Two Ferries & a Skyscraper
I finished reading Bob McDonald’s fascinating book, The Future is Now: Solving the Climate Crisis with Today’s Technologies (Penguin Random House, 2022), just in time to leave for his panel event. I even read it on the 6:20 am ferry to Horseshoe Bay instead of napping. I had to see if we die on Earth due to climatic cataclysms, or escape on hydrogen-powered spaceships to start over as a potato-farming, solar-collecting, rover-driving society, as in the movie The Martian.
I got up at 5:00 am, to make it on the first ferry to see Bob McDonald, host of CBC Radio’s popular program Quirks and Quarks, at the Canadian Association of Journalists at the posh Wall Centre in Vancouver, on April 15th. The panel’s title sounded doomsday-ish enough to make a prepper feel vindicated–Climate reporting in the age of wildfires, floods and extreme heat. That day was more of a “floods” day.
The CAJ conference at the Wall Centre was a good place for two people, who travel by the ageing unpredictable BC Ferries fleet, to meet up. The Wall Centre, built in 2001, was likely a contributor to Vancouver’s nickname, “City of Glass”, made popular by Douglas Copeland, in his pictorial of the same name (Douglas & McIntyre, 2008)—beats the current nickname of “No Fun City”.
Bob was one of four panellists, along with Johanna Wagstaffe, meteorologist, seismologist and scientist for CBC Vancouver News, CBC News Network, and host of Planet Wonder, Rochelle Baker, reporter for the National Observer, and Mike De Souza, an investigative journalist and producer with Global News in Toronto. To get there from my condo in North Vancouver took eight minutes, but it took half an hour to pay for QR code-based parking, realize I was in the wrong tower, dash between raindrops to the north tower, and find the ballroom where the panel was going to speak. I was lucky to find a seat, again just in time.
Moderator, Sean Holman, Assistant Professor, from University of Victoria’s Writing Department, asks the panellists to look back over reporting on climate change and tell us what was their biggest mistake? Obviously, he started with the lightweight question while we were least awake.
Bob’s words explode. His thoughts flow like lava released after forty-eight years of reportage, research, and interviews with world experts on climate change pour forth. “I made the mistake of thinking that we’d listen to the scientists who predicted that the ice would melt back then. My mistake was thinking things would change quicker than they have and we’re in the same place we were back then.” But for the rest of the panel, his responses are positive and reassuring. Perhaps, if we work together with all of the green technology we have available in collaboration with the resources that big oil can offer, we won’t be eating potatoes 365 on the Red Planet just yet.
He best advice from the session is, “Everyone who invests in green technology makes money.” The hour goes by too quickly. Bob and I then shuffle to the hot caffeine dispenser. He graciously agreed to give me an interview. The video will be part of my preview class prior to his event on The Future is Now at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts, August 17 to 20, at the Rockwood Centre, Sechelt, BC (writersfestival.ca).
Teslas & Solar Panels for Starters
Who is Bob McDonald you ask? His unmistakable CBC Radio voice, bouncy, happy, energetic, and a tad teacherly, was hard not to hear in my head as I read his book. As fun and pleasant as it was, it significantly slowed my reading pace down.
Quoting the back flap of his book, McDonald has been the host of CBC Radio’s Quirks & Quarks since 1992. He is a regular science commentator on CBC’s News Network and a science correspondent for CBC TV’s The National. His book Measuring the Earth with a Stick was shortlisted for the Canadian Science Writers Association Book Award.
McDonald won the Michael Smith Award for Science Promotion (2001) from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Sandford Fleming Medal (2002) from The Royal Canadian Institute, and the McNeil Medal for the Public Awareness of Science (2005) from the Royal Society of Canada. In November 2011, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and asteroid 332324 was officially named Bobmacdonald in his honour (2015). What, no knighthood? Sir Bob McDonald has a nice ring to it.
However, Bob remains shrouded in mystery as to his private life, which is understandable when you’ve been a recognizable media personality since 1975. I was interested to know if his lifestyle reflected the principles in The Future is Now and if he had advice to writers of all ilks.
“You write so much about Tesla in your book, did you drive a Tesla to the conference, Bob?” I ask. I imagined he had a garage full of Teslas in every colour and model.
“I rode my motorcycle,” he replies. I’m stunned.
“What is your ride?” I ask.
“A Honda Gold Wing, it’s my twenty-first motorcycle” he replies and then gives all kinds of technical specifications.
In my limited knowledge of motorcycles, I believe that a Honda Gold Wing is equivalent to the sedan of motorbikes. He arrived on the ferry from Victoria, BC, the night before. For those of you who aren’t familiar, motorcycles go to the front of the ferry line. I notice then that his backpack has a helmet-shaped bulge. He has toured on his bike all over North America on his motorbike.
“Must have been handy to stay here overnight?” I remark.
“Oh, I didn’t stay here,” he looks around at the grandness of the hotel.
“But, Bob, you’re the best-paid journalist in Canada with a net worth of five million dollars,” I tease.
“What? Where did you read something like that?”
“Guess you can’t trust Internet sources, like you said on the panel. Fake news. Do you want to have a Tesla?” I tease.
“No, not until electric cars come down a lot in price,” he says.
