Tag Archives | climate change

How does your (rain) garden grow? A mosaic about really green infrastructure

You might recall that climate change is going to mess with precipitation trends (I made a mosaic about it a while back) and, as a result, some areas of the world will experience more intense downpours. In cities, which tend to be covered with a high percentage of impermeable surfaces (think roads, rooftops, parking lots, etc.), this water can’t soak in, so we have to direct it somewhere using man-made solutions, like storm sewers. When our storm sewers get overwhelmed by a big rainfall event, we can end up with flooding in our streets and our basements.

As these downpours become more intense and cities continue to expand (thereby increasing the surface area covered by concrete, asphalt, and the like), local officials are finding that they’re having to deal with increasing stormwater runoff. One option is to build bigger and bigger storm sewers, but that sort of hard infrastructure can get pretty expensive and you’ll always be playing catch-up as the climate continues to change. A better (and complementary) option is to manage the rain where it falls. Slow it down. Let it soak in. And what’s naturally built to do that? Plants are! Leaves slow down the falling rain, while roots and the soil let it soak in. Not only does this help redirect water away from our storm sewers and avoid overburdening them, but it also helps recharge our groundwater.

julie sperling mosaic about rain gardens green infrastructure bioswale

“Bioswale (Slow it down, soak it up)” (2017) 20″ x 18″ approx. — asphalt, limestone, sandstone, marble, litovi, smalti

Back when I worked on adaptation (which seems like ages ago but in reality was less than a year ago), I had a huge crush on green infrastructure. It just makes sense: it’s cheaper, it comes with a whole bundle of co-benefits, and it actually gets stronger / appreciates with age. Now, when I say “green infrastructure” I’m talking about really green infrastructure (natural infrastructure), like trees and plants and things, not “green infrastructure” the way the current federal government is using the term (to mean environmentally beneficial infrastructure, like public transit or energy efficient housing). Not that there’s anything wrong with the latter definition, I just find coopting an already-established term a bit…confusing. Anyway, we’re talking plants here and using them to solve a problem we’ve created by letting them just do what they do.

There are lots of ways to team up with nature to deal with climate change impacts, like extreme precipitation, heatwaves, and drought, as well as reaping other benefits, like expanding wildlife habitat, creating recreation opportunities, improving air quality, etc. But the specific focus of this mosaic was how rain gardens (and bioswales, which are kind of just big rain gardens but with a much cooler sounding name) can help deal with extreme precipitation.

Rain gardens are pretty much what you think they are: gardens designed to soak up rain. They’re typically located in lower-lying spots / depressions in your yard where the rain would tend to pool naturally and/or in line with your downspout so they can catch the water coming off your roof (rain barrels are also good for this). You can dig the area out and add soil or other filler that will allow it to better soak up the rainwater like a sponge, and then you add plants that are water-loving. It’s as easy as that! (The City of Guelph has a good little primer / guide here.)

Water swirling around and around…

In this mosaic, these low-lying areas—prime candidates for rain gardens—are represented through an undulating surface full of swells and valleys. The lines swirl away from the asphalt sections at the tops of the undulations (where the water can’t soak in), running downhill and getting greener and wetter as you move toward the pools at the bottoms of the depressions.

A better look at the asphalt (which was NOT fun to work with)

In the KW area, if you’re looking for help with this sort of undertaking, check out REEP Green Solutions. They offer information and workshops on building your own rain garden and on other green living solutions. They’re a fantastic local resource and you can actually see many sustainable solutions in action at the REEP House for Sustainable Living. And, if you live in Kitchener or Waterloo (and a growing number of other municipalities), you can even reduce the stormwater charge you pay to the city if you install a rain garden (or other stormwater management features).

In short: rain gardens look pretty, help your community deal with stormwater (including keeping your basement dry), and save you money. Not a bad deal!

Looking out across the rain gardens, with glints of gold smalti catching the sun

A close-up of some of the smaller pools

Mmmmmm topography

1

These boots: A personal mosaic geography of life on foot in Ottawa

I have gone the vast majority—we’re talking 98% majority—of my life without owning a car. I loved our car-free lifestyle, and it was a bit of a source of pride. But when we moved from Ottawa to Kitchener, we finally had to cave and buy our first car, since Kitchener, as a whole, is far more car-centric than Ottawa.

Year 1 of car ownership has been a bit of a difficult transition for me. Walking used to be my primary mode of transportation, with public transit, biking, and car sharing also thrown in for good measure. On any given weekday, my feet would carry me a minimum of 6 kilometres from home to the office and back. That’s at least 30 km per week, 120 km per month, and well over 1,000 km per year.

I walked in the glaring sun, the pouring rain, and the bitter cold. Walking the same path day after day, I got to know my landscape, my Place, intimately. I also got time to think. Walking for me is meditative and, as an introvert, is one of my favourite ways to recharge. It also doesn’t hurt that I stumble upon some pretty neat mosaic materials when walking.

I now telework and my commute is much shorter. Just the 14 stairs from the bedroom down to the office. I still get to walk the dog, but he’s gotten older and isn’t as spry, so the walks are slower and we don’t range as far afield anymore. And then there’s this confession: it is SO easy to fall into the trap of driving everywhere.

I’ve noticed a difference in myself, in both my fitness (no more exercise built into my daily routine by default) and in my mental state (no more automatic recharge and quietening of the mind while walking). So I’ve decided to work on rectifying the situation. Since I’m asking Kitchener residents to commit to taking one action to address climate change and then make a mosaic about it for my project, I figured I should lead by example. So one of my personal commitments is to walk/bike more (really, to drive less).

This will, of course, help reduce my carbon footprint significantly, especially given that nearly one quarter (24%) of Canada’s GHG emissions come from transportation. The transportation sector is second only to the oil and gas sector (*cough* tar sands *cough*) in terms of total emissions nationally. And here in Waterloo Region, it’s actually Number One. So there’s a lot of room for improvement. I can certainly do my part.

