I interview Treehugger; Treehugger interviews me

July 31, 2009

What’s an environmentalist to do when she has some extra time on her hands in New York? Here’s a recommendation: Track down the editor of Treehugger.com and harass him for a coffee! Highly enjoyable — and yes, this was precisely what I did when I went to the Big Apple a couple weeks ago. At 8 a.m. on a Friday morning, I met Graham Hill at Earth Matters, a hippie café in the Lower East Side. It was absolutely sweltering and there was no air conditioning available (what with the establishment being green and all), so I ordered a smoothie. Graham got himself a latte and some fruity granola; then we both pulled up a seat and began to chat. Here’s the transcript of our Q&A:

Thistle: How long has Treehugger been running now?

Graham: It started about five years ago, in 2004. My friend Nick Denton (of Gawker.com) and I felt there was a need for the green movement to be a bit more cool and convenient. I mean, hippies are awesome, but they’re a very small group. And we realized that while most people will care about the environment, it can take a while to figure out what exactly is happening and how to do something about it. So we wanted to repackage green and make it more accessible.

Thistle: When I first began checking the site, all the posts seemed more about sustainable design than anything else.

Graham: Yeah, it was very design-oriented at first, but there’s been a natural shift towards news stuff. That said, I’ve been complaining to people recently that we’ve really lost the whole design element, so I’d like to work on bringing that back.

Thistle: What types of posts generate the most hits?

Graham: Any meat-related or animal-themed stories, for sure, especially something like seal-clubbing, which always leads to controversy and a lot of comments. But we just want good, compelling stories.

Thistle: How does one get a job writing for Treehugger? Is it a difficult application process?

Graham: We hire our writers based on their resumés and previous work experience; we make sure they agree with our general manifesto, then we work with them on a few stories, holding their hand for a bit before letting them post on their own. The full-time staff tend to be more beat-oriented, whereas the part-time writers will maybe focus more on their location. They’re anywhere between 22 and 60 years old, male and female, chemists, architects and journalists, and from all over the world.

Thistle: What’s the current goal for the site?

Graham: Well, right now, we really want to focus on helping people understand their impact on the planet and how they can actually change this in concrete ways. The symptoms of the Earth, as a patient, are not looking good. Carbon dioxide is increasing rapidly as though the green movement never even happened, so we need to get people to understand the scale of their behaviours and make actual changes. It’s all well and good to be really diligent about unplugging your cellphone charger every night and using tote bags, but that accounts for less than 1% of your carbon footprint. And even if the whole world starts doing this, then we’ve still only reduced everybody’s collective footprint by 1%. Small steps are only good if they lead to big ones.

Thistle’s Inside Voice: I wonder if he realizes my challenge was all about taking 366 small steps?

Thistle: So how much change is actually occurring right now? And who needs to be making the majority of them?

Graham: The reality is, the vast majority of people like to blame suburbia, blame the red states and so on. But I can’t even tell you the number of panels I’ve been on about the water crisis where everybody has plastic water bottles sitting in front of them. I mean, if we can’t even get these little symbolic things right, it’s pretty bad.

Thistle: How is Treehugger’s relationship with Planet Discovery?

Graham: They’re in 52 million homes right now. The partnership has been great — they’ve left us alone and let us do our thing. I’m still here two years after that happened, so that proves something.

Thistle: In your time as editor, has there been any one story, person or book that’s really inspired you?

Graham: Some of the most inspirational stuff to me is the basic, old-school way of doing things; really simple technologies that anyone can use. Like awnings, for instance — New York used to have awnings all over the place and we lost them, but they can seriously reduce heat in the summer. You can also just wear appropriate clothing. And offices really need to turn down the air conditioning and look at ceiling fans again — you should never be cold in the summer.


Well, unfortunately, it’s been pretty darn cold and rainy in Toronto all summer; on the one hand, this means no need for air conditioning, but it also means that even my vegetable garden is starting to complain. And last weekend, it was no exception: Sunday afternoon began with a massive thunderstorm — but it wasn’t enough to deter me from stopping by the Alters’ place so my friend Lloyd (who writes for Treehugger) could interview me about Sleeping Naked. So, if you’re not completely sick of hearing about my book yet, watch the video below!


