International Car-free Day

Today is international car-free day, a day in which people are asked to leave their car at home and go about their business without it for a day. The idea is not only to illustrate how life is like in any given city without most of its cars on the road but also to reflect on the challenges and limitations of being without car, particularly in North America where cities are not pedestrian-friendly. Toronto failed miserably a couple years ago when celebrating car-free day. The city had done much to promote it and then when the day came, most city councilors arrived at city hall in their cars. When asked by reporters why they drove if the city was making such a big deal about car-free day, most simply stated that it wasn’t convenient to take public transit. And that was that.

Alan was furious and wrote some letters to the mayor and his ward representative, but the city councilors are partly right. We have a long way to go to catch up with most European countries when it comes to public transit infrastructure and sharing roads with bicycles.

A Canadian woman who lives in Copenhagen was interviewed on CBC Radio this morning about car-free day and she confessed that it doesn’t occur to people there to mark car-free day since two-thirds of the residents already commute by bicycle or public transit. She spoke about the infra-structure built in so that cars and bicycles can share the roads easily without confrontation and how traffic lights are synchronized to the speed of bicycles (20km/h) so that cyclists can get a green light all the way through when commuting.

And Vauban, a suburb of Freiburg, Germany, has banned cars altogether. The entire suburb was designed and built so that every resident is at walking distance from shops and schools. Public transit into the city is also easily available. Read more about it here.

As a historian, I understand why North America moved away from a focus on public transit and based its cities on private cars. How we got here is not the issue. The issue is that we now know that this car culture is not sustainable in the long run and our society needs to invest more heavily into making walking, cycling, and public transit the most convenient options for its citizens. Maybe that way, our councilors won’t have an excuse anymore. Better yet, maybe like the people of Copenhagen, it won’t even occur to us to celebrate car-free day.

PS: Montreal has closed part of its city core to cars today.


Earth Hour, the environment, and the food you eat

I have to confess that Earth Hour this year was just as disappointing as last year, despite all the media attention. We went for dinner at a friend’s place and at 8:30 when we turned off our lights, it seemed like we were the only ones around doing so. But there are better things you can do with your time that will have a far greater effect on the environment as well as the quality of your life than eating by candlelight. Far more important is what you choose to eat. In a recent article on the NYT, Mark Bittman summarized well this position:

To eat well, says Michael Pollan, the author of “In Defense of Food,” means avoiding “edible food-like substances” and sticking to real ingredients, increasingly from the plant kingdom. (Americans each consume an average of nearly two pounds a day of animal products.) There’s plenty of evidence that both a person’s health — as well as the environment’s — will improve with a simple shift in eating habits away from animal products and highly processed foods to plant products and what might be called “real food.” (With all due respect to people in the “food movement,” the food need not be “slow,” either.)

From these changes, Americans would reduce the amount of land, water and chemicals used to produce the food we eat, as well as the incidence of lifestyle diseases linked to unhealthy diets, and greenhouse gases from industrial meat production. All without legislation.

And the food would not necessarily have to be organic, which, under the United States Department of Agriculture’s definition, means it is generally free of synthetic substances; contains no antibiotics and hormones; has not been irradiated or fertilized with sewage sludge; was raised without the use of most conventional pesticides; and contains no genetically modified ingredients.

Simply put – eat more plants and less animal products and artificial food (“food-like substances” are all those products that a person living 50 years ago wouldn’t recognize as food). When we talk about the need of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the first thing we all think of is the pollution generated by cars and airplanes. But a recent study has shown that producing 1 kg of beef releases the same amount of CO2 than driving for 3 hours or leaving the lights on for twenty days. And that’s without including emissions of farm equipment or transporting the cattle and meat.

I personally believe that there is no need for everybody to become vegetarian and abdicate from meat and animal products altogether. All we need to do is restore meat to its proper place on our diet – that of the special treat, the garnish, rather than the centre-piece of every. single. meal.  By eating meat less often, you’ll also be able to afford better meat, the meat that is grass-fed, raised humanely, and not pumped with hormones. That way you’d help both the environment and your own health in the process.