This mosaic is actually a map of my walking routes from my last few years in Ottawa, with some of the most important places marked: home, work (x2), the grocery store, the gym, the bus station (for those weekend trips to Montreal to visit R), the graffiti wall (one of my favourite foraging places in Ottawa), and, of course, Parliament Hill.

“The paths most travelled” (2017), 26.5″ x 24.25″ — Redback boot (right), Bogs boot (left), cement, shale, limestone

To build the map, I used urban-sourced materials, like cement, my favourite black limestone from Ottawa, and bits of stone that had flaked off a landscaping rock around the corner from our apartment. I also used my own boots, which I had worn out completely walking these and other paths.

The boots before they went under the knife…

The Bogs kept my feet toasty warm on those frigid winter walks, even when the temperature dipped below -40oC. They began and ended their life on the paths in this mosaic map. I wore them until they had a hole in the sole and water started seeping in (and even then, I put a bag on my foot to get a few more kilometres out of them!). Yes, they were good boots.

A close-up of one of the place markers, which are actually rolled-up strips of the pull tabs from the Redbacks

The Redbacks never actually set foot on these paths, having been retired years before but kept for sentimental reasons (I had bought them when on exchange in Australia in my undergrad and they had a special place in my heart). They saw me through lots of adventures, including my weekend at Touchstone, which is actually probably one of the very last times I wore them. I get a kick out of knowing that these boots, which had travelled so many paths, were there when I took my first tentative steps toward “walking the line” (as Rachel Sager would say) in the Pennsylvania countryside. I could think of no better send-off for both of these boots than to be immortalized in mosaic.

Here’s home base (the place marker on the upper right)

Rubber, stone, and even leather!

I’ve written before about the connection that I see between walking and mosaic, about the “parallels between what I experience when I’m moving through my landscape on foot and what I experience when I’m simultaneously creating and discovering the pathways of my own mosaics.” But this piece, where walking and mosaic came together completely, was one of the purest forms of line-building I’ve ever experienced in my years of working in mosaic. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

The pure joy of line-building

Making this mosaic was a reminder: of all the places these boots have been, of my time in Ottawa, of the joys of walking, and of the fact that I can (and need to) do better to fight the pull of the car.

Looking out across the map, towards Gatineau

Made in Aust(ralia)

 

9

You emit what you eat: A mosaic about food choices and climate change

This is not a mosaic about cow farts. I mean, sure, that’s part of it, but the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that result from our food choices are far more complex than just some passed gas. There are all sorts of ways to reduce the climate impact of our eating habits, but this mosaic focuses on meat consumption. Please rest assured: I am not trying to pry your steaks out of your cold dead hands. I am not saying it’s vegan or bust. I am simply advocating for moderation. For a wee bit of restraint.

There are GHG emissions associated with everything we eat, from lentils to sirloin to apple pie. More than one quarter of the world’s emissions come from our food system—growing and harvesting the food, transporting and storing it, processing it, and then disposing of it—and about 80% of these emissions come from raising livestock. Among the biggest culprits is red meat: on a serving-to-serving basis, beef has a carbon footprint 6 times larger than poultry (though cheese is also pretty emissions-intensive). Essentially, the higher up on the food chain you eat, the more you emit. Of course, there are all sorts of qualifiers, like how your meat is raised (e.g., factory farm vs. small-scale pastured), how far it travels, how much of it you eat, and yes, how much it farts, but the simple fact remains: when it comes to meat, it takes calories to make calories. And as those calories move up the food chain, there is always waste. There is never a perfect transfer of energy from grain to animal to our plates—animals “waste” energy by doing animal things like frolicking in the pasture (if they’re lucky enough to live in one and not in a feedlot).

Emissions from food are projected to increase as consumption rises and as more people adopt a more meat-based diet. But opportunities abound to reduce food-related emissions. A 2016 study estimated the emission reductions possible under four different scenarios: (1) business as usual, (2) most people abstain from red meat and poultry, (3) most go vegan, and (4) people follow food guidelines set out by the World Health Organization and eat only the calories they require, focusing on fruits and vegetables and small portions of meat. If everyone just followed those sensible food guidelines, emissions in 2050 would be 29% lower. If they skipped the red meat and poultry, the decrease would be 55%, and it would be a whopping 70% if we all went vegan.

But like I said at the beginning, I’m not going to take a hardcore stance and insist that we all become vegans. Heck, I’m not even a vegan. I’m not even 100% vegetarian! I guess I’d call myself a flexitarian, but I “flex” only very occasionally, and generally only for “happy meat” (meat that’s been raised sustainably). To me, Michael Pollan said it best when he said: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Julie Sperling mosaic about climate change and meat consumption

“Pollan’s Rule (Mostly Plants)” (2017), 20.25″ x 15.25″ — bones, shale, dishes, gold smalti

This mosaic is about the third part of that quote. The bones were sourced from meat-eating friends. Before they made their way to me, they were used to make beef and turkey stock, a rack of lamb, pork chops, and even chicken wings. Here you’ll see them surrounded by shale as a nod to the emissions associated with them. And it’s important to note that on the central “plate” there are still bones, just not all that many. Like I (well, Pollan) said, mostly plants.

There is something fascinating and beautiful but oddly unsettling and a bit macabre about the bones. In this context, they are thoughtfully used and treated with respect, which is basically how we should treat the meat in our diet: with care and reverence.

Julie Sperling mosaic about climate change and meat consumption -detail of bone

Oooooh! Eeewww!

The dishes that make up the rest of the mosaic were ours. Two plates from our university days, a favourite mug that took an unfortunate tumble in the dishwasher, and a chipped creamer that we finally replaced. It was important to me to use our dishes. They represent various points in our lives, dietarily speaking. They represent the progress we’ve made. They were with us when we phased out most of the meat in our diet. They were with us as we gradually became more and more committed to buying local and organic and cooking our food from scratch (as Pollan would say, “Eat food.”). They were there when I quit taking milk in my coffee, cold turkey. Over the years, our diets have become much more climate friendly, which we feel pretty darn good about.

