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Plants Are People Too

Really enjoyed getting to know Anishinaabe plant ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s way of thinking the other day. She spoke on campus about what we can learn from plants. Not some sort of metaphor—Kimmerer draws from indigenous teachings to argue that we should see plants as sovereign, sentient beings. There’s some Western precedent for this, too; apparently Plato argued that plants have souls.

Such a view leads to some interesting perspectives. Kimmerer talked about how “humans and plants worked together to create corn,” a cool way of thinking about the breeding process that turned a Mexican wild grass into the most important food source in the world.

There’s more here than semantics, philosophy, or spirituality. Kimmerer argued that Western cultural dominance has imposed the idea that plants are objects—referred to as “it”—rather than the pronoun we’d use for a living being, and the pronouns that her Potawatomi language still uses. In her view, this objectification is a key precursor to the abuse and exploitation of nature.

For the bulk of human history and until very recently, Kimmerer’s view was the dominant one. She argued that our lives since the Industrial Revolution have been humanity’s first experiment in treating the world as if it isn’t alive. “The results are in, and they don’t look good,” she said. If the grim projections of our environmental future are to be believed, she’s certainly right.

Is Civilization Just A Fluke?

Okay, perhaps the title is a bit provocative. This from Seed Magazine captured my attention though:

To begin, we need to put our role on this planet in perspective by placing humanity and the Earth’s systems in a geological context. If you graph the range of global temperature variations over the past 100,000 years, most of it forms a wild, erratic sawtooth pattern as climatic variations have at turns scorched or frozen the world. But, about 10,000 years ago, temperature variation stabilized, and we entered what geologists call the Holocene epoch. This is the stable period during which agriculture and complex societies, including our own, developed and flourished.

Considering the fact that our modern globalized society has developed within these unusually stable conditions, it might come as no surprise that today’s hospitable environment is often taken for granted in investment decisions, political actions, and international agreements.

It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that civilization just happened to develop during a uniquely stable climate. What does it mean that human life as we know it has existed only in one fleeting stable window of geological time? Is a semi-nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle inherently more resilient than what we call civilization?

Probably not, but the passage above suggests that we might as well start thinking about our unstable climate—“suddenly and violently out of balance,” in Bill McKibben’s terms—as the norm, not the exception. If not from greenhouse gases, that stability was bound to end at some point, so we better start planning for our long-term future on this “tough new planet,” as McKibben says.

I’m taking a class on climate resilience this semester, so more on this to come.

Horse Power

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I posted awhile back about horses in Detroit. My friend and former coworker Pasha Ellis organizes monthly equestrian events for kids in his central Detroit neighborhood with the group Motor City Horsemen. He envisions a future Detroit where horses become a prominent form of transportation.

It may seem like a bit of an esoteric goal. In an interview we did this summer, he explained his thinking. He said horses are about:

Bringing people closer to who they are. Helping people find definition without things, objects, man-made products. Yo, riding a horse is an exhilarating experience man, especially for people who’ve never rode a horse before. It’ll definitely cut down on pollution, and it will spark an interest, I feel, in nature and being closer to nature.

As the leader of the Fenkell and Dexter Community Coalition, Pasha organizes a wide range of projects in the neighborhood—tending gardens, cleaning streets, building community spaces in vacant lots. He argues that American consumer culture perpetuates an internalized mentality of white supremacy in distressed black Detroit neighborhoods. Improving the city’s quality of life therefore requires confronting that culture. Beyond the free fertilizer and saved fossil fuel, horses have a role to play in that work:

I think all aspects of nature have a healing aesthetic, whether it’s planting gardens, riding a horse, raising livestock, since it’s our natural element as people. It just puts us in a better place health-wise, overall. And like I say for these kids, these city kids, definitely just bringing them closer to nature and their humanity, opposed to, you know, ‘ooh I like that new car, that new car!’ You know, fuck that pollution, get up on this horse and stop next to that car. See how majestic you really feel!

Workers’ Paradise

In Harper’s, I wrote about how Cuba—perhaps more than any other country on the planet—stands at the enviable intersection of high human development and low ecological footprint:

In Cuba today, population growth is stable, malnutrition is low, higher education is free, and most tropical diseases have been eradicated. Cubans can expect to live seventy-nine years, currently slightly outliving Americans. No other country in the world has achieved such longevity while at the same time polluting so little. The average Cuban has a 4.7-acre ecological footprint, the total amount of land area needed to grow the food they eat, produce the goods they use, and absorb the carbon they emit. For humans to avoid depleting the earth’s ecological resources, we would all have to live on about 4 acres each, according to the environmental nonprofit Global Footprint Network. As of 2011, Costa Ricans each used 5.4 acres, Norwegians almost 12, Americans nearly 17.