Sleeping Naked in Portuguese

July 29, 2009

Green as a Thistle reader Gustavo has just written to let me know that Sleeping Naked is Green has hit the shelves in Portugal! They’ve done a hilarious marketing campaign for it, which you can see here, and apparently the cover art looks quite different. Take a look:


How do you say risqué in Portuguese?

A trip to the Orretts’ organic farm

July 26, 2009

Just wanted to share some photos with everybody from my trip to this amazing organic farm about two hours north-east of Toronto; Jacob and I went there this weekend to visit a friend and spent most our time picking raspberries, swinging in hammocks, playing with the dogs, brushing the horses, inspecting all the vegetables, going for hikes, miraculously dodging the persistent rain and generally having a wholesome, nutritious, sustainable time — definitely worthy of Wellingtons and pigtails. Oh, but one tip for potential raspberry pickers: do NOT wear a white shirt.


Me crouching by the entrance to the farm.


Craig marching through the fields.


Garlic drying out on the back porch.


Me and one of the work horses.


Canadian Gothic — our photo shoot in the barn. Does this make a good Christmas card or what? Watch out, Sears Portrait Studio!


Here’s the original, for comparison.


Raspberry bushes! That’s another friend of ours, Caroline, in the background. She actually got full just from eating raspberries.


How yummy do these look? No pesticides or GMOs here…


Standing in the river. Somehow, the novelty of being able to stand in water and not get wet is going strong, even at 30 years of age.

No Impact Trailer

July 21, 2009

How excited is everybody for the No Impact Man movie?? Just from the trailer, I can tell I’m going to love it, if only because it feels like I’m watching myself go about my green year between March ’07 and February ’08 (that sounds totally vain, I realize, but it’s really more in a nostalgic, remember-when-a-bunch-of-us-crazy-green-bloggers-were-being-so-hardcore-about-climate-change-and-stumbling-a-lot-along-the-way sense). Anyway, here’s the trailer. If anyone knows how I can haul this puppy north of the border into Canadian theatres, leave a comment! I’m a film reviewer AND an environmental columnist, so this has my name (and four stars) written all over it…

An interview with Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, authors of Slow Death by Rubber Duck

July 8, 2009


As I mentioned a while back, I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, authors of Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health. Now, I must admit, when I first saw this book, my initial reaction was to roll my eyes and think, “Ugh, do I really need to be more paranoid about everything I eat, drink, use and so on? Isn’t fretting about global warming giving me enough stress?” So I put the book down and walked away. But then, it began following me. For reals. While on a stop in Calgary to promote Sleeping Naked is Green, my publicist kept making all these phone calls for the next day’s marathon of interviews — her clients happened to be Rick and Bruce, who were coming into town right after me. Then, a friend of mine got in touch the next week wanting to meet for lunch, and low and behold, it turned out that her mom used to be Rick’s employer at IFAW. When we sat down to eat, she brought out a copy of his book and handed it to me. No avoiding it now.

Well, I’m pleased to say, I thoroughly enjoyed Slow Death — yes, there’s a lot of disturbing information to digest, but the authors write about it in a very smart yet accessible, self-deprecating kind of way, and offer a host of ideas for how to be proactive about eliminating chemicals from your day-to-day life. So, without further ado (or rambling… what the heck does “ado” mean, anyway?), here’s the interview:

Thistle: What surprised me a bit about your experiment was the fact that, prior to exposing yourself to all this mercury, phthalates and BPA, you couldn’t get your levels of anything down to zero.

Bruce: Yeah, the notion of getting to zero is impossible, even if you’re hyper-vigilant about it, because all this stuff is not only in the products we use but in the environment, the water, the air.

