Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout Review – Part 2

Still not through this book. What can I say, a lot has been happening in my life. There is lots of cool stuff about his campaigning in the 70s, with significant amounts of daring do and hijinks on the high seas, but first I would like to make one more point about Chapter 1.

For a guy with a Ph.D. in science, Dr. Moore has a pretty poor understanding of the scientific process. He seems to gloss over why it took him so long to get his dissertation done, although he alludes to corporate conspiracy. I wonder if he ever took a philosophy of science course? To be fair, he might be a victim of an overzealous editor’s ham-fisted attempt to dumb it down for the masses, but it comes across as a Grade 8 Science class outline of what science is, and how it works.

It starts with describing science as

“the accumulation of knowledge that could be passed down through generations” (p. 25).

Science is not a cumulative body of knowledge; it is a process to evaluate ideas, explore and describe the processes behind observable phenomenon, and make predictions based on a body of observational evidence. Accumulated knowledge is a product of science, but it is not what science is. That may sound like semantics, but it isn’t. Fundamentally, “science” is not a pile of books on a library shelf; it is a method to understand reality.

Then it gets worse:

“[an example of] a hypothesis is ‘If I drop a rock from a height, it will fall to the ground’. After thousands of replications the statement proves true in every case. The hypothesis is proved and soon becomes a theory, and ultimately a law, in this case a law of physics. A law is something that has never been disproven.”[p.25]

This is embarrassingly wrong, built on a meme that is repeatedly dragged out by the very pseudo-scientists he is wont to criticize (Flat-Earthers, Creationists, Wi-fi cancer-link scare mongers, etc.): that of a mythical scientific hierarchy-of-truth made up like this:

Facts < Hypotheses < Theories < Laws.

A better explanation of the relationship between those four terms is: Facts exist and can be determined with careful and systematic measurement of observable phenomenon , hypotheses are simple ideas that can be tested and verified using the measurement of facts, but only upon a framework of existing theories and laws.

A significant point: facts can exist without precision; they do not have to be exactly right to be correct. I love the story of the Richardson Problem. He was the mathematician who described the length of a border or a coastline varying based on the length of the tool used to measure it. As Mandlebrot put it: the length of Britain’s coastline increases to infinity as the ruler shrinks to infinity. But I digress…

A theory is not just a really, really good hypothesis. It is a functional model describing observed phenomena. A theory is something you test hypotheses against. Often theories describe a large number of observed phenomena in a single, elegant model. Plate Tectonics, Evolution through Natural Selection, General and Special Relativity, Germ Theory, Atomic Theory. These are the ideas upon which science is borne. Two things are certain: 1) none of them will ever be “proven”, because no-one will ever seek to prove them. The purpose of them is not to be proven, but to be accepted as useful models, upon which other ideas can be hung; and 2) They do not evolve into “Laws” by being proven. Neither of these points mean they are not “true”, or incredibly useful.

In science, a Law is usually a mathematical construct, an analytical relationship that can be used to measure, characterize, or evaluate phenomenon. Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation says that all objects are attracted to all other objects by a force that varies relative to their mass and to the inverse square of the distances between their masses (multiplied by some factor). Laws also do not exist to be “proven” or “disproved”, they exist to allow us to make sense of phenomenon in a numerical sense, and to make predictions, within their acknowledged limits.

Since gravity is relatively non-controversial, and since Dr. Moore started with an example from gravity, let’s see how these terms are used by physical scientists when discussing gravity, starting with his example.

Rocks fall; that is an observable phenomenon. We can develop numerous theories as to why, and we can create and test various hypotheses and test them to see if they fit our theory. There are lots of observable facts: all objects fall at about the same rate regardless of weight; magnets fall at the same rate as insulators; falling objects are constantly accelerating, etc. A good theory to explain these observations (facts) is that of gravitation: that all objects with a mass are attracted to all other objects with a mass through some force. This was the theory developed by Galileo in the early 17th Century. By the end of the 17th Century, Newton had developed the math around it: the Law of Universal Gravitation: F= G *(m1*m2)/(r)^2. Through this he could predict the motions of pendulums before building them, and the motions of planets that had not yet been discovered. This Law is not the Theory “proven”; it is a mathematical formula that allows us to calculate the force described in the theory based on some measured variables.

