Ecological Economics Can Save Us From Extractive Capitalism

Image credit: Zybnek Burival on Unsplash.

Is it possible to have an economy that respects and even protects the environment? Ecological economists think so. But it’s largely missing from our national business modelling, decisions and debate.

The Trans Mountain pipeline (a plan to twin the oil pipeline from Edmonton, AB to Burnaby, BC) has loomed large and controversially in the minds of the Canadian public for a number of years now, with significant protests over environmental and fiscal concerns. In May 2018 Prime Minister Trudeau announced the Canadian Government was investing $4.5 billion to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline in order to ensure that plans moved ahead. Trudeau has argued this project is vital to Canada’s economy and will allow us to expand beyond exporting almost exclusively to the U.S. (where our oil is sold for low rates on account of the competition from the existing large supply in the U.S.). Instead, the Trudeau government says Canada will gain from diversifying into new Asian markets. (There have actually been examples of nationalized businesses turning a profit).

Significant criticism and public outcry has ensued, from environmental concerns over the increased potential of oil spills, to how the government is investing more in oil production than in safe drinking water to the 93 First Nations Reserves still waiting (according to Maclean’s magazine). Also that Canada is continuing to pursue an oil economy in a time when it has committed to a cleaner energy economy as part of the global Sustainable Development Goals.

You can cut the numbers many ways (indeed, Maclean’s wrote this interesting article about faulty math). Yet, the perspective I wanted to bring forward in this post is one I’ve gained from taking the insightful course, Economic Literacy for a Green Economy, offered through the Sustainability Network.

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Disasters & EcoSystems: Resilience in a Changing Climate

Concerned as I am about the increasing magnitude of weather-related disasters – and adverse human impacts to our planet (growing CO2 emissions, deforestation, excessive water consumption, etc.), back in winter when stimulating my mind was the best way to pass cold, dark days, I undertook a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation. My intent was to learn some practical examples to prevent, otherwise recover from, hazards, disasters and the impacts of climate change — to learn what works and what doesn’t?

This MOOC was a collaborative project between the United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment) Global University Partnership for Environmental Sustainability, TH Köln university (Germany), and the Centers for Natural Resources and Development (CNRD), an international university network based at TH Köln. The six-unit course covered the definitions of disasters, disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation, and provided an overview of the international frameworks guiding the global approach to safeguarding our planet. Most of the video case studies were from developing countries, particularly from coastal communities battling with already rising sea levels.

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Hey you! (And me). Stop filling & killing our planet.

This post covers responsible consumption and disposal, what really happens to your “garbage” in landfills, and some of the innovations taking place around the world to reduce plastic and textile waste. 

Responsible consumption and disposal has been on my mind lately for reasons personal and professional. Personally, I recently overhauled my apartment and threw out a lot of unnecessary items that I realized I’d been hanging onto “just in case”… before I had the enlightening realization that a future maybe isn’t reason enough to have present clutter.

Professionally, in the community foundation movement we’ve started rallying around the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – 17 targets that include the lofty goals of reducing poverty, ending hunger, halting climate change, improving gender equity, building more inclusive cities, and protecting life on land and in the water.
My first entry-point was last year when I got to accompany the Canadian delegation to the UN’s Habitat III summit in Ecuador (an amazing experience, even moreso that it only takes place every 20 years). 

SDG #12 sets the platform for responsible consumption and production, and of all the goals, I think it’s the easiest for anyone to start with  – whether as an individual who cares, or as a responsible corporate or government entity. Nothing has value to you when you’re dead. And possessions don’t make us happy – it’s the people in our lives and experiences we share that do. So we, the world, need a complete overhaul of mindset. And it’s the wealthy countries, with the spending power to influence (decrease) global production trends, that should lead the way.

I know this is a heavy topic… and it’s heavy on Mother Earth too. For we are such a wasteful species. Let me illustrate this to you with some of the facts I’ve uncovered. Like me, you may be dismayed to learn of the waste and damage we have caused to date. (But keep reading – I’ll highlight some hope at the end).
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When is rapid transit coming to north-east Ottawa?

