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Life Off-the-Grid

2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 27,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 6 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.

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To Blog or Not to Blog

By Cam Mather

Many months ago someone asked me where he could buy precious metals in Ottawa. I didn’t know off the top of my head, so I surfed around looking for a coin store. Afterwards, no matter where I surfed on the internet, ads for stores in Ottawa who want to buy my gold and silver would pop up! So the creepy following technology is kind of good, but not perfect. It’s in the ballpark.

Then about a month ago I decided to purchase a chainsaw grinder/sharpener and I wanted to research my options. While I was researching I found a very cool battery-powered electric chainsaw from Oregon. I was quite excited because about half of my woodcutting is now done with an electric chainsaw, but I don’t have an extension cord long enough to follow me into our 150 acres. I might be able to rig up a battery and inverter on a sled, but it sounds like a lot of work. And if this December is any indication of our future thanks to climate change, there may not be much snow on the ground to drag a sled around.

Now wherever I go on the internet I see ads for the Oregon battery-powered chainsaw. It doesn’t matter what site I’m on, if there are ads, they are usually for that product. It’s kind of amazing and kind of creepy. Like this chainsaw is stalking me! Sometimes I wonder what would happen if we put the brainpower that we invest in things like internet data mining into solving climate change.

I used to sell advertising so I get the whole “ads pay for content” concept. And I’m actually impressed to see how many news agencies are starting to move to an internet model that charges for their content. I’m not sure that there are any sites out there that I’d be willing to pay for a subscription to on an ongoing basis, but it’s something I will have to look at as some of my favorite sites shut me out.

I use Wikipedia quite often as a starting point when I am researching something. While I realize that you cannot completely trust their sources, I usually go there to find links to find good sources. During their recent campaign to stay ad free and independent we gave them a few bucks. It only seemed fair. Hopefully someone is working there to make sure the information is reasonably impartial and people like the comedy writers on “30 Rock” aren’t just putting up goofy stuff.

This brings me back to our blog. I began writing blogs as a way to direct traffic to our website and publicize our books, but it has grown from there. It is a great outlet for my inner demons and serves as a cheap therapist. “And how did that make you feel Cam?” “Well here, let me tell you about the idiots and morons who…” That sort of thing …

We have acquired a wonderful community of blog readers and subscribers. We get lots of comments and feedback and I have often used the information that others have shared with us over the years. We recently offered our books at a special price and some of our readers responded with orders. Thank you again to everyone who has purchased our books and DVDs over the years. We are truly grateful.

We are starting to toy with adding advertising to the blog. We know it’s crass and commercial but these blogs can take a surprising amount of time. I write them, Michelle edits them to make them more coherent and then she posts them on 4 different locations. We often take the time to add photos too. We pay for domain renewals and hosting for 2 of these sites. We’ve held off on using advertising on our blog for a few reasons. Many blogs are covered in so many ads that they are distracting and annoying. Also, it’s hard to have control over what shows up in the ads and I’d be worried that someone might think that I was recommending the product being advertised.

I’d appreciate hearing your thoughts on advertising on blogs.  Or you can pretend I’m one of those people on PBS during pledge week and you can show your support by making a donation. There’s a Donation button along the right-hand side of cammather.com. If you enjoy our content please consider making a donation, big or small. You can consider it a “Vote” against putting ads on the blog. And now we’ll get right back to our special PBS “Upstairs Downstairs Masterpiece Theater Moody Blues Concert” that we only show when we’re asking for donations.

In the meantime I wish everyone the best of the season. We will be celebrating the winter solstice here on Sunflower Farm. When you power your home with the sun, reaching the solstice when the days start to get longer, is a pretty big deal. I am greatly looking forward to having my daughters and my future son-in-law home over the holidays. It’s hard to not to be in a funk right now, from the craziness in Connecticut to the lack of wintry weather. We are experiencing the warmest December on record here with no snow in site. Most days it is above zero. The little precipitation we get comes as rain and it’s gross. I guess this shouldn’t be surprised since 2012 will go down as the warmest year on record. Sigh.

Shortly I will begin trying to escape from this reality with excessive quantities of way too decadent food including much whipped cream, which I shouldn’t eat, but I will anyway! I’ll distract myself by sharpening some chainsaw chains with my awesome new electric chainsaw sharpener. You know … the one I am hoping to get. Yea, that’s it. The one that I hope is in that big box at the back of the tree. The kind of gift the guy in the red suit often brings, from him to me. Oh, I can only hope I get that this year! But it may not happen. It’s just wrong to buy yourself gifts, even if they are incredibly practical and will pay for themselves many times over. Nope, not me, I’d never do that.

Xmas 2011

Photo from Xmas 2011

 

Happy Holidays from Sunflower Farm!

Wind Turbines and Bird Kills

By Cam Mather

Recently I was asked to speak to the Quinte Field Naturalists about personal steps towards sustainability. I knew this group had a great many “birders” in it, so I was a bit apprehensive. Birders in my area have been very outspoken against big wind. So let me state three things here first.

  1. I love wind power. Big, small, local, at my house, in the ocean, in fields, I love wind power. This is my bias.
  2. Wind turbines kill birds. Not many, but some. How many is what is relevant.
  3. Big wind turbines take some getting used to. Even though I love the look of big wind turbines, I am the first to admit that when 90 of them went up on Wolfe Island, they changed the look of the landscape. I don’t think it’s in a bad way, but many in my province do.

Ontario is blessed with lots of wind power. Big open areas, especially near large bodies of water, are windy.  Ontario includes shoreline on Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. They are great lakes indeed. Not only is it a mind-boggling amount of fresh water, it’s a huge potential clean energy resource because the wind sweeps across these large bodies of water.

