Monday, 30 July 2007

Afraid to look weird

I have a bit of a dilemma each time I take my canvas bags out of my trunk to bring into the grocery store.

I have a nice denim Green Party bag, which I really like, but I worry about whether or not I should take this bag into the store with me. If I do take it, I usually make sure it's stuffed inside the other, less politically inclined, canvas bags. When I take the bags out at the checkout, I will usually try to put the Green Party bag with its sunflower symbol facing down.

The bravest I've been with "the bag" so far was this weekend, when I went with my neice to what I fondly call the "hippie store" -- the Earth's General Store on Edmonton's Whyte Avenue. I was relatively sure that the bag wouldn't garner any strange looks in that store and in that area of town, but at the Safeway or the Sobey's store I'm less convinced. It also helped that my niece was carrying a BullFrog Power bag around with her at the same time.

Which brings me to my point: I am afraid to look weird. Even though I talk jokingly about being weird and not caring about if people think I am weird, I do care.

The next point is, why should I feel afraid to carry a Green Party denim bag around? I do live in uber-conservative Alberta, yes, but my area of the province is relatively liberal, for Alberta that is. And the Green Party actually does reasonably well around here in elections these days, garnering about 5- 11% of the popular vote, neck-and-neck with the NDP.

But I guess this is what being a minority feels like: always being a little bit afraid. I know that in this country and in this province I have the right to my political and other beliefs, but what I don't know is if I will be subject to ridicule, derision or dismissal if I say something about them. And while I know I shouldn't let that stop me, it does sometimes. I rant and rave around 'safe' audiences like my family, but I'm fairly chicken once I get outside those boundaries.

What would happen if all the people like me who were a little bit afraid said something anyway? What if instead of just not putting up a Conservative sign on the lawn in the next election, we took the plunge and put up a Green Party (or other party of your choice) sign? What would happen if all of us polite, non-controversial middle class people decided to let our opinions be known? That we are tired of being seen as consumers instead of people, as grist for the economic mill instead of stewards of the earth. As billboards for products instead of people who care about each other. As test subjects for big oil and big pharma instead of human beings with minds of our own.

I hope I can get up the courage to do my part towards finding out.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

No reply

A few days ago, I blogged about my suspicion that large commercial consumers of electricity are given a cut rate on their electricity prices. I had emailed our local electricity provider here in this part of Alberta, EPCOR. I did receive a reply from them, but their response was just a regurgitation of the information available on their website that pertained to residential and small business customers, not large commercial customers. So I replied to their email, letting them know that I hadn't asked about residential rates, but large commercial electricity rates. I receive an auto-reply saying I would receive a real reply in 3-5 days. It is Day 6, so I sent them another email asking for an answer, or to be directed to someone who could answer the question for me.

I'm willing to bet this email will be ignored just as the previous one was.

If that's the case, I will have to find another way to get the information. Maybe I will have better luck with a phone call, much as I hate making phone calls like that. I think I will have to ask Greenpa how he was able to get his information, that in his area of the US commercial companies pay half price or less for their electricity.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007


While watering the garden today I noticed that a few of the tomatoes on our one tomato plant are almost ready to pick! I have never attempted to grow tomatoes before, so this is quite exciting to me. I have been amazed overall that the things I have planted have actually grown, for the most part, and amazed even further that bugs or plagues or some other such disaster hasn't yet befallen the growing plants.

I am toying with the idea of canning a few things, but I'm not sure if I'm brave enough to try that. I don't have any of the equipment, but I'm sure I could find what I needed at Value Village or somewhere like that. I probably won't try doing that until next year anyway, when I have some more produce to make it worthwhile to preserve by canning.

Oh, and stay tuned for an update about the EPCOR situation I wrote about in my previous entry....

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

The philosophy of buying in bulk

This morning on the CBC 740 Radio news I heard that earlier this week the cost of electricity skyrocketed to the capped price of $999 per megaWatt hour for brief periods of high demand. This caused a "Level 1" advisory to be sent out, basically asking high consumers of electricity to voluntarily reduce or alter their pattern of usage to avoid undue demand on the power grid at any given time.

