No More Bottled Water

March 25, 2009

Don’t drink bottled water – and don’t let your children drink it. If you’re a city councillor or official, don’t waste taxpayers’ money buying it. If you‘re a restaurant, don’t serve it. If you work at a school or college, stop using it. Why?

#1: Using bottled water sends the totally false message that municipal tap water is unsafe. More than a quarter of bottled water comes from municipal sources, anyway.

#2: It takes oil to make those bottles. According to the California-based Pacific Institute, the energy required to make one bottle is the equivalent of filling it ¼ full of oil. In Canada, the 2.1 billion litres we bought in 2006 needed 1.1 million barrels of oil to make them.

#3: Most bottles are not recycled, and end up in the landfill.

#4: It takes more energy to ship and truck them around.

#5. It’s stupid. Why pay 1,000 times more for bottled water when it costs a penny a gallon from your tap, giving money to the water corporations as if it was Christmas?

#6. Drinking bottled water is making our children grow up with the habit.

#7. Can we really trust the bottles not to leach their chemicals?

The City of Los Angeles has not allowed the use of city funds to buy bottled water since 1987.
San Francisco and Seattle have just banned its purchase by city departments and agencies.
Chicago has placed a 5 cent tax on every bottle to discourage its use. All Illinois state agencies have been banned from buying it. Berkeley School District has stopped providing it. And now students on campuses across Canada are creating bottled-water-free zones – see

It’s OK for emergencies – but otherwise, let’s junk it.

First published in EcoNews: A monthly newsletter funded by your donations that dreams of a world blessed by the harmony of nature, the pleasures of community, and the joys of personal fulfillment, guided and protected by our active citizenship.


Fair Trade

March 23, 2009

Free trade encourages the unfettered exploitation of people and the planet. Fairtrade started to be recognized in the 1960s, with Fairtrade coffee and tea. The principle has always been great – fair trade growers and craftspeople receive a guaranteed price above the world market, plus a “Fairtrade premium” that is used to fund community projects and schools.

Over the last decade, Fairtrade has really taken off, with $3.6 billion in trade organized by over 700 registered Fairtrade organizations in 58 developing countries.

In Britain, the sugar giant Tate & Lyle switched all of its sugar production to fair trade; Sainsbury’s only sells Fairtrade bananas, and the Coo-op and M&S (huge retail chains) only sell Fairtrade tea and coffee - no other brands.

UK sale of Fairtrade goods increased by 72% in 2007, and Britain now buys almost 30% of the world’s total value. In Sweden, it grew by 116%.

The message is “Buy Fairtrade – and have faith!” It is totally reasonable to continue to visualize a world where all trade is Fairtrade, and “free trade” is seen as akin to slavery.

First published in EcoNews: A monthly newsletter funded by your donations that dreams of a world blessed by the harmony of nature, the pleasures of community, and the joys of personal fulfillment, guided and protected by our active citizenship.


Treat Your Children Well

March 21, 2009

Here's some bad news – which becomes good news if we take the opportunity to act on it. There are things we’ve been doing over the past 20 years which seem harmless enough, but which are really bad news for our children’s health. Here are five that have crossed my desk in just the last month.

1. Call them Air Toxifiers
Those things you plug into the wall and suddenly everyone looks like they’ve eaten a pot brownie. What do we imagine they contain - fairy dust?

The Natural Resources Defence Council found that 12 out of 14 air fresheners contained phthalates that can cause hormonal abnormalities, birth defects, and reproductive problems – including those marketed as “all natural” and “unscented”. They may also contain allergens and cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene and formaldehyde.

It is atrocious that they are sold at all, let alone as “all natural.” If you see them in a house with children or young mothers, please warn the parents not to use them.

2. Call them Brain Retardants
When the US-based Environmental Working Group tested 20 mothers and toddlers for hormone-disrupting fire retardant chemicals PDBEs in their blood, they found that small children had three times more than their mothers, and far more than newborns.

The chemicals are sprayed into couches, chairs, and laptops at a rate ten times higher than in Europe, where the measure of fire risk is a smoldering cigarette. In North America, it’s a blowtorch.

PDBEs are toxic to the developing brain and reproductive system – and the reason why small children are more exposed is simply that they like to put their hands in their mouths. Once again, the chemicals should be banned. See

3. Call it Chemically-Induced Obesity
There’s also evidence that a baby’s exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals in the womb increases its risk of obesity.

The suspect chemicals include fire retardants (as above), Bisphenol A (used to soften plastics and line canned foods), and pesticides – a Spanish study found that babies born with high levels of the pesticide hexachlorobenzene in their umbilical cords were more than twice as likely to be obese six years later as children with lower levels.

