Opportunity Abounds

Reading books and articles about the environment is not for the faint of heart. Most times it’s a terrible cocktail of panic, anger, shame, despair, and depression, the kind of toxic mixture that could topple a moose. I think it’s important, yes, but it comes at a psychological cost. So imagine how happy (and surprised) I was to discover that Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken, left me feeling a bit optimistic.

Drawdown is the work of an international panel of scientists, policy makers, researchers, and other professionals to assess, practically and scientifically, solutions for drawing down carbon reversing climate change. Yes, not just delaying, but reversing. Each of the 100 solutions presented (and ranked) in the book is assessed by conservative implementation rates by 2050, and then assessed for amount of carbon drawdown (removing carbon from the atmosphere), cost to implement, and ongoing costs or savings. And guess what? For most of these strategies, we end up with savings. Millions or billions of dollars of savings.

As conservative provincial governments in Canada fight the national carbon tax, and go on and on about protecting oil jobs for the benefit of the economy, it’s incredibly important to realize that we don’t have to choose between the environment and the economy. We’re not looking at an even playing field anyway: according to an International Monetary Fund estimate, in 2015 alone the fossil fuel industry received more that $5.3 trillion in direct and indirect subsidies. That’s a staggering $10 million dollars per minute. No wonder alternative energy seems expensive by comparison. But even setting that aside, right now in the U.S., more people are employed by the solar industry than by oil, gas, and coal combined. (And, spoiler: solar isn’t even Drawdown‘s top energy intervention. According to them, the future is wind, baby!) In fact, the book points out that we’re now at the point where “the expense of the problems in the world now outweighs the cost of the solutions.” Doing the right thing doesn’t have to cost more. In fact, it’s a bargain.

As I read this very readable, reasonable book, I was struck by an abundance of opportunity. Not just in the 100 solutions, but in the way the solutions often had incredible ancillary benefits. For example, if cattle farmers were to graze their cows on forested land (rather than razing trees for pasture), rotating grazing areas regularly, we’d maintain biodiversity, keep more carbon in the soil, have healthier cows, reduce deforestation of vital old forests, and the farmers make more money. Benefits of one intervention become exponential.

There are exponential opportunities in my own life too: deciding to cycle commute means I produce no carbon, I’m more fit, I save money, I’m more in touch with my city, I’m more punctual, and I’m happier. Or take my garden. I learned from Drawdown that “home gardens hold higher carbon sequestration potential compared to monocrop production systems, with sequestration rates comparable to those of mature forest stands” (emphasis mine). But I also reduce carbon produced with my partner and I eating hyper-local, package-free organic food. I get light exercise and healthy food. I support pollinators. I make my own compost, which prevents methane release, requires no fossil fuels, and maintains the soil. I give seeds and plants to other people, making more gardens. I save money most years. It has connected me to nature and my environment, and given me endless opportunities to learn and grow. Oh and there’s the small matter that it’s become what my partner accurately called my “life force.” It’s a daily source of joy and renewal.

I love thinking about changes that create little beneficial ecosystems. Drawdown reminded me that our planet’s story doesn’t have to be one of perpetual degradation. There are so many people around the globe coming up with smart, feasible solutions that make our world better.

Drawdown also brought me back to personal choice and the opportunities it presents. While big, systemic and technological change is absolutely necessary, #3 and #4 on their top 100 were wasting less food and eating less meat. Those are things all of us can do. And while my #zerowaste Instagram feed can sometimes be daunting, reminding me of my failures, the voice of reason eventually prevails. What if everyone cut their meat eating by 50%? What if everyone grew a garden or cycled to work or bought more things secondhand? What if everyone simply reused a jar once before recycling it? Again, exponential results. As the Zero-Waste Chef Anne Marie Bonneau reminds us, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” (I’ll keep quoting this forever, and I’m not sorry.) She reminds us that if just 10,000 people reduced their waste by 10% for a year, 1.6 million pounds of trash would be avoided.

