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Sorry for the confusion, website redesign taking place!

December 5, 2012

Hello everyone –

Please bear with me as I redesign my website. The pages will all still be here – but they may be a bit more difficult to find over the next few weeks as I rearrange things.

The blog, for now at least, is going to be relegated to the back-burner… archived for the moment. I stopped blogging “temporarily” a year ago. But blogging is quite a time commitment, and I think I am better off placing my writing in other venues that get higher readership. (And heck, I am getting a bit frustrated with that “every writer should have a blog” line – I think there are too many blogs and not enough readers!)

If you want to keep track of my recent writings, check out some of the publications that I am a regular contributor to:

The Guardian (UK):

The Tyee (Canada):

RunLiveLearn (USA) – I am the regular “Trails” columnist:

And, soon, I will also be a regular contributor to FullStop literary mag (USA):

So, changes you can expect to see to this site are: the blog will become lower-profile (well, an archive, really); there will be more about me and my writing interests and my current projects; and there will be a much better archive of my published materials (pdf files of my publications) that you can download and look at.

As I said, I’ll be working on this site re-design over the coming weeks. Please let me know if you have any suggestions – what you would or wouldn’t like to see here! Cheers!


Sweet poison: How sugar is killing us (and especially our children)

September 28, 2011

Sugar – the poison that almost no one talks about – has been in the news these past weeks.

CBC News told us how Canadians consume an average of 26 teaspoons of sugar a day.

The Atlantic magazine published an infographic of what the avergae American consumes each year – which includes 142 lbs of “caloric sweeteners,” 42 lbs of which are corn syrup.

And an American survey showed that parents of fat or obese children don’t want people to call their children fat or obese. (Umm… sorry, then do something about it).

OK, the word “poison” may seem extreme – but read on. All things in moderation. At the high quantities that most North Americans are consuming sugar these days, sugar is a poison.

How shameful it is that our current generation of children is the first that will not live as long as their parents! And that their parents are the ones who are actively doing this to them, by loading them up with sugar.

In Canada, childhood obesity has nearly tripled in the past 30 years. In Japan, childhood obesity has doubled in just a decade – while the incidence of adult obesity has remained steady. This is because, while adults continue to eat their traditional Japanese diet, children in Japan are now being raised on our heavily marketed sugar-heavy “western” diet.

Yes, we can blame the food manufacturers and marketers. But even more, we can blame ourselves. No one is forcing any of us to eat what they are packaging up for us.

Manufacturers are slipping fructose into products that normally did not use to contain added sugars, such as pretzels and hamburger buns. The effect of this is not only to add extra calories to the product; the biochemical effect of too much fructose is far more sinister.

Fructose makes the insulin receptor in your liver stop working, so that insulin levels rise throughout your body. This interferes with brain metabolism of the insulin signal, which then affects the brain’s detection of a hormone called leptin. Leptin is what signals to you that you have eaten enough. Leptin also makes you feel like burning energy. If your brain cannot detect the leptin, not only do you feel like you are starving, and just want to eat – you also don’t feel like exercising.

So the effects of all of this added fructose on our diet are far greater than just the added calories. The whole fructose/leptin/insulin connection is explained in detail in a great ABC Radio interview with Dr. Robert Lustig, Professor of Pediatric Endocrinology at the University of Southern California, SF. While the podcast of the program is not available online, the transcript is. I highly recommend that you take an hour of your life to read it – it will more than come back to you!

So what strategies can we take to avoid added sugars, and especially sugars? Well, the time-consuming one is to do a lot of research, learn what you can and cannot eat and what all of the variants of ingredient names are, and meticulously read ingredient lists.

The easier strategy, though, is just eat food. (I go pretty much by Michael Pollan’s definition of “food”: If your great-grandmother would have known what it is – an apple, a potato, a cut of meat – then it is food. If she would not have recognized it – a Twinkie, a McNugget, a Cheeto – then it is out).

I’ll admit it – I was addicted to sugar throughout my childhood, my teens, my twenties. It was used as a reward food in our home. Saturday was known as “candy day.” If we had been good that week, we got a chocolate bar and a can of pop (sadly, that is now daily fare for so many North American kids). Even after I left home, sugar remined a reward food and a comfort food for me – a treat for completing a big university assignment, or to cheer me up if I was feeling down.

