Local publisher Janine Vangool is aiming to make UPPERCASE plastics-free. Photo: Jeremy Klaszus

Sprawlcast Ep 17: These Calgarians Are Taking on Climate Change

Actions big and small.

Jeremy Klaszus


In this episode of Sprawlcast, Jeremy Klaszus speaks with Calgarians who are taking climate action in different ways, pushing for systemic change while also making their own changes on a small scale.

In Part 1 Jeremy speaks with Sharon J. Riley, The Narwhal's Alberta reporter, about forest fire smoke and the concept of ecological grief—and how it can be a motivating force.

In Part 2, Jeremy goes to city hall to meet the teenagers who lead the Calgary Youth Climate Strike every Friday.

In Part 3, local business owner Janine Vangool, who publishes UPPERCASE magazine, decides to add to her monthly bill by phasing out plastics.

A full transcript is below.

Calgarians march down Stephen Avenue for the Calgary Youth Climate Strike on June 7, 2019. Photo: Jeremy Klaszus

[SPRAWLCAST THEME]

JEREMY: You're listening to Sprawlcast. My name is Jeremy Klaszus, and I'm the founder and editor of The Sprawl, and Sprawlcast is a show for curious Calgarians who want more than the daily news grind. We make the show in collaboration with CJSW 90.9 FM in Calgary, and we are broadcasting on Treaty 7 land. This is the home of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Tsuut'ina Nation, the Stoney Nakoda Nation, and Métis Nation of Alberta Region 3.

VOICE: Yeah, generalized depression and anxiety? Yes, definitely. I feel that way about the environment and the state of the world.

VOICE: And so I finally decided to just take action – like, real action – to try to force a bigger change than just me.

VOICE: For them to take it into their own hands and really create an actual movement about it, it's just really inspiring, and I think a lot of people are willing to follow along with that and contribute to it.

VOICE: Calgary needs to be at the forefront of this if we want to be a leading city.

JEREMY: Those are the voices of Calgarians who have decided to take action on the climate crisis in different ways. This is the beginning of The Sprawl's 9th edition, and it's all about climate action: what we're doing – and not doing – about climate change.

This is the biggest issue of our time. If we don't get this issue right, we don't have a shot at the rest. And here's the thing about Calgary: This city has a history of climate change denialism – in its politics, in its media, in its dominant industry. Even the way we've built our city, and continue to build our city, is a denial of the realities of climate change. But now, as a community, it's time to grapple with the reality of what's happening and how we're contributing to it.

The good news is that young people are pushing back, and something new seems to be emerging in town. We're going to go back to the voices we heard at the beginning of this podcast – but first, we're going to talk smoke, because the smoke hit early this year.

Last year was Calgary's smokiest summer on record, and if you're like me, you were probably expecting, you know, July and August to be smoky. But I wasn't ready for May.

We know that climate change is worsening the conditions that contribute to forest fires, and when the smoke came in May, a real heaviness settled on the city. It was apocalyptic. It was bleak. And it was soul crushing. It seemed like some sort of biblical reckoning – like we could no longer ignore and run away from the consequence of our actions.

We're going to hear now from somebody who has looked into this, looked into exactly what that smoke does to a person – not just physically, but mentally and spiritually.

Part 1: Ecological grief—and action

JEREMY: So I'm speaking with Sharon J. Riley, and she is The Narwhal's investigative journalist based in Alberta.

How are you, Sharon?

SHARON J. RILEY: I'm good, thanks. How about yourself?

JEREMY: I'm doing well. Thanks for making the time for this conversation.

RILEY: Well, thanks for the invitation.

JEREMY: So last summer, you wrote an article for The Narwhal that really struck a lot of people quite deeply. It had a lot of resonance across Alberta. And the idea of this article, the headline kind of says it all: "'The lost summer': the emotional and spiritual toll of the smoke apocalypse." Can you just tell me where the idea for the article came from?

RILEY: I mean, I feel like last summer, this was an idea that basically everybody was experiencing, though they were necessarily putting it into words. So last summer, whether you were in BC or Alberta, it was fairly likely that you were affected by many days or many weeks of smoke, and not just the light haze that we might think of when we think of distant wildfires, but heavy, persistent smoke that blocks out the sun and makes it dark in your house and makes the streetlights go on at one o'clock in the afternoon. So this was a conversation that I was having basically everywhere that I went, was, "Doesn't it feel like the apocalypse?" was the most common thing I was hearing from people.

