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Thinking With Animals
Published in, Lethbridge Herald
26 June 2020
In thoughtful times, what Canadian doesn’t turn to Leonard Cohen? Suzanne, the lyrics go, takes you down to her place by the river and ‘feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China’.
All the way from China? Yes, for this was written in 1966 when China was reasonably considered far away, both in imagination and geography. Now goods cross international borders, span what we once thought of as vast oceans, fly the (pre-pandemic) crowded skies and arrive in our stores at a fraction of the price of mandarin oranges in Cohen’s era.
But at what cost? What does it cost to curtail production here and take advantage of cheaper labour costs in other lands, to fly fresh produce around the world, and to truck pigs, cattle and poultry across borders as though they were no more sentient than crates of oranges?
If the world seems close and perhaps claustrophobic to us now, we are left to imagine how the walls of civilization close in on the ecosystems of other life forms. Species who once had the luxury of space separate from human exploration and exploitation.
Charismatic fauna like tigers, elephants and mountain goats have long felt the impact of human encroachment both territorially and as objects of cultural significance. Animals that are hunted not for meat but for what it means to have their hides or heads adorning our spaces. Others, like the pangolin are less famously centred in awareness but are of increasing importance as the most heavily trafficked wild mammal across the world today.
Working with the Lele of Central Africa (circa 1964), Douglas described the pangolin as a scaly anteater with the body and tail of a fish yet with four legs used to climb in trees. Pangolins do not fear people and reproduce like us, usually having only one child at a time. These anomalies suggested to the Lele a special link between humans and animals – a creature that could spiritually mediate between the two. Killing a pangolin, they said, would bring animals to hunters and babies to women.
Curious as is the pangolin, neither its threatened status nor its presumed medicinal qualities are unique. Many animals perform a similar role as anomalous creatures believed to bridge the worlds of spiritual and secular. Many believe we can incorporate the special qualities of an animal in a number of ways but most usually by hunting and eating. Science may well prove otherwise (such as pangolin meat having no liver enhancing qualities), yet humans persist in making the animal a way to gain favour or think about ourselves within the infinite.
Many of us are anxious to get back to normal after the lockdown lifts - but what version of 'normal'? Can we develop a more harmonious relationship with nature? Admire animals not for the way they help us think about us, but for what they intrinsically are? Can we set aside tracts of wild land like the Yellowstone to Yukon where we tread lightly, sacrificing some of our freedom for their very survivability?
Cohen has passed on to whatever lies beyond, but his songs remain for us to ponder and enjoy. Like animals in traditional Lele cosmology, his music is good to think with. Like animals worldwide, life is not only analogies and poetry, but the reality of a warm beating heart – good to think and good to respect.
See More at Animals & Environment.
What to do with doggie poo?
Published in, Lethbridge Herald
15 May 2020
After snow melts and before grass grows, a stark sign of spring is the appearance of dog poo along sidewalks and trails in public spaces. Walking our pets hasn’t stopped during the COVID-19 virus pandemic, in fact for many it has increased as daily exercise benefits both dogs and their human companions.
There is an estimated population of 12,000 pet dogs in Lethbridge. Together they generate approximately 1.4 million kilograms of waste each year.
Like human faeces, dog waste contains bacteria, protozoa, viruses and parasites that can pose risk to the health of people, other pets, and the environment.
Many studies have traced bacteria in urban watersheds back to dog waste. The monitoring of Lethbridge storm water outfalls has found fecal coliform concentrations far exceeding acceptable standards for recreational and irrigation water. Pet waste was identified as a potential source (as well as wild birds, humans and livestock).
Managing dog waste is a challenge. Lethbridge has a Dog Control Bylaw requiring removal of your dog’s defecates from public property. Enforcement in Lethbridge, however, is minimal. The large amount of dog waste collected from a river valley dog park during recent volunteer “doggy doo-doo pick-up” events suggests some dog walkers knowingly flout this bylaw.
Responsible dog walkers understand the need to pick up their dog’s waste and making it a habit to carry plastic bags for that purpose.
The City of Lethbridge effectively eliminates excuses by maintaining 203 doggie bag dispensers stocked with approximately 600,000 doggie bags per year.
Garbage receptacles are provided at dog parks and signs are posted reminding users to scoop the poop.