Through my thirties, I decided to cut down on the sugar. I honestly cannot say what really motivated me to do that. I guess I started noticing that I would feel lethargic after a big chocolate chip cookie pig-out. And the logical side of my brain started to realize that sugar had not been available in such quantities for the bulk of humankind’s existence – that our bodies were not evolved to eat it – and I wondered what it might be doing to me.

And now, I rarely eat sugar. Yes, it took years of willpower to get to this stage – but I have broken the addiction. It is no longer a matter of willpower. I no longer desire it. Truly!

That whole sugar/insulin/leptin cycle makes complete sense with my personal experience: I crave good healthy foods, I have no desire to overeat, and I have the energy and desire to exercise. I eat a fair amount of fat in my diet (mainly olive oil and other “healthy” oils), and I have been maintaining my weight for a decade now – in fact, just found out this summer that I have even lost weight – without trying! I have more energy I than I have ever had and, at age 47, I am in the best physical shape of my life!

In that radio show, Dr. Lustig calls fructose a hepato-toxin, or liver toxin. “We’re being poisoned to death,” he says. “That’s a very strong statement – but I think we can back it up with very clear scientific evidence.” He goes on to talk about how children are now being diagnosed with Fatty Liver Disease – a disease once only found in alcoholics. To me, this is not only scary, it is inexcusable behaviour on the part of their parents – their supposed care-givers and nurturers.

Read that transcript. Stop poisoning yourself. And, especially, stop poisoning your children.

Can we really only have foresight in hindsight?

September 21, 2011

Go to the cliff?? Where’s the frigging cliff??

Can we really only have foresight in hindsight? Or are we smarter than that?

It’s funny how things tie together. I wrote just last week about how, if we can see that something bad is going to happen, it is our duty to act to prevent it.

And now, this week, the seven Italian geoscientists, engineers and government officials who are charged with failing to give the public adequate warning of a probable earthquake are big international news. (I actually wrote about this case back in June, for the Guardian).

I can’t help but relate this example to the story here in Tofino. (Although I have moved to Port Alberni, I am actually in Tofino at the moment as I write this – my house sale closes today!)

So, over in Italy those officials are being charged with manslaughter – after the earthquake. (The earthquake that occurred there, just six days after the group had released a statement that there was no increased danger of a major quake, killed 309 people).

Over here, we know with 100% certainty that a major quake is coming. We cannot predict exactly when – it could come this afternoon, or not for another 200 years – but there is 100% certainty that it will come. And the destruction of buildings and infrastructure and the loss of human life will be on the scale of what we all witnessed in Japan this past March. It  is most likely that thousands, possibly even tens of thousands, will die.

We cannot prevent that quake. But we can prevent many of the deaths if we educate ourselves, and prepare for it now.

And this is one of the main reasons that I have moved away from Tofino. Port Alberni is not that far away – the earthquake and tsunami will be almost as bad there as they will be here. But how these two communities are preparing for these coming events is completely different.

Tofino came out with an emergency plan in 2007. It was failing in so many ways:

  • It had evacuation routes that actually sent people into the tsunami inundation zone rather than out of it
  • There was insufficient understanding of the nature of a magnitude 9 earthquake (which means that numerous trees will be down across the roads and driving will not be an option for evacuation). Safe zones must be close enough to reach on foot, within 15 minutes of the earthquake. The plan assumed people would be driving.
  • There was insufficient understanding of the events to understand what kind of emergency kits people must have: Two types are required: the so-called “Grab’n’go” kit, which you run with to escape the coming tsunam; and then a long-term survival kit to withstand the weeks or months where access to food, water, and other basic supplies will be limited.
  • Their official Grab’n’go kit list contained 126 items! (which included items such as a cribbage board, fire extinguisher, and shower cap) – virtually guaranteeing that anyone who obeyed the official planners’ recommendations would not be able to drag that kit up the hill before the first tsunami wave hit.