Universal Gravitation works pretty well if you are building pendulum clocks or lobbing artillery shells, but if you try to really accurately measure the precession of the orbit of Mercury, it doesn’t work: in essence the Law was shown not to have predictive power (note, not disproven) in some special cases by Einstein’s General Relativity.

But that doesn’t mean Newton’s Universal Gravitation isn’t a perfectly valid Law, within its confines, useful for making predictions and describing an aspect of our universe. And (this is a really important part) it doesn’t even matter that neither Galileo, Newton, or Einstein really knew how gravity “worked”. Even lacking that, what would seem a fundamental fact, we could not live in the modern world without the benefit of the theory and the laws built around this force a century before the first direct observation of gravity waves.

Unfortunately, this book is full of either lazy or sloppy science. It would be pedantic to quote them all, but let me pick one paragraph that hits close to home for me, being a geologist. On Page 62, Dr. Moore describes whale evolution:

“They evolved after the great dinosaur extinction, caused by a large meteor that crashed near the Yucatan Peninsula, ending the Jurassic age. Among the dinosaurs exterminated were the large marine plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs.”

Perhaps an ecologist can be forgiven for not knowing the Jurassic from the Cretaceous (it is only an 80 million year difference), but anyone involved in animal ecology should know the marine reptiles he named were not “dinosaurs”. Oh, and the ichthyosaurs died out at least 25 million years before the Yucatan impact. That is a lot of bad science in two short sentences.

Finally, Dr. Moore leaves the ignominious Page 25 stating that

“Science… has weaknesses. One of these is that you cannot prove a negative” (pg. 25)

To that I say: Bullshit. Science has proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the Moon is not made of green cheese.


Becquerels and Sieverts, Oh My!

For some reason, the Georgia Straight keeps writing articles about the radiation from the Fukushima Nuclear plant causing us harm here in British Columbia, and the massive conspiracy involving several governments and hundreds of scientists, working to cover it up.

My cynicism makes me suspect the large number of Georgia Straight advertisers selling bogus “Cleansing” and “detoxifying” services may be influencing their editorial decisions. But what is the source of my skepticism? Perhaps it is their dishonest use of technical terms, without explaining what the terms mean.

Look at this story from last week’s edition. There are many scary statistics there: 0.69 Becquerel per Litre (Bq/l) of radiation in Vancouver rainwater, 8.18 Bq/l as an average in Calgary, 13 Bq/l as a spike in Burnaby! But no-where does it put that number into context. I guess it is expected anyone will think any Becquerel in our water is a Becquerel too much!

Part of the problem with radiation is that the science and the numbers are pretty technical and are often really big or really small, so we have a hard time wrapping out minds around them in a physical sense. It is the job of “journalist” to translate this information to the public, not to fear monger by throwing out terns you know your audience doesn’t understand. So let’s talk about Becquerels.

“Becquerel” is the “metric” measure, and it is easy to visualise: 1 Bq is one atom of radioactive material decaying (and therefore releasing one “unit” of radioactivity) per second. That is the smallest possible amount of radiation per second, so we usually think in terms of millions or billions of Bq, which sometimes makes the number cumbersome. The more common unit is the Curie (Ci), which is equal to 37 billion Bq (37,000,000,000Bq = 1 Ci).

So that is the technical meaning, but what do the numbers really mean in the real world? A good way to look at them is to think about the element potassium (K). The world is full of potassium, it is the “K” in NPK, the Nitrogen-Phosphorous-Potassium ratings for fertilizers. However, a small proportion of it (about 0.012%) is a naturally radioactive isotope Potassium 40. You can’t easily separate the two without advanced lab equipment, so it is randomly mixed in with normal potassium and in all chemical terms, acts exactly like “normal” potassium. So of the ~150 grams of potassium in your bones, teeth, and cellular nuclei, about 0.018 grams is Potassium 40. Atoms are really small, so that that 0.018 grams of Potassium 40 represents about 280 quintillion atoms, that is 280,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms.

Radioactive atoms. In your bones. These are not “toxins” that you can cleanse yourself of, unless you cleanse yourself of all the potassium in your body, which would be very, very bad for your continued existence.

Potassium 40 has a half-life of about a billion years. So over a billion years, about half of those 280 quintillion atoms will decay, releasing a single unit of radiation each. 140 quintillion decays over 1 billion years equals about 4,400 decays per second. So the normal radiation level of a healthy human body from potassium alone is about 4,400Bq. Every second of your adult life you are exposed to 4,400 Bq of radiation from your own cells.

