I was lucky enough to snag one of the remaining spots at Social Change Institute 2011 at the Leadership Institute at Hollyhock, on spectacular Cortes Island, June 8 to 12. I’m hoping to meet some new people who are working towards similar goals, build my engagement network, and ideally pick up a few ideas and skills along the way. I expect I’ll be outside my comfort zone for much of this conference, but I also expect to come home inspired and charged up.
I finally watched The Age of Stupid last night. Wow, what a wake-up call.
Not because I now know that glaciers are melting, or that Shell is flaring natural gas in Nigeria and poisoning ecosystems and generally doing Very Bad Things, or that Range-Rover-piloting NIMBYs are successfully halting British wind farms, or that India has a new and very popular low-cost airline run by an evidently rather unpleasant CEO.
I already know most of these things. But lots of people, presumably the film’s target audience, don’t. As Age of Stupid pans back into space in its final frames, leaving a dead future planet cluttered with junk satellites — Wall-E’s opening scene, except in reverse–the filmmakers were likely hoping I would be fired up to take political action.
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Bowen Island Official Community Plan Update Committee
February 28, 2010
Dear Members of the Committee:
My name is James Glave and I’m a father of two. Ours is a young commuter family, and my wife and I actively participate in many aspects of island life. I love this place, and I am proud to call it home.
My personal passion is climate change solutions, and the transportation, energy, and land-use strategies that have been shown to reduce per-capita greenhouse-gas emissions here in our region and around the world. We can talk about any number of issues, but in my mind, carbon is the ultimate deal-breaker. We simply don’t have an option other than finding ways to slash the stuff from our lives and community. If we don’t “act locally” on this “global” issue, it will eventually come home to our doorstop and find us where we live anyway.
The science suggests that climate change will, in the near-term, overwhelm our first responders and social services, exhaust our municipal budget, and place hardship on our population via skyrocketing food prices. In the long term (which is what community planning is all about, right?) it will ultimately result in waves of climate refugees flooding into Canada, and ultimately our community. This is not chicken-little stuff, it is exhaustively documented in reports by The Global Humanitarian Forum, the World Health Organization, Oxfam, and many other public agencies and non-government organizations.
Climate change is not an “environmental” issue, it is a civilization challenge. I believe we have a profound moral obligation to address it, wherever we live. I personally believe that we do not get an excuse or “opt out” pass to address climate just because we choose to live in a beautiful place that is “seen to be rural,” where fawns dance at the roadside and salmon thrash in the lagoon. We are not entitled to an exemption because we are surrounded by great natural beauty. This is not just “China’s problem.” We should see our emissions as an opportunity to lead, not barely squeak through our statutory obligations and hope nobody is noticing. That’s how we are not dealing with it now.
I frequently parrot the message that a lot of small actions can add up to big change. For proof, look no further than this short video clip I did over the summer, one of a series of greener-living advice segments for a real-estate website called Cyberhomes.
There I am, proving the point that easy gestures—in this case, unplugging idle electronic devices—can all add up. It makes sense on paper, which is why the “everyone do their bit” credo is the basis of many behavior-change campaigns. And sure, it’s all well and good to unplug a few video games, or enjoy a healthy bike ride, or savor the vegetables and fruits you grew yourself.
But what about nitrous oxide? You know, laughing gas?
My dentist offers it to me every time I go in for a new crown or onlay which, given the pathetic state of my teeth, is pretty much at least once a year. And I usually turn it down, because despite its jovial nickname, the stuff is effectively two kinds of bad in one bottle.
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A petition is presently circulating through my community; it opposes a proposed development on the grounds that it is “far too big for our island.” The Cape Roger Curtis Neighborhood Plan has its shortcomings, sure, but also its strengths—including space set aside for a seniors care facility, affordable housing, community food gardens and composting, an outdoor amphitheater, bike paths, $7 million dollars worth of amenities, and hundreds of acres of protected parkland. More than 75 percent of the development is within a five minute walk of its center crossroads, where a bus stop, general store, or car co-op lot could potentially be located.
The plan embodies a number of smart-growth principles, and in my mind it is a better choice than the alternative—no parkland, just a sprawling subdivision of 58 10-acre lots, each likely crowned with a single McMansion. Though the opponents of the plan insist that the land owners do not have the legal authority to build out that sprawl nightmare, the truth is, they do. And they might end up doing just that if the community says thumbs-down to the proposal currently on the table.
