Mar 142017
 

From: The Earth

To: The people of Washington, DC, and particularly to the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

This is a letter to inform you that the manner in which you are living your lives is incompatible with the continuation of your civilization. Without significant changes, your future will be filled with famine, war, fire, brimstone, blah, blah, blah.

Ok, I’m the Earth and that’s not how I talk. Consultants hired down on K Street—a spot you all seem to know too well—suggested I write in what they called “legalese,” but I’m more of a birdsong and blossom kind of being. And sometimes when I’m really miffed, I favor the artistic power of a hurricane, drought, or flood. You might remember some of my most dramatic recent works—you named them Katrina and Sandy.

Those consultants rolled their eyes when I suggested that an eerily early bloom of Washington’s renowned cherry blossoms followed by a massive snow storm would finally be the sign needed to take seriously the climatic changes that your binge on my stored carbon is causing. But they also weren’t inclined to extend the dam-busting storms on the American west coast or prolong the brutal droughts spanning large swaths of Africa. One actually shuddered at the thought.

So, long story short, I fired the lot of them and decided to write you a personal letter. I hope you enjoy the cherry blossoms—and the snow day.

But while you’re strolling along the Tidal Basin tweeting photos of the ice-encrusted blossoms, please take a moment to reflect on the fact that the Tidal Basin and much of the National Mall were reclaimed from the Potomac River and Tiber Creek. Keep in mind that your precious cultural heritage—placed upon a low lying area that should already be underwater—will certainly be inundated when the Western Antarctic melts (I shouldn’t tell you this but I’m getting a tingling on my underside that suggests you’ve got maybe a few hundred years at most before something seriously gives down there).

So please note that this letter is a last friendly warning that you must take the wrongs you have dealt me seriously. I will endure them, not quietly, like your quaint little Lorax character who let that greedy Once-ler get away with destroying the Truffula Forest (I wish I had thought of those trees, those trees, those Truffula trees—perhaps next go-round, after this current mass extinction event).

No, not like the Lorax but like the Greek goddess of agriculture, Demeter. Demeter, if you recall, allowed Erysichthon, King of Thessaly, to cut down her sacred grove, but then cursed him with an insatiable hunger that led him to keep eating until he literally ate himself! I always get a chuckle from that story. You, however, probably won’t find the famine, flooding, and war ahead very funny.

Anyhoo, I wish you all the best, truly, and I warn you one last time: get your act together. Ratify the Paris agreement, shift away from your unsustainable growth-centric consumer culture, impeach your president and other elected officials who don’t believe in the basic scientific realities of climate change (seriously?!). Do whatever is needed to become a carbon-neutral species as quickly as possible, or you can kiss your city, and, heck, your whole civilization, goodbye.

Best Wishes,

The Earth

 March 14, 2017  Posted by on March 14, 2017 Tagged with: , ,  No Responses »
Sep 152016
 

This article on UDC’s food system work was originally posted on FuturePerfect.

The University of the District of Columbia is leading the charge in transforming the food system in a city challenged with high levels of poverty, obesity, and population growth.

“Nature will be just fine. The question is whether it’ll be just fine with us or without us. Nature might just decide to jettison us.” So says Sabine O’Hara, dean of the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences (CAUSES) at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) to a class of eager area residents who have come to learn about sustainable urban farming. Through CAUSES, O’Hara is working to transform every aspect of the food system in Washington, D.C.—from cultivation, preparation, and distribution to food waste management—in a way that provides food security for city residents but does not compromise Earth’s systems or the ability of our species to survive. As impossible as this sounds, CAUSES may just offer a model for creating sustainable urban food systems in the constrained future ahead.

udc-rooftop-farm
The University of the District of Columbia’s rooftop farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.

Cultivating a New Urban Food Path

While cultivation is just one component of the food cycle, it is perhaps the most visible one, and CAUSES has experimented with a wide variety of techniques to get as much food as possible out of the high-priced landscape of the nation’s capital. As O’Hara explains, “We are not a city like Baltimore or Detroit where urban agriculture is the new big thing. D.C. is not emptying out, like it is there. D.C. is growing by a rate of 1,500 per month.”

Right on campus is the largest rooftop farm in the city—20,000 square feet—growing plump Cherokee Purple heirloom tomatoes and crisp red-stemmed Swiss Chard along the edges (areas of the roof that have the structural integrity to handle larger crops) as well as greens, flowers, and sedum in the interior sections (for insulation and water capture benefits). Much of this rooftop produce—grown mostly by volunteers—gets distributed to UDC’s faculty and staff through a community-supported agriculture program and to D.C. food banks as donations.

Swiss chard growing in UDC’s rooftop farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.
Swiss chard growing in UDC’s rooftop farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.

Sustainable Agri-experiments

Beyond the campus, at the end of the Green Metro Line, is the 143-acre Firebird Farm. Here UDC is experimenting with a wide selection of crops and techniques to sustainably provide food for a growing city: 1.5 acres of sweet potatoes, an Asian pear orchard, a more-sustainable dryland rice variety, a cluster of half-acre allotment gardens available to entrepreneurial D.C. residents. There’s even a large garden of “ethnic crops,” growing uncommon and highly nutritious vegetables like garden eggs, ghost peppers, gbomas, kitely, jamma jamma, and jute for the city’s significant immigrant population.

CAUSES dean Sabine O’Hara describes the UDC rooftop farm to Sustainable Urban Agriculture students. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.
CAUSES dean Sabine O’Hara describes the UDC rooftop farm to Sustainable Urban Agriculture students. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.

Nearby there are also greenhouses with aquaponics, producing tilapia in high-tech, low-energy-demanding aerated tanks, with the fish waste water fertilizing greenhouses full of greens and veggies. But tilapia sells for little, so O’Hara’s team recently installed a smoking facility. “Why sell tilapia for a dollar a pound when you can smoke it and sell it for 12 dollars a pound?” O’Hara asks the class. As this pragmatic stance shows, if the numbers can’t be made to work, neither can the farm.

Hoop house at UDC’s Firebird Farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.
Hoop house at UDC’s Firebird Farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.
Koshihikari rice growing on Firebird Farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.
Koshihikari rice growing on Firebird Farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.

There are challenges, though. For example, the rooftop tomatoes had to be harvested green last year as forecasts of high winds could have turned them into dangerous projectiles threatening unsuspecting pedestrians below. And as a city-funded university, navigating how to sell produce without bumping up against non-compete rules has not been easy. Currently, a lot of the food is donated, which helps with food security but does not help with sustaining the farm.

Firebird Farm Director Mchezaji “Che” Axum teaches students how to double dig garden beds. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.
Firebird Farm Director Mchezaji “Che” Axum teaches students how to double dig garden beds. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.

Food in the City

O’Hara is not just focused on growing crops on the campus and farm. She is taking food exactly where it is most needed. The goal is to build an “Urban Food Hub” in each of the city’s eight wards, particularly the poorer ones. And with five already established, CAUSES is well on its way.

These food hubs include farms, hydroponics systems, and food preparation facilities. They are helping to train a new generation of agricultural entrepreneurs who can provide healthy food in a city where too many neighborhoods are food deserts. O’Hara notes that 88 percent of the 520 D.C. food retailers offer no fresh produce; in Ward 7—where overweight and obesity rates have now reached 72 percent—only three full-service grocery stores serve 71,000 residents.

ronald-mason-and-belinda-decuir-mason
UDC president Ronald Mason and his wife Belinda DeCuir Mason pose in front of CAUSES Food Truck. Photo (CC BY-SA): Leslie Malone.

