Solar Home Tour

SolarTour5This weekend Solar Nova Scotia organized a tour of two passive solar homes in St Margaret’s Bay built by visionary designer, Don Roscoe. Though the weather was wet and miserable, about 20 members turned out to hear from Don and the gracious home-owners. The homes are stunningly beautiful and so warm we were all peeling sweaters. What the two houses had in common were two-storey cathedral windows on the south side, berms on the north side, a mezzanine level overlooking the open-concept design, and hidden air circulation systems. Both houses nestle naturally in with surrounding landscape.





Baby-steps for NS Carbon Tax

CarbonTax CrowdImagine Nova Scotia having a chance to be a world leader in global warming policy while taking a bite out of poverty! The notion came out on the table, sometimes as calm points gestured, other times as fists flying, when citizens commented, cooperated or clashed at the January 21st public meeting for tax reform. In a large convention style room at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, filled to overflowing, citizens of all ages, backgrounds and lobbyist persuasions, convened  to debate carbon pricing and to listen to finance minister, the Honourable Diana Whalen outline the government’s current status concerning the recent release of the Broten Report on the need for Nova Scotia tax reform.


The introduction to the Broten Report states: “The essence of the tax recommendations would shift more of the burden of taxation toward consumption, and off personal and corporate income; and would tax pollution with the resulting revenue further reducing income taxes and offering income support to Nova Scotians who need it most. The basic rationale for pollution taxation is clear. Pollution imposes costs on society that are not currently borne by the polluter. A tax ensures that the polluter accounts for these costs and, on this basis, reduces pollution…”

The evening was largely an informal meet and greet between policy makers from the finance, environment and various other departments and the public, made up of representatives from such groups as the Ecology Action Centre, Citizens’ Climate Lobby Halifax, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Affordable Energy Coalition, and Mount Saint Vincent Social Science Faculties. Individual citizens representing small business and private household concerns and four MLAs were also present.

nschequeSix citizens from a local chapter of the non-profit international Citizens’ Climate Lobby put their ‘prop cheques’ payable to “Residents of Nova Scotia” and a colourful infographic cartoon strip showing the advantage of a carbon fee and dividend  by the plate of chocolate chip cookies the government provided to the citizens. Citizens depleted both supplies by night’s end. This progressive approach to putting a price on pollution is proving to be sweeter than most as it is, in my opinion, the simplest, least expensive and fairest design, eliminating the need for an expensive bureaucracy; sparing the middle class and protecting lower income households by providing quarterly rebate cheques.

THE CARBON FEE AND DIVIDEND PROPOSAL has been  presented to both the finance and community service departments in recent weeks by Citizens’ Climate Lobby Halifax volunteers enthusiastically pitching to government personnel, including Minister Whalen and community services policy director, Brenda Murray. This plan differs from the B.C. Carbon Tax as it offers more protection to the low income households. Dalhousie University economist, Dr. Lars Osberg in his paper, “The Carbon Tax and Dividend – A Proposal for Sustainability and Fairness” states:

“The whole point of a carbon tax is to increase the incentives, which individuals and firms have to economize on carbon energy use. Starting the tax at a low level, with pre-announced steady increases over time, gives individuals the time to switch, for example, to a car with better fuel mileage or to change their furnace or to insulate more effectively. Because the CTD offsets the average impact of a carbon tax, most families will be better off financially, but whatever the initial impact on family finances, all Nova Scotians will benefit from reducing carbon energy use.”

For more info, see the full story as posted by the Halifax Media Co-op.

Local Power

Nigel Solar BarnCongratulations to This Green World co-founder Nigel Thornley for completing the install of 39 PV solar panels on the roof of his barn located in Hants Border, Nova Scotia. A retired electrical engineer, Nigel is also an accomplished carpenter and gardener. He built the barn two years ago for storing wood and farm equipment, but also with the intention of installing solar panels on the roof.

NigelSolarRoof copyI was fortunate to be there filming as Nigel bolted the last panel in place. It was surprising to see how quickly–just a matter of minutes–it took to network the panels together and plug the system into an inverter. By noon, the house was running on its own supply of solar power. This project is the first of three started in the area by a group of neighbors, who ordered their panels together in bulk.


