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As written in my previous post, water conservation advocate Maude Barlow spoke at London’s Aeolian Hall Wednesday night, joined by two local water, habitat and ecosystem conservation advocates. I was glad to be there for the talks, as well as the great performance that kicked off the event.

There was an enjoyable surprise start to the evening in the form of a performance by the El Sistema Aeolian, and a brief introduction to the program. The introduction included a video briefly explaining the El Sistema project’s beginnings in Venezuela, available to watch here. I was delighted by the skill of the young performers, and was interested to learn more about them, having seen the group open a City Council meeting a couple months ago. The main source of their talent is the neighbourhood surrounding the Aeolian, specifically students from Lorne Ave. Public School. The program began in London November 2011 and is already flourishing, I look forward to seeing it continue to grow and spread.

After the performance, a traditional native elder of the London region’s Chippewas of the Thames performed a traditional ceremony celebrating the natural world, and specifically the water we all depend on for survival.

Thom McClenaghan, the President of the conservation group Friends of the Coves Subwatershed then started the night’s talks. He spoke about their group as well as work happening throughout London to protect, preserve and educate about the Coves and the other subwatersheds in the city. He explained how subwatersheds such as the Coves connect to larger watersheds like the Thames River, which eventually drain into large bodies of water, in our case, the Great Lakes. This message tied in well with the other two presentations.

Patrick Donnelly, Urban Watershed Program Manager City of London spoke next. His talk echoed Thom’s message about connectivity, and also discussed London’s deep connection with the Great Lakes. As we became very aware of last week, London draws its municipal water both from Lake Erie and Lake Huron, a very unique water collection method, and one that kept the city receiving at least some new water to bolster reserves while the Lake Huron pipe was unusable. He outlines how people in every watershed depend on those upstream of them to preserve the quality of the water for those below them, and how the water ultimately returns to the sources we draw from, reminding us that we must be very careful of what we dump in our streams and rivers, as well as directly into the Great Lakes. He also outlined some of the ways the city is working to take care of our section of the Thames, including working with and encouraging neighbourhood projects to adopt and protect watercourses such as the Friends of the Coves.

This talk led well into Maude Barlow’s message. She spoke passionately about the Canadian, North American and global importance of the Great Lakes, as the largest group of freshwater lakes on earth making up 21% of the planet’s surface fresh water. She talked of how there are many trade and protection agreements between Canada and the U.S. outlining the protection of the Great Lakes, but voiced concerns that as American water sources such as the California Coastal Basin aquifer is depleted and threatens U.S. food security, fresh water such as the Lakes may become too tempting as the next major water source to adequately protect it.

Her message was a strong reminder of just how amazing the Lakes are, and how fortunate we are to have them to enjoy. She spoke about different perspectives/philosophies about water resources such as the Great Lakes (and the global environment in general), ranging from preservation/conservation-led beliefs that see resources both as a gift and a responsibility to be protected for future generations, and much more human-centric views that see the natural environment as available firstly for our use and as an economy driver. She said that it doesn’t have to be a case of the economy vs. the environment, but encourages all citizens and businesses to strive for creative methods to both boost our economy and preserve our natural world for future generations.

As Maude noted, this talk came at a very relevant time for our city, as we were under an outdoor water ban last week, and this article was published yesterday. It states “With a meager 21 millimetres of precipitation falling in May, it was the second driest May since the record was set for London in May 1954 at 13.8 millimetres, according to Environment Canada.”. As well, May was another month in what has been an exceptionally dry spring, with the Upper Thames Conservation Authority issuing alerts that the low precipitation levels is causing low river levels which in turn may harm water and habitat quality (though we were fortunate today to get a great deal of much-needed rain, which will hopefully reduce the impact of the spring drought).

I was glad to have been present for the talk, but was left somewhat at a loss. We can each work to lower our water consumption, but there seems to be many elements entirely out of our control or influence. As well, Maude Barlow and the Council of Canadians are a polarizing group in Canadian advocacy/politics, and one of a diverse group of voices on the subject. I hope to continue thinking and learning about the subject of water conservation, and writing about it periodically here.

I was struck by her message, but it is something she said after that has really stuck with me. As she met with the audience, she said “We only have one chance here, so should make the very most of this time”.

