The Hummingbird and the Climate Summit

By Mia MacDonald

Hummingbird

The humble symbol of climate activism, a hummingbird.

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on September 23, 2014.

Co-authored by Wanjira Mathai, director of the wPOWER Project at the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace & Environmental Studies at the University of Nairobi and Chair, Green Belt Movement

Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist and 2004 Nobel Peace Laureate, was fond of recounting a children’s story she’d been told on a visit to Japan. A huge fire breaks out in the forest, runs the tale. The animals are transfixed and overwhelmed by the conflagration. All of them but a hummingbird, who resolves to do something. She flies to the nearest stream, dips her beak into it, and drops a bead of water onto the flames. The elephant, the lion, the giraffe, and the other animals laugh at her, as she flies back and forth over and over again. “You’re just a tiny hummingbird,” they jeer. “What difference do you think you can make?” The hummingbird replies: “I’m doing the best I can.”

For many who heard Wangari tell the story, the message of maximizing our abilities and passions for the greater good rather than descending into cynicism or despair was galvanizing. Wangari embraced this interpretation wholeheartedly. Yet it’s clear that a more challenging, even provocative message lies within it. That message has more relevance than ever as hundreds of thousands of people, us among them, marched Sunday in the streets of New York demanding their leaders take urgent action to address climate change, and as heads of government, industry, and civil society gather at the United Nations for an unprecedented global-warming summit.

Through her work with the Green Belt Movement (GBM), the organization she founded in 1977 that has planted more than 50 million trees throughout Kenya, Wangari understood in her bones the commitment of the hummingbird. In her case, the bird represented the grassroots women’s networks who nurtured the seedlings, tended the trees after they’d been transplanted, and reforested their own land and then critical watersheds—largely unsung and underfunded.

This work continues today, with GBM groups growing and planting four million new trees in Kenya each year. GBM is also a partner in the wPOWER initiative, launched in 2013 by the U.S. State Department. The initiative is empowering women in seven countries in Africa and Asia to play major roles in the renewable energy value chain by producing, using, and marketing more efficient cookstoves and solar lighting products. The aim is to enable communities (rural and urban) to preserve more trees, burn less kerosene, and reduce poisonous fumes inside their homes (from cooking and heating).

In so doing, fewer greenhouse gases are released, forests are protected, and indoor air quality is improved, along with health. Women earn their own income and as a result, they and their children have more opportunities to learn and thrive. The wPOWER “Hub” is housed at the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies at the University of Nairobi.

The women entrepreneurs of wPOWER, as with the women tree-planters of the GBM networks and millions of others like them, know all too well the consequences of very non-metaphorical forest fires: drought, desertification, hunger, and water and fuel-wood scarcity. They are feeling the “heat” of climate change right now. This heat wasn’t of their own making, yet they are suffering disproportionately from it.

We may interpret the hummingbird story as a message for us to reduce, reuse, recycle; to cut down on our car travel, switch to green energy for our homes, or eat less meat and more vegetables as our contribution to dousing the planetary fire. These are all valid responses to the realities of global warming. But they won’t be enough. Beyond extolling personal virtue and effort, the story of the hummingbird also suggests that the single bird’s actions are futile without the assistance of the larger animals—such as the elephant, who could of course carry much more water—or the concerted effort of all the animals to do something.

But even then, whatever the animals do will likely only hold back the fire’s range or reduce its ferocity, not douse it entirely. Similarly, climate change will not be mitigated, let alone stopped or reversed, unless all the countries of the world become serious about systemic, total, and orchestrated reorientations of their economies and societies’ ways of living on the Earth. The historic emitters must take the lead, but the new “climate powers”—the large current greenhouse-gas producers—need to join them.

In this, we recognize one of Wangari’s other messages about why we are despoiling our environment and entrenching poverty: a lack of good governance. For the thirty years that she was urging us to plant trees to stop soil erosion, retain water, and store carbon, Wangari was also insisting on the necessity of accountable political structures, which used resources (whether capital, natural, or human) equitably and responsibly.

That need for good governance isn’t confined to Africa or the global South. As Wangari insisted, corruption, greed, and faith in short-term pay-offs knew no boundaries, weren’t confined to certain industries or multinational corporations, and affected every stratum of society. Indeed, she reminded us often: political leadership and good policy matter, enormously. Of course this is the case with climate change as well.

