Friday, July 30, 2010

Public is the key partner in Caribfest's green success

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "You can help make Caribfest even greener")

Caribfest 2010 aims to be the world’s greenest Caribbean festival, and Barrie’s greenest summer event. The organizers have put a lot of thought, planning, and effort into this, but can’t do it alone. To succeed, both in expanding Barrie’s cultural scene and reducing ecological footprint, will take many partnerships.

Caribfest is partnering with the City and community organizations like Living Green. But the most important partnership is with the public. Without your support, the event can’t meet its goals.

The first thing Caribfest needs is volunteers. While many are already signed on, there’s always room for more. By volunteering, you not only make this wonderful event possible, you get perks like free food, access to mainstage events, and a post-event BBQ. There are even prizes for recruiting friends and family to help!

Whatever your skill or background, you can help. Those licensed to drive or tend bar are needed. Setup and cleanup, event security, or marshalling the parade beckon any able-bodied helper. If you must sit, you can collect tickets or supervise a “greening centre” for total waste diversion. Interested in the arts? You can assemble parade floats or work as a stage hand.

High school students get hourly credit, and all volunteers are sure to have a rewarding experience. Contact volunteer coordinator Heidi Hoell at or 705-252-6822.

But volunteering is just one important community partnership. Caribfest hopes to be our greenest festival, but can only do that if the attendees also do their part.

The first step is getting there. Downtown is busy enough, but with event traffic and parade road closures, driving and parking may get hairy. So don’t drive! If you live close enough, walk. If you’re a bit further, take your bicycle. There will be free, supervised bike corrals so you can park your ride worry-free. You could even arrive by rollerblade or skateboard, if that’s your style.

If walking or wheeling don’t work, Barrie Transit can do the job. Most bus routes take you right downtown, near the event site and directly to the parade route. Or, if you must drive, consider sharing a ride with a friend or neighbour instead of coming separately.

A big source of waste at many festivals is bottled water. Clearing crowds often leave mounds of empty bottles in their wake. Even if recycled, the energy waste is significant, yet bottled water is no cleaner than tap water anyway. Caribfest and the City are working hard to ensure there will be plentiful fresh water on site, so you can help by bringing your own canteen, thermos, or refillable sports bottle instead of using throwaways.

The food vendors will all be using special compostable dishes, but that only works if they go into the right receptacles. So please be sure to take your food waste to the greening centres for composting, instead of littering or throwing it into trash cans that go to landfill.

With your participation, Caribfest can indeed be a green inspiration for other festivals, here and everywhere.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

$18 for 68 cents of gas: minimum charges must go

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner under the title "It's time to place the onus on the energy user"; the print version was incorrectly published without the critical first two paragraphs)

Last month I got a rather odd bill from Enbridge. It was for a modest $18.68 (plus tax), but according to the breakdown, I used 68 cents worth of natural gas, for the privilege of receiving which I paid $18. Actual gas was less than 4% of my bill; I paid 26 times more just to be a customer. This can’t be right, can it?

I can explain but not justify this discrepancy. I have an extremely efficient furnace and solar water heating, so we don’t use much gas, especially in summer. But the real reason the bill was so far out of whack is because Enbridge only checks my meter every second month, and estimates for their monthly bills between. Yet despite having had this furnace/heater combination for 4 years, they still can’t estimate right. On the months they guess, they bill me far too much; when they check the meter, the bill is either low or even negative. It seems their system can’t comprehend a conserving customer. If they went to two-month billing like PowerStream, or if their computer got smarter, that problem at least would go away. But it would still leave the problem of minimum billing.

Our gas, electric, and water billing all share a common flaw: a minimum or basic charge you have to pay every month regardless of how much you use. That amount is fixed and mandatory, no matter how much you conserve. As a result, the harder you work to save, the more of your bill is fixed charges. Sure, those who use more pay more, but their customer charge pales next to their consumption fees.

A better, fairer way to bill would be to eliminate customer charges, and raise usage fees slightly to make up for the loss. That way, your bill would simply be a multiple of how much you used, and you’d save more by conserving (or pay more for wasting). When you tank up your car, do you pay a fixed station customer fee on top of the gasoline price? No, those costs are rolled into the price of each litre. So why pay more at home? Although there are infrastructure costs to hook us up, the major bills these days come from upgrading and upsizing our supply to meet growing demand. We must build new power and water treatment plants and drill more gas wells, at great financial and environmental cost. We all end up paying those costs, whether we conserve or waste. And that’s not fair.

Last year Barrie City staff proposed lowering the sliding volume-based water fees and making up for it with higher fixed customer charges. Luckily our Council saw the wisdom in making wasters paying for waste, and kept the sliding rate fee structure. Kudos to them, and let’s see if that same attitude can be used to further lower fixed fees and put the staggering costs of new infrastructure where they belong – on the shoulders of those who use and waste the most water, gas, or electricity.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Note: although writing this column was sparked by the surreal gas bill I received, the conclusion is inspired by conversations with friend and colleague Dr. Peter Bursztyn of Living Green.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Greens grassroot roots can be very tangled

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

The most interesting thing times in political parties are leadership contests. Leaders represent the ultimate expression of the party’s “personality”, and in our personality-obsessed culture, that means a lot. Conservative leader Stephen Harper is famous for his tight personal grip on the party message and the government he leads, while Stephane Dion’s poor communication skills hamstrung his entire Liberal Party’s image during the last election. The only Green Party member that most Canadians can name (if they can name any) is leader Elizabeth May.