Our province enacted “The Green Energy Act” which is one of the most progressive clean power programs in the world. We now have lots of wind turbines and solar panels in service or being planned. The Green Energy Act shifts all the risk for the power generation from the government to individuals and corporations. If you put up a wind turbine, you pay for it, you pay to get the power lines to it, you pay to insure it and all that the province does is commit to purchase the electricity you generate at a fixed price. In a province that is saddled with 10 of billions of dollars worth of debt from our nuclear plants, and 10 of billions of dollars worth of obligations to decommission those plants and dispose of their waste and insure them while they operate, it’s a great deal for taxpayer and ratepayers.

But enough of my proselytizing. People in this province don’t seem to like green energy. Or they claim to be supportive of “wind power” or “hydro power” or “solar power,” just not anywhere near where they live. Europe hasn’t had the kind of push back we have in this province and I don’t understand why it’s so strong here. But the opposition is very vocal.

We hear a lot about wind turbines killing birds. So when I spoke to this group I was expecting pushback on the topic. I decided that I’d better do some research to share with this group.

I found a website for the “Fatal Light Awareness Program” or “FLAP” (http://www.flap.org/) They are a group of birders who are concerned by how many birds get killed by large buildings. Their report states that 14,000 migratory birds die every day in Toronto. There’s photo of just some of the dead birds that they have collected. It’s heart breaking.

img-who-0004
Photo courtesy of Kenneth Herdy/FLAP

Under their “Birds and Buildings” menu they have a “Hierarchy of Threats” chart. It is backed up by this report from the NRC. (Go to http://www.wind-watch.org/docviewer.php and scroll down to find it on the right-hand side NRC_Wind_Report_050307.pdf)

According to this report, collisions with buildings kill 976 million birds a year, high tension wire collisions kill at least 130 million, and on and on. Wind turbines are about .003% of the total. These numbers are likely to grow as the number of turbines increase and wind turbines do kill birds, but apparently much less than other hazards. I’ve never heard anyone in this province suggesting that we take down power lines, buildings, communication towers or that we ban hunting, house cats or vehicles. And yet these obstructions and hazards are a far greater threat to birds than wind turbines.

This website; http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/collisions/index.html, has some American stats.

Another important point is that climate change is wreaking havoc on all creatures, especially birds. We had two weeks of summer last March, then the worst heat and drought on record around here. How can that not have a major impact on such a vulnerable creative?  Climate change is a far greater risk to birds and wind turbines represent a solution, albeit not the perfect one. I don’t think many people will deny that any more.

An article from the November 2, 2012 Toronto Star entitled “Birders swoop in for diverted flights” talked about the many birders who went to Fort Erie for the opportunity to see birds that they’ve never seen before. Hurricane Sandy had blown these birds to the Great Lakes. Some birds will die because they need food that is only available in salt water. Ron Rideout, a biologist for Bird Studies Canada, is quoted as saying “The Atlantic birds don’t get back home because they generally don’t fly over land and may become confused. They fly around in circles and die of starvation or exhaustion.”

It is important for wind turbines to be located and built properly to limit their risk to migratory birds as much as possible.

Afterwards I spoke individually to a number of people and everyone seemed to have stories about birds at risk. One person told me about his friend whose job involves going out early in the morning, before commuters have arrived, to clean up the dead birds from the night before around tall office buildings. Another person had spent two weeks at an East Coast bird rockery this past summer. He noticed that many of the newly hatched chicks died. He mentioned his observation to a government research scientist and the scientist had observed this as well. The scientist suggested that the warming of the ocean water was causing fish to move further offshore which made it difficult for the parents to find food to feed their young.

I believe those opposed to wind turbines and those in favor of wind turbines share the same desire for a stable climate that birds (and all life on the planet) can thrive in. I sit at my computer and watch birds successfully dodge the guy wires of my wind tower every day. I have never, ever, seen a bird make contact with one of them or a blade on the turbine. I have never found a dead bird or bat at the base of my wind turbine.

As I sit at my computer I often hear the “thud” of a bird that has hit one of my windows. Most of the time they fly off but about once a month I find a dead bird below a window that wasn’t so lucky. My window killed it. And don’t get me started on “Lizzie the Terminator Cat.”

If I was a bird and my option was extinction because of lack of food or other climate-related fate like getting blown hundreds of miles from home in a super storm, versus having to navigate the blades of a wind turbine, I’d take my odds with the turbine every time.

And Then I Called the CEO At Home

By Cam Mather

A while ago I talked about my greatest bit of activism when my daughters were younger (that post is available here.)  It involved a local water skiing night at our cottage that had been a fun event when I was young that both men and women from the Canadian Water Skiing Team participated in. When I took my daughters to the event years later it was now sponsored by an electronics company and apart from the slick announcer and corporate signs everywhere they had basically relegated the women to collecting money for the men who did all the water skiing.

That winter I wrote the sponsoring company explaining my disappointment and pointing out that they held the event in a public park, so if this blatant sexism happened again the following summer I would stand on a public picnic table in the public park and shout at the top of my lungs demanding that my daughters should get to see women actually water skiing. I would continue this for the entire 90-minute show, which I would think in a public park, would be my right.

Next summer we went again, and I was perfectly ready to lose my voice. And low and behold the exceptional young women, along with the men, trick-skied, went over jumps and kite-skied and the handsome young men went into the crowd to collect money. The lesson I learned was don’t let people in power get away with anything.

Now my latest triumph pales by comparison but it reminded me that one should never accept things the way they are. Thankfully the Occupy Wall Street folks get this.

