establishing a servitude, and they supported me every step of the way.”

This ability to work with landowners and local organizations has not only helped to protect the natural landscape and the approximately 100 threatened or endangered species that can be found here, but has attracted national and international recognition for the Appalachian Corridor’s work. Last summer co-founder Francine Hone won second place in the Yves Rocher Institutes Terre de Femme awards recognizing women contributing to environmental issues. This summer the Appalachian Corridor received the Canadian Environment Awards’ Gold Medal in conservation ahead of other national conservation projects.

Natural conservation is an issue that deserves a bigger spotlight than it gets in the Townships. If anyone doubts how spoiled we are here with natural riches they can just ask any of the hoards of tourists pulled over in the most inopportune along backroads armed with their cameras and an eye for colourful fall leaves. While I wish they would choose not to park around blind corners, I sympathize with their appreciation of our region’s natural heritage. ACA’s work is giving Townshippers an opportunity to conserve this natural wonder and increases people’s awareness of it. What I find most encouraging, however, is that the instinct to preserve it already exists in our region as landowners voluntarily agree to donate their land or make arrangements ensuring that it will be conserved. It is a sign that Townshippers have the ability to look beyond their property lines and, with the help of the Appalachian Corridor, take action that will benefit not only themselves, but the entire population of the region today and for years to come.

Global eating equals global warming

Eating is an indispensable habit and a bigger part of our lives than just providing nutrients and energy; it defines us. According to Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a 19th century gastronome, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” This quote, better know as “you are what you eat”, strikes such a powerful chord with us that is has been repeated through the ages and most people (including me before I wrote this) have no idea who first said it. But as people become more numerous on this planet, it’s becoming apparent that not only are we what we eat, but the world is what we eat as well.

With all the climate change talk about reducing greenhouse gas emissions this election, people are looking to their cars to help curb their personal emissions but it may be that the kitchen is a better place to start. A recent study in Environmental Science and Technology by Christopher Weber and Scott Matthews indicates that the average US household produces almost twice as many greenhouse gas emissions through food consumption than through driving. These emissions include the energy that goes into the production of the food, transporting the food from the farm to the retailer and other energy uses such as refrigeration and lighting.

I decided to find out for myself what kind of impacts my diet could have on climate change. After a little bit of research I found, a site that calculates your greenhouse gas emissions for different meals in grams of carbon dioxide. The calculator was put together by the Bon Appétit Management Company, an online catering company that strives to provide both “culinary expertise and commitment to socially responsible practices”. They provide a thorough list of the sources they used to develop their tool for those wishing to do more research. I discovered quite quickly that small changes in my diet could make big changes in my emissions and that I could start making a change first thing in the morning at the breakfast table.

On weekdays, I like to keep breakfast simple with either toast and jam or a bowl of cereal. Surprisingly, that simple decision between two rather mundane choices meant the difference between 1224 g CO2 for the bowl of cereal and 103 g for the toast and jam. This means that over the course of a year, eating toast instead of cereal would reduce my personal emissions by over 400 kg of CO2, the same amount of emissions created by driving an average car 1500km. The reason that emissions are so high for a bowl of cereal has nothing to do with the cereal itself, but the milk. Dairy products and other animal products take a lot more energy to produce than food crops. This is because about 90% of the food an animal eats is used for movement and metabolism and only 10% goes into the meat and dairy products that are sold as an end product.

Lunch and supper provided their own surprises. With a cheeseburger and fries coming in at almost 2000 g CO2, I decided to look for which foods might have a smaller impact. My best bets were chicken or fish if I wanted meat (400-700 g CO2) but if I cut the meat out I could get down as low as 300 g CO2 with a vegetable stir fry.

While few people would say it is realistic to eliminate meat and dairy products entirely from our diet, some important organizations, such as the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, suggest reducing the amount of meat consumed starting with one meat-free day per week. Dr. Pachauri, head of the International Panel on Climate Change, told The Guardian, “in terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about reductions in a short period of time, it clearly is the most attractive opportunity.”

Cutting down greenhouse gas emissions other ways is also possible but it is not as intuitive as you would think. For example, buying organic produce, because they use less nitrogen can reduce you emissions but when you buy organic meats the opposite is true. Animals raised organically take longer to reach the desired weight meaning they eat more food over their lifetimes than industrially raised animals. Also, while buying local is important to support local food producers, the emissions reductions aren’t as important as buying food that is less energy-intense to grow because transportation is only a relatively small part of food’s greenhouse gas emissions (11%) when compared to the emissions involved in food production (83%).