Warning: Nerdy transit column ahead. Not suitable for all audiences. 😉

Northeast Ottawa needs rapid transit. This is a fact.

I’ve spent close to half of my years in Ottawa living in the Beechwood area – attracted by its river and trail proximity, closeness to the Byward Market, and cheaper rental costs. Yet, every time (and that’s three times now) I ultimately leave the neighbourhood in search of an area less isolated and, I must say, more rapidly connected. For those who don’t know, the area is just east of downtown – you cross the Rideau Canal and then the Rideau River, and then find a cosy community running parallel to the Outaouais River, flanked by the wealthy and tree-rich Rockcliffe neighbourhood to the north and the colourful Vanier community to the south. It’s a lovely community with some great new restaurants, a supermarket, an exciting new icecream sundae store, a pet store, cafes and a farmer’s market during summer. However …

There’s a (transit) hole in my neigbourhood, dear Liza, dear Liza…
The trouble is, Beechwood feels like an island, especially if you’re a public transit user.
The closest station for accessing rapid transit is either Hurdman Station (almost 5 km south, down the Vanier Parkway), St-Laurent Station (just over 5 km south-east of Beechwood) or Rideau Centre (close to 3 km away – in the heart of downtown). The problem with each of these stations is that passengers need to take “milk run” buses to get to each of them, and buses often only run once every 15 – 20 minutes, which really extends the length of the journey.

Now that we’re approaching 2018 – the revered year when Ottawa gets its 12.5 kilometre Light-Rail Transit (LRT) system in place – many areas of the city are rejoicing. Perhaps most excitingly (sinkholes and all…) Ottawa’s LRT system will include a 2.5 km underground portion running below the city centre to remove the trains (and buses they’re replacing) from clogging Rideau Street, the Byward Market, and the central business area.
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What my time at Habitat III taught me (UN conference on Housing and Sustainable Development)

When you think of the UN, you have certain perceptions. Mostly I think of the prestige that accompanies it, the nobility of attempting to unite the hundreds of diverse countries – in economy, stature, values, environment, conflict, comfort, etc. – around the common agenda of advancing our one planet for greater good. For we truly are all connected; the import/export of each country affects the other, and no clearer is our commonality than when you are flying between countries and touching down on the opposite side of the globe in landscape you swear you just left.

Anyway, my point (aside from that we are all connected on this fragile earth) is the honour and immense undertaking the United Nations commits itself to. So it was a real privilege that the organization I work for, Community Foundations of Canada, gave me the opportunity to accompany my COO to Habitat III, The United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, which only takes place once every 20 years, making my attendance all the more rare and special (thank you, CFC!).

One of the beautiful things about Habitat III is that attendance is free – helping to level the playing field for more countries to attend. (Each attendee must still pay their airfares, accommodation, food, vaccines, visas, etc., but). I had no idea what to expect, but imagined very formal proceedings, the highest degree of attire and most diplomatic of engagements. This was very likely accurate for the formal proceedings, where Ministers and Heads of Delegations came together to present their country’s statement and ratify the New Urban Agenda (which obviously I wasn’t privy to), but it turned out the special sessions and side events were accessible to all and far more casual in nature. People still dressed nicely (but not everyone – I saw a few ripped jeans), yet nobody was suited up.

I compliment the organizers of Habitat III for securing a very safe event, with thorough security procedures and, after the first day, short queues to enter. The site itself – La Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana – was aesthetically very pleasing, and following the first day of getting over the altitude adjustment (2,800 metres above sea level Quito is situated), I found the venue very comfortable, despite the three levels of stairs that felt like small mountains on that first day.

My takeaway from my first (and who knows, hopefully not my last …) UN conference was that it is not the forum for diving deep on an issue, for despite having world-class experts presenting, each only receives a relatively short period to speak, and let’s face it, who can drill down in eight minutes – substantially? But it was a great opportunity to get up to speed on a range of issues, and be in the right place and space to fortuitously run into like-minded people from a range of countries, who quite potentially had the stature to effect policy change in their country or at least begin the dialogue. And even within your own country, it was a wonderful opportunity for new dialogues and relationships to form. I think many members of the Canadian Delegation (which Community Foundations of Canada was officially a part of) left with new connections as we did, and possibly altered ways of thinking.