By creating food hubs, CAUSES can take a leading role in providing new skills, jobs, and healthy sustainable food to the people who need them the most. One of its newest endeavors is a business-incubator kitchen. Here food-safety-certified D.C. residents can get access to a commercial kitchen, standardize their recipes, and create and market new food products—to stores, restaurants, and markets. “We’re not running food hubs as businesses, but as business incubators. Our goal is to spin off businesses,” explains O’Hara.

CAUSES has even set up a food truck, riding on the current craze for these mobile mini-restaurants in DC. But like all of UDC’s efforts, this too serves as an educational and training opportunity—“a classroom on wheels,” says O’Hara.

“Food Systems Must Be Circular”

O’Hara doesn’t stop with the growing, preparing and distributing of food, but makes it clear that agriculture waste streams must also be captured and feed the next cycle of production. Solar power is used to pump groundwater for Firebird Farm, and drip irrigation reduces total water usage. Wastewater is managed with a variety of technologies—cisterns, rain gardens, even rice paddies. Composting transforms food waste into new soil, and a bio-diesel press converts used cooking oil into diesel fuel.

Solar power is used to pump groundwater for the fish farm and crops on Firebird Farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.
Solar power is used to pump groundwater for the fish farm and crops on Firebird Farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.

With more people becoming urbanites, if cities can cultivate, prepare, and distribute more of their own food this will be a major step in making agricultural systems more sustainable, including reducing food-related greenhouse gas emissions and closing nutrient cycles. Moreover, if cities can localize their economies rather than depending on just one or two industries, they will be more resilient—a valuable trait in the less stable future that’s at our doorstep.

Perhaps with innovations coming from such a prominent place as the city’s university, and with the food and farming entrepreneurs that CAUSES is nurturing and the food businesses it is helping to create, Washington, D.C., will become America’s capital of sustainable food production. O’Hara is doing her best to make that happen.


Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at Worldwatch and the Project Director for State of the World 2017: EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet.

This article was originally posted on FuturePerfect.

 September 15, 2016  Posted by on September 15, 2016 Tagged with: , , , ,  No Responses »
Aug 172016
 

What might education look like in 2040 if it were to be truly Earth-centric? That is to say, teaching a deep connection to—and obligation to care for—the planet that sustains us? Over the course of the summer, as I work on the upcoming State of the World 2017: EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet, I will post five visions of thriving EarthEd schools in the year 2040.

Keep in mind that with this diversity of examples comes a wide difference not just in geographies, student ages, cultures, and available resources, but also in the direct impacts that school systems suffer on a rapidly changing planet. In places where flooding, drought, and other climate disasters have become omnipresent challenges, these experiences and their response strategies naturally have become part of the core curriculum—even the school design. Where stability has endured, these topics remain more “academic,” with activity focused on how students can help prepare themselves and global society for thriving (or at least surviving) in a changing world. But in all cases, the shifting ecological realities of the 21st century have deeply affected how school is taught to these students of the future.

What is unified across these stories is the schools’ commitment to put the Earth at the core of their curricula: teaching ecoliteracy and systems thinking, cultivating a direct relationship with a specific place or environment, and embracing global stewardship. Also at the heart of these stories is the teaching of moral education and the “art of living together” (conviviencia), as well as cultivating creativity and an ability to “learn how to learn” (what in the world of AI is called “deep learning”). Teaching life skills permeates every aspect of the school experience. And above all, these schools teach their students to be “Earth-centric leaders,” who will work both to heal the planet as well as to help humanity adapt to the inevitable changes that we are bestowing on coming generations. These curricular elements combine to form the Earth Education Core Principles (or EarthCore for short; see figure).

EARTHCORE

 

While these case studies may sound utopian, nearly all of them exist already in some form or another in today’s world (although not actualized to this degree). While the stories and their specifics may be fiction, the models described are real. What is, perhaps, utopian is that even as ecological and social disruptions occur, at least in these scenarios, they have been met with increased innovation and equity, rather than with less-equitable distribution of resources and overall school decline (as is happening all too often today). But there are enough examples of dysfunctional schools out there today (in a world swimming with resources) to not dwell on how terrible schools could be in a resource-constrained future. Instead, these visions of EarthEd schools of the future are designed to inspire all of us to strive for schools like these in the years ahead.

A final note: I plan to keep working on these scenarios to include them in State of the World 2017. Any comments, suggestions, or ways to make them more accurate and compelling are very welcome.

Rima’s Day at the École Gardiens de la Forêt (Montreal, Canada)

It’s late spring. Rima has just finished breakfast and is gathering her things for her first day back at École Gardiens de la Forêt (The Guardians Forest School) after the spring holidays. Although Rima had a good time on vacation, she can’t wait to get back into the woods and play. The holidays are never as fun or as wild as stomping and romping in the fields and forests of Gardiens.

Quebec was one of the first provinces of Canada to resurrect the idea of micro-neighborhood community schools—what Americans once called “one-room schoolhouses,” although few of Quebec’s schools actually have rooms. Many of the province’s elementary schools are now micro-forest schools, where children spend a large portion or even all of their day outside and embedded in a specific place and ecosystem. Gardiens serves a small neighborhood at the edge of Montreal with a total of 16 students and 2 teachers, Marie-Claude and Loic.

All of the students live within two kilometers of the school and are picked up each morning by “pedibus”—literally a walking bus, but in reality just the group of students walking together to school and chaperoned by a teacher. Admittedly, the pedibus takes Rima longer to get to school than a car would, but not for the reason one might think. Her teacher, Loic, stops frequently to identify animal tracks, wild edible plants, a tree in bloom (and one that’s rotting), and even scat. “Whose poop is this?” he asks the students, repeating a question that he has asked so often that it’s become a running joke.

The pedibus, along with being an excellent teaching opportunity and another way to make sure kids are active, further reduces the environmental and financial costs of the school, even when compared with the solar-electric buses that are now common in other parts of Canada.

Gardiens, itself, is nothing fancy: just a one hectare plot of woods and fields where the students explore, play, and learn. Twenty years ago, this site was an abandoned strip mall with its vast stretch of parking lots, but now it is transitioning to a mature sugar-tapping forest (still another 10 years or so to production) and a community green burial ground, which has helped finance both the reforestation efforts and school operations. The school also receives community and state funds—although not as much as during the peak years of the consumer era—but selling burial plots and (eventually) maple syrup will help it generate enough supplemental income to remain open even in the event of further cuts in educational funding.

In the morning, before the sun is too high, Rima and her classmates spend a few hours in the quarter-hectare garden and adjacent hoop house, learning about growing food and agroecology, as well as harvesting the greens and vegetables that will flavor the students’ lunch, usually a stew cooked on the central fire that the students help to prepare, serve, and clean up. Today, Rima is particularly excited because she gets to help chop the veggies—a first now that she’s turned five.

For the rest of the morning, the children are free to play on their own. Some stay close to the fire to read and to continue drawing a storybook that they’ve been working on. Others, including Rima, go off and finish the fort that they started building yesterday. And a few, under the watchful eye of Marie-Claude, practice their tree climbing skills. One child, Quinn, successfully hunts a squirrel with his throwing stick, which Loic, at the fire pit, helps him skin, gut, and add to the stew. “Tomorrow,” exclaims Loic, “we can invite the class to learn how to tan a hide!”

At lunch, all give thanks to the forest, to the fields, and to Earth for the meal, to Quinn for his success in the hunt, and to the squirrel for giving up its life to sustain their lives for another day.