It’s just another reason why we need to ban the use of pesticides, without any further delay.

4. Call it Television Surplus Disorder
There are way too many kids being diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), and placed on Ritalin for much of their childhoods. Something’s clearly wrong – but what?

One of the strongest clues comes from studies that show that TV exposure in children aged 1-3 is associated with attention problems at age 7 – so much so that the American Academy of Pediatrics has called for children under two to watch no TV or videos at all, and older kids to watch no more than 2 hours a day.

It’s logical – a child’s brain is still growing for the first two years of life, and TV images are several times faster than regular life. So the brain gets wired to think “this is normal”.

Another study in the journal Pediatrics found that the more TV children watch when aged 5-11, they more likely they are to have attention problems when aged 13-15. No TVs in children’s bedrooms. No TV whatsoever for children under 2.

5. Call it a Mobile Cancer Phone
Strong language? No.

In September 2008, analysis from one of the biggest studies into the risks of radiation, headed by one of the world’s most prestigious cancer researchers, Professor Lennart Hardell from the University Hospital in Orebro, Sweden, found that children and teenagers under 20 who use cell phones are 500% times more likely to get cancer of the glioma, the cells that support the central nervous system. Those who use cordless phones have a 400% greater risk.

Children who start using cell phones when young are also 500% more likely to get acoustic neuromas, benign but often disabling tumours of the auditory nerve which usually cause deafness.

Professor Hardell believes that children under 12 should not use cell phones at all except in emergencies, and teenagers should only use hands-free devices or headsets, and concentrate on texting. After age 20, the danger diminishes because the brain is fully developed.

A month earlier, the director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute sent a memo to all his staff with the same warning – children to use cell phones only in emergencies, as their brains are still developing. In July 2008, Toronto Public Health issued the same warning, as has Britain’s chief medical health officer.

Now that the evidence is becoming more solid, the prospect of a future epidemic in which our children and grandchildren get cancer and lose their hearing is – well, extremely alarming. We need to take immediate steps to stop the growing trend for teenagers to talk forever on their cell phones, and the mobile phone companies had better take out big-time insurance to cover the lawsuits that will be coming their way.

The German government has also warned everyone to stop using Wi-Fi because of the radiation risks it may pose, and the lack of research into its health effects. Schools, in particular, should take immediate steps to unplug their Wi-Fi systems because of the greater risk to children.

First published in EcoNews: A monthly newsletter funded by your donations that dreams of a world blessed by the harmony of nature, the pleasures of community, and the joys of personal fulfillment, guided and protected by our active citizenship.


A Time of Wonders

March 19, 2009

First published in Common Ground Magazine

This is a time of wonders. That statement may seem totally counter-intuitive and blind to the enormous troubles ahead, but I can’t ignore the perpetual voice that sings within me of the incredible possibilities at our fingertips.

If I look one way, I can see that we are racing towards the greatest ecological meltdown since the last great extinction event – the cretaceous – that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Time moves slowly and a human lifetime is long and yet we are so close to winning the collective Darwin Award, given every year to those individuals who do such stupid things that they do us the favour of removing their genes from the gene pool. I write these words on the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, who I am sure would never have contemplated the possibility of the entire human race winning such an award one day.

Yet, if I look the other way, I see the road to the solar age, shining with promise and hope. I see the successful elimination of fossil fuels, children learning ecological literacy in every school, Earth’s cities becoming urban paradises. I see farms the world over adopting organic, butterfly-loving methods of cultivation and Earth’s working forests being treated like the temples they are, with reverence and love.

I have held this vision for more than 40 years and yet I have never felt it so close, so totally within our reach. My hopefulness does not stem from any recent intimacy with BC bud, but from my knowledge of communities around the world that are making it happen. It stems from Copenhagen where 36 percent of commuter trips are by bicycle; from San Francisco, well on the way to achieving 100 percent zero waste by 2020; from the small town of Güssing, in eastern Austria, whose people have eliminated 93 percent of their carbon footprint by building a variety of solar, biomass and other energy systems. I have just finished writing my new book on global climate solutions and I can feel the vibrancy of so much innovation and effort all around the world.

So what do we need to turn away from the dark path of cynicism, negativity and defeat and embrace instead the brilliance of hope? We need three things and they are all within our grasp.

The first is the willingness to act. By acting, we switch on our motivation, which releases a cascade of possibilities. One phone call asking, “How can I help?” is enough – perhaps to a local non-profit society; perhaps to the BC-STV campaign office (campaigning for the Single Transferable Vote in the May 12 referendum); perhaps to the office of the greenest, local candidate in the forthcoming provincial election.

