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Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

There was a time when grocery shopping gobbled an entire Saturday and close to 80 kilometres of driving. Thanks to fussy taste buds and a passion for small specialty stores, food shopping had become a weekly epic journey for me. With my favourite special items in hand, I crisscrossed town from east to west and back to downtown and then across one of the four bridges that connect us to the other side of the river and then back downtown… There was always a good reason for the extra trip to get that special flavour or that specific brand or that awesome texture. Plus, the store that had the free-run organic eggs did not carry the grass-fed butter, and that buttery thyme croissant was available only in one tiny boulangerie in Gatineau, Que. For sure it deserved the 12-km drive across the river. And the artichokes were most fresh in one particular produce store in the west end. And the baguette, oh only one bakery in the entire National Capital Region made that delicious crust that came close enough to the baguette I once tasted in Naples, Italy!

Then came COVID-19, the multiple lockdowns and the pause.

The pause, I initially thought, was for others to practice not for me. After all, I am an introvert, I already spend a lot of time reflecting and I live in tune with the seasons. I never buy strawberries or watermelon in January – they’re tasteless anyway – I use loofahs and take only quick showers, and beef was off my diet years ago. I use the green bin religiously and avoid single-use plastics. But. But those marathons of grocery-store hopping were quickly becoming challenging. How could I justify driving 12 km across the bridge to buy a croissant? The pause was starting to work its way into dismantling my finicky standards. Under lockdown, you leave the house only if necessary. Right! Was it necessary to drive 12 km to buy a buttery thyme croissant? Even without the lockdown, were the 12-km trip and whatever CO2 my car spewed into the air ever justified?

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Many years ago, a friend of mine told me that a bigshot CEO occasionally flew to Paris from Ottawa on weekends simply to dine at his favourite fancy restaurant. “He could afford it,” the friend said. I remember feeling fascinated with this extravagance and a tad reproachful. (To be honest, there was more fascination than reproach at that time.) But when the planet’s atmosphere is approaching a heating tipping point, how could I justify even my 12 km? Before the lockdown, I did not even stop to think about this question. I simply did it. There was no pause no hesitation whatsoever. If you want something you can get it and you want it now and you go for it now! The notion of “waiting” or “combining trips” or “looking for alternatives” was not part of my thinking. What was remarkable was that I was already committed to reducing my carbon footprint and already taking many serious pro-environmental actions. But I was blissfully unaware of my driving and selectively indulging habits.

It seems that we wake up to life in small doses.

The lockdown, the pandemic, the pause were, after all, for me, too. During those times, I left the house/went grocery shopping only once a week. And I managed to find almost everything I needed in one or two stores near where I live. I learned to wait, to plan and combine my trips and was successful in reducing my driving to a bare minimum. My car-insurance premiums even dropped thanks to my low mileage. My sense of self or identity didn’t suffer much and the feeling that I was now making a greater contribution to a healthier environment more than compensated for the few missed culinary experiences.

I learned during this time that no matter where one stands on the caring-for-the-environment continuum, with the pause, one can still achieve deeper and deeper levels of awareness or awakening. Like personal development, reducing our effect on the environment is a journey with many discoveries of blind spots and many beginnings along the way. “Zero emissions” and “zero waste” in the far distant future, like in 2050 or even further in 2080 are meaningless targets if not accompanied by concrete behavioural changes now, while it matters. Plus, does it have to be a perfect zero? Are millions of small imperfect reductions in our waste today not better than a few “perfect zero” waste goals achieved by a few environmental superheroes?

With every action I’m about to take, I pause and ask myself three basic questions: Is this action necessary? Can it wait? Can it be achieved in different ways? New habits became a natural part of my life as pro-environmental action and personal/spiritual development became one. The Power of the Pause to mitigate climate change is not to be underestimated! With millions of small and big pauses, we can create the cleaner environment we want.

Aïda Warah lives in Ottawa.

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