Below are some of the highlights for me; and I’ll start with mentioning that 170 countries unanimously adopted the New Urban Agenda (which is not a treaty, but a set of guidelines for governments to implement).

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How to Rebuild a City: Lessons From Hurricane Katrina

I was in New Orleans a few years ago now, enjoying myself in a city that never sleeps, that has rhythm and music to the core, and spicy, southern-fried seafood, well, to the bone. I took a water tour of the bayou in a pontoon to check out alligators and hang low with the swampland shrub.

Another of my highlights was a bike tour through the Lower Ninth, which bore the brunt of Hurricane Katrina – a neighbourhood that was never built to withstand broken levees unleashing with fury. For the Lower Ninth has that perfect storm of being situated lower than river level, its many buildings far below code, and most of its inhabitants too poor to do anything about that or live anywhere else. It certainly wasn’t a neighbourhood all doom and gloom though; no, it was also known for its community, its gaiety, its music!

While there, I met champions of the Mardi Gras, ensconced in a backyard cultural museum.

And in the wake of that devastation to hundreds of homes – whose walls were no resistance to water that swelled two storeys high in same cases – the Calvary entered… in the form of “stararchitects” such as Brad Pitt … who championed a green rebuild, using low-impact, sustainable and earth friendly products that would better withstand water influx in future, while giving a lift to inhabitants and showcasing that the Lower Ninth was crushed no more. I think part of this might also have been an attempt to help self-esteem and neighbourhood pride recover in the area. You can look up his “Make it right” project.

Of course, some people preferred the charm and familiarity of their old homes, and there was certainly mixed reaction to colonization by eco-development …
By the way, if this all interests you, you can read more about it in my blog post, Like a Hurricane (Named Katrina).

Meanwhile, this post is “part 2”, and is going to look at the resiliency of the Lower Ninth and New Orleans at-large. It’s inspired by a book I bought while down there, “How to Rebuild a City: A Field Guide From a Work in Progress”.

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And… I’ve got to say this is a blog post I coincidently started the day before the wildfires that tore through Fort McMurray and surrounds in Alberta.

So whatever your interest; whether you are civic-minded and keen to understand ways in which communities have historically reset themselves following disaster, or pragmatic and wanting to be prepared in the event of a natural disaster destroying your city, read on to my “Cole’s Notes” of just how to rebuild a city …

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The Nine Lives of Buildings … (c’mon, they deserve more than one)

I tend to take buildings as they are. If they’re particularly shabby, I might notice they could use some TLC, perhaps a paint job, new windows, an expanded deck. I guess I mostly view buildings through a renovation lens. But typically I don’t stop to consider where the building is at in its cycle of life.

Cue Jill Stoner, the new Director of the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism at Carleton University, who spoke to a packed auditorium for the Forum Lecture that kicked off Ottawa Architecture Week 2015.

Stoner told the story of the Nine Lives of Buildings. Buildings, as seen through her eyes, are natural resources to be adapted to future lives. “Once buildings are built, consider them rich in resources – like a forest,” Stoner explained. “Think inclusively… of density, social connectivity.”

Yet we live in a society where it’s not always second nature to adapt something that already exists. Instead, people – consumers – want to be masters of building destiny; the first to own, design, build their house, putting their unique stamp on materials and style.

And architects themselves? That’s a whole other story.

“We need to grow out of the “Starchitecture” culture,” Stoner admonished. “Architects must play a major role in more minor projects. The measure of success must become more forgiving. Otherwise we’re going to fill the planet up with buildings, and that’s not what we want to do.”

So what are the “nine lives” of buildings within the constructed landscapes that form our cities? How can we navigate this seamless fabric of the decadent and the dilapidated, the haves and the have-nots?

The Nine Lives of Buildings:

1. New construction 

(I know; given the above comments, it seems unlikely that this would be the first step, but so be it, it was).

2. Abandonment

When buildings live on in “a time absent of human agency”. Consider abandonment a prequel to lives that will follow, advised Stoner.

3. Demolition

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