Demand has been higher lately, due to the much higher than average temperatures. People are using more electricity for air conditioners and fans. Coupled with the higher demand is the reduced generating capacity, because apparently some of the power plants shut down completely or at least decrease their power output as they do equipment maintenance and repair in the Summer, which is usually a lower-demand season than the Winter around here.

While the matter was being discussed on the CBC this morning, the question arose as to how soon we could expect to see the result of these price spikes on our electricity bills. The answer was as soon as next month. As a person who is trying to reduce electricity consumption, this really bugged me. Essentially, our household, which currently uses 34.6% of the North American average of electricity, will be paying for industries and households who have actually increased their electrical consumption! Adding salt to the wound is that I'm pretty sure that large industrial consumers of electricty (i.e., those using over 250 000 kWh/year) actually get a discounted rate to start with, because they 'buy in bulk.' I have emailed EPCOR today to ask them about this, because while they publish the residential regulated rate on their website (9.602 cents/kWh for July 2007), they do not publish the commercial customer rate. It will be interesting to see if they even respond to my email.

What does it say about a society that thinks it's normal to give discounts to consumers who consume in bulk quantities?

In the case of electrical consumption under the current price structure, those who use more are rewarded (i.e., get to use more while paying less) and those who use less are punished (i.e., strive to use less but have to pay for those who are using more). When resources are limited, as fossil fuels are, this strategy of giving discounts for bulk consumption seems ludicrous at best and obscene at worst. It's like we as a society are collectively being rewarded for gorging ourselves. Picture that guy (or gal) we've all seen on TV stuffing his (or her) face with the 107th hot dog in record time until there just ain't no more hot dogs.

It seems to me it would be much more fair to allot everyone (or every household) a certain amount of electricity they could use for a low base price, and then as their consumption rose, the price would also increase. Sort of like our taxes. Instead of tax brackets you would have electricity brackets. Those who used more would pay a premium for consuming more of a limited resource. Households would be able to afford to heat and light their house for a reasonable price, but if they wanted to fire up four computers, a 52 inch plasma TV and set the central A/C to 17 degrees or the furnace to 24 degrees (Celsius), they would pay for the privilege. And it is a priviledge, not a right.

This isn't my original idea (I dont' get very many of those) - I read about it at Greenpa's site, but it seems very fair and just. You would then be rewarding people for being frugal and stewardly, instead of rewarding greed and excess. Yes, I'm putting emotionally and morally loaded words in there, because I think it is a moral issue: It is wrong to waste.

By no means am I a paragon of virtue in this regard. I waste a lot of stuff. I'm trying to waste less stuff, but it is inconvenient and uncomfortable at times, and I like convenience and comfort just as much as the next person. And the things that are the easiest to waste are things that have a low monetary cost or that seem like they could never run out. But more and more we are finding that the things we thought were unlimited (and therefore 'cheap') do run out, like fresh, clean water and vast tracts of forest and Atlantic cod and easily extractable oil and unpolluted air. To name a few.

(Photo courtesy

Monday, 16 July 2007

Of Raspberries and Hummingbirds

Yesterday was hot. Really hot. It has been hot all week but yesterday we were out working in the yard because our topsoil was delivered and we had to do some prep work around the yard so it can be spread out properly by our local grader operator (hereafter known as Farmer Joe) later this week. There was grass to be clipped, wood to be moved and ants to be cajoled out of wood piles. They were not particilarly cajolable, and many bit my ankles in protest, unfortunately.

But as we were going around the perimeter of the yard we noticed that the wild raspberries were ripening nicely, and we each had a handful or two as the day wore on. They were delicious! There's nothing like eating a sun-ripened, still warm raspberry.

Later, when I was quite worn out and taking a breather on the porch, I saw a hummingbird! I haven't seen a hummingbird here for two years, and that one I scared away. This hummingbird was flitting about some red salvia flowers I had planted under the Schubert chokecherry tree. It hovered there for a while, while I sat there gawking at it and trying not to scare it away this time. I think it may have been a Ruby Throated Hummingbird. I will definitely be planting these flowers again next year.