Notably, your body also contains about 13kg of Carbon, about 1partp er trillion of which is Carbon 14, resulting in another 3,700 Bq of exposure. You also get much smaller doses from the iodine, radium, and other trace radioactive substances in your body.

We also take in and excrete radioactive nuclides all day, and they exist (naturally) in our food, especially things like bananas that have lots of minerals (and are therefore good for you!). Banana contain enough potassium to provide about 130Bq per kilogram, and enough carbon for another 100bq.

It stands to reason that 1 kg of drinking water containing 1Bq or radiation is not going to change our environmental exposure to radiation. It is, in effect, much lower than our “Background” exposure.

This story draws some alarm over vanishingly small measurements of airborne radiation:

“The level of iodine-131 in Sidney, B.C., rose to a high of 3.63 millibecquerels per cubic metre in the air on March 20. That’s over 300 times higher than the background level of 0.01 millibecquerels per cubic metre or less.”

This also benefits from a bit of math. 3.6 mBq is 0.0036 Bq, per cubic metre of air. The average person breathes about 11,000L of air a day. That means a person breathing at Sidney would be exposed to 0.04 Bq of radiation per day. That is less than one ten-thousandth of the radiation you are exposed to from your own bones.

Now ask yourself, why does the Georgia Strait reporter never, in his multiple articles on the Fukushima incident, mention what a Becquerel is?

I would be remit to mention that Bequerel are not the entire story. The number you want to calculate when analysing environmental exposure to radiation is the Sievert: which is a measure of dose exposure. That is a relatively complicated measure to take, as it involves the medium delivering the radiation, and the media receiving it. I have already gone on way too long here, so Will not get into that in this post.

Now compare this to . this story in the Georgia Straight which jumps from Becquerel to Sieverts without putting either number in context.

But which is worse? The “Main Stream Media” have reported nothing, so people have no access to better information. Why can’t our media educate and inform?

Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout Review – part 1

About a month ago, fellow New Westminster Blogger David Brett provided an intriguing review of Dr. Patrick Moore’s book “Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout”. Part autobiography of one of the founders of Greenpeace, and part manifesto for a new, “sensible” environmentalism, this book is a first-person account of how Dr. Moore helped found Greenpeace, became disillusioned by it, and forged his own path towards a more pragmatic form of environmentalism. Moving away from protest, he worked to engage government, business and industry to help them become more sustainable.

As I commented to Dave at the time, being a “sensible” (and by that, I mean skeptical and science-based) environmentalist, and engagement with stakeholders (as opposed to protest) has been my goal, so Dr. Moore’s story is interesting to me. Since I reviewed the autobiography-manifesto-vanity project movie on David Suzuki last year, I will do the same with this book.

The advantage of the book is that I have it in front of me and can discuss it at length. I am currently about 4 chapters in, and have very little time to read these days, so the review may take some time and several posts.

I promised Dave that I would read with an open mind, and I have not read any other reviews than his (and the blurbs on the back of the book!), but my openness was challenged in the first chapter of the book. It just doesn’t start well.

In Chapter 1, Dr. Moore starts off by defining “sustainable development”. This is a good idea, as it is a term bandied about too much by people with little understanding of what it means. It is currently a sexy buzz phrase used by a lot of people who have never understood (or cared about) the definition.

The problem is, Dr. Moore immediately dismisses the definition used by people who work in sustainability: the standard-model definition and, unfortunately, the one most commonly ignored by people who are misusing the term. That being the definition from Brundtland Report. Dr. Moore immediately tosses it aside and replaces it with a definition that fits his needs.

Compare this:

Brundtland Report: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”

To this:

Dr. Moore: “Sustainable development requires that we continue to obtain the food, energy, and materials necessary for our civilization, and perhaps even increase these resources in developing countries, while at the same time working to reduce our negative impacts on the environment through changes in behaviour and changes in our technologies” (Pg. 14)

The second definition is fine, full of great ideas and feelings, but it is, unfortunately, not a definition of sustainability.