Julie Sperling mosaic about climate change and meat consumption -detail

Cherished dishes that have seen our eating habits change, now being used in a mosaic that will hopefully inspire others to make a change

I’m not asking you to become a vegan overnight. Just to cut back a bit. Try Meatless Mondays. Commit to buying “happy meat”. Treat meat as a side dish, not the star attraction. And gosh darn it, eat some lentils.

Julie Sperling mosaic about climate change and meat consumption - angle detail

2

Powering change: Energy production and consumption as seen through mosaic

Energy is, in large part, what got us into this climate change mess in the first place. The burning of fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and oil has not been kind to the climate. So naturally, changing how we produce and consume energy—shifting to sustainable energy sources and reducing our consumption—will be an important part of taking action to reduce our climate footprint.

Let me be clear: when I’m talking about green or sustainable energy, I am not talking about things like “clean coal” (which is total greenwashing) or fracked natural gas (as much as some would like to tout this as a ‘transition fuel’ and celebrate its contribution to energy independence). No, when I talk about green energy, I am talking about truly renewable forms, like solar, wind, tidal, hydro (but more in the realm of micro-hydro and run-of-river than large-scale hydro), geothermal, and, in some cases, biomass. Yes, these all have an environmental footprint, as (fossil fuel industry–funded) opponents are fond of pointing out. There are impacts associated with the sourcing materials (e.g., mining) and production, with its transportation and construction, operation (e.g., impacts on wildlife like birds and bats), maintenance, and decommissioning. But anything we do—any form of energy we produce—has an environmental footprint, and the environmental footprint of renewable forms of energy is substantially smaller than that of fossil fuel energy. Of course, the greenest form of energy is the energy we don’t use at all and therefore don’t have to produce in the first place, also known as negawatts (‘negative megawatts’—a term coined by Amory Lovins in the 1980s).

Mosaic about renewable energy by Julie Sperling

“Power dynamic (Renewable production, mindful consumption)” (2017), 22″ x 11″ — marble, litovi, smalti, knob and tube, solar panel, shell, shale, limestone, sandstone, ceramic, miscellaneous stone

This mosaic tackles both renewable energy and sustainable consumption. Starting at the top, there is wind power, complete with clouds made of broken tubes from old knob and tube wiring (which were found in my dad’s garage, of course). Next up is solar power in the form of shiny rays of gold smalti. After that is all water-related forms of energy, but note that there’s lots of motion in the water (thanks to some waves made out of some really amazing shells)—no large problematic dams and reservoirs here!

Wind power and solar power detail of mosaic about renewable energy by Julie Sperling

Knob and tube clouds and golden sunny rays! (Plus negawatts. They’re everywhere!)

Mosaic about renewable energy (tidal and hydro section) by Julie Sperling

The sweetest little pebble stuck in a piece of shell in the water section

Sitting on the ground, there are solar panels ready to catch the sun’s rays above. These were originally part of solar-powered plastic flowers that decorated my grandma’s planter box, but when they broke I scooped them up rather than send them to the landfill. Around the solar panels is a layer of biomass, which, if done properly, is another source of green power (‘properly’ meaning not displacing food production or leading to deforestation, among other factors).

mosaic about renewable energy by Julie Sperling (solar, conservation, biomass, tidal, hydro)

Some negawatts mixed into the biomass section

Mosaic about renewable energy by Julie Sperling (solar, tidal, hydro, biomass)

Water, solar, and biomass. Check, check, and check!

And finally, down into the earth for geothermal energy, with hints of the heated groundwater that will be tapped into to produce energy. And we can’t forget the negawatts! You’ll see small sections throughout the mosaic where there are just the impressions left by missing pieces. If we consider each individual piece in this mosaic as a megawatt (a unit of power), then those missing pieces are the negawatts: integrated throughout and an essential part of a comprehensive energy strategy.

Mosaic about renewable energy (geothermal detail) by Julie Sperling

The geothermal portion — the heat from the earth’s core and the hot water that will be tapped into

Energy is a really easy area to take action on. You can buy green energy, you can install solar panels on your home, and you can also make your home more energy efficient through renovations (e.g., putting in extra insulation, sealing cracks, planting shade trees, etc.), technology upgrades (e.g., installing a smart thermostat, getting rid of that inefficient beer fridge), and behavioural changes (e.g., hanging your clothes to dry, turning off lights when they’re not in use, putting on a sweater and keeping your house a little cooler in the winter). There are usually incentive programs around to encourage you to implement these actions, so check with your local utility company or various levels of government. The nice thing about reducing your energy consumption is that it usually saves you money in addition to helping you feel very virtuous. Bonus!

And with that, I’m off to my renewable energy–powered studio to create my next climate change mosaic…

Mosaic about renewable energy by Julie Sperling

Parting shot of “Power dynamic”

0

Two sides of the same coin: A mosaic about climate change adaptation and mitigation

There are two sides to the climate action coin: adaptation (dealing with the impacts of climate change) and mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions). While working hard to reduce our emissions can help us avoid unmanageable situations in the future, equally strong efforts to adapt will help us manage the unavoidable impacts we’re currently facing and will continue to face.

You would be forgiven for not knowing much about adaptation, because we just don’t talk about it (except after a major disaster, like the Fort McMurray fires or Hurricane Sandy). The public discourse around climate change usually goes like this: Climate change impacts are already happening, so we need to reduce our emissions. There’s an immediate leap from impacts to mitigation, with no talk of adaptation. Why? Partly, I think it’s because talking about adaptation feels like an admission of defeat—as if our efforts to reduce emissions have failed and any further attempts will be futile. But I think it’s also because, on the whole, adaptation is a bit of a snoozefest (at least comparatively speaking). At its essence, adaptation is about common sense and making good decisions, and that sort of thing doesn’t exactly grab headlines. Solving problems before they occur—proactive adaptation—is boring. But it is smart.