It is so nice when serendipitous things happen like that. I knew there was a reason why I wanted to take a break right then! Despite the heat, the day was a nice balance of working and resting. If we take the time to be still from our busy-ness from time to time, things seem to unfold nicely:

The Tao is constant in non-action
Yet there is nothing it does not do

If the sovereign can hold on to this
All things shall transform themselves
Transformed, yet wishing to achieve
I shall restrain them with the simplicity of the nameless
The simplicity of the nameless
They shall be without desire
Without desire, using stillness
The world shall steady itself

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 37 as translated by Derek Lin

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Garden Update

Just as I suspected, nearly a week of 30 degree Celsius weather has caused the garden to grow like crazy. I've been able to harvest a whole bunch of lettuce, some spinach, some beat greens, a few radishes and this morning, some cilantro. The oat grass just keeps on growing, almost faster than I can pick it. The rainbow chard is coming along, looking quite chard-y, just miniature yet. The one lonely pea plant keeps growing, but no peas for the time being.

The strawberry plants are still growing, but a berry predator (I strongly suspect the neighbor's cat) has eaten the few strawberries that were ripe. The wild raspberries are ripening as well, and should be ready in a couple more weeks. We are also lucky to have Saskatoon bushes all throughout our acreage, which are quite delicious. (The berries that is, not the bushes.)

Next year we'll probably expand by another 4X4 raised bed and plant some things we can store for the winter, like potatoes. Even though I made a few poor choices of things to plant, like the sweet peppers and the basil thyme, I'm considering this little garden a success!

Friday, 13 July 2007

Eat Local Challenge: Mid Month Report

We have been learning a lot about our local 'foodshed' in our efforts to eat more locally this month. I never knew there were so many delicious things to eat in our own backyard!

Literally speaking, our little backyard garden has really started to take off now that the weather is warm (hot, even). Our guinea pigs have probably been eating the most locally of all of us these days - they get lettuce, spinach and oatgrass from the garden, Italian and curly leaf parsely from the herb patch, and carrots and cucumbers from the farmer's market. They go crazy for the oat grass - I will be growing this indoors for them in the winter I think!

My sister and I shared a mostly local salad last weekend, with lettuce and tiny radishes from the garden, and carrots from the market. I threw some almonds and raisins in there that were not local, and the salad dressing wasn't local either. It makes for a neat experience going out and picking your own fresh salad greens though - I find I appreciate the food much more when I have been gleefully watching the little sprouts get big enough to pick. I appreciate it too, when I can chat with the farmers at the farmers markets who've grown food for me to eat. Two of my favorite producers so far have been the folks at Erdmann's Gardens and at Riverbend Gardens.

Our shopping trips to the grocery store have also been different experiences, now that we are checking to see where everything is made. We want to limit ourselves to buying produce grown in North America only, preferably Canada, and preferentially still, Alberta. The closer the better. We have made some good local finds, such as cucumbers and bell peppers grown in Lacombe, AB (Pic-n-Pac Produce), pea butter made in Legal, AB and organic honey from Three Hills, AB. We have also started buying So Nice soymilk made in BC, instead of its American made counterpart. There are also lots of BC apples available, but you have to be careful and look at the sticker to make sure you aren't getting the New Zealand equivalent. The stores are not very careful about labelling the country-of-origin on their bin signs, I've noticed.

There have been some things we have given up, like grapes from Mexico and bananas from Equador. So far we have not been able to give up grapefruit, which are currently supplied from South Africa, but we have at least reduced how often we eat these.

Another interesting thing I found out is about sugar. For a while now I've been buying Rogers Organic Sugar, and feeling a bit smug about it I suppose. It turns out that this sugar is cane sugar imported from Cuba, whereas the good old regular white granulated sugar comes from sugar beets in Taber, Alberta, and isn't whitened with bone char or anything! So, I'm going back to the white stuff. Although I am still trying to use less refined sugar and more honey overall.

