Tag Archives | shale

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

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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!”

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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

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False debate: A mosaic celebrating the scientific consensus on climate change

Scientists overwhelmingly agree that climate change is happening and that it is caused by humans. In the words of the latest IPCC report: “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history.” And yet people still seem to think there’s a debate about whether or not climate change is (a) occurring and (b) caused by human activity. This manufactured debate is courtesy of a handful of powerful corporations whose wealth is inextricably tied to the fossil fuel industry and who are able to exert a disproportionate amount of influence on the media and politicians. The result is public confusion. This whole situation frustrates me to no end. By all means, let’s debate. But let’s not debate about whether or not climate change is happening. (Spoiler alert: It is.) Instead, let’s talk about what we should do about it, which policy instruments we should employ. Now there’s a debate I’d welcome with open arms (as long as it actually leads to action).

climate science consensus pie graph mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Quod erat demonstrandum (All else is junk science)” (2015), 24″ diameter
Stone (limestone, sandstone, Eramosa marble, coal, shale, concretions), cement parging, salvaged tile, brick, ceramic, Italian smalti, rusted metal, vintage 24-karat gold smalti

climate consensus pie chartThis so-called ‘debate’ about climate change is what inspired this mosaic. A 2013 study by John Cook of The Consensus Project examined a whopping 12,000 peer-reviewed journal articles about climate change published between 1991 and 2011. Of the roughly 4,000 that stated a position on anthropogenic climate change, 97% of these articles endorsed the scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change. The rest? Well, that’s just junk science. (You can watch Cook explain his study in this 3-minute video.) Even with the scientific consensus sitting around 97% and growing, public perception of scientific agreement is far lower (people believe that about 50% of scientists support anthropogenic climate change). And this ‘consensus gap’ between scientific reality and public perception prevents us from taking meaningful action to address climate change as we go around in circles, debating something that has actually been settled for years.

And so I decided to turn this convincing pie graph into a mosaic. The outlying 3%—the junk science—is quite fittingly represented by a bunch of rusty bits of metal (scavenged a year ago on the streets of Ottawa during the spring thaw) and coal sent to me by one of my Touchstone classmates. It’s funny, I very nearly got the math wrong on this when I was sketching it out. For some reason, my brain hopped instantly from 3% to 3º. Luckily, just before I was about to start sticking stuff down, I realized 3% is actually closer to 11º. Glad I caught that one!

Scooping up those two little red rocks (and one bit of rusty metal) in Lachine, QC.

Scooping up those two little red rocks (and one bit of rusty metal) in Lachine, QC.

This piece is so full of different materials that I had a hard time coming up with a list! There are stones, of course: shale, limestone, sandstone, coal, and Eramosa marble (and probably others that I can’t identify). There are two roundish red rocks I picked up along the banks of the St. Lawrence while out for a sunny Thanksgiving stroll. There are concretions given to me by friends in Alberta and Pennsylvania. There’s cement parging fallen from various walls around my neighbourhood—always in ample supply in the spring. There’s a variety of floor tiles (some even salvaged from my parents’ recent renovation, which my feet and my family’s feet have walked over a thousand times), brick that the Ottawa winter kindly liberated from a neighbouring house, and one of my favourite plates from my university days. And there is Italian smalti and hints of vintage 24-karat gold smalti (a splurge when I was in Chicago).

I had a heck of a time naming this piece. When I originally conceived of it, I got used to just referring to it as my “Junk Science” piece. I liked the ring of it and I was very close to actually naming it that. But then it struck me: why should the 3% minority get naming rights? Unacceptable. And so, “Quod erat demonstrandum (All else is junk science)” was born. The title comes from the only thing I managed to retain from the two weeks I spent in high school Algebra and Geometry before dropping the class (let’s just say that word problems are not my strength); QED is what you put at the end of a mathematical proof to indicate that it is complete (it roughly translates as “that which was to be demonstrated”). I guess it’s kind of the mathematical equivalent to dropping the mic? Anyway, I like how it lends a certain seriousness / formality to the piece, which is appropriate given that we’re really talking about one of the most fundamental concepts that I will ever deal with in this series.

