Environmental Footprint

My home

I live in one half of a reasonably well-insulated, modest 1960 duplex in Old Strathcona. The attic is well insulated, the exterior has a layer of insulation under the siding, and all the windows and doors are new and energy-efficient. There is one furnace for each level of the house, but I have not yet switched on mine: in winter, the heat from the lower level keeps my space at 16 C; I insulate myself using old sweaters and thick wool socks to keep me warm. My favourite sweaters are made of Shetland wool (purchased in Lerwick in 1993) and have undergone some necessary repairs over the years; some of the socks I use were inherited from my father and are still going strong; they are a great memory of my dad.

My car

I use my car perhaps once per month, mainly so I don’t forget how to drive. It’s a 1992 Toyota Corolla Tercel 4WD wagon, purchased second hand in Switzerland in 1994. It is a magnificent little car, in excellent condition (I try to take good care of my “stuff”) and can go anywhere: I am confident I will never need another car. With a 1.6L engine, fuel consumption is 9.5 L/100 km city, 6 L/100km on the highway. I do use the car for occasional trips to the mountains, namely Banff and Jasper. Otherwise, I walk everywhere including to the university each day. To have no real need of a car is liberating and creates a remarkable independence: I cannot imagine what it must be like to have to commute on crowded roads every day.

My food

I do all my own cooking, almost entirely from scratch, and I enjoy it very much (others might have a different opinion about my cuisine, but nobody has ever left my home hungry). Every Saturday I walk to the Old Strathcona Farmer’s Market where I can get almost all of my fruits and vegetables (“shop local, eat local”). I have started a small backyard garden which I intend to expand. I don’t eat much meat, and when I do it is indigenous to Alberta (e.g. bison) or from a friend who hunts (elk). At the Farmer’s Market I can buy fish from our northern lakes which I very much enjoy.

My stuff

Except for food, I rarely go shopping, and if I do, I buy only what I need, preferably second-hand and Made in Canada. If there is something I really need, then I will also consider whether the quality is such that I will be able to pass on to my children. It’s rather remarkable that things Made in Canada so long ago will function better today than the new things being manufactured in distant lands. I inherited an old clock, an old blender and old coffee percolator from my Mother; all Made in Canada, all of some antiquity, all working perfectly today. So much of the “stuff” being made today is poorly made, not designed to last, and is really just “stuff in transition” on its way to the landfill. Not only do I still have the stereo from my days at the University of Guelph (when I was the host of the Late Night Wasyl Radio Show at CFRU FM), I still listen to and enjoy my albums; this sound system works as well as it did when I bought the components almost forty years ago. Eight track tapes, cassette tapes, CDs and MP-3’s have come and gone, but my records are still here, and still work.
Most of my “stuff” is books, mostly second second-hand, many of them ancient. Books have no moving parts, need no batteries, never break down, can be shared with others and last forever ! Half of my furniture is used: my writing desk is from the Toblerone chocolate factory in Berne, Switzerland, and my bookcases from the university in that beautiful city; my “dining room table” is just an old table from UC Riverside (I still need to scrounge some old chairs); all of this furniture was surplus. I am not very handy at all, but I do have some my hand tools and some ancient power tools (Made in Canada and working perfectly), inherited from my Father.
I would rather not indicate the antiquity of some of my clothing and the number of times some of it has been repaired, but I will mention my favourite down vest which has been re-manufactured twice, from my original 1972 ski jacket: it is very warm and doubles as a pillow on camping trips. My day pack has seen our 30th anniversary come and go (still use it every day, with shoulder straps and zipper having been replaced at some stage), my sleeping bags (Made in Canada) their 40th anniversary (one of them has since been re-covered), and my wool mining blankets (Made in Canada) their 60th.
I compost of course, recycle almost everything (easy to do here in Edmonton) and put out a small bag of garbage (e.g. 20 L) perhaps twice per year.