I could see that this plan would actually put more lives in danger than if people simply ignored the plan, so I wrote two articles for the community, and made sure that they were published in both of our local newspapers:
Info about the character and magnitude of our expected earthquake and tsunami events (PDF file of text originally published in The Westcoaster and the Westerly newspaper,  April 2007)
A critique of Tofino’s emergency plan (PDF file of text originally published in The Westcoaster and the Westerly newspaper,  April 2007):

I continued to research the subject, and to offer information to Tofino’s emergency planners and to Tofino Council. I published blog articles, I talked on CBC Radio, I was even interviewed on CBC TV’s The National. To this day, four years later, no Tofino official has ever responded specifically to my input (even just to tell me to shut up!).

I tried increasingly provocative blog post titles (from You’re all gonna die: Whatever in June 2010) to an angry but informative rant published last March. By the time of that last one, I had given up on Tofino… I was already half-moved to Port Alberni – but I left it as a bit of a legacy, with all of the links to every article and interview I had done on the subject, in case someone in Tofino ever decides they do want to use my research.

And where has Tofino got with this?

Well, in June of 2010 the mayor, John Fraser, finally mustered himself up to get on CBC Radio to address this subject. Apparently his understanding of the event is so minimal that he does not actually understand that the earthquake will affect the entire west coast region, not just Tofino – so Vancouver will not be dispatching a ship to Tofino within 24 hours, as he is counting on. Vancouver will be digging itself out.

And he believes that Tofitians will survive by eating farmed fish. (Umm, if anyone saw the Japan videos, you might remember that there is a bit of current associated with those tsunami waves. I don’t think those Atlantic salmon will be sticking around). You can listen to that CBC interview with the mayor here.

And then, this past March, the mayor stuck his foot in it again on GlobalTV – saying that locals “should” know where to go to under a tsunami warning (well, if they follow the official Tofino recommendations, sadly, that would be into the inundation zone) – but that visitors will be running around like crazy. (Umm, shouldn’t Tofino take some responsibility in making sure that visitors know what to do too? Not to mention that he is not making a tourism-dependent town look very inviting to tourists!) Unfortunately, GlobalTV seems to have taken down that video clip  but you can read some of the locals’ reaction to it here.

So, back to the Italian case. Scientists and government officials are being charged, the earthquake, for allegedly not providing adequate information and warning. 309 people died.

I want to know about here. I want to know about now, before the earthquake, before people have died. Here in Tofino, government officials are not providing adequate warning or information or planning for an event that we know is coming, and that we know will be deadly.

Must we wait until after the event happens, and hundreds or thousands of people die needlessly, due to inadequate or, in the case of Tofino, also dangerously inappropriate information? Or can we actually act with foresight, rather than hindsight?

Must we wait until people die? Or can we charge them now?

Reference: Map showing official Tofino tsunami evacuation routes.
Brown area is the tsunami inundation zone. White areas are safe areas. Look how much of the inundation zone people are expected to travel through, and how many safe areas they bypass, if they follow this plan. Remember, trees will be down and driving will be impossible. They have 15 minutes to get to safety.

Climate-change fatigue: May the end come soon

September 14, 2011

I am climate-change fatigued.


So, yesterday yet another ominous report was published:
Europe’s oceans changing at unprecedented rate

The day before we heard that:
Earth’s Coral Reefs May Be Wiped Out Entirely By The End Of The Century

A few days before we were told that:
Arctic ice set to match all-time record low – Satellite measurements reveal that volumes have fallen consistently over past 30 years

And the week before:
Scientist left speechless as vast glacier turns to water

These articles were all published within the last two weeks – but it’s not as if they are new news.

For several years there have been numerous reports predicting the scenario ahead:

  • sea-level rise affecting coastal communities;
  • ocean acidification destroying coral reefs as well as numerous other species that we depend upon for food;
  • accelerated melting of glaciers and ice caps;
  • extreme weather events – flooding, tornadoes, droughts, heat waves – many of which are likely attributable to climate change;
  • and more…

And then of course there was that letter written nearly 20 years ago, addressed to humanity and signed by 1700 of the world’s top scientists, warning us that “If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.”

We have all this knowledge, and we’ve had it for some time now. Those warnings of nearly two decades ago are coming true – with many of the predicted changes startling the scientists, because they are happening even more quickly than had been foreseen.

But what I don’t get is how we can hear all this, yet not take action. I have talked to several of my friends about it: they know how concerned I am about the future of our planet, and for all life on the planet. (Obviously, the planet itself will be fine, continuing to hurtle through space with or without us. It is our knowing destruction of the lives upon it, including our own, that disturbs me).

