Jordan: I don’t live all that far from it, but I’d never heard of the town we’re going to talk about today, and even though location shouldn’t matter when talking about things like this it really does. The fact that there is a town in Canada, not that far from the largest city in the country that is closing in on being totally carbon neutral, the idea that it’s happening just down the highway instead of in some perfect little highly engineered Swedish hamlet. The fact that it didn’t start with a big government program, or a huge corporate PR investment, or something engineered for positive media. That it was just a bunch of ordinary small town Canadians who got an idea in their heads wondered if they could do it, and went out and started working on it. That’s the kind of story that resonates, and it should make us both inspired and ashamed because if they can do it, so can we, and since they are doing it, why aren’t we?
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, thanks to Sarah Bosevelt for sitting in this past week. This is The Big Story. Alireza Naraghi is a reporter at Maclean’s. Hi Ali.
Ali: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Jordan: No problem. You told a very interesting story about a community that is like, right down the street and I did not know existed.
Ali: I actually came across the story accidentally myself. I had no idea we had such projects going on in this country.
Jordan: So why don’t you start by telling me what and where is Eden Mills?
Ali: Well, Eden Mills is this small 19th century village in Ontario, it’s situated basically 12 kilometers east of Guelph. It’s nestled very nicely along amorosa rubber. It’s very charming. Victorian houses still exist there and I think the interesting thing about the story was that you see this mixture of 19th century and the 21st century with these proliferation of green technology all over the houses; As you walk into the village, you can just see solar panels, you could see that there’s this nice mixture of old buildings mixed up with all these glassy roofs and, um, yeah, that was the first thing I noticed that what a nice mixture and maybe a window to the future of how our homes might look like.
Jordan: What’s the significance of Eden Mills and all of the green technology there?
Ali: So they are embarking on a very ambitious plan to go carbon neutral 100%. The way they’re going about this is it all started out pretty simple with just changing the light bulbs. They started to plant trees, they started to not commute with cars as much. So slowly they started creating this mood within their community to do something to tackle the issue of climate change.
Jordan: Where did that come from? Who started it?
Ali: Well the central character of the story is Charles Simon. He’s a British expat. He’s an engineer himself, he’s about 80 years old, he moved to Canada in the 1970’s. He heard about this type of project through a CBC program, basically the program was about Ashen Hayes, another village in the UK where they’ve actually been further than obviously Eden Mills because they started the project long time ago, I think 2004. So three years before the people from EML started embarking on this journey, and coincidentally he was going to the UK that summer. So basically what happened was he goes back for a vacation with his wife back home, and he pays a visit to Ashen Hayes, talks to a lot of leaders within that community and he just, it takes over his mind. He just basically says, I want to go back to Eden Mills and maybe replicate this model back in Canada and he got some plans and drawings from those people and brought it back here. And then they had a meeting, he set up a meeting at this town hall, which they have retrofitted.
Jordan: How long ago was that?
Ali: In 2007.
Jordan: 12 years ago then.
Ali: 12 years ago.
Jordan: What happened at the meeting?
Ali: So they gathered the locals, they started talking about how we could do something like this at least to show; they had the presentation and they showed what those guys in Ashton Hayes have achieved so far, and apparently as he puts that he was shocked by the amount of enthusiasm, because he thought he had to convince them but it wasn’t about convincing, people were just ready to launch this project, they were very enthusiastic and that’s something also, I would like to add about Eden Mills. There is this spirit of activism among these locals and obviously close to Guelph, and we know how Guelph is sort of almost this symbol of climate activism in Ontario. So he did get an amazing response and then they started like I said from very basic steps. Let’s change our light bulbs, let’s plant more trees, let’s clean up our environment. It’s a beautiful place, so obviously there is incentives to keep it that way.
Jordan: So you start with these kind of easy and achievable things, but that’s not going to get you to carbon neutral. So what happens next and was there a point where you know they had done; They had picked all the low hanging fruit and they had to figure out okay what’s next If we’re actually gonna do this.
