You can’t boil the ocean

You may not be able to boil the ocean, but you can boil your own pot. Here  is an example of one funder who has chosen to focus on one over consumed product in one country: paper products in America.

Human population will probably hit 9 billion by the year 2050. If everyone used the same amount of

stuff as those of us in the most developed countries, we’d require anywhere from 1.7 to 5 planets to meet our needs. Can 9 billion people each have the same ecological footprint as Americans and Europeans… without major losses to biodiversity? Is it even possible at all?

It’s not so much how many people there are on Earth, it’s how much each of us uses: land for crops for our bread, trees for our chalets, fish for our sushi dinners, ores from the ground under tropical forests for our cell phones, petroleum for the plastic of our shampoo bottles, non-renewable fuels to produce just about everything we own, and the list goes on*. So to me the elephant in the room is probably not population control, it’s consumption control. And Christmas always makes me think about what a challenge we face in trying to move from a culture of consumpution to one of sustainability.

Today I found an organization** that has decided to boil one pot of the problem: over-consumption of paper products in North America. Paper production has biodiversity and carbon emission impacts that need to be reduced so this foundation is concentrating its ‘consumption’ funding stream on one issue in one country. They give money to various different organizations who will address American consumer habits related to paper products. By focusing how they spend their money, they will move one area of the economy towards sustainability by tackling all different levels: trying to get major industries that use paper (from magazines to fast food packaging) to commit to minimum levels of recycled paper, raising awareness in kids through redesigned school programs, introducing paper policies in major commercial consumers of paper and promoting conscious consumerism.

From the Weeden Foundation: “promoting sustainable consumption patterns has only recently become a high priority. This new emphasis is largely the result of a fuller understanding of the factors driving biological impoverishment, in particular the rapid pace with which U.S. industrial corporations must exploit resources all over the globe to supply the insatiable American consumer.

[… ]the Foundation’s interests are centered upon a new and rapidly growing movement to challenge and redirect American consumer and consumption habits. In particular, the Foundation has chosen to build upon its historical interest in native forest conservation by supporting projects aimed at promoting greater efficiency in the use of wood products, particularly paper. This includes encouraging a concerted shift away from wood fiber as a resource where other equally adequate and less damaging substitutes exist. Currently, the Foundation is focusing on the area of sustainable paper consumption and production. Grantmaking in this area aims to expand the market for environmental papers through consumer-targeted education and efforts directed at the book & magazine publishing industries and corporate & government procurement practices.”

I’m inspired. What pot will I boil? And what about you? And how can we let the people with money to spare know that they could use their money to fight threats to biodiversity?

*I know someone will say that these things are what our economies run on and I don’t disagree, but we have to draw the line somewhere and shift some of the basis of our economy to production of things and services that replenish rather than deplete our natural resources. Feel free to comment.
**The Weeden Foundation is a grant-making organization based in the US. I recommend reading their webpages that explain: Why they focus on consumption and What kinds of actions they are supporting

Finding my place in history

On the importance of understanding how environmental and social movements and challenges have come about.

In this blog post a friend of mine quotes author Bill Adams writing about the importance of knowing the history of conservation problems. He says we tend to perceive time in three ways: ‘deep time’ measured on the geological timescale (woah evolution is amazing), own experience (justifying our own passion for nature) and the immediate present (we are in crisis mode). The final paragraph quoted really resonated with me:

“Whatever sense of time conservationists have, I suggest that they rarely have a good sense of history. They think they know what needs to be done, but in thinking things through, they tend to jump from deep time to their own lives’ experience, and then again to the immediate challenge of today without much pause for thought. Often they have little understanding of the way in which problems have come about, or how their predecessors understood similar problems and tried to tackle them. Conservationists often know very little of their own history.”*

…this is exactly why I’ve been reading about old environmental issues rather than just the latest trends. As I read about historical conservation I’ve been surprised by how many of the current big issues are not so new. It’s both inspirational to see myself in the context of a long-running movement that has been influential, but also a bit disheartening to realize that though these ideas are decades old, so many people are still so unaware.

Here are a few sections from Guha’s book that help put conservation and natural resource issues in historical context:

1954: on overexploiting non-renewable resources, i.e. living off the capital instead of the income:

“We forget that we are living off capital in the most fundamental meaning of the word,’ he [Schumacher, British economist] wrote in 1954, adding: ‘Mankind has existed for many thousands of years and has always lived off income. Only in the last hundred years has man forcibly broken into nature’s larder and is now emptying it out at a breathtaking speed which increases from year to year.‘  (p.12)

1992: on sustainable development:

“It is necessary to seek a kind of development that is not limited to preserving the supply and prices of natural resources as productive inputs. The majority […] is not interested in a kind of development that pretends to be ‘sustainable’ simply by technically-productive systems and adopting a capitalist rationale in the use of natural resources. We should seek to change the determinant logic of development and make the environmental variable be incorporated as a component of the people’s living and working conditions.” p.123, from Henri Acselrad, editor, Environment and Democracy (Botafogo: IBASE 1992)

On the cross-cultural influences between major environmental and social activists:

“anti-road protesters also acknowledge Gandhi to be a powerful influence […] but we know that the Mahatma’s strategies of civil disobedience were inspired in turn by an essay of Henry David Thoreau [American}, and that his defense of the rural community drew abundantly on the works of John Ruskin and Edward Carpenter [British]. The ideas and example of Gandhi have thus helped return these American and British radicals to their own half-forgotten traditions of dissent and moral authority: testimony, once more, to the global and cross-cultural character of the environmental movement.” p 84

Do you think that 50 years from now we will be in a dramatically different place with regards to conservation and our treatment of nature and natural resources?