Julie Sperling climate change mosaic pie graph scientific consensus

Check out how it dips over the edge of the substrate in places

As a final note, I wanted to mention that I’m really excited about this piece and how it turned out. There’s something about it that feels different, like something in me has shifted in some way (though I’m still working on putting my finger on what, exactly, that is and harnessing it going forward). I have a feeling that this mosaic will be an important marker in my evolution and growth as an artist, and this has me grinning a big ol’ stupid grin!

Bonus video: If you like sensible and funny commentary, you’ll love this John Oliver segment on the climate change ‘debate’. It is so perfectly bang on.

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Mosaic workout challenge, week 16: The swept floor

This week’s challenge—“The Swept Floor“—was courtesy of Margo Anton and the rules were simple: use only scraps and don’t cut any of it (use it how you discarded it).

"Glacial till" - made entirely of scraps from previous projects

“Glacial till” – made entirely of scraps from previous projects

Title: “Glacial till”

Size: 4.25″ x 4.25″

Materials: Stone, cinca, glass, quartz, shale, marble

How long did it take to complete? About 2 hours

Thoughts: Considering I got my start in mosaics using glass scrap and rarely cutting anything, this week was surprisingly challenging. I had been processing a bunch of material recently for my next non-challenge mosaic, so I saved all the offcuts to use for this piece. I just kind of threw myself into this without a game plan and ended up working in sections that were determined by material and the shape of the pieces. There are groups of tesserae in this mosaic that I really love in terms of how they play off of / relate to one another, but overall I’m not crazy about the piece. I’m finding that when I don’t put any thought into the design beforehand, the results are a crapshoot, with me ending up unsatisfied more often than not. While I don’t usually (ever?) make a detailed sketch, I do tend to mull things over for a good while before diving in. These challenges are definitely reinforcing the parts of my practice that are essential for me.

glacial till - angle

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Mosaic workout challenge, week 15: String theory

Fifteen weeks down, five to go. I’m definitely starting to feel the fatigue. I’ve recovered from the Verdiano Marzi workshop, but now I’m elbows deep in prepping for my next climate change mosaic, so I can feel my interest in these challenges waning as I embark on exciting new projects. But I will not give up! I’ve come this far, might as well finish (and I am still learning stuff, so it’s definitely not a waste of time).

Week 15’s prompt—“string theory”—was from Kelley Knickerbocker. We had to doodle a line and then use tesserae to define the negative space of the line. It was a great challenge and much harder than I initially thought it would be!

"Metropolis" (6" x 4.25"), shale, cinca, stone, flint, coal

“Metropolis” (6″ x 4.25″), shale, cinca, stone, flint, coal

Title: “Metropolis” (note: differs from the name submitted to IMA, which was done in a hurry…I later exercised my right to a sober second thought)

Size: 6″ x 4.25″

Materials: Stone, cinca, coal, shale, flint

How long did it take to complete? About 2.5 hours (and another 2.5 hours for the one I did and then promptly threw in the garbage)

Thoughts: I had some trouble this week because, while I loved the challenge prompt, none of my materials were really speaking to me. Eventually I just grabbed a few random jars from my shelf and dove in head first. That attempt was so bad that I couldn’t bring myself to submit it, even though I know that there is no pressure to create a masterpiece in these challenges and that there are really no expectations other than to spend some time in the studio. Yes, it was that bad: the materials were wrong, the colours were off, the doodled line was wonky…*sigh* So I tried again, and the second attempt was a huge improvement on the first one. Had I not been under the gun to finish this in a hurry (I started on Sunday at 2pm), I would’ve spent a lot more time tapering the ends of the lines so they didn’t end so abruptly.

I learned two things this week, both completely unrelated to the challenge prompt. First, I learned that I really need to wait until I “feel it” before I start. If I force myself to just crank something out, chances are the results will be terrible. It is not unusual for me to leave a blank substrate and some half-chopped piles of materials on my table for a few days (or even weeks) while I putter and ponder until I’ve got it straight in my head. That is how I work and this challenge reinforced that I should do what works for me, even if it sometimes feels like I’m wasting time. Second, I learned what it feels like to create a complete flop and to recognize that and be ok with it going straight into the garbage.

Tough to capture the varying textures and heights in a photo

Tough to capture the varying textures and heights in a photo

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