Reducing your consumption of meat by at least half will make a much stronger statement than turning off the lights for an hour.

Food Matters

I wrote about Mark Bittman before but it was only today that I finally got his newly released book, Food Matters: a Guide to Conscious Eating. Much like Michael Pollan, to whom he often refers in the book, Mark Bittman calls us to be more conscientious of our eating habits and adopt what he calls “sane eating.” There are seven basic guidelines:

  1. Eat fewer animal products than average
  2. Eat all the plants you can manage
  3. Make legumes part of your life
  4. Whole grains beat refined carbs
  5. Snack on nuts or olives
  6. When it comes to fats, embrace olive oil
  7. Everything else is a treat, and you can have treats daily

Numbers 1 & 2 are the hardest for those in a strict meat-and-potatoes kind of diet. But you can cut down gradually, making dishes that combine meat and grains to reduce the proportion of meat. Number 7 will depend on how you feel. If you are feeling fine, losing weight and your doctor is happy, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t indulge on your daily dessert but if you are not getting the results you want, it might be better to reduce the treats.

His plan is not really a diet in a faddish sense. He doesn’t preach we must eat all organic although he admits that eating what is produced locally and in season would be best not only for us but for the environment. And this is where all this eating sanely leads to – better health for us and for the earth we live in. Bittman started becoming more conscious of his eating habits after he read a scientific report that showed that the meat industry was responsible for producing one-fifth of greenhouse gases, much more than the transportation industry. At the same time his doctor raised the red flag telling him his cholesterol and blood sugars were out of wack. By switching the proportions of animal and vegetable products, cutting junk food and prossessed food (anything with more than 5 ingredients or with ingredients with more than five syllables), he lost 15 pounds in the first month, his lab work turned out normal in the second month, and within four months he slept better than ever before, lost 35 pounds (his weight eventually stabilized) and he felt confortable and well with his new eating style.Without counting calories, nutrients, feeling hungry, or rebounding.

Makes a lot of sense to me and I do try to follow many of these tips in my daily life.

Worth a read if you feel your health is below optimal and/or you are concerned about the environment.

Check the Globe and Mail review of the book.

Interview with David Suzuki

Living in Canada, one cannot ignore David Suzuki. I had never heard of him before coming to Canada but in the past few years, as I became more environmentally-conscious, I have come to admire greatly the man and his work. Suzuki has recently made it to the list of top ten greatest Canadians and I’m currently engrossed in his autobiography. His passion and his commitment are very inspiring and Alan and I have really enjoyed watching the Suzuki Diaries, a recent documentary in which Suzuki and his daughter travel through Europe to look for environmental solutions. The documentary can be watched online. When it comes to the environment, many people get confused about what they can do to make an impact. Not everybody can become an activist or has the time to do in-depth research on the issue.  Working together with the Union of Concerned Scientists, the David Suzuki Foundation came up with a list of the ten most effective things we can do as individuals to protect our environment. Calling it the Nature Challenge, the David Suzuki Foundation asks each of us to commit to implement at least three (3) of the following ten steps in the coming year:

  1. Reduce home energy use by 10 percent
  2. Choose energy-efficient home and appliances
  3. Don’t use pesticides
  4. Eat meat-free meals one day a week
  5. Buy locally grown and produced food
  6. Choose a fuel-efficient vehicle
  7. Walk, bike, carpool or take public transit one day a week
  8. Choose a home close to work or school
  9. Support alternative transportation
  10. Learn more and share information with others