It is like I start my book about American actresses by describing Uma Thurman as the greatest actress of our generation. Then I decide the definition of Uma Thurman as “the star of the Kill Bill Films” is not a very good definition. Instead, I like to define Uma Thurman as “That woman from Kramer vs. Kramer and the Bridges of Madison County who has 2 Academy Awards from 16 nominations”. That definition makes my argument that Uma is the greatest actress of our time much more compelling, doesn’t it?

Although Dr. Moore’s definition contains many soft environmental ideals that we should probably strive towards (as loaded with weasel words as it is), it does not define “sustainable development” the way it is used by anyone other than Dr. Moore. At best, it is one small aspect of “sustainable development”; at worst, it is a dodge of the real issues raised by limited resources on a consumption-growth based economy. It also completely misses the point that sustainability is not an “environmental” concept any more than it is a social and economic one.

I don’t think the problem with “sustainable” is its overuse, but rather its common use in a way that does not relate to the actual definition of the word. As such, it is indistinguishable from “green” or “environmentally friendly” or “clean” or other popular marketing words. I am a believer (as are most scientists) that strict definition of terms is as important to political discussion as it is to technical discussion. Dr. Moore makes the problem of fuzzy definition worse in Chapter 1 when he invents a new definition for the term.

Mayor Nantel?

UPDATE: He’s on Twitter! And apparently following Bill Gates and Bill Vander Zalm. oh boy.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, I’ve been asking it around town for a week and a half, and no-one can answer: Who the hell is Francois Nantel?

This municipal election we have no less than four people running for Mayor. Besides the Incumbent, we have Vance McFayden, a long-time resident and community builder, and we have Citizen Advocate James Crosty, and you all know who he is. The mystery to me is Francois Nantel.

Notably, last time Francois was on a ballot in New Westminster was the federal election of 2000, I was living in Illinois (the only Federal Election I have missed since the one a couple of weeks after my 19th birthday when I was living in the crappy apartment on Royal Ave…), but he ran for the federal Green Party! I’m not trying to suggest I am all things “green” in New West, but if I don’t know who this guy is, he has a serious name-recognition problem.

I spent several years serving on the local Green Party EDA (but am not a member of the party any longer… another post, another time), and I have helped the campaigns of Carrie McLaren, Marshall Smith, and Rebecca Helps, but I don’t remember him being at any of those meetings. A couple of friends I have are attached to the Provincial Party, and they have no idea who he is. He isn’t “friends” on Facebook with any of the Green Party Candidates in New West over the last 10 years. So, I guess his ties with the Green Party are pretty severed.

What about community groups? The New Westminster Environmental Partners have been at the forefront of numerous environmental issues in the City over the last few years, from the UBE to solid waste to community gardens, but I don’t remember Francois ever taking part. Neither do the members who started the group before I got active.

There are several citizen committees in New West, but I don’t see his name listed on any of the committees in 2010 or 2011. As a resident of the West End, he is a member of the West End Residents Association, one of the most active in the City, who post their minutes on-line. Mr. Nantel’s name is conspicuously absent .

I asked one of the longer-serving City Councillors on Friday night, and he said “I think he popped up about 10 years ago, angry about Wal Mart, but I don’t know where he has been since…”

I searched the minutes of every Council Meeting in 2011, and I did not find one reference to Mr. Nantel: no delegations, no correspondence. I assume he watched a few of them on TV! If he has any opinions about what he saw, he sure didn’t share them, as searches for “Nantel” of both the News Leader and the Record come up with only a few hits, all of them from the last two weeks, and all little more than mentions that he is running for mayor.

The record article is most concerning. Apparently, this run for Mayor is just a “stepping stone” to bigger, better things in Federal Politics. Yikes. Not a good sign for local leadership.

You know, I have been asking candidates two things this election: don’t go negative, and show me your vision. So I am going to avoid being negative, and accentuate the positive here. I am happy Francois Nantel has shown us what his vision for New Westminster is: a stepping stone in his rear-view mirror as he flies off to Ottawa. Bonne chance, mon frère.

New West Doc Fest – Day 2

It was quite the full day! Besides taking tickets, helping promote the NWEP at the booth, and visiting with folks, I still got to see most of the films, although I did not get to spend as much time in the Q&A sessions as I would have liked.