And a lot of what I get back from people is that they don’t like to think about such unpleasant things.

Well, as Noam Chomsky wrote last week, “The existence of flat earthers does not change the fact that, uncontroversially, the earth is not flat.” (Chomsky stated this in a different context, writing on a different subject – but the quote applies equally well here).

Pretending that these grave changes to our planet are not happening: going on with our daily “normal” lives; looking on the bright side; and choosing not to think about climate change and what we need to do about it (or, more precisely, what we should have done about it a few decades ago) is not going to make it go away.

I can’t help but be the kind of person who wants to be informed about things. As I have written here before, sometimes I wish I didn’t know the things I know. But I think it is my responsibility to know. And I also think that, if I see something bad that is going to happen, that I can prevent, it is my duty to take action to prevent that thing. For there is no point in having the knowledge if you are not going to use it. We have a responsibility to take action. (Even more so, if you have kids who you claim to love).

But really, I am just tired of it all now. We have set our path. Climate scientists know what is coming, and how the momentum of our society (still, even today, pushing for economic growth as if it will be the saviour of all things!) is probably too great to change now. It’s already happening – and there is a part of me that just wants the rest to come quickly, get it over with, so I can stop reading about it.

“If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
Rush, from their song Freewill

Every grain of rice

August 31, 2011

People are often to surprised to find out that I am not a vegetarian. “But you love animals so much, Jackie!” they explain.

Yes. But I love plants, too.

<–[Garden harvest a couple days ago]

I’ve been the self-proclaimed founder (and so far sole member) of the RSPCP* for years – on th lookout for withered, mistreated plants at supermarkets and reporting to the produce manager that their plants outside need watering, or rescuing (and occasionally confiscating) abused plants from my friends.

To me, it’s not so much about animals vs. plants. I eat both. It’s about not being disrespectful of their lives: ensuring them good quality of life while they are alive, and not being wasteful with them.

I do eat meat. But I am very careful about where I source it from. I avoid anything that is industrially raised. Anyone who claims to be an animal-lover, yet will eat standard that supermarket chicken or beef packed on a styrofoam tray is living a lie. Sorry – get informed, and live consistently with what you say. Either that, or stop claiming to be an animal-lover.

So I will eat deer or seal or wild duck – animals that I know had a good and natural life until, literally, the final seconds. (Not to mention are not pumped full of hormones or antibiotics that are bad for both me and the environment).

[Watch it, Bambi. Just cuz I grow my own veggies – doesn’t mean I’m a vegetarian!]

I eat some small-farm raised chicken, turkey, beef or lamb – but I always try to source small-scale local producers, where I can be sure that the animals truly did have a reasonably good quality of life.

Unfortunately, this whole thing about “certified organic” has become big industry. Once animals are being raised on large industrial farms, organic or not, their quality of life is sacrificed. They are herded around in buildings, they are not permitted to graze on real plants, they live in their own shit. I don’t want to know that animals are being forced to live such horrible lives for my meals.

And “certified organic” has kind of lost its meaning anyway – industry has a lobbyists who push for products and chemicals that would surprise many people to find that they are permitted in the so-called organic products they buy. Here’s ine example – of Anheuser-Busch pushing the USDA to allow them to make so-called “organic beer” from hops grown with chemical fertilizers and sprayed with pesticides!

To me, it is not the act of killing an animal for food that is wrong. It is that the animal lead a pathetic, unhappy, and often tortured life up to that final moment. And the same goes for plants.

The other aspect of respecting our food sources – the plants and animals that die for us – is reducing waste. Here in North America, the average person throws out 110 kg of food per year. (Source: Wikipedia) That is nearly a pound of food wasted a day! Add to that the amount of food wasted in the production and retail stages, and we are talking a total of 650 kg of food wasted per person each year. That is not only disrespectful – it is stupid.

I think that one reason that I do respect plant lives every bit as much as animal lives is that I am a gardener. I nurture my little tomatoes, my lettuces, my beans, from seed. I treat them well – both so they will have good quality life, and also so they will produce well for me in return.

My greatest eye-opener, though, has come from my attempts to grow rice here on Vancouver Island. I did actually manage to produce 19 grains… although, when I planted them this spring, only three of them turned out have a real rice kernel in them.