I encourage everyone to try this calculator. Because calculators like this one are greatly simplified, they do not give perfectly accurate results, but they do provide a reasonable estimate and at the very least can help consumer pinpoint which parts of their diets are the most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions.

As seen in the October 8, 2008 issue of the Brome County News

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A tale of two climate change policies

In their rush to climb over each other, the five major political parties rarely find themselves agreeing on anything, but addressing reductions in greenhouse gas emissions has found the five parties lining up on two sides. And the parties that line up are not the ones you think they may be.

The media, awash with the words ‘carbon tax’ have neglected to discuss its only real alternative for emissions reductions: the cap-and-trade system. So while the Liberals are the ones getting all the heat for their greenhouse gas reduction policy – mostly because they are touting it as a keystone issue – there is little, if any, comparison of the two major approaches to greenhouse gas reductions.

The biggest difference between the two is how direct they are in reducing emissions. The cap-and-trade system – championed by three strange bedfellows: the Conservatives, the NDP and the Bloq – limits emissions directly by placing a limit on them. Industries exceeding these limits have to either pay fines or purchase carbon credits from industries that are below the limits. This direct approach is generally favoured by environmental groups because it sets exact targets on emissions. Some economists, on the other hand, dislike this approach because it is difficult to calculate the exact economic impact of reaching specific targets which, they say, may create volatile energy prices

The carbon tax – the strategy of choice of the Liberals and Green Party – aims to reduce emissions in an indirect fashion by making the cost of emitting carbon more expensive. For example, in British Columbia, where a tax of $10 per tonne of carbon emitted was levied on July 1 of this year, drivers will have to pay an extra 2.4 cents per litre of gasoline. This means that a person driving a hybrid car will have to pay an extra $10 in tax for every 8500 kilometers they drive, the distance required to emit a tonne of carbon. People with less fuel efficient SUV’s would have to pay over $30 extra to cover the same distance. The tax covers any fuel that emits carbon such as heating oil, natural gas and propane. The Liberals’ plan, however, exempts gasoline from their carbon tax judging it to be already sufficiently taxed.

Because the price is fixed for every tonne of carbon emitted by both consumers and industry, a carbon tax’s impact on the economy and energy prices is easier to predict than for the cap-and-trade system. It is, however, more difficult to predict emissions reductions because they are dependent on how consumers react to higher carbon taxes.

An important criticism of the carbon tax is that it will have a larger impact on lower income Canadians for whom energy costs represent a bigger part of their budget. Supporters of the carbon tax address this issue by making the tax revenue-neutral which is just a fancy way of saying that the government isn’t making any money off it. It redistributes all revenue from the tax back to consumers in the form of income tax cuts and interest free loans for people retrofitting their home to be more energy efficient. Both the Liberal and Green address this issue in their party platforms by giving bigger tax breaks and tax credits to low income families affected by this tax. The cap-and-trade system doesn’t have a direct cost to consumers but industries having to implement expensive measures to reduce emissions will no doubt pass some of the costs down to the consumers. None of the cap-and-trade supporting parties have really addressed this issue in their platforms.

A carbon tax, of the nature being discussed in Canada, is not uncharted waters either nationally or internationally. In fact, we Quebeckers already pay a 0.8 cent carbon tax on every litre of gasoline ($3.30 per tonne). Internationally, there is an even longer history of carbon taxation particularly in Scandinavian countries which put carbon taxes in place in the early 1990’s, years before the Kyoto Protocol came into existence. Denmark and Sweden are proof that the tax system can produce emissions reductions without economic hardship. Even after nearly two decades of high taxes on carbon ($150 per tonne of carbon in Sweden’s case), Denmark and Sweden still manage to enjoy higher GDP’s per capita than Canadians according to the World Bank.

Cap-and-trade systems can also be found on the international scene. British Columbia, Quebec, Ontario and Quebec have joined 11 Americ2an states in an agreement that will see all participants cap emissions on certain industries and trade carbon credits amongst themselves. Currently, the biggest cap-and-trade system in the world is the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme which includes 18 countries and went into effect in 2005. The European carbon credit trading suffered severe drawbacks because the targets were voluntary for the first phase. The second phase started in 2008.

Both the cap-and-trade and carbon tax systems have positive and negative aspects and both provide incentives for greenhouse gas emissions reductions in distinctly different ways. While the media continue to portray Dion’s carbon tax in negative light, it is clear that cap-and-trade system is not necessarily an improvement over it. When Canadians hit the polls, they should keep in mind that any way you wish to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there will be an impact on everyone. The carbon tax may sound like a bad idea because we have a natural dislike for taxes, but it has a proven track record and its economic impacts are easier to predict. The cap-and-trade system, on the other hand, can also be an effective way of reducing emissions though it may have higher economic risks for more ambitious targets. In the end, it’s Canadians who will decide.