The second is the willingness to persist. If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Nothing of any worth was achieved without persistence. Persistence means learning, training, practising. You may have a vision that takes five or 10 years to fulfill, such as turning the street where you live into a community of sharing people, growing food, installing solar panels and planting trees. Alternatively, it might be kick-started with one rousing street party, organized with neighbours with a few weeks’ notice.

The third is the determination to stay positive and not be defeated by the apparent hopelessness of larger problems, such as the need to transform global capitalism, the domination of the US military industrial complex or the ecological collapse of the world’s oceans. Millions share your hopes, confident that success is possible.

What we need is faith at a deeper level, which does not require evidence at every step. Faith that humans have the ability to succeed in this challenge, just as we succeeded in ending slavery, winning the right of working people to form a labour union, defeating fascism and so much more.

The love that so many people feel for our troubled planet comes from that same deep place and it’s not going away. Our task is to hold onto it and act on it – now.


The Carbon Years - Then Lift-Off!

March 17, 2009

First published in Common Ground Magazine

What is happening to our civilization? Report after report is warning us that climate change, driven by our use of fossil fuels, is pushing us towards the cliff.

Ever since the 1970s, the framing of environmental problems has often been “Good Earth, bad humans”. Humans are sometimes said to be like a cancer, exhausting Earth’s resources and polluting Nature’s body until it’s all over. Some suggest that it might be better if humans did kill themselves off, leaving Nature to recover without us.

I am appalled by this way of thinking. I believe deeply in the beauty of the human spirit. We have the ability to achieve incredible things – as well as to be totally stupid. I love the fact that we are 100% part of Nature, that the same genes which create flippers in fish create fingers and toes in us.

I like to view our existence through the lens of time, stretching millions of years into both the past and the future. Like all species, we learn as we go along, starting from a place of total ignorance about the Universe.

We have been asking serious questions for at least 10,000 years. With the development of written language we were able to formalize our thoughts, enabling new generations to build on the intellectual capital of their ancestors.

Hindu and Babylonian thinkers created organized philosophies 5,000 years ago. When the Greek and Roman civilizations collapsed, the torch of enquiry was carried forward in the Muslim world, and rediscovered in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages.

The spirit of enquiry has often sought to break free from the blanket of tradition that was passed from one generation to the next. It is the same impulse that causes a young salmon to try a new river, a wolf to seek new territory. It is by this spirit that we learnt how to make fire by burning wood, how to make steam by burning coal.

From 1500 to 1800 AD developments in Europe enabled the spirit of enquiry to break free, leading us to establish the organized systems of science, democracy and human rights.

Hand-in-hand with the spirit of inquiry we released the spirit of freedom that wanted desperately to escape from poverty and serfdom, kings and aristocrats. When Prince Albert organized The Great Exhibition in London in 1851, six million people came to marvel at the promise of a new world. Using the concentrated power of ancient fossil fuels, we developed the technologies our world is based on today.

Looking back, are we to say all this was wrong? Was it the spirit of inquiry itself that was wrong? I hardly think so.

So let us think our way through this crisis. We are burning fossil fuels that were laid down over 200 million years. Every year, we burn a million years of stored ancient sunlight. We are certainly using this one-time gift from the past to indulge our whims – but we are also using it to build intellectual capital.

We could not have developed a solar cell, LED light bulb, or plug-in hybrid electric car in 1750. We needed this one-time burst of ancient energy to lift us to a position where we could power our world with renewable energy without further need for fossil fuels.

Seen this way, the age of fossil fuels is the ramp of intellectual capital that enables us to take off into a permanent post-carbon world. Thanks to coal, oil and gas, we have been able to build the scientific and engineering skills we need to do without them.

The climate crisis is extremely urgent. The scientists are warning that if we are to avoid 450 ppm of CO2, bringing a 2 Cº temperature rise, the melt-down of Greenland and a 6 metre rise in sea level, we must cease our global yearly increase in emissions within ten years and then move to a carbon neutral world as rapidly as possible. The sooner we achieve lift-off, the less will be the chance of collapse and foul landing.

This is not a time for hand-wringing and despair. This is a time for courage, passion and excitement about the next great energy revolution.

This is a time for determination, when we work together as families, schools, businesses, colleges, cities, governments and the whole world to embrace and adopt the solutions. This is the moment of lift-off, which can lead us to a healthy, ecologically sustainable world, and a host of future promises.


