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New Realities: What we learned from Montreal in winter


This past holiday season Albatross traveled to Montreal, Quebec, Canada for one of our annual design pilgrimages. We chose Montreal because it typically embodies a strong winter environment that is a heck of a lot colder than coastal California. Winter is a time where there are a great deal of small actions that have magnified impacts on sustainability. For example, we’ve all heard the old: You can save 10% on your heating bill by lowering your heat 1 degree C. It’s actually true. There are many more tricks like this. Montrealers likely know many of these out of necessity (e.g., put film over your windows to stop a draft). There are many other cultural, governmental, and foundational forces present that in one way or another contribute to living smart and efficiently in a harsh environment. We wanted to discover more about these forces.


One thing that particularly stood out was the absence of something we used to love about the city. We understand why it is absent, probably agree with the legislation as it does contribute to the greater good, but were initially sad not to have it: Wood Burning Fireplaces. Wood burning fireplaces are now illegal within the city of Montreal. Now it is possible to have one, but you must invest in emissions scrubbing technology for your chimney if you’d like to keep burning wood. Because that technology is expensive and the strict enforcement only began last October, most places do not have their fireplace going.


We like that there are options, if you want to still burn wood. Remember, this legislation exists primarily because wood burning emits lots of fine particulate matter that is bad for health, not because of specific energy issues related to climate change. Is it more sustainable to not burn wood though? Short answer, maybe.


Natural gas burns with less particulate matter than wood, but typically has a very dirty extraction process (which includes direct gas leaks into the environment that have a significantly higher global warming potential than the CO2 byproduct of it burning). Though wood is technically ‘renewable,’ deforestation poses a serious threat to Climate Change. The forests are the lungs of the planet and store a great deal of CO2 for a very long time. When you think about it, trees are just about the only carbon sequestering technologies that work so it is hard to advocate for large scale harvesting.


We don’t want to go deeper than that on Wood vs. Gas for now because there are countless variables we’d need to discuss, and what we want to actually talk about is why the absence of wood fires struck us.


There are few things nicer than cozying up to a warm fire on a cold winter holiday day. Hot chocolate in hand, talking pleasurably with friends and family. Snow seen falling through the window. The “campfire smell” fills the room and reminds us of our primal beginning: humans surviving the elements.


Well, this year, we were forced to exhale and understand that those moments may be increasingly rare. We will not fight it though. We understand that there are direct benefits of this policy to a densely populated urban area that actually may be more important than our own personal nostalgia. This is an example of the new normal. It is different than what we’re used to. It is sudden, it is abrupt. Perhaps even a little uncomfortable at first. But, the policy exists for the right reasons. We think the experience lends itself incredibly well to the types of policies that need to be implemented to directly address climate change and other environmental issues.


Our planet is getting destroyed by short-sighted, profit maximizing business decisions. We believe that government is justified in stepping in and setting limits on the degree firms can pollute. If they do not, then the health of the planet and people who live here deteriorates rapidly. Lifestyle changes towards living more sustainably are necessary and vital to sustaining life as we know it. We ask, why is this transition to the future not being better celebrated? This future of better design, cleaner air and purer water, and more general health is exciting. It looks beautiful quite frankly. And, at this point in time, looks more bountiful than a future that ignores the telltales and burns all the fossil fuels we can. We’re going to have a new normal whether we act good or badly. Heraclitus says We cannot step into the same river twice. Change is coming one way or the other. It can mean we’ll be either better or worse off. Let’s choose better.


The impact of inaction is the same as action against changing to a better future. We are condemned to be free. That is, to not choose [to act] is still a choice we make.  And because it is a choice, we are necessarily responsible for the impacts of that choice. We can no longer ignore the demands of our planet. We can not survive ecosystem collapse and that is what we’re looking at if society does not change its dirty ways. Society can and must do better. But, improvement comes down to individuals and their individual, private, personal decisions on what they buy, how they live, how they pollute and what they can do better. Perhaps, at this point, the consequence of purchasing 1 bottle of water is small, but there is still a consequence regardless. We think our individual responsibility to act well should be celebrated because it is through this responsibility that we gain an ability to be truly free. If there were nothing to decide what would freedom look like?


Now, we’d like to quickly mention that Albatross Designs was started specifically because we do not have a lot of faith in governments doing enough quick enough to save the planet. We hope to do our part in convincing people to look a little deeper into how they consume so they can make wiser decisions going forward. Nevertheless, we’d love to see the government step up and take more meaningful action. Yes, there are some lifestyle changes that need to happen, but who said they wouldn’t improve our lives?!


We only have 1 earth and we must protect our right as individuals to experience that which when gone can never be known.


Thank you, Montreal, for helping us understand the power government can have in creating good.