Is there any point in having a green wedding if nobody notices?

October 28, 2010

Yep. Me again. Creeping into the blogosphere like I tend to do these days — about once every few months, with a totally random subject of conversation, which every blogger will tell you does NOT lead to a very consistent readership. Oh well.

But I thought y’all might like to know that Miss Thistle is now officially Mrs. Thistle (let’s go with Ms., actually — never did like Mrs.). On lucky Friday, Aug. 13th, 2010, I tied the knot at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. If you want to know more about the boy — or shall I say, my husband — you can read my book (a recipient of the Green Book Festival award for Best Biography/Memoir, by the way).

Now, those of you who know me realize that I’d never have a wedding unless it was a completely green wedding; and that it was! It’s impossible not to leave some footprint, however, and of course weddings are all about compromise, so it’s not as if it was off-the-grid vegan or anything. But still: We splurged on a menu that had Ontario trout, a vegetarian curry and grass-fed, locally raised steak (compromise); we had hundreds of beeswax candles; wild flowers that were grown locally where possible, with vintage mason jars as vases; programs printed on recycled paper; invites on old postcards; a vegan wedding cake with antique cake topper; reusable tote bags that folded up into little rosebuds as gifts for the ladies; even my engagement ring was Jacob’s great-grandmother’s ring, so no need for a flashy new diamond.

Here are some photos, courtesy of the amazing Catherine Farquharson (no relation, if you can believe that):

Getting my dress on, with some help from mum.

View from inside the venue!

Vegan carrot cake with antique wedding topper!

My sister and me at the head table.

View of the reception, up in the trees!

Jacob put on a wig, grabbed some back-up singers (two of our friends) and serenaded me with a Zombies tune and the Monkees' "I'm a Believer"

Sneaking away for some photo-taking.

A quick stroll in the park.

My engagement ring.

But here’s the thing: I made all these eco-conscious decisions, and yet I’m not sure anyone really noticed. Nobody was looking to see what type of wax the candles were made from; nobody was scrutinizing the jars that the centerpiece flowers were in; and most likely only a few people noticed that the steak on the menu was from the very reputable Rowe farms. Obviously, I feel good about all these decisions and know that they made a difference in terms of our wedding footprint — but to all you green brides out there: How important do you think it is to make an eco-friendly statement on your big day? Does it matter if nobody notices?


An epilogue to the epilogue…

April 13, 2010

OK, I know I’ve technically wrapped up ye ol’ Green as a Thistle, but something very exciting happened! Those who’ve read Sleeping Naked is Green through to the end will know that the epilogue is all about how one of my best friends became my boyfriend. Well, now my boyfriend is also my fiancé! Yep, he proposed while we were on vacation, sitting in a hot tub on the deck of a treehouse (which had a solar-powered composting toilet… but that’s another story). He didn’t yet have a ring, so he reached over and grabbed a palm frond instead:

We’re both very giddy and stupid in love. Already in full eco-wedding planning mode… but again, that’s another story (or maybe another blog). Hoping all of you are keeping happy and healthy and green.

– Vanessa

Final Post: As they say in Copenhagen, hej hej

December 13, 2009

You know when you say goodbye to someone and then you both realize you’ll be walking to the same subway station so you have to do another goodbye five minutes later and it’s kind of awkward? Well, I feel like I’m in that kind of situation, having pretty much said my farewell already.

Still, there are four final blog posts from Copenhagen to share, so here they are, in chronological order:

Thursday’s entry, about bad Tiger Woods jokes at the Women’s Perspective on Nuclear Energy lecture and “Early Grey” tea is here;

Friday’s entry, about Bolivians and the necktie-to-keffiyeh ratio is here;

and lastly, here’s the diary entry from Saturday (which is probably the best, seeing as it features some X-rated content).

Here are some photos:

This is Baby, a waste-picker from India.

Bolivian protesters at the Bella Center.

A balloon representing a tonne of CO2 outside parliament.

The Greenpeace ship docked at the harbour.