The upside of our environment being in a shambles and our regular habits being so damaging is that there is so much room to improve. Low-hanging fruit abounds. So while I still need to write a letter to our provincial forestry minister about cancelling a tree-planting program, this week I also arranged a couple trades, picked up bulk coffee for a girls trip so people won’t be tempted by disposables, and I’m focusing on regularly eating my radish greens rather than composting them. Opportunity abounds, and with each good thing I do, benefits ripple out. There are benefits for my own tiny ecosystem (my life), and faraway ones I’ll never see or know. And at the end of the day, I’m also conserving another precious resource we need to survive: optimism.

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Just Add Women

At the public pool where I swim, there are two lanes for fast swimmers. I choose which one to use by number of swimmers, but this is often pretty equal. So the tiebreaker? Choose the one with fewer men in it. Surprisingly, it was only recently I figured out that men were the ones more likely to be inconsiderate lanemates (read: pushing off right in front of you when they’re slower, tailgating, not leaving room at the wall, and, much more often than women, being in a lane that’s too fast for them). A recent column in the Guardian exposed just this problem in U.K. swimming pools. It applies to the other lane I use on the regular too: the bike lane. Guess who is running lights, blowing by you without signalling, etc.? Nine out of ten times, not a woman.*

Both these situations are annoyances and inconveniences, but of course it brings to mind other spaces that could use some more women—say, governments (especially those currently voting on women’s bodily autonomy), or the boardrooms of corporations (only 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women). This lack of representation is bothering me even more than usual lately, because of  some reading I’ve been doing about—surprise!—the environment.

In the last week, both the Zero-Waste Chef and Minimum Viable Planet wrote about gender and the environment, pointing out an important fact about low-waste/zero-waste spaces online: 90% of the discussion comes from women. Women are the ones darning socks and taking their jars to the bulk store, hunting for biodegradable package-free dental floss and making their own toilet cleaner. Bonus domestic labour, which, I’m sure you know, women still do more of anyway. Why is the green movement so pink? This Vox article has a couple theories, among them that women control what they can (family purchasing, the domestic sphere). We may lose control of our reproductive organs and thus entire futures, but boy is our recycling clean and sorted! But here’s the bigger thing: women are more sensitive to the needs of our planet and other people. A U.K. study found 71% try to live more ethically, compared to 59% of men. (Apparently eco behaviour isn’t manly enough. Plus, in the Apocalypse, all that Crossfit will really pay off.)

But wait, there’s more. Yesterday, I was reading the excellent Drawdown, which ranks educating girls as the #6 most effective climate intervention, and access to family planning as #7. That’s more effective than solar power, more than electric vehicles, composting, and mass transit (in fact, more than all those interventions combined). One of the interventions was equal rights for women as small-holder farmers (#62), and it presented some staggering statistics: “If women small-holders get equal rights to land and resources, they will grow more food, feed their families better throughout the year, and gain more household income. When women earn more, they reinvest 90% of the money they make into education, health, and nutrition for their families and communities, compared to 30 to 40% for men.” Also, if those women the same access to resources as men, their yields will rise 20 to 30% (to surpass men’s by 7 to 23%). 150 million hungry people will get fed, and with more productive land, there will be less deforestation, which is also accelerating the climate crisis. And of course, let’s not forget that climate change is also more devastating to women and to racialized people.

Tl;dr: a great way to make a space, governing body, or organization more considerate of other people and the planet? Put women in it, and get out of their way.**

Feminism is an environmental position. Equality isn’t just something that will make the world more pleasant, more fair, our swim lanes more civilized. Equality just might save us all. 

 


* Now before anyone gets all #notallmen, duh. But the ones most likely to cause problems? Men. And of course this is reductive and doesn’t acknowledge the nuances of gender identification, but we’re talking about sweeping patterns.

** We’ll also need to give them what they need to succeed (e.g., fair pay, maternity leave, flexible hours, freedom from workplace harassment) and address gendered double standards so that they don’t have to act like men just to keep those positions. And let’s not forget men picking up the slack at home, like partners in more than just name.

 

Foundations and Frills

Recently I was visiting a friend who has moved away, and she told me that I was a person who really worked to live a life in line with my values. Nice to say, but I thought, Doesn’t everybody? If you’re raising kids, you probably value family, for example. That said, maybe for some people the answer is not so flattering: I value money. I value prestige. I value luxury.