Ali: Yes. Richard Blais, who’s one of the other engineers who helped the town to design these homes, was part of this environmental gang. They basically use a lot of his expertise first, but they first wanted to price to see what’s going on, how much this is gonna cost, and it was at the time more expensive technology wasn’t as advanced. In early 2000’s you already knew that you could insulate homes in different; have windows designed differently, situate their home in a place where you could maximize, let’s say sun or keep it cooler in the summertime and keep it warmer in the winter time. That blueprint existed, but now we have obviously advanced a lot more. As climate change became more of an issue when we’re talking about politically, when we talk about socially, there was just this engine behind this project that allowed them to go further. I have some details here of what they actually started doing. One of the main projects that happened in Eden Mills was this guy and his wife who moved into the village, and they heard about this project and they wanted to build a new home so they said, hey, now we’re here we want to basically go 100% carbon neutral if we can. So when they built a home, they started by setting up extra insulation under heated concrete floors, they put up triple glazed windows, a roof cover of solar panels, special aluminum tiles for heating water and collecting rainwater for landscaping, and I thought that was a very interesting one because the way you could actually design the roof could really help you out to use water and a natural means to basically do those things that we use machines to do it and that can cause a lot of; obviously it contributes to a lot of emissions, and all the rest of that. So those were the steps that they used in particular in their home. Not every local has used that, but once they saw him doing that, it had a ripple effect all across the village. So everyone came to his house, visited the home, beautiful place, and they wanted to replicate it. At the same time it did have another impact with the trades around the area, because a lot of these traits weren’t even familiar with the means of how to build homes that way but then they became very interested and they said okay, this is really cool. So they started, actually, maybe import some of those parts that you need, and they started getting involved, and there was this genuine momentum that was built around this area. There’s 350 people here. We’re not talking about a huge place, but I think it symbolizes what could happen if there is this collective will to tackle such a complicated issue, and Eden Mills definitely showcases that.
Jordan: So they started 12 years ago and reached, kind of a tipping point. How far have they gotten now? Do we have numbers on what their emissions look like?
Ali: So we have an official study that was conducted by the University of Guelph, which was one of the partners with their project. They did an official study in 2013. By their estimation they’re 75% close to achieving full 100% carbon neutrality. That was six years ago.
Jordan: Do we have any unofficial idea of how far they’ve come since then?
Ali: Yes, unofficial numbers covered by some local newspapers says that they’re about 90% now.
Jordan: What would other municipalities have to do to achieve that kind of scale? Like I’m trying to get a picture of just how far along they have come compared to all the other communities that aren’t doing this.
Ali: Well I think one of the major obstacles when you start writing a story like that, and you hear constantly is transportation. Transportation is very difficult, especially for a place like Eden Mills. It’s far.
Jordan: The people work in Toronto, Hamilton, etc.
Ali: Guelph, Milton area, but that is the biggest challenge. So you can’t even go electric cars really because the chargers are not around those areas. So the infrastructure is lacking, and when you talk to the locals who are really sort of motivated to achieve this they are, the lament, the fact that oh my god, like our economy is designed in the fashion that you can’t really achieve that because we need transportation means to get to our work, and by doing so then obviously we can’t get to 100% carbon neutrality. So that’s one. Secondly, what was really interesting, I think was the view of government. They think that there is no political will, but even if there was there are just so many externalities that impacts government decision making process, and that’s what
Jordan: So how so?
Ali: So they think there are special interests that won’t allow it. Powerful lobbyists that they think would hinder a national scale for Toronto or, like, big cities, obviously again there is an issue of transportation, but at the same time again, they think that environmental policies should be fueled by grassroots movements, and they think that’s the only way in a democratic system you could shift not only consciousness but also policymakers, decision making processes. That’s, I think, what they prefer, and Charles Simon specifically told me that we started this project, and we refuse or even rejected government help or guidance. They did, however, for one of their symbols of this whole project is their hall, their community hall, it’s an old building that’s retrofitted now 100% with green technology, and now it’s at 95%.
Jordan: Well that was gonna be my next question is, you know, the government can’t be large on the ground in the town, but whether it’s municipal or whatever, what role did government play in this project?
Ali: So the retrofit of the hall, which began in 2009, five year project, cost $500,000, and the trillion foundation, Ontario Trillion foundation, funded that. They saw the process first, so it wasn’t like these people went in and asked for 500,000, they just saw the impact and the achievements that these guys so far have achieved, and by then there were a lot of private also donorships, so there was this almost, I would say, public and private collaboration from the locals who wanted to donate from this trillion foundation that actually donated money, and some smaller nonprofit organizations altogether got $500,000, and that’s basically the symbol of their achievement.
Jordan: So is this; When you talk to scientists or climate activists who want us to do things on a grand scale, do they recommend this kind of like local grassroots activism, or do they prefer widespread policy driven from government? I know, you know, we’ve spent the last year fighting over a carbon pricing, for instance.
Ali: I mean, I wrote this story, and one of the main things I heard was this backlash against the carbon tax, because carbon tax is almost something invisible. I mean, you pay some money and you don’t see any progress. How are you going to see we’re doing something positive with climate change here, and the main feature and interesting feature of this project was that you could see progress. You’re looking the trend, you live seamlessly looking at the transformation of your local areas. As a human, you know, we feel like okay we’re achieving something, and that motivates you, so when you just ask me about the activism or with activists and scientists yes I think there are an ample of scientists and activists who are pushing for measures from a local level and then thinking that that might transfer into more the national level. And they do look at the carbon tax and the argument over pipelines as this toxic debate that is sort off stopping us from getting somewhere, because there’s this also issue with the messaging of carbon tax. I mean, how are you gonna message this, and it creates this political fight that almost, you know, stalled this whole process, and existential process. I talked to one of the scientists not for this story, but after, and he told me that the good thing about projects like Eden Mills is that it at least shows people what’s possible, and once you do have an idea of what’s possible, that could take you a long way, because when people see that you could actually do that personally and individually, and I guess there’s no government telling you what to do, then people are more susceptible towards policies that are more impactful to tackle this challenge.