In contrast, mitigation is easier to sell to the public. We talk about carbon taxes and windmills and electric cars. We talk about targets for 2020 and 2050 and how we’re going to get there. Capturing the public’s imagination with adaptation is much more challenging. There are no targets, no clear end point. It’s a process and, while it’s not exactly sexy, it’s just as important and urgent as mitigation. No matter how much we reduce our emissions—even if we manage to be carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative—there will still be impacts. That’s because there’s a lag in the climate system; the impacts we’re experiencing today are a result of the emissions of past decades, and these impacts are projected to become more severe (because emissions over the last few decades have skyrocketed). Impacts are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, so we’d best get to adapting.

What, exactly, does adaptation look like? Well, to start, it’s more of a journey than a destination, and the path travelled will look different for every community because the impacts vary across space and time. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to building resilience in our homes, communities, businesses, and landscapes. There’s a tendency—when we actually do talk about adaptation and climate resilience—to only talk about infrastructure solutions, like bigger stormwater pipes, new permanent roads to substitute ice roads lost due to warming temperatures, and seawalls to deal with sea-level rise and storm surge. And I get it. Infrastructure is concrete (no pun intended). It’s easy to wrap your head around and easy to throw money at. But adaptation is about more than that; it’s about how we build healthy, liveable, resilient communities in every sense.

So how else can we build resilience? Well, homeowners can create rain gardens to soak up more intense downpours (so that the water neither floods their basements, nor overwhelms the city’s stormwater system). Farmers can plant crop varieties that are better suited to our new normal (e.g., can better cope with drought). Cities can keep public pools open longer, operate cooling centres, and put in place heat alert systems to warn citizens and help them cope during more frequent and severe heat waves. And provinces can work to preserve our natural assets, like wetlands, that buffer us from climate impacts like flooding and drought.

One of the best ways to ensure we’re adapting is to integrate climate change considerations (temperature increases, changes in precipitation, increased risk of drought, flood, or wildfire, the arrival of new pests and diseases, etc.) into every decision we make. That means taking climate change into consideration when we’re planning our transportation systems, when we’re establishing our parks and protected areas, when we’re figuring out how to manage our water resources, when we’re managing and expanding our healthcare system, and on and on. This kind of work often goes unrecognized—there are no ribbon-cutting ceremonies for incorporating climate considerations—but it is fundamentally important.

So now that you know a bit about adaptation, what is it about this mosaic that speaks to the relationship between adaptation and mitigation? Well, it’s subtle, but if you look closely you’ll see that the left-hand side of the mosaic (the adaptation half) was made with only the rough faces of the marble, while the right-hand side (the mitigation half) was made with the polished face of the same kinds of marble. Two sides of the same coin stone. The choice of rough side for adaptation and shiny side for mitigation was very deliberate: shiny for mitigation because that’s what grabs our attention, rough for adaptation because it’s humble and ordinary, but oh-so-interesting and full of possibilities when you look closer.

"Both / and" - Mosaic about climate change adaptation and mitigation by Julie Sperling

“Both / and” (2016), 14″ x 14″ — marble and shale

When I first came up with the concept for this mosaic, I thought the difference between the two halves would be more apparent. But it actually makes sense that it is so subtle and that there is also some blurring between the two sides, in that some of the polished faces are quite matte and blend in with the adaptation half, while some of the cut faces of the adaptation half are so cleanly cleaved that they look almost polished. And this blurring also happens in real life. There are actions that both increase your resilience and reduce emissions; climate twofers, if you will. Things like increasing the energy efficiency of homes, or expanding our urban forests. It’s easy to see how these actions reduce emissions, but how do they help us adapt? Well, more energy efficient homes put less strain on the grid during heat waves (which will become more frequent and intense) when everyone has their air conditioners going full blast, and urban forests, in addition to acting as carbon sinks, can also cool our cities and soak up water from extreme downpours.

"Both / and" - detail (Julie Sperling)

If you look closely, you can see the difference between the two sides

I have also deliberately left the strike marks on the marble where it didn’t break with the first hit of the hammer, just as a reminder that we’re in uncharted territory in terms of dealing with climate change, and we’re going to have to do a lot of experimenting and learning by doing. While it will be important to talk about our successes so that others can take them and replicate them and scale them up, we also need to be open about our failures and learn from them (to “fail forward”).

"Both / and" (detail) - climate change mosaic by Julie Sperling

Check out the shiny grey marble for an example of the strike marks. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

And there you have it. My mosaic plea to not forget about adaptation; my attempt to give it the space it deserves alongside mitigation. So, my friends, go forth and adapt and mitigate.

Final word: When I started this mosaic, I had no idea that I would be leaving my job to move home to Kitchener-Waterloo. While the move is a very good thing, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t going to miss my job and, more specifically, my adaptation colleagues (affectionately known as the A-Team). These guys are fun beyond belief, they always have your back, and they are really really good at what they do. I know I’ve learned a tonne in the short time I’ve worked with them and am a better policy analyst for it. I guess it’s kind of fitting that the last climate change mosaic I make while still gainfully employed (with the federal government, anyway) is about the file that I work on. So this one is dedicated to the A-Team, the best colleagues a gal could ever ask for.

Dedicated to the A-Team. Truly the best colleagues I will probably ever have.

Dedicated to the A-Team. Truly the best colleagues I will probably ever have. “We’re climate change too!”

4

That’s enough! A mosaic about consumption and climate change

Climate change is fundamentally a consumption problem. This is not some sweeping, hyperbolic statement. Everything we consume—the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the phones in our pockets, the cars we drive, even the art on our walls—has a carbon footprint associated with its production and use (some larger than others, naturally). There’s a tendency to put the climate blame squarely on the shoulders of business and industry, but we, as individual consumers, are not blameless. Far from it. Recently, scientists quantified the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions stemming from household consumption: our consumption of stuff is responsible for 60% of global GHG emissions.

I’m going to tackle this issue in two parts mosaics: one on how much we consume (the current mosaic) and the second on what we consume.