Most of the 1.4 million kilograms dog waste generated annually ends up in the municipal landfill, much of it individually packaged in plastic bags. As it decomposes the dog poo contributes to landfill methane, which are a significant local source of greenhouse gas emissions.
In other words, pet waste has significant health and environmental impacts when left unscooped in the environment, and even when disposed of in the landfill.
Municipalities across Canada are looking at responsible ways to keep doggie doo out of their landfills. In Vancouver, residents are encouraged to flush poo (unbagged) down the toilet, to build a backyard composter for only pet poo (using the resulting compost on shrubs), or to use curbside bins picked up by private companies who separate the poo from the bag, sending the plastic to an incinerator and the poo to the wastewater treatment plant. Innovative municipalities with curbside organic waste pick-up programs accept pet waste in paper or certified compostable plastic bags and compost it in facilities designed to reach temperatures high enough to eliminate pathogens. Waterloo is also working with a local company to install underground storage tanks in parks that convert the collected dog waste into fertilizer and electricity via anaerobic digestion.
In Lethbridge, the current conversation about implementing a residential green cart curbside pick-up program needs to include a holistic consideration of what to do with dog poo.
The current practice of depositing thousands of tonnes of dog waste into our landfill wrapped in plastic bags is unsustainable and will become even more so as our population grows, as restrictions on methane emissions increase, and as single-use plastic bags become increasingly unacceptable. Furthermore, the public health issue of unscooped pet waste and its contribution to water pollution begs investigation and enforcement. The health benefits provided by our canine companions, especially evident during this pandemic, must not translate into unacceptable community costs.
See an expanded version with links at, All Things Waste.
1 June 2020
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FoodScaping Our Yards
Published in, Lethbridge Herald
27 April 2020
As we journey through these difficult times, SAGE would like to thank doctors, nurses, pharmacists, grocery, retail, transit and all essential service people helping us cope with Covid19. Your efforts are remarkable and very much appreciated. Previously, in trying times we coped by growing our own food, enabling resilience in our shared environment. From Victory Gardens to Food Forests, may the spirit endure.
A ‘foodscape’ is a designed, site-specific and high-yielding plant system for supporting human needs. A well-designed food forest provides nutritious food and medicinal plants while saving its steward, money. Foodscapes also provide beautiful urban spaces, enrich and protect the environment, build community, and help pollinators. Environmental pressures negatively impacting pollinators include pesticide use, climate change, and habitat loss. Among the most affected are bees, which are responsible for pollinating 1/3 of the food we eat. If we want to be sure of healthy crops, pollinators need as much help as we can give.
The most important factor in growing healthy food is healthy soil. A vigorous soil ecosystem is comprised of countless microorganisms, principally bacteria and fungi, that have developed complex symbiotic relationships to help them metabolize nutrients from the soil and resist disease. Bacteria, in general, feed on organic material high in nitrogen like fresh grass and vegetable scraps, while fungi prefer material high in carbon like dried leaves and the woody parts of plants. These are the ‘green’ and ‘brown’ components found in good compost. Incidentally, making compost at home is an easy way to use your food scraps instead of sending them to the landfill, where they produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
There are many designs for a foodscape, but all aim to mimic a typical forest with its multiple levels and species. Mirroring the tallest trees in a forest are a variety of fruit-bearing trees. Bushes like chokecherries, currants, and even grapes can comprise the next level. Then, herbaceous perennials such as comfrey and anise hyssop are often planted for medicinal use or to attract pollinators. The root and ground cover layers are comprised of soil stabilizing and conditioning plants including rhubarb, strawberries, carrots, garlic, spinach, rosemary and mint.
Most of the plants in a foodscape are perennials, as the goal is for the food forest to recur annually with minimal labour, while providing food and medicine for people, animal habitat and the ambiance of abundance and health. All of the living structures in a food forest are comprised of carbon removed from the atmosphere and sequestered in the soil, no longer contributing to the warming of the planet. The biomass in healthy soil is a massive carbon sink.
In choosing plants to foodscape your yard in Lethbridge, consider drought-tolerant species resistant to pests and diseases prevalent here. Other practical factors in the choice of plants include length of the growing season, tolerance for shade, nitrogen fixation and soil stabilization.
Foodscapes could become much more common in Lethbridge.
Because each site is different and unique, you may want to seek information and planning advice from sources such as LethbridgeSustainableLiving.org, UrbanFarmSchool.ca and ReGenerateDesign.ca.