My fitness gym

I have been practicing Chinese exercises for more than 30 years, and it is a wonderful way to relax and eliminate the stresses (there are a few from time to time) of a busy academic life. Except for a pair of pants and a pair of shoes, no other equipment is necessary, and there is no need to go to a gym: any park will do as my training room. In Riverside, California, I worked out in the evenings surrounded by the Box Spring Mountains, watching coyotes and roadrunners. In Berne, Switzerland, I worked out under four giant linden trees, overlooking the Bernese Alps. In Bammental, Germany, I worked out in the countryside surrounding our village, beside an apple orchard, overlooking the Odenwald and watching the raptors hunting for hares. Here in Edmonton, my tiny Zen patio has just enough space for me and my routines, and it is always quiet and peaceful, especially in the dead of winter.

My farm

I minimize air travel and will only attend conferences or meetings if it is necessary. But I do fly to Ontario at least twice per year to visit my children, and to spend some time at our farm. I have an old pickup truck (1976 GMC Sierra 1500) there which I bought second-hand in 1977: it is used only in the summer, and more or less only to travel to our farm where we have planted more than 25,000 trees since 1976 (more than 10,000 by ourselves, by hand). I have every receipt for any work done on the truck since 1977 and total amount I have spent on this vehicle, including the cost of purchase and frame-off body restoration, is quite a bit less than half the cost of a new truck. Because the truck was manufactured prior to the elimination of leaded gasoline, it never had a catalytic converter, but I have since had a dual exhaust system constructed and installed, equipped with two catalytic converters. I have not had the emissions tested, but I am pretty sure the vehicle could no longer be used for hari kiri. Yes it is a gas guzzler, more so now that I have had power steering installed, but it is rarely used: it has a bit over 100,000 miles on the odometer, but I only put on half of those. When I do use the truck, unlike most of the pickup trucks driving around today, my truck is full of something or other: small trees for planting at the farm, wood chips for mulching those trees, brush that we have cleared at the farm, logs for firewood, stone for landscaping: it is a real farm truck, not a museum piece or a big grocery shopping cart. I have wondered about replacing it with a new, smaller, fuel efficient pickup truck (is there one ?), but I could never justify this given the carbon footprint to recycle an old truck and to manufacture a new one.
I still have my 1976 Yamaha enduro, dating from my high school days in Toronto (yes, I was once a crazy teen). It is an annual event for me to drag it out of the barn, give it a kick start, drive it once around the farm property to admire all of our trees, then park it again until next year.

My outlook

Not only am I not a fan of consumerism and consumption because of the obvious environmental impacts (use of material resources, energy, water, generation of wastes including carbon dioxide, habitat loss and other forms of environmental destruction), but I find it sad to see our modern society placing such importance on material goods as an indication of “success”. As Thoreau said so long ago, “most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” It has also been said that happiness is the difference between expectations and reality and I cannot help but wonder if much of the disillusionment which seems to be so common today, is in part a reflection of unrealistic, materialistic aspirations: I think it is much easier to be happy when your expectations are modest. As they say, the important things in life are not “things”. Most of my “stuff” is just junk to anybody else, but it means a lot to me simply because of the connections to other times and places, and people I care about.

My final journey, from carbon source to carbon sink
With luck, I expect my final emission of carbon dioxide will be my cremation. But at that point, once my ashes join those of my father, under the English White Oak we planted together at the farm, the nutrients I have borrowed from the Earth will return there, stimulating tree growth and promoting the removal of carbon dioxide via photosynthesis and its sequestration as a valuable hardwood.

The need to practice what we preach
In addition to my day job at the University of Alberta where I hold the Bocock Chair for Agriculture and the Environment, I am also the President of the Elmvale Foundation, a federally registered charity for environmental education which I founded in 2007 when we created the Elmvale Water Festival (www.elmvale.org). In respect to the environment, I really do try to practice in my life what I preach in the lecture halls. We all have an environmental footprint, but I feel we all have a responsibility to the planet to try to minimize it, in fairness to all species. Environmental stewardship is not something somebody should do, but something we all must practice.

tantum quantum (take what you need, not more)