Queen of Green

Adria Vasil, NOW’s planet-addicted columnist, spins ecoholic into a mammoth manual that makes everyday eco-living seem totally doable


ECOHOLIC by Adria Vasil, book launch with an onstage interview by Matt Galloway at the Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen West), Monday (April 23), 7:30 pm. Free. 416-531-4635. Rating: NNNNN


As Adria Vasil reminisces about designing and selling sweatshop-free T-shirts, I’m thinking she might be the Martha Stewart of the eco set – chic, arty and rigorous.

She protests loudly, “Oh, no, she’s way too uptight. Don’t categorize me that way, whatever you do.”

Okay, then I’ll categorize her as Canada’s foremost expert on how to live your life, 24 hours a day, with complete environmental awareness. She does it without the hippie tinge that stereotypically accompanies that consciousness.

Sitting in her Riverdale living room, festooned with found art and works by close friends, she’s looking stylish in DIY jewellery, organic fibres and eco-perfect cosmetics.

I’ve already peered into all her cupboards to make sure she stores her food in glass bottles or number-5 plastic: check. And I’ve fondled all the beauty products in the bathroom to assess their enviro pedigree: check.

But the garden’s a mess.

“I had no time to garden because I was writing the book all summer,” she laments.

That book, Ecoholic, takes the same name as her weekly column in NOW, which answers readers’ questions with counsel on how to think about the issue and how to shop organically and locally to solve the problem.

In book form, Ecoholic, launching Monday at the Gladstone, takes a different approach, with in-depth discussion and advice covering fashion, beauty, home improvement, outdoor living, money and more.

It’s terrific bathroom reading – and I mean that in a good way. Dip in anywhere and it’s interesting. It also makes eco living seem manageable, a major accomplishment when dealing with a vast set of issues that can be overwhelming.

Vasil says the key is to avoid thinking you can do everything at once.

“Let’s face it. You can’t achieve environmental purity unless you’re Woody Harrelson and you have millions of dollars,” she says.

Take things one issue at a time, she advises. Most people can’t afford to overhaul their whole house at once, so if you’re in the market for a new item, choose organic. Not that it’s always easy.

“The high-end items are a real problem. You can buy an eco-friendly couch made of latex in California, but then you have to ship it thousands of miles in a gas-guzzling truck. Believe it or not, Ikea is not a bad option. They don’t use formaldehyde and stopped persistent fire retardants on their couches in 2002.”

When NOW launched the Ecoholic column in 2004, even Vasil wasn’t sure it would fly. Shortly after it debuted, she wrote an article proclaiming that environmental consciousness was dead, and a quick poll she conducted of activists in the field suggested they were prepared to say the same thing.

Nevertheless, Random House put out feelers a year later, suggesting there might be a book there. Nothing came of it at first.

“A sales guy told me that there was no market,” she says with a small smile.

But then the publisher came knocking again – loudly – when the world’s collective consciousness seemed to turn on a dime.

More like millions of dollars, says Vasil.

“The first and most important factor was the rise in the price of oil in late 2004,” she says. “When people have to pay, they’ll consider change. I always applaud when the price of gas goes up, because people start making the connections.

“Then,” she revs up again, “the tsunami happened, and Hurricane Katrina showed people what happens when storms get freaky. When whole cities are swallowed up in these situations, people start to believe that climate change is a problem.”

There was also more science, she says, and it was growing more convincing. Polar bears starving in the Arctic and seals looking for an ice floe to birth their pups on – those images are powerful.

She talks a blue – no, call it green – streak. Encyclopaedic on the subject, she can switch topics, deepen the discussion, quote statistics without taking a breath.

Though she insists that conservation is a money-saving strategy, she insists that people shouldn’t be moved purely by financial factors.

“When people complain about the cost of organic food, for example, they have to be made aware that that is the real cost of real food. Given what we put on our tables on a daily basis, food is ridiculously cheap in Canada.

“I’m always suspicious when someone promises cheap organics. When organic milk comes cheap in the U.S. you can be sure the cows are being rounded up and kept indoors – because that’s the least expensive way of producing milk. Do we really want that?”

She’s been asking these kinds of questions since she got eco-bitten in her early teens. At that impressionable age, she recalls, the idea of acid rain was terrifying.

“I really reacted. And when I heard about the Exxon Valdez oil spill I wanted to go right over there and help wash off the birds. When recycling began, I would separate my parents’ garbage, outraged that they weren’t doing it properly.”

She was reading Noam Chomsky at 16 and that same year, she began volunteering at a women’s shelter and getting active in the East Timor Alert Network.

She went into journalism because she was tired of sitting on the other side begging to get coverage for the issues that mattered to her, and came to NOW after graduating from Ryerson.

The Ecoholic column was the perfect fusion of her two major interests: corporate practice and the environment.

Download associated audio clip.

When she began the project, she was hurting for ideas, but now readers have flooded her inbox with questions, creating a backlog guaranteed to keep her busy for months.

But don’t, whatever you do, consider her an eco ideal. She’s the first to say she makes mistakes. As she reports in this issue of NOW (see page 26), for example, her attempts to go packaging-free for a week went south before the first day was out.

And she even has a bona fide eco vice: she loves travel, and takes those toxin-spewing planes.

Download associated audio clip.

“I really believe that seeing the planet helps drive our love for it and our passion to save it. I wouldn’t be who I am without having had the experiences I’ve had camping through South America. Should we be flying twice weekly for business? No. Should we be flying to Montreal for a vacation? No, but I still think a carefully chosen vacation – that is, not to a giant, all-inclusive resort that swallows the environment and culture around it – is not to be discounted entirely.”

It’s typical of Vasil’s never-holier-than-anybody way of talking about the issue.

“Environmentalism can’t be furthered by an elite club that knows the secret handshake and who won’t let you in if you’re not doing the 150 different things you need to do to enter the club.

Download associated audio clip.

“I take a more welcoming approach.”

Vasil spreads the green

Friday (April 20)

CTV’s Canada AM, between 6 and 9 am

CBC-TV’s Gill Deacon Show, 11 am to noon, 2 to 3 pm

Monday (April 23)

CBC Radio Metro Morning, with Andy Barrie, 6 to 8:30 am

Tuesday (April 24)

CFRB-AM with Leslie Roberts, 11 am

CBC News Today, with Sarika Sehgal, 4:15 pm

Through May

Watch for consecutive spots on CBC-TV’s The Hour, 11 pm to midnight

susanc@nowtoronto.com

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