This is an opportunity to think differently about our yards and shared spaces.
We can grow food and reap the rewards of a healthy body, environment – and pocketbook.
What is Renewable Energy?
Published in, Lethbridge Herald
23 March 2020
The challenge is to reduce the enormous amount of fossil energy we use and replace it with cleaner energy. Pollution has an enormous impact on human health and the integrity of natural systems, so less of it is better for everyone. Renewable energy technologies convert energy from inexhaustible sources into electricity. The energy source in the case of solar panels (photovoltaics) is the sun, whereas the energy source for wind turbines is the velocity and mass of the wind.
Renewable energy technologies require fossil energy to manufacture (as 90% of world energy consumption is currently derived from fossil fuels), and these processes result in various forms of pollution. This is no different than conventional energy technologies: coal production, oil and natural gas refining, and electricity generation plants also produce pollution. As such, using less energy is always the best choice to reduce pollution.
The main reason for installing commercial-scale renewable energy technologies is to reduce pollution compared to conventional fossil-fuel technologies. To do this, the renewable technology must generate more energy when compared to the energy consumed in their manufacture (and to install and maintain). Every 1 unit of fossil energy invested up-front in the renewable energy technology permits more units of energy to be delivered from the sun or the wind.
Here are some examples: In the case of solar, the energy it takes to manufacture a square meter of panel is 1150 kWh. A kWh, or ‘kilowatt-hour’, is the same unit of energy in which you purchase your electricity. In Lethbridge, a square meter of solar panel will produce about 225 kWh of electricity each year. If the solar panel lasts its expected lifespan of 25 years, it will produce 5 times more energy than it took to manufacture it.
Similarly, the energy it takes to manufacture a common 2-megawatt wind turbine is 2.8 million kWh. The wind turbine will produce about 3.5 million kWh each year for an expected lifespan of 20 years. A wind turbine will produce roughly 25 times more energy than it took to manufacture it.
Today, it is a process of making fossil fuels more productive: Take one unit of energy from a fossil fuel, use it to make a renewable energy technology, and generate 5 to 25 times more energy over time.
Because you are increasing the efficiency of the original unit of fossil fuel, you are creating smaller amounts of pollution per kWh of electricity produced.
The caveat: renewable energy technologies have to be installed in locations that maximize sun or wind exposure, and all of the electricity generated must be used. This requires a well-designed and operated electricity system that will receive electricity when it is generated and provide electricity when it is needed.
In summary, when one wonders what renewable energy is today, think of it as improving efficiency (making more energy from each unit of fossil fuel energy invested), and think of it as a means of reducing pollution.
We live in a full world: renewable energy technologies are an existing way to do better and begin to reduce our environmental impact.
See an expanded version, with charts at, Renewables
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The Vital Role of Insects
Published in Lethbridge Herald
27 January 2020
I have a weakness for the little things of this planet. Insects, in all their variety, ability, and beauty. I especially love spiders. In fact, last summer my family adopted a gorgeous Cat Face Spider who had spread her web across my son’s window. We caught lunch for her and it was fabulous to watch her zip down from her hidey-hole to wrap up her prey in thick white silk. Her wrapping web was nearly invisible, like thin wool. Spiders produce seven types of silk for different jobs. To me, that’s fascinating and miraculous.
My love of insects gives me joy, but many humans don’t share that joy.
Whatever our feelings, we are now aware that insect life is in serious peril.
A recent Guardian report notes the world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction with more than 40% of insect species declining and a third endangered. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles.
But maybe the insects in Canada are okay?
No. They’re not.
Do you recall the plethora of insects plastered across car windshields after a long summer trip? That doesn’t happen anymore. Agriculture Canada scientist Jeff Skevington, says “the country has lost a significant amount of its insect biodiversity in recent years based on the results of annual collection samples. That means a lot of the insects at the bottom of our food chain are dying out, which could have an unexpected, but noticeable impact on the lives of humans.”
In our region, 720 species of insects are at risk.
Insects are critical to the health of people. They pollinate our food, anchor entire food chains, break down plants and other organic matter, and control pest species that can decimate crops. Insects are such an important part of our planet’s ecosystems that biologist E.O. Wilson once called them ‘The little things that run the world.’
