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Earth Day at the Ottawa Writers Festival

Published on April 25, 2010 by in Caught Thinking

The Ottawa Writers Festival (OIWF) demonstrates an enviable knack in the ability to weave together disparate threads into intertwined themes. On day one of the 2010 Spring edition we heard three very different presentations on the contentious if inescapable question of sustainability. Latest releases by all three readers are coming and we’ll post reviews to on this site after they arrive. However, the key arguments were front and centre on Thursday and it‘s interesting to explore the way each thread highlights and supports the others.

First to speak last Thursday was Sarah Elton, author of Locavore, at the National Archives over the noon hour. This was an opportunistic choice of venues. Later I spoke to several graduates and interns with backgrounds in environmental studies, agriculture or other disciplines that prepared them for the discussion. Most were working in the area and dropped in to the Wellington Street location on their lunch hours. Sarah, who is also the food columnist for CBC Radio Toronto’s Here & Now, knew she was talking to a friendly, informed audience and did not begin with a preamble on the virtues of eating locally grown food. The quality of the questions and of the inquisitors’ involvement in the local food movement was evidence that supported her approach.

Instead Sarah went straight to the stories, the examples plus the challenges facing the local food movement. The purchasing and merchandising power of agribusiness are undeniable. Besides brand dominance, the big players have bulk buying and established distribution networks which can freeze out local suppliers. Nevertheless, progress has been impressive with loyal support from a determined base and innovative farmers finding new ways to break into existing markets or alternatively building new ones.

She spoke briefly of the difficulties posed in implementing non-toxic integrated pest management programs or other planks in the sustainability platform like convincing governments and big distributors to look to healthier even more efficient local sources. The popularity of local food has also led to unintended paradoxes, as Andrew Potter would underscore in his discussion of the authentic on Saturday. The demand for locally produced protein has created bottlenecks at nearby slaughterhouses forcing farmers to ship their animals far away for butchering before returning the meat to the neighbourhood for sale as originally intended. It seems local meat is more popular than local abattoirs.

Answering an audience question on meat’s role in local consumption Ms Elton observed the need for high-grade protein while also acknowledging the significant energy cost of raising stock for food. She passed over possible health or ethical issues, seeing the vegetarian option as an entirely separate issue of interest primarily as it impinges upon the main thrust of local food goals. I asked her about genetic modification and patented lines. Again she demurred, suggesting a local food future might involve GM production.  One lingering problem slowing down conversion of professional farmers to local food production is that the colleges and universities continue to train their students for agribusiness options. On the other hand, urban patches are raising food for the cities in the cities as local institutions scale up by buying their edibles in quantity from close at hand. Local food is a healthy trend in both senses of the adjective. Fad it is not.

Clearly there is a growing appetite for hundred-mile food, but if Jeff Rubin is right it may soon be an abject necessity. Peak oil and peak pollution will force some very hard choices in the immediate future according to the former Chief Economist and Chief Strategist at CIBC World Markets. There have of course been many ideas floated on the subject of affordably accessible oil as well as the constitution of the entire energy mix. Informed opinion seems more in agreement regarding the disturbing size of our carbon footprint and the need to persuade rapidly growing economies to reign in their thirst for fossil fuels. The author of Oil and the End of Globalization recognizes hundreds of billions of gallons of black gold are out there still, but what will it cost to bring new reserves to market? Some engineers have told me that new detection and refining tools could well change the equation. Jeff Rubin would probably dismiss such suggestions as too late if not too little. We are in any case entering a new era rapidly. He foresees a 50% or greater rise in costs at the pump within weeks – one that will not soon drop.

Lots can happen, but the last recession consumed the bailout buffer. Oil went down for a while because nobody outside the oil patch could afford to buy it period. With the robustly stimulated recovery oil goes back up. Then where are we? As a more or less free-lance economist, Jeff Rubin does not have to preach optimism. He seems to relish leaving the cheer leading squad and hanging up his pom-poms. Overlooking his unwholesome delight in our upcoming prospects, what if he’s right?

Well we will probably not be importing goods and exporting jobs on anything like the current scale. We may be forced to revitalize all kinds of local or regional enterprises and to have more to do with our neighbours. Nobody can predict the future and like most of us I have limited knowledge of the key factors at work. Furthermore, the Thursday night presentation by the author of Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization was skillfully rendered and appropriately provocative. Yet some critical questions remain unanswered. Many of the specialized financial and management skills our economy has developed require a global stage to be of any use or to command any leverage. Jeff Rubin believes the new scale will be good for us a Hollywood homecoming. Really? Might we not start a downward spiral to a new form of dark age? With everyone scrabbling for scarce high priced resources in the very short run what’s to stop confusion and chaos?

The picture Jeff Rubin paints would force us to recycle to the hilt as well as limit our transportation drastically. Joe Laur is a senior manager at Greenopolis.com a website that promotes maximum sustainability through recycling. As the follow on act after the depressingly convincing shrinking globe manifesto, his tone had to be anti-climactic. Please, let it be so! Rabbi in training Laur is the author of The Necessary Revolution and had just flown into Ottawa after a long day that featured a major promotional event in Times Square. Naturally he was a bit tired, but I suspect his normal manner is low key. It works for him and the cause. Waste Management Inc., the largest disposal management company in the world, underwrites Greenopolis.com. This by itself is an encouraging sign although it might prompt suspicions of “greenwashing,” the tendency of some corporations to cloak their operations in environmentally correct wording or cosmetic activities.

Maybe there’s some of that at Greenopolis, but Joe Laur with his rabbinical perspicacity is clearly no dupe. Furthermore cultural change needs facilitating diction and theatre to pull off the transition without backlash. A case in point would be the Dream Machine contributed by Pepsico to the cause and now being unveiled at environmental consciousness raising events across North America. What is the Dream Machine and how does it work? Well from what I can see it’s a reverse dispenser, that is to say a collector of recyclables that looks like a familiar soft drink machine but with a few important differences. Every Dream Machine offers you an opportunity to return recyclables. At the same time your return is registered, a small contribution is made to a worthy cause and your awareness of the need to recycle is reinforced if not enhanced.

One important principle about enhancement we learned from Joe Laur is the importance of direction in recycling. Always recycle up. If energy and intelligence is invested in the initial manufacture does it not make more sense to create something of greater value than the thing reprocessed?   Used paper for instance can be re-pulped to make finer paper or mulched into bedding for horses. As one member of the audience told us, the latter destination is where tons of shredded government documents are going – not that I’d begrudge the horses their comfort. Once we realize our model or paradigm needs to change, all manner of possibilities emerge. The author and the stable of bloggers at Greenopolis.com are catalysts for such change.  The big ingredient we can always add to the mix is neither low in value nor to be underestimated. However, it is decidedly renewable with no apparent limit: imagination.

The message of Earth Day at the Festival was implicit but unmistakable. When you see these three authors in sequence you recognize that in a material sense anyway, the new globalism is localism.  In truth, this trend has been a long time coming. I recall reading Diane Coyle many years ago in The Weightless World where she observed that a greater volume in goods was shipped around the world prior to World War I (probably a fact contributing to the conflict) than is the case today. Still, astronomical oil prices would be a very cold collective shower. Forced recycling and subsistence on local edibles might be hard to digest. The truth is we don’t know what tomorrow will or maybe can look like. Regardless, as Fleetwood Mac once reminded us, we shouldn’t stop thinking about it

 
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