The day began with a short called “The Most Livable City”, which talked about one of those little social development topics most people just don’t think of – where to the City’s homeless, and those living in run-down decrepit SROs, go to get a drink of water? The City has few operating fountains in the summer, and even fewer in the winter. Public washroom facilities are few and far between. Vancouver City Councillor Andrea Reimer raises the point that the City has purposely removed these types of things to discourage drug use… how’s that working out?

The main morning feature was “Tapped” – about the bottled water industry. A topic I have mentioned here in the past. If I was to review the movie (um… which I guess I am doing), it was about 20% new and quite interesting information (in the States, the bottled water industry is regulated by the FDA, unless the water is bottled in the same state it is consumed. Since most of it is filtered city water sold locally, more than 80% of the bottled water industry is completely unregulated), 60% was info well known to anyone who has been awake for the last decade (billions of discarded PET bottles are mucking up marine ecosystems around the entire Pacific Ocean; buying bottled water is a ridiculous consumer choice, 2000x the cost of safer tap water), and 20% is unfortunate hyperbole (PET is made using a substance in the same family as benzene, which causes cancer! well, if the same family you mean aromatic hydrocarbons, you are right, but PET does not cause cancer, and no-one seems to be concerned about all the benzene we are consuming every day breathing car exhaust).

In the end, the message was on track, and if they drifted occasionally into hyperbole, it may be a cause for people to do their own research. Like most exposes of Corporate America, the best moments were the “caught-ya” moments when the corporate spokesflak realizes he is in over his head when says something like “There has never been a bottled water recall in America”, or “We are not in competition with tap water”, then are confronted with their own press releases that say the exact opposite. The lingering camera on the silenced spokesflak is always good for a chuckle.

I think the movie “65_redroses” is well known to most New West folks. Although I was familiar with Eva Markvoort’s story, I had never seen the movie. If you have not seen it, you should, mostly because the filmmakers did an excellent job accentuating the positive side of organ donation and how this young woman gained her life back through science, through good luck, and through the immense support she received from friends, family and strangers. In the end, they do not dwell on the sadness of the end, but on the hope and happiness of the brief life Eva had.

Before 65_Redroses was a short, “Corona Station”, also about love and loss. Beyond being a humorous theme, the short is remarkably well filmed, easy to forget these are film students!

The “Vanishing of the Bees” is a very smart and insightful look at Colony Collapse Disorder, and issue impacting commercial honey bees across the world. Although the movie emphasises the strongly suspected link between systemic pesticide use and CCD, it also explores how the way we manage bees is likely the main issue, with the systemic pesticides one very large hammer in drawer full of other nasty tools. We ship bees around in the backs of trucks from mono-culture crop to mono-culture crop, even in the bellied of airliners from Australia to California, completely messing with their natural rhythms. We keep them in massive crowded populations, one beekeeper managing 40,000 hives, where parasites and diseases can prosper. We artificially inseminate the queens (yes, they show the not-so-romantic procedure!), then kill them off after the eggs are laid and replace then with surrogates. We take their honey and feed them refined sugars. When hives start to die off, we split them in half and introduce new queens (in cages to keep the bees from killing the interloper), potentially spreading diseases around. All this to keep a pollinating population alive for the fruit and nut industries, as the market for honey production has been eroded by cheaper imports (often containing “honey blends” with corn syrup or lactose syrup).

With all this stacked up against them, it would be more shocking if 30% of the bees weren’t dying off! Although the film starts with gloom and doom, it is clear that the scientists, policy makers (in Europe at least), and the farmers are starting to realize what the issues are, and are working towards reforming the way the beekeeping industry is managed.

On the topic of pollinators, don’t get me started on mosquitoes and larvicides.

The final film, “H2Oil” I had seen before. All I can say is that the way Canada has mis-handled the Athabasca Tar/Oil Sands is criminal, no less than an act of war against our own country. If anyone can see how a nation responsibly manages a dumb-luck oil find, look at the case of Norway. Then ask yourself, how have the Tar/Oil sands benefited you? How does the rapid expansion and export of raw bitumen and the linking of the Canadian dollar to the cost of oil help any other sector of Canada’s economy?

I was unfortunately too busy to sit in on the post-film chat with local MPs Fin Donnelly and Peter Julian. If someone out there in blogland wants to write up a quick review, please let me know!

