Editor’s note: Decafnation originally published this essay a year ago. For a silly version of the annual holiday letter, go here.
At this season I seldom had a visitor. When the snow lay deepest, no wanderer ventured near my house for a week or a fortnight at a time, but there I lived as snug as a meadow mouse.
… Thoreau in Walden
I/dropcap] once took a series of photographs of a man named Harry. In his own way, Harry modeled the life of Thoreau. He lived alone in a shack he built himself 25 years earlier, while he was slipping into legally blindness. When technology made it possible to transplant new sight into his eye sockets, Harry vowed to see the world from a different perspective.
During each subsequent Christmas season, this individualist shared the view from his perch in a letter he wrote “to the world.”
Like Thoreau at Walden, Harry drew much out of his solitude, contending that his treasures are memories tucked away in his mind “to be brought forth when the long nights become lonely, like this one.” He wrote this letter on one of those lonely nights.
“It’s Christmas time again. White ruffled curtains are sifting the moonlight. The soft yellow lights from the neighbor’s kitchen are buttering the falling snow. Yesterday’s puddles wear a grey skin of ice and our ponds have shut their eyelids on the winter cold. The evergreens are mittened with frost.”
Harry spent a lot of time with nature. He loved birds and animals. He was never an important man by the standards of status and financial success. He was a logger for a while and finished his working career as a janitor.
But he was a keen observer, a rough poet, a witty, wise old man who had a long love affair with clouds and stars.
“I stood in awe and wonder. Dawn started emerging from the womb of night, and slowly the sun was chinning itself on the horizon. Pillowed clouds, gently aired by a slight breeze, seemed like hooded friars telling their beads in the morning sun.”
Harry often turned nostalgic.
“I grew up in the days when you could buy a nickel’s worth of something, when sex education was learning to kiss without bumping noses, when buying on time meant getting there before the store closed, when health foods were whatever your mother said you’d better eat and when it cost less to educate your son that it does now to amuse his children.”
A man of little formal education, Harry spent most of his hours of solitude reading classics. He also kept up with current events and lamented the frenetic modern world.
“When I was young, we had little mental anguish, no tense nerves to frustrate the spirit. The hardships were usually resolved by a good night’s sleep. Our lives were tranquil and uncomplicated, not plagued by the traumatic turmoil or the age of the spaceship and the terrorist. We didn’t want much because we didn’t see much to want.
“The answer to the world’s problems may be in that statement.”
There was a small marsh near where he lived. He spent more time than usual before his small wood stove that year. At 80 years, it felt colder than it really was.
Harry never became pessimistic. He embraced nature as a buffer to a world he did not fully understand. Or didn’t want to. He died during his sleep some years back, probably after his nightly ritual.
“The last thing I do every night before retiring is to step out the back door and look upward.”
To continue his love affair with the clouds and the stars.
Friday Morning Briefing
The Comox Valley Regional District has approved revisions to the Kensington Island Properties development plan for the Union Bay area. Read the CVRD news release here.
The Air Quality Advisory for the Comox Valley remains in effect because of high concentrations of fine particulates that are expected to persist until weather conditions change. This advisory applies to Cumberland. Read it here.
The Mack Laing Heritage Society has launched a GoFundMe page to support its efforts to preserve the renowned naturalist’s homes, called Shakesides. You can donate here.
Now that downtown Courtenay has ventured into special pedestrian crossings, perhaps the city might consider a 3D zebra crosswalk to slow down speeding cars. This idea comes from Iceland, so Councillor Erik Eriksson should be interested. See it here.
The decades-old, worldwide movement to ban the use of thin plastic bags has finally reached Vancouver Island — but not the Comox Valley.
From Uganda to St. John’s Newfoundland. And from Denmark to California, cities, states and entire countries have banned the distribution of the thin single-use polyethylene plastic bags.
And the trend is moving north on Vancouver Island. A Victoria bag ban goes into effect on July 1. Nanaimo has voted to ban the bags, and Parksville and Qualicum Beach are in the process.