Check out the link above to read about rare snails on top of mountains and lush reefs at the island’s remote edge. It was one of the most stimulating stories I’ve ever written, but it was motivated by some pretty grim lines of inquiry. One of my guiding questions was along the lines of: what does Cuba suggest about the likelihood that human societies will choose to live within our planet’s ecological budget when overshooting it is so easy? I found few Cubans who were satisfied with their current level of consumption, and understandably so. Cubans make many sacrifices that us Americans would hardly accept, from forgoing air travel to creatively sourcing toilet paper.

Even some right-wing thinkers have been able to grasp some of the essence of the dilemma. “No free society would do to itself what the [climate justice] agenda requires … The first step to doing that is to remove these nagging freedoms that keep getting in the way,” says one climate denier quoted in Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. I think a more optimistic counterargument can be constructed, but Cuba sure is fodder for pessimism.

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I’m finally getting to Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, on how climate action can be a vehicle for building better social and economic systems. From the intro:

What concerns me less is the mechanics of the transition–the shift from brown to green energy, from sole-rider cars to mass transit, from sprawling exurbs to dense and walkable cities–than the power and ideological roadblocks that have so far prevented any of these long understood solutions from taking hold on anything close to the scale required.

It seems to me that our problem is has a lot less to do with the mechanics of solar power than the politics of human power–specifically whether there can be a shift in who wields it, a shift away from corporations and toward communities, which in turn depends on whether or not the great many people who are getting a rotten deal under our current system can build a determined and diverse enough social force to change the balance of power. I have come to understand, over the course of researching this book, that the shift will require rethinking the very nature of humanity’s power–our right to extract ever more without facing consequences, our capacity to bend complex natural systems to our will. This is a shift that challenges not only capitalism, but also the building blocks of materialism that preceded modern capitalism, a mentality that some call ‘extractivism.’

Because, underneath all of this is the real truth we have been avoiding: climate change isn’t an ‘issue’ to add to the list of things to worry about, next to health care and taxes. It is a civilizational wake-up call. A powerful message–spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions–telling us that we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing this planet. Telling us that we need to evolve.

The Most Dangerous Place To Be An Environmentalist

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Published at Generation Progress. Photo: young Hondurans protest against mining.

As Al Gore and many others have said, “The future of our civilization is at stake,” due to climate change and a host of other environmental challenges. To preserve a planet worth living on, we will have to put a stop to deforestation, open pit mining, and many other destructive extractive industries. How will we do it if the loggers, miners, and destroyers are willing to kill to stay in business?

An April report from British nonprofit Global Witness shows the importance of that question. The group documented at least 116 murders of environmental activists worldwide in 2014. Global Witness tracked only confirmed cases; the real toll is likely higher.

Since its democratically elected president was overthrown in a 2009 coup, Honduras has seen over 100 killings of environmental defenders. The small Central American nation is the most dangerous place in the world to be an environmentalist.

“A white car with tinted windows and no license plate would always stop near my shop. They wouldn’t roll down the windows,” one Honduran told me when I visited the country last year. He was involved in a campaign to prevent a mine from opening in the rural community where he lived. The mine was near one of the community’s sources of drinking water, and many residents feared that it would contaminate the supply.

He asked that his name not be used due to the threats he has received for his work.

“Then the calls began. Calling me, threatening me, saying they knew where I hung out, knew where my daughter went to school. But I still kept going. From there they sent me a note telling me to shut up, that I was going to regret was I was doing,” he said.

“They said they had me well studied, the places I went, the house where I slept, and that soon they were going to pay me a visit.”

One day, he got a phone call from friends saying that mysterious men were looking for him. He fled his hometown and hasn’t been back since.

“I’ve had moments of reflection. My children are young,” he said. “My wife has asked me with tears in her eyes that I try to separate myself a little bit, because they need me. That has put me between the sword and the wall, because I feel that the need to fight is urgent. I feel a pressure inside of me, a commitment to fight, of total dedication, but I have had to slow down a little.”

If other cases are any indication, the threat is real. In the Honduran community of El Níspero, locals have reported that an iron oxide mine is destroying water sources and farmland. National police have broken up protests against the mine, and in May 2014, the body of anti-mine activist Rigoberto López was dumped in public, tongue cut out and throat slit.