Why are insects threatened? There are multiple factors, including pesticide and herbicide use, habitat loss, intensive agriculture, light pollution and climate change. Skevington says climate change is “one of the most impactful reason bugs are dying out.” He cited recent temperature fluctuations in Spring that some bugs simply can’t endure. 'Quite often you’ll have really big warm spells so you get a flush of insects coming out, followed by a cold snap,' he said. Cold snaps can interrupt a bug’s lifecycle and severely impact their populations, and heat waves affect insect reproduction by severely decreasing male fertility.
What can we do to help insects bounce back? We can: stop using chemicals on our lawn and garden, get rid of the bug zapper (which kills beneficial insects) and buy organic food and cotton products that use fewer pesticides in production. In your garden, plant native species and leave little homes insects can shelter in, especially over the winter.
We’ll all be better off if insects can thrive again.
You don’t have to feed a spider, but you can give one a hidey-hole in your yard!
Extended version, with links at Issues & Projects.
What are your emissions?
Published in Lethbridge Herald
17 January 2020
We hear in the media a lot of talk about greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but few of us know how we contribute or how to calculate them for our own lives. And since it was probably this New Year’s Resolution to learn, cut this out of The Herald and attach it to the fridge door.
Now, dig out your solar powered calculator and your utility bills (or phone your provider) and follow along:
Home heating (natural gas): Add up the GJs on your bill for the past year and multiply this number by 0.056 for your tonnes of GHGs.
For example, for a house that uses 120 GJ of natural gas over a year:
120 x 0.056 = 6.7 tonnes of GHGs.
Electricity: Add up the kWh for the year and multiply by 0.000688 for your tonnes of GHGs.
For example, for a house in Alberta that uses 7200 kWh of electricity over a year:
7200 x 0.000688 = 10.2 tonnes of GHGs.
Driving (gasoline): Multiply your gas mileage by the number of kilometers you drove in the past year and multiply by 0.0024 for your tonnes of GHGs.
For example, for a car that uses 12.1 litres per 100 kilometers driving 15,600 km last year:
12.1 x 15,600 / 100 = 1890 liters purchased. So, 1890 litres x 0.0024 = 4.5 tonnes.
For individual emissions, you can divide these numbers by the number of people living in the home or travelling in the car.
Food is tricky, but important.
Assume that you eat about 2600 calories a day, and according to Canadian statistics we waste about 40% from farm to fork. (Interestingly, one fifth of the total food produced is wasted in our homes). Our food is responsible for about 2.5 tonnes per person for a Canada Food Guide diet. This may be lower if you eat less meat or waste less food.
Now, what about your flying holiday?
Google the flying distance between your home and your destination. Let’s say Lethbridge to Madrid, which is a 15,700 km return flight. Multiply this total by 0.000111 for your individual GHG emissions. In this example, 15,700 x 0.000111 = 1.7 tonnes.
Adding it all up, with two people in the home, the personal GHG emission in our example is just about 15 tonnes per year. This number would actually be a little low, as it does not include all of our consumer items.
The published number for Canadians is 16.7 tonnes per year which includes everything we do inside and outside our homes. By comparison, the United States is 15.7 tonnes per person; China is 7.7 tonnes; European Union is 7.0 tonnes; and India is 1.8 tonnes.
For an expanded edition with links, See our Issues & Projects Page.
Ways to Waste Less Food
Published in Lethbridge Herald
17 December 2019
In Lethbridge, about half of the residential waste going to the landfill are organics, mainly food and lawn cuttings. Once disposed of in the landfill, organics contribute to methane emissions (a potent greenhouse gas) and the accumulation of toxic fluids in the landfill called leachate. But even worse is that the food you throw away also wastes valuable resources, beginning in the sea or on the farm until it reaches your belly.
About one fifth of the food you buy at the grocery store ends up in the trash. This costs you about $1700 each year, but it also costs our environment: wasting agricultural land to grow the food that ends up being thrown out; using fresh water to grow the food; over-use of fertilizers that end up in the rivers creating huge aquatic dead zones worldwide; herbicides and pesticides that disrupt soil ecosystems as well as negatively affecting insects, birds and animals; and waste of the energy used to package, transport and refrigerate the food before it arrives in your home.
It is roughly seven times better for the environment to use all the food you buy than composting the food you do throw away. But composting is the next best thing, as there are portions of the food you buy that simply cannot be used. Backyard composting is good, but municipal collection and industrial composting can compost many things that are not suitable for backyard technologies. Reduce first, compost as a last resort.