My Beliefs

March 15, 2009

First published in Common Ground Magazine

I feel it appropriate to share some of my core beliefs, as they inform my writing and my understanding of what is happening in the world.

First, I believe that All is One, and the whole Universe is a unity, including both material and spiritual realms. How could it be otherwise? If there were two, they would relate to each other and be part of a whole.

Next, I believe there is a spiritual realm which is as real as the material realm. I know this from personal experience of grief, surrender, prayer, and deep healing, and from extensive reading of the literature of paranormal and psychic experience.

I believe the spiritual realm is the foundation of all that exists. There is just one singularity, of which the material realm is one expression.

I use the term spiritual to describe what I believe to be the foundation of all existence. I believe that our existence is built on this foundation, which sometimes we can catch maybe a glimpse of through acts of kindness, prayer, meditation, surrender, music or art, when our ego-shells take a back seat. We can also experience a deceptive sense of union when we link with a false whole that excludes others, such as Nazism, fundamentalism or nationalism.

I see consciousness as a doorway through which we perceive reality. I believe that everything has consciousness - every atom, mountain and tree; every bacterium that lives under your fingernails; every cell in your body.

This has implications for my understanding of evolution. I love the Darwinian explanation, since it demonstrates our deep biological unity, but I don’t think it is complete enough. I believe that evolution is a spiritual as well as a biological journey.

I believe that the Universe is connected by attraction, and that all life seeks unity at a higher level. When atoms are attracted to each other, they fall in love, creating molecules. When molecules fall in love, they create organisms. When we humans fall in love, we find loving co-existence, transcending our ego-shells, until we try to dominate each other, pushing us back into our ego-shells and making us wonder where the love went.

I believe that evolution expresses itself through a deep movement towards wholeness. This both gives us genetic change, and drives all life to seek to seek wholeness, and to maximize its opportunity to flourish. This is the impulse that makes people work for peace, justice, and peace with Nature. I call it syntropy, the universal drive towards fulfillment and wholeness, the balancing principle of entropy that says all material systems tend towards disorganization and collapse. Entropy may simply be the absence of syntropy, when the desire to live disappears.

I believe we are tantalizingly close to reaching global union and putting an end to war. Throughout history, people have attached their identities to a tribe or clan. When they find community with members of another tribe, they eventually cease trying to dominate them and attach their identities to a nation. When this happens by conquest, it usually takes a generation or two for the anger to wear off, before the larger union is accepted.

When the process is repeated, driven by the deep syntropic quest for unity, it leads to international union. Despite terrorism and other conflicts, we are very close to this final goal. When the majority of Americans abandon their belief that they have a God-given right to dominate the world and join the rest of the world as equal partners, we will finally put an end to war.

I believe that this progressive widening of our consciousness is a fundamental evolutionary drive, and that we are deeply pre-programmed not only to discover unity between all peoples, but also to end injustice, to live in harmony with Nature, to seek personal fulfillment – and to go on to discover amazing things.

Finally, I believe that the crisis we face today, as we stand on the threshold of both global union and global ecological catastrophe, is so enormous and yet so exciting that it calls every one of us to stand up, and say “Count me in”.


If it’s not Fun, it’s not Sustainable

March 13, 2009

First published in Common Ground Magazine

It’s a serious business, living. And all these environmental woes can really spoil a good day. How’s an earnest activist to keep cheerful when everything seems to be such a mess?

My advice comes in two parts. The first is serious and deep, so I’ll keep it brief. It’s this: we’re just beginners. As a species on this planet, we’re like rambunctious two-year olds who have just discovered the delights of running, talking, grabbing, and eating, and who are determined to have things their way.

Dear patient Mama Earth is trying her hardest to teach us to put things back where they belong, to clean up our mess after us, to learn to share, not to take things that aren’t ours, not to hit people, and to say sorry when you hurt somebody. Like most two-year olds, however, we don’t want to listen. If our oil happens to be in someone else’s country, we’ll send in the Tonka trucks and grab it.

So alas we’re heading towards a mighty confrontation with Mama, and we’re about to learn that in the forthcoming battle of wills, tantrums won’t get us far. It therefore behooves us to think beyond the two-year old stage to the wonderful childhood that a calm, cooperative relationship with Mother Earth and Father Sky might promise. Wouldn’t it be good? Golden playdays when we can develop our intelligence and work with the miracles of Nature, instead of trying to impose our will on her. We have all sorts of miracles in store once we learn to clean up our mess and cooperate.