Rick: And Bruce and I pretty much obsessed in a way nobody ever would over how to insulate ourselves from these chemicals, but in no case were we able to completely rid ourselves of a toxin. Even with something like triclosan, which is relatively well-labelled in Canada — theoretically, you should be able to stay clear of it, but the problem is that so many consumer products are being made with it and it’s ending up in landfills, leaching out of them into lakes and rivers, and into our drinking water.

Bruce: You can actually test polar bears in the Arctic for most of these things and they’ll test positive, despite the fact that they don’t use deodorant or microwave their food… although the modern ones do.

Thistle: [Laughs] Of course. But just knowing that you couldn’t rid yourself of these chemicals no matter what you did must have made you slightly neurotic or depressed, no?

Bruce: Yes, for sure. There’s a whole body of evidence now showing that the theory of chemicals only affecting our health at higher levels isn’t true, and that, actually, nothing more than 0 is safe. Any level can affect the body and our brains during development, especially if it’s early fetal or childhood exposure. It’s tough to document direct evidence of these things, but you can see in the general weight of evidence that it’s pointing to modern childhood epidemics such as obesity and diabetes.

Thistle: How many people realize this? Is there anything we can do?

Rick: That was one of the main reasons why we wanted to write this book. At Environmental Defence, we’ve been working in this area of policy for a while. We tested 50 Canadians for levels of toxins in their blood — politicians, urban and rural Canadians, children and so on — and the recurring questions that people had over and over again was ‘How does this stuff get in me?’ and ‘What can I do to get it out?’ We couldn’t say with certainty that if you avoid a certain brand of shampoo you can dramatically reduce a certain hormone-disrupting chemical, so we needed to establish cause and effect properly. We concluded that if you focus on a few really important chemicals, you can dramatically reduce their levels in your system almost overnight.

Thistle: That’s kind of reassuring. But do you ever feel helpless?

Rick: It can be immensely frustrating, especially as parents, when you’re trying to do right by your kid, trying to choose the right brand of baby wipes or whatever. Sometimes you feel like you’re losing your mind; you’re trying to do the right thing but labelling requirements are often inadequate and chemicals have a million letters and syllables so they’re hard to decipher.

Thistle: How does one start tackling this problem?

Bruce: People generally seem to think the marketplace will solve these issues, but when it comes to regulating toxic chemicals, protecting people from obscure toxic ingredients, it doesn’t work at all. So the public has to be aware and involved, but at the same time governments need to be better regulated.

Rick: The web has also made a huge difference recently — there are cosmetics databases, healthy toys databases, blog groups dedicated to answering these questions. This is all happening now and it didn’t exist two years ago. On the government side, they’re also really at a tipping point — there’s a tremendous amount of progress happening right now, exciting progress.

Thistle: How did you decide which chemicals to focus on in your book?

Bruce: There are something like 10,000 chemicals in commerce and 95% have not been tested on human health and we know nothing about them. We tried to choose things that were representative of daily products in your life. But there are dozens and dozens.

Rick: There was also some method to our madness in choosing these few. They’re some of the most broadly distributed toxic chemicals that people come into contact with on a daily basis, they have the strongest evidence of harming children, but most importantly, they have the most exciting progress in terms of government action. With swine flu, there’s been an explosion of anti-bacterial products in last few months. The ones that are alcohol-based are fine (like Purell), but there are other ones that have triclosan (most often found in antibacterial soaps), which is linked to thyroid problems. And as a population, just in last few months, you have to think that the country’s exposure to this has gone through the roof.

Thistle: Do you think maybe people aren’t considering the toxicity of these chemicals and preservatives because there isn’t an immediate, physical cause-and-effect between using antibacterial toothpaste twice a day and becoming more susceptible to disease?

Bruce: Well, it’s always a much more curious or publicly appealing thing to be preventing people from getting very sick immediately, but in the case of something like swine flu, maybe six people have died of that in Canada. Conversely, how many thousands have developed some kind of neurological impairment or cancer because of pervasive toxic chemicals, including the hand sanitizers in office lobbies?

Thistle: So if you were able to just convey one or two important changes that people should be making right now to avoid these chemicals, what would they be?