Concepts for a Shifting Landscape: New Models for Energy and Food

PotatoTending1One reason why our environmental problems are so vexing and polarizing is because they are largely self-inflicted. We are the problem. We enjoy the benefits of burning fossil fuels, just as we enjoy the low costs of food that come from industrial farming. However unsafe energy and agriculture practices are causing serious long-term damage, the cost of which is unaccounted for. The good news is: we are also the solution. We can work together to invent new strategies to safeguard the environment while maintaining current levels of productivity. These strategies involve recognizing shifts in a business landscape.

A shifting landscape creates opportunities as well as problems. We need to distinguish two different kinds of solutions to problems. Some solutions solve an immediate problem, but they lead to further problems. Often these further problems are more serious than the original problem. Here’s an example: In the 19th and 20th centuries, people burned coal and other fossil fuels in furnaces, cars and other machines. This solution worked for a time. It solved the one problem of running our machines and supplying power to our cities. However, this solution led to more serious subsequent problems: pollution, climate change, and the acidification of our oceans. A small problem mushroomed into a gigantic problem.

Here’s another example: as our population increases, there is an increased demand for food. The problem is our farmland is limited in size. The short-term solution has been to increase the use of fertilizers and pesticides and at the same time to alter the genes of our favourite plants to make them more resistant to these toxins. This has made farms more productive, with higher yields per acre. Unfortunately this solution has led to more serious subsequent problems: the toxins used on our foods and the genetic modifications have led to an increase in autism, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and dementia. In short, we have more food now than before, but the food we have is making us sick. On top of this, the way we’re growing our food is depleting the natural nutrients in the soil and turning farmlands into deserts.

The kind of solution that solves one problem but leads to a more serious problem needs a name. I call it a “net-loss solution.” In contrast, a solution that brings positive long-term benefits might be regarded as a “net-gain solution.” I borrow these terms from the language of accounting. If we are to survive our own self-inflicted problems, we need to encourage or reward those who choose net-gain solutions, while discouraging or punishing those who choose net-loss solutions that threaten the well-being of our communities.

One of our greatest problems is this: we make organizations that operate with net-loss solutions into fortress-like institutions and mighty industries, as if they were essential to our collective identity and sense of self-worth. Blunders made by these entities are dressed up to appear respectable. To reform a destructive practice is regarded as an impossible proposition, an assault on culture itself.

Why is it impossible? These entities are businesses that must respond like any business to the changes taking place around them.

 The New Energy Model, the New Farming Model

People resist change because it’s hard to imagine what the new order will look like, how it will work, how it will affect our jobs, our lives, our families. That’s why we turn to models—conceptual tools that structure the way groups operate and interact. One model that has recently impacted all our lives is the “producer/ sharer” model. This is the model behind mobile technology. The old model in communications allowed a handful of TV stations and newspapers to produce all the content and information for the bulk of the population to passively consume. This was a “producer/ consumer” model. Information only flowed in one direction, from a central TV station or big city newspaper office to households around the country. The average person made little contribution. The Internet has made this model obsolete. Of course there are still TV stations and newspapers, but they now one source of information among many. Today, TV stations and newspapers are like tiny rivers flowing into a vast reservoir of information into which everyone posts stories and shares information. We are all producers of news and information, as well as being sharers. We are active participants.

AmateurSolarThis “producer/ sharer” model is currently shifting the landscape in two other fields: energy and agriculture. As home owners install more and more solar panels, heat pumps and other forms of new energy technology, sending excess power back to the grid, and drawing energy when it’s needed, they become producers of energy as well as sharers of energy. The clean energy technology saves homeowners and businesses money, it helps the environment, but most important, it changes the landscape and the model of industry.

Community gardens and urban farms are also helping people become producers and sharers of food. People dislike the notion of one giant corporate farm feeding the world and feeding it badly. The model is top-heavy and doesn’t work. We want more control over what we eat. We want healthy food that hasn’t been modified in labs and sprayed repeatedly with cancer-producing toxins. The only way to do this is to get involved and grow some of the food ourselves, to grow it locally, and when we can’t do it ourselves, to support those small-scale local farmers who do.

Once the new producer/ sharer model is accepted, as it was in the field of communications, there is no turning back. Our cell phones, Internet, and social media accounts have become indispensible tools that factor seamlessly into our everyday routines.

