Yesterday, on our way to a party, my wife Sue and I tuned in to NPR’s This American Life. Radio host IRA Glass introduced three increasingly compelling segments on the topic of climate change – Hot In My Backyard. When we got to our destination, we didn’t want to get out of the car. We didn’t want to miss a word.
First up was Colorado’s State Climatologist, Nolan Doesken. As reporter Julia Kumari Drapkin explained, Doesken has long believed the humans are driving climate change, but never connected it to his own life. Even after several years of some of the most devastating weather his state has ever seen, Nolan considered climate change a worry for the future. Then, last year, he watched as his state experienced some of the most extreme weather it has ever seen. For the first time, Nolan felt like he was looking at what the future would be like where he lives. He felt scared. Julia tells the story of how this has all changed Nolan, and changed what he’s saying to the people of his home state.
Next up was Producer Ben Calhoun telling the story of a former Congressional Representative from South Carolina, Bob Inglis. Inglis is a conservative Republican who once doubted climate science. After he looked at the research, he changed his mind, and decided to speak out. In 2010, he was mocked by people in his own party and trounced by a Tea Party-backed candidate. Since then, Bob has dedicated himself to the issue even more — and he’s now trying to create a conservative coalition for climate change action. For more on Inglis, see an article I wrote on him back in 2010: GOP Rep. Bob Inglis On Climate Change
The third and final segment has host Ira Glass telling the story of writer turned activist Bill McKibben. Glass tells us McKibben is trying to reinvent progressive politics when it come to climate change. He’s attempting to create a divestment campaign modeled after the successful campaign against apartheid in South Africa. The campaign is designed to recast the discussion of climate change, with fossil fuel companies as the villains.
Shortly after the segment ended, I turned the car off, and Sue and I walked up through friends Robin and Lyn’s rolling land, past a very active hand hewn bee hive, through abundant gardens of spring vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees, ultimately arriving at a pickleball court, where friends gamed on, in the warmth of the afternoon sun.
I knew Robin and Lyn’s daughter Annie would be there, back from Washington, DC, and I was looking forward to seeing her. Annie is walking the talk. If you listen to the Bill McKibben segment above, you will hear a lot about how divestment is increasingly being used as an effective tool against corporate bad business. Annie is in the thick of it. She works for The Conflict Risk Network — encompassing about 80 members including pension funds, some of the world’s largest asset management firms, government entities, university endowments, foundations, financial service providers and socially responsible investment firms. They harnesses the collective weight of more than $6 trillion in investment assets. And they use that weight to challenge corporate actions and misconduct that hurt our society.
Listening to This American Life was the perfect warm-up to conversation with Annie. I love how serendipity shows up when you least expect it. And I especially love how young people like Annie are forging a path of active informed engagement on the burning issues of the day.
At a recent Crossroads Lecture, energy policy expert Daniel Kammen spoke about Energizing the Low-Carbon Future. His presentation is timely – climate change has been on the public mind as hurricane superstorm Sandy devastated New York, New Jersey, and beyond. Though we would all agree that energy is an essential part of our daily life, Americans spend more money on potato chips than on energy research and development. Dan has a deep nuanced understanding of where we are at, and where we need to go, to build a clean, sustainable energy future.
In the presentation below, Dr. Kammen explores innovations in, and barriers to, building renewable energy systems worldwide – from villages to large regional economies. He discusses tools already available, and others needed, to speed the transition to a sustainable planet. Daniel Kammen is Professor in the Energy and Resources Group (ERG), Professor of Public Policy in the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also the founding Director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL). Kammen advises the World Bank, and the Presidents Committee on Science and Technology (PCAST), and is a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Working Group III and the Special Report on Technology Transfer).
Dan spoke for about an hour, followed by a 35 minute question and answer session. The Q&A session has some great questions and discussion.
Dan talked about cleantech jobs, the economic benefits of transitioning to renewable energy, climate change, coal, natural gas, arctic sea ice loss, peak oil, the real cost of coal and other high-carbon sources of energy, solar energy, and energy storage. One of my favorite quotes:
When you are spending your funds buying fuels as a fraction of the cost of the technology, it’s a very different equation than when you are investing in people, training, new companies, and intellectual capital. [And so, for example] if you buy a gas turbine, 70 percent of the money that will go in to that, over its lifetime, is not going to be for human resources and hardware, it’s to buy fuel. If you buy renewable energy and energy efficiency, while we have a problem of needing to find ways to amortize up-front costs, you are investing in people, companies, and innovation.
