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

Thinking of Food on World Population Day

By Ross Miranti

UN Population Fund

UN Population Fund

This blog post originally appeared on the Brighter Green website on July 11, 2013.

Today is World Population Day, an appropriate day to reflect upon the sustainability of our growing world population. While this year’s theme, “Adolescent Pregnancy,” addresses an important issue, Brighter Green is also interested in the consumption habits of the growing world population – a topic that has not been the focus of a World Population Day since it was established back in 1989. The impact of global food consumption alone has massive repercussions for the climate, food security, fresh water supplies, and the preservation of natural lands.

The world population is currently around 7.1 billion and growing. A few years ago, the UN projected that the world would reach 9.1 billion by 2050, with a 70% increase in demand for agricultural output, though they have since updated their population projections to 9.6 billion people by 2050 – which would logically imply that food output would have to increase even more than 70% by mid-century, based on their previous estimates. But regardless of how accurate this new projection turns out to be, certainly the world population will continue to grow and global food systems will be pushed increasingly hard to produce more food.

One of the reasons why the demand for agricultural output is increasing at a higher rate than population growth is because global diets are rapidly shifting to resource-intensive foods, such as meat, eggs, and dairy, which require much more water and agricultural land. Livestock production currently occupies 70% of all agricultural land, which equates to about 30% of the earth’s ice-free surface. As developing countries start to consume higher levels of animal-based foods, the demand for rangeland and feed crops shoots up.

Expanding food production by 70% or more in the coming decades to meet increasing global demand is problematic if not nearly impossible. Not only has the yield per acre of most major crops leveled out, having approached their biological limits, but climate change is decreasing agricultural productivity and accelerating the encroachment of food production onto forested land. This is a recipe for more climate change, biodiversity loss, and soil erosion.

But as Dawn Moncrief of A Well-Fed World often emphasizes in her organization’s advocacy for a more sustainable global food system, ‘projections are not destiny.’ Just as population growth can be mitigated, so too can global consumption habits, either through public policies or social education. The alternative to active mitigation is a market-driven solution, whereby plant proteins become more popular as the price of animal proteins rise, or a market-driven, Malthusian disaster, in which livestock continues to occupy an increasing share of our food supply – inefficiently cycling livestock feed through animals and rendering our food system incapable of meeting the hunger needs of the world’s population. In the latter case, poor people would be the least food secure because they could not access or afford these high-demand animal-based foods or even other foods grown on the world’s limited arable land.

The World Resource Institute has been addressing the issue of food and sustainability in a series of papers entitled Creating a Sustainable Food Future. It’s first installment calls attention to three important points about food and sustainability for the coming decades: 1) it is necessary to address population and global diet, 2) it will be important to support the livelihoods of small farmers in the developing world, and 3) there is a vital need to decrease the world’s impact on the environment and natural resources in order to maintain adequate food production.

As these and other issues related to global diet and sustainability become more pronounced, global leaders will have no choice but to give the matter greater attention. Who knows, one day we might even have a World Population Day dedicated to what the world population is eating.

Image courtesy of UNFPA