The Bottom Line: The Environment
In India, Meenakshi, age 16, compares the planet to a sick patient who needs us to be responsible in our daily lives, as by saving water, planting trees, and riding bikes. She advocates, “Adolescents: Be more alert, active and engaged. …One day, our patient might be cured, begin to thrive and become a greener, more beautiful place to live.”[i]
The bottom line is that living beings’ future depends on the environment; climate change especially hurts poor countries by reducing crop production, increasing drought or floods, and rising sea levels. In an increasingly connected world, ozone created in China reaches the west coast of the US.[ii] “Climate is an issue of intergenerational justice,” said Beatrice Yeung, a Hong Kong high school student at the UN climate talks in Qatar, 2012. “Youth see the urgency. Our leaders don’t.”[iii] Youth under 18 were prohibited from attending the conference, as were students who had protested at the previous climate talk in Durban. When NGOs were allowed to speak at official sessions, they were given a one-minute time limit. Yeung said she learned “the hard lesson that world leaders will not lead on this issue. We must create the solutions ourselves.” As usual the conference did not achieve a binding agreement to reduce global warming, agreeing only to implement an agreement in 2020, ignoring the fact that warming increases at an alarming rate.[iv]
While the over one billion people who live in abject poverty consume very little, people in wealthy nations waste resources, emitting gases into the atmosphere that produce global warming harming all the planet’s inhabitants. A spokesperson for indigenous youth organized by the UN, Andrea Landry of the Anishinaabe tribe of Canada, contrasted her traditional with modern attitudes; “We’re in a relationship with the land; it’s a living thing. It’s not a matter of take, take, take. We give to the land and the land gives to us.”[v]
Despite the hazards to our environment, in a One Young World Global Youth survey of global youth leaders, only half of the respondents said current levels of global economic activity aren’t sustainable. The facts aren’t getting to youth, partly because of well-funded disinformation campaigns paid for by oil companies and other corporations fighting regulation.
In the US, a bare majority (57%) of teens think that humans are to blame for global warming and fewer than 20% view the issue as very important to them.[vi] Nearly half said they learned nothing in school about climate change. US schools are afraid to teach about climate change, similar to evolution, so “mostly it’s missing entirely from the curriculum” said Mark McCaffrey, head of the National Center for Science Education.[vii] Most (80%) teachers polled by the University of Colorado report that have faced climate-change skepticism from parents and school administrators.
In a large survey, discussed in Chapter 7, one of the largest US generational gaps was in environmental behaviors; 15% of Millennials said they made no personal effort at all to help the environment, compared to 5% of the Baby Boomers. Only 9% of Millennials said they made quite a bit of effort to help the environmental, compared to 15% of Boomers.[viii] We’ve had 50 years of warning about threats to the environment and failed to respond. A documentary A Fierce Green Fire (2012) explores 50 years of the environmental movement. Following are the realities of environmental degradation.
In India, Harshil, 17, m, advocates a “Green revolution for minimizing global warming in my country.” Carbon dioxide has increased to over 400 parts per million, up 40% from before industrialization, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Coal, oil and natural gas projects in the works in China, Australia, the US, Indonesia, Canada, etc. could warm the planed by 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.[ix] At the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 one of the few agreements was that increase in temperature shouldn’t rise beyond two degrees Celsius, about 3.6 Fahrenheit.
NASA scientist James Hansen warned that two degrees of warming is “actually a prescription for long-term disaster,” as indicated by the damage already caused by the current increase of 0.8 Celsius: A third of the Arctic summer sea ice is gone, oceans are 30% more acidic, and the atmosphere over the oceans is 5% wetter leading to floods.[x] As the oceans are warming it’s killing off coral reefs and plankton, the “web of marine life.” The grasses and forests, especially the rain forest serving as the lungs of the planet, that used to contain greenhouse gases, are being destroyed. Even if we stopped increasing carbon dioxide now, warming will continue as carbon lasts a century. We’re also overloading the atmosphere with even more harmful methane, nitrous oxide (mainly from chemical fertilizers), and black soot from burning coal. Yet carbon emissions are predicted to increase by about 3% a year.