As seen in the October 1, 2008 issue of the Brome County News

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The biology behind voting

On October 14, Townshippers, along with their fellow Canadians will be filing into the voting booths to elect who will represent them in Ottawa. We often think that we are fully in control when we are choosing which little white circle to fill in, but two studies released recently is making the traditional notion of voters carefully choosing sides based on candidate, party performance and values look antiquated.

For some people deciding who to vote for is not a demanding task. Like a die-hard hockey fan, their loyalty to a party is undeniable. But for those not firmly entrenched, adding up all the debates, sound bytes, mistakes and so on, can be demanding. Take the race for MP of Brome-Missisquoi, for instance, where the battle is between Bloq Quebecois incumbent Christian Ouellet and Liberal Denis Paradis. For those voters who wish to express their preferences on environmental issues, it is not a straightforward decision.

Both have a history of service on Parliament’s Environment and Sustainable Development Committee but Ouellet has stronger personal environmental credentials having served as chair of the Solar Energy Society of Canada and also as co-founder of Quebec Solaire. Ouellet’s party, on the other hand, has no legitimate chance of forming a government and, as such, are relegated more to a role of influencing legislation rather than instigating it. Paradis, on the other hand, is a member of a party that is really pushing its green side under leader Stephane Dion who continually emphasizes the importance of his carbon tax, a plan to cut income tax and boost taxes on activities the emit greenhouse gases. If you don’t wish to vote for either of these, a vote for any party will still secure $1.75 of funding for that party assuming they get 2% of the vote. How do you make up your mind with choices like these? A recent study shows that your biology can influence your decision in ways you weren’t aware of.

A group of American scientists from backgrounds in political science and psychology released a study in last week’s edition of the journal Science which shows that physiological traits have a measurable impact on political attitudes. After filling out a form to identify their political beliefs, the participants of the study were exposed to two slide shows. One included three threatening pictures of a large spider on the face of a frightened person, a dazed person with a bloody face, and a maggot-infested wound and the other included three non-threatening pictures of a bunny, a bowl of fruit and a happy child. While both groups reacted similarly to the non-threatening slides, there was an important difference between reactions to the threatening slides. Participants with a high level of support for protective policies (increased military spending, support for the Iraq war, etc.) tended to have stronger reactions to the threatening slides as indicated by skin-conductance which measures levels of stress. This difference has important implications including the fact that politic affiliations may be, in part, genetic shedding new light on an old saying: like father, like son.

While your genetics may play a part in political choices, it is certainly not the be all and end all of decision making. The conscious brain must do the rest of the work right? Not according to Bertram Gawronski from the Western University and two of his colleagues who found that they could predict the future stance on an issue of an undecided individual one week in advance by measuring certain unconscious impulses. Participants in their study, citizens of Vicenza, Italy, were asked to fill out a questionnaire on the enlargement of a U.S. military base in their area and were subsequently submitted to an implicit association test. This test asked the participants to associate, as quickly as possible, pictures of a U.S. army base and either positive or negative words. The speed at which they associate two items can reveal subconscious preferences. The researchers found that, among those undecided about their opinion on the base, reaction times in the implicit association test allowed them to make good predictions of their decision one week in advance. This demonstrates that, although the participants were consciously undecided, a stance on the issue had already been taken in their subconscious. This means that so called swing voters that political parties vie viciously for, may have already decided.

Each of these studies, when published in the mainstream media, seemed to elicit negative responses, primarily from angry partisans trying to find some rationale for the choices of their political adversaries. This interpretation seems, to me, quite selective. Research into this kind of psychology isn’t intended to portray voters as robotic automatons filling in ballots as their genetics and subconscious see fit; another, positive, message can be excised. Knowledge of the genetic and sub-conscious components of our decision-making process, can be used to our benefit by weeding out knee-jerk reactions to politicians and policies leaving us to better able to vote for our values, regardless of what those values may be.

As seen in the September 24, 2008 issue of the Brome County News

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Climate change is just a game

Climate change is a huge environmental problem. After over a decade of being continuously reminded of it, a statement like that becomes a platitude. But what we don’t often hear is that climate change and the solution to it is a social dilemma that requires people and countries that think individualistically – which got them into this mess in the first place – to trust and cooperate with each other. This can be a tall order. With the help of a branch of science called game theory, we can get a better grasp of these behind the scenes climate change issues.

