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!
Last fall, I helped install a small garden on this lot, in the site of a recently-demolished house. We noticed at the time that the dirt was especially compacted and difficult to work with. Pretty clear why now–when city contractors returned to take down the abandoned house next door, they flattened the rubble (and our garden) with this machine here.
I got back last week from a trek out into the California redwoods to visit my brother. He’s a teacher at an outdoor education school, where students spend a week exploring the forest and Pacific coast as a state-mandated part of fifth grade curriculum.
Aside from seeing my baby bro all grown up and kicking ass in a highly challenging job, it was a cool policy to see in action. Here in 2016, us humans are growing more aware of the damage we’re doing to the natural world. But we’re also regaining our awareness of the benefits of being connected to it. Studies have found, for instance, that tree density is correlated with human health, and that nature walks mitigate ruminative thoughts. In California, I was surprised to see how much ten-year-olds (many of them who lead pretty difficult lives back home, including the kid silhouetted against the sea anemone in this photo) were connecting. They absorbed themselves in plucking edible plants from the forest floor, writing in journals under giant trees, and turning over rocks to find hermit crabs.
I had thought today’s kids would already be too cool for this by fifth grade, but no: my brother joked that he and his fellow teachers measure their performance each week according to the proportion of kids crying at the end of it. So maybe more of school should happen outdoors, no?
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.
Young people in Honduras march against mining in their community, which I won’t identify in order to protect their identities. Many people in the Central American country say that mining companies contaminate water sources, displace rural communities, and fail to deliver compensation promised in exchange for permission to extract.
Havana cityscape, 2010. The upside of not fixing crumbling buildings? Less carbon emissions.
This century, nine billion of us humans are going to have to try to figure out how to maintain the basic material comforts of modern life without totally wrecking the planet we live on.
There’s still a lot more economic growing to do, and one group of scientists has identified four key ways in which we are already undermining the planetary systems that sustain us: we are emitting too much carbon, driving too many species to extinction, causing too much nitrogen runoff, cutting down too many trees.
In the rich world, no country has figured out how to deliver prosperity while at the same time using the earth’s resources sustainably. We would need more than two Earths worth of resources even if we all consumed like Norway, among the greenest of European countries.
Lately I’ve been asking myself: which of the world’s nations has the highest sustainable quality of life? If we define sustainability in terms of hectares per capita biocapacity usage, what countries provide realistic examples of how humans can thrive within environmental limits? I used data from the Happy Planet Index and Global Footprint Network to try and find some contenders.
Like the forward-thinking European countries, Costa Rica has earned some deserved praise for its progress toward sustainability. Its bounty of hydropower even allowed Costa Rica to power its entire electric grid with renewable sources for three months this year. Costa Ricans also live long lives and are among the happiest people in the world.
But similar to countries like Norway, we tend to conflate Costa Rica’s relative enlightenment with actual environmental sustainability. Costa Ricans each need 2.5 hectares of land to neutralize their impact on the planet, well above the sustainable threshold of 1.8 hectares of biocapacity.
The World Bank considers Vietnam a “lower middle income” country. Its residents each earn about $2,000 per year, and can expect to live to be 76. Vietnam’s citizens each use 1.4 hectares of biocapacity, well below the per capita sustainable share of about 1.8. Vietnam’s future is uncertain though, as the nation’s booming capitalist economy has meant a steadily increasing environmental footprint since the 1990s.
A number of countries have similar profiles—Albania, Syria, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Armenia, Nicaragua, Colombia, Georgia, Jamaica, Guatemala. These countries are not quite as wealthy or as healthy as we in the West are, but deliver relatively comfortable lives to most of their citizens. In general, the greatest sustainability challenge these countries face is that their economies and populations are growing rapidly. In a few decades they are likely to enjoy much more of our affluent and unsustainable western lifestyles.
The United Nations considers Cuba a country with “very high human development,” due to health and education indicators that in many cases best those of the US. The UN Human Development Index suggests that Cubans enjoy a quality of life higher than any of the countries mentioned above, and they do it at least in the ballpark of sustainable limits at 1.9 hectares per capita biocapacity usage. Cuba’s uniquely sustainable development has been noticed by at least a few academics.