* From Against Extinction: The Story of Conservation, by William M. Adams. I haven’t read it but my classmates who have strongly recommend it.

Humans first vs earth first: some foundational concepts

Here I provide some general definitions of deep ecology, environmental justice, anthropocentrism and biocentrism.

This is also a third installment of ideas that I wanted to save after reading Ramachandra Guha’s book on environmental history (hence the page numbers).

Deep ecology: in an essay published in 1972 by Norwegian Arné Naess, he called for biospheric egalitarianism: putting g humans on more or less equal footing with other species. In contrast to shallow ecology that was concerned with pollution or resource depletion, deep ecology looks at the roots of the ecological crisis. (Yvon Chouinard, founder and presidnet of Patagonia clothing company talks about relating to deep ecology.)

Deep ecology influenced Earth First! one of the first groups to put their bodies in front of bulldozers to stop logging. But critics say this ideology neglects urban problems and non-wild nature (or anything ‘unnatural’). According to Guha, the environmental justice movement is another radical movement that may be more authentic. (p.86-7)

Environmental justice movement: “Where the nerve-centers of Deep Ecology are in the wild, environmental justice is firmly rooted in human habitations. The threats it fears are toxic waste dumps and landfills, the excretions  affluence that have to be disposed of somehow, and somewhere.” (p.87)

Anthropocentrism: the belief that humans stand apart and above the rest of creation

Biocentrism: rejects the human-centered perspective and looks at history from the perspective of other species and nature as a whole. (See also the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.)

Gavin Newsom: future environmental hero?

My friend who works on environmental issues in California told me about San Francisco’s mayor and soon to be lieutenant governor who is doing great things for the environment. What he has done is so inspiring I want to share it with you!
Apparently as mayor, Gavin Newsom: “converted all the taxis to hybrids, instituted mandatory composting and recycling with exorbitant fines, and reduced the city’s entire emissions to 7% below 1990 levels by 2008 and is on track to reduce to 20% below 1990 by 2012.  (As a point of reference, CA which is considered radical in the US, has committed to reducing GHGs to 1990 levels by 2020)”

How cool. See, emissions reductions ARE possible.

America’s inferiority complex / Thank the Germans

Subtitle: Environmental perspectives, Part II
Here are some more new ideas for me from this book I’m reading on environmental history by an Indian author. See this previous post for my first set of reflections.

  1. National parks are America’s way of dealing with its inferiority complex in the face of Europe’s cultural heritage. The first national park was Yellowstone, founded in 1872. One could say that national parks demonstrated rising ‘cultural nationalism’. The agelessness of the wilderness was America’s substitute for traditions in art, architecture and peasant traditions since they pretty much decimated all the Native Americans.

    Luckily national parks are seen as one of the US’s biggest successes and best exported idea. Let’s hope the US can lead the way sometime soon for current environmental issues. Actually, San Francisco’s mayor and new lieutenant governor may be the guy who can do it (more on him in my next post).

  2. We should thank the Germans for the concept of ‘being green’ and for showing the rest of the world how to have a successful green political party. Back in 1978 environmentalists in Germany put candidates forward under the ‘Green List’ and made it into the German Parliament in 1983. Through the persistence and success of their political party, “the German Greens offered a beacon for environmentalists in other European countries”.

    It’s nice to have models and examples of what people can do when they put their minds to it, don’t you think?

Some things I really care about (this week)

  1. building social and ecological resilience
  2. coral reefs
  3. social learning, adaptive management, capacity building
  4. environmental education in places where natural resources are locally managed
  5. making implementation happen

…these are a few problems I want to do something about in my lifetime.

Some of my big questions

  1. Can conservation and poverty alleviation successfully go hand in hand?
  2. What are the social implications of the ways that we plan conservation, e.g. when we say that area is important and should be conserved?
  3. Should we work with the system or challenge the world order (ie the dominant economic model)?

More definitions of conservation

I seem to be collecting definitions of conservation. Some I put in a previous post, and here is a new one from author Ramachandra Guha:
“I argue that environmentalism must be viewed as a social program, a charter of action which seeks to protect cherished habitats, protest against their degradation, and prescribe less destructive technologies and lifestyles.”

Then again, is conservation different to environmentalism?