I like to think that the revolution in social media is only “Part 1” of a larger transformation, a transformation with a powerful underlying purpose. That purpose is to give people the tools to rally and work together at a moment of environmental crisis. We won’t heal the world by talking to each other on our phones. That’s not the tool I’m talking about. The tool I have in mind is a template of interaction that can extend beyond communications to other fields such as energy and food production. This is the producer/ sharer model. In the field of energy it means building a network of local power producers. This might take different forms, such as enabling a million homeowners and small businesses to place solar panels on their roofs. If a network of cell-phone towers can be constructed around the country, why couldn’t a network of solar towers also be constructed? In the same way, it doesn’t take too much imagination to picture individuals planting food gardens in spaces that used to be lawns or vacant lots around the country.

No one’s permission is required. It just needs a million people with the willpower to make it happen. The movement has already started. The early adapters enjoy cheap clean power and healthy food. Others are following because they see that it makes sense not only for themselves but for their communities as well. The key to a producer/ sharer model is not to rely on a central power, whether that’s a giant corporation, a power utility, an industrial farm, or a government, to make things happen. People have to take it upon themselves to install their own solar panels and plant their own gardens and once they do, a meaningful social transformation takes the form of an unstoppable and inevitable movement.

As we enter uncharted waters, people are understandably fearful, reluctant to be the first one in. Tough decisions are always made in the face of fear. That’s what makes them tough decisions. But we can take confidence from the fact that our action plan is modeled after a movement in social media that has not only been successful, but also has allowed a degree of mobility and maneuverability that will be essential to us in the difficult times ahead.

Why I wrote this essay

Concepts are ideas in motion. We cannot change our destructive ways without changing conventional ways of thinking. People need to act with confidence and strong sense of purpose. To do this, we need ideas and core principles upon which to build a unified front. In this essay, I offer a few concepts to help clarify common goals and strategies. I start with the notion that a “tough decision,” is triggered by a “change in a business landscape.” When landscapes shift, both problems and opportunities arise. I argue that “net-gain solutions” are preferable to “net-loss solutions.” I also put forward the concept of a “producer/ sharer model” in contrast to a “producer/ consumer model.” Social media uses a producer/sharer model to great effect. The same model could be applied to the fields of energy and agriculture with similar success.

A day after writing this, I received an email from a friend who is a member of Citizens Climate Lobby Canada (CCLC). This group has been meeting with politicians in Ottawa to work out the perimeters for a national carbon tax, patterned loosely after the carbon tax successfully introduced in British Columbia in 2008. A national carbon tax is a good idea, but it has one flaw. It punishes those who practice net-loss solutions, but it doe not reward those who practice net-gain solutions. In the CCLC proposal, those who use carbon-emitting machines are taxed. The tax is earmarked as “revenue-neutral” with all money collected being redistributed back to Canadian tax-payers. The idea is to benefit low-income groups, who use less carbon-emitting machines than high-income groups. In essence, the low-income groups are given an energy rebate. As the rebate is spent on disposal items, the money gets rechanneled back into the economy, providing a boost for retailers and small businesses. Everyone seems to win.

The problem with this is it does not change the model of industry. It does nothing to build a new de-centralized infrastructure nor does it mobilize the money and resources that are needed for new clean technology. The carbon-emitters simply pass on their increased costs by charging higher fees. Higher fees may eventually create consumer resistance that in time could lead to people seeking other alternatives. We need more direct action.

Let me give a parallel case. Food production is as big a problem as energy and the way we address the one problem will illuminate the way we address the other. In Canada and the United States, food plants, such as wheat, corn and potatoes, are genetically modified to allow greater exposure to toxins. Both the genetic modifications and the toxins that get into our food are harmful to human health. The food keeps us alive, but over time it causes severe health problems. We can kid ourselves and say, having cancer or diabetes or dementia is just the price we have to pay to feed ourselves. This is insanity.