Jobs created, per dollar invested, are consistently higher for cleantech jobs versus old fossil fuel based energy sources. Economist Robert Solow, in his Nobel prize winning work on the drivers of economic growth, demonstrated that about 75 to 80 percent of the growth in US output per worker was attributable to technical progress and innovation. Transitioning to renewable forms of energy will provide strong stimulus to our economy, while reducing public health and environmental costs associated with dirty coal and oil pollution.
After Dan Kammen finished overviewing climate change and energy issues, he highlighted several case studies that featured renewable energy and low-carbon energy production implementations for small (personal), medium (community) and large (national) installations. Watch the video above for more.
Veteran investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Hedrick Smith’s new work, Who Stole the American Dream?, steps back from the partisan fever of the 2012 campaign to explain how we got to where we are today — how America moved from an era of middle class prosperity and power, effective bipartisanship, and grass roots activism, to today’s polarized gridlock, unequal democracy and unequal economy that has unraveled the American Dream for millions of middle class families.
On 22 September 2012, Hedrick Smith spoke at the Parish Hall on Orcas Island, WA, as part of the Crossroads Lecture Series. He spoke for about an hour, followed by a 20 minute question and answer session. His book is available on Orcas Island at Darvill’s Bookstore (a signed copy), or at Amazon.
Smith’s book is brimming with fascinating insider stories that detail the shift from a strong middle class of the 50s and 60s, to the current weakened middle class, with an income inequality that is at an all time high, ranking with that of Rwanda and Uganda.
This didn’t happen by accident. Smith details how, beginning in the 1970s, corporate attorney Lewis Powell sparked a political rebellion with his call to arms for Corporate America. Like a gripping detective story, Smith follows the trail through to present day. Chronicling a stunning shift in power, away from a healthy growing middle-class, toward a superPACed, lobbyist fueled, special interest driven, well oiled, corporate powered, political machine.
Over the past decade, at the center of the machine, stands the “Gang of Six” and Washington insider Dirk Van Dongen, the man behind the curtain, who coordinates very effective lobbying of our elected officials. The Gang of Six include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Restaurant Association, and Van Dongen’s own National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors.
Who Stole the American Dream? makes for compelling reading, and at the end, Smith offers up a grassroots-centered strategy for reclaiming the dream – restoring balance to our economy and re-building a healthy middle-class. The video above will give you a summary understanding of what is well detailed in his book.
Corporate lobbyists funnel billions of dollars to our elected officials each year. Recent studies show that for every dollar spent lobbying, business receives over $220 back in legislation that favors the business.
On climate change alone, 770 companies hired 2,340 lobbyists, up 300% in past 5 years. Most of those companies have vested interests in fossil fuels and benefit from delay of legislation that would speed the transition to clean energy.
In 2011 private companies and special interest groups spent $3.32 billion lobbying their agendas. In 2010, they spent even more at $3.54 billion. From 2008 to 2010, 30 Fortune 500 companies spent more money on lobbying than they did on taxes.
In an unusual moment of candor, here’s what Senator Dick Durbin had to say about corporate money and politicians:
“I think most Americans would be shocked, not surprised, but shocked if they knew how much time a United States Senator spends raising money. And how much time we spend talking about raising money, and thinking about raising money, and planning to raise money.” Dick Durbin, 30 March 2012
Depending on status and influence, our elected officials in Congress typically raise about $5,000 to $30,000 per day. They spend a good part of each day dialing for dollars, asking businesses to send them money. It is against the law (the Hatch Act) to make those calls from government property, so they walk to call centers located conveniently just a few minutes from Capitol Hill.
Money in Politics
For more on how corporations and our elected officials are joined at the hip, see the excellent series on Money in Politics. Here’s an excerpt from that series:
So senators and congressmen go across the street to private rooms in nongovernmental buildings, where they make call after call, asking people for money. In other words, most of our lawmakers are moonlighting as telemarketers.
“If you walked in there, you would say, ‘Boy, this is the about the worst looking, most abusive looking call center situation I’ve seen in my life,'” says Rep. Peter Defazio, a Democrat from Oregon. “These people don’t have any workspace, the other person is virtually touching them.”
There are stacks of names in front of each lawmaker. They go through the list, making calls and asking people for money.
The fundraising never stops, because everyone needs money to run for re-election. In the House, the candidate with more money wins in 9 out of 10 races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics. In the Senate, it’s 8 out of 10.