The Doc Fest itself was seamlessly run. The NWEP basically provided volunteer time and a little logistic support (our budget could not have bought our members tickets!), but it was Andrew Murray and the ladies from the Green Ideas Network who did most of the heavy lifting. Tireless volunteer Kathleen did a bunch of fundraising, and found a wide range of sponsors, all interested in building this community – they need to be thanked, and supported!

The good news is that for a first year- they pulled it off. Everything went smoothly, the films were on time, the extra entertainment (musicians, poets, artists) were entertaining, the venue worked out great. The early report is that the fest broke even with a little bit of a profit, to be reinvested in next year’s show. The foundations have been laid, and next year will be bigger and better.

New West Doc Fest – Day 1

Tonight was the first night of the First Annual New West Doc Fest.

The turn out was pretty good, including the Mayor and Councillors Cote, Williams, and Harper. After a bit of mingling with the sultry tones of the Redrick Sultan Jazz Trio, the main event began.

There were three short films before the feature documentary of the night.

The first was “Meathead”, a strangely funny 3-minute short made by students at Pull Focus Film School. It was strangely funny, because you could see most of the jokes coming, but the actor managed to sell the punchlines with a turn of expression that made you laugh. Quick, irreverent, with a message, student film-making at it’s best.

Two documentary shorts were on the subject of the proposed Enbridge oil pipeline to Kitimat. The animated talk-piece “Cetaceans of the Great Bear” told of the threat to cetaceans represented by increased tanker traffic. Although the animation and graphic treatments were at times quite compelling, the message came across a little too strident and wrapped in over-the-top rhetoric to be effective as a message to anyone but the true believer. Let’s just say Dave Brett might not approve. The second, “Oil in Eden” is a little richer in actual content, and tells a much more complete story about the reasons for the oil pipeline, the potential risks, and the groups (especially first nations) who are against the idea.

The main feature was “Burning Water”, a story about a couple of farmers in the outskirts of Calgary with the little problem of flammable drinking water. Although the trailer makes it look like this is about a pissed-off farmer who won’t take it any more, the reality of the story is much more nuanced. This is because of the approach the owners of Valhalla Farm, Fiona and John Lauridsen, take to the issue.

Their problems started when energy giant Encana created a few “coal bed methane” gas wells on their property using “hydraulic fracturing”. Fiona takes a rational approach of asking Encana to do something about it, until Encana determined it wasn’t their fault. She ten takes the rational approach of going to the Government, who do something worse than doing nothing: they are actively indifferent to her plight. John takes the non-confrontational approach of just dealing with it and trying to move on, much to Fiona’s frustration, until he finally decides to strike back at Encana in a rather humorous way.

What makes this more than a simple David-vs-Goliath story is the fact the town in which the Lauridsens live relies on grant money from Encana for their community theatre (a major economic driver), their library, their parks. The Lauridsens even rely on EnCana for non-farm income: from the land-use settlement for the wells and Fiona for her part-time job in the community theatre. They are acutely aware that Encana is an important part of their economy; they just want to be able to continue living on their farm, seemingly made unliveable by Encana’s activity. In the end, all they want is Encana to respect their issue, and Encana, for their own reasons, cannot.

Unfortunately, the story arc is left unfinished, we don’t really know what the solution is, nor are we left with a hint of what the solution will be. But you are not left with the feeling that Fiona’s simple dream of living on her Prairie Valhalla is a sustainable one.

The Doc was followed by a brief but informative Q&A session with the Pembina Institute’s Matt Horne. It seemed the only positive way forward was to assure that we compel our government to develop and enforce a regulatory regime that protects the environment, to counter the forces behind run-away exploration and development of oil and gas, especially in BC’s north-east. However, between BC’s inability to modernize it’s Water Act, the weakness of our groundwater regulation, the fact the Oil and Gas Commission can overrule any BC law, and our current government’s commitment to “reduce red tape” for resource extraction, I am not left filled with confidence.

But hey, tomorrow’s four documentary films have a chance to lift my spirits!

Hiring an Environmentalist

It happened again today at my work.

I am in a meeting with a guy who wants to do some land improvements on his property that will impact riparian areas. There are Provincial laws around this, and to be complaint with those laws, he needs to get some advice from a Qualified Environmental Professional.

It is kind of like if you want to build a bridge, you need someone trained as a bridge engineer, licensed to practice, and carrying professional liability insurance to sign off that the bridge will not, in her professional opinion, fall down. Similarly, if you need to build something in fisheries habitat, you need someone trained in ecology, licensed to practice, and carrying professional liability insurance to sign off that the works won’t, in his professional opinion, kill fish.