"(More than) Enough"

“(More than) Enough” (2016), 12″ x 16″ — one single piece of limestone

This mosaic is about the notion of having enough—an odd notion in today’s society, where we want more, want it now, and want it for cheap. Recognizing that you have enough and actively consuming less is a very straightforward and simple way of reducing your impact on the climate (and the environment writ large); it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that ten pairs of jeans have a bigger footprint than four. To put this idea into practice, I decided to make a mosaic out of one single rock. I would chop it up and use every last scrap of it. It would be enough. Ironically, however, I quickly realized that I had more than enough.

The rock, pre-chopping.

The rock, pre-chopping.

First cut. Just look at those layers!

First cut. Just look at those layers!

I had already prepared my substrate before chopping the rock, which I didn’t think would be problematic because I’m normally quite good at estimating how much material I’ll need to complete a project. My chosen rock seemed about right to me. But when I looked at my pile of tesserae after chopping up the whole rock, I knew I had too much. It’s funny, but this realization immediately called to mind my almost weekly thought upon opening our organics box: “That will never be enough food for the week!” And yet it always is. And it is often too much.

All chopped and sorted by size and shape (and please note that I also saved the wee flakes and dust)

All chopped and sorted by size and shape (and please note that I also saved the wee flakes and dust)

Upon realizing that I had too much, I started to brainstorm options for dealing with the excess. The obvious solution would have been to just use a bigger substrate. Tempting, yes, but totally contrary to the point of the mosaic. If you have too much stuff, you don’t buy a bigger house (or rent a storage locker or three). I thought about displaying the leftovers in some sort of container or making a second mosaic that was more random and looked more like a scrap heap, but discarded these options because it didn’t feel like the best use of the material. It felt somewhat akin to throwing it out. It felt disrespectful. I think it was R (brilliant co-conspirator that she is) who suggested giving it away. Perfect! When you have too much, you don’t let it go to waste, you share the bounty. You let someone else get use and enjoyment out of it.

So I roped in two fellow mosaicists: Kelley Knickerbocker and Rachel Sager. Both were easy choices: Kelley because she’s already been working on pieces using other artist’s scraps / leftovers, and Rachel not only because of rocks and foraging, but also because of her mosaic where she used nothing but one kind of stone (I liked that sort-of parallel). I’ll be sending them care packages with my leftovers, with instructions to simply enjoy the rock and put it to good use. And fear not, I will report back on what they make from it—I’m eager to see what they create with this special rock that has oh-so-much character. It is definitely in good and capable hands with them. (If anyone’s wondering, here are the stats on this little experiment: Starting weight of rock = 1.7 kg. Weight of leftovers = 0.65 kg. So I definitely had MUCH more than I needed.)

Kelley Knickerbocker's "Stockpile" - made using discards from a floor installation by Erin Pankratz

Kelley Knickerbocker’s “Stockpile” – made using discards from a floor installation by Erin Pankratz

Rachel Sager's "Driveway" - made using only gravel from her driveway

Rachel Sager’s “Driveway” – made using only gravel from her driveway

I like to think that I am a relatively conscious consumer. I don’t buy blindly just for sport. No retail therapy here. I also like to think that in my mosaic work I do my best to honour the materials and not waste them. And yet this mosaic taught me so much. More than anything, I learned to really and truly appreciate the material and all its quirks. Because I was determined to use every last speck of the rock, there was no discarding of mis-cut tesserae, or shaving off a corner so it would be ‘just so’. I consciously tried to keep my cutting to a minimum. Barely any was done at the beginning (after the initial breakdown with the hammer and hardie), though I did have to resort to the nippers a bit more frequently near the end as my choices became more limited and I backed myself into corner after corner.

more than enough - detail 2

A close-up shot so you can appreciate this crazy amazing rock

I revelled in this chance to loosen up a bit, to let the imperfections (the rock’s and mine) shine, since this is typically one of the things I struggle with most in mosaic. Strike marks on the most interesting side of the tesserae? Welcome! Accidentally get a tiny spot of thinset on the top of a piece? That’s ok! Piece not lining up quite as it should with its neighbour? So be it, and hey, that’s just an opportunity to fill the gap with the little flakes that I otherwise wouldn’t know what to do with. Also, because I sensed I would have extra rock, I made an effort to not use all the choicest pieces. I wanted Kelley and Rachel to get some good bits too.

Strike marks and thinset and imperfections, oh my!

Strike marks and thinset and imperfections, oh my!

This was such a great exercise in restraint, mindfulness, strategy, and creativity. I am so eager to do it again that I think I will turn this into a little side series. The “Enough” series. I can see it becoming to me something akin to what Karen Dimit‘s “NYC Water Towers” collection is to her. She returns to the water tower as a subject over and over again to experiment with new techniques and materials. In my case, I can see myself returning to this exercise as a way of refocusing myself and returning to first principles. Because one rock is most definitely enough, and often more than enough. A good lesson for both mosaic and life.

more than enough - detail 1

Just one more shot of some of those bands of colour

Putting all the little flakes to use! (And the rock dust got mixed into the thinset that I used to finish the edges.)

Putting all the little flakes to use! (And the rock dust got mixed into the thinset that I used to finish the edges.)

6

For better or worse: A mosaic about tipping points, thresholds, and nonlinear transformations

Until now, my Fiddling While Rome Burns series has focused mostly on the problem. I’ve covered climate science, impacts, and socio-cultural and political phenomena. But what about the other side of the equation? What about solutions? Well, this mosaic—“Flip the system (Amplified change)”—is meant to bridge the two halves of the series: the problem and its myriad solutions.