Bruce: Don’t buy non-stick frying pans — that’s an easy one. Don’t eat food out of a plastic container, especially if you’ve just put it in the microwave. Try to avoid stain-repellant stuff.

Rick: Coating on furniture. That used to be impossible to figure out how to avoid, but there are huge companies, like IKEA, that advertise the fact that their upholstered products are made without flame retardants or other chemicals. On older furniture, you can check for a manufacturing label. A lot of stuff is Google-able, so you can go online and look up different chemicals.

To watch a brief video of Rick and Bruce’s experiment in toxicity, click here!

Boat alarm could save manatees!

July 3, 2009

Also known as “sea cows”, manatees are quite possibly one of my favourite animals. My mom and sister love them, too, and we often adopt them for one another at Christmas through the Save the Manatee Club (co-founded by Jimmy Buffett, apparently). Now, according to this National Geographic video, they might be in less danger of getting plowed over by boats thanks to a new high-pitched beeping device (it would require people paying about $100 to attach the device to their boats, but hey, it’s a start). Give it a watch and try not to coo at the sight of a scuba diver getting his noggin sucked on by an adorable manatee!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Boat alarm could save manatees!“, posted with vodpod

Garden-sitting for the Alters (Part 1)

July 2, 2009

My garden is lovely. It really is; and it’s mostly thanks to my mother, who sneaks in while I’m away to plant hostas, Virginia creepers, herbs, ferns and juniper bushes. I’ve added my own lavender and cat grass to the mix, and on my top deck there’s the tomato plant, overly ambitious blueberry bush, spring onions, lettuce and Mr. Meyer Lemon. Out front, I’ve got an enormous, surely hundred-year-old tree (I don’t even know what it is, actually, but I want to say it’s an oak) with some unruly green bushy business underneath (what is that again, Mom?).

But the amount of actual gardening space is still fairly restricted; I do live right downtown, after all, in a highly dense row of houses. While lamenting this fact the other night in a conversation with Lloyd and Kelly Alter — both fellow Torontonians and writers at Treehugger.com — they began also lamenting the state of their own garden. Every summer, they go up to the cottage for two months, and whatever they plant in their backyard usually dies by the time they return.

“Well, why don’t I look after it?” I said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Kelly’s eyes lit up as she realized the potential of this: They could spend the next few days filling their yard with fruit and vegetable seedlings, give me a quick briefing on which plants need what kind of care, show me where all the tools are and how to get in, then relax up at their cottage knowing I’d be dropping by the Toronto homestead on a regular basis to water, weed and maybe aerate the soil.

By September, there’d be a solid harvest.

What’s in it for me? Well, the Alters have done all the purchasing and planting ahead of time and have also offered to split the bounty (providing I don’t kill everything!), and in the mean time, I get some extra gardening practice. It’s kind of like a community garden or an allotment, but more straightforward — in a word, I’m garden-sitting.

So from time to time, over the next couple months, I’ll be blogging about my experiences in surrogate urban gardening, posting lots of photos so Lloyd and Kelly can check in on my progress from the cottage and see how things are going. To begin, here’s a pic of me weeding around the kale plants earlier this afternoon, snapped by Jacob, who claimed he was too jet-lagged and full of ribs to help:


Er, yeah. Ignore the cleavage please. Anyway, I was mostly weeding, but also clipping back some dead parts of the rose bushes, aerating the soil a bit and making sure everything was watered. Some things are looking pretty good: The lettuce is still alive, the squash and zucchini plants are growing, the basil is healthy. But the Alters seem to have a lot more animal issues than me: The kale was being eaten by some sort of bug, a lot of the bell pepper and bean seedlings are now only tiny stalks, and the tomato plant… well, see for yourself:


I don’t know what got into that. Either way, we’ll see how things go — maybe I’ll bring around some of my organic slug bait and fertilizer next time, or rearrange their chicken wire to make it more animal-proof. I’m also going to wear sturdier gloves — those rose thorns are killer!

That’s it for now! Happy gardening, everyone!