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!

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Take on a green challenge, but remember: This is not a competition!

May 18, 2009

kiteflying

Sorry for the lapse in posts, everyone — I was on vacation and checking in with my extended family for two weeks, then the Canadian book launch happened (pics to follow!), then regular work happened, then it was a weekend of baseball games and sailing in the rain, then my boy won a huge grant from the King Abdullah foundation that was announced at the World Economic Forum yesterday and we celebrated with dumplings, chalk drawings and a screening of Last Night. Phew!

But I’m back for realsies now, and while checking up on some of my favourite blogs today, I came across a post by Arduous in which she admitted feeling a titch insecure/overwhelmed by all the wondrous green feats being accomplished around her. “Many of us, for better or worse, are really into the comparison game,” she notes. But of course, because this London blogger is also a self-aware academic with the capacity to throw down thesis statements like Kanye throws down rhymes, she very artfully concludes the following: “Living a sustainable life isn’t about trying to outdo one another in a bid to be the greenest of them all. It is, fundamentally, about trying to achieve balance. Balance in your life. Balance between you, society, and our environment. Balance between what you really need and what’s kind of superfluous.

After all, you can only be living sustainably if you can, in fact, sustain it.”

Yeah!

Couldn’t have put it better, myself. I remember when I first began my 366-day challenge and thought it was such an original idea — then I discovered No Impact Man and realized this Manhattanite was taking the exact same idea to a higher, arguably more commendable level and had already scored a book deal, a couple film contracts and an appearance on The Colbert Report. More e-digging led to even more challenge-based blogs, tracking people who were living without plastic for a year, saving all their garbage, going vegan and so on. It’s weird because my idea for the blog came from a very selfless place — it came from a true desire to respect the Earth and realign my values — so the fact that my selfish need to be the first person doing such a thing, or at least doing it best, had surfaced and taken over was truly disturbing.

But surely some of you must have similar lapses of judgment, no? Envy at a colleague’s stainless steel lunch kit? A mixture of awe and jealousy upon meeting the head of an amazing environmental nonprofit? Feelings of both inspiration and guilt after watching a documentary on the oil crisis? Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just me and my annoying A-type tendencies coming through.

Either way, I think Arduous makes a nice point, which we should all remember when we go about these endeavours to keep our thermostats down through the winter or leave our cars at home for the week — respecting the environment is a challenge, but it’s not a competition. We’re all in this together, so we need to smile at one another’s lunch kits and bicycles, commend each other for our accomplishments; and, when we’re feeling down about our heavy footprints, take a deep breath and go fly a kite (like my friend Caley, in the photo above).


Give me an idea and win a green cellphone!

April 9, 2009

motorola_renew_w233_2-390x480

Recently, I wrote about how the green wave has started to wash over cellphone companies (you can read the article here). One of the phones I focused on was the Motorola Renew, pictured above, which is “carbon-neutral” (I put that term in scare-quotes because really it’s just been offset for a couple years at CarbonFund.org), has a body made from recycled water bottles, a prepaid envelope to ship the phone back to Motorola for proper recycling, less charging time required, minimal packaging made from recycled cardboard and no PVC, lead, exposed nickel or other hazardous materials.

As Bill Olson, the Motorola rep I spoke with, said: “If you take a marginal product and stick a green label on it, it’s not going to fool anyone. If, however, you have a really great product and it happens to be green, that sells. The key is to offer people something thoughtful and well-executed.”

I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not the Renew deserves praise or criticism; in the mean time, if you’re an environmentalist in need of a cellphone but feeling the credit crunch in a major way, fret not! You can win a Motorola Renew — right here, right now. How can you win it?

Simple: Although my awesome-and-so-worth-paying-$13.83CAD-for book is coming out in the very near future (next week in Canada; mid-June in the U.S. but you can totally pre-order), I’m already thinking about my next project. The problem is, there are so many green books flooding the market right now, and the last thing people need is yet another book full of tips. So my question to you sage readers is: What do you want to read about? What kind of green book would you buy? Do you want personal, chicken-soup-for-the-hippie-soul kind of stories or hard, apocalyptic facts? Do you like straight-up non-fiction or juicy memoirs? Broad, multifaceted topics like global warming or an in-depth look at one subject, like bees? Maybe you’d like a whole cookbook/guide for fridgeless living, or maybe a coffee table book on guerilla gardening?

Whoever offers the best idea for a new green book (I’ll consult with my publishers to see what they think… and yes, this is unfortunately a very subjective contest) wins the phone!

Ready, set, brainstorm!


A green report on my very ungreen trip to Tunisia

March 13, 2009

Sorry for the extended absence, folks — I’ve been away on vacation, and there’s not much in the way of high-speed wireless in rural Tunisia.