"Flip the system (Amplified change)" (2016), 21" x 21" -- limestone, marble, ceramic, petrified wood, conglomerate, pyrite, phyllite

“Flip the system (Amplified change)” (2016), 21″ x 21″ — limestone, marble, ceramic, petrified wood, conglomerate, pyrite, phyllite

The piece is based on the concept of positive feedback loops. Contrary to their name, these are not actually a good thing when you’re talking about climate change impacts. As one of my colleagues is fond of saying: “There’s nothing positive about positive feedback loops.” In a nutshell, positive feedback loops are runaway, self-reinforcing change. When we’re talking about climate change, it could go something like this: rising global temperatures lead to permafrost thaw in the Arctic, the thawing permafrost releases huge quantities of methane (a very potent greenhouse gas), which contributes to even more warming, triggering greater permafrost thaw, more methane release, and so on and so forth. Researchers have identified numerous positive feedback loops with respect to climate change—a range of ways in which things could quickly spiral out of control—which is pretty terrifying.

flip the system - bottom crop

But just as self-reinforcing feedback loops on the impacts side can amplify change for the worse, the same holds true for climate action: when individuals, organizations, and governments start taking action, these positive actions snowball, drive further change, and eventually become the norm. Change begets change. As some pretty smart people in the UK said:

The greatest risks of climate change arise when thresholds are crossed: what had been gradual becomes sudden; what had been inconvenient becomes intolerable. The greatest reductions in risk will be won in the same way. Gradual, incremental measures will not be enough: we must seek out non-linear, discontinuous, transformational change. […] To win this battle, we must set up our own cycles of positive feedback.

flip the system - front angle crop

Positive feedback loops (for the better) can work at the individual / household level right up to the national and even global level. The changes in each level are self-reinforcing, but because each part is nested within a larger whole, these changes also influence and are influenced by actions at other levels.

As an individual, I might choose any number of small, seemingly insignificant actions to reduce my carbon footprint: hanging my laundry to dry, buying green electricity, leaving the car at home one day a week, or cutting down on my meat consumption. When I realize that this change wasn’t actually onerous, that my quality of life was not harmed (and was likely improved), I’m likely to seek to make another—maybe even a bigger—change. As these changes become part of my daily life, I start talking about them with my friends and family. And perhaps this prompts them to take the first step toward reducing their carbon footprint. On a larger scale, this groundswell of action can send a signal to governments and businesses that there is support for this kind of change, and they then have motivation to get in on the action.

flip the system - focal

But these feedback loops of change don’t only happen in a bottom-up, grassroots sort of way. From a top-down perspective, government interventions (let’s say a price on carbon) can, for example, encourage investment in clean and low-carbon technology (everything from energy to transportation to buildings and more). As these products and services gain a foothold and become more mainstream—bolstered by actions and mind shifts at the individual level—there is an appetite (or at least a tolerance) for additional interventions. And as more and more countries undergo this shift, significant change on a global scale becomes possible.

Change might be slow at first—especially at the individual level, where you might feel like you’re getting nowhere—because there’s a lot of inertia in the system. However, once these changes gain traction and momentum, and once a critical mass is reached, a wholesale change in the system likely isn’t far off. What were once slight perturbations now become the new normal as the system reaches its tipping point and flips states. This new state won’t necessarily be predictable (i.e., it might not be the individual-level changes just on a grander scale): it will likely be a non-linear, discontinuous, and transformative change, and I, for one, find that kind of exciting.

“Flip the system (Amplified change)” is my mosaic version of self-reinforcing feedback loops. The lines at the centre are regular and relatively controlled, but their variations get amplified as you move outwards. They are laden with the potential for change, and there is a certain latent energy inherent in them.

flip the system - detail

And so, with this piece, I am now shifting into a new phase of my climate change series. This is not to say that the impacts / science side is officially closed—I suspect that I will add to it as inspiration strikes—but for now, I’m going to concentrate on balancing the existing pieces with ones focused on solutions and practical actions that individuals, communities, organizations, and governments can take in the fight against climate change. My list of topics to tackle is already quite long, and growing almost daily. I’m looking forward to rounding out this growing body of work and sharing the new pieces with you, with the hope that they might inspire you to take steps to reduce your carbon footprint and add your actions to a growing critical mass of climate action.

flip the system - front angle

2

Abandon all hope, ye who study climate change: Mosaics about candour, heartbreak, and hope

The rusty nails in this one were proudly presented to me one day by a colleague who knew I would love them

The rusty nails in this one were proudly presented to me one day by a colleague who knew I would love them

For anyone even half listening to what scientists are saying about climate change, it’s evident that the picture is pretty bleak. Rising temperatures, thawing permafrost, increasingly acidic oceans, disappearing glaciers, wild fires, flooding, pests and diseases…and the list goes on and on.

Yet despite the high stakes and the urgency of the challenge before us, those advocating for climate action are told to keep the messaging positive and not to be Debbie Downers lest people find that offputting. When a scientist occasionally dares to give us some straight talk, he or she almost inevitably gets labelled an alarmist and is publicly discredited simply for speaking frankly and truthfully. Take, for instance, the case of climatologist Jason Box, who experienced a great deal of backlash in response to his tweet: “If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we’re f’d.” So great is our denial that scientists are being forced to build increasingly unrealistic assumptions into their models in order to produce results that are palatable to political decision-makers. (Side note: You really should read this article about model assumptions by David Roberts, my favourite climate and energy blogger. It was one of two articles this year that scared the crap out of me, the other article being this one about self-reinforcing feedback loops.)

Why does that coal have to be so awful yet so beautiful?

Why does that coal have to be so awful yet so beautiful?

The near-apocalyptic future scenarios, the pressure to put a positive spin on even the most terrifying research findings, and society’s continued willful ignorance and inaction in the face of climate change create somewhat of a perfect storm (or perhaps a perfect superstorm is a more appropriate term in this age of climate change) for an increasingly common phenomenon among climate scientists: “pre-traumatic stress disorder.” The term was coined by forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren to describe the mental anguish caused by anticipating and preparing for the worst, long before it happens. Slowly, and against convention, scientists are bravely beginning to speak out about their frustration and worry and the emotional toll that their work (and society’s collective response to it, which is basically a shrug and a “meh”) takes on them. Is This How You Feel?, a website that collects handwritten letters from scientists in which they honestly and heartbreakingly express how they feel about climate change, is one really excellent example of this.