The hummingbird challenges us to organize, to hold our political leaders and global industries accountable and demand that they, and we, accept the potential difficulties, even sacrifices, that we’ll have to make to transition from a fossil fuel-based and extractive global system to one that’s organized around genuine sustainability and responsibility.

The hummingbird challenges us to extinguish the fire that’s been created in our own patch of forest—the Earth itself—no matter the perceived futility of the action or the passivity of those standing by who could do more through collective will, but choose only to stand and watch.

Photo courtesy of coltfan909/Flickr

The Inequality of Climate Change

By Elana Sulakshana

The front page of the New York Times on March 28th featured an article on the plight of Bangladesh—one of the countries most vulnerable to the rising temperatures and sea levels due to climate change. This is an example of the inequality of climate change; Bangladesh and other developing nations hardly contributed to the climate crisis, yet they are facing the greatest risks.

On the Notre Dame-Global Adaptation (ND-GAIN) index of climate vulnerability, which measures a nation’s exposure, sensitivity and ability to cope with climate related hazards, Bangladesh is ranked 147. The index closely resembles a ranking by GDP, with developed nations facing the least risks from natural disasters, increased temperature, rising sea level, and the other impacts of climate change. From 1993 to 2012, Bangladesh was the fifth nation most affected by extreme weather events, in terms of fatalities and economic losses, according to Germanwatch’s Global Climate Risk Index 2014.

Image

Bangladesh is threatened by rising sea levels due to climate change.

The projections for the country are astounding—and terrifying. According to climate scientist Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies, models predict that rising sea levels will flood 17% of Bangladesh by 2050, leading to the displacement of some 18 million people. Bangladesh is also uniquely vulnerable to natural disasters, such as cyclones, and is currently experiencing severe coastal erosion.

Bangladesh is posed to experience huge economic losses as people lose their land and livelihoods, though the nation accounts for just 0.3 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. Many small island nations are experiencing a similar situation, highly in danger of permanent inundation, despite tiny populations and a minimal carbon footprint. The Carteret Islanders of Papua New Guinea, for example, were forced to move at the beginning of April due to the threat of rising sea levels; the island is expected to be completely underwater by 2015. This makes them the first entire community to be displaced because of climate change.

Just seven countries account for 63% of the carbon emissions from the industrial age through 2005. The U.S. ranks number one, followed by China, Russia, Brazil, India, Germany and the U.K. With the exception of China and India, they are all developed nations. Additionally, many of the emissions of developing nations are due to western countries “outsourcing” their emissions to developing nations with the production of cheap goods. The prime example of this is China. Additionally, when emissions are calculated per capita, the developed countries’ numbers have overwhelmingly higher rates.

Because of this huge discrepancy, the developing nations are holding these 7 nations, and other developed ones, accountable. In recent talks, particularly COP19, the United Nations climate change negotiations in early November, small islands and other developing nations demanded both financial aid and other forms of assistance, such as refuge for migrants forced to flee for climate reasons, from the developed nations.

They spoke of a mechanism of “loss and damage,” a term coined by vulnerable island nations that refers to compensation for the “losses and irreversible damage, including non-economic losses” that have already arisen and will continue to arise due to the climate disruption, according to a statement from G77+China . These same nations staged a walkout at COP19, targeting the developed countries that have refused loss and damage and have consistently held back progress on climate action.

Though the negotiations led to the establishment of the “Warsaw Mechanism on Loss and Damage,” there is still a long way to go to solve these complex issues of inequality within climate change.

This is the first piece in an upcoming series on climate change and inequality.

Photo courtesy of Aftab Uzzman.

Sochi & Environmentalism (& Brighter Green’s Primer in Russian)

By Elana Sulakshana

This blog originally appeared on the Brighter Green website.

Brighter Green is partnering with the Global Forest Coalition (GFC) and Biofuelwatch on a new project studying the intersection of deforestation, climate change, and industrial animal agriculture, in hopes of bringing attention to the connections between these issues at the global policy level. Brighter Green and the Global Forest Coalition recently produced a primer on this project that can be viewed here. We also recently translated this primer into Russian, opening it up to a wider audience. Russia is a significant importer of meat products from Latin America, where the livestock and feed industries are major players in the region’s deforestation.

Russia also has been in the hot seat by environmental standards, as much controversy swirls around the Sochi Olympics. In 2007, when Russia received the bid for the games, the administrators claimed that they would work as hard as possible to be “green” and produce “zero waste,” but the past few weeks have revealed a lack of follow-through on these ambitious (and vague) promises.

Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi Olympic Park

Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi Olympic Park

Though they spent nearly $51 billion, environmental standards were almost completely ignored; there is absolutely no mention of provisions for waste disposal in the budget. The Russian government relaxed environmental standards in order to build the Olympic village, which cuts through 8,000 acres of Sochi National Park and the Western Caucasus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The construction destroyed much plant and animal life, in what is considered the region of Russia with the most biodiversity.

Despite their zero-waste promise, tons of waste was produced, and it has been disposed of in the Akhshtyr dump, an illegal landfill located in a water protection zone. This trash has contaminated Sochi’s potable water and is expected to continue to do so for 10 years; journalists covering the Olympics have reported disgusting yellow-colored tap water.

Russian administrators have taken drastic steps to suppress all who have raised awareness of these issues. Russian environmental activist Yevgeny Vitishko co-authored a report that chronicled the ecological impact of preparing for the Olympics, detailing, among many problems, the devastation of salmon populations and the building of ski slopes inside Sochi National Park. He was recently sentenced to three years in prison–for spray painting a fence. Members of Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus, with whom Vitishko conducted research and wrote the paper, have reported being in a “state of war” with the Russian government, facing threats from the Federal Security Service.

Russia has continuously put up a front against these claims. A representative for Olympstroy, the state-owned company in charge of the majority of Olympic construction said, “Issues of environmental protection have become a priority in the design and construction of Olympic infrastructure.”

Russia must get on board with the protection of our earth and allow free environmental expression and activism, and the international community should place pressure on them to do so. We cannot face these same issues in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 or Pyeongchang in 2018; sustainability must be a key feature of future Olympics.

Photo courtesy of: Kenyee/Flickr

Preventing a Livestock Revolution in Liberia: the Need for a New International Vision

By Ross Miranti

This blog post originally appeared on the Brighter Green website on June 12, 2013.

In Liberia, the FAO has been involved in a number of poultry projects for both broilers and laying hens. It has constructed three factory farm style operations in the interior of the country to train locals in “modern and intensive poultry production and management practices.” It has also teamed up with the Ministries of Gender and Agriculture under the Joint Program on Food Security and Nutrition to construct ten other poultry houses throughout the country. None of these operations house much more than 1,000 birds, though they are set up like intensive factory farms and provide a model for future operations, which will surely increase in size and numbers as the country develops. So in short, the FAO — which outlined the heavy environmental impacts of the global livestock sector in the widely cited report Livestock’s Long Shadow — is now encouraging the future development of factory farming in Liberia.
The government of Liberia has also led livestock projects. As part of the Disarmament, Demobilization, Resettlement, and Reintegration program (DDRR), it worked with the UNDP to train ex-combatants in animal husbandry, with emphasis on poultry farming. While most other DDRR programs made a positive impact on the livelihoods of ex-combatants, the livestock program had very limited success because of a shortage of start-up animals, the heavy cost of feed and other inputs, and the difficulty participants had in selling to local populations that couldn’t afford to eat meat regularly.

Liberian rain forest

Liberian rain forest

Even though intensive, modern livestock is the wrong way to improve nutrition and food security in Liberia, that is not to say that supporting the production of plant-based food alternatives will take care of the country’s food problems by itself. Resolving these issues is a complex endeavor because Liberia’s food system is dysfunctional in so many ways: unstable property rights, endemic corruption, lack of access to credit, low technological innovation, few storage facilities, the absence of an electrical grid outside the capital, paralyzing flooding that comes with heavy rains, poor transportation infrastructure (especially in the interior of the country, where most food is produced), the reliance of the country on expensive imported food, and low government investment and support for agriculture.

So, reducing malnutrition and promoting food security in a responsible way requires the broader development of the country. While Liberia makes progress in these areas, they should also shift support away from intensive livestock operations and more towards the production of protein-rich, plant-based foods for direct human consumption. This would yield more food per acre and have the added benefit of using less water, lowering carbon emissions, protecting Liberia’s biodiverse rainforests, reducing animal suffering, and, in the long-term, preventing some of the diet-related health problems associated with the high consumption of animal products.