This guy understood this, he assured me. “I hired an environmentalist to check everything out”.

There is a definition problem here.

I’m not even sure where you would hire an environmentalist. “Environmentalist” is not a job description, it is a political philosophy. It is like I asked him to verify his business plan and he replied “I hired a Libertarian!” It doesn’t make sense. But surprisingly often I am at a drilling site, or in a meeting with developers, or talking to my mom about work, and I am called the “environmentalist”.

This is OK, as I happen to be an environmentalist (in that my political philosophy includes considerations for protecting the natural environment, for a variety of reasons). However, in these settings, it is rather more important that concomitant to my philosophical positions, I am an “Environmental Scientist” by training, and an “Environmental Coordinator” by trade. That means I have a lot of specific training and experience in environmental protection, the administration of Environmental Law, environmental engineering, and other subjects that can be loosely bundled together under the subject of “Environmental Science” (to be specific in my case, “Environmental Geoscience”, since I am a geologist, not a biologist or ecologist or chemist, etc.).

This is not semantic. Environmental Scientists (and especially “Qualified Environmental Professionals”) are not all environmentalists, and the vast majority of environmentalists have no training whatsoever in Environmental Science.

? ?

This is not an Environmental Science conference

So when this fellow said he hired an “environmentalist”, I picture Paul Watson standing in his driveway yelling about whales, then I politely correct him and say “Environmental Professional”.  If in a professional setting I am introduced as “the environmentalist”, I often make a joke about “how do you know how I vote?”, then again politely say “I’m the Environmental Coordinator who is working on this file.

So Mom, you can stop calling me the Environmentalist in the Family. At least when talking about my work.

Doc Fest this Weekend!

Whoo Hoo!
New Westminster is having it’s first film fest this coming weekend.

Through the efforts of the indefatigable Andrew Murray, the NWEP is working with the Green Ideas Network to bring the first annual New West Doc Fest.

Although this is the freshman year for the event, the line-up of Documentaries, Shorts, and special Events are pretty spectacular, and Douglas College is providing a great venue.

Many of the films have a “Green / Sustainability” theme, but this is not really an “environmentalist” event. There are films on various topics that will interest many people for different reasons.

I think the biggest draw will be a Saturday showing of 65_RedRoses, the story of New Westminster’s own Eva Markvoort, whose inspirational struggle with Cystic Fibrosis became an international story. The Screening will be followed by a Q&A with Eva’s friend and one of the Directors of the film, Nimisha Mukerji. It should be a thought-provoking and inspirational afternoon for everyone.

Friday Night will feature a showing of Burning Water, about some farmers in Alberta who are having a small problem with the flammability of their drinking water:


There will be a panel discussion after the film with Matt Horne from the Pembina Institute.

There will be three more feature-length documentaries on the weekend, one on the subject of Bottled Water (might be of interest to our current Board of Education Candidates?), one on the mysterious issues affecting honey bees in North America, and the third on the topic of the Athabaska Oil Sands and their impacts on the ground and surface water supply of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Each Film will have a Q&A session after, including with a couple of Members of Parliament after one film!

Plus, just like when you were a kid, there will be shorts shown before each full-length Doc, all made by students at Pull Focus Film School. There will be other events happening over the weekend in the lobby, and at the films.

You can get tickets on-line right now, or at the door. I highly recommend the Festival Pass to make sure you don’t miss any of the extras – all the cool kids are getting them. For only $20, you get to see a gaggle of great documentaries, and you can support a new initiative in New Westminster so it can grow in the future. And hold onto that pass, 20 years from now, you will be able to tell your kids you were there when it all started.

Thinking Forward

Here are a couple of pictures I took this summer, a day apart. See if you can figure what they have in common.

click to Art-decotize

Both of these are pictures of public toilets at busy tourist areas.

The first is at Hoover Dam. This was the largest engineering project in the world at the time, and one that was built with public money during the largest economic depression of the post-industrial revolution (the kind of “stimulus spending” that actually puts people to work, well, those it didn’t kill, anyway…). This might be the finest-looking monument to urination ever built: art deco, bas relief sculpture, brass doors, and beautiful tile mosaics inside.