But the topic has barely crossed the radar of elected officials in the Comox Valley.
What’s the problem?
One trillion lightweight plastic shopping bags are used worldwide every year, according to the Earth Policy Institute. That’s two million every minute.
Americans use about one of these bags per person per day. Canadians use one to two bags per week. In Denmark, where the world’s first plastic bag ban was implemented in 1993, Danes use only about four bags per person per year.
Based on a rough estimate of our current regional population (67,000), and if Comox Valley residents are typical Canadian consumers, we’re using and discarding somewhere between 9,000 and 19,000 plastic bags per day.
That’s a big problem. Most of these bags contain polyethylene and therefore do not biodegrade. They will last virtually forever.
And, unfortunately, fewer than 3 percent of the bags get recycled. The rest end up in landfills or fly away to wallpaper fences and trees and often will ultimately wash down rivers and streams into the ocean.
Among the common trash items found on beaches, the bags rank second, contributing significantly to the massive patch of garbage swirling together in the Pacific Ocean. When the plastic eventually breaks down into tiny bits, it’s consumed by marine life and then works it way back up the food chain to humans.
To address this issue, governments across Canada and around the world are curtailing the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags .
Comox Valley elected officials
It’s surprising that the Comox Valley, a region with such a strong environmental reputation, has not yet banned non-biodegradable bags. Especially because there are plenty of documented benefits and practically no downside to a ban.
But from a quick email survey of Comox Valley elected officials, it appears that only the City of Courtenay has ever discussed the topic of banning single-use plastic bags.
Courtenay Mayor Larry Jangula said, “Our council dealt with this issues several years ago and at that time choose to convince retail outlets to push for cloth shopping bags, which has been done.”
Councilor Bob Wells said he recalls that discussion and he subsequently supported the Comox Valley Chamber of Commerce’s successful initiative to encourage retailers and consumers to use reusable shopping bags.
Still, Wells said he could support a city bag ban.
In Comox, Mayor Paul Ives doesn’t favor a municipal ban, although Councilor Maureen Swift said “It sounds like a great idea.”
“It would be best to come from the retail sector rather than top down,” Ives said.
That sentiment was echoed by Cumberland council members, who feel it’s a non-issue in their village.
“Many of Cumberland’s vendors are already doing it (not offering plastic bags),” said Council Roger Kishi. “We don’t want to be ‘big’ government, so we don’t want to intervene where we don’t need to.”
Councilor Gwen Sproule agreed.
“Not sure why it would be discussed, because I can’t think which business gives out single-use bags,” she said. “Certainly not Seeds Organics supermarket.”
But Sproule added that possibly the convenience stores are using them, and that might warrant some discussion.
A Chamber effort in 2009
It’s somewhat surprising that the Comox Valley Chamber of Commerce has been the leader of a movement to eliminate single-use plastic shopping bags. It’s generally — and wrongly — assumed that businesses oppose banning the bags.
But Chamber Chief Executive Officer Diane Hawkins said there was a “terrific response from the business community … to our well-run marketing plan.”
Promotion poster from the 2009 Chamber initiative to reduce use of plastic shopping bags
Starting on February 13, 2009, more than 60 local businesses and agencies participated in distributing 75,000 reusable shopping bags to customers through businesses and local schools in an effort to reduce plastic bag use. There was an accompanying education campaign to explain why the bags are harmful and how people could get involved.
“We had terrific community engagement,” Hawkins said. “People still ask us if they can buy the chamber Eco-Bags. It was a wonderful project that embraced the entire Comox Valley.”
The chamber also lobbied their B.C. chamber colleagues to adopt a “Bagless BC policy.” But the initiative for a provincial bag ban didn’t get much traction.
As good as it was, the chamber’s program relied on each individual business to voluntarily stop using plastic bags. Many, perhaps most, locally-owned businesses still do not offer plastic bags.