And finally, some quick video footage of protesters dancing (with solar-powered speakers):


In response to criticism about my irreverent tone in these articles, I’m just going to say two things: One, I’ve been doing other, lengthier interviews while here and hope to use the material for more earnest features at a later date, so it’s not as if I’ve come all the way to Copenhagen for the sole purpose of being snarky; and Two, in fairness to the Post, there is a lot of stuff here worth mocking — like the French activist who lingers outside the Bella Center in his skinny jeans with his collage poster that says, “Which climate fraud will you vote for?”, smoking his cigarette and generally adhering to every single French/activist stereotype there is — as well as a lot of people who don’t really need to be here, a lot of paper, plastic and food waste (and chile con carne on the menu? Seriously?), not to mention a series of press conferences and side events that either state the obvious or say nothing new at all about climate change and what we need to do about it.

Anyway, I truly hope something does result from COP15, and I really do love that over 30,000 protesters descended on the local parliament this Saturday to demonstrate (not including those who threw bricks, mind you), which just goes to highlight the sheer volume of people who care about the planet and want to make a difference, even if they aren’t a high-ranking politician with a PhD in environmental science.

So with that, here’s to keeping the enthusiasm alive; please keep reading Crunchy Chicken and Fake Plastic Fish and Arduous and Treehugger and Grist and listening to all the amazing green voices out there who are strengthening this movement each day. If you want to get in touch with me, my contact info is all here. Peace out,


Copenhagen diary entries: Monday and Tuesday; also, Thistle is going off the air!

December 8, 2009

All right peeps, I’ve gotta be honest with you — I kind of need to bail on this blog. There are so many green bloggers out there who are so much more willing to sit at a computer after a full day’s work and actually write something meaningful; I’m just not one of them. Out of pure selfishness (which I like to disguise as eco-friendliness), I’ve decided to put a concerted effort into unplugging myself from technology as much as possible. I already stare at a screen for eight hours a day and, to be frank, I don’t think my ramblings are worth the bandwidth.

However, I promised I’d report on my time in Copenhagen, so I’m going to follow through with that. The catch is that I’m writing about these climate talks for the National Post, which means that if I don’t eschew earnestness and embrace irreverence (our paper’s mandate), I could get fired. Well, probably not fired, but it would be useless because my editors wouldn’t print anything I filed. In short: my COP15 diary does not include heartfelt and lengthy interviews with people making a difference; it features quips about the Little Mermaid statue.

If you still want to read them, here’s a link to Monday’s story.

And here’s another link to today’s story.

Finally, here’s the introductory piece I wrote when I arrived on Sunday.

I’ll post the others later this week. Please don’t hate me for ending things on a sarcastic note!

A man, a plan: Tim Flannery

October 28, 2009

FLANNERY by Alex Szalay_RGB

Correct me if I’m wrong, but my oenophile eyes and 30/20 vision (for reals, I have crazy-good eyesight) tell me that’s a bottle of Wolfblass in the photo above, nestled carefully in a grassy knoll. Oh, and that guy next to the bottle of wine is Tim Flannery — environmental author extraordinaire. I can confirm that this guy loves his Australian reds, too, because I sat down with him recently in Toronto and he ordered a glass of shiraz, apologizing for the long-distance selection. He then apologized even more when he ordered a plate of steak frites with it, insisting that he rarely eats meat when in North America. I was dubious about these menu selections, but I must say, by the end of our lunch date I was heartily convinced he is a man who cares about the planet and is very engaged in doing something about it.

His new book is called Now or Never, and it’s out in stores now. I scarfed it down in about two hours because he really is that good at conveying all the scientific this-and-that behind global warming to people like me, who can’t even explain why leaves turn red in the fall (I had to ask my mother, who has four science-related degrees and understands how chlorophyll works). He also provides incredibly concrete solutions that pretty much every single politician in every single country should be adopting immediately. Of course, even if you haven’t read Now or Never, you may know Flannery by his previous book, The Weather Makers, which was a best-seller and led to major environmental policy changes in Australia; he also chairs the Copenhagen Climate Council and is promoting the upcoming UN treaty negotiations that start in December, which is very, very soon (um, Harper? Did you hear that? It’s time to get yer ass out of the tar sands and over to Denmark!).

“When you’ve got as complex an issue as climate change, where no one has all the answers,” Flannery told me, “an ongoing dialogue is essential.”