In my wonderful little off-grid homestead I have a satellite dish that provides me with entertainment. Driving to most events would be at least an hour, so this reduces my carbon footprint. One of the downsides to watching TV is that there are commercials. If I have to watch commercials, I’d prefer to watch good ones, that are funny and don’t insult my intelligence. I used to sell both radio and television advertising, so I get how they provide the show producers with income so I get the content. Shows like 30 Rock on NBC and Modern Family on ABC usually have great commercials. They have a young hip audience and so they know that the regular “beat the consumer over the head” type of commercial isn’t going to work.

Then I began to notice that the commercials airing during those shows were no longer the “better” ones. I realized it was because a Canadian broadcaster had highjacked the signal and now I was watching Canadian commercials. If both a Canadian and a US broadcaster were simultaneously broadcasting the same show, my satellite TV provider would switch to a Canadian station and force Canadians to watch Canadian commercials. Canadian commercials don’t have to be worse than American commercials, but they often are. Let’s face it … American’s know how to sell stuff! They invented advertising! They even have a show celebrating their tradition of advertising … Mad Men!

I used to love my satellite provider because it didn’t switch to Canadian stations. This was particularly important during big events, like the Super Bowl, when advertisers spend big bucks on their commercials and it shows! One year I went to watch the Super bowl at my friend Ken’s house and he has a different satellite TV provided and they substituted the Canadian commercials! That sucked! It was the worst Super bowl ever! Well, the game and company was great, but I had to come home and watch the commercials online. I’m still laughing at the Betty White Snickers bar commercial … oh, and the eTrade baby!

My little independent satellite TV provider got taken over by a bigger one and they decided to start substituting the commercials, without my consent obviously. They obviously assumed I wouldn’t notice. Everyone reading this probably has a story about their own experience with dealing with a big company. Be it the phone company, electricity utility, gas company or whatever, the experience is not often a positive one. I knew that if I started off calling their “1-800” number and if I got through, I’d get some poor person at a call center who wouldn’t know what I was talking about and frankly, well, probably wouldn’t care.

As luck would have it I got the day-old newspapers from our corner store last week and there was one of those corporate promotion announcements where my new satellite TV provider was pleased to show off all of their spiffy new corporate people, with fancy clothes and big titles! So I found the name of an employee who had “loyalty and retention” in her title. I phoned her and suggested that they wouldn’t ‘retain’ me if they didn’t stop this practice of substituting Canadian commercials. As you can imagine, people in suits in office towers aren’t often faced with having to talk to whiny customers like me. But too bad, I got through, and now she had to deal with me! Hee hee.

She was very nice, I think because she had just started her new job and she insisted that she would have someone call me back shortly, or else she would. I presumed I would never hear from her again. But low and behold the next morning I got a call from someone at Head Office. It turned out that they needed to switch out the “tria” on my satellite dish and my service will go back to showing American stations/commercials. They usually charge $50 for this, but they offered to waive the fee. I began wondering what alternate universe had I woken up to that morning!

As it turns out they have this program available but they never tell anyone about it. Apparently you have to get the president’s cell phone and call her and interrupt her golf game to get any satisfaction.

The downside is that all of the channel numbers that I had finally memorized have all changed.  Normally this’d annoy me, but I keep reading that the way to ward off Alzheimer’s is to exercise your brain with stuff like this, so bring on those new numbers!

So the next time you feel like you have some gripe with a big corporation and you worry that you’ll never get satisfaction, try a novel approach. Think outside of the box. Using their 1-800 customer service line is a recipe for frustration. You have this amazing thing called the Internet. Find out who in charge, get their phone number and call them. And when the person who’s meant to discourage you from getting through asks you the reason you’re calling, just sound important. In case I’m wrong, we’re still living in a capitalist society. Back in the 1950s a CEO made 40 times what a typical worker in a company made. Now through some abomination the number is like 400 times. So they owe you. They’re being well compensated to be bugged on the weekend by some whiny customer!

And now, I can once again look forward to “Super Bowl Sunday.” So there’s a football game that runs in between the commercials? That’s cool!

At War With My Hot Water Heater

By Cam Mather

Alternate Blog Titles;

Do we really need THAT many buckets in the living room??

or

“The Dreaded Whoosh of the Hot Water Tank”

I loathe my propane hot water tank. With a vengeance. When I hear it come on I feel like I’ve been kicked in the gut on one of those Ultimate Fighting shows and it really pisses me off. So I’ve made it a holy crusade to keep my hot water tank from ever coming on. When it does I boo and hiss and throw a tantrum. It happens a few times a year, but I don’t like it.

When I do one of my talks I really harp on this chart.

residential-energy-use-sml

If you want to reduce your carbon footprint you have to look at heat. How you heat your house and how you heat your hot water. We’ve got our space heat covered by heating with zero-carbon wood from our property. We’ve got 60 to 70% of our hot water covered with zero-carbon renewable energy. From March to October our propane hot water tank never comes on because of our EnerWorks Solar Domestic Hot Water heater. This is the first solar panel that should go on your roof. We also use an electric hot water tank as our diversion load, where our excess electricity goes once the batteries are full.

So, our hot water is heated first by the sun, then by solar-generated electricity and then, only if necessary, by our propane hot water tank. This works great most of the year. It’s the cloudy months of the late fall and early winter that are the problem. If you’re Bill Kemp you do a lot of engineering and soldering and you automate your system. You use the heat from your woodstove and wood cook stove to heat your domestic hot water. It’s quite brilliant and he gives a full technical description of how to do it in “The Renewable Energy Handbook.” At this stage though, I’m kind of in a simplify mode so I do not want to add any new layers of complexity to my life. I know ultimately Bill’s system would be transparent and work seamlessly, but some days I have enough trouble keeping up with our satellite internet, satellite TV converter “box,” wonky charge controllers, the “Check Engine” Light on the car, and all the other complexities of daily life.

