Archive for October, 2008

Don’t trust your e-waste recycler

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

I’ve got two monitors and a tower that I’m waiting to recycle. So I hand them over to the e-waste recycler and I feel so green. I know my former computers, now e-waste, will be handled responsibly. Not so fast.

CBC ran a story on the destination and handling of e-waste. Not so good. Lots of it ends up illegally in China, where the e-waste is taken to remote villages, and away from any central authorities who might curtail the activity (see this clip for the struggles in regulating any of this). It is dismantled under dangerous conditions and causes terrible land, air and (especially) water pollution. All of this is happening after the big expose that The Basel Action Network and CBC did in 2001 about the practice with the Canadian federal government (oh, but the Canadian government has promised to remedy this in 2010)!

The CBC also exposed a couple of bad practices recyclers in BC. Verdict? The companies sound good on paper but the e-waste still gets sent to China. CBC then covered a best practices recycler, Barrie Metals Group and Global Electric Electronic Processing, Inc.. Very cool, although they point out that recycling in the West costs a lot more. I wonder, are we willing to pay the price for extra environmental regulations and higher labour costs?

BTW, if you want to find a good recycler, the Basel Action Network checks out e-waste recyclers. For us, it’s

Redemtech Montreal
1615, 55e/th Avenue
Dorval, (QC) Canada H9P 2W3
Tel: 514.636.9625
Toll: 888.326.7972
Fax: 514.636.3131

Do I really care about Activism?

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

I was challenged during the last seminar class about the implications of a scientist society.  I am strongly opposed to being an activist because as you know, my personal definition of an activist is any person with strong beliefs that can be expressed in an intolerant manner.  This person or group of persons do not consider other opinions and are ready to do anything possible to make things change according their belief system.

Consider the definition from dictionaries:

English Oxford Dictionary of Politics proposed that an activist is

“any person who takes an active past, usually as a volunteer, in a political party or interest group. […] Either they enjoy political activity for its own sake, or they have off-median views which give them an incentive to pull the party or interest group towards the position they favour, rather than the position it would take to maximize its vote or influence. Hence some have argued for a ‘law of curvilinear disparity’ which holds that activists hold more extreme views than either the mass electorate or the party leadership. There is some empirical support for this ‘law’ but it has rarely been tested carefully.” 

I did not find a definition from a regular English dictionary.  However, here is the definition of Activism in the English Oxford Dictionary:  

Activism: the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.”

In these definitions, there is nothing about radical point of views or intolerance.  However, I just noticed an interesting part of the “problem”.  I checked for a French definition and here is what I found. 

The office québécoise de la langue française states that Activist is:

Membre zélé d’un parti ou d’une faction de tendance extrémiste ou extrême qui s’infiltre partout, profite de toutes les occasions et ne répugne devant aucune méthode, même violente, pour assurer le triomphe de ses visées idéologiques ou politiques. 

A translation (a trial) would be: Dedicated member of a party of extremist tendency, who benefits from all the opportunities and by any means necessary, even violent, to ensure the triumph of the party’s ideological or political aspirations.

I am really surprised how these two “dictionaries” define Activist differently.  The English one is more about being active in making things change and the French definition is more about a radical view of how to make things change.  It might explain why in class, we were not in agreement on the definition of activist.  Is it the fact that we have different culture and history and therefore different definitions?  No, I don’t think so… I was the only one who believed that activist focuses more on extremism…  Anyway, it is quite useless to define Activist as long as we know that there is a wide range (different level) of “being active” (doing nothing to extremism).   The level varies among individuals according to the personal willingness to change the world.  Some might want a minimal social implication and others are passionate about it… However, I suggest that we should be aware that the more you get involved, the more you share the information with others and therefore your voice is more likely to be heard.

Even if I do not consider myself an activist, it does not necessarily suggest that I do not get involved.  I personally like to be involved in different public debates.  I have written letters (essays) in Le Devoir, Fédération Professionnel des Journalistes Québécoises website and I have my personal blog.  I hope to been able to publish in other Montreal newspapers soon.  They were not all published but I tried.  Does it make me an activist?  As mentioned, I do not really care about the word Activist itself… I care more about what I am really doing on this planet and do not pay attention to how people define me.  One thing is absolutely sure; I will never be “activist” as suggested by the Office québécoise de la langue française.  Can I do more?  For sure…  I would love to share my ideas and knowledge with kids.  I like challenging myself in order to assess my communication skills but also to see how the perception of environmental issues varies across the generational divide.   Why I am not giving seminars to little kids?  I hate to say that but time is unfortunately a limiting factor. 