It’s not uncommon for congressmen to average three or four hours moonlighting as telemarketers. One lawmaker told me if it was the end of the quarter and he really needed to make his numbers, he’d be there all day long.
The fox is in the hen house. Time to get the big money out of politics. Surely our elected representatives don’t want to do this demeaning begging for money. Surely they would like to start making laws and setting public policy based on the merits of an issue. Right?
Last Call at the Oasis just opened in movie theaters this past Friday. Film critic Christopher Campbell said it best: Last Call at the Oasis is “necessary viewing for anyone on the planet who drinks water.”
It helps us understand how water is central to every part of our lives, shows how it is becoming more scarce and in some cases toxic, and offers examples of ways to conserve water more effectively, reduce pollution, and manage our precious water resources better.
The movie trailer is below. As you watch it, note the lake that appears at 45 seconds in to the trailer. That is Lake Mead. It is the main source for water to Las Vegas, and feeds the Hoover Dam, which generates electricity for Las Vegas and beyond. The lake has been around for a very very long time, and, according to Scripps Institution of Oceanography, will likely be dry in the next 10 years. Increased consumption and changing climate have caused the lake to drop an average of 10 feet per year. In 4 years, the water level will likely drop so low that Hoover Dam will be unable to operate.
Here’s a picture of Lake Mead taken in 2007. It was bad then and it’s worse now.
I was driving through Texas last summer, and all the radio stations could talk about was how hot and dry it was. At that time, Austin had over 70 days straight of temperatures above 100 degrees F. Wildfires raged as the drought-parched land baked to a crisp. Here’s a drought map that shows just how extensive the drought was. Note that the brownish-red areas are ranked as “Exceptional” – beyond even extreme drought.
As climate change continues its slow inexorable advance, we should expect to see the southern US trend much drier and hotter. Agriculture and ranching will become unsustainable. Humans will need to be very good at conserving and getting by with much less water. Last Call at the Oasis is a wakeup call.
Here’s the movie trailer for Last Call at the Oasis…
Consider seeing the movie. It helps us understand how we can preserve our precious water resources. It is so much more satisfying being part of the solution, than being part of the problem.
Landing at Puerto Vallarta International Airport in Mexico’s western state of Jalisco felt risky and appropriate: it was October 11th, the same day that hurricane Jova was expected to make landfall. The threatening category 3 storm was just off the coast as I was beginning my research assistant position on “Indigenous food security adaptation and climate change”.
I had accepted the six-month assignment with the Center for World Indigenous Studies as part of my graduate work in sustainable development. The ominous clouds looming ahead seemed symbolic—of what, exactly, I did not quite know. While hurricane Jova ended up sparing the community from severe structural damage, it wreaked havoc on a series of towns south along the coast.
Mexico has suffered increasingly intense drought, four major hurricanes, and devastating floods which have led to soil degradation and destroyed crops, infrastructure, and human settlements. Indigenous communities, and the bio-culturally diverse regions they represent, are vulnerable to the recognizably changing climate. I have begun to learn that rural communities in western Mexico have the capacity and desire to adapt to the changes using knowledge learned from earlier generations of farmers and residents. This knowledge is a key point of debate in Durban, South Africa where climate change treaty negotiations started on November 28th. Given what I have experienced on the ground in western Mexico, it is critical for those in the midst of the United Nations Forum on Climate Change (UNFCC) and other “leading experts” to look at how ready and willing THEY are to adapt to inevitable climatic changes and related food insecurities.
Part of my work focuses on the local use and production of climate sensitive plants while engaging in long distance colloquies over the incorporation of language in the climate change treaty negotiations supportive of indigenous peoples. The question of how ready and willing self-described “developed” nations are to adapt to climate change is not intended as a direct plea for their higher levels of social and environmental accountability (although I do believe such governments and the corporations who fund them should be held accountable). Rather, it stems from a long overdue acknowledgement that the 5,000+ indigenous communities worldwide, who hold 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity within their lands, have proven to be incredibly resourceful in adapting to historical climatic changes in their respective eco-niches through a consistent and symbiotic relationship with Mother Earth. Instead of spending time not agreeing to global mitigation plans, government decision-makers representing the monetarily prosperous sectors of nations should be asking for guidance from indigenous communities as they consider their own layers of vulnerability: concrete food deserts, oil-dependent infrastructures, and an incessant need to consume well beyond human and environmental means. As the climatic shi(f)t hits the fan, will they have not only the hands-on skills to make adaptive responses but also the collective ability to creatively and more responsibly reconfigure their societies?