So at this time of year we use our zero-carbon woodstove to heat some of our water, but I do it the old-fashioned way. I put kettles and pots on the woodstove. Along with a small kettle for our multiple cups of tea, we keep one of those restaurant-sized kettles on the woodstove for bigger hot water needs like washing the dishes or shaving. That’s right. I pour hot water into the sink, shave, empty the sink, then pour more hot water in to rinse the soap off my face. And yes, it’s like a scene from the wild, wild west. It’s just a groove I get into at this time of the year.

But then comes the bigger issue of bathing and showering. Showering works great on Bill’s system but not ours because at this time of year we have less thermal heat from the sun to warm up our tanks. So at this time of year we switch to baths and have an array of corn/stock pots that I fill up with water and heat up on the wood stove. And when they’re hot enough, I carry them, by hand, to the bathtub. There is no automation here, just good old granola-powered manual labour. As I carry the buckets of water I remind myself of how good “load bearing exercise” is to keep your bones strong. Not that with farming and heating with wood there is no shortage of these types of activities, but when I carry the heavy water buckets I can really feel the effort on my abdominal muscles and arms. And to think that I could buy some $1,000 Bowflex machine or some other cool exercise device and sit around getting exercise accomplishing absolutely nothing of value (other than reducing the demand on our healthcare system) or I could put the same effort into my bath AND SAVE THE PLANET while I’m at it!

We’ve discovered that 4 pots is the optimal number, which actually makes the water way too hot. So I started running a few buckets of cold to add to it. Then I started realizing that the water that comes out of our well is really cold, probably 10°C or 50°F? So I began pumping the water out in advance of the bath and let it warm up to closer to room temperature. This just means we can have a much deeper, hotter bath. We have this great old claw foot bathtub with a great curved back so the deeper it is the more relaxing it is. It’s like an ad for one of those high-end hotels you can escape to, only ours is zero-carbon.

bath-water-buckets

Michelle gets the first bath so she feels a bit like a lobster hitting the scalding hot water, and after 20 minutes or half an hour the bath water is finally comfortable enough for me. And yes, there you have it – I share bath water with my wife. I used to be quite hesitant to share this publicly but two things happened. First, when I shared it with people who come to our workshops I was amazed at how many other people do the same thing for environmental reasons. That’s so awesome! The second reason is the whole climate change thing, and after seeing the movie “Chasing Ice” I’m more committed than ever to not put an ounce more carbon into the atmosphere than I have to.

So now bath time has pretty much taken over the living room. Four corn pots on the woodstove. Six buckets in the vicinity warming up. And then when the bath is done I put the empty buckets back in the living room to dry off. Then after we’ve both had our baths, I use the bath water to flush the toilet for the next day or so. And once I’m done with the toilet flushing buckets, they head to the living room for their “dry cycle.” So pretty much most of the time there are buckets of one type or another in our living room during the cold months. Not all the time. And NEVER when we have guests. What sort of backwater do you think we’re living in here? We need to keep up the pretense of civility!

All this to say I have a pretty amazing wife in that she tolerates my obsession with avoiding the burning of propane for hot water. I think it might actually be catching. I heard her doing the dishes the other day and the propane hot water tank came on. It was maybe the second or third time this fall, but I’m pretty sure I heard a mild profanity uttered when the dreaded “whoosh” of the propane flame came on.

For most people this would happen a number of times a day. If you have long-shower-loving teenagers in your home, it happens even more often. If you have an electric hot water tank (or the tank is in your basement) you won’t hear it, but it comes on often. In our case we hear it come on because the propane hot water tank is in the kitchen pantry right next to the kitchen sink. Such is life in a house built in 1888 before the advent of indoor plumbing.

I think indoor plumbing is pretty awesome. I think using fossil fuels to heat water was a huge step forward in luxury. I also think it’s not necessary, at least for a good chunk of the year, even here in our northern climate. Your hot water tank (or on-demand system) should only be a backup for those days when there’s not enough sun to heat your water. This would cut your CO2 emissions by 50 or 60% right off the top. And you don’t have to warm your water on a woodstove, and you DON’T have to have buckets warming in your living room. That’s just for the extreme types, like me. “Extreme hot water heating!” I can see it now… a reality TV show, a new line of high-end classic designer water buckets. Celebrity endorsements. I’m going to need a theme song and a new website for this baby!

Chasing Ice vs. Hurricane Sandy

By Cam Mather

You need to see the documentary called “Chasing Ice.” No really. You NEED to see it! This could be a life changing investment of your time.

http://www.chasingice.com

The movie follows the Extreme Ice Survey team as they catalog disappearing glaciers, and it’s terrifying and beautiful all at the same time. If you can see it on a big screen I strongly recommend it. Not only to see the beauty of these places but also to experience it in a theatre with other human beings. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a theatre where people sat silently for so long after a movie ended. Everyone just sat. Call it awe. Call it shock. Call it feeling dazed and confused, but I do believe it was a life changing experience.

What the film demonstrates, better than any study or book you’ll ever read, is the pace of glacier retreat and ice melt, with just a 0.8°C or 1.7°F increase in average global temperatures. If it’s happening this quickly with this much carbon in the atmosphere, where are we headed? Suffice to say we’re headed there fast.

Michelle and I decided to see it in a theatre for two reasons. The first is the woman’s reaction in the video below as she leaves the theatre. She entered the theatre as a committed climate change denier and she left a believer, and seemingly motivated to take action. That’s a powerful movie!