So in conversations with my editors at The Narwhal, we started talking about what the effects of that feeling are. So we hear all the time that wildfire smoke is bad for our health. It causes coughing and throat irritation, and it's particularly dangerous for the elderly and children or people who already have pre-existing health concerns. But we don't hear so much about the mental health effects of wildfire smoke, and that's what we wanted to look into.

JEREMY: And what are some of those effects? Because they are less obvious, like you say.

RILEY: They are less obvious, for sure, and I think it comes down to two different types of effects, really, because when you look at the research that has been done in this area, there have been a number of interviews looking at people who lived in Yellowknife in 2014 and the effects of wildfire smoke that they were experiencing then, and so we see two different types of anxieties arising from wildfire smoke.

There's the anxiety related to the imminent threat of fires – so, smoke is obviously indicative of fire, and if you're living in an area that has been evacuated or is under an evacuation order, that smoke can remind you of the persistent threat that something terrible might happen to your home or the landscape that you're familiar with. So that's one type of anxiety that can result from wildfire smoke.

But for the vast majority of people, they're not actually experiencing that sort of imminent threat – that feeling that their home might be destroyed. Instead, they're feeling just this more existential dread that comes with wildfire smoke. There's the feeling that maybe this is the new normal. Maybe summers as we know them are not going to be the same anymore.

Added to that is the feeling of not wanting to be outside in the smoke, for a lot of people, so you're missing out on those normal summer activities that people associate with just having a fun, wonderful season after a long winter; and increased feelings of isolation, as people are staying home to avoid the physical health effects of going outside and exerting themselves in the smoke.

JEREMY: Yeah, that word really jumped out at me when I read your piece: isolation. When the smoke hit Calgary and Edmonton in May this year, which is quite early, I noticed that I was kind of conducting myself differently. Like, when I would pass somebody on the sidewalk, I wouldn't look them in the eye, where normally I would say hello. It was kind of interesting.

RILEY: Yeah, for sure. I mean, it does just sort of cast this whole new light on the world, and we start to feel a bit differently in a place that we normally feel familiar with. And one of the terms I came up with when I was reporting this – came across, actually, when I was reporting this story – I didn't invent it [laughs] – was "solastalgia," and it was a new piece of vocabulary for me that I hadn't encountered before, but it sort of just perfectly encapsulated what a lot of people had been telling me they were feeling.

So, solastalgia is sort of loosely defined as the feeling of being homesick when you're still at home, and so you're somewhere that you've known for a long time – maybe all your life – but it doesn't look the same and it doesn't feel the same, so you're missing home even though you are at home.

And I personally experienced that last summer, as well. I was at my childhood home in August – and my childhood home was just outside of Edmonton – and it was so dark that you couldn't read a book inside the house in the middle of the afternoon, though the forecast said a lovely, sunny August day. And I just started to feel this sense of dread, you know? What if this is the new normal? What if this is what my home looks like every summer in the future?

And that kind of really … so, this idea of anticipatory grief, or ecological grief, so the feeling that this symptom that we're seeing of a wildfire – of many wildfires – is related to a longer-term pattern that is related to climate change.

JEREMY: Yeah, that's quite a powerful term in identifying what people are feeling. I think that's part of why your article had such resonance, is because people are experiencing this but they don't necessarily have language for it, right?

RILEY: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I think that in my conversations with people after writing this article – just, I heard from so many people saying it hit a chord with them, because it is sort of this widespread feeling that's new for a lot of people. In Canada, we've had good air quality a lot of the time for a long time. That something that we're kind of used to. So people who live in other areas that are more heavily affected by smog might be able to relate, but these long-term periods of heavy and widespread smoke in Western Canada are a relatively new phenomenon when they last for weeks on end, as they have been in recent years.

JEREMY: And as you looked at this, obviously a lot of this stuff is very, very heavy. We're talking about grief; we're talking about being homesick at home, isolated … Did you find … Is there a positive aspect to any of this? To what people are experiencing?

RILEY: Yeah, so I had a really good conversation with a researcher named Dr. Ashlee Cunsolo, who studies the idea of ecological grief. And you're right – it is a very heavy topic, and it's something that is related to a lot of climate anxiety for a lot of people.