The downsides of life in Cuba are pretty well known, and are reflected in the data that suggest Cubans are less happy than many of the other countries listed in this post. But because of the nation’s success with the raw numbers, I’m planning on doing some more research on the implications Cuba has for sustainable development in the rest of the world.
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.
Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt desert, takes up hundreds of square miles in southwest Bolivia and is visible from space. Underneath it is by far the world’s largest lithium deposit, containing somewhere between 40 and 70 percent of the world’s total reserves. The mineral is used to power a wide variety of consumer electronics, and this GlobalPost report argues that the metal will become increasingly important as climate change drives the search for alternative forms of energy.
The Bolivian government sees the potential for windfall profits from the resource, and already has a lab on the Salar to experiment with various extraction methods. But as one Bolivian pointed out to me, widespread extraction would mean potentially scarring the view of one of the world’s most unique natural features. Big money for Bolivia maybe, but it would make the scene a little less romantic for the Argentinean couple off in the distance here.
Another blog post that I wrote in January and never posted.
So I’ve been pretty captivated lately by the history of the Inca state of Vilcabamba, founded in 1539.
Just a decade earlier, the Incas had ruled a 770,000 square mile area ranging from modern-day Colombia to modern-day Argentina. Spanish invasion began in 1532, and by 1539 the Inca survivors controlled just a small patch of thick, remote Amazon jungle around the city of Vilcabamba.
For eight years, Vilcabamba was ruled by Titu Cusi, a politically savvy leader who kept Spanish invasion at bay through appeasement, acceptance of Spanish missionaries, and diplomatic stalling.
With one exception:
An innocent Spanish prospector called Romero appeared in Vilcabamba in 1570 and asked permission to search for gold. ‘The Inca gave him permission, and he discovered rich veins in his search for mines. In a few days he mined quantities of gold. Romero thought that the Inca would be delighted, and brought him the gold in the hope of negotiating a new licence for a period of months during which he could mine much. When the Inca saw the gold he thought it could arouse greed and attract thousands of Spaniards, so that he would lose his province. He therefore ordered them to kill the Spaniard Romero.’ Intercession by Diego Ortiz could not save Romero, who was beheaded and thrown into a river. This was the only Spaniard killed on Titu Cusi’s orders. The Inca rightly saw that the lure of mineral wealth was the one magnet that would certainly bring Spaniards swarming into Vilcabamba. –John Hemming
Vilcabamba was finally conquered in 1572 after the Spanish decided its example was a threat to their colonial project.
What’s crazy, though, is how much the dynamics sensed by Titu Cusi still operate today. If you’re a rural community trying to live on your ancestral territory, one of the most disastrous things that can happen is the discovery of natural wealth on your land.
I’m doing some work at the Potato Park, a project aimed at preserving Andean culture and potato biodiversity. One staffer recently argued to me that the project would be impossible if gold or copper existed in Potato Park territory.
To wit: Peru recently approved 18 new wells to drill for natural gas in the Amazon, despite studies arguing that the arrival of workers from far away could spread “fatal epidemics” in the Kugapakori-Nahua-Nanti Reserve for indigenous peoples. Ostensibly pro-indigenous Bolivian president Evo Morales is pushing a highway project through indigenous land despite widespread opposition, in order to facilitate natural gas extraction. In Honduras, conflicts over mines and dams have killed dozens in places like Río Blanco. It can literally mean the different between death and survival for a culture today: Illegal logging in Awá territory in Brazil has caused a ”genocide” of disease that whittled the Awá population to just 400 before the Brazilian government took action against loggers. It still remains to be seen whether the evictions came in time to save the group.
From the family farm near Cochabamba where I WWOOFed for two weeks. It was an amazing place: a large variety of organically grown crops and animals to help sustain a family of five, run by a stay-at-home agronomist dad and his working biologist wife. The site produced almost no waste. Food scraps get composted or fed to animals, urine and dishwater are filtered for irrigation, dry toilets are cleared out every few months to make fertilizer, and inorganic stuff like plastic is stuffed into empty coke bottles that are then used as construction material.
I’ve always been a big picture kinda guy, I guess. Some vexing questions that I will be thinking about on my upcoming trip to South America:
Why are some countries rich and others poor? What is the most effective way to change this?
Is there any hope of a world that is both free from poverty and environmentally sustainable?
What lessons can Americans learn from Andean cultures? In what areas might we have insights to share? Read More