The second is the fact that it was part of the lead off story on the NBC Nightly News last week under the title “Meltdown.” The news report spent time with James Balog on his quest and makes clear in the news piece that this rapid, staggering ice melt is anthropogenic, or human caused. There was no alternative or opposing view provided. Our burning of fossil fuels caused this.

I believe Hurricane Sandy was a tipping point for news coverage of climate change. The major news organizations are headquartered in New York, which was in the bull’s-eye of this superstorm. They saw the storm surge, they experienced the power outage and they saw their subway flooded. This is now New York’s reality. Turns out rising sea levels are kind of a big deal. Hurricane Irene last year was bad enough with damage estimated at $15 billion. The last estimate I saw on the news was $100 billion for Hurricane Sandy. This storm was orders of magnitude more intense than anything people on the East Coast have ever experienced.

There was Governor Cuomo saying “This is a caused by global warming.” There was Mayor Bloomberg saying, “This is caused by global warming.” I think the news agencies are starting to get it.

Previously when there was a debate on climate change, news agencies felt they needed to provide a balanced perspective. So a climate scientist would get equal time with a pundit (often funded by the fossil fuel industry) who would offer the opposing point of view. Kind of like when there were a few scientists who just kept saying, “We’re just not sure that tobacco causes lung cancer” long after there really was no debate in the scientific community. If the news agency neglected providing the balance on global warming they heard about it on numerous fronts. If the debate was on an avian-flu pandemic being a major threat to North America you might see a dozen scientists on confirming this but for some reason the media never sought out a scientist that disagreed with this hypothesis. Surely there was one out there somewhere.

I think Hurricane Sandy turned the tide and convinced a lot of New Yorkers that we need to wake up and take action. In fact for a major U.S. network to lead off with the story of the record ice melt this year seems like a breakthrough. And it should be the lead story. Ultimately it should be the only story, every day, because it poses the greatest risk. Climate scientists are alarmed. Insurance companies are alarmed. Why isn’t the general public? The “Fiscal Cliff” is nothing compared to climate change, especially if you live anywhere near a coast. Or if you’re a farmer who likes rain for her crops. Or if you live in an area prone to wild fires, or tornados, or… In other words the single greatest threat to every North American is climate change, and yet our federal politicians are doing absolutely nothing about it. They don’t even want to talk about it.

Please find a way to see this movie. Think about signing up to host a screening of it in your community. There is a spot on their website to sign up to host one beginning in mid-2013. I don’t know how many people will come to our screening in Tamworth, but we’re going to host it anyway. Time is running out. I’ve known this for a long time. I’ve tried to articulate for a long time through various sources but the people who listen to my talks often don’t take the action we all need to. I’m not sure why this is. Many of them are parents. If their child were sick I doubt there is anything they would not do to help them. If they needed to remortgage their house, if they needed to give up a kidney, parents wouldn’t think twice. But stop burning natural gas in their furnace and install a geothermal heating and cooling unit? Well, that’s pretty expensive isn’t it? And natural gas is cheap right now. Somehow there’s this disconnect between the clear and present danger that climate change poses to their kids. It’s a really big deal. You’ve got to get cracking on this, NOW!

Just watch that interview with that woman who’s seen this movie. She’s going to do something! She doesn’t know what it is, but she is motivated. We all need to get motivated. Really motivated. And we need to do it yesterday.

Michelle’s Note: To find out where this film is screening near you, go to chasingice.com. In Canada, go to http://filmswelike.com/films/chasingice/ and click on “Screenings” to see a list of Canadian dates, times and locations.

Christmas “Creep”

By Cam Mather

Back when I lived in suburbia I drank coffee from a chain of Canadian donut stores called “Tim Horton’s,” named after the hockey player who started them. They’re in the U.S. now but they’re called “Tim Horton’s Café and Bake Shop.” Well “La de da!” Even all those years ago (15 or so) I always took my own re-usable cup, and a reusable container for my donuts. I ate a fair number of donuts back in those days because I cycled everywhere. At least that was my excuse. Each summer Tim’s had a contest called “Roll Up The Rim To Win” in which you rolled back the paper lip of your disposable coffee cup to see if you had won a prize. I, of course, was on the phone daily to the public relations and marketing departments of Tim Horton’s trying to explain to them how their contest punished people for doing the correct thing for the environment, but they never got it. If I complained to the donut shop employees they would offer me an empty paper cup to play the game, and they didn’t seem to realize that it kind of defeated the purpose of bringing a reusable mug in the first place!

When they first began this contest it ran during the summer months. I think the idea behind it was to encourage coffee sales that would otherwise drop off in the summer, because people don’t have the same desire for hot beverages during warm weather. But then they kept kind of creeping back the timing of the contest, first starting it in June, then May, and so on until it probably starts in January now, when it’s cold, and PEOPLE DRINK COFFEE ANYWAY! Sometimes capitalism inspires bizarre behavior.

And now we have the unstoppable “Christmas Creep” which is really getting out of hand. But we have to have it, you know. For retailers Christmas is the make or break time, they HAVE to increase sales, they MUST have a successful holiday season or really, the entire economy comes off the rails. And with 70% of the U.S. now centered on buying “stuff,” I suppose it would be hard to argue with this logic. Except on behalf of the planet, that is.

The reality is though that it’s just getting silly. It seems like American retailers always waited until Thanksgiving before letting loose on the whole Christmas mayhem. But then retailers started advertising Christmas stuff before Thanksgiving. This crept up and up and now the Christmas stuff is up in stores before the Halloween stuff is down.

Black Friday used to start, that’s right, on the Friday after Thanksgiving. But then retailers had to compete so they started opening their doors earlier and earlier … 5 am … 3am … midnight! So let me get this straight. You want your employees to have a super traditional family dinner and then head into work at 9 pm to get the store ready so they can work all night? Really? Does that sound fair to you? Does it sound logical?