In Peru, Ashaninka indigenous leader Edwin Chota asked authorities for protection after receiving threats from illegal loggers in retribution for reporting their activities. He was murdered in September 2014; a community member told a local newspaper that Chota and three others were bound and shot in front of other residents of their Amazonian village.

One month later in the Southern Philippines, anti-mining activist and indigenous Lumad leader Henry Alameda was “dragged from his house, taken to a forested area and shot dead by a paramilitary group,” according to the Global Witness report.

The damage caused by each of these crimes reverberates far beyond the Honduran highlands, Peruvian Amazon, or Philippine coast. As the killings continue, they enable the type of destructive extractive industry that is damaging all of our futures.

“It’s difficult to quantify,” said Billy Kyte, one of the authors of the Global Witness report. “But I think you can definitely draw a general conclusion” that violence and intimidation against activists is worsening environmental destruction. For every one of the 116 killings documented by Global Witness, there is an even greater amount of intimidation that doesn’t lead to violence, but still deters activism in defense of the environment.

On both ends of the equation, young people are impacted. In the developing world, one doesn’t have to be an adult to defend the environment, or to die for it. Several members of the community of Río Blanco in Honduras have been killed for their resistance to a hydroelectric dam project, among them 15-year-old Maycol Rodríguez. In the same community, the 17-year-old son of a local leader was beaten by police. Berta Cáceres, one of this year’s winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize, got her start as a student activist.

But even where young people aren’t on the front lines, these are fights over our future. Young people have a special interest in preserving both the local ecosystem services their communities rely on, as well as a healthy planet capable of sustaining life. If we’re going to put an end to problems like deforestation, it would help to make sure the deforesters aren’t killing the people who oppose them.

In the most direct sense, it’s a criminal justice problem. The people who target environmentalists are getting away with it.

“From the data we’ve found, conviction rates are unbelievably low. Of over 900 cases, we can only find ten of those in which a perpetrator has actually been tried and convicted,” Kyte said.

A lot of nations are not enforcing the laws they already have in place to protect environmental defenders, according to Kyte. Many nations are also ignoring the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states that indigenous communities must give prior informed consent before any development projects take place on their land.

Meanwhile, activists are working toward a binding UN treaty that would make businesses more accountable for the abuses that take place in international commerce.

“Competition for natural resources is definitely intensifying,” Kyte said, “while consumption patterns demand that we need ever more resources to feed an ever-growing economy, and our kind of obsession with growth and the growth model demands that we have ever more resources to feed that.”

If the violence is going to end, consumers in the developed world have an obligation to be part of the solution.

“As consumers, young people in the US have a responsibility to ensure they don’t fuel the rapacious activities of the mining and agribusiness companies behind much of the violence against these activists,” Kyte said. “Young consumers should check the sources of the products they buy and where possible identify companies violating human rights abuses and boycott their goods.”

Americans support the violence in more concrete ways as well. The Honduran military—implicated in many abuses against Hondurans defending their land—receives part of its funding from taxes on mining profits, but it also receives funding from the United States.

“If this reaches the ears of those who make the great contributions to the army, for weapons, for all the logistical support for our Honduran compatriots: it would be better if this help didn’t come in this form, but instead for education. Here we need help with education, here we need help with health,” the Honduran anti-mining activist in hiding said.

“We don’t want them to keep sending help to the army,” he said. “This is only bringing mourning to our poor towns, and more and more innocent blood spilled in the streets.”

A Little Piece of Food Security Amid Bolivian Floods

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High water season on the San Martín River in Bella Vista, 2014.

Bolivia’s Amazonian lowlands have been hit with increasingly severe floods in recent years. This year’s flooding has been the worst ever, displacing thousands from their homes and destroying crops.

The missionaries I stayed with last year in Bella Vista dodged the worst of the damage, but the disaster has had rippling effects. One Bolivian told me that as much as a third of the country’s rice harvest was destroyed with last year’s floods. The nuns in charge of the boarding house in Bella Vista that supports 25 children have struggled with unavailable food staples and increased prices.

To make matters worse, about a month ago the missionaries told me that a power surge from the city’s shaky electric grid had destroyed the large freezer they use in the boarding house’s kitchen. With inconsistent food supplies in the muggy tropics, this equipment is crucial for storing the meat and perishables that feed the 25 growing children that the missionaries support.

This means the $1409.69 that friends, family, and strangers gave me to support the missionaries’ work came at a fortunate time.

Last week, one of the missionaries in Bella Vista was able to make the two-hour trip over muddy roads to the neighboring town of Magdalena, where she received the first installment of the donations by wire.