But she mentioned to me the idea of grief being a motivating force. So maybe because we are feeling this feeling so strongly because it's something that's right in front of our faces – you can't ignore the smoke, no matter where you go. Unless you go to, you know, the mall or something, you're going to be experiencing this smoke constantly, so maybe that will serve as a reminder for people of the climate change challenges that we face and will motivate them in a more urgent way to act in response to that challenge. So that was, I think, a positive aspect that came out of reporting the story.

JEREMY: For sure. Well, thanks very much for your time, Sharon.

RILEY: Thank you, Jeremy.

JEREMY: And keep up the awesome work at The Narwhal.

RILEY: Yeah, same to you at The Sprawl.

JEREMY: Awesome. Take care.

RILEY: You too.

Part 2: Youth Climate Strike, every Friday

[protesters chanting]

JEREMY: All right, so picture this: It's Friday, it's just after noon, and it is pouring rain. A bunch of people march down Stephen Avenue carrying waterlogged cardboard signs, and it's a mix of people old and young, from children to seniors.

But this march is led by youth. They're here for the Calgary Youth Climate Strike, and they're here because they're here every Friday. This is an ongoing protest movement happening around the world, including here in Calgary. The previous Friday, they could hardly be outside because it was so smoky. Now, it's pouring rain, they're soaking wet, but they have a message, and they're insisting on being heard.

One sign seems to say it all: "The Climate Is Changing. Why Aren't We?"

We're going to hear now from some of these teenagers, Sayda Kemna, Juliana Rock, Hannah Arthurs, and Sebastian Vergara-Kurz. They're all either 18 or 19 years old.

JEREMY: What brings you guys out here today? Maybe, Sayda, I'll start with you.

SADYA: Okay. Well, today, we decided to organize this climate march because we really want to push Calgary to declare climate emergency, because a lot of the cities around Canada have already declared the climate emergency. So we just thought it was really important for Calgary – especially because it's in Alberta, in the oil and gas industry – for us to really start the change here.

JULIANA: We've made good steps, but we need to make even better steps to make public transport, and alternate forms of transport, like bike paths, more accessible and more accepted, because Calgary is such a sprawled city that it's hard for anybody – most people – to get around without driving, and that just contributes to the overall problem.

HANNAH: It's important that the youth stand up, because it's our future. And yeah, it's just a lot more serious than everyone thinks, and it's kind of silly that the youth are acknowledging that and not adults that have the power right now, and we really just want to spread awareness and try to get that power.

JULIANA: It's our futures, primarily, that are being affected by this. It's, like, by 2050, it's going to be, like, coastal cities underwater and mass migrations of people because of this. Like, people are going to be dying, and we're going to be there to see that. That's going to be, like … I'm going to be, like, middle-aged and all of this is going to be happening. Like, I can't put kids into this world if they're not going to have a planet.

SAYDA: This movement is internationally run by youth and young people because of the reason that it is our future, primarily, because the people who already are in power – the people who are older – aren't really doing much anyway as it is, so it's really up to the people who really care who really have a future to lead this. And so that's why it inspires me so much when I see, like, little kids – like, six-year-olds – come out, and I really enjoy inspiring kids to make a change.

SEBASTIAN: I just think it's a really good idea to have, like, an outlet for people, because I know I've met a lot of people throughout my life who … they hear, like, about how our province or how our country is dealing with climate change and they complain about it, but they don't really do anything about it.

And I was always like that myself – like, I was like, "Okay, our environment is being completely destroyed. There's a bunch of animals that are going extinct that shouldn't be," but, like, I didn't really know what to do about it. But for them to take it into their own hands and, like, really create, like, an actual movement about it, it's just really inspiring, and I think a lot of people are willing to follow along with that and contribute to it.

JULIANA: Like, now all of us are graduated, but I remember being in Grade 6 and hearing about global warming, and it's something I've cared about for a really long time, and I take actions in my own life to, like, reduce my impact. Like, I don't eat meat or dairy, or, like, I'm vegan; try to reduce my waste; I try to use public transport and bike as much as possible.

But it's really not on us to … It shouldn't be on us to change everything in our own life when the government, when big corporations, aren't doing anything, so I've been super inspired seeing groups all over the world, like Extinction Rebellion and all the stuff they're doing, and so I finally decided to just take action – like, real action – to try to force a bigger change than just me.

And yeah, my friend started this, so I wanted to get involved right away, and so I started spreading more awareness and I made the Facebook event to get it a further reach.

I just really want to see a difference, especially in the place that I grew up.