<–[My rice plants, grown on the outer coast of Vancouver Island!, about to seed.]

But rice is something most of us think of as cheap bulk food – along the lines of pasta. We don’t see rice plants here, and it is easy to forget that rice is a seed: every grain of rice has the potential to become a plant that, itself, will produce another handful of rice. Now, I am careful to scoop every grain of rice out of the pot, to eat every grain of rice in my bowl, so that none of that potential ends up in the garbage.

Because, to me, it’s about respect.

*Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Plants

Optimism is better than despair

August 24, 2011

As a teenager, I wanted to be a veterinarian. Then I found out I would have to go to university for seven years to become a vet. That amount of time seemed unfathomable for me at age 17. So it is somewhat humorous that I ended up spending nine years at university studying rocks instead!

On one level, I am really happy that I have such a strong Earth Sciences background. But I find, more and more, that I wish I didn’t know the things I know. Especially regarding the future of our planet and the future of our species. Last week I talked about our planet, this piece of rock whirling its way through space. It’s been doing that for several billion years now – and it will continue to do that.

But it’s quite possible that, within a few decades or a century, it will be doing that without us… or at least without most of us.

The problem with having this scientific knowledge, this understanding of the magnitude and scale of earth processes (e.g. how long it takes for something as big as a planet to heat up or to reverse that heating; how significant a degree or two of warming is when you consider how much energy that represents when that degree of temperature is an average over the planet – in other words, a huge addition of energy) is that it makes it hard to feel optimistic. Because my outlook on what we are doing, where we are taking ourselves, is too grounded in fact. In reality.

I think a lot about this idea of optimism. Often, I feel like optimism is an evil thing. We can feel optimistic that someone will find a solution, or that technology will save us, or that the Lord will intervene. But by feeling that optimism, it gets us off the hook: instead of realizing where we are headed, instead of doing something to prevent that bad outcome, we can just look on the bright side, have faith that it will all be OK, and go about our merry business.

I remember feeling this way when I worked on an adventure race in Chile. I was in charge of safety for the kayaking sections of the race. To me, that meant that my job was to foresee what could go wrong, in advance of it ever happening, and taking the actions to prevent it from happening. To think of all of the “what-ifs”. What if someone broke their paddle – do we have spare paddles on the compulsory gear list? What if the teams are far apart and a strong wind comes up and tips several kayaks at once – do we have enough support boats to effect all the rescues? My Chilean colleagues accused me of being a pessimist. “Just think positive,” they admonished. “Pray that the wind doesn’t come up.”

But I wasn’t being pessimist. I was just looking ahead, being realistic. These things happen in Patagonia: the wind does come up, and the water is very cold. We are an intelligent species. (So they say). One thing that we humans can do is look ahead and see where things are going, and take action to influence that course.

As I look ahead, though, with all of this bloody Earth Sciences knowledge that I hold, I find it hard to be optimistic. In fact, for the past few years I have felt that this knowledge, which forces me to be a realist, has also turned me into a pessimist.

In fact, until this week, I thought that I held out no hope at all.

But on Monday, Jack Layton, the man who epitomized hope and optimism, died. I am surprised – no, shocked – that for two days I have been in tears over a man, a politician no less!, who I never met, who I never once saw in public.

And I realize that I must still have some hope left in me. I would not be crying if I had already given up.

Jack gave hope to our whole country – even to a realistic pessimistic cynic like me. It is so sad, so very very sad, that we will never know what he would have accomplished in these coming years, these years that he should have had, as Leader of the Opposition.

Jack Layton’s last words to Canadians have been oft-repeated these last two days, but they are worth repeating:

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.

This rock, hurtling through space

August 17, 2011

Perseid meteor showerImage by Darren Kirby, used via CC license.

We’re nearing the end of the annual Perseid meteor shower, which peaked this past weekend. I caught a few glimpses of it on Saturday night, soaking in my friends’ hot tub after an all-day trail run – but the viewing this year wasn’t as good as usual, on account of the nearly full moon brightening the sky.

Meteor showers are really meaningful to me. It is really easy in our day-to-day life, driving around or sitting in front of our computers, to forget that we are miraculously stuck onto Read more…