This is my concept of been active; get involved in diffusing the “common knowledge” and play your social role if you want to be heard and make a real difference.

However, as opposed to my personal contributions, I also like to read blogs and literature from others with different backgrounds.  It, sometimes, keeps me grounded because I feel occasionally that “my head is in the clouds.  There are always people that challenge and force you to reflect on your true beliefs.  Even if it is very tough, it forces you to come up with stronger arguments.  For me, it is not important if your opponent drags you down with their arguments, I care more about how you bounce back.  Even if it seems impossible, I will always believe that things can change… even if it takes time.

For example, one thing that really impressed me during the last class is the fact that Mr Madhav Govind Badami has shifted from a pretty secured financial situation in India to a real insecure environment.  He did what I called “jumping head first and without a safety net” because when you make decisions driven by your feelings, you do not necessarily consider the consequences of your actions.  He did not turn down opportunities that were offered to him.  These “jumps” are often the best decisions that you have ever made.  He has even called this jump as “madness” but it reflects that everyone can switch and change at any moment of their life.

Anyway, the point that I wanted to go here is simply the fact that I do not really care about the usage of the word “Activist” as long as it does not mean extremist!  Then, get involved and change the world!

“The bridge at the end of the world”

Monday, October 20th, 2008

This year’s Beatty Memorial lecture brought up the key points in Professor Speth’s last published book: “The bridge at the end of the world; Capitalism, the Environment and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability”. And we all know by now at least some of the main causes of the crisis we’re soon about to face: capitalism and it’s drive for profit, lack of concern for the environmental costs of our activities and failing to make the transition to sustainability. The solution to all this? Well, that’s not just as simple. In Speth’s view, the way to succeed is to raise public awareness on the crisis and to push an enlightened government to act on the matter before we pass the point of no return. But how is that possible when decades after we came to learn about the extreme environmental changes we are inducing we’re continuing on the same path of destruction with unsurpassed speed? For sure public awareness has raised, but the effects are slow to show, and certainly can’t balance the damages being done.

Some argue that we’re going about it with the wrong approach. As Speth writes in his last chapter of his book, “Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus remind us, for example, that Martin Luther King Jr. did not proclaim, ‘I have a nightmare.’ My reply to them was that he did not need to say it – his people were living a nightmare. They needed a dream. But we, I fear, are living a dream. We need to be reminded of the nightmare ahead. Here is the truth as I see it: we will never do the things that are needed unless we know the full extent of our predicament.” I happen to agree. At the end of his lecture Speth called on the young generation and urged us to become activists. To disregard this wouldn’t be the same as continuing on the “business as usual” path?

Although he doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, Speth shares with us his ideas on what could be done. First, making the market work for the environment by “getting the prices right”. For now “The environmental costs are normally external to the company – externalities, not paid by company – and thus not incorporated in the price.” Putting a price tag on the damage to the environment and reflecting it in every product we purchase might induce a change in the behavior of the common consumer.

Second, moving to a post-growth society, from an economical point of view, advancing beyond today’s capitalism: “Eventually, a society reaches a point where more growth is not worth it.” Herman Daly sais that “we have already reached or passed this point and are now experiencing ‘uneconomic growth’.” The “real growth” must be “promoting the well-being of people and nature”. A change in mentality is called for, so that we could become satisfied with “living with enough, not always more.”

As Speth said in conclusion to both his book and his lecture, we are approaching the critical point where we have to choose our future. And as he foresees it, “where the path forks there will be the site of … a struggle that must be won even though we cannot see clearly what lies beyond the bridge.” Are we up to the task?

It takes all kinds

Monday, October 20th, 2008

This is a follow-up to the posts on Christie Lovat’s seminar on the economics of ecologically managed golf courses.

