Saving The Blue Marble by Going Almost Green
by Daphne Bishop
Feeling overwhelmed with images of global warming, environmental degradation, species extinction, tainted food supplies and armies of SUV’s careening down rural roadways?
Worried that setting even one foot in front of the other increases carbon emissions? Or have you simply had enough of earnest movie stars “greening” their homes for more money than you will earn in a lifetime?
If you are James Glave, author of Almost Green; How I Saved 1/6th of a Billionth of the Planet, (Greystone Books, 2008) you transform paralysis, apathy or irritation into practical steps for reconciling “contradictions in lifestyle.” You also acknowledge the chasm between the world’s poorest, those most affected by pollution and climate change, and those of us replacing front lawns with vegetable gardens and two mile grocery forays in SUV’s with a bicycle ride.
“You and I won’t bridge the gap…something much bigger will: transformational change,” says Glave. He’s a former senior editor for Outside Magazine, Wired editor and contributor to The Huffington Post, who writes incisive, often satirical blogs about environmental challenges on his own website. Glave describes that change as “a whole-system reboot, a values-shift, a steady-state economy instead of one built on relentless quarter-on-quarter growth. Some say we are getting closer to that every day at the moment. It may be that the current system needs to fail for us to try something else.”
In Almost Green, Glave chronicles his effort to create change by building an “eco-shed,” a writing studio in the residential neighborhood on Bowen Island, British Columbia, where he lives with his wife, Elle, and children Sabrina, age seven and Duncan, five. The studio is a small masterpiece of environmentally sound building practices, and is even available to rent (to help pay the larger than anticipated green building costs). The construction experience was often discouraging.
A dual-citizen of Canada and the United States, who was born in a suburb of Vancouver, B.C., Glave states bluntly, “I’m not the type to put a pretty face on things.”
Many challenges confronted the construction of the 280 square foot freestanding shed – from the “shockingly expensive” cost of reclaimed lumber versus clearcut wood, to the fact that there is no market for recycling used asphalt shingles, millions of tons of which end up in our landfills each year.
The genesis for Almost Green dates to 2005 when Glave “started looking into the eco-chic movement,” which seemed “less about changing the world and more about changing your furniture.” Much of it was relentlessly upscale, inaccessible to millions. He also “devoured books” like, The Weather Makers and Heat, and read the Stern Review, a 700-page report developed for the British government by economist Lord Stern on the effects of climate change on world economies.
He and his wife decided they wanted to “take some personal responsibility for our choices.” Since he had planned to build the writing studio to also double as a guest house, the time had come, as he puts it, when he “sort of drank the Kool-Aid.” He still had “an aversion to green consumption,” but decided to build the studio to be as ecologically sound as possible.
In spite of the fact that Almost Green has been called “brutally honest” in describing obstacles to personal and societal change, Glave is unabashed in his enthusiasm and optimism for what is possible. In discussing the example of Samso off the coast of Denmark, where roughly 4,400 residents unanimously agreed to stop importing food and fuel from the mainland and become self-sufficient, Glave notes that anything is possible as long as leadership and political will exist.
“All local governments should be creating policies and incentives to create more resilient, inclusive, low-carbon, and economically self-reliant communities,” he says, while recognizing the unique circumstances of each locality. Bowen Island has largely green electricity because so much of it originates with large hydroelectric projects, but transportation and land-use planning are huge challenges. As in many other rural communities, the population is spread out; there is fear that so-called “smart growth” clusters will lead to urbanization.
Food security is another daunting issue. There is little farmland on the island and the soil quality is poor. Glave points to the Incas, who grew abundant crops in terraces, and used the challenging landscape they inhabited to their advantage. He describes growing food as a “green act” that has already created profound change.
“Food gardening, home orcharding, preserving, seed saving, composting, beekeeping, and backyard chickens are already changing the industrial food production model. It is more than a trend now, it is a movement; even President Obama is on board. The barriers to entry are very low, the rewards very tangible. So many lifestyle changes don’t have an immediate impact and reward, but this one does.”
And yes, he loves to cook. “I have a passion for root vegetables in particular, especially when they are roasted and caramelized.” He and Elle, who works for a department of the Canadian government, have even organized a one-day farmer’s market held at the peak of the harvest season.
Glave sees himself as a “professional smart alec,” and “culdesactivist,” and wants to be called an “atmosphan,” not an environmentalist. “It’s a combination of fan and atmosphere. I’m a fan of the atmosphere –more specifically, a balanced atmosphere. I am trying to come up with a word to replace ‘environmentalist’ because it carries so much adversarial baggage, and because it suggests that there is this ‘thing’ called the environment that we need to be for. In fact, it is us and we are it.”
I asked Glave to suggest a “do it yourself” list for someone like me who wants to reconcile some lifestyle contradictions: I live in the woods fourteen miles from where I worked and commute with a sometimes cranky old truck. I have land and grow food, but my house is full of energy holes, and I don’t have a great deal of money. His enthusiasm for the challenge was palpable:
Could I share errands with neighbors to reduce my number of trips into town? Was it possible to work from home one or two days a week, or work a compressed work week?…..Is the landscape suitable for cycling?…What about converting the cranky old truck into an all-electric? Weatherstrip. Seal the holes in your house. Add insulation; consider a high-efficiency wood stove or pellet stove; get your neighbors involved; keep growing your own food. Do whatever you can at whatever level you have time and money for.
But, will it ultimately make a difference? Some of his blogs make grim reading, and I asked Glave if he was trying to tell us we are doomed.
“Look, scientists have been telling us, forcefully, for years now, that we must arrest heat-trapping carbon emissions, RIGHT NOW, and our governments have essentially ignored them out of a perceived fear that doing so would cripple economic growth. The Obama administration is the first to take the challenge to security and safety seriously, but it may be too late given the amount of warming inertia already in the system.” He adds that the Canadian government has one of the worst emissions records in the world. Sufficient political will doesn’t yet exist to create global systemic changes.
And then there are the vocal antagonists, the prominent politicians and pundits who claim global warning is “a hoax,” and a “liberal conspiracy,” as even a member of Glave’s family has said to him. Should we even try to communicate with them?
“If you want to engage with others, seek out like minded souls, compare notes and share resources. Don’t waste your time trying to convince people who are dug in… Most of all, get politically involved, tell your elected officials that you want action and leadership. As climate campaigner Tzeporah Berman says, ‘Change your lightbulbs, and then change your laws.’ ”
And I, for one, am now seriously looking into converting my cranky old truck.