And of course this year we crossed the rubicon into “Grey Thursday” and some retailers opened ON Thanksgiving, which means they’ll all to do it next year which means that all Americans will miss out on the nice family day because they’ll have to shop on Thanksgiving. Really, it’s just getting stupid. Why not skip Thanksgiving all together and move Black Friday to Wednesday so everyone can have Thursday off, LIKE WE USED TO?

When our daughters were young children we had a rule in the house that there was no Christmas stuff until December 1st. No decorations. No special Christmas mugs. And no Christmas music! This rule was sternly enforced. If someone was caught humming a Christmas ditty I quickly shut him or her down. And then I’d start singing another infectious song to try and distract them.

Because you know what? You have great songs with lyrics like “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” which I wholeheartedly agree with. But if you start celebrating it in October, it lasts two months, or almost 20% of the year and if it lasts 20% then it’s really NOT the most wonderful time of the year, it’s just a prolonged overhyped unspecial deadzone of vile commercial hypermadness.

We had our Santa Claus Parade in Tamworth this past weekend. Other communities had theirs a month ago. Really, you want your kids hyped about Santa coming for 8 weeks? What are you thinking? I walked along with a local group that I am a member of called the GrassRoots Growers. I dressed up as a farmer (not much of a stretch for me) and I carried a hoe. I wanted to carry a pitchfork but decided that it may not be considered politically correct to carry a pitchfork in public. I believe that it’s important in small towns to have many citizens in possession of pitchforks. They are integral to threatening the mayor or authorities when … you suspect aliens have landed and are living amongst you, or it’s rumored that zombies are marching towards town and you think the authorities are just denying it until it’s too late. Pitchforks and flaming torches, they just go hand in hand. Perhaps not appropriate for a Santa Claus Parade, though.

Santa-Claus-parade-2012

I toyed with carrying a placard with a slogan Michelle suggested, “If you ate today, Kiss a Farmer,” but again, I didn’t want to do anything that might be perceived as political. Parade organizers said we weren’t supposed to throw candy from floats this year. Next year I’m recommending that kids come wearing protective eye gear and we start the tradition again.

When I got home I put up our oh-so-awesome LED Lights, EVERYWHERE! It’s like a used car lot here now! I got our Christmas mug collection out and put our regular mugs away. Now I look forward to every cup of tea and my one coffee in the morning, because they are in totally awesomely special red and green mugs! Now I can start playing Handel’s Messiah… but only in the morning, and only every 3rd or 4th day. Luckily I work alone so I can sing to my heart’s content with no harassment from the cheap seats.

Next weekend I’ll bring in our artificial tree, which we bought about 25 years ago, on sale after Christmas, and which is still in remarkably great shape. We’ll decorate it (or to be honest, Michelle will decorate it). Yes, we have 150 acres and many coniferous trees that might do the trick, but they haven’t been pruned and frankly I get tired of the sap and needles that fall off. And as we’ve more added bookshelves to the living room the space available for the tree is reduced every year. I’ll bring in lots of pine branches that make the house smell great.

Retailers be damned. I will spend no more on Christmas this year than last, regardless of how early you start advertising. In fact, our awesome daughters don’t mind the great scores Michelle often makes at secondhand stores, so retailers don’t really see much business from us at all. We spend less and less every year.

And it will be a short season, and it will be the most wonderful time of the year. Just as long as we can get past that whole December 21st Winter Solstice End of the World thing. If we get past that, it’ll be awesome.

Jonathan Livingston Chicken and The Dog Who Would Be King

By Cam Mather

Okay, I went with the “The Dog Who Would Be King” title when really it should have been “The Dog Who Would Be a Chicken.” But I liked the movie “The Man Who Would Be King,” about the British learning it’s hard to win a war in Afghanistan. Didn’t go too well for the Russians either. I guess the Bush administration didn’t employ any historians.

Anyway, our animals are taking after their human caretakers in the independent thought department. Our dog really wishes he were a chicken. I’m convinced of it. He would spend his whole day in the chicken pen if we let him. At first we just thought it was because they were the only source of entertainment when we are in the house. He sat outside their pen, watching them endlessly. When they moved, he moved, herding them from outside the fence all day.

We weren’t sure how he’d behave without a fence in between, but when they were out wandering he was pretty good so we let him mingle more and more. And now, even when they’re out of their pen, wandering around freely, he sits in the pen waiting for them to come back. And once they do, he could sit in there amongst them all day. He has really found his “Zen in the Pen” as it were.

chicken-dog

Jasper has definitely bonded to Michelle and me and we are his pack. But the chickens are a pretty close second. When I’m out tossing the Frisbee with him, as soon as he senses that our game time is over he disappears to the chicken coop. As we get back from walks in the woods he sprints to his place by his ladies. So do Border Collies start fraternizing with the sheep that they herd? It’s like the Stockholm syndrome where people kidnapped by political groups eventually start to sympathize with them. Jasper has gone over to the chicken side.

And not surprisingly, since our chickens are a pretty cool, independent bunch too. One has this image of chickens as just sort of mindlessly following along, eating, laying eggs, not thinking about existentialism. Wrong. Not our chickens. They’re like Jonathan Livingston Seagull; a book my Mom got me to read when I was a teenager (at a time I was essentially functionally incapable of reading). It was about a seagull who just refused to be like all the other seagulls.

Case in point. I build this brilliant coop for our chickens. It has very specific features designed for chicken activities. It has roosts for them to sleep on. It has nesting boxes for them to lay eggs in. Never the two shall meet, because they do have a tendency to create chicken manure during their sleep hours. It’s like the expression “you don’t sh*t in your nest,” which, judging by the way the state of our planet, humans haven’t learned this yet.