In a recent visit with members of the indigenous municipality of Cabo Corrientes, Jalisco, I met a subsistence farmer named Bety.
Dr. Rudolph Ryser, the leader of this research effort sent me to Bety’s community to ask about the food availability and distribution patterns of certain nutritionally-dense foods. What I had read about the security of such communities and what I found were two different things. In current economic and agricultural discourse subsistence societies are primarily described as those who do not produce a surplus; they produce only the minimal amount of food or goods that are necessary for their basic survival. Based on this definition, one might envision—as is often depicted on the front cover of UN and NGO briefing reports—families on the brink of starvation, eager to acquire the technological and financial transfers necessary to upgrade their production capacity.
This was not the scenario I encountered as I talked with Bety and observed what actually transacted on her farm. Set amongst a backdrop of lush hillsides, Bety and her parents, Crispina and Ricardo have been subsistence farming for generations. Maize, heirloom tomatoes and squash, maguey, hibisucs, sugar cane, beans, plantains, avocados, chickens, pigs and cows are just a handful of food sources that Bety proudly showed me as we toured their small, incredibly-efficient parcel of land. Subsistence clearly produced considerable abundance and variety. “Why would I want to work in a factory or an office all day when I can work out here; move my body and breathe fresh air?” she asked. “The land wants to provide–if you are willing to put in the time and love–she is more than willing to produce”.
Nearing sunset, Bety and her family literally kicked up their heels, relaxed in hammocks, and invited us to partake in home-fermented raicilla—a regional, moonshine version of Tequila. It was apparent that subsistence communities celebrate happy hour as well.
While I recognize that the degree to which different subsistence communities around the world can or cannot fully provide for their own needs varies tremendously, especially given uneven climate change effects, I think it is important to highlight a positive, yet often-neglected view of subsistence living. In her seminal work entitled Subsistence Perspective, Maria Mies presents a vision for an alternative ecological model for societies. It is not an economic model; rather, it is a way of looking at the economy—a perspective. She describes it as subsistence perspective because it focuses on the creation, recreation and support of life and it has no other purpose than this. It is life that stands at the centre of this vision, rather than money, economic growth or profit. For more on this topic, see Ecofeminism and the subsistence perspective: fostering cooperation, not competition.
Prior to my visit with Bety, I might have read Maria Mies revised definition of subsistence, and quietly tucked it away as a cozy, past-oriented notion that is no longer plausible within today’s fast-paced, growth-oriented ideology. Yet when I make my daily trek to the neighborhood Mercado, an open-air market teeming with color, variety, and intricate layers of human interaction, I recognize the numerous ways in which Mexico continues to boast tremendous life-supporting cultural infrastructure.
Indigenous communities, which comprise most of Mexico’s population, have cultivated these life-supporting systems for millennia. Their role in local, regional and international discussions on climate change and food security is vital, not only because of the vulnerabilities their own communities face, but because of the critical knowledge–the science— they have developed as a result of successful historical adaptations.
In an uplifting TED video, Britta Riley, founder of R&D-I-Y (Research & Develop It Yourself), talks about how a global network of interested citizens developed a simple window farming design that allows urban dwellers to grow food in their apartment windows.
Using open-source collaboration methods, and sharing a common interest in growing fresh food in their living spaces, the online innovation community has grown to 25,000+ participants.
In the same way that Egyptians used Web 2.0 social media tools (e.g. Facebook and online forums) to rise up, R&D-I-Y is using those social media tools for product development and innovation. All this, done outside the for-profit sanctum of traditional corporate culture.
Here’s the video of Britta describing the journey that started with a simple desire to grow healthy fresh food in her tiny apartment.
The resulting window garden design is in the public domain, at Windowfarms.org, and can be purchased as a kit, or, for Do-It-Yourselfers, you can download plans and participate in the collaborative community, to build one for yourself.
This is important. If you can build it, you can repair it. And in our disposable culture, on a finite planet, that’s a big win.
By building something, we come to understand the nature of it – how it works. And, should it break, we understand it enough to repair it. And we have the collaborative community backing us up, if we need some advice.
Repair – it is one of the 4 Rs of sustainable living – Reduce, Recycle, Reuse and Repair. Here’s how window farming helps us live more sustainably:
Reduce the distance food travels, water consumed for irrigation, CO2 and water pollution, fuel imports, food cost, food nutritional loss, etc.