After the dishes are washed, the students work on math and reading, with the older children helping the younger ones with basic problems. Studies have repeatedly found that there are few better ways to consolidate learning than when the student becomes teacher.

After the afternoon lesson block, Marie-Claude leads the class in what she calls their “Deep Dive” sessions. This week, she’s been focusing on the life of birds. On Monday, they observed birds on the school grounds and proposed hypotheses on various aspects of birds’ lives: what they eat, how they nest, and who hunts whom. Yesterday, they built their own wings out of cardboard and paper feathers and “flew” around the forest while discussing the mechanics of flight.

Today, Marie-Claude, with her infectious enthusiasm, declares that they’re going to make a nest. The first 20 minutes are spent brainstorming the best ways to build a nest and deconstructing an old nest that she found in a tree. The next hour is spent gathering twigs, branches, long grasses, and mud, and the class then constructs its own nest as a group. Rima overhears Marie-Claude whisper to Loic at one point: “Wait until tomorrow when a giant egg appears and we take turns sitting on it!”

Another day filled with adventure, thinks Rima, as she ends it with a relaxing walk home and dinner with her parents, during which she shares all her new experiences and life lessons learned at Gardiens.

Read more School Days in 2040 posts:


Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at Worldwatch and the Project Director for EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet, State of the World report.

 August 17, 2016  Posted by on August 17, 2016 Tagged with: , , , ,  No Responses »
Jul 052015
 

A few months back I wrote a reflection on raising an ecowarrior thus far for Adbusters and thought I’d repost here (with corrections and paragraphs that somehow fell out in the editing process….).

“It’s clear the economic system is driving us towards an unsustainable future and people of my daughter’s generation will find it increasingly hard to survive. History has shown that civilisations have risen, stuck to their core values and then collapsed because they didn’t change. That’s where we are today.”

Professor Will Steffen, director of the ANU Climate Change Institute

In January, a group of environmental researchers led by Will Steffen of Australian National University published an update to their earlier work on “planetary boundaries,” thresholds of nine fundamental ecological processes — like climate regulation, ocean acidification and freshwater use — which, if crossed, could potentially trigger a collapse of human civilization or at least a whole lot of human suffering.

Hopefully, we’ll correct course and prevent potentially cataclysmic ecological disruptions — including a five to six degree Celsius warmer future — “that won’t be good for large mammals like us,” as Steffen notes. But realistically, the window to prevent this path may have already closed — or at least is so politically nonviable that anyone bringing a child into the world today needs to recognize that the future of their children will in all likelihood be unstable, violent, and ugly — as 8 to 10 billion humans fight to survive as droughts and disasters disrupt food supplies, access to fresh water and energy is limited, and as fertile lands and cities are consumed by a rising ocean.

When my wife and I decided to bring a child into the world (just one, as humanity needs to quickly stabilize and shrink its total numbers), part of the agreement was to raise him to be a future ecowarrior. One who, hopefully, could help steer us toward a more sustainable path so that the nasty collapse that kills off several billion people and countless other species will be averted or at least cushioned. Or if that is impossible, at least provide him with the skills and wisdom to increase his odds of surviving the ugly transition ahead, and help others to do the same.

Let me acknowledge right from the start that the freedom to raise my son, Ayhan, this way reveals a level of privilege that only a minority of people around the world have. The fact that I can take care of Ayhan half of every day instead of working 12 hours a day mining gold, assembling iPhones in a sweatshop, or foraging for valuable scraps in landfills is a luxury many will never have. But being part of the American middle class, I do have that luxury — especially as I have made economic choices to make the math work, such as owning no car and no home, and yes, having only one child — and with it I have the freedom, and even the responsibility, to prepare my child for the radically different reality he’ll grow up in.

As Ayhan is only two and a half, I’m still navigating what it means to truly raise an ecowarrior, and a lot of my hopes and plans for how to raise him are just that. Already we’ve learned a lot, especially on how to lay a strong foundation — and just how important that foundation is, not to mention how much work it takes. Below are the key discoveries of my first years of fatherhood. I hope when you read these, you think “duh,” but in reality, I’ve met so few parents, also of the American middle class variety, that are conscious of these facts and realities, and instead simply follow blindly the cultural norms of the unhealthy, unsustainable, socially disconnected consumer culture they’re part of. Without first breaking through that mindlessness, I can’t imagine much success in teaching the more challenging ideas, skills and lessons that will need to be part of bringing up children to survive the stormy century ahead. Sometimes the first step is simply to identify what is so difficult to see.

Birth and Infancy

The first and most important lesson to learn as an expectant parent is to not blindly trust in the medical system. This seems obvious considering the levels of corruption in the American medical system, but I’ve found that many soon-to-be parents spend more time researching which smartphone to buy than how to have a safe and healthy birth. Instead, invest your time in researching what a safe, healthy, and natural birth entails. A third of American women give birth via Caesarean section — with their babies pulled from a slice in their wombs, oftentimes for controversial reasons due to a dysmal American medical system. This can cause all sorts of complications — from slower healing in mothers and challenges with breastfeeding to a changed microbiome for babies (interesting fact #1: a baby’s gut bacteria is partially established from the mother’s birth canal). Increase the odds of a natural birth by eating healthily during pregnancy (goodbye white flour and sugar); choosing to deliver with midwives; writing a birth plan; having the support of a good doula; making sure your partner plays an active advocacy role during labor; and most importantly doing your homework — reading books like Pushed and watching documentaries like The Business of Being Born. If you aren’t aware of the “cascade of interventions” that can be triggered by doctors administering Pitocin to accelerate a woman’s contractions (often just for their own convenience), you may end up as part of the C-Section statistic.

Birth, however, is just the first moment of parenting. In the first two formative years, the role you play is critical — from breastfeeding your baby (or supporting your partner in this essential practice) and feeding him real, home-cooked foods rather than overly processed packaged baby food, to raising your baby yourself instead of outsourcing his care to low-paid workers. Granted, all of this takes significant time and sacrifice. And it is especially difficult in a country like the U.S. (as compared to Europe), where the culture completely devalues the role of parents, rarely providing paid maternity care or even follow-up support after birth, and instead equates getting parents back to work and growing the childcare industry as beneficial to economic growth. But the joy of watching Ayhan grow, and building such a close relationship with him far exceeds any costs endured.

CellophaneBaby31Plastic Wrapped

One of the most challenging steps so far in this childraising process has been to avoid raising my son as a “space age baby”. Children today are surrounded by layer upon layer of plastic: wearing disposable plastic diapers, fleece onesies, and nylon jackets. They play with plastic toys; swipe plastic iPad screens with hands coated in hand sanitizer; suck food from plastic baby food tubes; ride in plastic strollers that are even sealed in vinyl covers on rainy days. Just the toxic burden of all that plastic should break us of this mindless activity. But perhaps a worse side effect of suiting up our children like astronauts is that from infancy on they are completely separated from the natural world.

Few children are regularly exposed to plants, birds, dirt (interesting fact #2: ingesting dirt may be necessary to prevent asthma and autoimmune diseases), wind, rain, the sun, even the stars in light-polluted cities. If nature is absent in children’s lives, they may suffer immediate and long-lasting psychological effects, as Richard Louv describes at length in Last Child in the Woods. The odds are high that they will no longer value, defend, or even understand their dependence on the Earth and its myriad ecosystem services.