I have no manifesto, no statement of principles, and yet maybe I should. I’ve been thinking about what that would look like: I value personal relationships, health, the environment, travel, and books. I value money though, too, to a certain extent, because I recognized the freedom and security it brings. I’m working on this, trying to accept that doing the right thing costs more and that’s okay. One of my authors works on institutional food reform, and for her, having carefully articulated institutional values can be central to a project’s success: it’s keeps doing the right thing a foundational principle instead of a “nice to have.”

We don’t like to think that we do the right thing only when it’s convenient, although that is often true. And that’s not all on us: in a capitalist society, we measure worth only in money, and thus so many important values (workers rights, health, avoiding the wholesale destruction of our species and planet) become frills. A company giving 1% for the planet or paying its workers fairly is seen as just short of heroic. Doing the right thing has become exceptional.

I think, often, about how we’re being set up to fail at doing the right thing. I was flying this past weekend, and expected the airport lounge to have its usual free coffee in reusable cups. In fact, it’s something I look forward to. But when I arrived, that bit of hospitality had been replaced by a restaurant/cafe that sold terrible mud-water coffee in takeaway cups. Suddenly, tired travellers counting on a caffeine fix didn’t even have the option of not making garbage. Suddenly you needed those all-important dollars in your wallet. It’s a small example, but I think about this kind of thing all the time, on all kinds of levels: we rail against congestion and emissions but won’t invest in a coherent transit plan or bike lanes, the supermarket stocks apples from Washington instead of Ontario, we rail against diet-related illness but won’t pay people a living wage or provide access to fresh food, eliminate food education, and subsidize factory farming and monocrops of corn and soy. Plus, those without certain privileges just caught in just surviving day to day don’t have the luxury of thinking about the bigger picture.

And listen, despite what my friend says, I fail at living my values all the time. Daily. In this world setting us up for failure at every turn, it’s hard to be an absolutist. I bought a coffee at that airport (without lid or sleeve, at least) because I didn’t think I could do all the late travel I had in store without caffeine. Plus, I really shouldn’t have been flying at all, considering the carbon emissions of air travel. (Two core values in conflict: personal relationships and the environment.) And I still choose money over other values all the time, because I haven’t the courage to opt out of capitalism, à la Rob Greenfield, who has not only given up most possessions, but actively reduced his net worth to under $5000. You want someone who lives by their values, he’s your guy.

But I also am a believer in the power of small, sustainable changes, and in fact, that’s how Rob Greenfield got to where he is: he has a timeline that outlines his transition from “drunk dude” to “dude making a difference.” I may still eat meat, but we buy meat that’s ethical, and my partner and I eat it only about half the time. I may still fly two or three times a year, but I also bike most places nine months of the year and don’t own a car. I may still buy things in packaging and often shop at a store with no frills, but I buy way more in bulk now and this month I’m starting a trial membership at my local co-op. I went from donating 1% of my income to 5% and now 10%. As the amazing (and values-driven) Zero-Waste Chef, Anne Marie Bonneau, reminds us, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly, we need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” That said, with something like a climate change, the state of emergency we’re collectively ignoring, it seems we’ve lost the luxury of slow—dramatic action is required yesterday. I agonize over this dissonance, but the big, necessary changes we need to make aren’t on individuals.

When I think about living by values, I tend to think of my failures. I am not Greta Thunberg travelling by train to protests and speaking engagements, nibbling on homemade brown rice and chickpeas. But even Greta has a timeline, and it probably (maybe) had its own challenges and setbacks. I have to remind myself that living by your values isn’t necessarily about uniform success. It’s about keeping your eye fixed on the horizon even when you fall. It’s about knowing where you’re headed, even if it’s a long road there.

 

 

Everyday Emergency

Yesterday morning I was reading Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough, feeling prepared to confront all of the sinister dealings of the Trump presidency, but not, it turned out, prepared to read the completely devastating chapter on climate change.