Global warming causes droughts, heat waves, and floods, so that parts of the megacity Mumbai, for example, could become uninhabitable due to storms and rising seas. The amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is over 400 parts per million, although 350.org experts state that the maximum safe level is 350 parts per million. Extreme weather changes cost about $80 billion a year, according to a 2012 report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.[xi] Despite the inaction of legislators, incumbents in the US are usually reelected.
As temperatures are rising, droughts and floods intensify, making climate change “the No. 1 national security issue for developing countries.”[xii] Between 1991 and 2010, the ten countries most damaged by weather extremes were in the global South, with Bangladesh, Burma and Honduras at the top of the list.[xiii] Climate change is most devastating in the global South where government social programs were slashed by lending agencies like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in order to pay interest on national debt. It’s ironic that although poor countries contribute the least to global climate change, they suffer the most from greatest loss in annual rainfall and climate variability.
Pollution and Waste
Will we take action to prevent global warming; pollution of water, land and air; destruction of forests; and toxins in our food and water that estrogenize humans and animals and thus reduce male fertility? Affluent parents in Chinese cities buy expensive air filters to protect their children from pollution that caused 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010.[xiv] Others protest. The film Warriors of Qiugang documents villagers who worked with activist group Green Anhui to end pollution from chemical factories.[xv] Pollution is a growing problem in Asian cities, where the number of urban dwellers is expected to increase by 1.1 billion over the next 20 years. Clean Air Asia reported that only 16 out of 300 Asian cities were below the recommended pollution level in 2012, mostly in Japan.[xvi]
The World Bank predicted that urban waste will increase by 100% by 2025, although less than half the world’s population has adequate waste disposal.[xvii] The leading culprits in trash production are the US (over 2,000 pounds per person a year) and China, with Germany and Brazil also producing a lot of trash per capita. In developing countries I see burning waste, emitting toxic plastic gas. Waste disposal sites generate 12% of the methane released into the atmosphere, more destructive than carbon dioxide. Toxic waste sites in 31 countries are damaging the brains and IQ of thousands of children with high levels of lead and other chemicals in the soil and water and impairing the health of others who live near the dumps.[xviii] A study found that nearly nine million people live near 373 toxic waste sites in India, the Philippines and Indonesia, causing more deaths than malaria.
The amount of garbage we create is alarming: In the book and DVD about Stuff, Annie Leonard reports on her tour of 30 countries to see factories that make what we consume and the garbage dumps where our trash end up.[xix] In the US each American throws out more than seven pounds a day, but less than a quarter is recycled, unlike the Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden.[xx] They have mostly eliminated landfills with recycling programs and low-emission waste-to-energy plants.
Resource Scarcity and a Growing Population
To search for environmental solutions, the UN set up a panel on global sustainability in 2012 led by Jacob Zuma and Tarja Halonen, the respective presidents of South Africa and Finland.[xxi] Their report warns that by 2030 the world will need at least 50% more food, 45% more energy, and 30% more water. The report’s solutions include the need to listen to women, young people, and the poor.[xxii]
With a growing world population and expanding middle class, increasing demand for meat and cars strains limited resources (China is the #1 consumer of cars). The corn used to make ethanol to fill a 25-gallon gas tank would feed one person for a year. Around 50 million people enter the middle class each year with desire to consume more. I was keenly aware of this contrast after visiting simple homes in Indonesia, Egypt, India and China: See my photos of their rooms contrasted to an English girl’s room.
The documentary film Mother: Caring for 7 Billion (2011) explains that the main environmental problem is the population explosion producing more consumers at a time when birth control and abortion are under fire in the US and other countries. Three billion people were added to the planet in the last 36 years, at a rate of about 78 million more births than deaths a year, as global life expectancy increased to 68 years.[xxiii] A UN Population Division report predicts a world population of over 10 billion by 2100, up from previous projections. The birth rate in Sub-Saharan Africa is twice the global rate (4.5 babies per woman vs. 2.5). Yet earlier concern about the “population bomb” has been silenced.
Family planning methods are needed for the 215 million women in the world without the contraception they want: More than two in five pregnancies are unplanned. Educating girls is the single most powerful influence on family size. Part of the reason poverty has significantly decreased in Latin America since 1990 is the decreasing birth rate, along with economic growth, social programs and expansion of education.[xxiv] Brazil, for example, gives out free condoms, half a billion of them in 2011, which they claim is more than any other government.