As we try to balance the various elements of our lives and attempt to live out our beliefs even as they continue to be shaped, we can easily be bogged down. This message is a fresh reminder that we have only one chance in this world, we should continue to work and do all we can, while we can.

Wednesday morning, Londoners awoke to the news announcement that the water pipeline that supplies 85% of the city and area’s water ruptured, which caused citizens and businesses to resort to only using water held in reservoirs as well as from the other pipeline into the city, from Port Stanley on Lake Erie.

Since then, we’ve had to make do without. The City urged citizens to restrict their water use while the pipeline is repaired, going without outdoor watering/washing and keeping indoor water use to a minimum.

The pipeline has been repaired but being eased back into service slowly to ensure it is functioning properly. However, water consumption apparently actually increased above average on Thursday evening, causing the City to impose mandatory water restrictions over the weekend while they struggle to replenish the reserves. The City has said that city by-law enforcement officers will remind residents not to water outdoors, but will hand out $95 tickets for those found violating the ban.

This move from restrictions to a ban may further expose problems with City Hall’s communication strategy. I was frustrated to see neighbours washing their cars/watering their lawns last night, but many Londoners may have missed the memo. With readership of the Free Press dropping and less people watching local news, without people telling them they may not know there is a problem. I now check local media regularly, but didn’t always. Is my level of attention average, or the exception?

This ban comes at a particularly hard time for the area. It was announced this week by the Upper Thames Conservation Authority that the Thames River watershed is continuing to face drought conditions after a mild winter with little precipitation failed to replenish the watershed. We continue to see little rain, and without it this restriction makes it that much harder for residents hoping to grow gardens and keep their trees healthy this spring.

Events like this can also be a harsh reminder of just how much water we consume. We try to do what we can to restrict how much water we use, but between laundry, dishes, watering the garden/trees and showers/baths, it can all add up quickly. It has been a tough but good reminder to us just how much we depend on clean, fresh water, and everything we use it for.

The restrictions this week has also reminded us how hard it is to do without it.

Next Wednesday, national and international water conservation advocate Maude Barlow will be speaking at London’s Aeolian Hall along with London “partners in watershed protection”, specifically about the vast resources that this area of North American has in the Great Lakes.

This is just a short post on what is an enormous issue with a great deal of debate about what is appropriate use for water, restrictions/supports that should be put in place when it comes to companies that consume large quantities of water, etc. I’m really looking forward to these talks, especially when they’re being delivered at such a relevant time for our city. Hope to see you there!

earth hour 2012

Tonight is Eath Hour 2012, when people all over the world will be turning off their lights, electronics and non-essential appliances to lower their energy consumption and make a symbolic statement, drawing attention to climate change as well as affirming they will try to lower their overall energy consumption and impact on the planet. The event started in Sydney, Australia in 2007 when 2.2 million people participated in the event, conceived by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Sydney Morning Herald. This is the website for the event.

The event has already begun in Australia and Asia at the time of this post, as observed in this article. The article also states that Canadian utilities are getting involved:

B.C. Hydro made a pitch on its website, urging consumers to join in and also make plans to reduce energy use year around. Last year’s response shows what people can do, the utility said on its website. “British Columbians turned off the equivalent of 7.8 million 15-watt compact fluorescent light bulbs for the hour,” the utility said. “If everyone in B.C. implemented the same conservation measures for just one hour every evening, the combined savings would be enough to power close to 4,000 homes for an entire year.”

Ontario electricity provider Hydro One said it would mark Earth Hour by turning off non-essential electrical equipment at its office facilities across the province.

This event is lauded by many. As one example, the National Post published this article today by Canadian celebrity contractor Mike Holmes, titled “Honour Earth Hour, every hour”. In it, Holmes describes the impact that this event makes as a statement to our governments, that participants are focused on the importance of sustainable practices and lowering our carbon footprint. He also points out that everyone can make responsible choices in their professional and personal lives. He says:

In 2009, I attended the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. I had the honour of being the eminent advisor to the Canadian government on sustainable building technology and its effect on climate change. It became clear to me that we all need to make a commitment to change. Building green and building sustainably are part of my future as a contractor. It should be part of any responsible builder who cares about the kind of future we’re building.