Back in 1949 Aldo Leopold said, “Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relationship with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry.” And today, we have far more gadgets and middlemen. We even have unlimited access to an addictive, virtual world readily accessed at every turn through smartphone and computer interface. Limiting your child’s access to media is as essential as feeding her well. Of course, it’s not easy finding the time to read 40 kids’ books a day instead of plopping a child in front of Sesame Street, but then again, it can be quite joyful, especially after your two year old starts walking down streets and points to tree stumps exclaiming “broken tree, thneed!” making the connection between the ecocide portrayed in The Lorax and the ecological destruction he witnesses in his own home city.

Beyond the Toddler Years

This is all foundational, but what about with older children? How do we go about combating misinformation and consumer socialization at every turn — in school classrooms and cafeterias, from friends, from extended family with conflicting values, from the media, which I can only imagine becomes harder and harder to protect a child from as they get older? I do not yet have answers. I daydream of homeschooling Ayhan so that I can prioritize the knowledge and values that I think will be relevant — math, languages, and ecosystem sciences, of course, but also wilderness survival, basic medicine and first aid and martial arts. I consider what it will means to raise my child as an ecowarrior — teaching him to understand that all ethical norms and choices should stem from healing our living Earth and protecting it from further ravages of Man gorging beyond his ecological niche.

Right now, I am just setting the groundwork. My son is learning English from me, Russian from my wife, and we’ll add other languages later. He’s gardening, composting, and foraging fruit from street trees with me, and will attend his first primitive skills training this spring. We’ll enroll him in a martial arts class when he’s ready, and have already taught him a bit of yoga — surely, mindfulness in this increasingly mindless world will be a valuable skill to lean on.

Whether my son rebels against all this is an open question, but even if he does—as many more experienced parents tell me he will—when the collapse comes, he’ll still be able to forage wild edible plants, purify water, process acorns to make flour, and hunt, increasing the odds that he’ll survive as others go hungry when climate change disrupts the global food trade and grain prices skyrocket. And he’ll take the knowledge and wisdom he’s learned—and hopefully a deep-seated reverence for the Earth—and share that with others as well, perhaps even helping to sow the seeds for a new ecocentric civilization centuries from now. But no matter what comes, I understand that it is my role—as a responsible parent in this changing time—to do my best to prepare Ayhan for the daunting new reality he will grow up in. I invite others to do the same.

— Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at Worldwatch Institute and a contributing editor to Adbusters.

 July 5, 2015  Posted by on July 5, 2015 Tagged with: , , , , ,  No Responses »
Mar 082015
 
Photo by merz_ingbert via Pixabay

Insert token cute puppy picture here (photo by merz_ingbert via Pixabay)

Babies and puppies. Everybody seems to love them—perhaps it’s instinctual, perhaps it’s socialization. Probably the latter, for in Washington, DC, where I live, far more people stop to make goo-goo noises at puppies than at babies. And in some cultures, dogs are meat sources, not sources of affection.

But what’s most interesting about both puppies and babies is that consumers around the world spend billions of dollars on products for their pets and children that serve no real purpose. Sure, these purchases serve as symbols of their affection, devotion, or their concern. But, do they make pets and kids healthier, happier, smarter, or more secure? A poodle doesn’t really need rubber boots and overalls, and a baby doesn’t really need a Baby Einstein CD to help improve her cognitive skills. And pets certainly don’t need Halloween costumes, yet in the U.S., $330 million was spent on Halloween costumes in 2013 just for pets. (Along with another $1.2 billion for kids’ costumes.)

Ultimately, with 7.2 billion people gracing the Earth—and another 2 billion on their way by 2050—the luxury of spoiling children and Chihuahuas is not just an example of consumers being manipulated into wasting their money, but a grave ethical transgression. Is it fair or proper to convert global fish stocks into millions of tons of cat food when these fish resources are being depleted to an extent that coastal peoples will no longer have enough to eat? Is it ethical to use chemotherapy to treat cancers in dogs, when a majority of people on the planet don’t have access to these treatments, and when the environmental and public health effects of these treatments are so detrimental?

Of course, few parents or pet owners consider the larger ramifications of the choices they make. When Fido gets sick, you go to the vet, and do what the vet says will maximize your beloved doggy’s chances of survival. He is, after all, family. Eighty-three percent of Americans now consider their pets family members—a result of “humanizing pets,” a marketing strategy cultivated intentionally by the pet industry. And this strategy has proved very lucrative as Americans now spend $55.7 billion each year on their pets.

And let’s not even get into kids: parents would do just about anything in their power to save their child from illness. And many more would make significant financial sacrifices to give the very best opportunities to their children: whether educational toys, elite schooling, or health interventions—as long as it was in the form of a consumable. Most parents are willing to spend copious amounts of money but far less time with their children; many don’t hesitate when it comes to outsourcing their children in their very first years of life to a nanny or daycare (oftentimes far less qualified than the parents themselves), and don’t hesitate to switch the breast for the bottle or give their children unhealthy, processed foods, because the latter are more convenient or simply better marketed.

It’s strange how completely we’ve become consumers. We’ve allowed our common sense to become enslaved to marketing messages. $500 billion is spent each year to convince consumers around the world that they’ll be better off drinking Coke, eating Big Macs, driving cars, owning pets, using disposable diapers and formula, and flying to far off luxury destinations. Of course, buying into all those products will mean working longer hours—even if that means putting your child in daycare and not having enough time to take care of oneself, cook healthy meals, exercise and so on. But the good news is that as you get fat and sick from eating junk food and living a sedentary and stressful lifestyle, there are pharmaceuticals you can buy to control your blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels, even serotonin levels when you become depressed and your pet dog can no longer make you feel better.

"Platon Cave Sanraedam 1604" by Jan Saenredam (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

“Platon Cave Sanraedam 1604” by Jan Saenredam (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

How Do We Break This Cycle?

When children are made into consumers from before they even come out of the womb, how do we break the cycle? New research finds that children’s palates are shaped in utero, so if mama is eating junk food, her baby will be predisposed to this type of food. And feeding babies formula, powdered cereals, and store-bought baby food leads them to prefer sugary and salty consumer foods, rather than complex home-cooked, more nutritious foods. Add to that the amount of screen time babies and children are now exposed to (including marketing) and kids are essentially born chained in Plato’s cave of shadows—it just happens that the shadows are coming not from a fire, but from the flickering of iPad, TV, and smartphone screens.

Are pets much better off? In the U.S., 53 percent of dogs are now overweight or obese. Their ‘parents,’ who are most likely overweight themselves, are feeding them too much and not exercising them enough. Their owners probably don’t even notice that their pets are fat. According to a recent Gallup poll, 55 percent of Americans don’t consider themselves fat (even if 69 percent are actually overweight or obese according to national health statistics), so it makes sense they wouldn’t realize their pets were fat either.

In theory, if you restrict advertising, perhaps people would stop buying so much stuff for their kids and pets. But then again maybe not. At this point in consumer cultures buying stuff has become a primary means to communicate one’s love for another being (human or not). 65 percent of pet owners even buy Christmas presents for their pets (though I’m guessing their dogs aren’t Christian).

It’s sad really: in 100 years when the Earth heats up another 4-5 degrees Celsius—because we failed to curb our rapacious ways—it’ll be consumers we’ll blame for being unwilling to give up their decadent love of luxuries. And yet when it comes down to it, it’s hard to say most consumers are happier from the Earth-raping habits they’ve adopted. They’re just like factory-farmed cattle, being force-fed corn in a variety of forms, so that they can be slaughtered for profit. They eat more, they get fatter, and then the medical industry rakes in cash treating the myriad diseases that come at the end of this cycle. That part is slightly different than what happens to cows, but at the end of the day both are liquidated to make money. Meanwhile the planet becomes less and less suitable for the continuation of human civilization.