A “land grab” is occurring as Asian and Middle Eastern countries with cash buy land and thus access to water in poor countries to guarantee food supply and agro-fuels.[xxv] Wealthy countries including China, India, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia are buying up land in Africa to hedge their bets for future food production. So far, the World Bank calculated that land about the size of Pakistan was purchased, two-thirds of it in Africa. China announced in 2012 that it would lend $20 billion to African governments for infrastructure development. The US is also expanding military bases in Africa and fighting shadow wars in Yemen and Somalia.[xxvi]
A UN report estimates that 135 million farmers may be driven from their land because of soil degradation. When farmers have to leave their land they migrate to cities where some may have no recourse but to resort to illegal ways to make money, as explained in Topic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence by Christian Parenti (2011). He explains that food prices go up with reduced production of basics like wheat, soybeans and soy, a burden for people who spend 40% of their earnings on food like the average Egyptian. Food riots caused by price hikes in 2007-2008 occurred in more than 24 countries. Food shortages can lead to starvation and mass migrations.[xxvii] A UN report addressed the need for agroecology, the science of sustainable agriculture, endorsed by 59 countries—not including the US and the Nourish 9 Billion campaign.[xxviii]
By 2010, the United Nations reported that almost 214 million people had migrated, mainly to cities (20% of the international migrants moved to the US). Around 44 million more people are refugees fleeing violence or persecution, or recently climate refugees, such as those escaping drought in Africa. This trend will increase, especially for people harmed by sea level rise, loss of arable land, or drying up of underground water aquifers.
By 2030, if current rates of consumption continue, we would need the resources of two planets, which we obviously don’t have.[xxix] The US is the top consumer. Australian Paul Gilding, author of The Great Disruption: How the Climate Crisis Will Transform the Global Economy (2011), believes we’re using five times more resources than the world can sustain so it would take not two but five planets to support current consumption. The point is we’re running out of resources like oil and fresh water. Gilding believes “The Great Disruption” is inevitable. It started in 2008 with the increase in food and oil prices and ecological changes such as melting ice caps. It takes a crisis to take action and Gilding thinks we’re there. He predicts that new companies will reshape the economy and progress won’t be measured by quantity of stuff produced but by happiness indexes.
Governments measure economic health by growth, increase in consumption that the planet can’t support, so a new standard of success should be quality of life. Bhutan pioneered a new metric with its “Gross National Happiness” model with 72 indicators, including free healthcare, education for girls, and sustainable agriculture. More than half of the country is protected in national parks and reserves and 99% of children are in school. The United Nations General Assembly adopted Bhutan’s 2012 resolution titled “Happiness: Toward a Holistic Approach to Development.” Bhutan’s prime minister told the UN gathering, “The present GNP development model no longer makes economic sense because it compels boundless growth on a planet with limited resources.”[xxx] UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for replacing the current economic system with one that recognizes that “social, economic, and environmental well-being is indivisible.”
Germany is a leader in producing renewable energy by providing incentives for individuals to install solar panels and other resources. Hawaii is another model of advances in solar energy.[xxxi] Because Saudi Arabia can run out of crude oil, perhaps by 2030, the government has allocated more than $100 billion to develop solar energy. China is the leader in producing renewable energy and has set goals unlike the US.[xxxii] For the US as a whole, most (82%) of the new electrical generation installed in the first three months of 2013 consisted of renewable energy sources (biomass, geothermal, solar, water, wind.)[xxxiii] Solar powered lamps are also available to replace kerosene lanterns: D.light sells them to developing countries, one of the growing number of companies selling to the “bottom of the pyramid.”[xxxiv] A California family was able to eliminate most waste, only an amazing jar full in a year. They describe how on their blog Zero Waste Home.[xxxv]
Living in harmony with our environment doesn’t need to be at odds with lifting people out of poverty. In Bangalore, India, a utility company installed a solar panel, as on a 25-year-old rice farmer’s house. He makes payments for the electric power it generates by using an application on his mobile phone. When he pays off the cost of the system, he’ll have free power instead of dirty kerosene lamps and having to walk 45 minutes to a nearby town to charge his phone. These microgrids for mobile phones in areas without electric utilities are part of the Third Industrial Revolution, says author Jeremy Rifkin.[xxxvi]
As well as solar panels, the electricity revolution uses wind power and biomass generators as in Germany, the world’s largest renewable power producer. Utilities pay a high rate to individuals or companies that produce electricity with clean energy. The funding comes from a small increase in monthly utility fees. The Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of California, Berkeley is developing fuel made from sugar sources such as corn, grasses, and eucalyptus—any fast growing plant. Globally, investments in renewable energy surpassed investments in fossil fuels for the first time in 2010.