About $600 in donation money will be used to buy a new freezer, which will allow the missionaries to continue feeding the 25 orphans and children unable to attend school in their hometowns. It’s a small item that will make a big difference in quality of life for a group of kids who deserve the best.

Heavy rains are likely here to stay though. The recent spate of Bolivian floods was triggered by an unexpected shift in Atlantic trade winds. One Brazilian scientist says the floods could be a preview of the impacts of future climate change.

I’m hoping to continue to support my friends in Bella Vista as they deal with the challenges of a warming world. If you want to get involved in building economic security and climate resilience in eastern Bolivia, give me a shout.

04/28/2014 // Amazon Jungle // Beni, Bolivia

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Flying over Amazonia in Bolivia. Areas of thick forest like this are less and less common. In neighboring Peru, the rainforest became a net carbon dioxide emitter rather than carbon sink for the first time in 2012, as deforestation released tree-trapped CO2 into the atmosphere.

Support Education and Medical Care in Bella Vista, Bolivia

I’m raising money to send to missionaries in Bolivia who provide free medical care and house children so that they can go to school. To donate and receive some prints of my awesome Bella Vista photos as a token of thanks, click here.

This year, I spent a month in Bella Vista, Bolivia with the Missionaries of the Holy Sacrament and Virgin Mary, teaching English and chess to children. The missionaries run a medical clinic, preschool and boarding house for about 25 students, aged four to 16, who attend school in Bella Vista. Each of the programs makes a big difference in the lives of people in this rural, agricultural region of Bolivia, and they do so with meager resources. I’m raising funds to send them so they can make some much-needed purchases to improve the quality of life for the people they serve.

The clinic offers its services free of charge, and even houses patients who have come from other towns. The preschool helps low-income families prepare their children for school and allows mothers extra free time to earn an income for their family. And the boarding house, in addition to giving children from rural communities a chance to go to school, has also provided refuge for children at risk of domestic violence or indentured child labor.

Your donation will be used by the missionaries in one of the following ways:

  • Purchasing medical supplies such as medicines or latex gloves, which are currently scarce.
  • Buying children’s literature, English books, clothes, and games for the boarding house, which currently doesn’t have a large supply of these materials.
  • Repairs to the preschool building, which has accumulated mold and structural damage from heavy jungle rains. Also replacing the wood stove kitchen, which is near classrooms and emits a lot of smoke that the children then breathe.
  • Reserves for basic goods. With global climate change, food prices in the fragile Amazonian ecosystem are unstable. For instance, flooding in eastern Bolivia destroyed most of the rice and sugar harvest this year, raising the cost of food at the boarding house.

Unfortunately, there is no registered 501c3 in the US supporting the missionaries’ work. I will gather the funds and then wire them to Bella Vista. The missionaries will compile a report of how the money is spent, which will then be sent to donors. Thank you so much for your support!

More photos of Bella Vista here.
Photos from my South America series here.

The Post-Glacier Andes

Global warming-induced glacial melt is expected to eventually threaten the water supply of 80 million people in the Andes. I talked to some young people in Cuzco who are going to be around to see this happen:

Across the Andes, people are preparing for the coming increase in scarcity. Mira-Salama’s World Bank project used a three-pronged approach to climate change adaptation.

First, knowledge generation: creating climate models and trying to predict the impact of glacier retreat on important crops. They also installed high-altitude ready weather monitoring equipment in the mountains of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. And finally, the Bank tried to help with “on the ground adaptation” in select Andean communities.

“We’re working with farmers [in the Santa Teresa region of Cuzco] in showcasing better irrigation practices that are more water efficient, working with them in organizing them in water associations so that they can irrigate with pre-defined schedules, working with them in finding more climate-resilient crop varieties […] and also increasing the diversity of their crops,” Mira-Salama said.

Not all communities will have World Bank help facing glacier retreat, though. As future leaders, AYP students will have to build a viable future for their communities in a glacier-parched world.

“We need to start now to make people aware of what’s going to happen, that there’s not going to be water,” Karina Jimenez Suma of Ollantaytambo said.

One idea: plant more Queyña and Chachacoma trees, which are native to the area and do not rely heavily on water.

“We can have a campaign to plant more trees in our communities, avoid wasting water, and do more sprinkle irrigation. You see very little of that [in Ollantaytambo], only a few people know about it. I think sprinkle irrigation is one of the things that can help not use much water,” Jimenez said.

Some possible solutions are more outlandish. One Chilean geologist is exploring strategies to artificially reduce glacier melting or even create new human-made glaciers.

More, including climate changes already underway, how to help from the United States, and the first completely melted glacier, at Generation Progress.