My second piece of advice is to remember the Fifth Law of Sustainability. Four laws were formulated by the physicist and ecologist Barry Commoner: (1) Everything is connected to everything else; (2) Everything must go somewhere; (3) Nature knows best; and (

4) There’s no such thing as a free lunch. The Fifth Law, formulated by yours truly, says (5) If it’s not fun, it’s not sustainable.

This is not just whimsy. It is an expression of the fundamental joy that all beings take in living, when they’re not being beaten up by a selfish two-year old. You don’t have to scratch far for a human come alive when fun enters the picture. I’m pretty sure the parrots, elephants and chimpanzees also have fun when they’re feeling relaxed and free.

Having fun is also motivating. People want to come out of a meeting feeling better, not worse. No matter how bad things look, there’s no excuse for being constantly angry, cynical or miserable. So while you’re busy changing the world, remember to hug, tease, laugh, dance and sing.

In that spirit of fun, here are some treasures from the web. So take an hour, get yourself a good cup of tea, and settle down with your computer.

For openers, go to and type in The Galaxy Song for a modern remix of the Monty Python classic.

Next, go to and play around until you find Rosie’s songs, and The Little Earth Charter for Kids, sung by Rosie Emery (who lives in Victoria). Children need to have fun, too.

It’s the adults’ turn now – go to, from the Vegetarian Society. They’re veggies, so they must be good – right?

The Wombat has more good learning for the adults in Earth’s kindergarten, very similar to Rosie’s, so go to, click on multi-media, and then on the Wombat.

Now for the big one. Robert Newman’s History of Oil is a London comic’s take on history, oil, warfare and Iraq. It’s 45 minutes, but well worth the time. Go to, and type in History of Oil.

Next go to, type in “Asylum + ribbon”, and watch Stick Magnet Ribbons on Your SUV (version most viewed), paying good heed to the words. It is priceless.

Finally, go to and type in “bliss +juggling” for the Amazing Juggling Finale. As Paul McCartney sings, with good understanding of the Fifth Law: And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.


A New Earth Curriculum

March 11, 2009

First published in Common Ground Magazine

Let me think aloud about our schools. I was told recently that when a group of children was shown ten vegetables, they could only identify one – a tomato. When they were shown ten corporate logos, they identified all ten. It makes you worried.

If we are to stop outstripping our planet’s resources, and navigate a way to a sustainable, low carbon world, it is critical that our children learn what it means to live on this crowded Earth, with its growing forests, vast oceans, and tiny creeks. So let me cast my thoughts ahead to the year 2015, and imagine that our teachers, parents, school boards, and staff at the Ministry of Education have realized the urgency of what’s needed.

Every school now has a garden where children learn to care for the soil, make compost, gather seeds, and cultivate the fruits and vegetables they later eat at their own table.

By the time they leave school, they have all learnt the harsh lessons of Easter Island, that when humans over-consume their resources, the result can be hunger, cultural collapse, and death.

Every school is instilling its students with a passion for solutions. There are solar systems on the roofs, hybrid electric vehicles being charged from the sun, and buildings are being refashioned to make them a model of clean air, daylight, comfort, and efficiency, with a green building budget to pay for the changes.

All children are learning about the Earth’s carbon cycle, what fossil fuels are, and why their use is causing Earth’s temperature to rise. Every spring they calculate their personal carbon footprints, and work with their schools to become carbon neutral.

Children are no longer ferried to school by their parents, learning lazy habits. Every student who lives within three kilometers or so of school either walks or cycles, using Safe Routes to School or a walking school bus, while the rest travel by biodiesel-powered school buses.

By the time they leave school, every student has spent a week in the wilderness, learning the rhythms of nature, the wisdom of the aboriginal elders, and the resilience to live without email, instant messaging, and cell phones.

They have also learnt to appreciate Earth’s oceans, and the fragility of life within its waters. We are the generation that is driving every commercial fish stock to extinction by 2050, and if our children do not learn otherwise, they will inherit a world without fish.

They are learning to appreciate water, how it cycles through the drains, into the ocean and back through the sky as rain. Schools are collecting rainwater, and using it to flush their toilets and irrigate their gardens.

By the time they leave school, every child has also visited a landfill where they have seen the mountains of garbage, connected it to their own behaviour, and learnt that there is no place called “away”.

The lessons of all this are being integrated into the curriculum as solar calculations in math, carbon cycles in geography, bicycle efficiency in physics, toxics reduction in chemistry.

How could we trigger this to happen? It could start with a contest in which one school challenged another to score more points for waste reduction, toxics reduction, trip reduction, energy efficiency, water efficiency, sustainable energy production, food production, and healthy catering. Will one school step forward to issue the challenge? There are many skilled people within the environmental movement who could help you design the contest.