Buildings can generate energy to put back in the grid, as does the Richardsville Elementary School in Bowling Green, Kentucky. It earns about $2,000 a month using solar power and geothermal power, with solar tubes piping sunlight into classrooms. It employs an energy manager to improve school efficiency and students are involved in monitoring energy use. The Bullitt Center in Seattle was built according to a green building certification program called the Living Building Challenge, which includes generating the structure’s own solar energy and water. Rainwater showers are available for workers who bicycle to the building and composting toilets produce compost for farming.
A 19-year-old Dutch engineering student, Boyan Slat invented a device to help clean up the five plastic debris clustered in giant gyres—the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is about twice the size of Texas.[xxxvii] The recovered plastic can be recycled to help pay for the cleanup. The cleaner is powered by solar and waves.
Angry Youth Environmentalists
So far, UN climate change conferences haven’t been able to make binding agreements for specific ways to stop global warming. The Durban conference in 2011 agreed to work towards an agreement that all countries would have the same requirement to reduce greenhouse gases by 2020 and extended the Kyoto Protocol for five more years. Abigal Borah, a 21-year-old US college student, was a member of the youth delegation. She interrupted the proceedings to say, “I am scared for my future. 2020 is too late to wait [for binding emission cuts]. We need an urgent path to a fair, ambitious and legally binding treaty. We need leaders who will commit to real change, not empty rhetoric.” She was led out by police as seen on YouTube.[xxxviii]
Nations couldn’t agree in 2012 about how to divide emissions cuts and little progress was made towards a global climate pact. Part of the problem is a 2011 study found that nine out of ten climate change deniers were linked with Exxon Mobil.[xxxix] In 2012, the Rio+20 Earth Summit addressed the need to create a paradigm shift from continued growth to a “green economy,” as specified in a UN report available online, but nothing tangible resulted as in Rio, Kyoto, Copenhagen, and Durban or Qatar.[xl] Nothing was done to cut emissions that are raising temperatures.
A 17-year-old environmental activist addressed the Rio+20 Earth Summit sponsored by the UN in 2012, with a similar message to that given 20 years ago at the first Rio Summit by 12-year-old Severn Suzuki from Canada. Both girls’ speeches are on YouTube. Brittany Trilford told the representatives of 188 nations at the largest-ever summit that she represented the world’s three billion children who demand action so they can have a future. In an interview with radio host Amy Goodman she said that youth are a powerful force, but they sometimes underestimate their strength and should “take power” as “the voice of youth is so strong, so clear, so truthful.”[xli]
The 2012 Rio+20 environmental conference bowed to Vatican pressure and didn’t include references to reproductive rights and gender equality in its final document or any other real action items, despite being physically surrounded by pollution in Rio’s water and air. Youth activists called the UN Major Group for Children and Youth responded from Rio de Janeiro on their webpage in disgust: “You failed to liberate yourself from national and corporate self-interest and recognize our need to respect a greater more transcendental set of boundaries.”[xlii] They wrote defiantly,
So get out of our way and…
We will create strong global institutions
We will create new paradigms of wealth and prosperity
We will act as the voice for future generations, one that you so willfully ignored.
We will stand united beyond borders and bridge the national interests that divide us
We will implement what you have not.
We are moving forward decisively with action. We are not deterred.
The official conference report “The Future We Want” was mocked outside the plenary hall in the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition’s handout titled “The Future We Bought.” They formed an Occupy-style protest with the human microphone and consensus decision-making as people stopped to see what the crowd was about. After two hours they decided to leave their badges in protest, chanted “Walk out—don’t sell out,” and joined the people’s summit in another part of Rio. The National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds predicts that little action will be taken by these conferences in the next decade but has hope that technology will develop cheaper and cleaner fuels like natural gas.
In response to inaction in the UN climate change conference in Qatar in 2012, youth met at the Change-Course-Conference in Switzerland to focus on grassroots local actions to help communities adapt to climate change.[xliii] A leader of the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change, Ibrahim Ceesay (27) said solutions rest on young people. He explained, “They are innovative, energetic and can make the bridge between those who make the policies and those who are affected by them. When I go back to Gambia, my task will be to tell a woman in a village how she is going to be affected by the warming of the planet.”