We encourage everyone to check out their local farmer's markets!

Monday, 9 July 2007

We are Bullfrog Powered!

I received email notification today that as of this month, our house will be considered "Bullfrog Powered." Bullfrog Power is a Canadian company based in Ontario that recently started offering services in Alberta. Here is how Bullfrog explains how it works:
When you sign up with Bullfrog Power, you don’t need to switch electricity suppliers. Your electricity supplier tells us exactly how much power your home consumes. We then inject green electricity onto the grid on your behalf to match the amount of power you use. You continue to pay your local supplier for your basic electricity service, and receive a separate bill from Bullfrog for the greening of your power supply. And because you continue drawing power from the grid in the same way, there is no change in service reliability. It’s that simple.
Bullfrog uses the extra 2 cents per kilowatt hour we pay to ensure that an equivalent amount of Alberta-generated wind-powered energy is injected into the power grid on our behalf. The email they sent me today says this will cost us an extra $7.22 per month, based on our electricity consumption over the past 12 months. More wind power generation means less coal-fired power, which the Bullfrog People tell me will result in our household reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by this much per year:
  • CO2: 1.24 tonnes
  • NO: 2.08 kilograms
  • SO2: 3.16 kilograms

This also reduces our consumption number for the 90% reduction project, since according to the project organizers, "Hydro and Wind are deemed to have a 4 to 1 payback over other methods - you get 4 times as many." According to our power company we used an average of 360.981 kWh per month over the previous 12 months. Since we get a 4:1 credit for wind power, this is the equivalent of 90.25 kWh per month. By the 90% rules we are permitted 91.6 kWh per month, which means we have slightly exceeded the 90% reduction target! The best part is, I know we can go even lower once we convert more bulbs to CFLs and keep our TV turned off.

I invite any Albertans or Ontarians reading this to check out Bullfrog Power for themselves and consider spending the extra 2 cents per kWh. You can probably offset the extra cost by taking some conservation measures, and do even more good that way!

Saturday, 7 July 2007


This is my most favorite Tao Te Ching chapter:
The highest goodness resembles water
Water greatly benefits myriad things without contention
It stays in places that people dislike
Therefore it is similar to the Tao

Dwelling with the right location
Feeling with great depth
Giving with great kindness
Speaking with great integrity
Governing with great administration
Handling with great capability
Moving with great timing

Because it does not contend
It is therefore beyond reproach

Chapter 8 - Translation by Derek Lin

Water is an amazing substance. Without it there would be no life on the planet. Water flows right where it's needed, accommodating itself to its surroundings without any fuss. As Derek Lin says in his commentary on this chapter, "water provides its benefits and moves on, without waiting for any benefits in return." It nourishes weeds and flowers alike.

It is not easy to emulate the characteristics of water. Too often we want things and people to accommodate to us instead of making some accommodation ourselves. Too often we try and nudge things along the way we want them to go. And by "we," I mean "me," of course.

I have a small water fountain near the front door of the house that is on a timer, set to come on for a while in the morning and several hours the evening. I can hear it make its nice trickling sound in the morning before work and in the evenings before bed. It is a good reminder for me to focus on the essential, fundamental aspects of life and to try and be less contentious.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

90% Reduction: 2006 Baseline

Well, here it is. When you click on this link you will see our baseline consumption for 2006. I had hoped to be able to publish this directly here, but so far I can't make that work. So the link will have to suffice in the meantime.

I was able to update our garbage numbers today, when Gord went to the landfill to empty our two garbage cans. He has to make a garbage run about every two months, and today he went in to the landfill office to ask about our garbage numbers for 2006. People coming to the landfill have to go over a scale with their vehicle as they enter and exit the landfill, so the landfill people can tell how much garbage each vehicle leaves behind. Each household in our county is allowed to dump, get this, 8000 Kgs (17 600 lbs) of garbage per year! The scary part is that the Landfill Lady said that some people have already exceeded their limit for the year, and it's only July.