Those behind the “no” petition are running a well-organized campaign that includes phone tree work. So far more than 650 people have endorsed the document; in doing so they affirm that they are “For Bowen.” That doesn’t sit right with me, so I wrote this letter to the local paper this week.
If you call me on the phone and ask me if I am “for Bowen,” here’s what I’ll tell you.
I’ve never been so good at the whole relentless optimism thing. So I’ll just come out and admit it: I’m feeling pretty anxious these days. It’s an odd twinge in my gut telling me that—despite the assurances from economists who swear up and down that “these things are cyclical”—that the present situation feels more “cyclone” than “cycle.”
Who among us can honestly keep a smile plastered on when the earth is heaving so mightily underfoot?
Oh, I know, I know, I’m supposed to keep a laser focus on solutions. It’s the only productive response to all this. There’s no shortage of good ideas out there, important goals to work toward, and, thank god, at least one gushing firehose of hope to sip from.
But can I propose we ditch the talking points for a moment, and allow ourselves to feel terrified.
Because the current “correction” feels more like a sudden and dramatic contraction, a massive pandemic stitch, the first few nanoseconds of a star going supernova. It’s the sound of a paradigm breaking. Let’s call our associated collective “oh-shit” response what it is, folks: collapse anxiety.
If there’s wiggle room to feel good here, it’s knowing that we’ll emerge on the other side with a much-improved society. It has to get worse before it can get vastly better. Like the prez says, “we will rebuild” and make something much better, a place of greater understanding, sensitivity, awareness, happiness. A place where we define prosperity based on something other than profit. We’ll get there. But there’s no harm, I’d argue, in a good scream on the way down.
Liveblog on “The Future of Influence” talk, by Nate Elliott, Principal analyst, Forrester Research, Northern Voice Conference, Vancouver B.C, February 21 2009
- In my line of work, I hear a lot of people asking me about word-of-mouth marketing. But power of consumer influence been around for centuries: Tupperware, Amway, Avon. They all do billion in sales each year based on consumer to consumer influence.
- Companies ID influential consumers, give them something valuable (content, a product) then they find ways to motivate them to pass that message along.
- Not all influence is created equal. The internet didnt’ invent influence but carries a lot of power. New influencer: People active in social media. Motivations? To share their thoughts and opinions. Classic influentials: Internet users who are the first person others come to for recommendations. Most of the latter group only influentials in a single product category. Former group has a broader base. “They know quite a lot but they talk more as well.”
- New influentials exert active influence by proactively giving advice, classics are instead “go to” people. “If we didn’t ask them for advice there is very limited chance they wil give it.”
- New influentials want people to hear them. Why? A genuine sense of altruism, a desire to be famous. Even if new influencers are complete morons it wont matter because other people believe them.
- How do you change nature of consumer influence? Number of new influencers is only going to grow. Based on population of online Canadians ages 18-25:
- Nearly half (69 percent) are consuming social media; reading blogs, comments.
- Some 67 percent are joiners, who join social networks.
- Just 28 percent are actual creators
- While 27 percent are “critics.”
- Classic influence is going to remain stagnant.
- People are going to start getting overwhelmed by influence. Not only is there a lot of info out there about products and services, but the information is getting richer. Cites tripadvisor.com. Used to ask guests for one review. Now they ask for four different reviews: one about quality of service, location etc. The advice is now a lot richer. I can see photos of the rooms taken by guests w/stuff spread about.
- New Infuentials not growing leaps and bounds; there are not enough centralized sources of advice. Consumers don’t know how to I.D. the advice that is relevant to them.
- 4,000 reviews on an amazon listing are more annyoing than just two. How do I find out what an “average’ reader thinks of this book? Too many fan reviews. It doesn’t matter to me what honeymooners or backpackers think of my hotel. I want to know what other business people thought about it.
- Needed: Spread of reviewer profiles. Burpee Seeds sells seeds online, important that they have reviewer profiles. I need to know how that seed has worked for people like me. Has the person been gardening for one year or 20? What state do they live in, etc?
- Needed: “Integration of social graph.” To see what the people I know and trust every day think. The first few reviews on a site should be from people in my network, ie. my top facebook friends. FB tried this and there was a user uproar. Better implementations in the future will work very well. People are going to need that to sort through the relevance.
- Implement basic user profiles
- Recognize and reward the best contributors by engaging with them.
- Sites help you find the most relevant advice.
- Consumers, give sites a chance to prove they are trustworthy you can share your opinions/profiles with them seamlessly.