Somehow we have to free consumers from the pen they’ve been corralled in, from the cave they’ve been imprisoned in—for the good of their children, their pets, and especially for the good of the 4 billion non-consumers at their and the changing Earth’s mercy. How? Plato thought that once the prisoner escapes the cave, he must go back and drag others out—even if prisoners resist and attack him. While I don’t disagree with that, the escapee must also start raising a new generation of post-cave dwellers, who can help both with organizing a more coordinated prison break, and—recognizing that the prison is very well-guarded but very expensive to maintain—prepare for the day when the prison goes bankrupt and releases en masse its captive population. When the changing Earth triggers the collapse of the consumer culture, what will remain? Packs of feral pets menacing human populations (like in many developing countries)? Ignorant children and adults who don’t know where to get food once it’s no longer available in grocery stores? It will take scores of guides to show these ex-cons how to survive in their new reality.

Raising Future Guides

I personally am working to raise one of these future guides—even if it isn’t easy. At 2.5 years old; my son, Ayhan, hasn’t eaten any junk food yet and has grown up eating only real food; he has been exposed to almost no screens (he video-Skypes with his grandparents and once in a while watches old Soviet cartoons in Russian); and spends almost as much time outside running around the city than sitting down inside. One of his first words was even compost, and he can identify and harvest (ok, pull some leaves off) several plants already, which isn’t too bad for a city-dwelling toddler.

Sorry son, no doggy for you. (Photo by akashjatania via Pixabay)

Sorry son, no doggy for you. (Photo by akashjatania via Pixabay)

Even more important, Ayhan has been raised mostly by his mom and me. This hasn’t been easy—it’s a lot easier to plop a 2-year old in front of an electronic babysitter than read book after book after book to him. It’s even easier to drop off a child every morning at a daycare center and pick him up six hours later. My wife and I have certainly had to make sacrifices in revenue earned, in short-term mission goals, and so on. But we are also consciously choosing to have only one child, so being present makes more sense than regretting missing our only son’s childhood. And having only one also means his economic costs are manageable and even more importantly, his environmental costs, while not exactly sustainable (living in the U.S. makes that nearly impossible), are as constrained as possible.

And hopefully, if all goes well, Ayhan will play an important role in helping his peers adapt to a new post-consumer reality as the global consumer culture buckles in the face of rising sea levels, droughts, and all the other apocalyptic nightmares that climate change will bring with it. His childhood certainly won’t be easy—and he might not forgive me for never buying him a dog, a cat, or a TV—but then again, his adulthood won’t be easy either, so I might as well prepare him in a way that at least gives him a chance to survive, and perhaps even a chance to help rebuild human civilization.

—-

Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute and co-director of State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? He writes about raising his son to survive the collapse of civilization at http://raisinganecowarrior.net/. This essay was first published in German in KULTURAUSTAUSCH – Journal for international perspectives.

 March 8, 2015  Posted by on March 8, 2015 Tagged with: , , ,  No Responses »
Jan 082015
 
Gowy-icaro-prado - Copy

Jacob Peter Gowy’s “The Flight of Icarus.”

What if Icarus’ father—knowing his son would fly too close to the sun—had made the wings he designed more resilient? What if he had used bone and string and not just wax to bind them? Would this ancient myth have turned out any differently? Probably not. Icarus would have simply flown closer to the sun before the sun destroyed his wings—perhaps igniting them on fire rather than just melting the wax. And so the boy would have fallen even further and have been crushed even more brutally by the onrushing wall of ocean below.

Let’s apply that question to today. What if we make our globalized consumer society more resilient? That is to say, what if—as more people in the sustainability community are advocating—we make our economic and social systems more able to withstand the inevitable shocks that come with an ever larger human population living within a destabilizing Earth system. What if we build future coastal homes on stilts. And invest billions of dollars and massive amounts of natural capital (in the form of cement and embodied fossil fuel energy) in sea walls around cities like New York and New Orleans. And we even genetically modify crops—even livestock—to withstand drought and heat.

What happens then? We fly higher, we grow bigger, and our inevitable crash into the sea is delayed temporarily. But as with Icarus, the crash would be made far worse. These technologies may delay civilizational collapse a few decades. If that’s the difference between 2030 and 2050, that might mean a peak population of 9.4 billion instead of 8.3 billion, a number far harder to sustain—even without the productivity losses that will come with a changing climate. This delay might also translate to an overall temperature increase of 5 or 6 degrees Celsius rather than just 3 or 4 degrees, which could mean the difference between meters and tens of meters of sea level rise and the difference between millennia of misery and just centuries.

Instead, let’s learn the lesson that the myth of Icarus is supposed to teach: avoid hubris. Do not fly too high. Acknowledge limits exist, including the keystone limit that infinite growth is not possible in a finite system.

This isn’t an easy lesson—especially for a business community seemingly locked into a growth-dependent system. But it can shape the way the sustainability community discusses and advocates for resilience. No sane person should be advocating for a more resilient growth-centric society. That’s the very worst scenario we can have, because that’ll allow this economic system to disrupt more of Earth’s ecosystem services before its eventual collapse.

Instead the pursuit of resilience should be fully embedded in a degrowth paradigm, ensuring that programs that work to bring us back within Earth’s limits—and minimize catastrophic climatic changes—also help us weather those changes with as little suffering as possible.

So let’s ask the crucial question then: what gets us closer to living within planetary limits while simultaneously making us more resilient?

Some examples: Rebuilding local economies and community food self-sufficiency; finding ways to rapidly accelerate small scale energy production investments (but planning for a far lower electricity usage norm than what we currently use); investments in public infrastructure like bicycle sharing systems; and most importantly cultural changes that denormalize unsustainable forms of consumption: luxury travel, pet ownership, daily portions of meat, sub-arctic levels of cooling in the summer, and so on.

Yes, I recognize this isn’t the technological utopia that futurists promise. There will be no robot slaves to make living easy; no intelligent computer operating systems that simplify our lives and also double as romantic partners for the lonely. Life will be harder—humans will probably labor more, including in simple day to day chores, but hopefully this simplification will prevent dystopic futures portrayed in movies like Soylent Green or Snowpiercer.

Naturally, we’d use some high technologies—appropriately: solar panels on tops of homes for example, but probably not in such densely concentrated arrays that they incinerate birds flying overhead; antibiotics—for life-threatening diseases, but not in ways that make bacteria more resistant (or should I say more “resilient”?); bicycles; zero net energy buildings; family planning aids; composting toilets; wind turbines—perhaps once again for moving water, grinding grain, and sawing wood more than for producing electricity; and the list goes on. But a lot of modern luxuries would be phased out.

The challenge is ensuring that all our efforts to become more resilient make us more sustainable—and vice versa. But even if we fail at that, we should still work to stop any ‘resilience’ projects that serve to extend the reach and robustness of the consumer society. That, at least, may help cushion our eventual fall when we crash into the proverbial sea.

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Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute and co-director of State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? He writes about raising his son to survive the collapse of civilization at Raisinganecowarrior.net.