Pall Mall Cigarettes. Guard against throat scratch (1953)If you had told someone 50 years ago that smoking cigarettes causes cancer and that a cigarette tax would be funnelled back into a rapidly expanding healthcare system to offset the increased cases of cancer, people would have said: 1) cigarettes do not cause cancer and 2) you can’t tax a product so many people use because people won’t stand for it, nor will the companies that make tobacco, nor will governments. Today, the cigarette tax is unquestioned. How is the cigarette tax different from the proposed toxic food tax? Cigarettes are luxury items that people can live without. Food is not a luxury item. The purpose of the “toxic food tax” is not to punish self-indulgent people, as we do with the cigarette tax, but to prevent an industry from becoming toxic-food-only. The tax allows consumers an option of buying non-toxic food.

Foods that cause cancer and other illnesses are a net-loss problem. Industrial farmers who grow such foods need to be discouraged or taxed. This tax money needs to be redistributed to organic farmers who are willing to grow foods that do not present risks to people’s health. In this way, the tax has a double benefit. It both punishes and rewards, while financing a new model of production that’s healthier for the environment and for people.

It’s the same with energy. The carbon tax punishes the users of old energy technology with their net-loss solutions, and the money raised by the tax should be redirected to building a de-centralized system of energy producer/ sharers, using new clean energy technology with net-gain solutions.

I started this essay with the slogan: we are the problem, we are the solution. We cannot afford to isolate a few large players as scapegoats, when in truth, as consumers of energy produced by fossil fuels and as consumers of food produced by industrial farms, we are all to blame. We cannot give ourselves an energy rebate when we’ve done nothing in the way of changing habits to deserve it. We need an underlying principle, such as punishing net-loss solutions and rewarding net-gain solutions, and we need to be consistent in applying it. A practical response to a shift in a business landscape, is to wisely reinvest in a new infrastructure—such as using a producer/ sharer model– and the training of people in the technology used by this model. Just as we need a carbon tax, we need a Health Risk Food Tax. This tax money then needs to be directed back to small-scale localized producer/ sharers of clean energy and to small-scale localized producer/ sharers of organic food.

Governments act in response to movements and shifts in popular sentiment. The great thing about small-scale alternatives in energy and food production is that anyone can step in and be part of this transformative process. As the numbers of local producers increases, the movement will grow and become an inevitable force of positive change.


Countering the “We Use It, We Need It” Argument for Oil

Oil-handsNothing derails and muddies an argument faster than the viscous sludge of oil. Supporters of oil view it as a source of wealth and riches. Oil and natural gas are resources that power our cars and cities and provide good jobs for hard-working men and women. Oil is no longer the hostage-child of unscrupulous sheiks but is rather a home-grown asset, as American as apple pie, as Canadian as a frozen outdoor rink. Oil equals independence and freedom. Community activists point out that burning fossil fuels pollutes and harms the environment, leading to disastrous climate change. Yes, the oil people say, fossil fuels have dangers, but we all use it and we all need it. How can you criticize oil’s dangers when you are as dependent on its benefits as everyone else?

Here’s where the argument derails. The green movement finds itself in an impossibly compromised position. Most conscientious and well-meaning people would have to admit that they are consumers of oil arguing for the abolition of oil. We want to protect our homes and communities and the land and waters around our communities, but oil has become essential to the life that we’ve constructed for ourselves. In short, our hands are dirty and we’re trying to appear like saints. It isn’t possible.

There’s a way out of this bind. If we think only in terms of either/ or, we’re in trouble. The same is true if we think there is only one solution. We need multiple solutions. We’re living in a period of transition. Everything is hybrid, a little of this and a little of that. There is no purity. Of course our hands are dirty. We created the problem. As on-going consumers of oil, we perpetuate the problem. But we can lessen our dependence on oil by exploring other options. Oil is a tool, it is not a shrine. It is one tool among many. If we find better tools, like solar power and electric cars, than we’ll use them. Our economy will not collapse once we’ve found cheaper, cleaner and more efficient tools. Just the opposite.

I suspect too much mental energy is wasted on debates over the oil industry. We don’t need to kill the industry. We need to embrace and invest in alternative energy solutions. We do not need the government’s permission to buy a solar panel or to purchase an electric car. As millions of ordinary people start acquiring these new tools, as money gets redirected and new industries arise, no smart young person or shrewd investment manager will seriously consider the field of fossil fuel as an employment or growth opportunity. Oil will be seen as a risky investment, an old tool for a time that is quickly fading.