Now imagine a college announcing that starting in September 2008, every entry student would be required to pass a test called Earth Literacy 101. This would require local schools to integrate eco-literacy into the curriculum, which would get the ball rolling. Reading and writing are fine, but if we lack Earth Literacy, we’ll have no civilization to practice them in.

Teachers – will you write to your Principals and school boards, and to the Ministry of Education, asking them to help you make this a reality? Together, we can build a movement for Earth Literacy that will change the face of education.

PS: Here are some useful resources -,,,,


Solar Cars Will Save the World

March 9, 2009

First published in Common Ground Magazine

It seats two and has a top speed of 90 kilometres an hour. When it arrived in Vancouver in early July, driven by a young Swiss adventurer and explorer of the future called Louis Palmer, who I’ll come to in a while, it had been driven 32,000 kilometres around the world, without using a drop of gas.

What does it run on? Pure sunshine, delivered free of charge to a small trailer with six square metres of photovoltaic cells. Louis calls it his “solar taxi” because he takes so many people for rides. It has turned heads wherever it goes and it has travelled from Europe to Saudi Arabia and to India, Bali (for the global climate conference), New Zealand, Australia (across the Nullarbor Plain), Singapore, Korea, China and to Vancouver. What does it cost? The car was custom-made so it’s impossible to tell, but similar, small electric vehicles sell for under $20,000.

And the running cost? If it were a regular car, burning 10 litres per 100 kilometres (28 miles per gallon in Canada), with gas at $1.50 a litre, the fuel would have cost $4,800 for the 32,000 km.

However, because it is a solar car, we need a different kind of calculation. Please don’t stop reading if you don’t like math; these are the new calculations we need to get used to.

The car uses 8 kilowatt-hours of electricity (kWh) per 100 km – we use the capital W because the Watt is named after James Watt, the Scottish inventor of the modern steam engine. If you took the power from BC Hydro, at 6.5 cents per kWh, it would cost you $165, or $1 for every 194 kilometres.

Get used to the shock. That’s what a lightweight electric vehicle costs to run. An average annual driving distance of 15,000 km would cost you $78 or $1.50 a week – less if you reduce your driving by using a bike or bus.

This is a solar car, however, so we need some additional math. The car’s trailer carries an 850 Watt solar system. You can buy an installed 1,000 Watt system for $8,000, so 850 Watts will cost you $6,800. The solar cells will produce power for 35 years or more, but they’re guaranteed for 25 years so we’ll use that number. If you pay for it on a six percent 25-year mortgage, your monthly payment will be $44 or $1.45 a day; that’s 3.5 cents per kilometre. That is the price of driving a small, solar electric car. Welcome to the future. And while the price of gas will rise every month as the world’s oil supply disappears, the price of solar will fall, due to mass production and increases in solar efficiency.

Pessimists and cynics of the world hide your heads. This is a car that runs on sunshine, and the sun is good for another five billion years, whereas the oil – that stored ancient sunshine from long, long ago – will be gone in 31 years. An estimated 1,000 billion barrels remain and we’re using 32 billion barrels a year. Ah, but Brazil has just discovered a “huge” oil field, with 33 billion barrels so make that 32 years.

But what about its range? When the sun is shining, Louis’s car has a range of 400 kilometres before he has to stop and recharge it. On a cloudy day, make that 300 km. Take away the solar trailer and its range is 200 km from its battery. So if your car is powered from a solar system on your roof, instead of the trailer, your range is 200 km.

While that’s not good for longer trips, it’s fine for 90 percent of the trips we make on a regular basis, and with battery technology so hot right now, every car maker on the planet is chasing the Holy Grail of a better battery. For longer trips, we’ll be using the plug-in hybrid electric vehicles arriving in 2010 from Toyota, GM and Ford, which can run on gas (or biogas from sewage) for longer distances.

What about winter, when the sun’s hiding away? You just plug it into the grid. If, just theoretically, every one of BC’s 2.3 million cars were a lightweight, electric car like the solar taxi, using 1200 kWh a year to travel 15,000 km, we’d need to generate an additional 2,760 gigawatt hours of electricity a year. That’s a 4.6 percent increase in the power we use today in this province. Even if we triple the number to allow for larger cars, it’s still only a 15 percent increase; we could produce that much power just by making our homes and businesses more efficient.

So what about Louis Palmer, the man who set these thoughts in motion? When he was a child, he dreamed of escaping Switzerland’s mountains and driving around the world. Then his teacher taught him about the dangers of global warming and he had to abandon the idea.