Talk finished. 11:27
What’s the best way to stump one of the greatest minds of the global sustainability movement? Kidnap him and take him to Wal-Mart. That’s what I did last November, when I took Bill Rees—the University of British Columbia professor who coined the term “ecological footprint”–into the belly of the consumer beast. I escorted him into big-box hell, gave him $50 cash, and asked him to shop.
It was a fascinating experiment, because it revealed that the professor is in one sense, just like the rest of us. But in many other senses, he is not. Rees is an intellectual rock-star, wandering alone in a world of Blue Light Specials, and his cart contains peer-reviewed science proving that everthing we have built our dreams around is leading us to “a collapse from which there will be no recovery.” Thank you for shopping. Have a nice day!
Check out my feature profile of Rees, in the March 09 edition of Vancouver magazine:
Web version, from vanmag.com: Rees’s Thesis.
1.6 MB .PDF version of magazine layout: Rees’s Thesis.
UPDATED: Readers of this blog may not all be familiar with a controversy that has swept my community in recent months. A plan is on the table to build a new artificial-turf sports field on the grounds of our community school. The proposal has sharply divided Bowen Island. For background, see the Bowen Island Municipality web site , and also the Vancouver magazine feature [.PDF File, 1MB] that I wrote about the project. Recently, someone asked on a public forum why someone who has so publicly identified himself as “green” is supporting the project. I wrote this post in response.
Many say they oppose the proposed artificial-turf field because of its perceived health risks, or its cost, or its relatively limited life expectancy, or its proposed location in a schoolyard where trees now stand, or the ecological burdens associated with plastic, its primary constituent material.
A side of me wonders, though, if these concerns are in fact mere supporting bullet points on a larger slide. To many of these opponents, I suspect the field represents something bigger than all of these complaints put together: It is a high-profile symbolic attack on the community’s treasured ruralism. It is a nuclear bomb in freefall with “urbanism” painted on the nose cone.
I haven’t been here long—only a few years—but it’s been long enough to come to love this place and everything that makes it what it is: The “dog of the year” float in the Bowfest parade each August. The used clothing, toy, and sports-gear fundraisers that roll a year’s worth of craigslist haggling into single day or weekend event. The volunteers at our wonderful library who rubber-stamp ink butterflies onto my kids’ hands. The rhubarb Pat sells from a wheelbarrow in front of the building center. The metalworker who spot-welded my stainless-steel lunchbox set back together, for $5 (thanks again, Peter). The self-serve fresh eggs in the fridge at Shady Acres Farm. The annual salmon release at the hatchery. The apple festival. And on and on. These are people and experiences and relationships and transactions that you won’t likely find in any of our region’s tract-home and strip-mall hinterlands, where the nights echo with car alarms instead of owls. These experiences emerge from the mutual trust, respect, and accountability that you find in a smaller, more intimate community. They are what urban planners are working desperately to replicate in other places.
Bowen Island is a respite from the world across the channel that seems increasingly ruled by liability, populated with sterile franchises and canned experiences, and suffused with the kind of soul-draining manufactured authenticity that you order from a Restoration Hardware website. Our little touches—our commitment to self-sufficiency, volunteerism, and our admiration for small-town quirk—remind us what is real, and what matters. These things constitute the very core of our identity. They are why all of us call this place home.
But these qualities do not in my mind excuse us from our responsibility to do what we can to help avert the single greatest challenge that has ever faced humanity. Our rurality does not give us a “hall pass” to opt out of responding to a global emergency that I promise you will touch each one of our lives in the coming years.
I’m sorry if it seems like I keep sounding an alarm, but that’s what you’re supposed to do in an emergency. “When you talk to the people at the sharp end of the climate business, scientists and policy-makers alike,” writes Gwynne Dyer in the introduction to his new book, “there is an air of suppressed panic in many of the conversations.” It’s so far a mostly-invisible threat, but it’s right here in plain sight. Climate change is going to hit us in ways we can’t even yet imagine right here on our island—it’s going to force us into moral dilemmas for which there are no winners, only wrenching compromises.
As a community, we famously band together in times of crisis. We open our wallets wide when one of the school custodians is battling cancer, or when the seniors’ housing complex needs a new plumbing system, or when one of our family’s children suffers severe burns and needs special care. Many of us volunteer for the fire department, and drop the fork mid-bite when the pager sounds. We’re pretty good at responding like this, at taking care of our own. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do.