So far, throughout my climate change series, I’ve tried to keep things from sliding into sky-is-falling territory. The blog posts are factual, with a hint of pessimism, but usually countered with some light-hearted humour. And the mosaics themselves are not aggressive or confrontational. They are, on the whole, rather inviting. But there’s always been a nagging question in the back of my mind: is it right to make something beautiful about a subject that is so ugly? I waffle on that. The answer I am comfortable with lies somewhere in the range of “It depends” and “Yes and no.” Do you try to draw people gently into a conversation? Or do you unsettle people and make them uncomfortable? I have largely (exclusively?) done the former.

"We're screwed!" -- I can't resist a lame joke

“We’re screwed!” — I can’t resist a lame joke

But after reading about the personal challenges that scientists are faced with, I knew I had to get just a bit darker, even if only briefly. And so, the idea for the three small mosaics comprising “Shouting into the wind” was born. The materials choice began with a single rusty screw (“We’re all screwed,” I said to myself, jokingly), which became a few carefully chosen pieces of rusty metal, and to which I added coal and shale to represent some of the climate bad guys. And then one small line of gold in each piece, as a glimmer of hope. The mosaics are intentionally small and thin. I didn’t want them to have as much of a presence as the other pieces in the series. Not because these dark days and their emotional turmoil are unimportant and should be swept under a rug (they are very real and important and should be openly acknowledged), but rather as a nod to the fact that the overwhelming message from society to scientists is to not talk about our climate reality openly and bluntly.

May these three mosaics serve as a reminder to us that scientists shouldn’t have to censor or sugar-coat things because we can’t handle or refuse to accept the truth. They aren’t making dire predictions and electing to be harbingers of doom and gloom just for the heck of it. It’s not a question of beliefs or some elaborate attention-grabbing scheme, it’s a question of fact. By making scientists tell us what we want to hear, or by ignoring or ridiculing them when they speak frankly, we are placing a great burden on their shoulders, as they are forced to watch us continue down our self-destructive path, their hands effectively tied, their mouths muzzled, and their hearts breaking.

"Shouting into the wind" climate change mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Shouting into the wind” (2015), 6″ x 5.25″ each — rusty metal, coal, shale, 24-karat gold smalti

2

Calling out the laggards and obstructionists: A mosaic ode to the Fossil of the Day award

Every year, the world’s nations—well, the 196 countries that are party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—congregate to hammer out global agreements designed to stabilize and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. If you’ve heard of the Kyoto Protocol (you know, the one Canada famously and embarrassingly withdrew from a few years ago), then you’re familiar with the UNFCCC and its work.

fossil of the day logoAs global agreements like Kyoto are negotiated, it’s only natural that there are varying degrees of foot-dragging by countries that perceive themselves to be at risk from a shift to a low-carbon economy. I’m looking at my own country (Canada) here, what with our tar sands and all, but we’re not the only ones; the cast of characters is long and includes heavy hitters like the US, Australia, Russia, India, China, and many more, depending on the particular issue being debated. With the intense flurry of activity that comes with each Conference of the Parties (COP), aka that big annual climate meeting, it’s easy for this evasiveness and obstruction to go unnoticed. Thankfully, the Climate Action Network hands out daily Fossil of the Day awards during each COP to make sure those parties who are trying to impede progress get called out. I’m so appreciative of their efforts that I decided to make a mosaic about it, with the central elements being, you guessed it, fossils. Big clunky fossils that have a certain inertia to them, yet hint at the possibility of movement (there’s got to be some tiny bit of hope, right?).

"Fossil of the day" climate change mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Fossil of the day (From leader to laggard)” (2015), 28″ x 12″ — various fossils, slate, shale, brick, terracotta, limestone, sandstone, Eramosa marble, cement parging

In recent years Canada has won an embarrassing number of these awards. I couldn’t find an exact number anywhere, but doing a quick tally by skimming CAN International’s blog about the awards, I counted at least 36 Fossil of the Day awards (either 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place, or sometimes all three in the same day), plus 5 Colossal Fossil awards (even worse than a Fossil of the Day award), and even a lifetime achievement award, all since 2009. I cringed with shame as I went through all those blog posts that recounted the various ways Canada, under the leadership of Stephen Harper (who came to power in 2006, so all of these awards were on his watch), had been a giant pain in the negotiations’ butt. Where we used to be held up and admired as good environmental stewards, we have now lost all credibility and are an international environmental pariah and laggard. But there is a glimmer of hope.

fossils in mosaic, Julie Sperling

Shell fossils, found around Ottawa and also at the Rock Farm in Bancroft

As some of you might know, Canada recently elected a new government. It’s no coincidence that I left this piece until close to the election. I even put the finishing touches on it on election night, just as Justin Trudeau made his victory speech, as I felt there was something poetic and fitting about that. I instinctively knew that how I was going to title the piece and blog about it was directly tied to the election outcome. Had Stephen Harper—who was not particularly fond of environmentalists and public servants (both of which I am) and scientists—formed another government, this post would likely be very very short. The title of the piece has always been “Fossil of the Day” in my mind, but the bracket was up for debate, depending on the election results. Or so I thought. If it had been another Conservative government, I had hoped that I would have the courage to make “From leader to laggard” the bracketed subtitle. But I was convinced that I would change it to something more hopeful (or at least neutral) if the outcome was more favourable. That is, until the day after the election. With the mosaic finished and this blog post half written, I turned my mind to the title. After much debate and careful consideration, I finally decided that the piece had to be called “Fossil of the Day (From leader to laggard)” no matter what. Because Canada has fallen so far. Because there is so much damage to repair. And because, while promises of hope and change are nice, I need to see this borne out in concrete action. So “From leader to laggard” remains, as a reminder of what has happened to my country and its standing on the world stage, and as a challenge to the new Liberal government to step up and make good on its promises.

honeycomb fossil in mosaic by Julie Sperling

Apparently that stuff that looks like a honeycomb is coral! It is hands down my favourite. These were all found up at the cottage (Bruce Peninsula, Ontario)

The Paris climate conference (COP21, happening November 30 to December 11) will be one of the first indications Canadians get of the true intentions of this government with respect to climate change. I will admit that I am somewhat skeptical of the utility of global climate change agreements on the whole—they are painstakingly negotiated to the point where they represent the lowest common denominator and can really only go as far as the least ambitious party in the room. They’re also slow moving and not legally binding. But they can send a message and set the tone for action at all levels. So while I will always advocate for local solutions implemented sooner rather than later (as opposed to unwieldy international agreements), I will also be keeping my fingers crossed for a meaningful agreement coming out of COP21, where it’s expected that parties will pen the follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol, which ends in 2020. And I will also be desperately hoping that Canada will clean up its act and not come home with so much “recognition” this year.