Game theory was originally developed during the Cold War as a way of developing strategies in situations where the outcome is based on both you and your opponent’s decisions. Because it’s not always possible to know what an opponent is going to do, the first game theorists developed scenarios they called games and asked themselves what the most rational way to proceed would be if they were in their opponent’s shoes.

A modern day example of this is the battle for consumers between Coke and Pepsi. If they both companies set the same high price, they split the number of consumers and collect sizeable profits. If Coke one day decided it could make more money by setting its price lower than Pepsi’s, thus attracting Pepsi drinkers, Pepsi would quickly lower its prices also and both companies would find themselves making less money than before. Game theorists study, in this instance, what pricing strategies each company should take to help maximize profits. Though a large number of these games exists, two are especially important when discussing climate change.

The origin of the climate change problem can be explained by a game called the tragedy of the commons. Proposed by Garrett Hardin in 1968, it explores the harmful dynamic that can develop when individuals benefit from a public good while spreading the costs to all other users. The quintessential example, used by Hardin himself, is that of a public pasture.

Imagine you are a shepherd grazing your flock on the public pastures surrounding your village along with a number of other shepherds. One day you have an epiphany: If you bought one more sheep, you would get the full benefit of owning that additional sheep and the cost of raising it, the grass it would eat, would be split between you and all other shepherds in the village because grass eaten by your new sheep cannot be eaten by another. Having realized this, you decide to get another sheep. Then another. And another. After a while, the other shepherds catch on to your logic and start adding their own sheep until there are too many sheep for the pasture and it becomes unproductive equally devastating all shepherds. Getting more sheep made so much sense, what happened?

The problem, like climate change, is not the decision or the motives of the individual, it is the collection of decisions made by all individuals. From the point of view of each shepherd, getting more sheep always makes more sense because the benefit outweighs the cost. The problem is that all shepherds are bound to think this way and the pasture cannot support and unlimited number of sheep

Driving your car, in this instance, is similar to buying more sheep. Every time someone drives from point A to point B they get obtain the full benefit of that trip while the cost, greenhouse gas emissions, is released into the atmosphere and shared by everyone in the form of climate change. That’s why it’s easy to think, “I’m just one person,” because your benefit seems so much larger than your cost. We need to remind ourselves that if millions of people are also thinking the same thing, as with the shepherds, the costs quickly get out of hand.

Why, then, is it so hard to fight climate change? Can we not all realize our collective predicament and work together? Cooperation is not as easy as it may seem. It can lead to the second climate change game, the snowdrift game.

Imagine – this shouldn’t be too hard for Canadians – that you are driving in a snowstorm until you arrive at a snowdrift across the road. You inspect the snowdrift and find no way around it while also noticing that there is someone else stuck on the other side of the snowdrift driving in the opposite direction. Each of you can choose to shovel or not creating three possible scenarios. In the first, both people shovel sharing the cost. In the second, one person shovels, accruing the entire cost while the other person benefits from the other’s work. The last scenario, where no one shovels, leaves both people trapped on their side of the snowdrift.

To see how this applies to climate change, imagine a much simplified world with two countries: A and B. In the first scenario, both countries reduce emissions and avoid or minimize climate change. In the second, one country reduces emissions, lessening the impact of climate, and both countries benefit. The last scenario where both countries are unwilling to reduce emissions finds both facing intense climate change.

Most countries would like to be in the first scenario but are simultaneously afraid to find they are the duped party in the second. This leaves countries in the third scenario because they can’t find a way to trust that the other will share the costs of reducing emissions.

This is where a third party has to step in to instill that trust. In the real world case, this came in the form of the Kyoto Protocol. It guaranteed a certain amount of trust between countries because it only came into effect when enough countries to represent 55% of global emissions ratified it. This was meant to eliminate, as much as possible, countries ‘sitting in their cars’ and waiting for other countries to ‘dig out the snowdrift’. Of course, the United States infamously did so, refusing to ratify the Protocol because other developing countries, most notably China, India and Brazil, were also ‘sitting in their cars’. Regardless of its overall efficacy, the Kyoto Protocol managed to instill a little bit of trust between countries…for a little while anyway.

While climate change continues to be a highly politicized and polarizing issue, it is important to realize that ideological differences aren’t the only problem. There are also real social dilemmas underlying both the cause and the resolution of climate change. Cooperation is going to be the only way out of this snowdrift.