Previous posts have described the seminar content well, so I won’t repeat those posts here, but I will pick up on two themes which I find interesting. First, while the speaker encouraged greater ecological awareness among golf course managers, the seminar maintained a realistic perspective on the need to understand the economics of golf courses. The seminar dealt not just with  environmental issues (the resources used to maintain golf courses, the biodiversity that can be protected by supportive golf course environments, the implications of using land for courses, the impact of climate on course choices, etc.) but also with the economics of the golfing industry and with related aspects of our society. We learned about how customers can be encouraged to come to the golf course, how golf courses could realistically brand themselves as partially contributing to environmental stewardship, how efficiencies are gained from managing resources ecologically, and how new courses can be built more economically and ecologically at the same time. We also learned a bit about our society when she spoke of people’s preferences for aesthetically pleasing courses, how much we value outdoor recreation, and our desire to maintain personal fitness. To me, this multifaceted approach exemplified the spirit of sustainable development. The seminar raised many questions, like how many courses are too many, the potential impacts of regulation or standards setting in restricting course design and maintenance, whether there is evidence that ecologically branded golf courses attract more clients, etc. For a third year botanical science student Ms. Lovat did a fine job and maintained a good perspective on her subject.

The second theme, actually an elaboration of the first, was raised by free_of_charge: do we need to consider the economic value of nature before protecting our environment? The answer is no, as long as you don’t have any economic needs/wants. If you want to convince the people that do (i.e. most people on the planet) then you need to at least understand the connection between meeting those needs/wants and the environment. Modern society has allowed us to be very dissociated from the ecosystems that service our economic needs/wants, therefore to convince most people of the importance of protecting those environments you have to demonstrate how ecosystems are connected to the coffee they buy every morning, or the paper they read, or the golf game they play.

Where environment, society and economy collide

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

The Beatty Memorial lecture provide the university and community with highly interesting and important issue seminar each year. This year, it was given by James Gustave Speth, professor of Yales university. A firm alarmist activist that ask for the younger one to get active as well. His lecture was presented to a multi-genarational crowd, faculty members of McGill university, students, and citizens as well. The composition of the crowd probably affected his speach as humor was used to carry out his message.

As Shorty already pointed out, there is a problem in our current economical system. It is draining both of our social and environemental strengh. Dr Speth believe that growth is the main problem of our capitalist system. The growing economy is a monster consuming the ressources, leaving no chance for regeneration. Solution were proposed but to get them working, three things are needed. There is a need for a crisis, more violent than any human kind as faced in the recent years. I personnaly believe that climatic changes could be that needed crisis. After the crisis, we need a public mobilisation. People with the knowledge must transfer that knowledge. The last step needed is an enlightened governement, receptive to the problem and ready to act.

Going against capitalism is going to be an hard journey. But Dr Speth presented the situation as follow. There are two roads human kind can follow. The first and easy one will bring us to an early end. The other one, far more difficult to travel, will eventually bring us to a new state were economy, environment and sociaty will be valued to their just level. The crossroad is now and we need to make our turn.

I think this situation is far from being unknowed to us. However, some people out there still believe that this as nothing to do with them. As I got out of the seminar, a passed a man of an advanced age. He turned at me and pointing at the conference room he told me «stupid idiota». My spanish is not perfect but i is good enough for me to understand that the man did not respect nor did he accept the ideas carried by Dr Speth. We had a discussion in class about being activist or not. I’m starting to believe that we carry a responsability, to defend those ideas if we want things to change.

Economics and Environmental Costs

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

I fear not doing justice to the seminar presented on October 18, however I can attempt to describe it.  October 18 was the day of the Beatty Memorial lecture given by James Gustave Speth.  He began the lecture with a discussion of the environmental problems that are taking place today.  Aside from global warming, there has been an increase in species extinctions, eutrophication and a higher occurrence of toxins within the body.  We are living in an age of spiritual and social deficit coupled with longer work hours and a crumbling family structure.  One of the major factors; our economy is not taking into account these environmental and social costs.

I was surprised that Speth included the social environment as part of his talk.  Normally the first thing one considers when thinking of the environment is the ecosystems along with its flora and fauna.  However our community is a part of who we are.  One might argue it is our immediate environment as it is where we connect with each other.  The statement was made that our progress is measured by the GDP.  Speth suggests that this is counterproductive as people who are earning more are not necessarily happier.  In addition along with the progress of our economy we are seeing greater disparities between the rich and the poor.  If we wish to decrease the amount of poverty in the world this cannot be seen as progress.