Part 3: Doing it the hard way at UPPERCASE

JEREMY: I got a strange email in my inbox the other day. It was from a local business owner, and the subject line was: "What am I doing?" Well, she went on to answer that question in her email. She's trying to make her business plastics-free.

Plastic isn't just a pollution problem – it's also a climate change problem. A report by the Center for International Environmental Law came out last month, and it says that plastic is threatening global efforts to stop climate change. Why is that? Well, let me read from the report: "Nearly every piece of plastic begins as a fossil fuel, and greenhouse gases are emitted at each of each stage of the plastic lifecycle." And the report says that this threatens our ability to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius. So plastic is bad in more ways than one.

But what do you do if plastic is a key part of your business? Well, you take action.

JEREMY: All right, so I'm here with Janine Vangool in her 17th Ave office for UPPERCASE, and Janine is the publisher/editor/designer, slash … what else, Janine?

JANINE VANGOOL: Umm … curator and blogger and Instagrammer, marketer, logistics … all sorts of things.

JEREMY: For UPPERCASE magazine, which has been publishing over 10 years now and just printed its … 42nd issue? Is that right?

VANGOOL: That's correct.

JEREMY: Awesome. So, Janine, to start, can you tell me, just very briefly, about UPPERCASE and kind of the idea behind it?

VANGOOL: Well, the tagline has always been, "UPPERCASE is a magazine for the creative and curious." So that's fairly broad and eclectic, but it just means that we cover art and creative things like design, illustration, typography, craft, things made by hand, and creative living.

JEREMY: And you're sending these out where? You edit this magazine; you make it in this … in the Devenish building on 17th Ave in Calgary – and then where does it go?

VANGOOL: Well, we're actually printed in Winnipeg at a great printer there called The Prolific Group, and from there it goes to subscribers around the world, and we have about 5,500 subscribers.

JEREMY: Okay. And you've been thinking about … About that, how does it get from Winnipeg, all over the world? And can you tell me how you've been doing that previously?

VANGOOL: Sure. Well, it's all through the postal system, and in order to do that you have to package up the magazine. So for many years, we've just been using a polybag to send out the magazine because it was pretty much the quickest thing. It just shoots off of a machine and it puts the magazine in there with a mailer, and off it goes. But I've been reconsidering what to do with that process.

JEREMY: And what's led to that, for you? Why are you revisiting that?

VANGOOL: Well, I'm trying to bring UPPERCASE to be plastics-free, so that is one of the main sources of plastic that I've had to use in the past, and I was not able to find a comparable … an eco-solution, either for the plastic or some replacement sort of film, so I'm looking at what options I have now to mail out the magazine.

JEREMY: It was interesting, because you shared this with your subscribers. You sent out an email saying … You sent out a newsletter saying, "Hey, here's what I'm about to do. I want to change how UPPERCASE operates, make it plastics-free." And you were very honest in that email. You can correct me on the wording, but you basically said you've been feeling a sense of – I think the word was "depressed," about the state of the world. Can you tell me a bit more about that – like, what you've been experiencing?

VANGOOL: [laughs] Yeah, generalized depression and anxiety? Yes, definitely. I feel that way about the environment and the state of the world. And it feels like there's not a lot that individuals can do, so I'm just looking at my life and my business and what can I personally do to undertake something that will make me feel a little bit better that I'm trying to contribute in a positive way.

So over a year ago, at the beginning of 2018, I started, basically, buying a … planting a tree for every subscription renewal, and so that's through the Calgary company TreeEra. So that's something I started last year, and I thought, well, there's still more I can do, so I've been basically doing an audit of all the processes and procedures and packaging that is required to run my company.

So there's lots of things I can't control about, like, the transportation aspect of having to deliver something that's a printed product being sent out around the world, but the packaging is something that I can definitely change, so that's where I've been focusing this year. I want to come up with a solution that's more environmentally responsible than something in plastic.

JEREMY: Yeah, because plastic basically is harmful at every stage of its production – like, from the making of it to the disposal of it, right? And it does contribute directly to climate change.

Was that a hard decision to make for you, or is it something that's been percolating for a time?

VANGOOL: I've been thinking about it for a while, but the decision is a little harder because I just know that it's going to be more expensive to not use the easy route, because the systems are already in place to have these sorts of polybags, and we know how they function, and, you know, that sort of thing is there. So, doing something differently, there's just more research involved, so I've spent a lot of time figuring out what my options are and I've narrowed those down, and now it's just getting acclimatized to the cost. It's going to cost a lot more to do something that I feel better about, and I've accepted that.