Admittedly, it is a bit unrealistic to think that Liberia or any other developing country could be steered away from adopting diets high in meat, especially when the overwhelming majority of the population eats and craves meat, but is unable to consume as much as they want due to their low incomes. Policy makers in these countries – and in the rest of the world, for that matter – are unwilling and uninterested in supporting policies to lower meat consumption because they themselves have a bias in favor of eating meat and because any such policy would be hugely unpopular with their constituents. And even if the production of plant-based proteins were to be ramped up, as long as there are cheap (and often subsidized) livestock products available on the world market, they will be imported.
Any hopes of keeping meat consumption at bay in Liberia will not only require institutional support but also a dramatic shift in public sensibilities; a social education, of sorts. This seems unlikely to happen in the relatively short period of time that development is occurring, especially given that most of the population is illiterate. Even in the developed world, where populations are literate, educated, and, in general, sensitive to environmental concerns, most people do not perceive the negative impacts of livestock as a major global issue – in fact many don’t see it as an issue at all.

So in the end, Liberia could, hypothetically, do everything in its power to see that it doesn’t replicate the dietary shifts that other countries have adopted during their development, but reversing the livestock revolution there will truly require a global partnership that transcends borders, culture, and habit. It will also require a radical global shift in how people think about food. Hopefully the world doesn’t have to come to a crisis point for its population to see that livestock is not a sustainable way to nourish a burgeoning world population, but the current path we are on is leading in that direction.

This blog is third in a series of three blog posts on Liberia and animal agriculture.

Photo courtesy of Flora and Fauna International

World Environment Day: Food Waste, Sustainability & China’s & the U.S.’ Pigs

World Environment Day: Food Waste, Sustainability & China’s & the U.S.’ Pigs

WED 2013 logo

WED 2013 logo

Note: this post was originally published on the Huffington Post’s Green section.

It’s World Environment Day and this year’s focus is on reducing food waste and getting people to shrink their “foodprints,” particularly, of course, if they’re large. Many are. In the U.S., between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply is simply wasted, according to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, announcing a national Food Waste Challenge.Some of the bad habits around food we’ve developed in the U.S. have gone global. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says that 1.3 billion metric tons of food iswasted throughout the world every year, the amount of food that’s produced in all of sub-Saharan Africa’s 48 countries. A study by Chinese researchers concluded that the food wasted in a year by 2,700 families in differently sized Chinese cities could have fed 200 million people, about one-sixth of China’s population.

World Environment Day’s “Think.Eat.Save.” theme probably wasn’t on the minds of those shepherding last week’s $4.7 billion deal to sell Smithfield, the world’s biggest pork producer, to Shuanghui, a Chinese conglomerate with global investors that include Goldman Sachs (Morgan Stanley is providing some of the financing). And yet there is an important link.

A particularly wasteful source of food is industrial animal agriculture. Raising pigs in batches, thousands at a time in tight enclosures on factory farms as Smithfield does, is inherently wasteful. It demands large allotments of grain-based feed and therefore land, pesticides, and fertilizers; considerable amounts of water; and antibiotics and hormones to speed the pigs’ growth. Most are slaughtered at the age of six months.

China already raises and slaughters about 500 million pigs a year. Since 1980, overall meat consumption in China has more than quadrupled to 128 pounds a year, about two-thirds of average U.S. levels. Similar to the pattern in the U.S., animal agriculture in China is becoming more vertically integrated, with large corporations increasingly owning not just factory-farm facilities, but also slaughterhouses and feed companies.

An estimated 576 gallons of water and more than four pounds of grain are needed to manufacture just one pound of pork. Factory-farmed pigs also produce titanic amounts of waste, pound-for-pound four times the volume people do. Moreover, the global livestock industry is “probably the largest sectoral source of water pollution,” according to the FAO.

With the cash of its soon-to-be new owners, Smithfield is gearing up to sell more U.S. pork to Chinese consumers. Smithfield is also expected to expand operations in China. It’s no stranger to the country. In July 2008, the state-owned China National Oils, Foodstuffs and Cereals Corporation (COFCO), China’s largest food importer/exporter and a Fortune 500 company, bought a 5 percent share in Smithfield; the year before, Smithfield began exporting pork to China.

China is beginning to reel under the weight of its livestock population, the world’s largest. Even though it’s not yet a fully fledged “factory-farm nation,” strains from its fast-growing livestock sector, and burgeoning appetite for animal-based protein, are showing — in significant water pollution, soil degradation, rising rates of obesity and chronic disease, risks to food security and food safety, pressure on small farmers, and declining farm-animal welfare.