Many city governments, energy utilities and corporations around the world mark Earth Hour, with more countries participating in the event every year. Even some groups that air television during the event are participating in some way – for example, the NHL is taking part by turning off non-essential lighting at all games scheduled for Saturday night, and the league’s New York City headquarters will also observe Earth Hour.

There is also a great deal of criticism for the event. It has been pointed out that candles are made from paraffin wax, a fossil fuel derivitive, and could be more harmful than just continuing to use electric lights. The event has also been argued to be anti-technology, as posted here and here. In the latter article, the Ayn Rand Centre wrote:

Participants spend an enjoyable sixty minutes in the dark, safe in the knowledge that the life-saving benefits of industrial civilization are just a light switch away… Forget one measly hour with just the lights off. How about Earth Month…Try spending a month shivering in the dark without heating, electricity, refrigeration; without power plants or generators; without any of the labor-saving, time-saving, and therefore life-saving products that industrial energy makes possible.

As well, a movement started by the libertarian think-tank Competitive Enterprise Institute, called the “Human Achievement Hour” (HAH) encourages the opposite at the same time as Earth Hour, to “celebrate the achievements of humanity such as eating dinner, seeing a film, driving around, keeping the heat on in your home”.

I can see the point of these kinds of arguments, questioning the usefulness of the Earth Hour movement. Does sitting in the dark for an hour raise awareness? Does this action achieve perceivable results, or is it more akin to greenwashing – creating the perception instead of a reality of doing something for the environment?

However, I think these articles and actions like the HAH miss the fact that the event isn’t calling for a renunciation of electricity or any of the modern marvels humanity have produced. My understanding is that the event attempts to show us how we can be less energy dependant and work to lower our individual consumption. I am proud of where humanity is and all that we have achieved, but I think we can always do better. Locally, London Hydro has been distributing electricity to our city for over 100 years, but we can always find better ways to produce, distribute and consume that energy. But how?

We could have a “use a little less energy hour” but that kind of action isn’t likely to draw much press or attention. In the end, it is all about personal choice and personal responsibility. Does Earth Hour shape people’s perceptions of the environment and encourage them to make more informed energy decisions?

I believe it certainly doesn’t hurt to try. I honestly love Earth Hour, both for the experience and for recognizing the lifestyle I want to continue to lead. I think that part of the appeal is the opportunity to turn off the lights, turn off all the electronic devices, and spend quality time with the people important to us (similar to Adbuster Magazine’s TV Turnoff Week). It’s also an affirmation of my attempt to consume less resources – not just in the focused hour, but in my everyday life as well. I try to keep my consumption of resources like water and energy low, produce less waste by purchasing as little packaging as possible, composting etc.; Earth Hour is a great reminder of that. Lowering my energy consumption for an hour won’t likely have much of an impact, but I believe having communities across the world sharing in this experience is a great global affirmation of what our entire planet can do to lower our impact on the planet.

My  beliefs about this event have also been shaped by the year I spent working for London Hydro. My school and work experience is entirely outside the realm of energy, so I was very interested to find the entire corporation was geared towards the event, and works to advertise both for Earth Hour itself as well as for lower energy consumption, both as a means of reducing strain on the distribution system as well as lowering the environmental impact of energy production. While I was there, I watched as the head of engineering worked with a local solar panel distributer as well as Fanshawe College and UWO to place panels throughout the city as a green energy initiative. There are now panels providing energy to the main London Hydro office as well as other high-visibility city/college/university properties throughout the city, including an array of panels on the rooftop of the Covent Garden Market (more information available here). I find this kind of project very encouraging, and signals LH’s intent to partner with others and produce energy in the city using renewable resources instead of relying entirely on energy distributed to us by Hydro One.

As I said, I believe we can be proud of our technological achievements while working to use that technology to find better ways to meet our energy needs. We can and should be proud of what we’ve produced, while aiming to leave our province, country and world in the best condition possible for future generations. With 7,000,000,000+ people on the planet and more joining us every moment,  we need to be serious about preserving our planet as we struggle to share our limited resources with an ever-increasing amount of people. Any effort to raise awareness and to limit each individual’s long-term impact is commendable and to be encouraged, in my opinion.

Tonight, I’ll be turning off my electronic devices, turning off the lights and spending a quieter, focused night with friends. I hope that you’ll give it a try too.