So my newsletter this week was just presenting to my subscribers and my general readership kind of where I've been thinking – like, where my focus has been and why I want to make these changes, and then just telling them straight up that it's actually going to cost, you know, $4,500 more per issue that I'm going to be sending them. And just to tell them that's what I'm doing, and hopefully encourage them, if they have been thinking about subscribing, that maybe, yeah, I want to help support this business and buy a subscription. Or I've heard from people who have been regular subscribers and saying that they really appreciate that.

And so it was cathartic to tell people what I'm doing, and also really nice to hear back from people who are supportive of that measure.

JEREMY: So it resonated with people.

VANGOOL: Yeah, it really did. I spent the next day replying to about 80 or so emails from people, and there were lots of good suggestions and people sharing what they were doing to improve their eco-footprint. So yeah, it was good.

JEREMY: That's cool. So it does pay to do things the hard way. [laughs]

VANGOOL: Eventually, in the long run. And that's sort of my whole business model, is I'll just do things the way I want to do them, and it might be harder, it might be more expensive and more work, but that's just my style.

JEREMY: Yeah, I kind of blame you for a bit of The Sprawl's business model, because I'm kind of inspired by you, and no ads, and … [laughs] taking lots of time to develop really nice things, and … But people appreciate it, right?

VANGOOL: Yeah. It's a slow approach to business, and that's fine. I'm in it for the long haul. This is my lifetime business here. I don't plan on doing anything else but this, so I want to make sure that I feel good about it and that I have a good relationship with my customers and readers.

JEREMY: We have one of these … Is this … What would you describe what I'm holding right here?

VANGOOL: Yeah, so the solution we're going to try for the next edition of UPPERCASE is a craft mailer, and so it's made from 100% recycled material – I believe it's 90%, is postconsumer – and it's also recyclable and it's compostable. So, it being a craft envelope, it's kind of just the basic solution for protecting my magazine while it heads out into the postal system around the world. So that's the solution I'm going to try this time, and then I'll get feedback from the readers, and if we need to find a different solution, I'm still looking in the meantime for other options.

JEREMY: Yeah. You mentioned, you know, experiencing that anxiety and depression over, you know, the state of the climate and the world. Has doing this and announcing this this week changed that for you at all?

VANGOOL: Maybe in a tiny, small amount, because I feel like, well, I know that I was contributing to plastic waste, and I felt terrible about that, and so in respect of, like, okay, I'm solving that tiny little problem that I was creating, so that feels good to figure that out, and it feels good to hear from people who agree with that and who are encouraged by it.

So a very, very tiny … [laughs] amount of feeling better this particular week, because this is the week I'm taking action on this. But then I know that once I've done this, it's going to become part of the everyday routine of my business, and so then I'll have more brain space and desire to go look beyond UPPERCASE and see what I can do somewhere else to effect change.

JEREMY: Yeah. It's very countercultural, because businesses are always looking at where … where can we cut costs, right? And even related to climate. Like, the discourse around the carbon tax, as an example – that it's too burdensome, and we shouldn't be doing this, et cetera. And you're acting according to a completely different philosophy of business here. [laughs]

VANGOOL: That's true. [laughs] And I say, like, "Tax me." Because I'm producing print materials all the time, and I think my … My magazine is quarterly, and I know it's not just recycled or put in the trash, because people hold onto them, and I'm proud of that. It's got a long-term value. It's evergreen, in a way.

But if a government entity wants to tax me because I am producing something that is labeled a magazine, which traditionally have been, maybe, a polluting … or, something that requires recycling, then that's fine with me. Like, I'm willing to do my part to support a larger, positive way of doing business.

JEREMY: Well, thanks very much for your time, Janine.

VANGOOL: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

[SPRAWLCAST THEME]

JEREMY: You've been listening to Sprawlcast. This episode marks the beginning of our Climate Action Edition, and we're just getting started. We're going to keep publishing stories about this issue, looking at it through a local lens.

If you have an idea for something you'd like us to explore in The Climate Action Edition, let us know. You can find us easily on social media – we're @sprawlcalgary on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – or send an email to hello@sprawlcalgary.com.

Our theme music is by Dan D'Agostino and Kenny Murdoch, and our CTrain narrator is Holly McConnell.

Thanks for listening, and see you next time.