The UN and other websites provide information for youth who want to protect the environment.[xliv] School environmental education projects are provided by organizations like the Center for Ecoliteracy so that youth can be more informed about the science of climate change and what to do about it, such as painting flat urban roofs white would be equivalent to removing half the cars off the worlds’ roads.[xlv]
Activist youth environmental organizations in the US include Generation Waking up, the iMatter Movement, and Yes! The website It’s Getting Hot in Here explains that it is “the voice of a growing movement-–a collection of voices from the student and youth leaders of the global movement to stop global warming. Originally created by youth leaders in 2005, It’s Getting Hot in Here has since grown into a global online community with over 300 writers from countries around the world.”[xlvi]
Seven teenagers and the iMatter Youth Council sued the US government in 2011, asking the government to reduce carbon emission by 6% each year, cap emissions at 2011 levels, and do reforestation.[xlvii] The leader of the iMatter Movement is 17-year-old Alec Loorz, who was initially galvanized at age 12 by watching Al Gore’s video An Inconvenient Truth. At age 18, another youth leader, Andy Lipkis founded TreePeople in Los Angeles where he leads agencies to work together to utilize water to mitigate flooding and drought and has planted over two million trees.[xlviii] Los Angeles high school students are involved in greening their schools, as are students in South Africa as shown in a video.[xlix] Other youth environmental groups are listed in the previous endnote. University students are taking the lead in environmentalism: The Sierra Club’s annual ranking of the greenest colleges in 2012 put UC Davis at the top of the list, followed by Georgia Institute of Technology, Stanford, and the University of Washington.
A Yale University dropout founded what he says is the largest youth organization in the world to address the climate crisis: Billy Parish became the head of Energy Action Coalition when he was 25. His organization developed campaigns to have colleges commit to zero carbon pollution, started a company called Solar Mosaic where the public can invest in ecological enterprises, and wrote Making Good: Finding Meaning, Money, and Community in a Changing World with co-author Dev Aujla. Parish says, “Change starts with the simple belief in progress.” He recommends, “Choosing the right people to work with is the single biggest factor that will impact your success.”
Solutions to these world problems have a common theme: Think globally, act locally. For example, environmentalist Bill McKibben’s solution for how to slow pollution is to do more locally, smaller, and slower in the communities where we live (see www.350.org), as well as campaigning for large institutions to divest oil stocks. Students are actively lobbying their universities to divest with some successes.[l] A model of this act locally approach is provided by a privileged Indian named Sanjit Roy visited a rural village for the first time when he was 20. As a consequence, he decided to start a Barefoot College in Rajasthan to teach poor women from around the world to make simple green technology like solar panels and cookers, and other assists to rural development.[li] Books provide models for how to develop local economies and communities.[lii]
An evolutionary biologist, David Sloan Wilson described how he applied biology to improve local quality of life in Binghamton, NY, in The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time (2011). In order for groups to cooperate successfully he found they need to utilize eight design principles: strong group identity and sense of purpose, seeing reward for your work, consensus decision-making, a way to monitor progress, reasonable and graduated sanctions for those who don’t follow the principles, fair conflict resolution, local autonomy and decision-making with coordination with larger groups. Other suggestions for neighborhood building are listed in an article about “10 Ways to Love Where You Live” and The Village to Village Network.[liii]
In order to solve the climate crisis, various grassroots movements need to work together: anti-GMO, anti-fracking, anti-natural gas extraction, traditional farming activists vs. Confined Animal Feeding Operations responsible for up to half the greenhouse gas emissions, conservationists, natural health advocates, and the climate movement. If we remain passive, farming land will turn to dust bowls in parts of the world, the oceans will rise, more species will go extinct, and extreme weather become the norm.[liv]
[viii] Jean Twenge, W. Keith Campbell, and Elise Freeman, “Generational Differences in Young Adults’ Life Goals, Concern for Others, and Civic Orientation, 1966-2009.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, March 5, 2012.
[lii] Rob Hopkins. The Transition Handbook: For Oil Dependency to Local Resilience. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2009.
Jay Walljasper. All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. The New Press, 2010.