I don’t think there was much new info there, but reading that terrible succession of facts felt like being pummelled by a professional boxer: that Exxon knew about climate change in 1979 and then spent $30 million dollars spreading misinformation. That in order to stop catastrophic global warming, all of the current oil needs to stay in the ground—yesterday. Trump gutting environmental protections and research, stocking his administration with big oil execs, and taking the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement. The intrinsic connection between neoliberalism and climate change. And since the book was published in June 2017, we’ve seen more terrible news: the devastating IPCC report that says we have only until 2030 to keep warming to 1.5C and maintain our world as we know it. Or recently the recent report that shows Canada is warming twice is fast as the rest of the world. (How’s your pipeline going, Mr. Trudeau?)

You may have a sense of my despair. Climate grief, as it’s now diagnosed. I started to feel like that baby flamingo in One Planet, its legs encrusted in salt blocks, trying to keep up and falling, falling, falling.

I thought about all the people who deny that this is even a problem, or all of those who know it is but do nothing. I thought about all the effort I put into lowering my footprint, and the impact felt so trifling I wanted to cry. I am generally a person who believes in the power of little things, but that morning I didn’t. My emotional elevator had plummeted.

I laid on my bed as if crushed by the sheer force of gravity. I pet my cat, buried my face in his fur. And then I decided to go out to the garden, because I thought of a mural I saw online recently that said, “Planter un jardin c’est croire en demain.” (Planting a garden is belief in tomorrow.) I planted some seeds because I needed the symbolism, though the cress in a few weeks will be good too. And then I heard the garbage truck rumbling down the street, and when I took out the house trash, I noticed all the yard waste bags lined up at my neighbours’ curbs. So I took it upon myself to relocate some into my yard to be turned into compost and mulch. Probably close to 10 bags I carried back and forth into my yard as a guy in a plumbing truck watched, probably thinking I’d lost my mind. For a moment, the heaviness lifted a little, and I remembered how action, any kind of action, feels good. And how it feeds more actions, gives you a kind of momentum.

Which brings me to Sarah Lazarovic’s Minimum Viable Planet newsletter, the best thing to land in my inbox in forever, and the nuanced (and not totally depressing) discussion we need about climate change. Just a couple weeks ago, she captured this big vs. small dynamic in a way that really resonated for me:

It’s become conventional wisdom to darkly note that asking the barista to fill your Keep Cup does nothing to slow the oceans’ rise. No, the only thing that can save us now is government and business working in concert to deploy megasolutions.

To which we say “Yes, and?” Because when you follow this big argument far enough, it gets small. What’s going to make politicians pay attention? How does society change? When the sound of many small voices becomes too loud to ignore. Done right, many little things will become one big thing.

That’s where we need to go, and the good news is that these little things can make us feel happy, human, connected, creative, and smart. What’s more, the little things, when strategically calibrated, can have major oomph. One conversation can set a politician on a new course. One email can get a GM to rethink the burrito waste in an entire stadium. It’s only small if you diminish it. You’re David, and you can slay. But the Beyoncé way.

I love this, and it gives me some comfort. It might just keep me a functional human being when despair comes calling. Do your best, it says. Keep doing it.

But at the same time, I don’t to be fully comforted. And I don’t want anyone else to be either. Because climate change is nothing short of an emergency, an emergency that we live each day. Despair isn’t useful, but a sense of real urgency is. As Klein reminds us, the climate clock is striking midnight. I think of Swedish high school student and powerhouse activist Greta Thunberg and her speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where she laid it all out:

Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.

I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.

What she says is harsh, but in her call to action there is a space for hope. Why act otherwise? And so I found myself back in the pages of Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, where she reminds us that despair is the only sure defeat, and that hope is both essential and, crucially, active.

I believe in hope as an act of defiance, or rather as the foundation for an ongoing series of acts of defiance, those acts necessary to bring about some of what we hope for while we live by principle in the meantime. There is no alternative, except surrender. And surrender not only abandons the future, it abandons the soul.

Maybe this planet is already doomed, but it seems the only way we can live in the meantime is to carve out a space for action every day in our own lives, however we can. To hold both the situation’s severity and its possibility, its obstacles and its opportunities, our hope and our fear, and then go outside and plant some seeds.