Vancouver View

Three Female Environmental Leaders, Two Inspiring Quotes, One Birthday

Each year, I’ve reflected on the wisdom I’ve collected from people and places I’ve been. As each year arrives more quickly, here again, I reflect on another lap around the sun.

This year, I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a birthday week filled with strong, powerful, female environmental leaders. It’s as if the universe knew exactly what I would love for my birthday and aligned the stars (and the talks) to gift it to me. As a set out on my clean energy education path, it’s a pretty well thought out present. Thanks, Universe (and UBC)!

In my birthday week, I was fortunate enough to hear three such leaders speak.

Elizabeth May

On Tuesday, I enjoyed two separate talks at UBC featuring Elizabeth May. In the afternoon, she reflected on her life in politics followed by an evening talk on current environmental legislation.

Listening to Elizabeth speak of her life and environmental work is like having a crash course in the global sustainability movement. She pulls lessons from the major global conventions, weaves Canadian history and politics through rounds of legislation, and quotes leaders of every political stripe and nationality.

Elizabeth May speaking at UBC
Note: sorry for the terrible photo quality in this post.

With the raft of environmental issues in the world today and the challenges ahead to meet a goal of no more than 1.5C increase in global average temperature, she reminded us that “It’s hard work to be hopeful.” Yet, she still is. She says she’s genetically wired for optimism, but if anyone could see the dire straights we’re in, it would be Elizabeth May. Yet, she finds hope.

She draws inspiration from the nearly incredible World War II story of Dunkirk. She asked, “What’s the equivalent of every tiny fishing boat to rescue the entire British army?” Rescuing 300,000 men by fishing boats seems impossible. But it was done. Now, it’s our turn.

In order to meet the Paris Agreement at 1.5C, she simplified the task into priorities:

  1. “Get fossil fuels out of electricity generation everywhere.

  2. Get rid of internal combustion engines.”

It’s simple and incredibly complex. But so is rescuing the entire British Army.

A slightly better quality photo filled with even more inspiring women

In the evening, she wove a rollercoaster of a story of Canada’s environmental assessment process. From attending the first ever environmental assessment panel in Wreck Cove, Cape Breton(!) to today’s proposed legislation (Bill C-69). What should be an improvement on the gutted, broken assessment process from the Harper era doesn’t even get back to where the process was in the 90’s. Elizabeth May makes a powerful call for action, which you should read here.

Catherine McKenna

Catherine McKenna spoke at the GLOBE Forum with a rousing speech to an audience focused on sustainable business. I disagree with some of McKenna’s moves around pipelines and the economic-environment balance, there was something special about hearing her speak. She is the first Minister with climate change in her title, holds a cabinet position from the beginning of her time in office, and is a strong, well-educated, articulate leader.

Catherine McKenna speaking at the GLOBE Forum

Her talk opened and closed with insights I thought were particularly thoughtful:

After recognizing the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations:

“Reconciliation is hard, but we need to be part of it.”

Recognizing the broad and sometimes unexpected parties who do and need to come together to fight climate change and grow a sustainable future:

“Unusual suspects working together is the only way to get things done.”

Annette Verschuren, O.C.

Annette Verschuren came a long way from a Cape Breton dairy farm. She’s lead major corporations and foundations and is chancellor of Cape Breton University. She spoke at the Walrus Talks Energy, offering a story of her eureka moment while on her bucket list trip:

“We found a way to store food. We found a way to store water. But we hadn’t found a way to store energy.”

Annette Verschuren speaking at the GLOBE Forum

Now, she’s founded an energy storage company, NRstor, to meet this need. And has a simple tactic for getting things done:

“I’m a believer in mediocre strategy and great execution.”

Wisdom in Pairs

Hearing thoughtful, clever, experienced women share their lessons and their thoughts on how we need to tackle today’s challenges was the best gift I could receive.

Vancouver View
Vancouver’s early arrival of spring ain’t a bad gift either.

The messages are potent, but even moreso coming from women. Women who have carved out space and created change in this messy world. It’s a reminder and an inspiration that I and other women can (and will!) follow suit.


Five Steps to Hosting a Successful Clothing Swap

Five Steps to Hosting a Successful Clothing Swap

Here in Budapest, spring has sprung. The sun is getting stronger, the clocks sprang forward, and everyone is ready to shed their winter layers for spring clothing. In the age of fast fashion, there’s a tendency to head to the mall. The better answer to your spring wardrobe refresh is: host a clothing swap!

I’m a big fan of the clothing swap. The idea is simple: invite people to bring in nice-but-no-longer-loved clothing together and exchange it. There’s pressure, especially for women, to constantly buy new clothing to stay up-to-date, professional and appealing. While people are ditching the consumerist behaviour in many rad ways, the clothing swap is one more strategy to simplify, save and enjoy.