A report released in April by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Rural Development concluded that, in 2012, large-scale livestock and poultry pollution had become the biggest source of agricultural pollution in China.

China has also become a major importer of soy, for use as livestock feed. In 2010, China bought 55 million tons of soy in global markets — a record. China’s rising demand for soybeans has been met in large measure by the expansion of soy acreage in Brazil, in both the Amazon forest and the Cerrado, the Brazilian savannah. Currently, Chinapurchases more than 40 percent of Brazil’s soy. Through buying Brazilian soy, China is also importing water, an increasingly precious resource for the country.

Although Smithfield gave a nod to environmental and animal-welfare concerns in thepress release announcing the Shuanghui purchase, the company’s business practices have raised numerous concerns. Manure from the company’s hog facilities has pollutedcreeks and rivers in North Carolina. It has been accused of intimidating unions, hiring illegal immigrants, and violating labor laws. A 2010 undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the U.S. exposed systematic cruelty at a Smithfield-affiliated pig farm.

It’s hard to know how high China’s consumption of meat will or can go; presumably Shuanghui and Smithfield are “all in” for boosting supply. But whether China will be able to intensify production on a level akin to that of the U.S. or expand its share of the world protein-export market are open questions. Among the challenges: concerns abroad and at home about Chinese food-safety standards; ecological limits; and rising prices of grain and oil, both essential inputs for large-scale industrial animal agriculture.

Increasingly, Chinese government officials, activists, and netizens alike are focusing on food waste and its effects on food security, natural resources, and climate change. On this World Environment Day, shouldn’t we all be doing the same wherever we are, and with the global perspective that’s required?

Much of the information in this article is drawn from Brighter Green’s policy paper, “Skillful Means: the Challenges of China’s Encounter with Factory Farming”, which is available, along with other multimedia resources, on Brighter Green’s website here.

 

Food Waste and Recycling in China: Too Easy, Too Hard (Part I)

By Wanqing Zhou – originally published on the Brighter Green website on February 7, 2013
As a major producer and consumer of agricultural products on the planet, China faces a serious problem of food waste as it takes off towards a sustainable urbanization and industrialization. In order to mend the cycle of food, it is critical for all groups in the society to recognize the issue in an environmental context, and face the challenge collaboratively.The Appetite: Growing and Spilling
Released two months ago, Back to 1942, a film telling the story of a famine in Henan Province during the World War II, spurred discussion about the Great Famine in early 1960s, one of the post effects of the Great Leap Forward that still affects the food consumption psyche of average Chinese. The Great Famine encouraged the world to analyze China’s food security, as outlined in Lester Brown’s 1995 book Who Will Feed China?

Ironically, in a university cafeteria in Beijing, one can see students throwing away about 1/3 of the food. “That’s normal,” said one student, “we seldom pack up leftovers. If nobody asks, I won’t ask. And it’s inconvenient because we don’t have a microwave oven in our dorm to reheat it.”

Then why order more than enough? “Well, it looks good to have at least the same number of dishes as the number of people. Common sense, isn’t it?” This is an example of what has become an underlying problem: the desire to appear abundant. This problem leads to extensive waste when the bill is paid with public funds.

This problem shines a light on the lack of basic components in the education system – knowledge about the Planet Earth. When dumping food becomes so easy for young people, it is extremely difficult for any society to step into sustainability.

The facts about food waste might be more disturbing than one could imagine. Recently, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers released a report on food waste, estimating that 30-50% of the annual global food production is wasted. The astonishing result covers food lost during harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as those thrown away by retailers and consumers.

In China, about 70% of national waste is food, and food makes up 61% of household waste. Researchers from China Agricultural University studied data from 2006 to 2008and found that edible food thrown away from restaurants each year is equivalent tonearly 10% of the country’s annual crop production, which is enough to feed 200 million people. When including the waste from schools, businesses and households, the number can easily reach 300 million people.

In response to these numbers, a Clean Plate Initiative is heating up the social networks right now, advocating for zero food waste when dining out. As the movement has spread and an increasing number of netizens, including familiar faces and food businesses, have joined in. More and more people have become aware of the issue and are acting. Good news and good timing, given the coming Chinese Spring Festival is the biggest feast of the year.

Yet the story does not end at dining tables. To complete the cycle of nature, what grows from the soil needs to return to the soil, regardless of the pathway.

Food Waste and Recycling in China: Too Easy, Too Hard (Part II)