Confessions of a Dandelion Anarchist

I confess that I used to be a dandelion anarchist. For years, after we moved into this house, I raged in silence at the City for spraying herbicides in the park behind us to kill off the dandelions and clover. It seemed to be such an archaic practice. After all, many cities had already banned the “cosmetics” as they are called.

Every second year or so, the City would begin the spray program. They always announced their operation with a few tiny white signs, pushed into the ground at about ankle level. I didn’t know much about what chemical they were using. I didn’t need to. In the on-spray years, I would watch the dandelions and clover wither, and with them, the bees that used to dine with abandon.

Now, I’m no alarmist about chemical exposure. I carry the burden of my own toxic load. My first summer job as an engineering student was to figure out how to de-water mercury contaminated sludge. It was a glamourous assignment! Yet, to me, that was even more reason to limit my exposure in the off-hours. And the bees? What did they eat when we killed their food source to ensure we had a perfectly manicured park?

I didn’t do anything about it. I once took a photo of the dollar-bill sized warning signs – and filed it away. I thought I should write the City, maybe attend a council meeting. Thoughts are fleeting and so was my resolve. But, every now and then, I’d notice a dandelion that had re-surfaced and grown itself to seed. I would pick it and gleefully blow the dandelion fluff all over our barren park, chuckling silently to myself.

What do dandelion fluff and energy literacy have to do with each other?  The connection grew organically for me.

About ten years ago, I was visiting friends in Victoria who are active in the environmental movement. During a hike in the off-leash area with their dog, I asked a thousand questions that we Albertans constantly mull. Why don’t we use consumer campaigns? Why isn’t there more momentum? How will we solve these problems? A small root took hold that day. During the dialogue, I discovered that activists categorize people into three camps. First, there are the technocrats – the politicians, scientists and business people who work within the establishment. Then, the activists, who are already engaged with the cause.  Finally, there are the “soccer moms”.

It’s this category that fascinated me the most and gave me pause to consider my own limited action.

This group is generally composed of women who are educated about our environmental problems, and not particularly bought into the establishment which hasn’t always served women well. They do some household recycling and follow the issues but are not active beyond that point. They are, apparently, a quiet, powerful force, yet to be tapped.

Here I am, many years later, literally a soccer mom.  I also happen to be a chemical engineer. I’ve had roles in energy conservation, I took courses to become a Certified Energy Manager, and I once held a chair position with the Canadian Industry Program for Energy Conservation.

There was a lot of substance in those roles and I felt good about my contribution. Still, my own behaviour and that of soccer moms everywhere has continued to plague me.

More recently, the dearth of real information available to Canadians in a digestible format about pipelines, oil industry expansion, and carbon legislation, makes me cringe.

I have thought about writing a blog for a long time now. A few things happened to bring me to this place.

First, the Fort McMurray wildfire literally lit a spark under me. Like most of our 80,000 residents, on May 3rd, 2016, I made a deal with my maker about how I would spend my life if my family and I survived. It’s been two years since that terrifying and inspirational event and it seems a good time to kick-start upholding my end of the bargain.

Second, in April 2016, I attended the Alberta Schools Council Association conference in Edmonton.  There, I sat in on a session entitled “Climate Literacy in the Classroom”. The jist of it was how we might teach our children more about environmental and climate issues so that when they grow up, they can participate in the solutions. It was an “aha” moment. I thought, OK, I want to do this.

The final nail was hammered home when I attended Julie Rowe’s “Creative Writing for Beginners – Find Your Voice” at our local library. There, Julie encouraged us to explore our own voice as writers and to examine conflict within ourselves and our characters to enhance our writing. That was it for me. I was finally able to silence the critic whose constant chattering in my head goes something like this – Who am I to talk about climate literacy when I’m so clearly conflicted between my ideals and my own career path in oil and gas? Julie’s words made me realize that I could write, not despite my personal conflict, but precisely because of it.

I don’t know if things happen for a reason in our lives, or if we humans are simply adept at making sense of pivotal events. After the wildfire, Canadians put aside their differences and acted as one empathetic force to provide comfort to those of us fleeing disaster. As of late, it is hard to recognize that we live in the same country what with inter-provincial pipeline spats, carbon tax lawsuits, and flying political jabs. If climate change is indeed a disaster smouldering in our future, then we need to engage. From my end, I think it is high time that technical folks speak up to help Canadians navigate these murky waters towards energy literacy and an orderly, logical, energy transition.

It’s worth it, I think, to blow some seeds over the fence, and see what sprouts.

Alisa Caswell has a degree in chemical engineering. She spent ten years working in the natural gas pipeline industry and another ten in oil sands. She has had roles in operations, energy conservation, and previously held the position of Chair – Oil Sands, Canadian Industry Program for Energy Conservation (CIPEC). She lives in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Linked In.

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Kinder Morgan – the View from Over the Fence


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