A few weeks ago it was getting colder so I insulated the coop. Last year I surrounded it with square hay bales, but this year we decided to use some of the rigid Styrofoam insulation that was left over when we put some siding on our house and upped the R-value. Without insulation it is easy to just open the large back door to sweep out the dirty straw. Now to clean out the coop twice a week I have to remove the insulation. I can handle this. It seems like a small price to pay for warm, happy chickens that are protected from cold drafts.

Then we noticed that egg production dropped way off. While a drop in production is to be expected with the cooler weather and reduced hours of daylight, it seemed too steep. Then Michelle discovered that they had made a nest out of their straw in their sleeping chambers. It’s like the nesting box suddenly wasn’t good enough for them. So they made their own. Problem is that I can’t get in to get the eggs without removing the insulation. Well, I can crawl in and retrieve them, but it doesn’t matter how much I stretch in a yoga warm-up-like way, trying to contort my body to fit into the chicken coop to retrieve eggs is a recipe for a herniated disc or something else equally painful.

eggs-in-the-bedroom

Michelle decided they were probably doing it for two reasons. First was that with the new insulation it was pretty warm and toasty in there. Second is that the 3 nesting boxes are in the common foyer area where the ladies mingle and mix before we let them out of their coop in the morning. I’m not rushing to let them out these days since it’s chilly. I want the sun to at least be near the horizon before I drop the drawbridge. So maybe they just wanted more privacy. Plus, once the door is open the nesting boxes are exposed to natural light, while the “bedroom area” remains nice and dark. Either way, they just have a mind of their own. Why can’t they just follow the rules? Why can’t they just do what we tell them? Just play by the rules. I swear once chickens figure out that you’re off the grid, self-employed, eat a plant-based diet, and homeschooled your kids they just think it’s open season on non-conformity. It’s like osmosis, they absorb the independent thought gene.

So I put some small logs around the edge of the bedroom to hopefully discourage nest building. Then Michelle suggested I put curtains on the nesting boxes! No really! There are rooms in our house with no curtains, but the chicken coop, oh, it has to have curtains. And nice ones. Like a nice country gingham.

OK, I made that up. I used an old feedbag. I also only put them on two of the three nesting boxes to see if the ladies do actually prefer them. The good news is that they are back to using their nesting boxes for their egg laying. They seem to use the curtained nesting boxes and the un-curtained one equally though, so I’m not sure if the curtains are necessary.

chicken-curtains

In the meantime, we’ve been having trouble training Jasper to “bark” when we want him to. We hope that his barking will scare the zombies when they attack. I use treats to reward him and I role play barking myself, but he just gets all excited and basically mauls me. I’m thinking maybe we’d have better luck if we tried to teach him to “cluck.” Or “coo.” Or “crow” like the Colonel … sooo much crowing …  soooo early in the morning!

Yup, that’s my dog Jasper. Don’t mess with him. Be afraid. He clucks like a chicken!

Super Storm Sandy and the Dustbowl

By Cam Mather

Two weekends ago I vegged out and watched a whack of TV on Sunday night. Sometimes Sunday night TV sucks. That night it was awesome. Well at least it was on PBS!

It started out with Bill Moyers. He chatted with Naomi Klein about Hurricane Sandy and climate change. She has a really good grasp on how serious the issue has become and how important it is we take radical action, now.  She has joined forces with Bill McKibben for a new “movement” called “Do the Math.” (http://math.350.org/)

Then NOVA had “Inside the Megastorm” about Hurricane Sandy. It was really well done, and it was amazing how quickly they had been able to put it together after the storm. You should be able to watch it on the PBS website (but it doesn’t seem to work for me in Canada, so I guess just our American readers can take advantage of this link;

http://video.pbs.org/video/2305482040)

I watched a lot of the news coverage of Sandy but it did not provide anywhere near the depth of this documentary. CNN had lots of people out in the wind and rain, but the next day there was so much footage of homes knocked off their foundations or destroyed and boardwalks gone, I never saw much coverage of how it had happened. The storm was far more ferocious that I had realized.

This documentary also emphasized how hard it is to maintain basic, critical services like electricity when you have events like this. Eight million people without power is a lot!

They spent a lot of time tracking the history of the storm and what caused it to be so severe. The scientists were careful not to say, “This was caused by climate change.” They said it was caused by the jet stream being where it was because the arctic is warmer than normal. And the water in the Atlantic was warmer than usual. And the storm surge was worse because sea levels in the Atlantic are higher than usual because hot water takes up more space and glaciers are melting. So they kind of explained how it was caused by climate change but then said you couldn’t connect the dots.

I think they really busted their butts to get this NOVA ready so they could air it before the Ken Burns’ documentary called “The Dust Bowl,” which aired right after the storm documentary. I didn’t know much about the Dust Bowl before watching this, other than those iconic photos we’ve all seen. I really should read or watch “The Grapes of Wrath” even though I know it’s going to be depressing. And Ken Burns didn’t fail to depress.

The series seemed to suggest that the conventional wisdom is that humans caused the Dust Bowl. We took a flat prairie where the soil was held in place by deep-rooted grasses and we ploughed it under to grow wheat. The traditional grasses held the soil in place and could withstand droughts with their deep roots. But mechanization allowed farmers to cultivate massive areas of these lands. When the drought hit the soil lost moisture and the wind blew the soil away.