When he was 14, however, he sketched the idea of a solar car and the seed was sown. Later, when he became a teacher, during the school holidays, he became a global adventurer. In 1994, he toured Africa on a bike and in 1996 he flew by ultra-light across the USA. He has also worked as a travel guide and aid worker in Afghanistan and cycled through South America. Everywhere he went, people said, “The weather has changed. It didn’t used to be like this.” For Louis – and all of us –global warming is a serious threat.

Louis is not an engineer so in order to make his solar taxi he first went to a battery company, which offered him the batteries. He then approached local colleges, where engineering students offered to design the car. Later, he went to a machine company, where they offered to assemble it. At the time of writing (mid-July), he is driving down the west coast of America. When he’s crossed America, he will ship the solar taxi to Morocco and drive back through Europe, ending his journey at the World Climate Conference in Poznan, Poland, in December. Follow Louis’s journey at

The moral of this story is that you don’t have to be a genius to invent the future and help save the world. You just need to believe in your dreams and when it comes to the details, ask other people for help.

Speaking of heroes, Vancouver’s Matt Hill and Stephanie Tait, who are running daily marathons in their Run for One Planet to raise awareness about climate change and funds for future eco-initiatives, have reached Ontario and are closing in on Toronto. To follow their amazing journey, see If you want to learn about electric vehicles, visit the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association at


The Glorious Neighbourhood

March 7, 2009

First published in Common Ground Magazine

When I am engaged in world-changing, I start by visualizing a future where we have created solutions to our various problems. The future will happen. Our use of fossil fuels will end because they will run out. I visualize how our world will be when we no longer use fossil fuels, and when we have learned to live within the limits of planetary sustainability.

It is easy to picture colourful neighbourhoods connected by pedestrian and bicycle trails and comfortable electric buses. If you need a car, you book one through the Co-operative Auto Network, powered by the sun, wind and ocean and bio-fuelled from sewage and waste streams. I picture thriving, local economies supported by community banks, efficient homes heated by the sun and earth, neighbourhood councils where people plan the future.

With the vision firmly in mind, I ask myself “How did we get there?” I use my imagination to identify the policies, pathways or initiatives that might have led to this turn of events.

Was it city grants for home retrofits and solar panels? Was it the success of the cycling community to win support for more cycle lanes? Maybe, but it would likely take far more to motivate a whole neighbourhood to change. Was it funding for pilot projects in which neighbours had to work together to win a prize, with goals and benchmarks to judge their success? Yes, that would be effective.

And then my mind strikes gold. It was a reality TV show called The Glorious Neighbourhood, in which neighbourhoods across Canada competed for a $1 million prize. The winner was the neighbourhood that over the course of a year succeeded in persuading the greatest number of people to work together to make their homes more efficient, reduce their waste, grow more local food, leave their cars at home, install solar panels, get their children walking and cycling, establish sociable meeting places and create places of beauty where there used to be neglect. City contestants had to live within a 10-minute walk of each other; rural contestants within a 10-minute bike ride.

After the elimination rounds, 26 neighbourhoods were given $10,000 each to plan their activities and film their progress and every week the nation tuned in to watch.

As the competition increased, local businesses chipped in with gifts of equipment and cash. School children volunteered to dig people’s gardens and city engineers offered to help redesign local roads to make them safe for bicycles. Churches opened their doors for Sunday community feasts, regardless of faith, and teenagers created ride-sharing websites. City councillors were astounded by the enthusiasm with which people offered their help and the speed at which drug dealers were driven out, homeless people were found places to live and plots of vacant land were converted into flourishing gardens.

After six months, a group was eliminated each week until a neighbourhood in Ontario that had involved more than 2,000 people won the $1 million prize. It then invested it in a trust fund to pay for scholarships and grants for the children of their neighbourhood.

The TV contest was repeated, but the impulse had been sparked. All across Canada, city challenges were initiated and neighbourhoods competed for prizes donated by businesses, councils and the elderly. The country was afire with change – but why?

It happened because the greatest secret of sustainability had been revealed: that the process of becoming sustainable was enormous fun. It brought people together and restored a deeply missed sense of community. It also reduced crime.

But above all, it gave people a sense of hope. No longer passive onlookers at their own collective funeral, people were active and engaged. They abandoned their TVs for the pleasure of rebuilding their neighbourhoods and crafting a world in which their children could live with similar hope. And in so doing, they changed everything.

It’s a good approach because it starts with the belief that success is possible. Now, does anyone know a TV director who might be inspired to take this on?


Jumping to a New Global Economy

March 5, 2009

I should warn you that this article carries a Health Warning. If you have high blood pressure or anger management issues, stop reading now, or remember to breathe very deeply.