The second is a crappy industrial toilet built at a major trailhead at the Grand Canyon. Nothing wrong with it: four walls and a roof and a composting toilet. Wheelchair accessible, probably built in the late 90s, functional, a little squat, just dull enough to be almost completely unregarded. A Park Service General-Function Shithouse Type #4. Probably tossed together in an afternoon from pre-fab bits imported from China. It is only sad when compared to the architectural grandeur of the Hoover Dam crapper.

This, if you will follow along a bit, says a lot about where we are in North America in the dawn of the 21st century.

You see, there was a time when America (and Canada, as America’s fluffy toque) built things that they were proud of. They dared to dream. If people asked FDR why they were building the largest arch-gravity dam on earth at the height of the Great Depression, he would have said something along the lines of “because we can build a better future today!” But no-one would have asked such a silly question: they knew already. America was the place where people had big dreams and did big things.

This is why the 20th Century belonged to America. Put a man on the moon? No freaking problem: banged the most complicated engineering feat in history together in less than 9 years. From the Chrysler building in 1930 to the Sears Tower in 1998, the United States was home to a series of the world’s tallest skyscrapers. The USof A won the most medals at the Olympics, had the best schools, lead in all fields of science, from FermiLab to the Mayo Clinic to M.I.T. USA! USA! USA!

It is pretty clear to anyone not currently running for President that those times are gone. The US cannot put a human being in space without relying on the very ballistic missile technology developed to destroy the USA. The Middle and Far East are competing to build the greatest Cities in the world. China wins more gold medals, builds more high-speed rail every year than the entire stock of high-speed rail in the United States, and now builds almost twice as many automobiles as the country that made the building of lots of automobiles their entire business plan. There are many countries in the world looking forward and building great things. The USA just isn’t one of them anymore. And now that Steve Jobs is gone…

I’m thinking the toilets above are emblematic of the problem. Where we used to dream and build great things, now we seem to think “what’s the point?” Especially if we can build something less great for less money. When the biggest building in any town USA is the WalMart (and the biggest building in New Westminster is a Lowe’s), why build it fancy? The race is on for cheaper, faster, more of less. There is a cultural malaise where all they can do is look inward, protect what they have. This is a place where people are afraid of the future.

It’s not just me saying this, it is an ongoing theme I am noticing from people much, much smarter than me, and with diverse back grounds, like Umair Haque and Neil DeGrasse Tyson .

I suspect a large part of the problem is the one thing in which the USA still leads to the world: Negative politics.

The problem with negative politics is that it creates an environment where things like Vision and Hope are set up for ridicule. Why come up with a new idea when you can make cheap political points outlining all the potential problems with your opponent’s ideas? Criticism is much easier that creativity. As a result, no politician in the 21st century is going to say “were going to put a man on the moon and return him safety to Earth by the end of the decade”. No-one is brave enough to suggest the US should invest in high-speed rail, or a sustainable energy future (other than “Drill, baby Drill!” – a non-solution that nonetheless is easy for the noisemakers the chant), or in renewing their public education system. Suggesting that maybe people should have health insurance is enough to cost significant political capital.

In today’s political climate, the dreams are too easy to crush:

But that’s the States. What does it have to do with us?

New Westminster is a City that is proud of it’s past, and for good reason. But this Municipal election, I’m going to be thinking about it’s future, not it’s past. This City, like it or not, is going to grow to 100,000 people by the middle of the century. We need to start thinking now about how that future works. How are people going to live in New Westminster in 2050? How are they going to move about New Westminster? Where are they going to work in New Westminster? How will we maintain our livability, our economic stability, our infrastructure?

Now is the time to dream, now is the time to have a vision. I think there are glimmers of a bright future offered by the current Council. I don’t think many will argue that Sapperton and Downtown are more vibrant places, more “complete” neighbourhoods than they were a decade ago. Progress is being made. To continue this trend, we are going to need some bigger ideas. We need to be brave enough to build things we are proud of, so our future is as bright as our past.

There are several members of the Council that I support strongly, but I think there is room for some fresh vision at that table as well. I wish good luck to all the Candidates, and hope to hear some great discussion about the City’s future. Let’s keep it above the belt, and be ready to wow us with your ideas. However, if all you bring to the table is the problems with every one else’s ideas, then may I humbly suggest you get out of the way and let someone else lead.