Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

When a Carnival is Just a Little Bit More - Sustainival

I first met Joey Hundert, the creative mind behind Sustainival, the world's first green carnival, two years ago. He had invited local media to come and check out his process that converts used cooking oil to biodiesel, which is then used to fuel the rides at Sustainival, a carnival much like all the others that tour this country and stop in small cities and towns and shopping mall parking lots.

And it is true that Sustainival looks no different, as the rides look exactly the same, and they serve mini-donuts and poutine in the food concessions and you buy ride tickets and, inevitably, someone turns very green on the Gravitron. But Sustainival is vastly different, because Sustainival is sustainability in action.

We live in a place where sustainability gets a lot of lip service as a concept. We love the idea, in fact, this buzzword that gets tossed around for every project and every idea, but it is the reality that eludes us. Most of us don't even know what happens to our recycling after our bins are emptied. We struggle when asked to point to a concrete example of sustainability. We love the word. We love the concept. We are just a lot less certain about how to achieve it.

And sustainability matters in Fort McMurray, because we are fundamentally economically based on a resource that is not sustainable. Oil supply is finite, and one day it will disappear. Oh, not this year, of course, and maybe not for 50 years, or 100 years - but one day it will, and if we think long-term and with a long vision to the future we need to be thinking about what will happen to this community when that day comes.

That day has come for other communities, perhaps smaller than ours, but when their resource-based industry dried up so too did the communities, slowly fading into dust and disappearing. I have been thinking for a very long time about the future of our community, and how we avoid the demise others communities have seen. And I believe it lies in sustainability.

I truly believe that we could become a type of "Silicon North", not based on computer technology but on the development of green technology, exploring new avenues of sustainability and ways to achieve the things we want but with less reliance on fossil fuels. I believe we must encourage our citizens, and particularly our youth, to be thinking along these lines as future career paths, because in those bright young minds may lie the solutions to some of the gravest problems the world faces. And I believe a carnival may just help those young minds start to move along that path.

What does a carnival have to do with technology and youth development? What does it have to do with the future of our community? What does mini-donuts and turning a peculiar shade of green have to do with anything?

I saw it in my own Intrepid Junior Blogger, who two years ago watched as used vegetable oil began the transformation to biodiesel. She and I walked around the carnival, and as we went I could see the lightbulbs in her mind beginning to turn on, illuminating one by one as true understanding of the concept - and the reality - of sustainability dawned.

"The rides," she said. "Fuelled by cooking oil?"

"Yes," I answered.

"The lights," she said. "Cooking oil?"

"Yes," I replied.

"The concession stands where they cook the mini-donuts," she said. "Cooking oil?"

"Yes," I said.

"The mini-donuts," she said. "Cooked in cooking oil?"

And I smiled because she had completed the circle, and in that mind that some day may determine our collective future connections had been made, not because of a class in school or a boring slide show but because she was eating mini-donuts and about to board a ride, fuelled by the very same kind of cooking oil that had made the donuts.

Sustainival has done far more in our community than bring us a carnival. Last year through 'The Green Beast' they partnered with local schools to ensure students could enjoy the carnival and learn the same lesson the Intrepid Junior Blogger did that day. They partnered with local social profit organizations and 'The Green Beast ' race became a "fun"draiser of the best kind, with teams zooming around the course enjoying the rides, eating the food, learning about sustainability, and in some cases raising money for entities like the Wood Buffalo Food Bank. Sustainival has brought us a glimpse of the future, and it has been showing us sustainability in action, not in words.

I believe Sustainival is one of the best things to ever happen to Fort McMurray.

We talk a lot too about changing our image, about the message the world reads about us, and we fight negative articles with our positives and we denounce those who treat us with derision. But what better way to change the image, to change our message, than putting our money where our mouth is and creating and practicing sustainability? What better way than through a carnival that mixes fun with future, and provides not only learning opportunities but mini-donuts and carnival rides? What better way than an innovative idea that takes something traditional, something many of us grew up attending, and turn it green and bring it into the future?

And that is why I am delighted that this past week RMWB Council voted unanimously to provide $125,000 in funding to Sustainival. I have seen far more money spent on far less, and with far fewer long-term positive benefits (and possibly even community-sustaining implications). I believe that members of our council truly understood the value of Sustainival, and they earned my respect in doing so.

The Intrepid Junior Blogger recently announced her career plans. Heading into Grade Ten next year, she has always waffled and wavered on what she wanted to be "when she grew up", always sighing that she didn't understand the kids who just seemed to know what they wanted to do. But a few months ago she came to me and said "I want to be an engineer. I want to make a difference in the world through technology", and off she went to begin planning her high school course load, with a heavy emphasis on maths and sciences. While I cannot say it was her experience with Sustainival that determined this career path I do firmly believe it was a factor, because it was one of the pieces of the puzzle that showed her in a concrete way how technology can be married with fun - and change the world, even through a little carnival and some mini-donuts.

And that is why Sustainival is just a little bit more than a carnival. In fact, it is a great deal more, with far-reaching and broad implications for our community both present and future. And the best part? It is also a helluva good time, although both the IJB and I have agreed that eating poutine directly before boarding the rides is a very, very bad idea.

To learn more about Sustainival please visit:

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