Reuse things like wire, light fixtures, fabric, etc., that might normally be discarded, when you are building it from scratch.
Recycle things like plastic bottles, which are basic building blocks of do-it-yourself window farms. But in this design, no need to recycle (which takes energy) – we can Reuse discarded plastic bottles.
Repair – If you build it, you can repair it.
For those that want to live lighter on the land, and more sustainably, the 4 Rs are our credo.
One hundred years ago, almost half of Americans were employed in farming or food production. Now it is less than .4 percent of the nation. While this is a testament to improvements in the efficiency of agriculture, much has been lost. We have become disconnected from how our food is produced. Convenience often drives our choices. We consume much more prepared food, loaded with preservatives and with less nutritional goodness.
Our food travels an average of over 1,500 miles to get to us. That consumes a lot of fuel, emits a lot of CO2, reduces food freshness, and removes dollars from our local communities.
As our global population has doubled to over 7 billion people, the per capita land available for growing food has been cut in half. There are serious concerns about how we will feed the exponentially growing population. And that population will largely be dwelling in cities.
What if much of the food we wanted to eat was, literally, within reach?
Urban agriculture allows us to reclaim the built urban landscape for growing food. But now, in the dense urban setting, we will do it vertically. The acres of farmland are transformed into vertical window scapes, or rooftop gardens.
My wife and I garden year round, raise chickens, and enjoy a local community committed to growing healthy food. In addition to the economic benefits (food is one of the biggest costs of living), there is something deeply satisfying about picking fresh produce and cooking it up, on the spot – sharing it with friends.
Growing food is a daily miracle. The tiny seed becomes a mature plant that can provide food for months. In an economy of increasing scarcity, gardens provide a welcome abundance.
Beyond the satisfaction of growing ones own food, there is a real health benefit. Listen to Dr. Terry Wahls describe her remarkable story about how careful food choices cured her MS. At the center of her diet – kale and greens that can be grown in a window garden.
As Dr. Wahls points out, we can be eating a lot of food, but starving ourselves of the nutrients needed for good health. Obesity in the US is at all time highs – thanks to the proliferation of prepared foods that taste great but have little nutritional value – e.g. soft drinks, pizza, fast food, etc.. Here’s just one example. Each day, the average American consumes 100 to 200 times more sugar than we did 100 years ago. Healthcare costs now represent 17% of US GDP. Anything we can do to stay healthy will save us enormous amounts of money and the inconvenience and discomfort of doctor visits, hospitalization, surgery, back problems, addiction to pain-killers, chemo, radiation, …
Bad food put Dr. Wahls in a wheel chair. Good food got her back on her own two feet – In a matter of seven months. But with so much processed food being engineered to addict us to the food (sweet, salty, buttery, etc.), the choice to eat nutritious healthy foods is not easy. It is a daily choice that rewards only if we are steadily committed to the journey.
A Global Perspective on Food
Pulling the lens back for a more global view – as world population expands inexorably – we are approaching a tipping point with regard to food production.
Recently, a report that gained little attention in the news, but has major ramifications for every nation, was published by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The FAO report – The World Food Situation – reports that world food prices surged to a new historic peak in January, for the seventh consecutive month. The FAO Food Price Index (below) is a commodity basket that regularly tracks monthly changes in global food prices.
This is the highest level (both in real and nominal terms) since FAO started measuring food prices in 1990.
As we can see from the chart on the right, the price of individual commodities that comprise the index – meat, dairy, cereals, oil and fats, and sugar – are all on the rise.
Global food prices have exceeded their pre-recession price levels. Some of this is due to the price of petroleum returning to pre-recession levels. About 17% of all petroleum production is consumed for food production. Petroleum is a key ingredient in the manufacture of fertilizer and pesticides, and sources energy for irrigation, food transport, etc. Note how the Food Price Index closely parallels the price of oil.
In addition, climate change is driving an increase in extreme weather, including record heat during growing seasons, record flooding, and extreme rain.
Protein is usually produced with grain, and it is an inefficient process:
It takes 1,ooo tons of water to produce a ton of grain
It takes about 15 pounds of grain to produce a pound of beef
So, it takes about 5,200 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef
Though food prices are volatile, and change daily, the trend is clearly up.
As our population increases, and as each nation seeks affluence, food will become a major factor in the stability of all nations. Food shortages in China will effect the price of our food here in the US, as nations vie for the precious basics of life, on a finite planet.
Want to change the world? Plant some food in your window.