Since I live a 15- min walk from where I work/study, numbers 6-9 are not at all a problem. The choice of where we live is important. In Montreal, we lived in the suburbs and were highly dependent on our car to get around. I’ve always disliked our dependence on the automobile and even in the suburbs would try to encourage Alan to walk to the grocery store or take the bus. This dislike was not necessarily related to environmental concern – I simply don’t like driving in a car – but when it came time to move to Toronto I asked that we find a place at walking-distance to the university. This choice has paid us back manifold in the past five years. Yes, living downtown may represent a slightly higher cost in term of rent but the amount of money we have saved in transportation cost and quality of life has repaid that many times over. We gave up our car after a year in Toronto and even Alan, a man who got a driver’s license while still a teenager and has had his own car since he was 18 and who would never have thought possible to live without one, now campaigns for alternative transportation and tells everyone who would listen how much easier his life is without a car. But of course not everyone can make that choice since many places in North America cannot be reached without a car and not every major urban centre in this side of the world has an efficient public transit system. But in that case, there’s still much that can be done about using cars responsibly and choosing fuel-efficient vehicles. During the past year, I’ve focused on numbers 4 and 5. It really wasn’t hard. At least one-third of our meals are now meat-free, probably closer to half. We support local business and shop for locally-grown produce at the market and small stores around our home. We feel healthier than ever before. We have become more aware of our energy consumption – this is the area we can most improve upon since we are both technology geeks and have our computers on 24/7. One of the resolutions for the new year is to focus more on number 10. One of Alan’s good friends is thinking of getting rid of her car and take transit more after hearing him talk about it so often. It’s a small victory but who said you can’t change the world one person at a time? And here’s an interview with David Suzuki done by  WWF-Australia.

Let’s think about what we eat

In a comment on my post below about looking for sustainable fish, my friend Bruna sent me a link to a video by Mark Bittman, a famous American food writer and NYT columnist, that I think we should all watch. None of it was news to me since many of the principal points were presented in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and more recently in his In Defense of Food. In a nutshell, it comes down to the fact that nearly every chronic disease we attribute to our “modern” lifestyle is in fact caused by the western diet. And what exactly is this western diet? It’s based more or less on overconsumption of meat and animal products, junk food, and what I’d call poor carbohydrates (stuff like white enriched bread, for instance).

In the past one hundred years, the world population doubled but consumption of meat multiplied five-fold. By consuming more meat, we started eating less plants and more calories and that’s where the problems began. But meat is a good wholesome food, isn’t it? It used to be. With the industrialization of meat production, animals are now raised unnaturaly on diets they cannot survive on for long. The only reason they live long enough to reach the required age (or weight) to be killed for our consumption is by the clever use of drugs. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need to see too many studies to figure out that eating very sick animals might not be that good for my constitution. So we should all just buy organic meat, right? Wrong. Bittman shows some of the reasons on the video, which I won’t get into here, but to me, even if the meat is perfectly healthy, the key – not only for our own health but also to the health of the planet – is to reduce the amount of meat we eat. I’m not saying we should all turn into vegetarians. I know I couldn’t. But we need to realize that the amount of meat (and of food in general) we eat on a daily basis is completely off the charts in terms of what is reasonable. Studies have shown that people who eat a little bit of meat enjoy the same health benefits of vegetarians. As Bittman and Pollan have repeated numerous times, there’s simply no good reason to eat as much meat as we do. Just to give you an idea, experts say we shouldn’t eat more than half a pound of meat per week. We currently eat that every day. In the US alone, 10 billion animals are slaughtered every year.

And I haven’t even touched upon the environmental impact of the overproduction of meat, which is shocking to say the least.

Most alarming of all is to see the western diet being exported all over the world as emerging nations see the consumption of industrialized food as sign of wealth and status. When I lived in Spain, the government of Catalunya was trying to promote the return to the Mediterranean diet, hailed as some of the healthiest in the world. Marketing and convenience had pushed locals to increasingly switch to eating more meats, white breads, deep fried food and processed, industrialized food. The numbers of chronic diseases were increasing at alarming rates all over Spain and it looks that the change in diet played a heavy role. It seems that the Chinese government is promoting the consuption of beef. In Brazil, a favourite past-time of parents is to take their children to McDonald’s.

Nobody is saying people should starve or eat bland food. Good food doesn’t need to be bland. And preparing food yourself doesn’t need to take all day. But we do need to pay closer attention to what we eat. As Bittman says, “it’s time we stop eating thoughtlessly”. Do watch the video.