Draper_Herbert_James_Mourning_for_Icarus - Copy

The Lament for Icarus by H. J. Draper

 January 8, 2015  Posted by on January 8, 2015 Tagged with: , , ,  No Responses »
Sep 202014
 
Image by thethreesisters via Flickr

Image by thethreesisters via Flickr

This week I’ve been reading Global Environmental Politics: From Person to Planet, by State of the World 2013 contributor Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner and it has proved an excellent read—with classic articles from a score of environmental experts, many of which have been on my ‘To Read’ list for a long time. But the hidden gem of the book resides on page 33. This being a college reader, each section ends with a thought exercise, with “The Time Machine,” wrapping up Section 1:

Imagine you are sitting in a time machine. You are required to make a choice. You can go back 300 years or forward 300 years. You can’t stay in the present, and once you have made your decision, you’re not coming back…. Which would you choose? To go forward or back?”

I had a lot of fun thinking through this. Though in truth, I would need just a bit more information before I could truly make my choice. Here’s my question: If I chose to go backwards in time would I get to influence the past, possibly even preventing the ecocidal present I’m now part of (kind of like that sci-fi show Continuum but set in Colonial America rather than modern-day Canada)? Perhaps I could become some sort of prophet that spreads a new ecological philosophy so that we never go down the suicidal grow-until-we-crash path. Possibly I could selectively introduce vaccines and antibiotics and sanitation—the best parts of the industrial revolution in my opinion—but decoupled from all the bad forms of progress that grew in parallel to this public health revolution. Or maybe I’d simply be shot or jailed as I tried to implement these changes. By 1714 the ideology of growth was well rooted and let’s be honest, I’m not sure how one would go from penniless time-immigrant to influential shaper of the future. If I was lucky, maybe I could sell enough future knowledge to buy up some of Manhattan before the island’s real estate market really took off. But probability of success aside, if you told me that there was any chance at all, I think I’d take it.

But let’s then assume the answer is no. That time is not linear and all is already as it ever will be. So if I went back in time, then that was always the case and I’ve already influenced it and it turned out as it turned out (You still with me? If not read here). In that case, I’d go forward. Certainly not because I think I’d be traveling to some sort of happy Star Trek future but just because I’m damn curious to see how the coming centuries unfold.

Call me suicidal if you will—the odds favor that if I left from Washington, I’d end up landing in the ocean (300 years from now I’d bet all the Manhattan real estate I bought in 1714 that Washington is underwater as Western or possibly all of Antarctica will most likely be ice-free by then). Or maybe I wouldn’t even be on a planet with a breathable atmosphere any longer. Or maybe I’d die from radioactive fallout still floating in the air from the nukes detonated during World War III.

Then again, if the collapse was slow and controlled rather than rapid and rabid, I might arrive thinking I pushed the “Backwards” button instead of the “Forward” one. With families farming little plots of land, dressed in home-tanned leather pants and homespun cotton shirts. But I’m sure a few minutes later I’d notice the well cared-for rifle or pair of binoculars—a family’s prize heirloom that has been well-used and passed on for generations. And once I turned my eyes toward the horizon, I’m sure I’d see some sharp angles of ruined skyscrapers hidden amongst the trees.

But is there any chance I’d see some sort of biomimickry-cradle-to-cradle-solar-organic utopia? I highly doubt it. While several chapters bring up the importance of hope in motivating us to build a sustainable future (“optimism makes us bigger,” blathers Alex Steffen, and Barbara Kingsolver has a whole essay on “How to Be Hopeful”), let’s be honest. More of the chapters—from Thomas Friedman’s essay “Too Many Americans?” to Bill McKibben’s “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”—reveal that the window for getting to a high-tech sustainable future has closed (if it was ever open in the first place). Instead, we may get to a sustainable future–but through a painful process of degrowth (with how painful that process being determined by who leads it–people or the planet).

Growth of fungi in Petri dishes (Photo by: Dr. David Midgley Cultures: Dr. David Midgley University of Sydney, Australia.)

An essay by Charles C. Mann beautifully explores this point. When any species is given unbridled access to resources, it grows until it is stopped by some competing force. As he notes, if nothing stopped the growth of a single Proteus vulgaris bacterium, in just 36 hours “this single bacterium could cover the entire planet in a foot-deep layer of single-celled ooze.” The same goes with humans, where, as Mann notes, our monocropped grain fields look similar to the Petri dishes that bacteria colonies completely fill up and then collapse in. Mann reflects on what biologist Lynn Margulis thought about whether we too would grow until we crash, “It would be foolish to expect anything else…. More than that it would be unnatural.”

Of course the point of the book is that global environmental politics, wielded well, may help prevent our eventual crash, or at least help steer our descent so the future looks more like Colonial Williamsburg than The Planet of the Apes (the original not the crappy remake). Let’s “hope” Nicholson and Wapner are right.



Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute and is teaching a course on Environmental Sustainability & Resilience at Goucher College this winter.

 September 20, 2014  Posted by on September 20, 2014 Tagged with: , , , ,  No Responses »
Aug 312014
 
6610-shell-pumps

Fill ‘er up? (Image from Danjam via Brickipedia)

That LEGO is partnering with Shell is nothing new. From 1966 to 1992 LEGO regularly produced Shell-themed LEGO sets. You might even remember them from your childhood:

  • There’s the 1981 Shell Gas Pumps set;
  • And the Shell Service Station from 1983;
  • And then there’s the rare, cross-over Pirates/Town set, “The Shell Pirates’ Illegal Offshore Exploration Ship” (see below);
  • And the even rarer Shell Death Star commanded by Shell CEO Darth van Beurden.

Well, as you might have heard, LEGO has recently renewed its partnership with Shell, producing a new line of Shell branded LEGO sets.

Fortunately Greenpeace has rocked the oil platform a bit with its excellent cartoon about Shell’s destruction of the Arctic (made with LEGOs of course), claiming that “Shell is polluting our kids’ imaginations”:

Greenpeace’s cartoon and campaign raises the important question of whether LEGO should partner with an oil company or not. But without too much reflection it seems clear that this type of partnership is not appropriate—for the very simple reason that LEGO blocks imprinted with the Shell icon help create a positive association in children’s minds between Shell and the enjoyable hours spent playing with LEGOs. The more positively oil companies are viewed (at a primal, deep brain level) the harder it’ll be to convince people that fossil fuels (and the companies that profit from their extraction) are not compatible with a survivable future. So in other words, yes, Shell—and LEGO through its partnership—is polluting our kids’ imaginations.

Shell Pirate Ship-6285

“Ahoy maties! Let’s go find some new offshore oil deposits to exploit!” cries out Captain van Beurden from the crow’s nest.

So should parents stop buying LEGOs? Notice that not even Greenpeace suggests that—LEGO is a powerful brand, one that kids love. So parents would be reluctant to abandon this reliable brand, let alone try to explain to their kids why they can’t play with their LEGOs anymore. Probably why Greenpeace simply encourages parents to sign this petition to LEGO. Perhaps enough parental anger will make LEGO reconsider whether this brand taint is worth the $116 million its deal with Shell is estimated to be valued at. But then again, considering what LEGOs are made out of, I don’t imagine LEGO is really averse to oil drilling and might as well find a partner to make its company even more lucrative (at least until the end of the fossil fuel era takes it down).

But yes, parents should probably think twice about supporting LEGO and honestly, all toy brands. My son, Ayhan, is only 2 and already we have two big boxes of toys (and that’s with aggressive efforts to discourage people from buying us any new stuff). The key for me will be to redirect Ayhan beyond the exaggerated period of extended childhood that Americans prefer and get him playing with/building real stuff sooner. Why assemble LEGO sets when you can assemble a meal to serve to your family? Why arm a hundred LEGO knights when you can build your own bow and arrows? Why wage LEGO battles when you can hunt down a squirrel and make stew from its meat and a pouch from its hide? Yes, Ayhan is a few years from that, but by six he should be a competent squirrel hunter or at least a squirrel trapper and at that point hopefully any LEGOs we’ve accumulated will be collecting dust in the closet.