Seen in the September 17, 2008 issue of the Brome County News

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A recipe for dialog

This month’s issue of Harper’s magazine greeted me with an unexpected but welcome surprise. The title, “News from Nowhere”, was both unassuming and undisclosing, in true Harper’s style, so my delight came from the byline, “Iceland’s Polite Dystopia”. In a feverish rush to finish my thesis, the only music that I can focus with is the entire repertoire of Iceland’s only non-Bjork musical celebrity: Sigur Ros. Having bathed in the landscape painted by their music daily and nearly non-stop, I felt somewhat indebted to the country that produced such melodious musicians.

I read through Rebecca Solnit’s article intently relishing a country that is so perfectly human in its strengths and faults. Iceland has the world’s highest per-capita book sales – one citizen remarked that “here the garbageman has read Cicero” – and it seems to feed a national identity that instills strong principles with the ferocity of their Viking ancestors. Yet, they are remarkably unlike their ancestors in their inability to voice or otherwise communicate their displeasure with the state of affairs for fear of being ‘preachy’. And it’s not as though the opportunity doesn’t present itself as citizens can actually make an appointment with the president or simply chat up the prime minister at the supermarket.

Their predicament struck me as entirely complementary to the political climate we weather in Canada. Complementary, not in that word’s usual sense of completion but in its chromatic sense of two colours that, when united, make a neutral colour. Where Icelanders fail at discourse for want of being preachy, we fail in relying exclusively on that quality. This election cycle is a case in point. Politicians speak much more like a member of the clergy than a member of the people. Similar to the unidirectional nature of the message the clergyman passes on to his parishioners, politicians don’t seem as inspired by the people as they seem to tell the people what they want for them. Just as saying nothing isolates people, as the Icelanders do, telling people something is just as isolating. Dialog is accomplished through a sharing of ideas in the absence of force. If we could combine the passive, receptive nature of Icelanders with the sometimes overly-vocal yet passionate nature of Canadians we could have something as bright and as non-threatening as the mixture of blue and yellow light: white.

Forest Pharmacy

A discussion of herbal medicine and supplements can be a dangerous minefield to cross. People tend to entrench themselves either on the side of “real” medicine where human ingenuity is the driving force behind pharmaceutical innovation, or with those that view human-manufactured drugs with cynicism seeing natural products, unspoiled by human alteration, as the main avenue to maintaining health.

As is nearly always the case when people are neatly divided into two camps, reality lies somewhere in the middle and our local forests are an example of this. Though rife with plants with medicinal qualities, not all plants of Eastern Townships are directly edible and require transformation in a laboratory to enhance their effectiveness and avoid toxic reactions and unwelcome side-effects. There is no need to go thumbing through a medical textbook to convince yourself of this; a short, guided hike can demonstrate both that medicine is often times a wonderful combination of natural diversity and human ingenuity and that tropical forests are not the only places that contain exciting medicine. With the right knowledge, a hike in the Townships can be just as much like foraging through a pharmacy as it is a walk in the woods.

Mary Poppins would be delighted with the first forest medicine we’ll explore as it comes with a spoonful of sugar. It’s difficult to hike in the Townships without crossing paths with blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, currants, cherries, strawberries or the stray, abandoned apple orchard. Aside from the fact that they all make delicious pies, these fruits also contain a compound called quercetin giving them colour and many potential health benefits. By blocking histamines, it can provide allergy relief to sufferers and it has anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce swelling for those with arthritis. It’s also an antioxidant which means it can lower the level of “bad” cholesterol in your blood and protect your DNA from damage caused by free-radicals. It can even be used in treating more serious illnesses like cancerous skin and prostate tumours. More recently, it has demonstrated the ability to reduce mice’s susceptibility to the flu though whether it will have this same property in humans is yet to be determined. Much of the benefit of quercetin can be obtained directly from nature without transformation. However, fruits only contain quercetin in small amounts so for it to have any effect you need more than a couple berries; a regular diet of these fruits as well as vegetables high in quercetin (red onions, parsley, olives) can help reap its benefits.

The Canadian Yew is an example of medicinal plant you won’t want to enjoy directly from nature. Though its bright red fruit is the only non-toxic part of this sprawling, evergreen shrub (caution: the seed inside the fruit is toxic which I is why I just steer clear of eating any part of it) it is the bark that contains the medicine. Its bark contains paclitaxel which is extracted and used as a treatment that inhibits the growth of ovarian and breast cancers cells. Originally, paclitaxel was harvested from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree but the amount of bark it took to make the drug were prohibitive so now it is simply synthesized in a laboratory from a more common compound found in the needles.