Sustainable seafood

I love fish. One of the things I enjoyed most when I lived in Barcelona was the great seafood everywhere. I always chose the fish dish – whatever it was – whenever I had menu del dia and was never disapointed. It was invariably fresh and tasty. I also learned to love a nice grilled calamari, arroz negre, and other seafood that previously I didn’t really eat. But I confess I don’t usually buy fish to cook at home. Initially, it was mostly because I didn’t have a good source of safe fish. I had heard lots about the alarming levels of toxic chemicals in many fish in the market and until I could figure out which ones were safe, I avoided buying any. The only fish I bought was salmon sold at Cumbrae’s because of the company’s commitment to sustainable, organic products.

While my concern in buying fish was mostly based on fear for its quality, it looks like what should be on our minds really is the quantity of fish available and our consumption of it. After reading this article at Chocolate & Zucchini about what Clotilde, its author, calls the “sustainable food dilemma”, I became more aware of the issue of the depletion of our oceans and rivers. I encourage you to read both the article and the discussion that ensued afterwards. The issue had been on my mind recently after a conversation with an English scholar in Spain who told me how Spanish fishermen are notorious in the fishing business for aggressively overfishing and moving into other countries’ water as they run out of fish in their own waters. Apparently most of the fish I enjoyed so much in Spain come from English waters, which are quickly becoming depleted.

But what can we do? Clotilde advises us to get a pocket seafood guide – I’ve seen those around grocery stores here in Toronto, you can download it here – which tells us which fish are safe both in terms of levels of contaminants and sustainability (which are being overfished, etc). We should also ask questions at our restaurants and fishmongers – something I’m not very good at – and show concern. Perhaps if enough people seem interested in getting only susteinable seafood, the market will change. With that in mind, spreading the word is paramount. You’ll find links to more indepth articles about the issue at the blog I cited above.

Earth Day

Cablegirl at 42 has reminded me that today is Earth Day, a good opportunity for you to think about ways in which you help preserving the environment in which you live. I posted about some of the things I do in the past, but will re-post them here today to mark the occasion:

We can each do our part in ensuring a future for our children and for ourselves:

1. Recycle & re-use items – don’t throw in the garbage something that can be recycled. Re-use what you can. Why spend money on toxic plastic containers to store food when you can use nice glass jars and containers from your jams, mayonese, salsa, olives and other products. I used to love the fact that you had the option to get juice & milk on glass bottles in Spain.

2. Try to generate less garbage – It seems that the cleaning products industry has gone on the “disposable” bandwagon recently. From your duster, to wood-polishing oils, passing through multi-purpose cleaners, everything comes in disposable wipes format. The trend has also started to impact the cosmetic industry where I have been seeing disposable facial washing cloth. Has anybody stopped to think the amount of extra garbage that generates? What’s wrong with wiping the kitchen counters with a cloth that can be washed afterwards?

3. Try to leave your car at home more often – I know this is hard for people living in North American suburbs that have been designed for cars and where a public transit system is almost non-existent. But do you really need to drive to the corner store, less than 10-minute walk away? Luckily for me, my dad was a bit cheap when it came to driving my brothers and I around. He complained gas was expensive and would only drive us to places we couldn’t possibly walk to or take a bus. Even when I had to go grocery shopping, since the store was about a kilometre away, he would tell me “you can walk”. Of course it used to drive me nuts, but today I appreciate it since my first instinct when I have to go anywhere is to walk, and if I can’t walk, to look for public transit.

4. Buy local whenever possible – That’s one of the things I’ve started being more aware of lately. Personally, I think this one affects not only the environment but also your health. Whenever I go shopping, I make sure I check the tags of what I buy. I’d rather buy strawberries from Ontario than from California, regardless of the price.

and an extra one, particularly relevant in the summer:

5. Watch your water consumption – Both Brazil and Canada have a lot of water and it was only after living in Spain, a country where lack of water is a continuous problem, that the problem became all that much clearer to me. Whether you live in a place where water is abundant or not, I think it serves no purpose to waste it.

Other blogs participating on Earth Day (each with informative posts)




Always por um Triz

In Other Worlds

Sindrome de Estocolmo

Will add more blogs as I come across them…