Jordan: So now that they’re so far along the way and they’ve been at it for more than a decade, has the town or anybody studying it, I guess, done any kind of like cost benefit analysis like how much; What was the impact of the town’s budget just to get all this done?
Ali: So we have the $500,000, and we know that some of the; so Chales Simon for example, Richard Leigh and Zawadzki, they did spend about $200,000 for their own homes personally over time, not in one go. So it was incremental, and slowly, slowly, they got where they needed to be. So it is, I guess, expensive but also they say that because there’s no subsidies for these type of equipment, the economy and the policies are there to support the old ways and not the new ways, because obviously, naturally, we usually like to resist any change as humans, right? One of the exact numbers that I have for you in terms of saving money, and what happened was; So the carbon footprint of the 100 year old red brick community hall has decreased by 96% as I mentioned. The result of the master retrofit that began in 2009, means for purchasing energy later on was dropped by 91%. That, Charles told me, saved them $8,500 a year in using energy costs. So over time, that’s a lot of money and you could gain the money back basically by just saving your money for spending, for energy.
Jordan: When you talk to people in Eden Mills or people who have looked at this community, how do they say you can start to scale it up? Because obviously it is an inspirational story, but it’s not gonna make a dent compared to what we’re looking at. So how can you take what’s being done there and you know you won’t do it overnight, but to start something in the Vancouver’s or Toronto’s of the world?
Ali: Well, I think mainly a lot of these people talk about how you could motivate each other by again, achieving transformational goals. To replicate it in a bigger city, they are not idealist, so they understand that that is a whole different ball game.
Jordan: But like, where do you start?
Ali: Bike lanes was one of the things that they mentioned. So they like the fact that the cities are shifting a little bit towards bike lanes. Actually, they’re big supporters of carbon tax as well, they think it does actually achieve what it needs to achieve. They just think that the approach is a little bit difficult to sell to the public. They think that we should start building homes that are in a sustainable fashion. So they think that we need to transform our building industry. So ultimately speaking, they think we need to rethink how we build our homes, how we build our city, and how our economy is designed, that’s the main thing. Again they’re big goals, but at the same time, look there are other towns and cities around the world that are doing it, bigger town and cities, like, for example, in Danish town in Solemberg right now, it has a population of 5000 people, and they have already done it and they are I think the last time I checked there’s a guardian article there at 78%. Large place, but also they had a problem because they were sitting on a river and climate change for them, it’s literally an existential threat because the rising sea levels would really impact their lives and they’re economy. Another thing I think that they really would like us to understand and address is the fact that look, this is going to cost our economy, if we’re just not gonna tackle this issue fundamentally, then later on, you’re gonna have to pay for it in a very big way. So ultimately speaking, they think this is the future. I mean, you could basically avoid doing this or ignore it, but ultimately you’ll come back and realize that we either have to or hopefully it’s not too late.
Jordan: What was it like being out there and walking around that town and talking to these people who have kind of, achieved what the rest of us are shooting for, how did it feel?
Ali: Unbelievable. I mean, first of all, walking in those areas when you’re outside of the big city you realize how lucky we are to have these rivers, and have this lush, beautiful areas that you obviously want to preserve. You are human nature, you know, you look at trees, and greens, and rivers, and you want to preserve that. So that’s number one when you’re walking around, you realize, wow this is a beautiful place if I lived there, I want to keep; I’m not going to be one of those guys who says, well, I’m not gonna do this, well I want to live here, and the reason I’m here is because of the beauty of it. Also I think it was very inspiring to see how people who lived there celebrate these things. You know, I think that it does really motivate them to keep on going and not stopping, and because it’s a smaller community and because they all know each other, it has this sense of solidarity, which helps them to be happier, and so it goes beyond just either politics or economic models, it sort of, almost, you know, the essence of solidarity where humans, and we like to be part of something and feel good about what we’re doing and as Linda Sword, one of the environmentalists there told me we learn how to celebrate, and we celebrate everything and that’s just a wonderful way of living.
Jordan: Thanks Ali.
Ali: No worries.
Jordan: Ali Naraghi is a reporter at Maclean’s. That was The Big Story. For more, we’re kind of on a climate change roll these days, so check them out at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can also tell us what you think about the impending heat death of the world @thebigstoryfpn on Twitter and, of course, all our podcasts everywhere you get em, pick your podcast app, Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify. I heard from someone who listens to us on Pod Bird which is a thing, apparently, and we’re there. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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