“You’re a big proponent of the 15-minute city, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I do walk a lot. In downtown Victoria, I can get to everything I need,” he says. Another illusion shattered, that he’s not living somewhere like Coombs on Vancouver Island, with milking goats grazing on the roof of his stonework house, where he lives off-grid. In my imagination, he walks to town for the few sundries his self-sustaining farm, with a windmill, partial solar panel roof (must leave room for the milk goats), beehives, vegetable garden, orchard, chicken coop, wheat field, and volcanic hot spring can’t provide, like razor blades and ribbons for his manual typewriter.
We find a quiet spot to video the interview with my phone and I press the red button. Whereupon the only other two people present, who were silent prior to me pushing the red button, begin to talk as loudly as human lungs and vocal cords allow.
I ask him that with all his knowledge of alternative energy sources, what his house is like and how it’s different from the rest of us energy muggles.
“I live in a condo,” he says. The milking goats vanish from my mind’s eye. The quaint cottage with a couple of solar panels, that the goats liked to warm up on with their kids, is erased from my imaginings.
“Is it a greeeeennnn condo?” I ask hopefully. Please let it have a roof garden with a beehive, and room for one milk goat and her kid, is that too much to ask?
“It will have solar panels installed on the roof. I’m on the Board,” he says. Could they leave room for a community garden? I’m flexible on the goat, but the beehive is a dealer-breaker.
McDonald’s Writing Retreats
“How long did it take you to write the book? It seems like a five-year book to me?” I ask.
“Three years. It was the most difficult book I’ve ever written,” he says. The time it took to finish the book was mostly because of all the permissions needed for the many photographs, and to lock down on all the sources with his copy editor. “I only had to pay for one photograph,” he says proudly.
“What is your writing process?” I ask.
“To write a book you have to separate yourself. You can’t fit it in here and there. I’ve stayed at friends’ cabins to write,” he says. A retreat to an isolated cottage with just your words until you emerge with the next great Canadian nonfiction book completed sounds romantically luxurious. I’m weak with envy, until I recall that McDonald wrote The Future is Now during the pandemic, so it’s more likely that he wrote this book from the isolation of his condo like the rest of us Canadian authors did.
Would he consider sharing the romance of getting away from the world to write in a retreat somewhere with a pond, with just a few writers? Pick me. I wish I’d asked him to start Sir Bob McDonald’s Writers’ Retreat.
“Authors usually have a favourite chapter in their book that they wrote, what was your favourite chapter to write out of The Future is Now?” I ask.
“[Chapter 1:] Solar Power. Look out there. Look at all those windows,” he says with both of his arms sweeping towards the high rises outside. He explains how with the right coating all of those windows could generate enough solar energy to provide all the energy the buildings would need to run their lights, heat, electrical outlets and more.
I have two favourites I’m torn between—“Chapter Three: Wind Power” and “Chapter 14: A Great Idea But. . .”. When I lived in windy southwest Alberta, my father investigated putting up a windmill on our hobby farm, but the expense was prohibitive in the 70s. I returned there decades later, to find that the Lethbrige to Waterton area is one giant wind farm. I also loved the quirky ideas in Chapter 14 that don’t quite make it to market, like an off-road private museum of oddities along the highway of alternative energy solutions.
“What do you want readers to take away from your book?”
“Let’s get this done,” he says.
“What are you working on now?” I ask—aware that this is an irksome question.
“I gave my publisher three-hundred pages of my memoir and he said there were an awful lot of stories, but he wants more of me in it.”
“You seem like a very private person. Why do you find it difficult to write about yourself?” I ask. Bob’s shoulders drop, he looks down, and no longer looks confidently at the phone camera. He is no longer Bob McDonald, Quirks and Quarks host, author of seven books on the speaking circuit, holder of countless honorary degrees, awards, host of a long list of TV shows, and the namesake of an asteroid.
He transforms into Bob, humble son of a construction worker, a drop out from university, staring at his hands clasped in front of him, while sitting on a bench of a hotel he didn’t stay at because the over $200/night room seemed too expensive for a guy from Orillia, Ontario.
“I came from a humble background. Writing about it brings up all my insecurities about not being good enough. But that feeling of not being good enough, has made me work harder,” he says. I hope that he comes to a place of resolution and peace with those facts. I think most of his audience can relate.
“I won’t bring up the ‘R’ word,” I say, because at seventy-two years old, McDonald doesn’t seem to be making any plans in that direction.
“I’m an independent. I can’t retire,” he says, as we head back into the hall, where a milieu of journalists are on a weekend boondoggle.
Cathalynn Labonté-Smith grew up in Southwestern Alberta and moved to Vancouver, BC, to complete her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia (UBC). After graduation, she worked as a freelance journalist until present. She became a technical writer, earning a Certificate in Technical Writing from Simon Fraser University. She later went to UBC to complete a Bachelor of Education (Secondary) and taught English, journalism, and other subjects at Vancouver high schools. She currently lives in Gibsons, where she is the president and founder of the Sunshine Coast Writers and Editors Society, and North Vancouver, BC. Her new book, Rescue Me: Behind the Scenes of Search and Rescue (Caitlin Press) is a British Columbia bestseller.