It is difficult to change the economy to suit our environmental needs.  Because it appears to be more costly to incorporate these new environmental policies we are faced with the dilemma of wishing to save our current environment but being fearful of damaging our economy.  In addition, because of the stronger influence the private sector is having over the government, it is harder to seek government support conflicting with the needs of the private sector.  This statement appears similar to that made in the Linzey Seminar, Building Activism Stripping Corporate Power and Recognizing the Rights of Nature.  Finally it is difficult to put forth an environmental agenda when people are currently struggling to support themselves.  Thus they’d prefer lower cost options.

If we are going to seek to change an economy that conflicts with our environments (ecological and social) we our going to have to make sacrifices.  It has been suggested we are currently living beyond our means.  It has therefore been proposed that we lower our consumption and (as put by Speth) consider the market of nothing.  Buying less, buying local, and buying “slow food” would have a decreased impact on the environment.

Concluding Speth’s lecture are many powerful statements.  He seems to aspire to a future where there is collaboration with the political, social and environmental aspects of life.  He also aspires to a future where we focus on “needs, rather than wants, dependence rather than transcendence, [seeking to be] a part of nature rather than apart from it, [and seeking to become] better, not richer” (Speth, 2008).  To us in particular Speth beseeches us to get off the sidelines and get active in our goal for improving this world.

Light green ? Dark green ?

Friday, October 17th, 2008

I attempted Christie Lovat’s presentation on ecologically managed golf courses.

As it was described in previous comments, Ms Lovat did demonstrate that golf courses owners can benefit from more ecological management.

The presentation reminds me a discussion we had in class about the role of humankind on the environment. Some of us agreed with the assumption that every action of a human will have an impact on the environment. We considered that every initiative taken to reduce this possible impact would be a good thing.

To confer ecological practices to golf courses is certainly an interesting project. However, those golf courses remain an important piece of land –where plants and trees are removed- devoted to a single sport. I think we should be careful about this “green labeling” tendency. Let’s look at those new carbon neutral events and conferences, where emissions of GHGs are compensate by funding a green project elsewhere in the world. The organization Planetair, for instance, proposes to fund projects for windmill development or electricity by biomass in India. I am afraid these initiatives will become a method to reduce our guilt without forcing us to make real efforts to change our lifestyles.

I am wondering where society will set the boundaries of greenwashing. Is every action taken to reduce our ecological footprint good? Can anything become green? If even golf courses can have a green label, then a lot of other things can!

Is there room for ecology and economics on the golf course?

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

October 7 2008 I attended Christie Lovat’s seminar, “Economic Benefits of Ecologically Managed Golf Courses.” This seminar contrasted the economic costs and environmental conditions of golf courses, providing relevant facts and figures to illustrate two varied business approaches. Traditional manicured golf courses with large greens require high cost maintenance (pesticides, irrigation, and mechanical upkeep) and seldom reflect a regions native environment. In contrast, ecologically managed golf courses preserve the native environment and habitat within the course, resulting in less disruptive and costly maintenance. The viability of both approaches was presented and discussed, showing that ecologically managed and environmentally marketed golf courses can be as or more successful than traditional course in the short and long terms. This seminar was interrelated with several environmental issues previously discussed in our seminar class; how environment factors into modern economics, value of nature, human impacts as positive or negative for environment, etc.

In addition, this seminar raised a new issue, that of environment and recreation. Outdoor recreation encourages humans to experience, enjoy, and connect with nature; a deeper appreciation and value for nature can be fostered in this way. Conversely, outdoor activities, such as golf or blazing trails through pristine rainforest, can be extremely damaging and disruptive to natural ecosystems. Furthermore, one person’s idea of ‘outdoor activity’ and ‘nature’ can greatly differ from the next person. Many urban dwellers consider golf an escape from city life where nature’s beauty and fresh air can be enjoyed. In reality, however, manicured golf courses seldom reflect a given region’s native environment, nor do they support a diversity of native wildlife. In this case, the costs and benefits of ‘enjoying nature’ must be contemplated; benefits of connecting with nature vs. damages imposed on nature by a given activity. These two factors are difficult to assign value. For example, benefits of connecting with nature may include increased awareness and environmental activism or policy-support. Costs of damaging outdoor activities may include loss of habitat and native biodiversity, decline or pollution of water tables, etc. In both cases, the costs and benefits are difficult to weigh; inherent value will be subjective while assigning monetary value is difficult and often obscure, neither are easily translatable into effective environmental policy. This limitation reflects those associated with applying cost-benefit analysis to environment and economy which we have spoken of in seminar.