But the biggest source of plastic bags in our environment have not complied. Many big box stores, convenience stores, grocery stores and others still offer them. And some of the worst bags come from specialty clothing store chains that give out large plastic bags with purchases.
Yet, Costco has proven that big volume retailers can thrive without offering any shopping bags whatsoever.
Meaghan Cursons, who was contracted to manage the chamber’s initiative, said the biggest problem is changing the behaviour of consumers.
“Until we change, in a significant way, how we as a culture consume, the bag issue won’t go away,” she said. “But removing the ones that don’t actually get recycled, float away in the wind, end up in the water and look like seaweed and sea life is a great start.”
Worldwide bag bans
Leaf Rapids, Man. was the first community in Canada to ban plastic bags in April 2007. Since then, hundreds of large and small Canadian municipalities have followed suit.
Toronto was the first major city in Canada to ban plastic bags effective on Jan. 1, 2013. A Montreal ban begins Jan. 1, 2018.
St. John’s Newfoundland voted in a ban on Nov. 15, despite council members pleading for a province-wide ban.
“Come on, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, get this done for all of us,” said Councilor Debbie Hanlon to CBC News.
A high school student in Fort McMurray, Alberta, created a widely supported petition in 2008 that persuaded the City Council to adopt a ban in 2009.
So in the epicenter of the Canadian oil sands, fossil fuel industry workers carry reusable bags into their grocery stores. If it can happen there, surely it could happen in the Comox Valley.
Denmark was the first country to enact a nationwide ban, but many others have followed: Ireland, Italy, Iceland, Brazil, Bangladesh, Belgium and the list goes on.
It will surprise many that Africa has been a global leaders in the bag ban movement. The flimsy bags were a blight on the African landscape, and many people resorted to burning them, which contributed to the 23 percent of all African deaths linked to environmental factors.
Uganda, Somalia, Rwanda, Kenya, South Africa and Ethiopia all have total bans in place.
Why not have a Valley-wide ban?
We used to package fast food in Styrofoam boxes, because it was cheap and easy, or so we thought. Once consumers and businesses realized the true costs of the environmental cleanup, it was a painless transition back to paper containers.
No one misses Styrofoam, certainly not our city sewers or the mid-ocean garbage gyres.
There is simply no good reason to continue using the plastic bags in the Comox Valley when there are constructive alternatives available: reusable bags or five-cent paper bags.
Several elected officials told Decafnation that a Valley-wide ban would be too difficult to coordinate between municipalities and the regional district. But it’s been done successfully in other communities that encompass multiple jurisdictions.
And those who use the harmful plastic bags for garbage or picking up dog poop would just have to buy biodegradable versions.
As Meaghan Cursons said, our “culture has to shift its thinking in general about consumption, and waste.”
Besides, when did shoppers become entitled to free plastic bags? It’s a convenience we’ve come to expect, but which our planet can no longer afford.
Further reading: Stop being a bag lady (or bag guy), St. John’s wants province to ban bags, Which countries have banned plastic bags?, What’s so bad about plastic bags?
The Comox Valley Record, our local newspaper, drew widespread criticism last week by turning over its Dec. 12th front page to an advertisement that looked like a news story. The “advertorial” was sponsored by a development company at war with some residents and the Comox Valley Regional District.
But it wasn’t the newspaper’s real front page. It was what the industry calls a “wrap” — an advertisement that mimics the look of an actual front page, but is, in fact, a fake front page. The special outrage in the case was caused by the paper’s failure to label it as advertising.
In response, people have left a long thread of mostly angry comments on the Record’s Facebook page, where publisher Keith Currie apologized for “inadvertently” failing to include “identifying markers, making it easily recognizable to the reader as an advertisement, and not editorially-produced journalism.”
Most people aren’t buying his mea culpa.
Reading the paper’s Facebook page thread, it’s obvious that people believe the newspaper intentionally left off a typographical element that would have identified the two-page groan by a Fanny Bay company, 3L Developments, which is frustrated that it can’t bend the will of the CVRD planning department.