Yep, that’s where I was. Nefta, Tunisia. Far, far, FAR away from Toronto, Canada. Now, I realize some of you will take the fact that I flew all the way to North Africa for a 10-day trip as reason enough not to keep reading this blog. I know it’s hypocritical of me to make claims of being an environmentalist and then proceed to spew over 20 hours’ worth of carbon into the atmosphere for pleasure’s sake. And I don’t really have any solid defense for this argument. All I can say is that there are hundreds of things I’m willing to do in the name of protecting and respecting the Earth, but right now, restraining my air travel isn’t one of them, and this out of nothing but complete selfishness on my part — I have a strong desire to see the world (that I’m polluting) first-hand, to experience what it feels like to be caught in a sandstorm, bottle-feed a baby camel, walk around a date plantation at dusk, and so on.

Anyway, that’s the only rationale I can give you, so for those still reading, here are a few photos and accompanying captions that address some of the green and not-so-green goings on in Tunisia, home of Star Wars, the Sahara Desert, date farming, Berber tribes and dromedary love.

OiLibya Gas Station in Tozeur

OiLibya Gas Station in Tozeur

As my boyfriend commented upon seeing this: “Well, at least they’re honest about it.” This was in Tozeur, where we picked up our rental cars (the most compact, fuel-efficient ones I could find; plus, there were four of us to each car). Filling up a tank costs about 40 dinars, which is $35 Canadian, which is pretty cheap. I don’t know about you, but whenever I saw this sign, I kept shaking my head and saying “Oy, Libya”…

A baby camel in Matmâta, a typical troglodyte village

A baby camel in Matmâta, a typical troglodyte village

How cute overload is this? Can you see his little milk moustache, too? I had just fed this guy some milk from a bottle and wanted to bury my face in his fluffy hump and snuggle him forever. Camels are everywhere in this country and are used for transportation, tourism and unfortunately food. What’s reassuring, though, is that they’re treated well — all the camels I saw looked well-fed and happy.

Environment Mouse

Environment Mouse

Readers, meet Environment Mouse. This cartoon rodent with enormous ears (“Qu’est-ce que c’est la souris avec les grandes oreilles?” my French-speaking friend inquired of a cab driver one day, which led us to the answer) is Tunisia’s green mascot. He doesn’t do much, other than adorn garbage cans, but we still love him.

An organic date farmer

An organic date farmer

My friend Rob snapped this photo of an organic date farmer at a plantation just outside Tozeur. We originally wanted to visit a date factory but ended up getting semi-lost; then, just as we pulled into a driveway to turn around and go home, we stumbled upon a small house and this man, who turned out to be the owner of all the palm trees around us. He gladly showed us around and explained why it was so important to grow these things organically — for instance, all dates have insects in them when harvested, but conventional methods include extracting these with toxic gases while the organic process involves freezing them. We got to eat dates fresh off the stem with no glucose coating, and the farmer even gave me my own palm tree seedling to plant at home (unfortunately, I wasn’t going to take a chance with Canada Customs, so I left it behind for the dude at Avis to take care of). I’m planning on writing more about this for my Sense & Sustainability column at the Post (this week’s story was on garburators, by the way), so watch out for it!

greenland

Flying over Greenland

And finally, here’s a snapshot from the flight back, where we flew over Greenland and, yes, there was a very direct and somewhat ironic connection between the plane I was in and the icebergs that were melting down below. But as depressing as that may be, it’s still beautiful.

That’s it for now; stay tuned!


I heart the Fairmont hotel chain!

February 10, 2009

fairmont

I’ve loved Fairmont ever since the lovely Toronto publicist Melanie Coates emailed me a few years ago, offering to sneak me into their kitchen and show me their crazy organic waste disposal system — it basically involves a conveyor belt and a huge slop bucket — which had been in place years before the city’s Green Bin composting program started (also, when it comes to excess food, the hotel is a big contributor to Second Harvest).

As I would later learn, this chain has been into the environmental scene since the late 1980s; Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York hotel has a full rooftop garden (which is beautiful and full of berries, vegetables and herbs) as well as three fully operating beehives, a restaurant menu focused on local, sustainable food and wine, policies about not cleaning towels and linens every day, discounts for employees who take public transit or ride bikes to work, and on, and on, and on.

Now, they’ve taken yet another step, and it’s one that I’m pretty sure no other hotel (at least in this city) has done:

Serving only sustainably raised and caught seafood.

This is huge. I have one of those Seachoice cards in my wallet and even still I find it impossible to find fish that isn’t on an endangered list, or full of mercury, or shipped from a million miles away. It’s one thing to offer local, grass-fed burgers at a restaurant, but honestly, sustinable seafood is NOT easy, so I fully commend Fairmont for attempting this.

Here’s the official press release:

SERVING UP A BETTER PLANET: FAIRMONT MAKES WAVES WITH NEW SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD PACT

TORONTO, February 5, 2009 – As a pioneering voice on environmental stewardship within the hospitality industry, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts is proud to announce an extension of its brand-wide Green Cuisine program to include sustainable seafood choices in support of a global effort to conserve precious marine species.