Another medicinal bark is that of the willow tree which is the source of an anti-inflammatory that can also reduce fevers. In use for millennia, the “father of medicine” himself, Hippocrates, described the effects of the bark in the 5th century BC. What he was observing was the effects of salicylic acid, which is only a short chemical reaction away from aspirin. Salicylic acid has similar medicinal properties to aspirin but causes more digestive upset which is the reason we use the over the counter version instead. Aspirin itself, developed in the late 19th century, was derived from another common plant to the Townships: meadowsweet. A relative of the rose with small white or pink flowers, it contains methyl salicylate, another precursor of aspirin. Contrary to the willow tree, the entire meadowsweet plant can be used for medicinal purposes but its high potency makes this plant risky to use. If you have a headache, you’re better off getting your aspirin from the pharmacy rather than from this plant.

Although we think of vineyards more as source of wine than of medicine grapes – both the wild river bank grape abundant in the Townships or its cultivated cousin – are a healthy source of antioxidants, quercetin and, most notably, resveratrol. It can lengthen the life of certain organisms including yeast, worms, a short lived species of fish and even mice causing wine and resveratrol to make headlines. Unfortunately, by the time you’ve had enough wine for it to have effect, you would have a failing liver to worry about.

Incase I got your hopes up with the life-lengthening potential of resveratrol and now you’re feeling a little blue, try some St-John’s Wort. This little yellow flower has been shown to be just as effective as commercial antidepressants for treating mild to moderate depression with fewer side effects. Trials on patients with major depression, however, have come up empty handed.

From just a few examples we can see that certain natural compounds need no processing (quercetin and St. John’s Wort) while the natural compounds contained in others must be extracted or altered to avoid either toxic reactions or unpleasant side-effects (paclitaxen and aspirin). Other drugs, like ibuprofen and acetaminophen, are not based on naturally occurring compounds and are the products of pure ingenuity.

It is clear that effective medicine is not found solely in nature or the lab. In fact, many successful drugs are the product of teamwork between the diversity of nature and the ingenuity of people. In some cases, like St. John’s Wort for depression, the natural product can be just as effective as its pharmaceutical rival but in other cases, pharmaceuticals may be more effective. When faced with this problem, I defer to an old platitude: go with what works. In my case, it’s whatever will get me back on the hiking trails fastest.

Seen in the September 10, 2008 issue of the Brome County News

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Catch me listening to Car Talk

I have a new favourite radio show and, in all honesty, my realization of the strength of my break with the past has left me reeling. If you were to tell me in 2003 that in five years I would find myself putting aside time every Saturday morning to listen to Click and Clack, the Tappet brothers, for one hour of call-in car repair radio on Car Talk, I’d have a hard time believing you. My skepticism would be based more on your claim of time travel, but I digress.

Car Talk is neither your run of the mill call-in or car repair show. The diversity of listeners it attracts rivals the tropical rainforest both in quantity and in distinctiveness. Just this past weekend there was a guy calling in saying he was a long time listener but, his main skill set being music, he new nothing about cars. Long-time listener? Excuse my simplemindedness but to listen to a call-in radio show about cars, don’t you have to not just like cars, but have some idea of how to fix them? The guy was a musician! I mean, I don’t mind gardening but I consider the gardening show on CBC just short of torture. Shouldn’t an alto-sax aficionado be listening to John Coltrane on Bose earphones that cost more than my weekly paycheck? Surfing over to their Facebook page, I discover that they have 12,175 fans and that, don’t forget, is only within the demographic that actually uses Facebook which I’d estimate to be only a fraction of their entire listening base. But even within that demographic, they still manage to have more fans than indie favourites Broken Social Scene or Chromeo. Taken at face value, that still means that more people feel the urge to make public their love affair with Click and Clack than two bands I’d consider famous. What’s happening here?

Truthfully, I’m not sure. I don’t even have a car to fix. I hadn’t even been interested in cars at all before. And, believe me, there are many things I find more pleasant than the call-in format for a radio show. The Tappet brothers, with their almost hyperbolic Boston accents have managed to breath life into a subject that I wasn’t even aware possessed the apparatus to blow into and they’ve been doing it for over 20 years! Is it their self-depricating charm or their almost House M.D.-esque ability to diagnose car troubles based simply on a caller’s questionable ability to imitate odd sounds made by their car over a poor phone connection on national radio? Whatever it is, I want to find out because I have my own discipline to breathe life into.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Farming greener grass gives greater returns

Brome Fair is a time for going big whether we’re talking about hot dogs, horsepower or wild rides. Yet, despite all the new, big distractions, this year it was the size of the cattle, an ever-present participant in the fair, that impressed me most. It’s not that the cattle were that much bigger this year, I just finally appreciated how big a cow is. And being big, of course, requires eating a lot and creating a lot of waste. The continuously bustling of wheelbarrows bringing hay in and cow paddies out reminded me of a farmer I’d read about in Virginia who shirked some old agricultural traditions in favour of some new ones which permitted him to greatly reduce the number of “wheelbarrows” of food coming into the farm and all but eliminate the number of “wheelbarrows” leaving the farm. His name is Joel Salatin.