But I fear we are ignoring a crisis of staggering proportions that will eventually, inevitably reach our shores. We are ignoring it today because we believe that it’s someone else’s fault, or we feel that someone else is working on the problem. We are ignoring it because it doesn’t yet have a familiar face, like our smiling custodian. And perhaps also because we gather that some of the things we could be doing to help fix it don’t neatly jibe with the leafy milieu that we defend so passionately.
As much as I love our rurality and character, to me it is a decidedly mixed blessing. We space ourselves quite far apart in this Eden. In a perfectly honest effort to connect more closely with nature, we tuck our homes deep into the woods. It’s private and peaceful out here. Yet—while some of us do work from home—it also means the vast majority of us remain utterly dependent on often-heavy vehicles, and an even heavier ferry, to travel great distances to shop, work, learn, and play. Those vehicles will realistically not be electrified for many years to come. And so, when you look at the data, and compare it with similar communities, our contribution to the problem—by very dint of our rurality—is enormous. Though I haven’t seen an analysis, I suspect our forestlands do not come close to soaking up all the heat-trapping gases coming out of our tailpipes.
I feel in my heart that we need to own this one. I believe we need to take some responsibility that some of the aspects of our place that we hold dear are, in fact, fanning the flames. We are not “greener” than mainlanders just because we look that color to those peering our way from across the channel. When it comes to the challenge that looms largest overhead, the hue is a tragic illusion. Because in reality, we’re browner.
Let me say here that I’m just as complicit as anyone else here. I like privacy as much as the next person—my forested property is almost an acre. And yes, I drive. But I’ve since arrived at a place in my head where I am ready to take some responsibility for my choices. Most of my friends think I’m a Chicken Little. They’re just not there yet. They tolerate me—they admire my energy and enthusiasm—but they’re interested in other things. That’s fine, I have other passions, too. I love to eat, for one thing. I love to kayak, to read with the kids, to hang out with my tolerant pals on games night with a bottle of wine, or three.
Some opponents have characterized the turf project as a failure of our collective imagination. If we work at it enough, they argue, we can come up with an alternate solution that is more in keeping with how we do things around here. One of the protest signs that went up last year near the proposed project site seemed to articulate this with the single word “hope.”
So let’s set aside the thousands hundreds of hours of work put in by volunteers and local professionals exploring the options, volunteers and professionals who love this community passionately. And permit me to do some hoping of my own for a moment. My dream for our island is that the more we grow—and the fact of the matter is that we will grow —that we also grow even more “local” and self-reliant along the way. That even with more people, we retain the connectedness that defines us.
I also dream that we will become increasingly resilient to the dramatic changes to our lifestyles that lie ahead. I think we can redefine what “rural” means, by owning the idea as much through the strength of our relationships as our rambling country lanes and 10-acre lots each dotted with a single-family home. The new information we now have about the mess we are all in compels us to revisit many of the patterns and entitlements that we hold sacred, things that we see as our “right.”
It also compels us to prepare and adapt, and we are already starting this by building a desperately-needed new fire station. This is critical infrastructure, as important as setting aside spaces to grow much of our own food, and putting in place systems to harvest potable rainwater from our rooftops. Given the sheer scale of this global crisis, and the speed at which it approaches us, we need to think more broadly about infrastructure to include a broad range of community amenities here on the island.
It’s understandable that many of us would feel affronted and offended by a turf field. Yes, you might find one in the city, or in a suburb. But it urbanization? No. God help us if we someday grow big enough to attract a fast-food outlet. New amenities represent change, and they are an admission that we are growing, and that perhaps new people are coming who want to do different things, and who don’t wish to travel to the mainland on manic errand-filled days because they’re stressful and hard on families. But in my mind these facilities—like the proposed field—and the people that will use them are not the thin edge of the wedge, they are not the beginning of the end. Rather, they are individual pieces that together will create a genuine new kind of complete community , one that sends less carbon into the atmosphere because we will have almost everything we need right here and wont need to turn a key in an ignition to reach.
We need to become more than a woodsy outpost in Howe Sound, where we get to enjoy the deer and herons, but still take regular spacewalks to the jobs and activities on the mainland. It is not only possible, it is inevitable. Not only is it “the right thing to do,” but as our car-and-ferry habit gets more and more expensive, as our food gets more and more expensive, it will also be the only thing to do.