I admit all that sounds primitive, but then again, primitive skills will probably be an integral part of the post-oil, post-plastic, post-LEGO future that’s speeding toward us like a derailed LEGO train (probably loaded with unreinforced Shell oil tank cars). “All aboard! Next stop: New Miami” (since old Miami will be long submerged by then).

 August 31, 2014  Posted by on August 31, 2014 Tagged with: , , , , ,  No Responses »
May 262014
 

A few weeks back I attended an “Accelerating Sustainability Forum” at the US Chamber of Commerce. While there was lots of rosy talk about sustainability, in truth, most of the focus was on growth, even though it’s becoming increasingly clear that true sustainability is going to require a massive scaling back of human enterprise. In the Guardian’s Sustainable Business blog I tried to grapple with that conundrum.

You can read the full article there though I’ll leave you a few tidbits to ponder here:

While climate change was discussed openly in the Chamber’s Hall of Flags – a feat in its own right, given the state of the climate conversation in America – many of the businesses in the room were clearly still drinking Jeffrey Immelt’s “Green is Green” Kool-Aid.

It’s hard to fault people who are searching for the right lexicon to convince corporations to prioritize sustainability, but perhaps the business case is not the solution. Because, let’s be honest: as the world goes to hell in a hand-basket, there will be huge opportunities to profit off the decline, whether on skyrocketing food and energy costs, private security services, or ecosystem services no longer freely provided by nature, such as water treatment and pollination (robotic bees anyone?).

I then try a different frame, one focused on survival:

Let’s explore an alternative way to frame sustainability, one that might have better outcomes when appealing to companies’ sustainability officers. Rather than focus on the profits that could be reaped in the pre-end [of the world] period by businesses and investors that plan appropriately today, let’s consider that, even for the best planners, the end will still be filled with unimaginable horrors, ones that they, their families and their companies probably won’t survive.

A nice coat of greenwash if I've ever seen one (photo courtesy of Jen Bojan via flickr).

A nice coat of greenwash if I’ve ever seen one (photo courtesy of Jen Bojan via flickr).

However, in truth, I don’t think this type of far-sighted planning will succeed–as the example on the paint company Benjamin Moore I discuss in the piece reflects–so I conclude with the obvious point that regulation (or perhaps I should say “governance” and give a shout out to State of the World 2014) will be essential to save companies from themselves.

So does that suggest that the only way to save the free market is to make it less free? Do companies need regulators to proactively step in to make the sweeping changes necessary to organize the economy as a subsystem of the Earth system, rather than assume the inverse? Probably. But in truth, the only way that will happen is if some really smart companies enable that political leadership, using their influence to shift the focus to stopping the end of the world rather than just profiting in the pre-end stage.

So in other words, we’re in a Catch-22 that may stymie any real progress toward degrowth until its far too late. But there may be a silver lining, as I note in the piece by quoting Bob Mankoff’s comic punchline:

“And so while the end-of-the-world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profit.”

Enjoy it while it lasts!

 May 26, 2014  Posted by on May 26, 2014 Tagged with: , , , , ,  No Responses »
May 052014
 
Image Courtesy of iampoohie via Flickr

Image Courtesy of iampoohie via Flickr

Can pets be part of a sustainable future? I admit this is a ‘pet’ topic of mine, mainly because people love their pets so much in consumer cultures that it’s become taboo to even suggest that perhaps we should start curtailing their populations. I’d argue this is even more taboo than suggestions we need to proactively curb human population.

Recently I wrote an article for The Guardian Sustainable Business blog, which then triggered a outpouring of outrage when it was extracted first for Grist (under the title “The Guardian says your cats are a climate menace,”), and then in Newser, under “Our Planet Just Can’t Sustain Pets,” which so far has gotten 230 comments–probably would’ve been more but community standards removed the angriest!

While I won’t bother extracting too much of The Guardian article here as you can read it there, I will highlight some of the gems of the comments–ignoring the many racist comments about how people value their dogs more than Africans and Bangladeshis. Sigh.

The best comment is the pure emotional sort:

my dogs are my family. you are wrong in your ideas. you must have never had a pet. humans that can’t afford food should quit having kids that have to starve. while i feel sorry for the kids i would still feed my family first. my family represents love and companionship which is a lot more than some humans give. when i saw your name i thought that perhaps you should just keep the first 3 letters of your last name.

It has been more than 20 years since people made fun of my last name–in middle school–so that’s a good sign that I’m hitting a nerve, with people regressing to pre-adolescence in their responses!

Many suggested I hate pets or even all animals, or am incapable of love, which I found funny as I like pets–and have committed my life to sustainability to prevent the mass die off of life on Earth, including humans. Heck, I would even enjoy having a cat, but I don’t because what I know about how close to collapse we are, it’d be irresponsible to (the same reason why I feel compelled to have only one child).

The irony is I actually tried to moderate my tone in the article to encourage constructive debate, for example, removing the paragraph where I suggested replacing some of the 51 million turkeys slaughtered each year with the 3-4 million dogs and cats euthanized each year to grace our Thanksgiving tables. After all it’d be a win-win, reducing ecological impacts of turkey factory farming and the cruel and wasteful practice of gassing and then disposing of dogs and cats (you can watch that horrible process in the below excerpt of One Nation Under Dog).


However, I knew that wouldn’t be a popular suggestion, even though many cultures eat dogs and cats–including some who eat their own pets. Instead I made simple suggestions like taxing dogs that weren’t spayed or neutered at three times the rate and creating ways to maintain the social benefits of pets while reducing their ecological impacts, such as through “pet-sharing” services.

Imagine, for example, if the pet culture shifted away from owning one or more pets per household to more of a “time-share” or Zipcar model? Reserving a play date with your favorite Golden Retriever once a week would reduce pet ownership – and the resulting economic and environmental costs – dramatically as people felt comfortable occasionally playing with a shared pet instead of owning one. While we’re a long way from that future, a few services that promote pet sharing among pet lovers do already exist, like the online pet sharing platform, Pets to Share, and Californian-based nonprofit, citydogshare.org.

I also suggested once again normalizing productive pets that provided a service other than companionship, like laying eggs or giving milk–I hear goats are quite friendly and can make good pets. And most importantly, I noted the value of rebuilding community, which could make the need and desire for pets much less acute (since right now they play an important social role in our socially-isolated society).

Finally, perhaps the best way to shift norms around pet ownership is to simply start working to rebuild community interactions. Community gardens, book clubs, resilience circles, neighborhood tool and toy libraries, church groups, and transition towns: all of these might go a long way in providing the social engagement that a walk with the dog currently provides. And unlike a dog, community ties will play an essential role in helping people get through the disruptions climate change will bring.

There were a few thoughtful comments, though, with some drawing attention to additional problems of pets, like the billion-plus birds killed by outdoor cats each year, and others who debated whether pets in the end are actually a positive sustainability trend as they suppress consumers’ urges to reproduce–or if they just delay this urge, leading to families with pets and kids (and thus more impact).