As the latest environmental initiative undertaken by the brand, Fairmont’s hotels and resorts worldwide will remove threatened fish species like Chilean Sea Bass and Blue Fin Tuna from their restaurant menus and will also align themselves locally with reputable seafood watch organizations, ensuring guests continue to be provided with a comprehensive selection of sustainable seafood choices. By Spring 2009, Fairmont’s seafood purchases will be made with the guidance and consultation of these well-respected groups and in consortium with local suppliers.

Put into practice, Fairmont’s commitment to ocean sustainability means working with reputable suppliers who purchase fish that are resilient to fishing pressure and harvested in ways that limit damage to marine or aquatic habitats.  Specifically, Fairmont has identified two seafood choices that are most at risk – and has eliminated them from its food service operations. They include:

Chilean Sea Bass – also called Patagonia Tooth, this is a long-life  fish, meaning it does not reproduce quickly.  Due to worldwide popularity of this  menu item, their numbers have been dwindling dramatically from illegal and  aggressive fishing.

Blue Fin Tuna – heavily over-fished in international waters, the plight  of this species is so serious that the World Conservation Union lists Southern  Blue Fin Tuna in its grouping of most threatened wildlife.  Their numbers have declined by 97%  over the last four decades.

In the face of these findings, Fairmont will no longer serve these two fish varieties on menus and will also make it easier for guests to make informed food choices by identifying responsible seafood choices on its restaurant menus. The end result: healthier practices flowing down to suppliers, who then offer better choices to restaurants.  In addition, by promoting awareness and sustainable alternatives among its guests, Fairmont will play a role in influencing and shaping the tastes and preferences of guests who care about the future of the planet.

Already, a number of Fairmonts have taken up the sustainable seafood call.  Mexico’s Fairmont Mayakoba has partnered with local communities in a nearby biosphere to purchase lobster that is sustainably harvested.  To date, the resort has purchased more than 4.8 tons of the lobster, which comes with a certificate affirming the lobsters have been locally sourced in a responsible fashion. On Hawaii’s Big Island, The Fairmont Orchid goes to great lengths to purchase locally sourced seafood and actively participates in regional moratoriums on any threatened fish stocks. And in Vancouver, The Fairmont Waterfront and The Fairmont Vancouver Airport have joined the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program, a conservation platform created to educate and empower consumers about the issues surrounding sustainable seafood. Ocean-friendly menu options at The Fairmont Waterfront’s Herons Restaurant range from Top Seared Halibut to Pan Seared Sablefish.

Fairmont Hotels & Resorts’ dedication to the protection of the environment goes well beyond helping conserve species that reside in the sea. On a wide-ranging basis, the luxury hotel brand maintains a comprehensive commitment to purchasing local, organic and sustainable food items whenever possible. But it’s important to note that good environmental practices do not mean guests at Fairmont restaurants miss out on world-class cuisine.  Instead, they feast on various fish caught or sourced in ways that ensure their continued survival.

For close to two decades, Fairmont has strived to minimize its impact on the planet through its award-winning Green Partnership program, a comprehensive platform focused on key areas such as waste reduction, energy management, water conservation, and innovative community outreach programs. In a sign of corporate leadership, the company also encourages others to follow in its footsteps and has developed the Green Partnership Guide, a how-to text that any company can obtain to create or grow their environmental programming.  For more information on Fairmont’s Green Partnership program, please visit www.fairmont.com/environment.

Photo courtesy of here.


Environmental awareness in conflict zones; and why geothermal heat is the wisest investment to make during the credit crunch

February 5, 2009

Just a couple articles I’ve written recently for the Footprint page at the National Post (I promise to write an original post soon, but right now, I’m on deadline for two film reviews!):

First off, an article about Friends of the Earth Middle East, a fantastic organization that’s getting Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians to cooperate on water management and other environmental issues (yes, even during all the brutality in Gaza). This is the first in a three-part series I’m writing about sustainability in conflict zones. READ IT HERE!

treeplant

And secondly, a story about why the best place to invest your money during a crapola economy is in green home retrofits and especially geothermal heating (or ground-source heat pumps, as they’re more technically called). With the 90% reduction in energy cost, massive government rebates and increase in property value, it’s like the Boardwalk of the green Monopoly game, or as my environmental consultant friend says, “an infinite 20% bond”. READ THE STORY HERE!!

monopoly


My computer goes to sleep, and so do I (Day 366)…

February 29, 2008

I love when readers give me ideas — not only does it mean less work for Yours Truly, it shows that others care just as much about as I do about finding new ways to be green. In this case, it was a comment on my haiku post left by Molly, who forwarded this link to a story in the Guardian about how sleeping is good for the environment. Sounded right up my alley.

It assumes a lot, is highly conceptual and more than a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it still makes some valid points and I thought it would be appropriate to use for my last green change. I considered going out with a bang — maybe spending 24 hours not showering, eating, drinking, using anything, doing anything, buying anything and maybe even breathing slower — but then I reconsidered. This whole project began with a small step, and so I think it’s fitting to end with a small step, too.

Goodnight, everyone!

Image from this website