We fancy ourselves as rugged and self-reliant because we have woodstoves, chainsaws, winches, and generators. But we’re kidding ourselves. True self-sufficiency means that we have a complete community, that we have a genuinely broad range of services on the island to support our diverse and growing population. It means we have more opportunities to stay, play, learn, shop, and age “in place.” It means affordable housing. It means low-energy buildings. It means investments in infrastructure that allow us to thrive.
I will probably never play on the artificial turf field; I’m not a team sports kind of guy, and my kids haven’t shown much interest either, despite my best efforts. And for what it’s worth, I have a very complicated relationship with plastic, something I’ve written about . But I also acknowledge that our lives are surrounded by the stuff. I work out on a petroleum-based surface twice a week at our island’s Tae Kwon Do studio. I am touching it to write this story. I know all about the seabirds with bellies full of Bic lighters .
But when I think about the investments that I feel we need to start putting in place to serve our community into the coming years, to create an atmosphere of responsible self-reliance, the benefits of the proposed illuminated turf field in my mind far outweigh its aesthetic, financial, and ecological costs.
Let’s continue to build on our strengths: our couples, our singles, our seniors, our families, our youth, our volunteers. And let’s stop excusing ourselves from a growing moral obligation because we’re a “different” place blessed with an unique character. We have the same obligation to get off our asses and do something about this crisis as anyone else. The more pieces we put in place today—the richer the variety of offerings and opportunities we make available to our citizens—even if they aren’t perfect, even if some of them don’t align with our ideas of what we’re supposed to be “all about,” the stronger and more resilient we will be as we enter the coming storms.
Feb 9 Update: On January 26, Bowen Island Municipal Council voted four to three to proceed with the turf project as proposed, including roughed-in wiring and conduit for future lighting. The resolution comes with subjects concerning cost, but given the economic climate–contractors are, all of a sudden, desperate for projects–it seems likely that the turf field will actually be built. In the wake of the decision, a number of the project’s opponents have formed a fledgling grassroots organization called Rural Green. Its members “seek to live responsibly in a way that retains [their] community spirit and the natural rural lifestyle [they] cherish. “
Can Web 2.0 help bring us back down to 350 ppm? Google Maps, long used to manage car-sharing co-ops, is cropping up in interesting mash-up applications that may give people the tools to inch us closer to a better society.
Here are two local examples of how mapping serves green ends, and an idea about where to go next.
The Cycling Route Planner is a Web interface created by a University of British Columbia research team studying barriers to urban cycling. Enter your destination, and then choose from a variety of route options from a drop-down menu. Not wild about hills? Choose the maximum grade you’re willing to crank. You can also ask for the most direct path, or the one with the least traffic, or the one with the most tree cover. The database crunches topographic data, elevation overlays, particulate emissions concentrations, and voila. (But will it get more people on bikes?)
Then there’s YouMapVancouver, a collaboration between Smart Growth B.C. and the city’s Planning Commission. The city is inviting residents of Vancouver neighborhoods to plot their favorite “amenities” on a Google map. An amenity is planner-speak for “community benefits” — libraries, ice rinks, community centers, and so on, but the city is widening the concept to include “any place that is special to you.” A nice view, for example. A corner where dog-walkers like tend to congregate on Sunday mornings. Some folks are painting their bike commute routes to work on the maps–note the pink lines above.
One of these two examples is a “top down” application — an interface that mines existing “objective” data such as topography and traffic. The other is fundamentally a “bottom up” project — a new-wave cartographic wiki of sorts, a plot of physical space that the collective will hopefully annotate with layers of emotional relevance.
I’d like to see another evolution of this mash-up, a combination of the top-down with the bottom-up. The middle zone between “data mining for green” and the reaching and hoping vaguely socialist vibe that is at the moment compartmentalized inside households that may not even speak to each other on the street.
Could I add a time-sensitive craigslistesque tag to a neighborhood map that is always present in some way in my datastream? Could I add a tag offering free fruit from my backyard pear tree for “this weekend only”? Could I invite people in my hood to dump their grass clippings into the monster compost box that I’ve just built over my back fence? Could I offer my neighbors a stack of surplus building or landscape materials?
Could the network’s social layer work at the scale of the neighborhood to enable culdesactivism? Might tools of this ilk take away one more barrier to a better world by eliminating the “homework” factor? Green shouldn’t be an inconvenience, and it shouldn’t require roll-up-the-sleeves research. (If I want to look into LED lighting for my home, why do I need to spend an evening chasing search-engine dead-ends?)
Let’s open-source the whole damn playbook and watch what happens. More on this soon.