There are a number of things you can to do reduce food waste in your home. For those who have shopped while hungry, you will know that planning your meals and buying only what you need for those meals is a good start. You can improve by planning to use what you already have in the refrigerator. Use more of the plant, from root to stem. And all of those scraps you generate can be saved to make soup stock for another meal.
Organize your fridge so that you can see the food that will spoil more quickly. Freeze food that you may not use right away or, when you have an abundance, you can preserve or dehydrate food to be used later. Best before and expiry dates are general suggestions from the food manufacturer - do a sniff test, as it may still be good to use. If you are going to use a product right away, help your grocery store by buying the items on the shelf closer to the ‘best before’ date. Encourage your grocer to discount food that would otherwise be thrown away. If you have purchased or grown too much food, consider donating it to a food charity while it is still good.
Most people are pretty good at eating what they buy, but it is amazing how much goes to the trash anyway. For a lot of good tips, tools, and resources, visit wasteless.ca (a project of Environment Lethbridge).
For an expanded edition with links, See our Issues & Projects Page.
The Paradox of Plenty
Published in Lethbridge Herald as,
'Tale of the Resource Curse'
21 November 2019
The ‘paradox of plenty’ (or the ‘resource curse’) has been observed in regions that have an abundance of a non-renewable resource. The argument is that resource-rich regions are more likely to experience low economic growth in the long term. The International Monetary Fund considers a region ‘resource-rich’ when 20% of the fiscal revenue is derived from non-renewable resources.
The cycle goes like this: A resource is discovered and the demand for this resource is established. This draws private investment from early entrants into the industry. As the industry expands and the return on investments remains lucrative, more money is invested. Governments invest in infrastructure that benefits the dynamic industry. Both public and private investments are made at the expense of other potentially profitable industries seeking capital. In plain words, the eggs are placed in a single basket.
This is where the curse comes in. At some point in the resource cycle, the profits to industry begin to decline. This may be because the easily-extracted resources are diminished, and the resources that are more difficult to access or refine are needed to fill the gap. The government that relies on a single resource industry for revenue and for employing its workers responds by supporting the struggling and influential industry in the form of improved infrastructure, tax incentives, support for research & development, and reductions in royalty expectations. This is usually an honest attempt to sustain the industry (already vulnerable to boom/bust cycles in commodity markets), hoping that it will recover in the short term or within the next election cycle.
The ‘resource curse’ suggests that there will be a time when this recovery is weak, or simply non-existent. Nonetheless, out of desperation, even more money will be invested to prop up the industry – money that will never be recovered in revenues.
Since most of the available money has flowed to a single industry at the expense of other industries, the resource-rich region has not adequately diversified and it is unprepared for the loss in revenues and employment opportunities. It is not uncommon that the failing industries leave behind a legacy of obsolete infrastructure and environmental damage that become public liabilities. In many countries where this cycle has been observed, the results have included instability in democratic institutions and the rise of populism and demagoguery, a drastic reduction in public services, an increase in human desperation and a deficit of political leadership as manifested in growing corruption, violence, crime, scapegoating, and human rights violations.
The Paradox of Plenty is a cautionary tale. Indicators might include rising liabilities (like orphan wells and mining tailing ponds), increased public investments in infrastructure for the once-lucrative industry (often accompanied by declining private investment), lower transparency in government finances, and less civil and open public discussion. Good government leadership can mitigate many of the worst effects – by encouraging economic diversification, by adopting a long-term view in decision-making, by not relying on royalty revenues for core public services, or by saving revenues from this non-renewable inheritance for future needs.
It takes courage and foresight to recognize a faltering or uneconomic industry, and it takes wise leadership that seeks thoughtful input to avoid the worst consequences of the ‘paradox of plenty’.
For an expanded edition with graphs & links, See our Issues & Projects Page.
We are pleased to actively participate in the Alberta Narratives Project:
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The Project conducted 55 province-wide roundtable discussions with 482 Albertans run by 75 organizations and supported by 19 partners.
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Expansion of the Twin River Heritage Rangeland on the Milk River Ridge.
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SAGE commends the City of Lethbrige for leadership & commitment to managing municipal solid waste diversion & welcomes Community Curbside Recycling.
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