I’ve done this with friends, in a slow fashion pop-up, at a community event, and most recently here at Impact Hub Budapest, marking Buy Nothing Day in November, and just yesterday, the start of Spring.

Clothing Swap at Impact Hub BudapestOne of the clothing swaps strengths is that it’s a hard event to screw up. However, here are the key steps I’ve discovered to hosting a successful one:

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What will be our Angkor Wat?: Explorations in Angkor

What will be our Angkor Wat?: Explorations in Angkor

[This post is the second part in a four-part series on my recent trip to Southeast Asia]

Walking past the people hawking elephant pants and the fresh fruit stands, I approached my first temple within Angkor Wat – Pre Rup, a temple in tribute to the king’s mother. A Hindu temple, built in the 10th century before the Cambodian people converted to Buddhism. Our tour guide explained how a whole town would have lived surrounding the temple and where we stood was once covered in water. He drew in the sand to detail the layout and used the hand carved leather works for sale to illustrate the symbols of the ancient civilization.

Pre Rup carvings

The endurance of the structure became clear as I slowly climbed the steps of the central tower, the cremation tower. The steps rose more than a foot each time, ensuring a calmer, more solemn pace, especially as centuries of footsteps followed by modern-day tourism have rounded the edges of each stair. The restored ornate carvings marking each doorway add an otherworldly charm. The dancing and fighting figures intertwined with plants and animals tell stories I only begin to understand after sitting and reading my guidebook and looking and reading and looking.

Exploring Angkor

The Angkor Archeological Park Complex is immense. It is larger than life and has withstood centuries of life. From weather to rediscovery to theft to the Khmer Rouge, this immense center of worship that expands over 400 acres is the largest religious monument in the world, Lonely Planet’s number one site in the world, and is hard to truly comprehend.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

We explored it by van, by tuktuk, and by bicycle. By guide, by guidebook, and by gut.  The site is overwhelming and has a lifetime of exploration possibilities. After just three days and scratching the surface, I walked away with a feeling of awe and endurance.

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Architecture’s Dirty Secret: Mud’s Marketing Problem

Architecture’s Dirty Secret: Mud’s Marketing Problem

“Three billion people live in a house made of mud. For good reason!”

This fact leaped from the wall of text of the Mud WORKS! display as I perused the (obviously) impressively-designed Architecture Biennale in Venezia. Coming from Canada, the thought of mud-housing brings up images of poverty and hardship. However, for all the green building innovation, it may be the most cost-effective, hyper-local, cradle-to-grave-friendly building style.  Many people I know would love to live in a net-zero home. Yet, few would be excited about living in a home made of mud. All these benefits are obvious, yet the idea is somehow too basic.

It seems mud is too humble for its own good. Or, perhaps for our own good. Is this architecture’s dirty secret?

Gabinete de Arquitectura’s “Breaking the Siege” also highlights simple, locally produced materials.
Gabinete de Arquitectura’s “Breaking the Siege” also highlights simple, locally produced materials.

A Viennese en route to Venice

We were lucky enough to share our train couchette to from Vienna to Venice with a mud-loving architect named David. We first chatted about Central European weather, Austrian politics, bicycle design, and then the biennale where he was invited to participate in a student workshop. He spoke enthusiastically about his thesis project in South Sudan.

Our train arriving in Venice
Morning rail arrival to Venice

He worked with an Austrian non-profit and the local community to design a health center constructed with locally-sourced materials: mainly mud and wood. Mud was essential in providing the main building material, as well as a strategic tool in protecting the wooden structure from termite infiltration. As is often the case, it would have been easier to protect the structure using purchased materials, but costs rise exponentially. As a pair of enthusiastic thesis students, they pushed to use local, inexpensive and easily repairable materials. With ingenuity and a little maintenance, they built a locally-sourced, environmentally-friendly building. The structure can now be locally maintained with little cost, expanded with little cost, and ultimately, demolished with little impact.

Talking Dirty at the Biennale

This idea of elevating mud was further enforced at the Biennale. The theme was ‘Reporting from the Front’, focusing on architecture that is building to connect with civil society, building for the millions of new urban dwellers and building in ways that creatively manoeuvre around the complex obstacles of modern life.

Biennale entrance

The pavilions were filled with architecture tackling these problems in ways that are as beautiful as they are innovative. Displays stretched across two grounds, providing more rich creativity and context than I could reasonably process. In this expansive event dedicated to the leading edge of architecture and design, humble mud was put on a pedestal. On display for all to see and bask in its simple, sustainable merits.

