As soon as you start approaching Vancouver you know you’re up for a different vibe. There’s no downtown expressway to separate its people from their waterfront (a la the Gardiner). No parkway to scar up vast swaths of greenspace (hello, DVP). The dense treescape reaches high above storefronts (unlike the scrawny excuse for urban foliage that Toronto forgets to water). Oh, and yoga mats and herbal mists are offered to every guest at my Robson St. hotel. Note to self: why haven’t I been here before?
The sky is bursting with sunlight and the whole town seems to be celebrating the sudden respite from one of the dreariest, S.A.D.- addled winters anyone here can recall. I skip down to the sea wall to take in some salt air on the way to Stanley Park when I realize I’m probably the only person without running shoes strapped to my feet. My healed mary janes are clearly the wrong footwear of choice, no matter how vegetable dyed they may be. I consider jogging anyway, just to feel at one with everyone.
By the time I’ve looped back to the world of shops and restaurants, I limp past a row of sushi joints, sort of surprised by what’s on the menu. Mainly, it’s all the same stuff you can find in Toronto’s sushi boxes: plenty of overharvested fish, farmed salmon dyed pink, and chemically saturated species. I can’t say you’ll never see me eating mercury-laden sashimi at home here and there (though I won’t touch threatened “red zone” fish) but this is ethically enlightened Vancouver. I was kind of hoping for Ocean Wise stamps of sustainability next to every maki on offer. Alas no.
After some vegetarian noodles I stroll past a Capers natural market and decide to saunter in to see whether their selection of products is any greener than out east, you know, put Vancouver to the test. No doubt, the West Coast seems much further ahead on the “support the local” kick and have big “local” stamps above much of their produce. Wish we had this clear and present hierarchy back home. But just like any imperfect health food store in the world there’s still rainforest-threatening palm oil in the gluten-free cookies and cancer-linked parabens in the beauty care aisle. I’m almost relieved. Vancouver’s human.
To be honest, I’m not sure what I was expecting from the city, but a radio host’s audibly haughty question a week before my arrival summed up what I thought I could be walking into: “Vancouver’s already really green,” she remarked, “what can this book really teach us?” Clearly, talk of light bulb changing and window caulking wouldn’t do.
So after saluting Vancouver’s status as Canada’s green capital I told her how even long-time environmentalists have more to learn and might not know, for instance, that their crumbling second hand couch, while earth-huggingly recycled in nature, might be kicking up all sorts of toxic dust heavy in persistent flame retardants and stain resistant chemicals. I even mentioned the environmental studies prof who told her class that she turns to my column for clarification on all kinds of green consumer issues. Did I get my back up? God, I hope it didn’t sound that way, because I like to think I’m way more zen than that, but the interviewer’s question did get me thinking. Would west coasters take to Ecoholic or tune it out like yesterday’s news? Can you teach a green thumb new tricks? (Sorry, this is the part where I get all Sarah Jessica Parker-like, narrating thematic Ecoholic In The City questions over a shot of me perusing Vancouver’s produce aisles.)
Turns out you can. Over the next couple days, everyone I meet not only embraces Ecoholism, they confess their earthy sins and spill out grievances against a town that could be greener, about a need for better mass transit (and a building crush of traffic from the sprawling 'burbs), about a wave of condofication (yes Vancouver’s come down with condo fever, too), about those being pushed to the side as the city goes for Olympic gold.
I think the biggest shocker though comes as I head to the Vancouver Public Library’s central branch to give a talk, thinking maybe 30, 40 people will come out if I’m lucky when well over 200 fill the seats! How did all these people hear about the book? I never think people might actually be watching when I get on TV or stop in at a radio show and talk to a lone host in front of a camera or mike. But clearly someone’s listening since a Vancouver friend tells me Ecoholic’s sold out at all the bookstores she went to.
Either way, I’m nervous, especially when I realize I left my speaker’s notes at the hotel. Shit. Now what? I try to focus on how I didn’t even need my notes in Ottawa, take a sip from my pink Cinderella water canister (alright, alright, I forgot my much more adult looking canister in Toronto so had to borrow my niece’s, if you must know) - and wing it.
When I’m done, the warm, friendly audience (hey, they laughed at all my dumb jokes, thank you very much) is brimming with thoughtful, interesting questions about broader political issues and the tiniest of eco tips. These greenies might know their stuff but they’re still wonderfully open to learning more and flowing with great ideas. At the table where I’m later signing books, one enthusiast wants to see Google Maps for enviro stores and services in each town, a brilliant idea I tell him dozens of others would love to work on if he just posts an ad recruiting green IT heads for the project. Another wants to bring a green committee to her work, and still another actually wants to bring the Ecoholic column to the coast.
The last book for sale goes to a young student from Australia. The talk really opened her eyes to predicaments she’d never really considered, she tells me, though she knows she’s appalled by all the water-wasting that goes on in her country when global warming is bringing in a deep-seated drought. She insists I need to go to Australia and bring some Ecoholism to Oz but I can’t help but think the carbon-spewing flight there might just get me in more hot water than I’d save. I’ve got enough greenhouse gases to offset when I get back from the tour. But if I’ve managed to spur a fresh battalion of troops into going that extra green mile, demanding more from the people, places and politicians around them, I’d say it’s all been worth it. And from the looks of Vancouver’s turnout, not to mention my overflowing inbox (and Ecoholic making it The Globe and The Post’s bestseller lists this weekend – yay!), it might be safe to say it has.