All major Canadian political parties choose their leaders the same way: wait until the previous leader retires from old age or leaves in disgrace, then have a race. Leadership reviews typically follow elections, especially if they don’t win or increase seat count. Anything under 75% is a sign that the leader needs to move on. But as long as the leader is winning elections or otherwise keeping the members happy, the term has no set limit.

Did I say all parties? There is one notable exception: the Green Party of Canada, which has fixed terms: 2 years until 2006, when it doubled to 4. This set term reflected the general feeling of the leader as the party’s first spokesperson, but at most first among equals, not in charge of anything. Of course, the party had no seats, few members, even fewer candidates, and no assets, so there wasn’t much to lead. Greens come from a grassroots tradition which resists “leaders”, or any top-down structure. Previously 99% of Canadians – even party members! – would be hard-pressed to name the Green Party leader. The position was filled mainly to satisfy Canadian electoral law.

Not a problem until recent years when the party grew exponentially, receiving significant votes, hiring full-time staff, and a paid, full-time (rather than volunteer, part-time) leader. Now leadership actually matters to party success, and a serious stable of contenders vie for the position.

By the rules, there was to be a leadership race this summer, May’s 4-year term expiring in August. But she has not lost a leadership review (as we have no review process), and led the party to more votes in the last election than ever before. In other parties, there would be no race. A fall election looming, it’s awkward timing for a leadership contest; there are good reasons to change the rules.

But rules don’t change easily in the Green Party. It’s the grassroots thing again. Our constitution can only be changed by a vote of the whole membership, which only happens at our general meetings every other year. Motions are pending to change the rules, delaying a leadership race, but will require 60% support at August’s national convention in Toronto. And some members believe a contest now would promote the party and grow membership, so support the status quo and want a race.

Barrie party members will discuss these motions at a public information session at 1 pm this Sunday at the Barrie Public Library. If you’re interested in how parties make their own rules, you are welcome to attend to listen or speak. If nothing else, it’s a chance to see the kind of debate which usually takes place deep in the back rooms.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Barrie's Caribfest to be the greenest of all

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, published in a slightly abridged version under the title "Caribfest showing great environmental flair")

Culture is a very important part of our economy, because we can grow culturally without depleting our natural resources. Singing, dancing, sharing ideas and stories should be things we can do without having to worry that we are harming the Earth in the process. Yet if cultural events aren’t planned with ecology in mind, they can trample the natural world we want to celebrate. I’ve been to concerts and festivals and been dismayed at the litter left behind, or the energy unnecessarily wasted.

Barrie’s Caribfest is eager to avoid this pitfall, and instead be the “greenest” Caribbean festival in the world. In the process, they will probably be the greenest festival of any type in the region, besides Ecofest itself.

Many weeks ago, Caribfest organizer Ricardo Rowe contacted me, in my role as a director of Barrie’s chief environmental NGO Living Green, to seek our assistance in “greening” Caribfest. At first I was a bit skeptical, since it isn’t a request we’d ever received before, but signaled that we were open to providing whatever help we could. In my mind were already a number of concerns I expected the organizers would overlook. I asked him to send us a written proposal.

When he did, I was pleasantly surprised. Caribfest anticipated and addressed several major concerns I had in mind. Rather than use noisy, stinky diesel generators, stages will hook up to the electric grid and festival sponsor Bullfrog Power will contribute the electricity. To avoid litter and landfill, not only will they have staffed waste sorting stations, but will mandate that all food vendors use uniform biodegradable dishes and containers. And they will offset their unavoidable carbon emissions by planting trees.

This was a fantastic start! It immediately upped the ante, so our board brainstormed more advanced measures to help further green Caribfest. We proposed bike corrals, so cyclists could come to the fest without worrying about parking or bike theft. We suggested event guests and attendees be provided information on getting to Barrie and downtown using transit or shared rides. We recommended that any trees used to offset carbon be planted either in Barrie or in the Caribbean, rather than some unspecified location. And all of those suggestions were enthusiastically adopted! Caribfest even plans to plant food-producing trees in poor Caribbean regions which will not only absorb carbon, but will provide other ecological, health, economic and social benefits.

The greatest challenge, especially for an outdoor summer event, is avoiding the modern plague of throwaway bottled water. Yet the Caribfest organizers are forgoing some lucrative sponsorship opportunities and doing what they can to encourage people to use refillable bottles and our own Barrie tap water, which meets the highest quality standards in the world. They are also asking food vendors to consider locally-sourcing their ingredients in future.

I am happy to say that Living Green is extremely impressed with the commitment of the Caribfest committee to reducing their ecological footprint. If you want to support this kind of approach, your first chance is this Saturday, July 10. Boarding the Serendipity Princess at 8:30 pm is the 6th annual Caribbean Dinner & Dance Cruise. An exclusive evening of food, music, costume and dance awaits. Tickets are limited, so visit or the Roti Jerk at 69 Dunlop West to get yours soon!
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.