It was just brutal to watch the effect on the farmers and their families. Burns provides quotes from people living through the Dust Bowl and I laughed at how much they sounded like my complaints from this past summer. Well I didn’t laugh, I was surprised by the similarities, and yet I was growing on a much smaller basis and could irrigate most of what I grew. And if I had failed miserably, there would still be a job for me to go and find whereas the Dust Bowl happened in the middle of the Depression and there really weren’t jobs to go to.

The farmers at the time didn’t realize their behavior could have lessened the impact. They could have left more land fallow. They could have planted cover crops. They could have rotated crops more. They had come through a number of reasonably wet years, so they just thought it would continue. And I guess the people on Easter Island thought the trees would just grow back as they kept cutting them down to roll their massive heads to the coast.

So here’s what I got from my night of high-def PBS documentary watching;

  1. The Dust Bowl was exacerbated by human activity. We didn’t cause the drought, we just did stuff that made it worse.
  2. Hurricane Sandy was exacerbated by human activity. We are putting too much carbon into the air. It’s making the sea levels rise and the seawater get hotter and the hurricanes get bigger.

A couple of times over the weekend Michelle or I were tempted to hop in our car to drive to Kingston (an hour away) to have a meal at our favourite Indian restaurant. We fought the urge and didn’t leave the house. Michelle made mushroom caps stuffed with onions and garlic that we had grown, along with mashed potatoes from the garden. Michelle made an apple pie with the apples we have left from our tree. We heated with zero-carbon wood heat. We used zero-carbon hot water to have a bath. We used zero-carbon electricity to watch PBS. Some carbon was produced to manufacture our solar panels and TV, but I think if I amortize this over their life span, it’s not too extreme.

Humans need to make some hard choices and jarring changes to our lifestyles to avoid having superstorms like Sandy become regular occurrences. When I saw how traumatic it was to the people who lived through it, I don’t understand why it is not the only topic of conversation on the planet today.

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It’s not too late to take advantage of our GIANT WAREHOUSE SALE of our books and DVDs. Click here to see our previous blog for details. Thanks to everyone who responded to our request to help clean out our warehouse!

all 7 book covers

Cam’s Top 25 Movie List

By Cam Mather

A while back one of our blog readers asked if I had a top 25 list of movies. I think this is probably because I refer to movies quite often, because I like them, and although it can be most informative, I can only watch the Weather Channel for so long. I know I always enjoy getting movie recommendations from other people so I thought I would throw my two cents into a highly personalized forum.

So here goes in no particular order and with arbitrary groupings … Cam’s Top 25 (or so) Movies… Of All Time!

Comedy

Groundhog Day – such a cool concept

Caddy Shack – it set a high standard for others to follow

Bridesmaids – Ohhhh the dress fitting scene, funniest scene in a movie…. EVER!

Hot Fuzz – from the makers of “Shawn of the Dead.” Best line ever… “Have you ever shot two guns while jumping through the air?”

Burn After Reading – Brad Pitt and George Clooney do the Oceans 11 movies so they can make money to do quirky movies like this.

Just Nice MOVIES THAT defy a category

Lars and The Real Girl – a wonderful quirky movie about the importance of community

Amelie – yes it has subtitles, but it’s a brilliant movie

About a Boy – Hugh Grant just like in Notting Hill

The Shawshank Redemption – why revenge is sooooo great

Drama

Michael Clayton – a great look at how the world really works

Syrianna – the greatest look at the reality of the world’s addiction to the Middle East’s fossil fuels

3 Kings – the craziness of war

A Single Man – sooo stylish, hard to imagine someone who wears stuff from used clothing stores (i.e. me!) liking it

Action

Black Hawk Down – I rent this whenever Michelle is away… you have to watch it loud – it’s one of the few times recent American foreign intervention was for humanitarian goals

Bourne Identity + the others – these are such great action movies and a great travelogue too

Sci Fi

Contact – should be mandatory for every grade 8 science class with girls in it, showing why they should go into science

The Matrix – the only movie I have ever watched again immediately after I finished it, because I wasn’t sure if I “got it”

“V” for Vendetta – adopted from a 30-year-old comic book, the most important movie on the abuse of power since 9/11 – it’s quite brilliant

Children of Men – why you should “be a prepper too”

Prometheus – yea I just saw it, but the special effects are unbelievable and it took a small country’s worth of CGI people to create it

Seasonal

Family Stone – dysfunctional families in the holidays are the best

It’s a Wonderful Life – we’ve watched this so many times I’ve just about memorized the George Bailey speech telling Savings & Loan customers why they have to stick together

A Christmas Carol – the black and white one starring Alastair Sim – for someone as crotchety as me, the possibility of redemption is an important theme

Home for the Holidays – Best Scene – Holly Hunter sitting downstairs with her dad watching old home movies

Documentaries

Manufactured Landscapes – the most powerful environmental documentary ever, even though I’m not sure that was its purpose

Go Further – a fun romp with environmental-crusading, vegan, bike-riding Woody Harreleson – and sure, I’d eat raw food too if someone was preparing meals like that for me

Who Killed The Electric Car – way to go General Motors, you were the leader in the electric car market, so naturally, you scrapped it

Gasland – oh, that’s why natural gas is so cheap these days

Grizzly Man – why living amongst grizzly bears is always going to end in tears

Sicko – I stand up and sing “O Canada” every time I watch this, and remember how capitalism keeps people from rebelling

Ya, that was 30 I think. Sorry, I could take 5 off, but since the American Film Institute hasn’t consulted me recently I’m not too concerned.

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Michelle’s Note – Happy Thanksgiving to our American readers! Just a reminder about our big book sale. See previous blog for details. Also – if you plan on buying any of these DVDs (or anything else for that matter) from amazon, please use this link to access amazon; http://astore.amazon.com/cammat07-20 That way, we will earn a very, very, very small commission from every purchase you make! Thanks!!