When I got home Gord was grinning when he asked me to guess how many kilos of garbage we dumped last year, so I figured it was either really good or really bad. It turned out to be really good! For all of 2006, we added just 75 kilos, or 165 lbs, of garbage into the landfill. This puts us really low on the garbage scale, generating just 5% of the North American average of 4.5 pounds of garbage, per person, per day! I have added 10% to that on the spreadsheet, to allow for the garbage we throw away when we are out or at other people's houses. We intend to reduce this as well, but don't really have any good way of measuring that.

I love lists and graphs and spreadsheets and such, so it is not surprising to me that I really enjoyed working up this spreadsheet. I've got an expanded version on the go to track our 2007 usage, and what we hope will be further reductions. We are doing quite well in the areas of natural gas and garbage reduction, but we have a long way to go when it comes to vehicle fuel consumption. And there are certainly gains to be made in terms of our electricity and water use and our consumer goods purchases. And our eating habits certainly have to change as well.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Garden update

Just a quick update with a picture of the garden. It should really start to take off now that we are getting some fairly warm weather. The spinach and beets are really coming along, and the carrots seem to be doing alright. The radishes are just going crazy, and the oat grass is a big hit with our guinea pigs. Even the peppers are sprouting, although they're very tiny still. The strawberries are still alive, which is an improvement over last year.

As for the Riot for Austerity spreadsheet -- it's finished but I can't seem to figure out how to use Google Docs and Spreadsheets to publish it. I will keep trying.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Here goes....

This month we are officially starting two challenges:

1) The Eat Local Challenge, organized by Crunchy Chicken, and;

2) the Riot for Austerity/90% Carbon Emission Reduction challenge, organized by Miranda at
Simple Living and Sharon at Causabons Book.

Crunchy is encouraging people to eat as much local (i.e., within their 100 mile 'foodshed') food as possible for the month of July. It is a project designed for success, because each participant can choose just how involved they want to be in doing the 'locavore' thing for themselves. We have set some fairly modest goals for ourselves this month:
  • To find out where our local farmers are located
  • To buy as much produce as possible from these farmers either at their farms near us or at the Farmer's Market(s)
  • To learn more about growing our own food, and keep good care of our little 4X4 garden.
  • What ever fresh produce we do buy from the grocery store will be grown in Canada or the USA only.
  • To check where every food product we buy comes from, and when we have a choice (which is most of the time) to buy the one that is produced closer to home.
We have been doing some of this already over the past couple shopping trips, and it has been quite the eye-opener to see how far our food has to be shipped to get to us. More about that another day.

The second challenge is a year-long project that the Austerity Rioters already began on June 1st. Here is how Miranda and Sharon outline the project:
The goal that Miranda, Sharon and other participants have set for themselves is to cut their emissions by 90% of what the average person in the US consumes - the approximate amount people in the rich world need to reduce by in order to avoid the worst effects of global warming. The eventual goal is to reach the 94% that George Monbiot calculates would represent a fair share of the world’s emissions for Americans, but we’re starting slow ;-).
George Monbiot is the author of the book, "Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning." I haven't read this book yet, but the essential premise is that the developed world has to drastically cut its emissions to prevent greenhouse gasses from reaching the tipping point after which we can't stop global warming anymore no matter what we do. Those of us in the US, Canada and Australia must cut our emissions by 90%; those in the E.U, by about 85%.

Here are the seven key areas of consumption in which we must make reductions:
  1. Gasoline/Diesel
  2. Electricity
  3. Heating/Cooking energy
  4. Garbage
  5. Water
  6. Consumer Goods
  7. Food
The full set of "rules" are available here at the Simple Living blog.

This is a huge challenge, no doubt about it. I don't know if we can do it without radically changing our lifestyle. But we would like to try. It would be good to see just how low we can go by only making moderate changes. Then maybe if we have to make drastic changes one day [insert ominous music here], maybe they won't seem so drastic anymore.

I'm working on a spreadsheet that outlines our consumption in these 7 areas, and once I get it finished I will post it here, that is if I can figure out how to post a spreadsheet on a blog.