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Mi'kmaq at Lumiere Art at Night Festival

National Aboriginal Day: Humble Learnings from Knowledge Keepers of Mi’kma’ki

Happy National Aboriginal Day!

This  post began with a whole series of false starts. How can I speak about National Aboriginal Day? Who am I to speak about National Aboriginal Day? As a Scottish/Irish/Canadian/Cape Bretoner, my connection to the aboriginal people in Canada is growing, but shaky at best. What could I share that was thoughtful or poignant?

I can only speak from my perspective, and the only thing I can say with certainty is that we need more discussion and encouragement of discussion around aboriginal issues in Canada. So here, I humbly offer my learnings as a ‘settler student.’

Earlier this year, I took part in the fantastic Cape Breton University initiative to hold its “first free, online, open-access, share-with-the world Indigenous course” MIKM 2701: Learning from Knowledge Keepers of Mi’kma’ki. The idea was brilliant and important, following directly from the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Of course, in this era of busy-ness, I wasn’t sure I had the time or attention or timezone for it. I missed the first class. Thankfully, I had electronic encouragement from a very very wise friend to join her, trans-Atlantically, in the course. With the handy video archive, I caught up and I’m so glad I did.

The course was one of the first significant and purposeful steps in my personal efforts to better understand the indigenous community at home in Cape Breton, the Mi’kmaq. I had grown up with very limited knowledge of the Mi’kmaq culture and knowledge. As I grew older and discovered more of our island, I learned here and there about Mi’kmaq life, but never in a deeper way. I learned about indigenous history in academic ways, in school, and in media, but as a history somewhat removed from my own community. This course provided the first step in deepening my appreciation for a culture and a people who have shared their island with my people for hundreds of years.

CBU Mi'kmaq Course Studying in Budapest

The course, though in a scholarly setting, was a divergence from academia in its storytelling and intensely emotional and personal content. The format was dialogical. At first, this took some getting used to for me, as I was expecting more to standard academic lectures and the way I am used to receiving media in colonialist North American society. The story format of the lectures forced me to slow down and really listen. It was appropriate as knowledge has been passed down by oral history traditionally, and the course provided a kind of introduction to that educational format.

Hearing Chief Stephen Augustine tell the Creation Story was powerful, intricate, meandering and beautiful. The story has so many elements and each one has such significance that the whole Story can only be woven together by someone with a rich connection and understanding. The story pulled in the values of gratitude to ancestors and responsibility towards future generations. The Creation story shares a worldview so connected and holistic that it was humbling to hear.

In the classes to follow, the stories shared told of the residential schools, missing and murdered indigenous women, systemic racism, decades-long court battles, fear, pain, and hatred. These stories were so heart wrenching and difficult, it is heartbreaking to know that they are not ancient history. They are disturbingly recent or on-going, even today. These accounts were buoyed by stories of hope, success, knowledge, compassion and incredible resilience, in spite of everything Canada and Canadians did. The Eskasoni mental health successes after a devastating series of suicides in 2009. Albert Marshall’s Two-Eyed Seeing, intertwining the tenants of modern, western science with the tenants of Mi’kmaq traditional knowledge. These stories were a powerful combination that I heard. To paraphrase the Thomas King quote shared in class, now that I have heard the stories, I cannot claim that I have not.

Mi'kmaq at Lumiere Art at Night Festival

The course also helped me appreciate the importance of language. Living in Hungary now, I am learning Hungarian to better communicate with the local community. I put a personal value on learning the language of where I am visiting, and this course allowed me to realize the importance of learning the languages where I am from. I better understand the Mi’kmaq language, not to speak it, but how it developed, how it’s a noun-based language which indicates the connection between the speakers and the world around them, how much work there is yet to be done to allow the language to be as common as it should be as the first language of the Island.

I understood more the power of words.  It was surprising to me to hear Eleanor Bernard say, “Don’t indiginize us. Please.” I had thought this term was a proper, modern one. However, she highlighted that this term groups large and distinct groups of indigenous people together under one phrase:  it doesn’t show the real understanding that the term would like to indicate. The history and needs and concerns of the Mi’kmaq are different from the Cree, and are different from the Squamish, and so on.  To cast broad strokes over the groups does not push to the nation-to-nation-to-nation conversations. It’s these sweeping statements that we should be breaking down. For her, decolonizing was a clearer term. Her statement reminded me that words are important. Be thoughtful because your words are powerful.