Angry readers seem to think the developer flashed his cash so the publisher and advertising manager would look the other way when the page went to press without a prominent disclaimer identifying it as an ad, not a news story.
It’s a believable theory, but a hard one to prove.
As someone who has spent 50+ years in the newspaper business, I can assure you that advertisers sometimes do pressure advertising sales representatives to omit disclaimers. I can also verify that all newspaper employees know — or should know — the absolute rule that requires paid content to be clearly identified as such.
That said, humans make errors, and this could have been one.
But the problem in this case is that the focus on an omission of a disclaimer misses the most troubling aspect of this fiasco.
The more serious error committed by the Record was that it published the advertorial on its fake front page at all.
In the long, slow decline of printed newspapers, the search for new sources of advertising revenue has led to the selling of its most precious real estate: the front page. It started with banner ads across the bottom and small ads at the top.
The selling of the front page has escalated into fake front page wraps. These are usually recognizable advertisements for retail businesses. They’re ads just like the ones inside the newspaper. But for a higher price, the newspaper will put them on a false front.
Even such esteemed newspapers as The Los Angeles Times do it.
The 3L Developments fake page falls into a different category, however, because it mimics a news story. Whether to publish it on the cover of the newspaper should have included ethical considerations — and rejection.
Why? The 3L Developments advertisement bemoans its plan to develop 495 acres along the Brown and Puntledge rivers, including the popular Stotan Falls. The controversial project has already triggered several legal actions.
And the content of the advertorial includes disparaging remarks about the actions of an elected official and an unverified quote from a CVRD staff member.
By placing the advertorial on a fake front page, The Record unfortunately gave the impression that 3L Developments’ version of the situation was factual, without the scrutiny that a legitimate news gathering organization would require.
3L Developments may be able to support every word in its advertorial. That isn’t the point. Although, there’s no indication so far that the Record conducted any independent fact-checking.
Knowing the topic is so controversial and legally complex, the Record committed a serious error in judgment by giving the advertorial such prominent placement.
The omission of some words identifying the article as paid advertising content is trivial by comparison.
But before we’re done roasting the Record or any other publication that publishes advertorials on fake front pages or elsewhere, let’s take a moment to reflect on the slow breaking down of the historical wall between advertising and news.
Have you opened a web page recently and seen a fake news (aka “sponsored content”) post like this: “How I made $2,000 a week working from my Comox Valley home!” Or, “How I achieved financial freedom working just four hours per week?”
These are just the reinvention of print newspaper and magazine ads that, for example, tout formulas for losing weight without diet or exercise, or how people can improve their eyesight to see in the dark.
Presenting advertising in a quasi-news format has made the wall between actual journalism and paid content so paper thin that it is almost invisible to the unwary reader. And that only benefits advertisers.
Marketers have discovered that inserting paid content that looks like news next to real journalism can boost the credibility of their products.
It does something else, too: it drags everybody down. Most people aren’t completely fooled by the paid content, but the work of serious journalists gets tainted by association.
The editors who mentored me in my early journalism career pounded home the notion that acting ethically was just as important as how many words per minute I could type.
In a world where the term “fake news” gets thrown around indiscriminately, some people no longer feel bound to think and act ethically. Sadly, that’s going to sully real journalism for everybody else.
Monday Morning Briefing
To mark the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human rights today, CV Amnesty invites community members to write on behalf of Indigenous land protectors, peaceful protesters and others wrongly imprisoned. Read about it here
A new film created by young Comox Valley filmmakers will be screened Friday evening at the Florence Filberg Centre. Read about it here
B.C. Premier John Horgan will announce the government’s decision on whether to continue or cancel the Site C hydroelectric dam today. Read about it here
The Cumberland Fire Department has not released word yet about the cause of a fire Friday that destroyed three homes and left one man missing. Read it here