The debate over environment and recreation, which is unavoidably linked with economy, raises the following question; with the amount and quality of natural, wild spaces worldwide dwindling, are outdoor activities such as golf a benevolent experience or abuse of the environment? I believe that outdoor recreation (including golf), wilderness excursions and eco-tourism are gaining popularity worldwide with largely unknown impacts on environments. I also believe, however, that when managed in a sustainable- ecosystem based manner, outdoor activities can help preserve the natural environment while promoting environmental awareness and education. In her seminar, Christie Lovat illustrated that golf can be managed ecologically, to preserve native habitat, flora and fauna (squirrels, birds, butterflies, etc.), reduce water waste and herbicide pollution, and offer a more authentic outdoor experience to ecologically minded and simply competitive minded golfers alike.

Does “Economy” really save the environment?

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

Christie Lovat, a third year undergraduate student in botanical science, did a seminar on the Economic Benefits of Ecologically Managed Golf Courses. Ms Lovat is interested in ethnobotanical science and did a wonderful presentation by demonstrating how things can change even at the “ECOnomic level”. As well said in our lab by supernova, this presentation was an example of how an organisation can adapt their practices to make the environment a better place to live… or to golf ;)

In Quebec, the use of pesticides is prohibited. However, there are few places where pesticides are tolerated. Golf course is one of those exemptions. The use of pesticides in golf course is widely used (39 382 kilograms annually including fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, and rodenticides). However, according to the Code de gestion des pesticides, every three year, golf courses have to submit to the government a plan of pesticides reduction. Those reductions range from 12% (fungicides) to 2% (rodenticides).

Ms Lovat has a well structured presentation and explained how golf courses are evaluated and how they make profit. The golf courses are evaluated for three different criteria: 1) its difficulty, 2) its beauty, and 3) its condition. The last two are costly options because, it costs a huge amount of dollars to make it beautiful (ornamental plants, watering, and other field maintenance) and to keep it in good condition (use of pesticides). Ms Lovat demonstrated that with more environmental friendly golf course, it is possible to reduce both maintenance and construction cost. The solutions were very simple. First, we should use native instead of ornamental plants. Native are already adapted to the environment and therefore demand less maintenance. This technique will therefore also reduce pesticides applications. Second, during the construction of new golf courses, instead of planting trees and cutting the native ones, an ecological golf course would keep native trees because they have the same advantage as the native plants have. According to Ms Lovat, an ecological golf course can reduce down to 70% of its construction cost.

The idea overall make sense. I am a golfer (pathetic golfer) myself and I went recently golfing with one of my friends in Saskatchewan and I was expecting to play in golf course with local attributes such as “grassland”. Naturally, Canadians prairies (biome) are a result of the type of climate (Briefly, more rain makes them a forest or less rain makes them a desert). The climate made them Prairies and it is not a result of extensive agriculture. Instead of golfing in surrounding grassland, we played in a typical North-Eastern American golf course with many trees and ornamental plants. It may be difficult to notice but both pictures are from Saskatoon. Weird, isn’t it or was I the only one to expect a golf courses with local attributes?  :(

The presentation of economic benefits of ecologically managed golf courses was well demonstrated. But, are we at a point where we need economical explanation to protect our environment? It seems that we need to prove to the polluter that ecosystems have an economic value. Is it acceptable? Are arguments like “this landscape is beautiful and need to be preserve” and “we need unaffected habitat by direct economic human activity” not enough to make them protected? An economist response would be “no” because they are not rendering economical services to society.

We cannot attribute a value to any living organism. Even if they do all at a certain point, it will be too late when we will realize it.