Indeed, Flannery is such a fan of dialogue that he took a remarkably different approach to Now or Never. Rather than simply publish his own views on the challenges of global warming, he invited a handful of critics to respond to his work. In the end, readers get 107 pages of his initial argument, followed by 45 pages of critique from Bill McKibben, Richard Branson, Peter Singer, Fred Krupp and Peter Goldmark, Gwynne Dyer and Alanna Mitchell, with a final reply from the author. The idea was to make the book resemble a 19th-century political tract, at least in format: a concise, pointed essay meant to both enlighten and provoke readers.

“I felt that this was an important book to get out in advance of the Copenhagen meetings,” Flannery said. “Progress is slow right now, and that scares me. I must say, I wake up in the small hours of the night occasionally thinking, ‘What are we going to do on Dec. 19 if we’re faced with a suboptimal outcome?’ ”

He certainly didn’t seem to have high hopes for Canada, either: “This is as bad as a developed country gets… Harper has no friends internationally in this anymore — he used to have [former U.S. president George W.] Bush and [former Australian prime minister John] Howard and they’re gone now, so it’s a real concern … It’s in the government’s interest for the Alberta tar sands to continue, but the rest of the world can’t afford it … The tar sands represent one end of the hydrocarbon spectrum — the really dirty end — and other countries will eventually look at Canada and say, ‘If they, as a wealthy country, can get away with destroying their environment and producing highly polluting petroleum, then why can’t we?’ It’s a corrupting influence on the world.”

Flannery’s words sound harsh, but he also admits there are good things happening here too; part of Now or Never, for instance, looks at an alternative energy system called pyrolysis, of which Vancouver-based firm Dynamotive is one of the world’s leading developers. There are also a number of carbon-neutral or even carbon-positive housing developments being constructed on the West Coast and in Toronto, not to mention countless Canadian environmental NGOs, charities, offsetting organizations, wind and solar companies and more.

“It’s easy to get disillusioned in the West, but the world is moving and there’s still hope,” says Flannery. “Look at what people have done in the banking sector — how we’ve reigned in some of the greediest people in the world and said to them, ‘This isn’t good enough anymore.’ If we can do that for finance, we can do it for greenhouse gases, and we will.”

But what do you think? Is this really achievable, or has Flannery had a few too many glasses of shiraz?

P.S. Exciting news: Green as a Thistle will be in Copenhagen for the first week of the climate negotiations!! Stay tuned for more details on where to find my reports!

There’s møre tö Sweden thån IKEA ånd Volvo

October 1, 2009

Hello! (Waving sheepishly) Apologies for the prolongued absence… there’s this thing called the Toronto International Film Festival that sucks up all my time for two weeks every September, and as soon as this year’s fest ended, I immediately hopped on a plane to Sweden for a week-long sustainable housing tour, which I’m writing about for the Post. Those who’d like to ream me out for flying across the Atlantic, feel free to do so now and move on — after all, Elizabeth Kolbert has already pointed out that I’m a slut who loves to fly, so it should come as no surprise (and yes, I made sure to offset the trip for $23.80 at TerraPass).

Anyway, I won’t go into great detail about my trip because there is simply too much information to convey and, frankly, it’ll probably be overwhelming, if not a little boring. So instead, I’m going to point out some highlights, throw in some photos and conclude with the Single Most Important Lesson I learned while in this country, which is best known as the home of IKEA and Volvo and meatballs.

First highlight: Bike paths. Everyone knows that Scandinavian countries kick ass when it comes to bicycle infrastructure, but it’s quite something to actually see it in action. In Stockholm, bike paths are EVERYWHERE; I honestly could not find a single road that did not have a bike path — and trust me, I tried. What’s interesting, too, is that they run on the sidewalks more often than the street, which makes it safer for the cyclists (although pedestrians have to watch where they’re going). Plus, because it’s Europe, there are no road bikes or mountain bikes; everyone rides those cute upright numbers with Art Deco headlamps, and some of the bicycle paths are even marked with fancy brass inlays. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good photo of this, but here’s what they generally look like:

bike path Stockholm

Second highlight: Localised energy and waste management. In Sweden, they take a very holistic approach to environmental do-gooding — so instead of dealing with water, waste and energy separately, effort is made to create systems that combine all these issues at once. Example: In one housing development, there are three pneumatic waste disposal units (one for organic waste, one for paper recycling and one for glass/plastic recycling); you put your low-grade cardboard packaging in the paper hole and shut the door, whereupon it gets sucked through a tube into a nearby sorting and processing facility and, eventually, gets sent with all the other packaging waste that can’t be recycled to a local incinerator, which burns it, sending the heat back into the community to warm up the houses, the water and even sidewalks during winter. The emissions from this process aren’t very toxic because they’re filtered through various scrubbers and cleaning mechanisms before getting released back into the air. Here’s a photo of the units above ground:


And here’s another photo, showing the underground sorting room, where all the tubes end up (yes, it stinks a bit):



And just how does everyone know which types of cardboard can be recycled and which types have been recycled so many times that they must go into the general garbage hole? Well, here’s the next point:

Third highlight: General public knowledge. According to my friend, who lives in Gothenburg (one of the greenest cities on the planet and home to the Volvo plant, which is accessible by transit and runs entirely on wind energy), most Swedes will easily be able to sort their trash into 11 or 12 different streams, so the waste diversion rates are pretty high. And speaking of Gothenburg, one neat fact about the restaurants here: Most of the patios come with a fleece blanket on the back of every chair, so if you get cold, you can wrap yourself up and there’s less of a demand for heat lamps. Here is my friend, Duncan, in his blanket:


Aside from this, Sweden is chock-full of solar panels:


And it has tons of wind farms:


Here’s proof of just how windy it is by those turbines:


On the flip side, we didn’t see many green roofs during our trip, and while there is a good level of density to the cities, there aren’t many high-rise buildings. In terms of water efficiency, I’m not sure how much greywater technology there is, but I did get to make use of this wicked toilet at an eco-education centre that’s separated into two components: A front bit for #1 and a back part for #2 — the pee is diverted to a treatment plant where it’s turned into natural fertilizer for local farms, and the poop goes into the regular sewage. Take a look:



But perhaps the Most Important Lesson I learned was that we really need to start taxing the heck out of ourselves if most of this sustainable infrastructure is to be developed and implemented. The Swedes pay crazy taxes (about half their income), and the majority of these funds are delivered to the municipal governments (which handle things like waste, water and energy). Unfortunately, it’s doubtful that North Americans will ever consent to coughing up this much money to local bureaucrats.

Still, if we start paying more attention to how other cities are addressing climate change — especially when it’s successful and holistic and cost-effective — maybe there’s hope for us yet.

Garden-sitting for the Alters: Harvest edition!

September 11, 2009

Well, the summer has pretty much ended, which is kind of a bummer. On the bright side, however, harvest season is in full force! Before my final schlep up to the Alters’ garden (I’ve been garden-sitting, for those who don’t know; here’s Part 1 and Part 2), Jacob let out an exasperated sigh and said, “Remind me why you’re doing this, again?”

I had four words for him: We’re sharing the bounty.

And my, oh my, what a bounty there was! I was literally stopped in my tracks when I entered the backyard and saw a zucchini plant crawling up a tree, the tendrils of a squash plant creeping over to the house next-door and lettuce that had grown nearly as tall as my chest (I decided to let it “bolt” just to see how high it would get — turns out, it can get pretty high; and it even has beautiful little flowers at the top in a cute starburst formation). Part of me was almost weirded out by the whole scene, like it was straight out of Little Shop of Horrors and Audrey 2 was everywhere. But I regained my composure and started wandering amongst the foliage to see what I could pluck — I was told by Kelly to “eat, eat, eat” whatever was ready to be harvested — and eventually discovered two HUGE zucchinis. The squash wasn’t quite ready yet, so I gave it more water and let it be. There were ridiculous amounts of kale, so I snatched a few leaves of that; then I took some stuff that I thought was maybe spinach but is actually a complete Mystery Plant to me. It has a kind of lemony taste to it and big, flat leaves. The peas had unfortunately dried up, but the beets were still kicking, so I pulled up a couple of the bigger ones. Here’s the finished cornucopia:


I guess it doesn’t seem like very much, really, considering the square footage of the garden itself. However, it’s still exciting that, with a horribly damp summer and next to no green thumbs, I was able to help the Alters produce real, living, healthy food. Needless to say, I returned home, dragged Jacob outside, pointed to the veggies and said, “THAT’s why I spent all that time weeding!” Then, we had a delicious vegetarian curry.