This course gave me a deeper understanding of Mi’kmaq knowledge and taught me how much I have left to learn. On National Aboriginal Day, I am thankful to the aboriginal communities across the country for their rich culture and their literally incredible resilience. Reconciliation will be a long process, but learning the truth and listening to the stories is powerful. Our modern excesses have caused and continue to cause damage to our society and our environment. Aboriginal communities have a connection to the Earth from which we can learn a lot. The Mi’kmaq Creation Story’s lessons are deep and layered and we would do well as Canadians to listen.

Margaree Vally in Unama’ki

I highly recommend this course and it’s still available for free(!) online. You can register (to let CBU know you’re using this valuable resource) and  access the classes video archive. Perhaps you’ll celebrate NAD with the first class. Or with the first Mi’kmaq language lesson!

How will you celebrate National Aboriginal Day?


April 23: Earth Day Resolution Day

April 23: Earth Day Resolution Day

[Aside update: After a misfortunate run-in with a wily beer glass and a fortunate experience with the Hungarian medical system, I have a repaired severed tendon and a splinted right hand for four weeks. All’s well, however, the SASS posts may be a little sparse and/or succinct over the recovery time. Hurrah for ambidexterity.]

Danube Calling Earth Day eventYesterday was Earth Day. The largest global event both celebrating the Earth and fighting for its protection. Forty-four years in, it’s a day of hope, of cynicism, of action, of announcements. I held a lot of hope yesterday with the act of 175 countries signing of the Paris Agreement in New York, an important step towards true climate action. An agreement that, as Elizabeth May noted, “is not the treaty that saves the world. It’s the treaty that gives the world a chance to save ourselves.” I felt hopeful listening to Hungarian and global social enterprises discuss their purpose and their way of effecting change at a Startup Safary panel at Impact Hub Budapest. I felt a lot of joy seeing people of all ages connect to the Danube and celebrate the Earth through art at the Danube Flow – Hív a Duna! event as the river lapped at our feet. Read more

The Leap Years

Book Review: This Changes Everything

Is it trendy to review a book over a year after its release? If so, then I’m spot on. Here is my book review and reflection on This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein. It’s a book that has been a companion through two moves, two elections, dozens of life crises and more “Are-we-screwed-What-can-I-do” moments than I can count.

Rather than my introductory words, please enjoy the trailer to the partner film This Changes Everything as an effective backgrounder:

This Changes Everything is an engaging read. Klein takes magnificently complex topics and wrangles them into a readable and captivating work. The first striking feature was the accessibility of the text. When I opened its pages, the weight of the book felt daunting. Though an engaged citizen and environmentalist, I was worried that the book would read above my head and I would be left behind after the first chapter. Perhaps this was a silly assumption on a work from an accomplished journalist who writes for the public, but the title pushed my thoughts to an impenetrable manifesto. However, Klein guides the reader through each topic in a way that allows the gravity of each fact to be understood, while wrapped in a human-scale story.

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Zurich Loves Its Water

Zurich Loves Its Water

I recently traveled to Zürich to visit with my aunt Anita traveling from Margaree via Malta for meetings. I had only visited Switzerland to catch a late night flight in Basel (and enjoyed Avatar in 3D with 3 sub-title languages!), so I was looking forward to exploring its largest city. We spent the weekend walking all over the city, enjoying the views of Lake Zürich, the Old Town and its many, many water fountains.

First Zurich Wate FountainZürich loves its water. The city is home to 1,248 public water fountains. You can’t walk a couple blocks in the Old Town without coming across an imaginatively sculpted waterspout. Though the fountains become simpler in form further from the city centre, they are just as handy.

The first water fountain was built during the early 15th century to supply trusted water after the Black Death created a (well-founded) mistrust of city wells. The water was brought to the city centre, the top of Rennweg, from a source four kilometres away by wooden pipe. An engineering feat of the time, and the first of many public plumbing projects to come.*

It is refreshing to see the importance and elegance of publicly available drinking water. We live in a generation that remembers thinking that buying water from a store seemed ridiculous to now seeing bottled water as an important part of our convenience diet. Plastic bottles are still popular in Zürich, but many residents choose to bring their own refillable ones instead. The water is said to be deliciously fresh and a treat to enjoy. I can attest that it did indeed taste like water.

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Buda forests

Showing Up: Global Climate March on Sunday

Things need to change.

That’s simple.

Little else is.

Climate change is a complex, global process that disparately effects the regions and peoples of the world. The solution is complex, requiring rapid, insightful action on every personal and political level. If you’re reading this blog, you know the situation and I don’t need to lay out the facts. If you’d like to read more from the world’s experts, you can find more here, here, here and here.

As complex as it is, there are a number of simple steps. In fact, the UN created The Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World. I’m not sure if it’s clever marketing or a sad statement of the state of the world. Either way, there are simple tips to minimize your impact. I’ll advocate for another simple action: show up.

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