Joel Salatin has taken the old saying, “in order to catch a fish, you have to think like a fish,” to a new extreme. He thinks like a cow, a chicken, a pig, a rabbits, a turkey but above all he thinks like grass which is why, despite the fact that Salatin produces 30,000 dozen eggs, 10,000 broilers, 100 head of cattle, 250 hogs, 800 turkeys, and 600 rabbits, he considers himself, above all, a grass farmer.

Salatin’s farm, elegantly depicted in Michael Pollan’s 2006 book The Ominvore’s Dilemma, is a jigsaw puzzle of landscape proportions where the centerpiece is the grass or the “salad bar” as Salatin himself likes to put it. Using an ingenious system comprised of some electric fencing hooked up to a car battery he creates a paddock, up to 5 acres in area, for his cattle. After one day of grazing he quickly ushers them onto the next paddock leaving behind cow paddies and a hoof mark rutted terrain. Two or three days later, and the timing is important, he brings in a vehicle he affectionately calls the Eggmobile. In that delay, grubs and fly larvae, favourite foods of chickens, have grown fat and juicy but have not yet hatched. The chickens then do three jobs in one, reducing the number of pests on the farm by eating the larvae, spreading the cow paddies over the paddock and leaving behind their own natural fertilizer which is rich in nitrogen, a limiting nutrient for the grass and the soil. The cows themselves increase the nitrogen in the soil as well by grazing the taller grass species leaving more light for shorter species like red clover which put nitrogen into the soil. Their hoof marks can also capture rain water creating a perfect microsite for the growth of grass. This makes the grass on Polyface Farms grow in blazes. In fact, while other farmers in his area are averaging 70 cow days per acre (one ‘cow day’ being the average amount of grass a cow will eat in one day), Polyface farms is averaging nearly 400 cow days per acre. This means Salatin’s 100 acre pastureland is equivalent to almost 600 acres of average land. That’s similar to getting nearly six farms for the price of one.

The interdependent nature of his farm means that nothing goes to waste. The output of one system is the input into another reducing his reliance on external inputs such as fossil fuels and corn and grain. The money he saves means that on every dollar of food he sells only eight cents goes to paying for inputs into the farm allowing him to earn over 250,000 US$ a year.

Granted he sells his product at a price above that of what you’d pay at the grocery store, something he’s been criticized for, but he believes this is the true cost of food.

“…with our food, all of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water – of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap,” he explains to Pollan. “Frankly, any city person who doesn't think I deserve a white-collar salary as a farmer doesn't deserve my special food.”

No one can fault Salatin for being soft-spoken but he not only talks the talk of his self proclaimed “Christian libertarian environmental capitalist” politics, he walks the walk. Well, more like his animals walk the walk. Salatin’s philosophy is that the animals should do the work instead of tractors. Simple put, farmers should bring the animals to the food, not bring food from 1,000 miles away to the animals. After all, as Allan Nation, one of Salatin’s mentors, writes in The Stockman Grass Farmer, “all agriculture is at its heart capturing free solar energy…the most efficient was is for you to send and animal out to gather this free solar food.”

The cow-chicken symbiosis is only the beginning of the interrelationships on the farm and every time you think there can’t be another little wrinkle to the apparent perfection of Salatin’s master plan, there is.

Another example of Salatin’s ingenuity is the barn in which he keeps the cows in the winter. Rather than remove the manure, Salatin puts straw, wood chips and corn on top. As the winter wears on and the manure mixture builds up, the cows bedding lifts off the ground up to three feet by the end. The mixture creates anaerobic compost that gives off heat and keeps the cows warm. Once the cows are let out to pasture, the pigs are turned loose in the barn where they dig with feverish delight to find all the half-fermented corn buried within, aerating the compost in the process so it can be spread back on the pasture.

Salatin’s convictions stretch beyond the border of his farm. He refuses to ship his meat. If you want to sample his meat, you have to drive down to the Shenandoah Valley to get it. Fortunately for him, he’s built up a strong clientele who are willing to do just that and among them you’ll find a variety of people from local families to haute-cuisine chefs who claim that his eggs can make a dessert like no other. If you do decide to make the trip down, you can always take a peek around on the farm as well as he operates on a strict open door policy.