Mens Room at the Wag Hotel (Image Courtesy of TedRheingold via Flickr)

Mens Room at the Wag Hotel (Image Courtesy of TedRheingold via Flickr)

But in the end, most of the comments were pretty “ruff,” and most importantly revealed just how hard it is going to be to change cultural norms around pet ownership, as this comment demonstrates:

You will get my German Shepherd when you pry her from my cold, dead hands.

And for that, the pet industry and its incredibly successful marketing efforts to convert pets into family members (with their very own clothes, shoes, toys, gadgets, and expensive healthcare), should be applauded.

 May 5, 2014  Posted by on May 5, 2014 Tagged with: ,  No Responses »
Mar 072014
 

In a recent MAHB blog, Paul and Anne Ehrlich—reflecting on their paper last year on whether we can prevent civilizational collapse—describe what preventing collapse would require and give success somewhere between a 1 and 10% chance:

But what is crystal clear is that these changes are not remotely big or fast enough to make a real dent in the problem. Furthermore, there are no plans nor any tendency toward making the most crucial move required to lessen the odds of a collapse: a rapid but humane effort to reduce the scale of the entire human enterprise by ending population growth, starting the badly needed overall decline in numbers, and dramatically curtailing consumption by the rich. There is not even discussion about the obvious elements of the socio-economic system that support a structure embedding a need for perpetual growth—fractional-reserve banking being a classic target that requires investigation in this context. Virtually every politician and public economist still unquestioningly assumes there are benefits to further economic expansion, even among the rich. They think the disease is the cure.

A few years ago we had a disagreement with our friend Jim Brown, a leading ecologist. We told him we thought there was about a 10 percent chance of avoiding a collapse of civilization but, because of concern for our grandchildren and great grandchildren, we were willing to struggle to make it 11 percent. He said his estimate of the chance of avoiding collapse was only 1 percent, but he was working to make it 1.1 percent. Sadly, recent trends and events make us think Jim might have been optimistic. Perhaps now it’s time to talk about preparing for some form of collapse soon, hopefully to make a relatively soft “landing.” That could be the only thing that might preserve Earth’s capacity to support Homo sapiens in a post-apocalyptic future.

Apocalípico I by Mauricio García Vega

Not long after, Reverend Peter Sawtell, in his Eco-Justice Notes, reflected on “Doom and Gloom, Old and New,” applying lessons of the ancient prophet Jeremiah to prophets of today.

I’m not sure the style of Jeremiah’s message would be effective today. His pronouncement of horror wasn’t “effective” in 590 BCE, either. But there are at least four themes and messages in these verses that need to be lifted up, both for the prophets of today, and for those who dismiss the prophetic warnings.

  1. The proclamation of a prophetic critique is a long, lonely, ongoing task, and it must be embodied in the life of the messenger. Jeremiah’s personal life, renouncing marriage and children, was consistent with his public message. Those of us who speak words of warning today will be more credible, and harder to dismiss, when we are equally consistent. (Note the common attacks against Al Gore’s travel.)
  2. Sometimes—not always, but sometimes—the dire predictions of prophets and experts do come true. Jeremiah was right, just as climate scientists and ecologists have been accurate in naming the dangerous trajectory of our culture. We are seeing the first signs of unstable climate and ecological destabilization that are, indeed, catastrophic. Yet all too often today, I hear those who favor the status quo lump together all great warnings as failures and falsehood. (Alan AtKisson, in Believing Cassandra, addressed the way warnings can bring changes that avert the catastrophe—and then skeptics say that the predictions were wrong.) Doomsday predictions can be true.
  3. It is significant to me that Jeremiah preached in Jerusalem, the holy city, the site of the temple, the center of “God’s chosen people.” Jeremiah said that the city and the people would be demolished—and they were. Let’s remember that when people (including powerful politicians) reject the dangers of climate change with the implicit or explicit claim that “God would never let that happen to us.” If Jerusalem can be destroyed, and the covenant renounced by God, then we can have no expectation of miraculous divine deliverance from our self-inflicted crises.
  4. Jeremiah’s audience could not understand why he was dumping his doom and gloom on them. They saw themselves as good people, living presentable lives as members of their community in what they believed to be “ordinary times.” They were oblivious to how far they were outside of God’s law and the covenant relationship. They assumed that ordinary life, business as usual, was morally OK. Brueggemann wrote: “Jeremiah’s contemporaries are so detached from the claims of Yahweh, however, that they are unable to recognize the realities that the prophet regards as perfectly obvious.” The parallels to our situation—where economic growth, increasing energy use, and escalating consumer desires are seen as good and normal, even by Christian scholars—are painfully clear, at least to me.

For those of us in the sustainability sector—at least those of us who are honest brokers of the data—reflecting on Sawtell’s thoughts is valuable. Yes, perhaps our warnings will prevent collapse or the Earth will prove more resilient than we could predict, but the odds of collapse are high. Finding ways to better communicate this “truth” to those who don’t understand their own trespasses (or in Sawtell’s words, “where economic growth, increasing energy use, and escalating consumer desires are seen as good and normal”) is the challenge for all of us in the sustainability movement—at least until the doom and gloom arrive. And then we’ll have other, more pressing challenges, like surviving, and picking up the pieces of civilization.

 March 7, 2014  Posted by on March 7, 2014 Tagged with: ,  No Responses »
Feb 272014
 

Earlier this week, in The Guardian Sustainable Business blog, I compared the modern Olympic games to a plague of locusts:

Over the past few weeks, reading through the atrocities committed in the name of this global competition brought to mind an apt metaphor for the Olympics. To me, they seem almost like a biblical plague of locusts. They swarm periodically – currently every other year – consuming everything in their path. But the difference is that a locust plague doesn’t permanently devastate the landscape.It’s true that locusts eat crops and trees, but the insects are themselves edible, and the excrement they leave behind enriches the soil for years to come (like a forest fire). The Olympics don’t compare. In most places the Olympics swarm, they consume parkland, homes and communities, and replace them with concrete scars in the form of stadiums and hotels that rarely find much use after the horde of tourists depart. There has to be a better and more sustainable way to design the Olympics.

And while that may be a strong comparison, when we look at the ecocide caused in the name of celebration in Sochi–from the 6,000 acres of National Park built on to the damage that the Mzymta River – the spawning grounds of 20% of Russia’s Black Sea salmon – took, I don’t think it really is.

The three Sochi Olympic mascots, conscripted after being displaced from Sochi National Park.

So I suggested a new way to organize the games, from reducing their frequency to shrinking their overall participation (both in athletes and spectators). Plus I offered a new set of games that’ll help prepare us for the turbulent times ahead.

I would propose replacing many of the current games at the Olympics with ones that are relevant for our ecologically constrained future. Is flipping several times in the air after launching from a ski jump the skill that humanity should hone and celebrate as the climate starts to superheat? And will this event even be possible as global warming makes the availability of snow at the games more and more uncertain?

Should we instead substitute a new game of who can plant 25 trees the fastest? Or how many solar panels a contestant can affix to a roof in 10 minutes? Or who can weld a bicycle out of a box of spare parts the quickest? Or run to a well, fill a bucket with 20 gallons of water and run back without spilling – a challenge many of the world’s people today could deeply relate with? Or even who can navigate an inflatable boat down a turbulent river picking up trapped passengers along the way, an increasingly relevant skill given the growing number floods, hurricanes and other climate change disasters?

While I doubt the Olympic Committee will implement any of these ideas, I found them fun to consider. If you have other suggestions for new events, please do add them in the comments.

 February 27, 2014  Posted by on February 27, 2014 Tagged with:  No Responses »