I'm going to say that the orange stuff is some sort of coral or sponge, but I really have no idea. Found at the Rock Farm in Bancroft.

I’m going to say that the orange stuff is some sort of coral or sponge, but I really have no idea. Found at the Rock Farm in Bancroft.

 

5

It’s simple chemistry: Ocean acidification is bad news

Whenever we talk about climate change, it’s only natural to focus on what happens up in the atmosphere. But climate change has an evil twin: ocean acidification (also known as “the other CO2 problem”).

By now you already know that when we burn things like coal and other fossil fuels, greenhouse gases like CO2 get released into the atmosphere. But did you know that some of that CO2 also gets absorbed by the oceans? And when that happens, it forms carbonic acid, making the oceans more acidic. Since oceans cover 70% of our little blue planet, that’s a LOT of surface area for them to come into contact with the atmosphere and for CO2 to be transferred from air to water. In fact, the oceans absorb about 25% of the CO2 we put into the atmosphere, or roughly 22 million tons per day (and have absorbed a full 50% of what we’ve emitted over the past 200 years).

Scientists used to think that the oceans were doing us a favour, climate wise, by taking in all that CO2. Taking one for the team, if you will. The warming we’re experiencing now would have been that much worse had the oceans not absorbed so much of what we’ve emitted to date. Originally, scientists thought that the ocean could play this buffering role indefinitely and self-regulate. Sadly, the scientists were wrong; the natural regulating processes in the oceans can’t keep up with the amount of CO2 being absorbed and their acidity is increasing. Today, the oceans are 30% more acidic than they were at the start of the Industrial Revolution. And if emissions keep on going at their current pace, scientists predict that the oceans could be 150% more acidic by the end of the century, with a pH level that hasn’t been seen since 20 million years ago.

So what happens when the oceans get more acidic? All sorts of bad things. Species like oysters, clams, corals, and sea urchins have a really tough time building their shells. For instance, mussels and oysters are expected to produce 25% and 10% less shell, respectively, by 2100. And tiny little pea-sized sea creatures called pteropods or “sea butterflies”—the inspiration for this mosaic—are already feeling the impacts. A lot of these species are at the bottom of the food chain, and when they’re threatened, the impacts ripple and cascade through the rest of the system, right up to us, with serious implications for the food security of millions of people.

pteropod time lapse

A pteropod shell gradually dissolving over 2 months when placed in sea water with a pH equal to that predicted for the year 2100

And it’s not only shelled organisms that are feeling the impact of increasing ocean acidity; fish can also be affected. The excess acid in the ocean finds its way into their bloodstream, and they end up expending more of their energy to counter its effects and regulate the pH of their blood. That means fish have less energy to do other important things, like digesting food, fleeing from predators, hunting, and even reproducing. It can also mess with their behaviour, preventing them from hearing and avoiding predators, and actually making them bolder and more likely to venture away from shelter (thereby increasing their risk of predation), as well as compromising their ability to navigate. (And this, again, links directly to food security issues for a good chunk of the world’s population.)

"Breaking the hand that feeds us (More acidic, less viable)" (2015), 18" x 18" -- marble, ceramic, mudstone, limestone, chalk, smalti, flint, shells

“Breaking the hand that feeds us (More acidic, less viable)” (2015), 18″ x 18″ — marble, ceramic, mudstone, limestone, chalk, smalti, flint, shells

If you want the 2-minute version of the story, I’d highly suggest watching this video, courtesy of Grist. And if you’ve got 20 minutes to spare, why not settle in and let Sigourney Weaver teach you about ocean acidification?

breaking the hand - crop angle

So, I think you probably understand by now that ocean acidification is a really big deal, which is why it was important for me to include a mosaic about it in this series. As I mentioned above, the images of the dissolving pteropod were by original inspiration—after having seen them, I just couldn’t shake them. To really get into the spirit of the issue, I decided that my mosaic should include shells that had been dissolved in acid, so I ran my own little homemade ocean acidification simulation. Do you remember making naked eggs as kids? You put an egg in vinegar (which is acidic) and its shell dissolves gradually over a few days, leaving only the membrane, or a naked egg. Fun times. Well, I figured I could use the same principle on some seashells that had been donated to me in recent years. And it worked like a charm. The shells bubbled and fizzed like crazy in the vinegar, and slowly but surely dissolved. The only thing I didn’t anticipate was just how much vinegar I would need: nearly 3L. I am so very very sick of the smell of vinegar at the moment. Some of the shells that I dissolved were quite beautiful in their original state, and someone on Facebook asked if it had been tough to sacrifice those to the vinegar. It had given me pause, to be sure, but I think it only serves to reinforce the message of the mosaic: ocean acidification will wreak havoc on those things we find most dear, beautiful, and life-sustaining.

My very very favourite degraded shell in the mosaic

My very very favourite degraded shell in the mosaic

 

Oh, but these two are quite striking too...

Oh, but these two are also quite striking…

 

And then there's this one. I love how I had no idea what would happen once they went into the vinegar. The element of surprise always makes my work more fun.

And then there’s this one. I love how I had no idea what would happen once they went into the vinegar. The element of surprise always makes my work more fun.

1

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