I must admit that though I consider myself a realist environmentalist, I find few, if any flaws in Salatin’s jigsaw puzzle of a farm where all the pieces fit unnervingly well together. Nevertheless, Salatin himself doesn’t claim to have all the answers as he admits that his farm cannot necessarily be carbon copied into a new location. In a 2000 interview in Smithsonian he suggests farmers should, “try a little ‘landscape painting’,” and that, “there’s plenty of room to experiment.” This, he believes, is how to reduce the number of “wheelbarrows” going in and the number of “wheelbarrows” going out.

If you wish to here Joel Salatin himself speak about his farm, go to:

Seen in the September 3, 2008 issue of the Brome County News

Monday, September 8, 2008

Blue-green algae: more than just a pest at the beach

The next time there is a beach closure due to blue-green algae, municipalities could put a positive spin on it with a sign that reads: BEACH CLOSED DUE TO LIVING FOSSIL ON DISPLAY. It won’t make up for a missed day at the beach but it will remind people that blue-green algae aren’t just a pest, they’re a part of natural history.

Blue-green algae (a misleading name as they are more closely related to bacteria than algae which is why they are also referred to as cyanobacteria) are often referred to as the ultimate ‘living fossil’. A living fossil is a species that does not look appreciably different from prehistoric fossils we find of them. Colonies of blue-green algae have been preserved in fossils called stromatolites over billions of years. In fact, some of the earliest known fossils dating back three and a half billion years look remarkably like the blue-green algae that we see today (though there is some controversy surrounding these oldest fossils as some scientist claim they were not made by biological processes but rather by physical ones). Nonetheless, the form we see blue-green algae in today is similar to the way it was when life was just getting a foothold on earth – with one important difference: the majority of blue-green algae today has the ability to produce oxygen. This is an important development for life on earth.

Three and half billion years ago, the earth was a very different place. Volcanoes were much more active, the sun was one third dimmer, and the atmosphere was mostly nitrogen and carbon dioxide. There was little to no oxygen in the atmosphere at that time. The absence of oxygen didn’t prevent life, but it did limit its complexity. At that point in history, life existed only as one celled organisms that had limited ways of producing energy. Some of them did it by harnessing chemical reactions or the natural heat of the earth and others, such as the early blue-green algae, combined the sun’s energy with hydrogen or sulphur to produce energy. Some time around 2.7 billion years ago, blue-green algae evolved the ability to perform photosynthesis, like plants do today, using carbon dioxide and giving off oxygen. Because the atmosphere was so rich in carbon dioxide and the earth was rich in other important nutrients like phosphorus, these blue-green algae were extremely successful to the point where, over the course of a half billion years, they changed the composition of the atmosphere making carbon dioxide relatively rare and oxygen abundant. This event was the first in a series that allowed the evolution of the plants and animals that we recognize today.

Their tenacity over three and a half billion years of earth’s history can be equated with their ability to find a way to survive under nearly any set of circumstances. They can be found in the harshest environments on the face of the earth including the driest part of the driest desert on earth, a place that without any rain or fog, the Atacama Desert in Chile. It manages to survive there by living off the water that salty rocks naturally draw from the humidity in the air. In this part of the Atacama, no other forms of life are supported.

Their hardiness makes them good candidates to supply food for inhabitants of space travelers of the future. The moon contains nutrients required for life but it is bound up tightly in the soil. When researchers added blue-green algae to simulated lunar soil and added light and water, they found that it was able secrete acid and unlock the nutrients from the soil. Humans staying on the moon for long periods of time would therefore not have to bring the nutrients or soil to grow their own food. Some have even speculated that under certain conditions, blue-green algae could survive on Mars.

Blue-green algae can also be used to solve problems here on earth. Currently, the efficacy of using agricultural crops such as corn for biofuels is being debated because of the large amount of energy that needs to be put into growing the crops and processing the fuel. There is potential to produce biofuels from blue-green algae. Their natural energy producing systems can be altered to produce alternative fuels such as hydrogen or ethanol directly without any processing.

While they remain pests at the beach, it is clear they are more than just pests at the beach. They transformed the atmosphere and started the ball of life really rolling. I’m not suggesting we tolerate toxic blooms. Though they are a natural phenomenon, it is human activities, such as agricultural runoff, that has exacerbated a natural problem. I’m suggesting we appreciate the bigger context in which these problems arise. We should realize that blue-green algae share more in common with us than we think. Which other two species do you know of that can change the composition of the atmosphere and has the ability to survive under such extreme conditions?

So next time you’re upset because the blue-green algae blooms have closed the beach, take a deep breath and remember where the oxygen you’re breathing in comes from.

Seen in the August 27, 2008 issue of the Brome County News