What is the real cause of the global financial crisis? It is easy to blame the US sub-prime mortgages, but they are just the tip of the iceberg of fiscal craziness into which the good ship Global Economy crashed last fall.

We could also blame financial instruments no-one understands, like credit default swaps - but that would be like blaming the gun for the murder, instead of the shooter.

Throughout recent financial history, starting with the 17th century tulip mania, there have been investments that promised amazing returns, causing everyone to want a piece of them – until it all collapsed. The key to sanity is government regulation, to keep the lid on such craziness.

Ever since the Republicans and President Reagan got into power in 1981, most western governments have been dominated by the ideology that freedom was good, regulation bad, and the market should be allowed to prevail.

They also believed that social environmental regulations should be downplayed, and that wealth was money, not jobs, farms, or personal fulfillment.

The arsonist in chief, according to Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel-prize winning economist, is Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve since 1987, and a long-time admirer of the writer Ayn Rand, who believed in heroic egoism, rational hedonism, and unfettered capitalism.

When George Bush came along in 2001, and immediately legislated tax-cuts to the rich, Alan Greenspan was right behind him, setting the stage for what followed.

So let me offer you a few of the outcomes that have resulted from this culture of greed and excess. As I warned you earlier, start breathing deeply.

  • Average pay of the top American corporate CEOs in 2007: $10.5 million.

  • Average pay of the top 50 hedge and private equity fund managers in 2007: $588 million.

  • Time it would take an average worker to earn this much money: 19,000 years.

  • Average US government subsidy to executive compensation through tax and accounting loopholes: $20 billion a year.

  • Bonuses paid by Goldman Sachs to its employees after their record-breaking earnings in 2007: $13.8 billion.

  • Jump! You Fuckers!Bonus and cash from sale of stocks received by Henry Paulson when he resigned as CEO of Goldman Sachs after a few years work: $498 million.

  • Henry Paulson’s new job: Treasury Secretary of the USA.

  • Pre-tax loss made by Germany’s Deutsche Bank in 2008: $9.6 billion.

  • Bonuses paid by Deutsche Bank to its investment bankers in 2008: $2.7 billion.

  • Losses made by the Royal Bank of Scotland in 2008: $40 billion

  • $$ paid by Britain to bail out the Royal Bank of Scotland: $28.4 billion.

  • Bonuses paid to Bank of Scotland’s staff after being bailed out: $484 million.

  • Losses made by Merrill Lynch in the 4th quarter of 2008: $15 billion.

  • Bonuses paid by Merrill Lynch to 696 managers in Dec 2008: $1 million each.

  • $$ paid to John Thain, CEO of Merrill Lynch in his 1st year: $83 million.

  • Bonus taken by John Thain after he was forced to resign: $10 million.

  • $$ paid by the US government to bail out Merrill Lynch: $230 billion.

  • Bonuses paid by ML to its staff before its sale to Bank of America: $3.6 billion.

Where does all this stolen money go? Some is binged in luxury yachts, penthouses, and private helicopters. And some is stashed away …

  • Estimated annual loss to the British government from money hidden around the world in tax havens: $27 billion.

  • % of top 100 US corporations using tax havens to avoid taxes: 83%.

  • % of 100 largest contractors for US government using tax havens: 63%.

  • Estimated total money hidden in tax havens: $5 to $7 trillion.

  • Estimated cost to rescue the current global financial crisis: $5 to $7 trillion. (It had cost $3 trillion by October 2008)

  • Estimated jobs lost through the crisis so far, globally: 20 million. (ILO)

Response by President Obama: “There is a building in the Cayman Islands that houses supposedly 12,000 US-based corporations. That’s either the biggest building or the biggest tax scam in the world, and we know which it is.”

Where does this leave us? The kingpins of global finance and their ideology of deregulation have surely been so shamed that there must be public support for a complete overhaul of the way the global financial system operates. (See Agenda for a New Economy, below)

Since the rot is more than financial, it makes sense to predict that no amount of stimulus money will restore investors’ confidence until the core reasons for the collapse have been addressed. This includes restoring proper oversight and regulation, closing the tax havens, ending the culture of greed, returning the stolen money, and integrating social, community, and environmental factors into the way global financial system works. It’s a historic opportunity.

*Data Sources: Executive Excess, 2008 (Institute for Policy Studies). Shameless Greed: Global Rage at Bankers’ Bonus Excesses (Spiegel, Feb 20, 2009). Nowhere to hide for tax havens? (BBC Feb 2, 2009)

First published in
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